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The Huntsman's Reel

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After almost a decade of hosting events at the Imperial Residence, Lady Alys could read the room without difficulty. Tonight, she feared, would not be one of her great successes. Though given the guests, anything short of fisticuffs on the dance floor would be counted as a victory. Convincing this many high-level Komarrans to accept the hospitality of Lord Regent Vorkosigan, with the ruins from the Revolt still not all rebuilt, had been a triumph in itself, and the tension and awkwardness in the air was a fair price to pay. And so far the mishaps had all been of the minor sort: the major-domo pronouncing a name incorrectly, Mademoiselle Vorlightly slipping at the end of a dance and landing most improperly in her startled Komarran partner's arms, a junior servant making a mistake in the order of precedence. And Prime Minister Vortala had a number of senior Komarrans in earnest-looking conversation, and Aral was exerting himself to charm the magnate of one of the largest trade fleets. But Alys continued to scan the room alertly, steering rivals away from each other and quietly instructing the senior servitor to water Admiral Vorvolynkin's drinks a bit more, at least until midnight.

Her next scan of the room caught a discreet side door opening, and Captain Illyan came in. He moved slowly and unobtrusively, but Alys found herself changing course in an instant, as if he had raced in followed by a score of armed men. Something was wrong. Illyan's spine was rigid with tension, his eyes sharp with alarm. But he stood motionless against a wall, arms folded, and Alys knew that whatever it was, it required discretion.

"A triumph, I assure you, my dear Lady Alys," purred Lady Vorinnis at her elbow, and Alys had to turn away and answer, and tell Lady Vorinnis about her progress in finding a bride for her eldest son. When she escaped, Captain Illyan was still standing by the door, looking almost like another discreet guard, but still with that hidden terror in his eyes. Alys meandered gently around the room, dodging any further attempts to engage her, and ended up as if by chance next to him.

"Has something happened, Captain?" she asked, hovering over a tray of canapes as if selecting one.

Illyan gave a little shake of his head, not denying it but refusing the question. The musicians struck up a mirror dance, and he bowed to her. "Will you dance with me?"

Abrupt, but Alys supposed he had a reason. She took his formally offered hand and they stepped onto the dancefloor, one couple among dozens.

"Somewhere in here," said Captain Illyan as he started off with a simple side-step, "there are four Cetagandan assassins."

Alys could keep her place in a dance while fending off amorous advances or coaxing out political concessions, and she did not lose her step now. "You're quite sure?"

"We've been trying to track them for weeks. It broke ten minutes ago. The tailor who sold them some outfits for tonight had his suspicions, and just came forward, and combined with our other intelligence, I am quite certain they are here. I know that one has had a recent body-mod, and that they have purchased equipment that could be used to make bombs. They are here, and I must consider them armed and dangerous, but until I can identify them, we can't move."

"And you want me to find them."

Illyan turned about; Alys mirrored him. "Every analyst I have is on this, scanning through the security footage or the guest list. But you're in the room. And you--you know the people."

"Can you not call Aral out on some pretext, take the wind out of their sails that way?"

"Assuming he's the target," Illyan said. "Also, nothing short of a declaration of war would take him away from these discussions now, and the Cetagandans must know that. I dare not spook them now. I've evacuated Gregor and the children, and as many others as I can, but I must not--I cannot let anything draw their attention here until we've identified them all."

"Then smile a little more," Alys murmured, and executed a neat twirl that Illyan followed unerringly. And smiled.

"Who's the tailor?" she asked as he faced her again. "And what did he make?"

"Two evening suits, standard formal wear. I have the details and an analyst looking through all that too. The name was Snyder."

Alys gave a small snort at that, then placed her hands palm to palm with Illyan and turned them both about in a stately circle.

"Kou gets his suits there, but we can rule him out. So does Count Vorvolynkin. And that tall fellow holding a full glass of champagne, next to the Minister for Agriculture." She scanned across the room. "And Colonel Karpov. But I can't see everyone from here."

Apparently taking this as an instruction, Illyan twirled her under his arm and they promenaded slowly around the line of dance. Alys smiled and nodded to acquaintances as they passed.

"Tomas Vorbohn. Hm. Those two men with their backs to us by the pot plant. Captain Vortala. Snyder's quite popular, for those with no taste."

Illyan made an impatient noise at that, and Alys swirled her skirts as they turned.

"I mention it because it's odd that a Cetagandan would choose him. He's not cheap, and their aesthetic sense is normally more finely-tuned than that. There must be something else about him. His cuts are generous and he's good at hiding defects of appearance."

"Or weapons?" Illyan asked.

"Possibly. Do you have an analyst who understands men's evening dress?"

"Apparently I do now," he replied. "We are under-using your skills. Anyone else?"

"Not that I can see from here. Keep to the line of the dance, you'll draw notice." She shifted her weight so that Illyan had to keep moving in the correct direction, and felt him yield.

"There were only two outfits," he said, "and four Cetagandans. The body-mod suggests one might be here wearing the face of someone we know. It wasn't a major mod, so someone of a similar age and build as the Cetagandan."

"Are they all men? All guests?"

Illyan's hand tensed on hers in frustration. "I don't know. There may not even be four."

"Only one of the agency servants made a mistake in the order of precedence earlier. Not a serious thing, I would have spoken to the manager afterwards and let her deal with it, but it was the kind of mistake a Cetagandan might make. Serving Madame Kanzian, who was born Lady Vorinnis, before he should have. It would have been the proper order for a Cetagandan." She scanned around the room. "That dark man with the tray of empty glasses."

As they looked, the servant carried the tray towards a staff exit. Illyan tensed completely, and he murmured an order into his concealed comm, and a few moments later one of the ImpSec servants followed their suspect out.

"They'll keep a close watch on him now, and will be able to take him down as soon as I give the order. And see what they can unravel from his background. We vet all the staff, agency or not, but it's clear they've managed to find ways to slip through. But so many Komarrans had their records damaged or lost during the uprising, it's not easy..." He made a frustrated gesture that Alys mirrored, and they turned around again.

"It's very important that this not disrupt the Komarran talks," Alys said. "How will you get them out without causing a scene?"

"Aral told me earlier that he would fry my liver for breakfast if my security was anything other than discreet tonight." Alys recognised Aral's intonation in Illyan's repetition, and smiled despite herself. "I was hoping you might have a suggestion."

Alys advanced, retired, turned about. Illyan mirrored her. "It would not be unusual if Aral were to make some remarks soon. We could usher everyone through to the Blue Room for that, and as people move through, you could act then with less disruption."

"That would work," Illyan agreed, "but only if they hold off. They could make their move at any moment, and every second that goes by increases the chance. If it comes to it, my lady--" His gaze across the room landed on the Lord Regent.

"If it comes to it, you know I and half the people in this room will try to get between Aral and whatever comes," she said softly.

The music swelled to a close, and Alys sank into a polite shallow curtsey. Illyan bowed exactly the same way he bowed to everyone from the Emperor downwards: cool, distant and severe.

They walked off the dancefloor together, and Illyan hesitated then. "May I fetch you a drink?" he asked, then more quietly, "You've got further with this case in six minutes than we have in the past two months, and I need to be on the spot."

Alys smiled at him, a more encouraging smile than she had given Count Vordrozda when he had renewed his assault on her widowhood earlier in the evening. "That would be most kind, Captain."

Illyan set off across the room to procure some more champagne, or more likely coloured fizzy water, and Alys turned her attention to the rest of the room. The Dowager Countess Vorsmythe was sitting nearby, and she beckoned sharply to Alys.

"My dear Lady Alys, can you not do something about those young ladies? When I was a girl, no Vor maiden would have dared to so much as speak to a man without her Mama's permission. As our leading lady, you owe it to the decency of the Vor to ensure that proper standards of behaviour are maintained. I think because you are so young yourself, our young ladies see you encouraging these prole officers and believe that they have licence to do likewise." She sniffed, then gave a meaningful glare in the direction of Amaryllis Vortashpula, laughing loudly at the wit of a very young lieutenant in dress greens. He turned a little, and Alys recognised Lieutenant Parkin, Aral's current secretary.

"You are quite right, Countess," Alys said, and the old lady blinked. "I will speak with them immediately."

She set off across the room and caught Parkin's eye. "A moment, please, Lieutenant."

He gave Amaryllis a helpless smile and said, "Of course, milady."

Alys drew him to one side. "Aral may need to make some additional remarks this evening. Interplanetary unity, nothing contentious, but make it sound good. If you could prepare something for him, and expect to be finished within fifteen minutes, I would be grateful. And don't be obvious about it."

Aral chose his men for their brains, and Parkin did not object that he was evidently off-duty for the evening. "Yes, milady," was all he said, and he paused to say something more to Amaryllis, making her laugh again, before moving unobtrusively towards the door leading to the men's retiring-room. A good officer, that one.

Captain Illyan caught up with her bearing two glasses which did not contain champagne, somewhat to Alys's regret. He extended his arm and they walked through the great double doors to the adjoining room where Aral and Prime Minister Vortala were holding court. Alys giggled and smiled up at Illyan as they went through the doorway, and after a second's startled glance he fell into role admirably, patting her hand and giving her a smile that was best described as a smirk.

Across the room, Cordelia caught her eye and then raised both eyebrows. Alys gave the tiniest shake of her head, no, it's all right, I haven't gone mad and I don't need rescuing.

"Six suspects, so far," Illyan murmured. "Any more in here?"

Alys scanned across the room. "Four. All Komarran guests. Those two men talking together by the canapes, the one flirting with Emmeline Racozy, and the one talking to Aral, the pot-bellied man with the red flower in his buttonhole." She frowned suddenly. "He's made that suit look much more attractive than the others. Look at that shirt underneath, and the shoes. Much more dandylike than you'd expect from a man who uses Snyder."

"And you think that's suspicious?"

"If I had to wear one of those suits, I would have difficulty resisting the temptation to improve matters. It would be very Cetagandan."

Illyan was struggling to look away from the potential Cetagandan assassin less than a metre from the Lord Regent. He murmured something into his concealed comm, standing far too tensely for a man flirting with Alys Vorpatril.

"Hold, Captain," Alys said quietly, and smiled brightly at him.

He allowed her to turn towards him, then said abruptly, "Are you armed?"

"Only my Vorfemme knife."

"Not enough. Please excuse me, milady." But instead of moving away, he embraced her, his arm snaking closely around her waist, steering her towards the edge of the room away from the other guests. Alys followed his lead, her eyes widening, tilting her head back automatically for a kiss. Padma had held her in just this way, once. Illyan leaned in, his eyes closing either in concentration or reflex. As his lips lightly brushed hers, she felt something small and metallic slide into her hand, tucked under the folds of her wrap.

Alys gave a low laugh and said, "You forget yourself, Captain," and Illyan stepped back politely. There was a glint in his eyes, and his hand lingered a second on hers. Alys wasn't sure whether it was to check she wasn't going to drop the stunner, or not. She folded it carefully into the wrap and drew her self-possession back around her. No time, now, for anything but the job at hand.

The Komarran flirting with Emmeline Racozy turned so that she could see his face properly, and a memory from earlier in the evening struck her. "That one," she pronounced. "He's Cetagandan ghem."

Illyan followed her gaze. "You seem very certain."

"He was the one dancing with Ella Vorlightly earlier. At the end of the dance she nearly went flying. The ghem always do that at the end of a dance, to some degree or other. Old Lady Vortala told me why, years ago. Apparently the ghem brotherhoods have their own dances, with swords drawn, and at the end of each dance they push their partner away and cross swords. It becomes an ingrained habit."

"According to the identification, that man is Ser Bonner, a minor trade fleet rep. Hm. Can't march him off straight away."

Ser Bonner was leaving Emmeline and heading back to the ballroom, and Alys had a sudden idea. "I know how we can pin him down." She inclined her head to Illyan in a kind of abbreviated curtsey, then said more loudly, "Pardon me, Captain, I must see to my guests."

Drou Koudelka was standing against the wall just inside the ballroom, partnerless for the time being. Her posture reminded Alys startlingly of Illyan. Alys glided over to her and said quietly, "I need you to dance with someone. It's possible that he's a Cetagandan assassin. Don't betray anything."

Negri had trained Drou personally, once. She took this instruction in without blinking, and followed Alys across to where her suspect stood. "Madame Koudelka, may I present Ser Bonner as a partner to you for the next dance?"

Drou dropped a shy curtsey, just like a half dozen other young women who had undergone similar introductions throughout the evening, and smiled up at Ser Bonner. Etiquette-trapped, he had no choice but to lead her out onto the dancefloor.

"Thank you, Lady Alys," Drou said, and Alys knew that her thanks were sincere. She wasn't the only woman here whose skills were not being fully used tonight.

Two suspects neutralised. Two more to go. She caught the eye of her major-domo, who had been tracking her movements with some curiosity, and briefly told him that they might need the Blue Room again and to make ready.

Illyan had evidently been occupied on a similar arrangement, for he was leaning against the wall and talking into his concealed comm. A couple of the ImpSec servants were closer to Aral than previously, she noticed, holding trays that Alys suspected had an ulterior purpose. The Komarran with the red flower in his buttonhole was still talking to Aral, his gestures elegant and smooth as he spoke. Detaching him from his target was not going to be as easy as giving him a new dance partner.

She scanned the room again and saw Tomas Vorbohn slipping into a window alcove with his arm around the waist of a smiling Komarran woman.

"Interplanetary unity," Illyan murmured dryly, coming up alongside her again. "Aral will be pleased."

"Perhaps," said Alys, "but it's very odd."

"Why?" he asked instantly.

"Tomas Vorbohn only likes men. It's not widely known. But--"

Illyan looked at the unusual couple, who were moving so that they were shielded from the room by the long velvet curtains, and his stare took on a blank look that told Alys he was filtering through something on his memory chip. She waited, and was not altogether surprised when he snapped to full alertness. "It's now. Either she's a fifth conspirator or a cover, but it's now."

"Vorbohn?" she asked.

"The body mod, it must be. Vorbohn often goes off hiking in the backwoods, it would have been easy to replace him, and he doesn't hold a critical post. The Ceta could have been impersonating him for weeks, it's probably how a lot of this got set up. But go. Go go go." He emphasised his words with a small impersonal push, moving away himself towards the passage.

Alys drew herself up and stepped into the centre of the room, pitching her voice precisely to carry. "My lords, ladies, honoured guests, if you would please make your way through to the Blue Room--" she gestured gracefully to where the alert ImpSec servants were already opening the doors on Illyan's go-order, "the Lord Regent will make a short address."

Aral gave her a look of complete confusion. Beside him Cordelia was saying something quietly to him, and Alys wondered just how much she had intuited from watching her and Captain Illyan. Parkin joined them, and Aral waved Cordelia ahead, lingering to speak to the Komarrans. The man with the red flower was still close beside him.

The guests, sensing nothing amiss, began to mill in the direction of the open doors. Alys saw General Count Vorkosigan move to the doors too and then stop nearby, his hand hanging free near the hilt of his ceremonial sword that Alys strongly suspected was not ceremonially blunt. Nobody had a keener sense for a plot than the old General, even now.

Illyan was walking in Aral's direction, slowly, his attention apparently elsewhere. Drou and the supposed Ser Bonner were coming through from the ballroom, and Alys saw that Drou had cannily planted herself on Ser Bonner's right arm, and was hanging back from the other guests. Skilfully done, Alys thought. The servant would no doubt be handled by his ImpSec minders. But there was still the couple in the alcove. Knowing the angles to check the activities in every corner of these rooms, Alys moved so that she could see in. In the moment she looked, she saw the woman extract a small shining object from her voluminous Komarran trousers, and pass it to the man, who gave it some complex twists before putting his hand in his pocket holding it.

Alys gave a quick cutting-off gesture to the four ImpSec agents who were moving in their direction. If that was some kind of device, he could clearly set it off at a second's notice, and there was no telling what it might be. A man might hesitate to blow himself up, but if it was biological and he had the antidote...

She had flushed dozens of over-amorous couples out of corners at parties, and put on the expression of a disapproving but formally polite Vor matron, approaching where they could easily see her coming.

"Forgive me for intruding," she said in a tone that meant the exact opposite, "but if you would be so kind as to make your way through to the Blue Room, sir, madam." She gestured towards the door, her lips pressed prudishly together.

A flicker of relief crossed both their faces, and Alys knew she had not mistake her suspects, and also that the woman was no hostage or dupe. She stepped back, and they emerged into the main room, looking almost exactly like every other couple she had ever interrupted, a little embarrassed, a little angry, but not prepared to make a scene. They set off across the room and Alys saw the man wearing Vorbohn's face tense and his right shoulder begin to move as they came nearer to Aral.

She pulled out Captain Illyan's stunner, flicked it to a wide beam, and shot them both together in the back.

The ImpSec servants converged on them as they fell. "Right pocket," Alys snapped to them, "some sort of device," and then she began to flutter around them exactly as if they were two guests who had got themselves incapably drunk early in the evening. Across the room, Drou had Ser Bonner face first against a wall, out of sight of the other guests, and as Alys looked she too stunned him at point-blank range.

In the corridor, Alys could see Aral with two Komarran guests, senior members of their local government, and the man with the red flower still close by. Most of the other guests had moved on now and were assembling in the Blue Room, where Alys had prudently ordered extra drinks to be laid on, but a few were still leaving, and one gave a startled exclamation at the couple Alys had stunned, now surrounded by servants. The man with the red flower turned his head, and then Alys found out what he was concealing under his loosely-cut suit.

The pot-belly, some sort of prosthetic, came off entirely, and from underneath he pulled out a long white knife and a small glinting object Alys couldn't quite see. Aral reacted instantly, seizing both of the other Komarrans and pushing them behind him, frustrating the efforts of the ImpSec agents nearby to haul him away. The Cetagandan lunged forwards with the knife.

Lieutenant Parkin grabbed the Cetagandan's right arm and yanked it backwards, but even as the knife was twisted from his grip, the Cetagandan flung the glittering object to the ground right in front of Aral. As Alys watched in horror, Captain Illyan leapt forwards and threw himself on top of it.

She wanted to close her eyes, but couldn't, her gaze fixed by the same ice-cold certainty that had kept her watching as Padma was killed in front of her, that to look away would be a final betrayal.

Illyan twisted like a fish, writhed on the floor, then became still. The Cetagandan was overpowered, stunned. Alys found herself moving forwards, not breathing. Everyone was staring silently down.

Then Illyan raised his head and sat up. "Deactivated," he said in a shockingly matter-of-fact voice, holding out the device in one hand to one of his men.

The ImpSec bustle closed around him then, but Alys heard Aral's voice carrying low and intense through the rest of the chatter. "Damn fool thing to do, at that range, Simon. Wouldn't have made any difference." His tone was strained in a way that reminded Alys that she wasn't the only one who'd previously seen loved ones killed in front of them.

She was still walking forwards. The violence had taken less than a minute from start to finish, and the few remaining guests were still blinking in confusion, apart from Count Piotr, who was still standing by the doorway, grimly.

"Best get this evening back on track now, girl," he said to her as she passed him. "Good shot, though."

Yes, Alys recalled with a start, she still had almost a hundred guests in the Blue Room, waiting for Aral to speak to them. The Cetagandans were all being hauled away as fast as ImpSec could drag them. Aral extended a hand to Illyan and pulled him to his feet, the two senior Komarrans still behind him.

"Cetagandans," Illyan told Aral. "I expect their plan was to pretend to be Komarran right to the last, cast the blame for their crimes on you." He looked at the Komarrans, who were wide-eyed with shock.

"Yes," Aral drawled. "Quite the merry dance for all of them." He looked across to Alys. "I believe I'm supposed to be speaking now."

Parkin, reminded, pulled a flimsy from his breast pocket, but Aral brushed it aside. "I think I can figure this one out on my own, thank you. Gentlemen, perhaps you might have something to add as well. Shall we?"

They walked ahead to the Blue Room. Alys did not follow at once. Illyan was looking after Aral as he strode off, a crooked smile on his face.

"That's going to be gold for him now, politically speaking," he said to Alys. "Those Komarrans will eat out of his hand, after that."

His jacket was still askew from his dive to the floor. Alys reached out and straightened it for him, smoothing out the wrinkles on his sleeve, and he focussed on her, coming off the adrenalin-high of the past few minutes.

"Alys. Without you--" His hand covered hers on his sleeve, then closed around her fingers. His skin was cool to the touch, and she realised she was shaking slightly with reaction. Illyan stepped close to her, and Alys felt her lips part, and knew that if he moved another inch, she would kiss him again and it would not be a sham.

But instead he lifted her right hand to his lips. His breath was warm. He pressed his lips to the back of her hand and held her there for a moment too long, then abruptly released her and stepped back. "I must get on. Interrogations await. My lady, you were magnificent."

He turned and strode for the door. Alys watched him go, and said quietly, "So were you, Captain," before following Aral. As she walked through the doorway, she realised she was covering the back of her right hand with her left, and quickly pulled them apart. There was still work ahead tonight.