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Captain Vorpatril's Plotbunnies

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Captain Vorpatril’s Plotbunnies

 

I

Miles flew down, quite suddenly one day, and practically kidnapped the poor woman out of her semi-retirement. (Ch. 10)

 

Yevgeniya D’Aubade considered the conjunction of deep brown oxide and invasive cowbane dispassionately. It was serendipity that her garden abutted an area of sulphides and oxides whose dull but determined colours she found pleasing, and chance that a cowbane spore could blow so far west and take root just where its lustrous ochre should so compliment the oxide. But it was also beautiful, a conjunction only South Continent could produce, and both the speckled texture of the oxide and the wartiness of cowbane would lend themselves well—very well, in fact—to micromosaic figuration. She used her wristcom to record the image, but in doing so was obliged to notice the blinking message light. Resignedly she keyed the accept.

“What is it, Mila?”

“Inbound aircar, Yeva. Big and shiny, with stingships.”

Stingships?” Yevgeniya was startled. She hadn’t seen a stingship out here since the War of Vordarian’s Pretendership, and that had been streaking overhead.

“Yes, stingships. Almost here, now. I called you five minutes ago.”

Made to attend, Yeva could hear the noise and looking up realised that the aircar—which was indeed big and shiny, in a way only imperial vehicles managed—was already descending towards the airpad at the front of the house ; the stingships slipped into a holding pattern high above. She considered, and shrugged.

“Whoever it is, Mila, they’re turning up unannounced so they can take us as they find us.”

The conjunction of oxide and cowbane was as honourably Barrayaran as anything could be, in the planet’s own speech, and her conscience was clear ; nor was it still the days of Grishnov and the Political Officers, when anyone might disappear. But her heart stuttered a little all the same when Mila came into view escorting … a small horde, in fact. Given the stingships, the black ImpSec uniforms of the two bodyguards weren’t unexpected, but the men with them in brown-and-silver livery carrying large boxes were, and so was the short figure who advanced amid all, wielding a silver-knobbed cane and looking intently about him at her garden with what seemed to be approval. His head was too big for his body, his shoulders slightly hunched, and even in her Southern retreat his face had of late become familiar from the nightly holovid news. What was not familiar at all was the man’s sheer physical presence as he came to a halt before her, tilting that oversize head and considering her with fine grey eyes before flicking a glance at Mila. Yevgeniya glanced herself, waiting on Mila’s introduction, but her partner was staring entranced at the boxes the Armsmen held, which had a variety of very enticing aromas. The man smiled, rather smugly Yevgeniya thought, and brought his gaze back to her.

“Do I have the honour of addressing Madame D’Aubade?”

She blinked. “I don’t see there’s any honour involved but my name is D’Aubade.”

“Then the honour lies in your artistry, Madame, and the use you have made of it.” He bowed, without the awkwardness one might expect. “Miles Vorkosigan, at your service. Whenever you may need it. In the meantime, I wondered if I might invite myself to tea? You have a most delightful parterre, I see, and I have brought some comestibles to help excuse my rudeness in imposing.”

He smiled up at her hopefully and rather charmingly, and she felt her thoughts slither into even greater confusion. Neither the man nor anything he’d said were remotely what she’d expected, and the idea of being descended upon by a Lord Auditor—this Lord Auditor—bearing by proxy patisserie boxes was … ridiculous. The aromas were very tempting, though, and lunch suddenly seemed longer ago than was quite fair.

“Of course. Mila, would you show Lord Auditor Vorkosigan’s Armsmen to the kitchen, please?”

Mila nodded, still with an eye on the boxes, and left trailing the liveried men. Yevgeniya fell in beside her guest and headed for the parterre, very conscious of his stick and shortness and seeking to match his pace rather than impose her own loose stride. His eyes met hers with cool appreciation.

“Thank you, Madame. I’m not actually wearing my Auditor’s hat today, though ; only my Lord Vorkosigan one.”

“Oh.” She wasn’t sure that helped much but a little of her alarm eased. “I’m sorry. I assumed from the stingships …”

“A permanent fixture these days, alas.” He grimaced. “Auditors tend to make enemies who care little what hat they may be wearing, so Gregor insists. And as my wife agrees with him I can’t really argue.”

She blinked. He must mean the Gregor. “Might you otherwise, my Lord?”

“Not about security. Too much is a bore, and costly, but too little is likely to be very costly.” His eyes gleamed. “In principle, though, yes, I might argue with Gregor. Auditors are his firemen, you know, not yes-men. But I have the wit, usually, to refrain from arguing with him and Ekaterin together.”

They arrived at the parterre with its neat table and chairs—clean, for a mercy, as she and Mila used it quite often in this mild season. He held her chair for her both automatically and elegantly, and swung himself neatly into his own while the ImpSec men formed a perimeter of sorts, scanning the flowers as if even shorter assassins might lurk under them. She found his shrewd gaze on her again.

“Highly trained habit. It has little to do with probability, I’m afraid. Nor with any particular suspicion of that rather lovely stand of Poor Man’s Blood and pickleflower.”

Memory clicked. “Your wife designed that beautiful Barrayaran garden, didn’t she? I saw news clips, and later a rather good article in one of the journals about her work.”

He beamed at her. “The Barrayaran Horticultural Review piece? It was good, wasn’t it? Judicious, well-written, and appreciative. It gave Ekaterin a lot of confidence. Though not quite enough, it seems, which is rather why I’m here.”

“I’m sorry?”

“She doesn’t dither about gardens any more, nor anything much I’m happy to say, but she has been dithering about contacting you. An attack of admiration nerves, I suspect, from having been bowled over by your work when she was a girl. As well she might have been. And perhaps some needless worry about messing with the architecture.”

From amid this babble Yevgeniya picked the one thing that made sense to her. “Ah. This is about a commission, then? I’m afraid I don’t take them anymore.”

“So we understand, but I’m hoping to change your mind. May I show you a hologram?”

She sat back. “If you like, my Lord, as you’ve come all this way, but it’ll do you no good.”

He shrugged. “Neither will not trying at all.” His enthusiasm returned full bore, its impact palpable. “And it’s a marvellous idea.”

He slipped a sleek holoprojector from his pocket, positioned it, and tapped a stud. An image sprang up, astonishingly vivid for such a small machine, showing a vast hall in the old style—dark oak panelling framing three arched exits and a black-and-white tile floor ; a wide staircase rose and divided out of sight.

“The entrance hall of Vorkosigan House. Perfectly functional, but rather gloomy. It’s been that way as long as my Da remembers. A building like Vorkosigan House has a lot of inertia to resist refurbishment, y’see, especially when the running costs are breaking the bank anyway. Fortunately, however, my clone brother turns out to be the most financially competent Vorkosigan in generations, while Ekaterin has both a splendid eye and the right to set her stamp on things.”

“She wants a mosaic set in that floor? I don’t think my style would work with those black-and-white tiles at all, my Lord.” And however good a garden designer Lady Vorkosigan might be her talents did not extend indoors if she had thought so. “Even if I did still accept commissions.”

“Not quite, Madame. She’d like you to replace the floor entirely, and work with a botanical artist who’ll deal with the walls. Something like this.”

Reaching through the hologram tiles he tapped again and the image transformed. A riot of colour washed over the black-and-white tiles as silk wallpapers in lustrous hues replaced the panelling and banished gloom. Fascinated, Yevgeniya peered more closely, and gasped. Her mosaics usually showed the southern landscapes she loved, so Barrayaran plants, low and usually some shade of red, as well as Terran imports were a common element—and though most of her pieces were in private homes, almost every plant she remembered having done seemed to be present, pasted in from scans, presumably, to fill the whole huge floor area. Natural and terraformed ecosystems twined together, and where they reached the walls thrust upwards in painted splendour. It was almost a trompe-l’oeil effect, drawing the beholder in. And the botany was exact, she noticed, plants that preferred shade clustering around and under the staircase while the sun-seekers glowed in the middle of the floor. She pulled her jaw closed and tried to think, but he was speaking again and she heard his words through a whirl of utter astonishment and appalled calculation of the labour that would be involved.

“Ekaterin likes blending ecosystems. She’s rather hoping the, um, more horizontal nature of Barrayar’s and more vertical nature of Terra’s can be mapped, as it were, onto floor and walls. My mother very much hopes so too. She has a particular dislike for the tiles, y’see.”

His mother was the Vicereine of Sergyar, and not by all accounts a woman to disappoint. She could feel the force of his personality enfolding her and desperately imagined her heels digging in. “It would take me years.”

“Perhaps not, Madame. I can provide considerable resources. Still, here’s tea.”

Tearing her eyes from the riotous hologram Yevgeniya looked up to see a veritable procession, Mila and both Armsmen bearing large trays heaped with the most astonishing array of pastries, cakes, tartlets, buns, biscuits, and who knew what, the teapot and hot-water-pot lost among them with the cups and saucers. Lord Vorkosigan thoughtfully shifted the holoprojector so its image lay beyond the tabletop, and the Armsmen with deft skill unloaded the trays until it almost groaned. Mila was staring wide-eyed at the hologram but was still wide-nosed and almost drooling at the magnificent spread, and when Yevgeniya invited her to join them smiled blindingly before falling to.

For some while there was little conversation though Yevgeniya noticed that Lord Vorkosigan was frugal in what he took while looking quite wistful. If he had access to this sort of baking every day perhaps he needed to be, but her artist’s eye had already seen that his stick was not an affectation, and picked out the fine scars that covered his hands and seemed to reappear at his neck, so there might be other reasons for a controlled diet. Her own tended to the frugal only because of her isolation out here, and presented with the chance to indulge she did so shamelessly—not hard, when the temptations were as exquisite as these. But at the same time her artist’s brain had gone right on estimating the dimensions of the hall and the scale of the work that would be needed, and astonishing and intriguing as she thought the project it was out of the question. Eventually replete, she sat back and eyed the potent little man who waited patiently.

“These confections are a fabulous bribe, my Lord. The best I’ve ever eaten. Where do they come from?”

“My cook.” He grinned cheerfully. “A most wonderful Greekie materfamilias. Have you come across maple ambrosia yet?”

“Once, at an arts reception last year. It was delicious.”

“Also one of Ma Kosti’s. Her royalties would allow her to retire anywhere she wanted but she says she likes cooking for me.” He looked thoughtful. “It’s true my guest lists are pretty varied these days, and there’s a constant challenge of blending Barrayaran and galactic cuisines, but I suspect she’s simply grateful that I noticed what her sons had come to take for granted.” His glance was amused, with subtleties lurking. “Were you to accept Ekaterin’s commission you would eat well enough for the duration.”

“I’d become as fat as a pig.” Yevgeniya sighed, for more than one reason. “But I meant what I said, my Lord. It’s a delightful idea, but it would take me, at a conservative estimate, three years. And I can’t afford to be away for a week, never mind longer. I’m sorry, but it’s impossible.”

“Mmm.” He frowned. “Forgive my ignorance, Madame, but what are the parameters of your time calculation?”

“Making the design, finding and selecting the stone, arranging for it to be prepared and transported—with the quantities involved here I doubt I’d be able to start setting within two years.”

“So apart from the design phase, most of it is logistics? The actual setting would be a year or so?”

“About that.”

“Mmm. Then I would think the rest can be expedited considerably. Ekaterin wants to use rocks from our District where possible, y’see, and she’s already matched a lot of the colours she wants. The geologists know where to look, and by definition there’s no problem with permission, nor any delays in processing and transporting. And if we do need anything from anyone else’s District I’ll just have a word with the relevant Count.” His look became at once rueful and oddly sardonic. “I doubt even Boriz Vormoncrief would deny me a few rocks, though he’d probably rather throw them. And it can’t be that much rock, in absolute terms, surely? A few tons?”

“Three or four, yes.”

“I guarantee, Madame, I can have four tons of rock processed for use in micromosaic shifted from the District to Vorkosigan House in … well, let’s say two weeks, never mind two years. Eh, Pym?”

The older of the Armsmen nodded judiciously. “I would certainly hope so, m’Lord. M’Lady is clear about what she wants and the gravel-works east of Hassadar has the crushing equipment.”

“Quite so. Be a nice change for them, I expect. Micromosaic tiles rather than gravel, I mean, useful as gravel is.”

Yevgeniya had done work for rich people who’d helped as they could with the many delays that attended gathering, processing, and transporting one-off orders for microtiles, but never, she realised, for someone with this kind of power. Blanket permission to gather alone would save months, and the man owned the machinery to which she’d so often begged and schemed access. Her fingers began to itch at the thought of a wall-to-wall mosaic, and she knew her vanity was tickled by the idea of the people who’d see it, galactics and all. His Majesty, even—he and Lord Vorkosigan were old friends, after all, and the little lord had been his second at his wedding. But it was still impossible and she drew breath only to find him forestalling her.

“But that’s all by the by isn’t it, Madame, if you cannot afford to leave here even for a week. May I ask why that is so? It sounds rather inconvenient.”

“Oh it is, my Lord. But The Hills are worth it.”

“The hills?”

The Hills.” She gestured west. “Between here and Xavgrad. The only hills for a thousand klicks in any direction, until you hit the rise to the Black Escarpment. A little bubbling of the crust from a temporary hotspot, they think, but wherever they came from they’re beautiful, and a unique resource.”

“For stone?”

“No, walking, thinking, resting your eyes from the horizon.”

“Ah. Yes, indeed. But why should they not go on being so in your absence?”

“Because, my Lord, there’s a fool of a Vorling who wants to turn them into a race-track for grav-carts.”

His eyebrows rose. “You protect them physically?”

“Near enough. Petition and counter-petition have been submitted to His Majesty, but the Vorling would like a fait accompli and while those damned carts aren’t banned from the Hills he can manufacture one. They put off the walkers and the botanists and the family outings, deliberately buzzing people, ripping up the ground and disturbing the microclimate. No walkers or picnickers, no reason to stop the carts.  So there are a few of us who make sure someone’s there every day, to register complaints and call the Imperial Land Office in Xavgrad when it looks like he might try again to pre-empt the construction permits he’s seeking—facilties for the carts and the like.”

“Well, that won’t do at all. And Gregor doesn’t care to have any of his decisions pre-empted, I assure you. Who is this, ah, fool of a Vorling? Nice phrase, by the way.”

Stars went off in Yevgeniya’s brain. This man was a friend of His Majesty’s and a Lord Auditor—he could … but no, Auditors didn’t interfere in such things any more, largely thanks to this man’s father. But the imperial connection might add a powerful voice to the counter-petition. She had the disconcerting impression that he’d followed her thoughts with dry approval.

“Mikail Vortornier is the petitioner, and the one whose idle wealthy set actually likes the carts, but the development money is from a business consortium led by a man called Arturo Antonopoulos, who has every intention of being Speaker of Xavgrad and no doubt higher things.”

“Mmm. Never heard of either of them, but we can find out how things stand.” He swivelled. “Pym, can we have the secure comconsole, please.” The Armsman took off at a lope. “Briefly, Madame, is any compromise possible?”

“Not over The Hills, my Lord. They’re unique. But though I hate those carts, it’s only the location that matters. Vortornier and Antonopoulos prate about economic benefits, but it’s specious. There’s flat, undeveloped land everywhere, and with the grav-lifters construction work now uses it’d be perfectly possible to build a track or even a whole nest of them on the other side of Xavgrad, towards Fort Vormeyer. And I can see the attractions—life here is slow, peaceful, and dull, and whizzing about at high speed has always been attractive to the young. The men at Fort Vormeyer would like it too, I imagine, and I dare say it would attract tourists and in itself be no bad thing. But using The Hills doesn’t boost that—it just boosts the private profits by cutting the construction costs.”

He nodded. “Good point. You’re right about grav-lifters, too. Making mountains is still a tall order but something sufficient to challenge any grav-cart rider is straightforward. And about Fort Vormeyer.” He frowned, obviously calculating. “If using The Hills would be financially viable in terms of attracting customers, including military ones, I don’t think costs would be prohibitive, either, even on a strictly commercial basis—it’d just mean a longer repayment period. Ah, here’s Pym back. Let’s see what’s what.”

He briskly shuffled empty plates to one side and the liveried Armsman set down a not so small, black, and shiny comconsole. There was a flash of gold as Lord Vorkosigan set something to its read-pad, and then his hand, at which a shielded display came alive.

“First things first.” His hands flicked off the holoprojector and moved rapidly over a virtual keyboard. “Mmm. Hmm. Ah. Nothing known against Vortornier, except reckless driving, ground and air, but Antonopoulos has been looked at once or twice over complaints of shady dealing. And an attempted bribe, I see, though nothing seems to have been done beyond a stern warning. Low level. And the Imperial petition is logged with a cross-reference to … yes, the counter-petition. Right-ho. Onwards.”

He entered a callcode and sat back, waiting. Yevgeniya wasn’t sure he should be saying such things aloud to her and an intent if silent Mila, but the man’s efficiency was impressive and knowledge that Antonopoulos already had a smear against his name, however low-level, was both confirmation and potential ammunition. Lord Vorkosigan’s face flickered with light as his call was answered.

“Ah, Ser Manier, good afternoon. Do you have a moment?”

Yevgeniya couldn’t hear any reply—superb directional sound engineering—but slight surprise crossed Lord Vorkosigan’s face, followed by a thoughtful look and a fractional glance at her and then Mila. His hand flickered over a control and the display became visible to all, showing a neatly suited man with greying hair and an interesting, lined face Yevgeniya would have liked to sketch.

“Then if you’re sure I’m not interrupting anything, Ser Manier, I’d be grateful if you could tell me if Gregor’s made any decision about a petition and counter-petition submitted from Xavgrad, concerning the development of a grav-cart racetrack in an area known as The Hills. And if he hasn’t, and you know, how he might be considering them.”

This time surprise flickered on Ser Manier’s face—a wise, patient face, Yevgeniya decided. The voice was crisp, the accent as Komarran as the name and courtesy address

“His Majesty has made no decision of which I am aware, my Lord.” He glanced aside then looked back, pursing his lips. “I think it would be fair to say that in general he looks favourably on development in South Continent, for obvious reasons, but that he was, ah, given some pause by the … frivolity of the proposed project, and by the strength of the wording in the counter-petition. May I ask how the matter has come to your attention, my Lord?”

“It’s private business, Ser Manier, nothing Auditorial. Someone has been bending my ear about it, with just that strength, or rather passion, that you mention. Persuasively so, in fact.”

“Really? On which side, Miles?”

The display abruptly widened to include a lean, slightly saturnine face that made Yevgeniya’s heart stutter.

“The counter-petition. Hello, Gregor—I wondered if you were lurking. Your poker-face isn’t quite up to scratch, I’m afraid, Ser Manier.”

“I don’t often get the chance to eavesdrop on my Auditors, Miles.”

Lord Vorkosigan grinned. “Spot-check all you like. I should warn you, though, that you have other auditors just now.”

“Oh? Who? And are you in South Continent, Miles? It looks like it.”

“I am, not far from Xavgrad. I brought a large batch of Ma Kosti’s best bribes to try to persuade Madame D’Aubade to accept Ekaterin’s commission, but it turns out she and her companion feel they cannot leave their home for more than a few days at a time because of the behaviour of the petitioner.”

That face was still for a moment. “The micromosaic lady? Do put her on.”

Yevgeniya found Armsman Pym drawing back her chair for her and somehow wafting her round the table to sit again by Lord Vorkosigan and look into a gaze that made her straighten her shaking shoulders as she found her voice.

“Sire.” She bowed as best as she could seated at a table still covered in the detritus of tea.

“Madame D’Aubade.” He nodded to her, warmly. “Your work is wonderful. I was inadequately aware of it until Lady Vorkosigan showed me the scans she’d assembled. Breathtaking.” He smiled, at Lord Vorkosigan as much as at her, she thought. “She has also made me aware of the rare value of people who see the beauty of Barrayar.” Imperial eyes rested aside for a moment and came back to her. “I see you are among the signatories of the counter-petition, Madame. Did you help to word it?”

She took a breath. “Helped, yes, sire, but words aren’t my thing. Master Vormesurier wrote most of it. He’s a lawyer in Xavgrad.”

“Mmm. If you’ve persuaded Miles over tea I take leave to doubt you have no way with words. But in any case you should certainly not be being inconvenienced by the petitioner. How does that come about?”

She looked helplessly at Lord Vorkosigan but he only smiled, numinously, and laid a small, well-manicured hand gently on her arm. “Simply tell him, Madame, what it means to rest your eyes from the horizon, as you told me.”

Somehow the small, scarred hand bestowed confidence, courage even, and she knew she had a chance she could never have expected. Taking a deep breath she began to speak, and the passion she genuinely felt for the low, red beauty of The Hills, the chuckle of streams that did more than meander across flat plains, flowed into her voice, as well as her scorn for the grav-carters who cared nothing for the life their amusement disturbed and destroyed, nor for the ordinary, quiet people trying to walk  or picnic in peace whom they harassed and scared. Her knowledge of the science was her base, the microclimate The Hills generated in their valleys and water-carved rock, but he’d spoken of Barrayar’s beauty and it was that she pitched to him as the resource that was being squandered. Eventually she wound down, uncertainty returning though Mila’s eyes were glowing at her across the table, and made herself look back at her emperor’s grave face.

“An eloquent case, Madame.” He sighed, lightly. “South Continent is not as easy to develop as my ancestors supposed.”

“Oh it gets better, Gregor.” Lord Vorkosigan’s grey eyes rested on her. “You have shown your passion. Now add your reasoning.” He gave an airy gesture. “Grav-lifters to the south and those fattened profit-margins.”

Rather more faintly though still, she hoped, clearly, she laid out the case for building a grav-cart course in the flatlands, managing to add Lord Vorkosigan’s earlier remarks about its commercial feasability. His Majesty’s expression went slightly blank.

“You suggest they build some more hills, Madame?” He shook his head. “How long have you been there, Miles? You were here this morning so it can’t be more than an hour or two.”

“Enough time to discover self-interested abuse of one of your microclimates and devise an answer, thanks to Madame D’Aubade’s superior vision and imagination.” The emperor laughed and the slight glint in Lord Vorkosigan’s eyes was replaced by a … different glint. “And anyway, Gregor, how long is it since General Galyev last pestered you about the need to try out some enormous new piece of equipment he’s screwed out of requisitions? You can’t tell me oversize grav-lifters aren’t among them.”

There was an increasingly thoughtful Imperial pause before the emperor nodded.

“A hit, a very palpable hit. Say on, Macduff.”

Lord Vorkosigan grinned. “No damnations involved, happily. Though a minor bit of justice and some forward planning, perhaps.” He sat forward. “Thing is, Gregor, the financial backer and I’d bet prime mover of the petition, this fellow Antonopoulos, tried to bribe a Safety Directorate inspector of a building he was throwing up in Vorbarr Australis, about ten years ago when he was first hitting real profitability. The inspector reported it, and his superior gave Antonopoulos a formal warning, verbal and written.” A shrug. “Fair enough too, I suspect. I only had a glance at the file but the man’s hauled himself up from not a lot, through a rough school, and it was a minor if expensive fault he was trying to cover-up, not anything safety critical. Though still. But here he is ten years later, making another would-be cheap decision.” A third variety of glint appeared. “Conniving in the abuse of one of your microclimates and inconveniencing Madame D’Aubade, who besides so happily suggesting a means of giving both parties what they most want remarked on his deeply held ambition to become Speaker of Xavgrad and points north. Which implies a dialogue with his Count. And he has an eye on grav-carting customers from Fort Vormeyer, which is discerning of him but implies a dialogue with ImpMil. Both of which might begin, I thought, with an Imperial offer he really couldn’t refuse, involving larger, longer-term financing at a fraction under the going rate through the Imperial Bank and a close working relationship with General Galyev.”

The thoughtful—intent—imperial pause continued for a while, until the Emperor slowly smiled, and Yevgeniya’s heart leaped.

“Thank you, my Lord Auditor. That is very neat, though quite whether my ends or yours are served only incidentally is a pretty puzzle.”

Lord Vorkosigan shrugged. “Who cares, Gregor, if they’re the same? Do you like those dreary black-and-white tiles any more than m’mother? And actually, that’s only three-quarters of it.”

“Oh?”

“It solves the immediate problems, but it doesn’t protect The Hills against some later lazy entrepreneur who can’t tell a microclimate from a mark. Tell me, d’you know about what the Terrans and Escobarans call National Parks?”

“Um, I think so. In principle.”

“Barrayar doesn’t have ’em, for obvious reasons, but that’s what we need here—reservation of The Hills against any future idiocy. And what we do have instead is you, and ImpMil. So”—he counted a moment on his fingers—“let’s make it six birds with the one stone. It’ll need, um, three words and a map from you, adding The Hills to the Black Escarpment Training Area. Allow a single building, somewhere Madame D’Aubade approves, that lets people coming to walk or whatever know what they can and can’t do, and let the CO of the BETA’s permanent staff decide who gets to be posted there and for how long.” Glint number four appeared. “If they sent a detachment tonight to take position and start thinking about it all, Madame D’Aubade would be able to make a free decision about Ekaterin’s commission all the sooner. They can base at Fort Vormeyer pro tem.”

The emperor’s smile became openly admiring. “And again, my Lord Auditor. Tonight might be a little soon, but by tomorrow, certainly. Providing …” His gaze moved to her and she felt her shoulders straightening again. “Did you follow that, Madame? Lord Vorkosigan proposes that I declare The Hills a part of those Vorbarra territories I assign to military use, which would mean any subsequent petitioner would be petitioning against the General Staff. To satisfy form, there would be a small military post, disguised as Visitor Reception, which would be staffed by men who usually work at the Black Escarpment Training Area – senior NCOs, for the most part, who are mountain specialists but find the weather and, ah, limited facilities … a trifle dull. With access to Xavgrad—and its new grav-cart track—The Hills would become a reward detail, and I could then give an Imperial as well as a Count’s Order determining what activities are and are not allowed there, grav-cart racing being first among the nots.” He waggled a hand. “I cannot say no successor of mine will decide otherwise, but for the duration of my own reign the matter would be closed.”

Yevgeniya tried to clear her head, reeling from the swiftness of it all. “That is more than I had ever hoped for, sire. Thank you, most sincerely. That would be … wonderful.”

“Good.” An Imperial glint was different again, she discovered. “Irrespective of your decision about Lady Vorkosigan’s request, I suspect Laisa or I will be in touch on our own accounts soon enough. And I do assure you that there will shortly be a military presence at The Hills, so your circle of defenders may stand down, with Our thanks.”

How he had sounded the capitalised ‘Our’ Yevgeniya was at a loss to understand, but the warmth of His approval blossomed in her breast and she nodded.

“Thank you, sire. That is extremely satisfactory.”

“The pleasure is mine, Madame. And General Galyev’s, oddly. Miles, I think you deserve to be present when I explain that I’d like him to build me some hills. For grav-carting. I’ll let you know.”

Lord Vorkosigan gave an odd, sketchy salute, and the image blanked. The salute converted into a sideways tap, and the hologram blazed back to life, riotous with its colourful flora.

“Well, Madame? A year is a long time, I grant, but it’s less than three. The fee will be princely. If it matters to you, fame will be assured. As of tomorrow, anyone grav-carting about your Hills will find themselves in water hot enough to deter permanently. And there is Ma Kosti’s cooking to consider. You and Madame Mila will be most welcome and honoured throughout your travail.”

She looked at him helplessly, emotions churning, and said the first thing that came into her head. “I have a cat.”

He regarded her gravely, though there was laughter in his eyes. “I have about thirty, at the last census. Yours will be very welcome too, though I can’t guarantee he or she won’t be taught bad habits.”

Neither she nor Mila could stop their smiles, and he rose.

“Just so. If you’d care to prepare some valises for a few days’ travel and secure the cat, I’ll warn the pilot.”

Following him back towards the house the word that came to Yevgeniya’s mind was hijacked. But with a truly imperial as well as a princely bribe. Safe Hills, new hills, and more of Ma Kosti’s cooking awaiting them, as well as what she imagined would be a slightly flustered, very happy, and extremely interesting Lady Vorkosigan. Being hijacked in this style might not be so bad. And it was a really interesting idea for a micromosaic, when all was said and done. Her fingers itched, and the shades of oxide and cowbane swirled in her mind.

 

II

“I should mention, in a personal communication I received from the Viceroy of Sergyar last night, Aral says he doesn’t remember ever ordering anyone to blow up Vordarian’s ImpSec building. Such a decision ought to have made it up to his level, he said, but in the confusion of the times, it’s perfectly possible it didn’t. And, ah, a few other remarks about excessive initiative in subordinates, but they’re not pertinent here.” (Ch. 24)

 

It had been a while—three months at least—since the bedside alarm  had woken Aral and Cordelia, and their snapped-open eyes met with grim surmise as Aral propped himself on one elbow, hit the dimlight switch, and tapped the accept.

“What is it, Captain?”

“A message from His Majesty, my Lord, marked Personal and Immediate.”

“Send it through, then.”

“It’s more than two hours long, my Lord.”

“It’s what?” Aral shook his head to clear it. “Alright, Captain. Send it to the main console in three minutes, and get some coffee brewing, would you?”

“Of course, my Lord. Three minutes it is.”

Rising from the warmth of the bed Cordelia snagged from its hook a snug, very comfortable, and enforcingly modest robe that Alys had given her. “There must be some fat holovid files attached.”

Aral grunted. “Who knows? I thought things had just about quieted down again after all that Cetagandan crap last year. Except for Ivan, I suppose, and all those colourful Jacksonians he’s managed to relate us to.” He belted his gown. “At least neither Miles nor Mark are on-planet.”

Cordelia grinned at him. “There’s that. Though Ivan’s suddenly made good on his everlasting promise, so perhaps we can hope.”

“Heh. More likely to be something galactic. Or someone kicking the bucket under the wrong circumstances, I suppose.”

The routine of emergency awakenings was familiar, and by the time they were seated before the comsonsole they had steaming mugs in their hands and, unasked for, plates of comfort food in case it was really bad. And it might be, Cordelia thought, as she took in Gregor’s appearance and the wild light in his eye, but his first words were a reassurance, of sorts.

“Aral, Cordelia—I’m sorry to disturb you but I require your knowledge and advice.” One hand smoothed his hair. “No-one is dead, rather astonishingly. So far, at least. We may have a biohazard problem of anything from grades 2 to 5, but that remains to be determined and there’s half-a-reason to hope it’ll be only a 2, and controlled. And we have a veritable treasure trove of Occupation loot to investigate.” He visibly drew a deep breath, a rare thing for Gregor, and Cordelia’s stomach turned amid her astonishment at what he’d already said. Biohazards and Occupation loot? Something haut as well as ghem, in that case. Gregor’s hand was still smoothing his hair, not a good sign. He glanced aside, then back. “This may make things clearer. Or not. It’s public footage of what I have just had the … undeniably pleasurable terror of witnessing. In the company of Simon, who so far as I can tell has screwed up but good, as well as Alys, a very muddy Ivan Xav, and the new Lady Vorpatril.” His face took on a look Cordelia had never seen, combining glee, rage, and exasperation. “Enjoy.”

“What the—“

Aral’s curse was cut short by the promised public footage, which showed, unmistakably, Cockroach Central, gleaming blackly from what had obviously been heavy, recent rain—the streets were still puddled. More puzzling were the floodlights and mounded earth in the little park in front of that gargoyled, windowless façade, and the swarm of people and equipment the lights showed slowly freezing from their scurry into an observant ring. A commentator’s voice cut in, stressed almost to hysteria.

“And in case you’re just joining us, this is the scene right now at the headquarters of Imperial Security. About six hours ago there was an encounter of some kind between the Streetguard and someone, and then a significant explosion under Kaminsky Park. Since then ImpMil resources have been pouring in, as you can see, and have rescued a dozen people at least from what must be a bunker of some kind under the park. What’s going on we don’t yet know, but the rumours relayed to me by my colleagues on the ground are that treasure-hunters—and yes, you heard me right—that treasure-hunters of some kind, tunnelling under the park, became trapped by that underground explosion. My colleague—hold it. What did you say? … Oh fuck a duck, so it is.”

There was a pregnant pause while Aral and Cordelia looked at one another, eyebrows high, and the view hastily shifted from park to building. Which … was tilted. No, tilting. And … sinking. A chastened voice resumed.

“I’m terribly sorry for my profanity, but I hope you’ll forgive me. ImpSec HQ—the most notorious building on Barryar, Cockroach Central itself—is apparently being swallowed by the planet.”

Good recovery, Cordelia thought, as the man’s improbable words were borne out. Those monstrous, useless front steps had split down the middle, the bronze doors had cracked free, and the building was undoubtedly subsiding. Slowly the famous gargoyle frieze disappeared, then most of the first floor, and a new spectacle was added, of uniformed ImpSec men rapelling to safety from the roof.

“I knew there was more than one reason having no windows was a really bad idea.”

“Heh. I am increasingly amazed that Gregor said no-one had died. Mmm—what have we here?”

The image cut to one from a vidcopter that must be rather lower, with its camera at full zoom, showing a crescent of figures watching the … inhumation? Swallowing? Experienced eyes had no trouble picking out Gregor, centremost, surrounded by Alys, Simon, Guy Allegre, Duv Galeni, and Ivan ; first-stage deduction confirmed Lady Tej Vorpatril, her parents, Shiv and Undine Arqua, and after a moment’s thought Byerly Vorrutyer.

“Who are the muddy engineers?”

“Senior’s a man called Otto. Guy spoke very well of him. The junior I don’t know.”

The screen split to show both the crescent of faces and the slowly disappearing monstrosity the first Lord Dono Vorrutyer had inflicted on Barryar. Both of them twitched as they saw largely silent observation interrupted by Simon, his hand twice leaping to his mouth to stifle what could only be hysterical giggles. Aral rubbed his forehead.

“First approximation, dear Captain? Simon’s new sort-of-in-laws have managed to please him, entirely inconceivably. At a cost of several billion marks, at least.” He frowned. “Though perhaps offset if there really is Occupation loot involved.” He barked a complicated laugh that Cordelia appreciated. “I always knew a fair amount had gone missing but I didn’t think much was still on Barrayar.”

“Mmm. The biohazard must be responsible for the, um, sinking.”

“I’d imagine. Consequences?”

“Insufficent data.”

“Mmm.”

They watched in fascinated silence as another storey disappeared and Gregor was persuaded by fretting Armsmen to depart the scene. The chastened commentator’s voice cut in again, and out as the footage vanished and a more usual image of Gregor reappeared, his eyes less wild and a coffee mug clutched in his hands.

“So there you have it. I’m down one ImpSec HQ. Literally. Quite how this has come about remains a puzzle, but in so far as I understand events at all”—he took a deep breath—“they centre on Ivan’s—and my, and your, after a fashion—new in-laws. To be as precise as I can, Ivan Xav’s new grandmother-in-law, Lady Moira ghem Estif, who was awarded to Ghem-General Estif of the Occupation Junta about five years before we kicked them off-planet, knew there was a bunkerful of loot stashed in the haut lab where she used to work. And Shiv Arqua, Ivan Xav’s new father-in-law, saw that this might be handy in dealing with the little problem of his conquest by House Prestene. While Lady ghem Estif also happened to know about some Terran-developed biotool that creates tunnels without any detectable noise or vibration”  A hand swept hair. “The perfect storm. Also literally, as it’s been junking down for twelve hours or more, which helped no end when the explosion buggered a main storm drain. And made yet more perfect, if I guess right from what he’s been able to say, by Shiv Arqua managing to make Simon a bet of some kind. And playing Ivan Xav into the middle of it. Not to mention implicating Alys, who has with my full approval received the Arquas.” Imperial hands swung wide. “Can you imagine such a, a … clusterfuck? And to cap it all, the loot turns out to be very real. Ivan Xav grabbed this.” He took a box from the desk he was leaning against and flipped it open, removing one tray, then another. “A set of seal-daggers of the Counts Palatine during the Occupation. All sixty of them, in mint condition. Provenance, anyone?” Gregor’s voice almost cracked. “And that’s the least of it. A trove of documents, including holograph letters between Ezar and Xav, several dozen boxes of Ninth-Satrapy gold coinage, and who knows what else? Two large chambers packed with the Junta’s considered pickings—art, artefacts, specie, jewels, and an Alys-wardrobe of clothing. Tens of millions of marks, at the least. Hundreds. Could be billions. Who knows, with this story to back it up?”

Gregor took a deep breath, while Aral and Cordelia held theirs.

“My Vicereine—Cordelia—please remind me why coming the Red Queen is a bad idea. And my Viceroy—Aral, truefather—please advise me what I should do about your liegeman and mine, Simon.” Another breath. “There are more dimensions than I can readily count. As Count Vorbarra I am royally pissed that a biohazard has been released in my District. Lady ghem Estif, who is largely responsible, insists it has biolocks, and she is haut, so it probably does, but still. As C-in-C, I am down a critical military installation and as Emperor up by however many marks it turns out to be. Guy’s going to be horribly distracted, and three of the people I might turn to are compromised, one way or another. Only pro tem, I devoutly hope, but nevertheless. And Miles is for once not interfering, but off-planet when needed.” There was an edgy pause. “Though I can readily imagine his being of no use at all until he’d finished giggling. Much like Simon. And I’m going to need solid counsel just as soon as anyone can get it to me, so a swift reply please, however bemused.”

A swipe of the hair.

“Oh, and there are a couple of specifics, more to Aral than Cordelia. That holovid commentator’s summary was right enough from my point-of-view. The thump of the underground explosion woke Laisa and me, so it must have been big. The first reports were from Lord Vorbohn’s men, who’d chased some suspicious activity into a tunnel dug from a garage, and suffered the explosion.” Another deep breath. “As I now understand it, Ivan Xav’s grandmother-in-law’s tunnel-boring biohazard uncovered, among other things, a lost ImpSec sergeant called Abelard, dead underground for some thirty-odd years, so let’s call it during the Pretendership, who had, it seems, perished while wriggling towards ImpSec HQ with a substantial quantity of plastic explosives strapped to his back. Until a stunner beam hit them. Any light you might be able to shed would be appreciated.”

Cordelia’s brows drew down. “Can you?”

“Doubt it.” Aral grunted. “I certainly didn’t order it. I’d only have had to build a new HQ.”

“The old one was excessively ugly.”

“A new one would have been excessively expensive.” Aral’s voice was dry but Gregor was speaking again.

“The second thing is more peripheral but nastier. My understanding is very sketchy but it seems the Arquas were getting away with their raid on the bunker until their contractor to ship the stuff played them false—a resident Komarran called Imola. It was his people who attracted the Streetguard while stunning one of Ivan Xav’s in-laws, and who opened fire in the tunnel.” Gregor’s face was very grim, and Cordelia saw rage coming to the surface again. “They’ve all been dug out alive, surprisingly, and except for the scale of damage that’s all straightforward enough. But it seems Ser Imola’s smuggled goods are more often involuntary cryocorpses, and his cover the repatriation of accidental deaths among visitors, including Komarrans and Sergyarans. Kidnap-to-order, in fact, with reversible murder thrown in, plus slaving.” Which accounted for Gregor’s rage, even without the rest of it. “The charge-sheet will be long and very capital. But we’ve got hold of only one hydra-head. Who else is using this filthy trick? Raudsepp’s on it at this end, and will be pursuing to Komarr, but I’d like you to get ImpSec Sergyar to start looking, hard.”

A rather harried look aside, and a nod.

“I must go. Gerard will append as much holo as we have and whatever clarities may emerge in the next hour. But no more than that, Gerard. I want this on its way.”

As Gregor swept away the familiar face of his Armsman filled the pickup. He was usually as dry and wilfully bland as Pym, but tonight even he had a certain air of bemusement.

“My Lord Viceroy, my Lady Vicereine. I believe m’Lord covered all the salient points, but there are things coming in all the time. Most importantly, perhaps, the testimony of Lady ghem Estif is that the biological agent used is something called a mycoborer, developed by GalacTech, a Terran company, as a construction tool but not yet properly tested or licensed. It is activated by ammonia, is self-limiting when properly used, and has a suicide-gene. It is also sterilized by heat and saline solution, which may be fortunate as the question of where the, ah, displaced earth is going has been answered by Colonel Otto.”

His fingers played on the console and more holovid cut in—the river ravine, somewhere below Vorhartung Castle, with a dark geyser of mud jetting ferociously from the rock to crash into the turbulent—and increasingly turbid—river below. The flow-rate was … significant, and while the footage ran for several minutes never slackened.

Gerard’s face re-appeared.

“It is now possible to jump quite safely from ImpSec’s roof to the ground, but the rate of descent has slowed considerably, and that, ah, discharge into the river has slowed too, so the more seismic part of events may be coming to a close.” He sighed gently to himself. “The more human part, however, continues apace. Two of the very many vidcopters came within an ace of colliding and m’Lord has ordered stingships to ground the lot of them. He has also indicated that the Arquas, tout court, with Lord Ivan and Lady Vorpatril, should be sequestered in the empty apartments immediately below that of Lady Alys.” He glanced away. “M’Lady?”

“I just wanted to add my marksworth to Aral and Cordelia, Gerard.”

Laisa’s eyes, Cordelia saw, were sparkling, her face flushed as she displaced the Armsman.

“I would say Barrayarans!, but Jacksonians! seems more to the point.  Perhaps it’s synergy. And while I can’t say I regret that appalling building, given that no-one has died—yet—Gregor is angrier than I’ve ever seen him. The damned mycoborer, yes, and this vile Imola fellow, but beyond that it’s shock, I think, at being so badly blindsided, and by Simon.” She took a breath. “Other things being equal, I think it might be a good idea if you were to invite Simon and Alys to visit Chaos Colony. As the first stage of a long and richly deserved galactic holiday. And on those same lines, the name of a very distant, very peaceful, and very unimportant planet to which Ivan could be posted as miltary attaché would also be appreciated. I’m pretty sure it is all just a … a … that there was no intent, but absence will nevertheless make the heart grow fonder rather faster than presence. Conversely, I’ve sent Miles a message asking him to get back here soonest. Gregor is going to need more people than me to vent at, and the pool just got a lot smaller.”

“Heh. Quick thinking.”

“Isn’t it? I’m so glad Gregor found her.”

Laisa’s fingers drummed briefly on the comsonsole before she resumed. “In the longer term—about which no-one is able to think much just yet, so I’ve been trying—I have some hopes that this might prove to be the comedy it seems. The footage of Cockroach Central disappearing is going to be very popular, not least on Komarr, but the efficiency of the rescue will also command respect. Colonel Otto front and centre for that, I fancy. And the contents of that bunker are going to be a wonderful distraction, while Imola will be a less wonderful but probably more important one. Also not least on Komarr. But there’s a lot of water to flow under the bridge yet. And mud and mycoborer, to the sea.” She shook her head. “What Barrayaran metaphors. My brain’s spinning. But I did have one other thought, perhaps crazy but maybe not. That building went down intact. Lord Dono may have had the aesthetic sense of one of his gargoyles but he knew about structural redundancy. And if it went down intact, could it come up intact? Half-way, anyway—I’m damned if I want it back on the skyline, or if I’ll miss this chance to get ImpSec into a sane working environment with some daylight involved.”

She took a breath.

“And then there’s the financial impact of rehousing ImpSec and of sorting out the old site, which is going to leave a hole in this year’s budget even if the loot makes up for some of it in the next. I’m sure Guy will have a thousand objections, but once the old building’s stripped of data and whatever’s in those evidence rooms, what makes business sense is offloading it pronto, with all legal liabilities, at a—ha!—bargain-basement price if necessary. So I think we may before long be in want of a buyer—someone who has the financial clout, the connections and flexibility to deal with the combined engineering, cleanup, and sensitivities required, and existing security clearance, just in case. And, of course, someone who might get a kick out of owning Cockroach Central, albeit in a rather interred state, and out of doing the Imperial Government a sizeable favour.” Her sudden smile was dazzling. “Perhaps you’d pass the thought along to Mark and Kareen?”

The smile faded while Aral spluttered slightly and Cordelia softly clapped.

“For now, though, just get Simon and Alys out of here as soon as they’ve been debriefed, please. And remind Gregor to look after himself as well as everyone else. He’ll cope—he always does—but after this he’s going to need some space to chill. I wish Beta was closer—I’d drag him to The Orb—but South Continent will probably have to do. Those Hills of Madame D’Aubade’s sound nice. Long walks, lots of food and sex, and even more sleep.” She glanced aside. “Awk. Gotta go—Boriz Vormoncrief is here in Officially-Enquiring mode and Gregor will bite him if I don’t head him off. Back to you, Gerard.”

She was gone in a flare of skirts and Gerard reappeared, looking approving.

“I would personally endorse all m’Lady said, my Lord and Lady. M’Lord needs some peace and quiet, and I’ve been, ah, scheming with her to clear his diary for a few days. I would also concur that it is Captain Illyan’s, um, inadvertent complicity that is … distressing him most.” He became brisk. “Be that as it may. Colonel Otto’s latest hypothesis as to what actually happened is, I quote, ‘the mycoborer and the rain turned it all into a damned great mud sponge and Cockroach Central squeezed it dry’, which seems clear. The descent—and the discharge—seem to have stopped. It remains the case that no-one has died. And preliminary observation of House Cordonah tends quite strongly to confirm that Lord Ivan’s marriage to Lady Tej was just as it seemed, however it may have been seized upon by the Baron and Baronne. All are clearly aware that thay are being observed but the vigour of their language does not suggest any, ah, put-up job. Lord Ivan’s explanation of consequences to his … circumstantial dependants is worth including, I think.”

The image shifted again, to the slightly grainy quality of temporary surveillance cams, and Aral and Cordelia listened with appreciative fascination to Ivan laying down not so much Barrayaran law, though that was involved, as much tried Barrayaran sensibilities. He had House Cordonah, colourful and otherwise, rapt, not to say occasionally quivering at a turn of phrase, but his hand throughout clutched that of his wife, who was, Cordelia noticed, clutching back.

“Interesting.”

“Isn’t it, dear Captain? If I’d known marrying him to a Jacksonian princess and sinking Cockroach Central would do the trick, I’d have tried it long ago, if only to oblige Alys.”

Cordelia batted at Aral’s arm, but Gerard was back yet again.

“Time is passing, my Lord and Lady, and this message should be sent. I’ll add only the holovid we have of the contents of the bunker—an unedited personal cam, I’m afraid, but all there presently is. Oh, and my prayers, with m’Lord’s, for a swift reply. With all appropriate salutations, of course.”

“Aren’t Armsmen wonderful? I wonder how Pym would have coped with all that?”

“Dryly, no doubt. Still, let’s see what all the fuss was about.”

The personal-cam footage was initially dizzying, but things became clearer as what must be a man on a grav-sled slipped through the rescue-hole in the roof of the bunker, set down in a space by a wall pierced by another smaller hole, and began systematically to walk around, opening boxes and offering a murmured commentary.

“This will take weeks, but let’s see. Ah, documents. “‘Dear Xav … yours in blood, Ezar.’ Dear God. ‘Dear Ezar …’, ‘Dear Dorca …’, ‘Dear Pierre …’ Huh. I don’t suppose many people thought of Le Sanguinaire like that. More letters and what look like personal papers. An imperial archive. Nothing obviously govermental, though who knows? A lot of clothing, male and female. Imperial dress uniforms. Ah, the specie. Ninth-Satrapy seals … ten, twenty … forty boxes. Eight tons. A billion marks right there. Oh, paintings. Terran, Terran, Betan, I think, doubtless worth a mark or three. Terran. Oh my, Vorsamos, a good one. And another. No—a triptych. It must be Before, During, and After the Storm at Vorkalloner Borealis—the present Count will be pleased. Some more good stuff—someone had an eye. But the ghem do. Mmm, what’s this? Bioseal—leave well alone. And another. Labels? Not apparently. On to a less hazardous pile, and … rubies. More rubies. The old Vorfolse mines, I dare say. He’ll be pleased too. Emeralds. Diamonds. Topaz? Odd—didn’t know the ghem valued it. Or Tiger’s Eye. Never did know what a tiger was. Amethysts. Beryl. Onyx. More hundreds of millions, but best as a trickle, not a glut. Oh I say, a seedbank. North and South Continents. Someone ought to be pleased. More fabrics. Oof, that’s heavy. Gold again? Or stone? Yes, statuary. And … oh my. It must be … and it is—the Vorbarra Hall of Ancestors. Yes, life studies in stone and death masks in plaster. Dear God. Rasputin Barra was among the Firsters. I think the next exhibition at the Imperial Museum just got decided.”

With some regret Cordelia muted the sound as the improbable inventory continued.

“That holovid commentator had it right, love. Fuck a duck, indeed. As did Gregor in calling it a clusterfuck. I can’t remember the last time I heard him swear. Is that a technical military term, by the way?”

“Oh yes. Time-honoured. And this certainly qualifies, despite all that loot. The perfect clusterfuck, perhaps.” Aral rubbed his forehead. “I’ll guarantee this—Simon has recovered further and faster than we’ve allowed, and he got bored. Otherwise Shiv Arqua could never have inveigled him as he must have done. I agree with Laisa about getting him away for a bit to let Gregor calm down, but what he needs isn’t a holiday, It’s a job. Beyond that … I don’t know. It depends on Ivan. Or rather, Ivan Xav, apparently.”

“Yes. No-one’s going to say ‘Ivan Xav you idiot’. Nor should they. That was love we saw, Aral dear. The Real Deal, at last. And you have to admit, falling for a Jacksonian princess-in-distress with a haut grandmother and a royal-blue babysitter is … promising. As was that mass scolding, which will also have reassured Gregor when Gerard got it to him.”

“Mmm.” Strong fingers drummed. “It’s a sort of unconscious Miles, isn’t it? He’d have known he was lured by the temptation to steal a few billion marks literally from under ImpSec’s nose and made sure it all got presented to Guy afterwards. Ivan … Ivan Xav drifted into it because he has the knight-errantry, in his own fashion, just not the mother wit God gave even the radial fauna.”

“No fair.” Cordelia grinned. “He’s held out against Alys and found a woman who clutches him back. No mean feat. And if it’d gone that wrong on Miles, people would be dead.”

“Point, dear Captain. Points. I still can’t believe no-one was killed. I never had such luck.”

“No.” Her hand sought his. “Things must be improving.”

“Heh. Belike. But if Ivan Xav has learned … accidentally learned sufficiently excessive initiative to precipitate this … well, Miles will be quite jealous and life will be unusually interesting for a while.” He shook his white-maned head repressively. “I’m glad for Ivan, of course, but the whole thing’s a result of excessive initiative by subordinates, starting with Byerly Vorrutyer and marrying the girl, and spreading to Simon not wanting to bother Guy with his idea about the Arquas. Even that poor dead sergeant with the bomb, probably—people kept doing things, with the best intentions, when they should have sat still or reported properly.”

“Don’t tell me—‘we took a vote’, remember? And I don’t think it’ll help Gregor much, but you could tell him, I suppose, after I’ve dealt with his Red Queen impulses. Not that they’ll have lasted—poor boy.” She gave a rich laugh. “I do wish we could have been there with him to see it sink, Aral. They should have had champagne. And a band playing a dirge.”

He gave her a stern look but she shook it off.

“Truly. Two hours ago we were wondering what catastrophe had happened. But it’s only a clusterfuck, and with no-one dead there is a funny side. A very funny side. And a lot of upside, actually, besides getting rid of the eyesore, and the loot.”

“Oh?”

“Oh yes. Laisa saw it. That footage is going to humanise ImpSec, while sane—and much more efficient—working conditions, in a nice, new, entirely unthreatening and light-coloured building will begin to work their magic. Win–win. Some temporary loss of administrative efficiency but a long term gain, and politically … invaluable, actually. No-one could have planned it, but assuming the mycoborer does have proper biolocks, it could work out extremely well. Keep Simon and Ivan out of it off-planet for a while, get Miles and Mark on-planet, and publicly deport the Arquas in a show of stone-faced imperial restraint without mentioning the 10% finders’ fee on historical artefacts to which I imagine they’re entitled. Less costs incurred, of course. But enough to be a war-chest, surely, especially with a little help. Simon’s plan must have been a secret alliance of some kind, and events now provide a fantastic cover.”

Aral’s eyes narrowed in thought. “Mmm. Yes, maybe so. And I take the point about ImpSec, dear Captain. So will Simon, when he calms down.”

“So I’d hope. Still, we’d better record a comforting reply for poor Gregor. And arrange a press-release before that footage is broadcast here.”

The thought struck them both simultaneously.

“I wonder how the headline writers managed?”

 

 

III

Ivan, stiff in some dead Barrayaran prince’s uniform that was a trifle too small for him, wandered over to see. It was not a very pretty piece of jewelry; an array of beads that looked more like ball bearings, set in a symmetrical array. Cetagandan then-modern art? But it seemed to mean a lot to the old lady, for she instantly fastened it to the innermost layer of her clothing. (Ch. 22)

 

Gregor watched Byerly’s retreating and distinctly hunched back as he was escorted briskly out with more sympathy than he had shown to his face. A fair chunk of this … hysterical clusterfuck would still do, if not in public, could be laid at Byerly’s door for involving Ivan in the first place, but to be fair he had been doing solid work in the Vormercier affair and trying to protect an innocent of sorts, while neither he nor anyone could have expected the Arquas. Nor their actions, with all that had ensued. Nor yet an unknown bunker within yards of ImpSec’s front door stuffed with billions of marks of Occupation loot.

Those contents increasingly weighed against Gregor’s anger. The business with the mycoborer had tipped him closer to precipitate rage than anything since understanding what Vordrozda had really been about, but affairs in Quaddiespace the previous year gave a haut assurance about built-in biolocks some genuine weight, which Weddell was thus far confirming. So. And if he was honest with himself even the appalling disruption and expense of having to relocate ImpSec couldn’t detract from the insane comedy of seeing the ugliest, most infamous building on Barrayar slowly and silently vanish into the planet it blighted. Nor had anyone been killed, and while ImpSec’s reputation had certainly taken a damagingly comical blow, Gregor rather thought Laisa and Cordelia were right that in the longer run that might be no bad thing, while getting its personnel into workspace that had daylight and those ergonomics compatible with security would definitely be a good one. Which, with Simon’s original plan for the Arquas looking as if it could be made to work even better than hoped (and very Simon it was, too, almost nostalgically so, for all he’d screwed up as much as anyone), left the bunker’s contents to work their fascination. Like Commodore Galeni and Professora Vorthys, Gregor thought the papers the more important part of the find, though there’d certainly be some unwelcome discoveries among them, but even an emperor wasn’t immune to the dragon’s hoard of artistic and cultural treasures ; especially when they were in law and practice now his. If provenance could be established, return to the descendants of the original Barrayaran owners would be in order, where any survived—a process that might have all sorts of interesting consequences—but there’d be plenty left over to do with as he would, which promised to afford him a certain amount of fun, as well as a goodly chunk that was rightfully his anyway. But the hoard and its freight of ghem history was a dazzling distraction unless it could also serve to grease Simon’s plan, and in any case from the haut history of that bunker—a question no-one yet seemed to have thought about much, but to Gregor one that had leaped out from the transcripts of Ivan’s debriefing. Some considerable thought had resulted, despite Guy’s strenuous objections, in his next interview, which he regarded with very mixed feelings.

The haut were always an intimidating conundrum in their quest for the post-human, and Lady Moira ghem Estif was not only a haut. She was a renegade haut who’d been allowed to be so, as well as probably the last person alive to have lived—in some measure ruled—on Occupied Barrayar. Her late husband had probably been among those to sanction the destruction of Vorkosigan Vashnoi, and certainly the scorched earth policies of so much of the withdrawal, and such proximity to such guilt was deeply troubling, however innocent of personal responsibility she might have been. Or not been. Given that she also represented an award to the thankfully late ghem-General Estif for his dirty work the moral issues became deeply opaque, and beyond all questions of justice or retribution she represented a unique window on a past that still wasn’t, entirely ; a woman born—decanted—before old Piotr, before grandfather Ezar and Mad Yuri even, in Dorca’s time ; who had seen it all, and done some of it herself ; and who was, never forget—he could hear Miles’s saying it—like all haut women trained to bioscience in the highest degree. Who must know things not in any papers. He took a deep breath and keyed his comconsole.

“Show her in, please, Gerard.”

“At once, m'Lord.”

He studied the tall figure as Gerard escorted her in, seeing the suppleness and strength that endured despite her immense age, the ironic awareness of the edgy guards accompanying her on whom Guy had insisted. The cropped hair was wrong, and he knew enough from Miles about haut culture that the sacrifice it represented commanded respect. And, he reminded himself with a sense of terrifying absurdity that went with this whole bizarre business, she was Ivan Xav’s grandmother-in-law … which made her a relation of his. After a fashion. He chose to stand as she reached him, indicating her chair with a faint smile.

“Lady ghem Estif. Please be seated.”

She did so, nodding fractionally, and he sat again himself, wishing Miles were here and studying her for a moment as she studied him. At least he unequivocally held the high ground, in every sense.

“Understand that recent events have put me under considerable pressure. Of the rolling heads kind. You will not have seen any news, but Treasure Hunters sink ImpSec HQ! was among the milder and more grammatical headlines.” Her wince was almost too faint to see, but she nodded slightly in acknowledgement. “And if your assurances about the mycoborer were not being borne out—so far—by the biohazard investigation, your head would be the first to roll.”

“I would not have used anything without adequate biolocks.” She sniffed. “Even here. But Ivan Xav was … persuasive in explaining the cultural sensibilities you have gained from your biosphere and history.”

“So I heard, though he should hardly have needed to explain it. Your ‘even here’ should be ‘especially here’.”

She inclined her head, eyes glinting. “Touché. But the mycoborer is merely a tool, not a weapon.”

“My former ImpSec HQ would disagree, but I do in fact take that point. So you may also give thanks to the wisdom of the Star Crèche in never allowing the ghem to use bioweapons during their occupation. Nor externally at all.” Her gaze sharpened. Now, let’s see. “One of my Lords Auditor had occasion last year to discuss that with the haut Pel Navarr.”

Her eyebrows openly rose in curiosity. “During that war scare? The reports about it on Terra made precious little sense.”

Gregor calculated briefly. “As it turned out, a renegade ba managed to steal the annual child-ship to Rho Ceta and fled with its cargo, having planted evidence that implicated us. ”

To his satisfaction her jaw dropped a fraction before she caught it. “A ba stole the child-ship? How?”

“It killed the Consort and crew, with poison, I believe.”

“Huh.” He couldn’t tell if she was more shocked or satisfied that a Consort had been murdered. “The Celestial Garden must have been … incandescent.”

“Oh yes. Fortunately my Lord Auditor returned ba and replicators to their rightful owners just in time. Or there would be a very bloody war going on right now.” Gregor steepled his fingers, memories of his terror and rage as he had read those reports flickering in his mind. “Equally fortunately, they managed to arrest the progress of a bioweapon with which the ba managed to infect both my Auditor and another person, causing them to begin to melt. Or there might well be that bloody war going on anyway. So you will understand that within the constant issue of security against Cetaganda, the particular issues posed by the Star Crèche—by haut gender and genome politics—are particularly prominent just now. And while I realise you were never of that rank, you are a haut woman, with all that implies.”

“Yes.”

“You were working here during the Occupation as a geneticist, for the Star Crèche.”

“Yes.”

“Did your training and briefing include the full array of its bioweapons, as it then stood, and their antidotes?”

“Not the full array, but some, certainly.”

Gregor chose words carefully. “And would you, as part of a Deal between House Cordonah and me, be prepared to brief us as fully as possible on those and assist in the manufacture of antidotes. Antidotes only?”

There was a long pause.

“Perhaps. It would need to be knowledge kept very securely from the haut while I live. They let me go because they knew I would not speak of what inner knowledge I had. I have not considered myself bound by my oaths since they discarded me, but I am not stupid.”

“Discarded?”

“Awarded me to ghem Estif. I didn’t make the cut.”

Gregor blinked at the bitterness in her voice, filing this view of the matter away for consideration at leisure.“I see. Twenty or thirty years, then, other things being equal.”

“So the averages for the previous generation would suggest, yes. It won’t be much more.”

“Mmm. Thank you. If a Deal proves possible that will be an important aspect of it for us.”

“It will be only a fraction of the full array as it now is, you realise?”

“It will be a start. We move on. Tell me, please, what genetic work you were doing here.”

“Filing.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Building a library of genetic samples for the Star Crèche.”

“Samples of?”

“Barrayarans born before this planet’s rediscovery. The Star Crèche always wants a genome survey of any new satrapy, and they wanted Barrayar’s badly. Prolonged isolation and multiple mutagenic events with no genetech at all? Who knew what might be here besides all the baseline human genetic diseases and morphological errors genetech has reduced to the history books in civilised worlds?”

Gregor bridled internally but knew she hadn’t said anything unreasonable. “And what happened to this library?”

“Updated versions were sent to the Star Crèche every five years, so they have about fifteen years of the work, 300,000 or so individual genomes in full. The last five years were so far as I am aware lost in the withdrawal.”

“Which would be the … samples you helped to prepare.”

“Indeed.”

Gregor considered her carefully and took a chance. “For the first time, Lady ghem Estif, I think you’re lying to me. I advise you to reconsider. And to tell me about your brooch.”

He thought her emotions blended shock, regret, and a kind of respect.

“Ah. Ivan Xav is more observant than he seems.”

Gregor’s smile was very complex. “Observant, yes. Deductive, no, unless Barrayaran politics is involved. Nor did Lady Tej say anything during their joint debrief. I, on the other hand, take leave to doubt that an oddly unaesthetic brooch whose recovery pleases a haut woman is simply a favoured ornament.”

She sighed. “Indeed. The brooch contains the last update, with the samples in sporulated form. A further 100,000 of them. Five years of my life.”

“Does it also contain bioweapons?”

“No.” She gave the faintest shrug. “Those I had I took with me to Komarr. They never left my person. The brooch was in the bunker lab when it was invaded by the Junta storing their loot and lost in the confusion.”

“Does the bunker contain any bioweapons or biohazards?”

“No. The bioweapons we could not take we destroyed. There will be various chemical supplies, some of which will have become unstable with time, but nothing biological was left. Unless, of course, there was anything biological among the loot. That I can’t vouch for, but it could not have been weapons.”

For a mercy. “And what is the brooch’s value now it has been found again?”

“To the Star Crèche considerable, purely as a database. To you, something as purely historical data, and there will be some things that would help in treating inherited mutations and some other analysis. I don’t know where you stand with general genetic cleanup. To anyone else, nil.” She shrugged. “Except for unethical biocompanies, I suppose.”

“And to you, Lady ghem Estif?”

“A chance to … offer a reminder.”

Gregor stared. “Elucidate, please.”

“Assuming we had managed to escape this planet, my intention, after a while, was to offer it to the Star Crèche for the highest price I could wring from them, require a senior envoy to come and collect it, and reduce it to plasma in front of her eyes.”

Gregor stared some more. “Revenge?”

“That isn’t really possible, alas. But a reminder of what they threw away—that I could have managed.”

“I see.” And he did. Barrayar did not, in the nature of things, have much access to haut, discarded or otherwise, but he and Miles had speculated before now on what haut women awarded to ghem-generals might think about it. And from other data it looked as if the internal Cetagandan gradient that privileged the Constellations of the inner planets over those of the outer and the satrapies had all the side-effects one might expect. “I think I must nevertheless insist that the brooch be surrendered. We have for many reasons been slow with what you called general genetic cleanup, but as replicators spread it is proceeding, and every resource will help. But”—he held up a finger—“if the Deal between myself and House Cordonah does prove possible, I will include in it a replica brooch.”

It was her turn to stare for a moment before she smiled. “Thank you. That is generous.” Her smile faded. “The Deal would be to let us go with sufficient resources and a secret alliance thereafter? Your own privy interest in two of the Whole’s wormholes?”

“In a nutshell. But I have not decided yet to offer it, nor what price to attach if I do. House Cordonah has committed crimes affecting both the Vorbarra District and ImpSec which must and will be addressed. And then there are much older crimes that your presence brings forcefully to mind. There are people who want an attempt at justice for things ghem-General Estif ordered, and that you at least colluded in. And I cannot say I do not understand that impulse. But.” His hand moved slightly. “I do not care to mark Ivan Xav’s marriage by executing his wife’s grandmother. Nor, I find, so to distress Lady Tej or Rish. And House Cordonah would be less willing to honour a Deal in which they had had to sacrifice you.”

She nodded stiffly. “I see. And I appreciate your care for Tej and Rish, as well as your sense of the Deal. For whatever it may be worth, I had no say of any kind in the military command, nor did I do anything except take blood samples and prepare them.” Gregor kept silent and after a moment she went on. “Haut women have great privilege but outside the higher offices of the Star Crèche or the Constellations, very little power. I was a sub-sub-librarian, on an experimental satrapy at that.” She grimaced faintly. “I did tell Rae ghem Estif that the Junta’s policies were becoming foolish and counter-productive, as he later agreed, but I was much the newest and youngest of the awarded wives who were here. And they weren’t saying anything at all—probably because the more complete the disaster, the better their chances of the Junta being executed on its return to Eta Ceta and freedom from their marriages. Which is what happened.”

Gregor took this in with distaste and some curiosity. “Why did more of the Junta not realise the fate waiting for them?”

“Stupidity, mostly. And being blinkered and out of touch with how irritated the Celestial Garden had become with the Ninth Satrapy as a whole. Even Rae was more worried about being scapegoated by some of the others than about what actually happened, though his Komarran planetary shares were the deciding factor.”

“Would you rather have returned and been … freed from your marriage.”

“No. My rage with them was still very great, and there was Udine to consider. Besides, Rae was … not unkind.”

“I would imagine being in a third polity also made your marriage … more of a partnership.”

She nodded, appreciating his insight. “Yes, interestingly so. It enabled me to recognise more clearly what Udine found with Shiv Arqua. And, perhaps, what Ivan Xav has found with Tej.”

Gregor smiled. “Mmm. I believe so too—the one saving grace in this … muddle.”

“Unless you make your Deal with Shiv and Udine and they take down House Prestene.”

“There is that. And if that Deal is made, what will you contribute to our secret alliance?”

“Whatever is asked of me that I am able and willing to do. My skills as a geneticist are high even now by standards other than those of the Star Crèche, and I have my contacts. One accumulates them in a century of being stateless.”

“I would imagine so. And your witness is of both historical and security interest to us.”

She looked at him without favour. “Yes, that too. Dull for me, but I don’t mind being debriefed, once. I never was properly, of course.”

“Very well. Then, other things being equal, Commodore Galeni will be in touch shortly. As will I, when I have decided what course best serves the Imperium.” He rose, bringing her to her feet. “Thank you for your frankness, Lady ghem Estif. It has clarified some things for me.”

She shrugged slightly. “Well enough. I can’t imagine a haut emperor being so polite under like circumstances. Barrayar continues to surprise.”

“Just so.”

“You might as well take this now.”

She reached into her layers of clothing, making the ImpSec guards twitch violently, but brought out only the brooch and offered it to him.

“Ah. Thank you. Sporulated, you said?”

“Yes. All quite standard. Oh, except for the nametags, but there’s a nanochip with the reference index.”

“Ah.”

Gregor watched her retreating, upright back as Gerard escorted her out, and sat, looking at the thing in his hand. Brooch was a kindness—it was an ugly thing, lumpy with what must be the storage chambers, more like an industrial part than an ornament. But its contents … what was the value of 100,000 dead Barrayarans born during the Time of Isolation? And nametags? A people turned into spores. He had a vision of them emerging from the brooch, a great snaking column of clones with men like Pierre le Sanguinaire and Dorca Vorbarra leading them, and shuddered.

“Are you alright, m’Lord?” Gerard had an anxious look.

“Yes, thank you, Gerard. Just a stray thought. This should go to Dr Weddell, with a transcript of anything relevant in Lady ghem Estif’s conversation. If he can remove the samples and the nanochip in time, it can be returned to Lady ghem Estif; otherwise I will want an exact if empty copy.”

“Very good, m’Lord.”

Gerard took the brooch carefully and left as silently as ever while Gregor took himself to the window, looking out over the garden Ekaterin had transformed. He would, he knew, offer the Deal—it was too good a chance, and no-one had died—and he hoped the Arquas had the sense and honour both Alys and Simon credited them with, despite everything. Besides … his eyes drifted up to the skyline, still shockingly open, free from the windowless upper stories that had always loomed blankly towards the Residence, and he found he couldn’t stop smiling.

 

 

IV

Dammit, Ivan, you do realise it’s likely going to take two bloody years for this mess to blow over! At least! (Epilogue)

 

Yevgeniya was in the zone. The shimmering colours of the Glorious Bug were sharp in her mind and emerging under her fingers. Grain by tiny grain the insect took shape, customised surgical microtractors achieving the needed precision in bands of yellow, red, and blue, shades ebbing into one another. The head was hidden by the cup of maple ambrosia the bug was investigating, but she assembled the delicate antennae waving above and filled in the surrounding area, completing the Vorkosigan’s District booth in the panoply of His Majesty’s wedding reception.

Sighing she straightened, rubbing her back, and exchanged the microtractors for her simple slate leveller, pressing carefully to ensure the surface was even before the matrix set. There were only another five counts’ booths to go, and none had anything as challenging as Lady Ekaterin’s bug. Even to her the results looked good, and the mosaic was one of the best she’d ever done. The eye-opening experience of working for Lord Auditor Vorkosigan hadn’t changed her mind about accepting commissions, and despite the loss of Ma Kosti’s extraordinary food she and Mila had been delighted to get back to South Continent and their rural solitude. But besides the intrinsic difficulty of refusing one’s emperor and empress, His Majesty was owed, as every happy visit to The Hills via the new, low-impact Visitor Centre and efficient NCOs delighted to be away from the Black Escarpment confirmed. And he and the empress had come themselves for a long weekend break, to open the Visitor Centre, walk the valleys, and inspect the Imperial Engineers building nicely twisty hills beyond Xavgrad. So here she was in one of the grand reception rooms of the Imperial Residence, completing a twenty-foot panorama of a day all Barrayar had celebrated with intense relief.

“Astonishing work, Madame.”

The heavy slate tool almost unbalanced her as she spun and bowed, and the Emperor smiled apologetically at her.

“I’m sorry—I didn’t mean to startle you. I wanted some space to think, and with this room out-of-use while you work it’s handy. Then I became absorbed in watching you—such delicate skill—and, I confess, by your subject today.” He gestured to the model Glorious Bug in its airy glass container. “I had good reason to know of Ekaterin’s courage and exceptional sense, but I believe the Glorious Bugs were the first thing to reveal her true gift.” He looked thoughtful. “Or rather, one of them.”

Yevgeniya, more comfortable with His Majesty by now than she’d ever dreamed possible, raised her eyebrows. “Aesthetics and … ?”

“Politics, of a sort, though she doesn’t like to call it that.” He grinned disarmingly. “I’ll send you the record of her proposal to Miles, in the middle of a very fraught session of the Council of Counts. It was … masterful. And hilarious, which was part of its mastery. She hasn’t had further occasion to demonstrate the talent—yet—but once is enough.”

“Huh. I’ll look forward to seeing it, sire.” She frowned. “I vaguely recall the news reports. Someone was arrested … a Vorrutyer, perhaps?”

“Lord Richars, yes. He was involved but I won’t spoil your viewing.” He smiled that oddly heartening smile. “And you’ll get to meet Count Dono and all my imperial sinews when we unveil this wonderful mosaic. I shall even drag Aral and Cordelia back for it, I think—too long since I’ve seen them anyway.”

She looked at him curiously. “Do you miss them then, sire? My own experience of aging parents was … less positive.”

“Every day, Madame. The distance is necessary—Aral is not superhuman, and relinquishing all interference after thirty years would ask a very great deal of anyone. They’re also doing an astounding job on and for Sergyar. But without Aral’s strength and Cordelia’s wisdom I should not be here, nor sane if I were.” This smile was rueful. “Which makes me wonder why I’m resisting their present advice, which was what I came to think about in the first place.”

“Oh.” She was careful not to make it a question. If he wished to tell her he would, and after a moment of calculation she saw his mental shrug.

“Tell me, if you will, what you thought of the sinking of ImpSec HQ and the associated events.”

“That’s a restrained description, sire. I don’t know that I thought anything very much when I first saw it, though I couldn’t stop laughing, nor crying. Hysterical covers it, I think. A compelling ugliness entombed, for all it’s come up again somewhat since. That’s been interesting—I saw Lord Mark interviewed about his project.” She couldn’t stop her smile. “And I saw Lord Vorkosigan ambushed by some reporters asking for his opinions.”

The Emperor grinned again and his voice took on Lord Vorkosigan’s cadences. “Gentlemen. It used to be said, with some truth, that one great advantage of working in Cockroach Central was that you couldn’t see it. Now no-one can see half of it. One must consider it progress, even if of the two-steps-forward, one-back variety.

She nodded, unsurprised that he had seen and remembered the remark—his closeness to the little Lord Auditor had been evident from the first, and even on holovid the feral suavity that had stopped the reporters in their tracks had been memorable.

“And what of those responsible for the sinking? And, to be fair, discovering that bunker.”

“Those strange Jacksonians, sire? The coloured ones were astonishing—the Jewels, wasn’t it? I’d like to see them dance.” Memory clicked. “Oh, or did you mean Lord … Vorpatril? You sent him off somewhere far away, didn’t you?”

“I did, Madame, if only lest anyone strangle him. A planet called Ylla, in Sector XIX. He hadn’t done anything wrong, exactly. Nor right, exactly.”

Curiosity nipped. “So what had he done, sire? Exactly.”

“Married a princess in mufti and distress less than two days after meeting her, and got blindsided by her extensive family, whom she had believed to be dead. Or, alternatively, accompanied his wife down the illegally dug tunnels that sank ImpSec HQ and managed to require very noisy and public rescue, with a mob of alien in-laws including the haut widow of a ghem-general of the ruling Junta, and an assortment of more local criminals.”

She stared. “The news reports didn’t mention any haut widows. And they said the tunnelling had accidentally set off an old bomb that destabilised clay under the foundations.”

“So it did, and so I ensured. Just as I ensured that the use of an untested class-2 biohazard to—incidentally—sink ImpSec went very minimally reported. To be fair, I could only do so because the biohazard really was self-limiting.”

She let out a breath. “Well … good. We have quite enough biohazards already.”

“Just so. Monitoring continues, I assure you, Madame, but it has been uniformly negative. While most people do now laugh when asked about the sinking. And promptly segue to the loot in the bunker—which I notice you have not.”

“No.” She considered. “It was interesting—the paintings, especially, and I enjoyed the exhibition of Vorbarra deathmasks. It’s good to see things restored to their proper owners, too. But it was all past. And I couldn’t have cared less about all those gemstones—useless things. They splinter very inconveniently when you crush them.”

He laughed softly. “Well, that’s refreshing. But what of Lord Vorpatril?”

She shrugged. “It sounds like politics, not … turpitude, sire.” A thought struck her. “Isn’t he related to Lord Vorkosigan?”

“Second cousins to one another, once removed to me. Why do you ask?”

“I’m not sure, sire, Something in the way you described events.”

“Huh. Perceptive. My dilemma, you see, is whether sufficient time has elapsed to allow Ivan and his wife to return to Barrayar. His mother is dropping hints. So is Cordelia. But even Miles stands in some awe of what Ivan managed—his own more spectacular exploits being buried as deeply as possible in any number of highly classified files, and fated to remain there for decades yet.” A pause. “And there are imperial dimensions I cannot mention.”

“I don’t expect I’d understand them anyway, sire. But I know what I can hear in your voice. You love him, and want him back, but are suspicious of your own desire because others desire it too. Don’t be. Life is too short, and love too precious. I’m sure people will gossip, but the loot will divert them soon enough, surely?”

He stared. “Wisdom, Madame, for which I do thank you. And when he is ambushed by reporters? Which will happen, I guarantee.”

“Oh … a Vor-Lordish reflection on the duties of blood and a lot of enthusiastic information about, where was it, Ylla? Or … just talk about it? I don’t mean the biohazard—I quite see why that’s classified—but a princess-in-mufti-and-distress is a good story, and being blindsided by in-laws is something everyone can understand. Well, everyone married.”

He stared some more. “Not everyone’s in-laws are quite so galactic. Nor does the blindsiding typically consist of destroying a critical military installation.”

She shrugged. “Scale. Not everyone is related to Lord Vorkosigan, nor marries into galactic royalty. And … I don’t know if this is because I’ve come to know you personally, sire, but if you truly thought there was culpable guilt involved, you’d have acted at the time. Because you love him, as you love Barrayar, not despite.”

“Huh.” He waggled a hand. “I am flattered you think so, Madame, but I have set justice aside before now for what were—or seemed—compelling interests of the Imperium. And in a variety of respects I did so in this matter, the deportation of the Jacksonians being a prime instance. They should properly have faced trials for several things, not least that biohazard.”

She shrugged. “Compelling interests are compelling, whatever else they may be, and we all expect you to make such decisions, sire, for all our sakes. Should Lord Vorpatril have faced a trial?”

“Mmm. No, I can’t say that. He might have put two and two together somewhat faster, and there was a moment when he should certainly have refused an invitation and promptly called General Allegre. Or even me—he has direct access. But he was under unfamiliar and strong pressures.”

“From his new wife and in-laws?”

“Yes. The in-laws, anyway. But having them all arrested would not, I imagine, have pleased his wife.”

“No.” Yevgeniya smiled at the thought. “Like a less violent version of Hamlet killing Ophelia’s da. It’s not what a Baba usually recommends.” Her gaze became shrewd. “But from what you’re saying, sire, it’s only embarrassments that are at stake, yours and his. Oh, and ImpSec’s, I suppose. Not anything compelling. And embarrassments are better passed off with a laugh than a frown, in my experience.”

He eyed her thoughtfully, which somehow wasn’t a stare. “More wisdom, Madame. And a heart to match your eye and hand.” He sighed. “Alright, then. Ivan Xav and Lady Tej shall amuse and terrify us all again somewhat sooner than I’d like.” His smile was unreadable. “Some would think your clarity worth diamonds, Madame, but you say you don’t care for gems.” He reached into a pocket and put a heavy gold disc into her hands. “Perhaps gold is better—more malleable, at any rate. That’s one of the Ninth-Satrapy coins. I understand Lady Tej has an anklet of them, from her father. Please don’t ask how he got them. Perhaps that one may serve as a brooch, and a memento of my gratitude." He gave her a half-bow. “Which is considerable, Madame.”

In the extra stillness that followed his quiet departure, trailing guards, Yevgeniya studied the coin’s images of the Ninth Satrapy’s arms and whichever Cetagandan emperor that had been, deciding a brooch was about right ; an anklet wouldn’t suit her at all. The thought occurred that if the deported Jacksonians had been allowed to take some of the loot things must have been even more complicated than His Majesty had implied ; but stone was more interesting. Slipping the coin into her pocket she bent again to her mosaic, and the obedient microtractors.