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Light and genteel laughter spilled out of the foyer. A large group of Barrayar's high society had just arrived, clustering in small groups as they waited to be greeted by the Emperor. Ivan hesitated on the edge of the group, mind racing in circles as he scanned the crowd. He resisted the urge to rub at the spreading patches of red on his hands. I don't want anything to do with this.

He didn't leave, though.

There. Lady Emmaline Vorville was waiting patiently on the outskirts of the Emperor's circle as Gregor spoke to Deret Morganhauser, the Ambassador from Escobar. Gregor had his polite social face firmly on, but Ivan could read the boredom underneath. This was the third dinner in a week, and not even a particularly important one, being held in honor of the Vor Flower Society's annual show. The society ladies had been invited back to the Imperial Residence and the winning plants were arranged decoratively against the far wall of the reception room. They paled in comparison to even the most run-of-the-mill plants at the Cetagandan flower show Ivan’d once attended-- Barrayar did not go in for genetic engineering-- but for their little backwards planet it was quite an impressive display, if you were into that sort of thing. (Ivan wasn’t; he had a perfectly natural aversion to things that made him itch and sneeze, thanks very much.)

Since this was an informal event there wasn't a receiving line as such, but there was nonetheless a certain order to these things, and after a lifetime as his mother's son Ivan could read it easily as breathing. Lady Emmaline and her party were up next. She was standing with her hands clasped carefully in front of her, not quite touching the fabric of her dress.

This isn't my job. Ivan bit his lip, then started forward anyways.

As he pressed forward, Ivan spotted ImpSec stationed around the room, indistinguishable from any other Barrayaran military officers except for the Eyes on their collars. The waitstaff was on loan to the Residence as well, of course. Allegre was nowhere in sight though, and while the men were paying attention to the crowd none of them looked particularly worried or overly focused. Even Gregor, who had long-ago mastered a look of focused attention under all circumstances, was beginning to radiate boredom. None of them had any idea something was amiss. Ivan’s heart, already pounding swiftly in his chest, kicked up a notch. He'd been hoping someone else would have identified the problem by now. How was it that he was the only one who'd noticed? It was ridiculous.

He hesitated briefly. Every instinct was telling to just bring the matter discreetly to ImpSec's attention and let them take it from there-- no point in getting himself too involved in anything that was liable to be troublesome.

There wasn't any time, though. Ambassador Morganhauser was just finishing up his discussion with Gregor, using the reception to get some business done, and Lady Emmaline and her party were getting ready to step up in his place. In the time it would take for Ivan to explain what was going on and convince ImpSec he wasn’t crazy, Gregor would have met with her and been exposed to... whatever substance she was covered in. He looked down at the growing blotchy area of red hives on his hands. They weren't too bad yet, but Ivan knew from a number of (mis)adventures in their youth that Gregor had always been more sensitive to that sort of thing than Ivan was.

Sometimes, he reflected, it was difficult being the dim-witted cousin; if Miles had been the one to leap forward, screaming about allergens, he would have been taken seriously. But Miles, the lucky bastard, had been dispatched to take care of Auditorial business on the South Continent, far away from this mess. In any case, Ivan didn’t want to scare off his suspect. Or more importantly, draw attention to himself. So instead he sauntered as fast as he could manage, and did his best to be invisible.  

His timing was perfect; Ivan slid himself deftly into a spot at Gregor's right just as Gregor turned away from the Ambassador. The Armsman on Gregor's left eyed him, but– recognizing him as a known party– didn't interfere.  

Lady Emmaline, on the verge of stepping up, retreated to her previous position among her party with no more than a politely concealed flicker of disappointment, which to the unsuspecting eye could have been easily dismissed as desire to meet the Emperor (which as low Vor she would not often have the chance to do). Ivan, eyeing her discreetly, was reluctantly impressed by her ability to remain calm. Then again, she had no reason to think her plan had been discovered.

"Ivan." Was that surprise on Gregor’s face, surfacing from underneath the boredom?

"Sire. Could we speak for a moment?" Ivan kept a blandly pleasant expression on his face to make it look as if he was just making a casual comment or two about the party, but he pitched his voice so that it carried to Gregor's ears and no further. Nothing to see here, he projected to the rest of the world with all his might. Just that idiot Ivan. Move along.

"Is this really the best time?" Gregor asked just as quietly, a touch of irritation surfacing as he eyed the number of people he still had yet to greet. Even this few seconds worth of an interruption had sent ripples through the carefully choreographed order of the evening; barely noticeable now, but much longer and the planned course of the evening would begin to go off the rails entirely. Ivan could see his mother glancing at him from across the room. Not doing anything so gauche as glaring, but there was exasperation there, oh yes. He winced internally, but pressed on.

"I'm afraid so, Sire," Ivan said, and shrugged, hands spread deliberately outward. The raised and reddened skin there caught Gregor's eye, as Ivan had known it would, and his gaze when it came back to meet Ivan's was sharp. His expression and posture, however, retained their characteristic neutrality.

"Very well," he said, and nodded to his guards, who politely but swiftly made a path for him in the crowd. "Excuse me," he said generally to the rest of his waiting guests, and swept off. No apologies or explanations necessary. He was the Emperor, after all.

Ivan casually tucked his hands back into his pockets and followed behind, resisting the desperate and growing urge to scratch his palms. If he started now he would never stop.

They ended up in one of the small receiving rooms just off the main hall. Gregor hiked himself up onto the edge of a table, leg swinging impatiently. His two Armsmen took up positions on either side of the door, staring impassively off into space but somehow also managing to project an aura of generalized menace.  

"Alright Ivan, what's this about then?" 

Ivan took a breath. "You should avoid touching Lady Emmaline's hands," he said, flatly. "Or any other part of her, for that matter." He tilted his head to the side in consideration. "Possibly also arrest her."

Gregor's Armsmen shifted, looking suddenly much more alert. Gregor's eyebrow ticked upwards; Ivan could feel the sudden full weight of his interest. Gregor did not appreciate being told what he ought to do. Ivan swallowed, throat tight, but met his gaze; he might not be Miles, but he'd experience enough to spot a plot when he saw one. Some of that must have shown in his face, because Gregor's irritation softened. "And what makes you say that?"

Ivan rolled his sleeves up, letting Gregor get a better look at the raised and red skin on his hands, which had spread even in the short span of time since they'd come in the side room. "I'm allergic to bloodflower," he said. "If I recall some of our childhood escapades correctly, you are too. She's absolutely slathered in the stuff."

Gregor frowned. "She brought one as a gift tonight, I believe, to be planted in the gardens. She must have touched it when she brought it in." One of the few legitimately beautiful native Barrayaran plants, the bloodflower she'd brought had been a particularly fine specimen, trimmed and curled into an elegant spray of white flowers contrasted against the brilliant red leaves that leant the plant its name. "Unfortunate, certainly, and the warning is appreciated, but it's hardly something to arrest her for." The tilt of his head implied he thought Ivan was being dramatic on purpose.

Ivan shook his head, suppressing irritation; dammit, Gregor knew he hated getting involved in these things, he wouldn't do it for fun. "I touched barely the tips of her fingers in greeting when we passed each other in the hallway on the way in. I get an allergy booster for this stuff every year; my last one was less than a month ago. There's no way I should be reacting at all from that little contact, much less this badly."

Gregor took another look at Ivan's hands, especially the fingers on his right hand, where the irritation was strongest, and his expression turned considering. His hand hovered as if about to touch for a moment before falling back to his side. "I remember when you were six and you fell into that bloodflower plant--"

"Miles tricked me into it, you mean," Ivan muttered.

"--you had a good case of hives, but even then I don't remember them being that bad. And that was direct contact with the plant itself." His frown deepened. He turned to look over his shoulder and said to his Armsmen, “Call a doctor, if you please. Discretely.”

Ivan felt his shoulders relax now that Gregor was taking the situation seriously. "Yeah, exactly." The itching was absolutely incessant; Ivan gave in and began scratching. The relief was blissful, if only for a moment.

Gregor pulled a reader out of his pocket and began scrolling through something. "Ahah," he muttered to himself. "Now that you mention it, my booster is due soon. Coming up in less than a week, in fact. Which means the efficacy of the last shot’s probably wearing off. Interesting timing." His head tilted in contemplation, calculations going on behind those dark eyes. "Assassination attempt, do you think?" He seemed more curious than alarmed by the possibility.

His Armsmen, on the other hand, had been growing more and more apoplectic as the conversation went on. One of them had his hand to his mouth as he murmured quiet instructions into his wristcom. The other stepped forward, saying, “Sire-- you should step back, if he’s been exposed.”

Gregor flicked a hand dismissively. “It’s not airborne or I would have been affected already. I’ll be fine as long as I don’t touch him.”

Sire,” the man protested.

“Gerard,” Gregor said, with a pointed look. Gerard subsided unwillingly, though he hovered close by, as if about to leap upon Gregor and drag him away.

"It… doesn't seem like a very good method," Ivan said, in response to Gregor’s earlier question. "Modern antihistamines are incredibly effective, if administered soon enough after exposure." Speaking of which, he could go for some of those himself. He unbuttoned his shirt at the cuffs to better scratch. The cool air on the skin helped-- it was awfully warm in this room, and he'd started to sweat. He was somewhat disturbed to realize that underneath the cloth, his arms were red up to the elbow.

Gregor looked Ivan up and down, and his eyebrows drew down. But all he said, mildly, was, "Do stop scratching, Ivan. You're going to break the skin." He continued, "There's something to be said for a method that can get past the sniffers. They would have been set to let the plant through, and may not have registered that the levels were excessively high." He paused, swinging his leg against the table. "And even if the assassination attempt hadn't succeeded-- or if it had, and I’d needed to be cryo-revived-- the treatment does leave you weak and exhausted for a few days after," he mused. "I can think of many who would benefit even from my temporary incapacitation. Of course, the question then becomes-- how did she find out I was allergic in the first place?"

Ivan shrugged; some things were beyond him, and for that matter he had no desire to speculate. Dealing with conspiracies was ImpSec work, far above his paygrade.

Gregor turned to his Armsman. “Was it Dr. Argyros on duty?”

“No, this time of the evening it’s Dr. Vorgarin.”

“Get Dr. Argyros instead. Have ImpSec re-do the security check on everyone else, just in case.” He added for Ivan’s benefit, “She’s my primary physician; she’s been with me since I was ten. If there is a leak somewhere, it’s not from her. ”

“It’ll be a few more minutes before she gets here.”

Gregor eyed Ivan consideringly. “Think you’ll be alright until then?”

Distracted by a sudden thought, Ivan said, “Huh? Oh, sure. It’s irritating, not deathly. Say-- you know what's also coming up soon?"

Gregor cocked his head. "What?"

"Mariam Vornelson's trial."

Gregor's eyebrows went up. He would be well familiar with the case-- he was, in fact, slated to preside over it himself, two days hence. A woman standing trial before the Emperor was a rarity, but so was Mariam Vornelson's crime. As a member of the Imperial Household Staff, in charge of managing the artwork collection, she had over the course of her last two years in service embezzled near five million marks. When her crime had been discovered and the municipal guards had come to arrest her, she'd pulled an unlicensed stunner. It'd only been the guardsman sitting in a groundcar outside as backup who'd kept her from disappearing into the night. Due to the severity of her crime, and her status as member of his household, Gregor had chosen to sit in judgement himself at her trial. It would likely be short. The evidence was extensive.

Mariam Vornelson also happened to be Lady Emmaline Vorville's third cousin, through the maternal line.

"I knew they were related, but I wasn't aware they were so close," Gregor said.

"Madame Vornelson spent summers growing up at the Vorville's, as I understand it, until their parents had a falling out a few years back," Ivan said. At Gregor's look, he added, sheepishly, "I went on a date or two with Lady Vorville's younger sister Adelle. Had the whole story from her." His voice came out hoarse; he cleared his throat, which didn't seem to help.  

"A falling out over what?"

"I gather the Vornelsons and the Vorvilles disapproved of their daughters' association during their youth."

"'Disapproved of the association'... oh ." Gregor's brows rose as the implications dawned. "I hadn't heard that one. Sometimes your unique knowledge set does come in unexpectedly handy, Ivan," he added, dark eyes lighting briefly with amusement.

Ivan snorted. Huh, and that was the thanks it got him. "Information is information, no matter the source," he said primly.

"Yes, I’ve heard much the same from your lady mother," Gregor said. Ivan cringed in full-bodied horror.

Gregor continued, "Lady Vorville must think Madame Vornelson might escape punishment in the chaos of an assassination attempt." He was silent for a moment, thinking. Then he turned to his Armsmen and nodded. "Arrest her, please," he ordered. "Quietly. No need to set up a fuss.”  

Relieved to finally be doing something, both his Armsmen sprang into action, one speaking through his wristcom to the rest of the guards scattered throughout the castle, the other going to the door to talk to the other guards there. For a moment, both Gregor and Ivan, if not truly alone, had some semblance of privacy.

Gregor took the opportunity to take another long look at Ivan; his mouth drew down in a deep frown. “Are you quite sure you’re alright?”

Ivan cleared his throat again. “Um,” he said. His skin felt like it was on fire, and his heart was pounding. The sensation of needing to clear his throat wasn't going away. In fact his throat felt disturbingly tight. Swelling of the throat was a symptom of an allergic reaction, wasn't it? He thought he remembered that from a long-ago lecture by some doctor, when he'd first started getting the shots. He was starting to wish he'd paid a little more attention.

Gregor slid off the table, landing with a thump. "Your face is turning rather red. I think maybe you ought to sit down," he said, approaching. His concern was real now. He herded Ivan back into one of the room's decoratively ornate chairs, and when Ivan tried to resist, Gregor insisted. Ivan slid into the chair, legs rather weaker than he'd expected.

Gregor leaned down in front of him, peering at him worriedly. He reached for Ivan's wrist-- thought better of it. The Armsmen by the door were still busy coordinating the arrest and had missed this little drama. Gregor turned his head and snapped, “Gerard, over here please. Check his pulse. Alexey, get Dr. Argyros in here now.”

Gerard’s fingers were cool on his skin. Ivan could feel his heartbeat pounding under the pressure of his fingertips.

“Having trouble breathing?” Gregor asked. He seemed calm but it seemed more clinical detachment than lack of worry, which paradoxically made Ivan panic more.

"Yeah," Ivan managed. His breath was coming in thick rasps now. His lungs strained to pull in air past his swelling throat. How had it gotten this bad this fast? He'd been fine only a minute ago. Now each breath was a fight.

Something caught in his throat, and he started to cough.

He could hear the Armsmen calling for a doctor, driven into action by the urgency in Gregor's voice. There was a whole medical division stationed around the Residence for emergencies; it shouldn't be more than a minute or two before they arrived. Ivan could hold his breath for two minutes; or at least he'd been able to back in training. Surely that would be plenty of time.

What they didn't tell you in training was how long two minutes could feel, subjectively. The world spun around him, and he abruptly found himself on his knees on the floor, curled around his stomach as he tried desperately to breathe. He couldn't stop coughing. Air whistled thinly in and out of his throat. His vision was going gray and fuzzy. Gregor was kneeling next to him patting him on the back and saying in a tight, strained voice that Ivan had never heard before, "Come on, Ivan, just breathe. You're fine, just breathe, in and out, like that--"

"Get him on his back," one of Gregor's Armsmen said, and then there were hands on him, pushing him back. He went with them, unable to fight even if he'd wanted to, and someone was shoving a chair under his feet-- what good was that supposed to do? he wondered muzzily.

“His lips are turning blue,” Gregor said. He’d latched onto Ivan’s upper arm and was squeezing.

Ivan tried to take another breath. Tried and failed. Tried and failed again. Curled up off the floor with the effort. Not even the slightest bit of air came through. His throat was swollen completely shut.

Oh, fuck. This was such a stupid way to die. Miles at least had gotten to be shot by a needle grenade. Ivan? Taken out by a plant.

Typical.


***


Ivan woke up some time later. It was a bit of a shock.

His heart was pounding. His chest felt like someone had squeezed it in a vise and his head ached fiercely. But he could breathe again-- not easily, half-coughing on every exhale, but it was better than the utter lack that had come before.

He heard voices above him. One was a woman’s voice, and he had a brief moment of combined terror and embarrassment-- oh, shit, it’s m’mother -- before the world cleared a bit and he realized the voice was too low-pitched for that. Gregor’s physician?

“--blood pressure is still lower than I’d like,” she was saying. “Bump the synergine up 10cc, if you would.”

He felt cool hands on his shoulder. A familiar voice said, “I think he might be waking up--”

Ivan’s stomach lurched with sudden nausea and he twisted himself to the side just in time to throw up directly on what he was pretty certain were Gregor’s boots.

Upon reflection, passing out again seemed like a grand idea.

 

***

 

He was in and out after that. His mother was there, falling upon him with maternal fury and concern born of terror. He feigned unconsciousness until she went away-- made easier by this being basically the truth. After that he slipped for a while into a real, deep sleep.  

It was some time before he awoke again, and when he did it was to a quiet infirmary. Machines beeped softly somewhere in the background. He still hurt all over, in a distant, aching kind of way; his head throbbed, and the lights, when he opened his eyes, seemed to stab directly into his brain. But his breathing came almost easily now, and the relief at the steady rush of oxygen nearly made him dizzy.

He was still in the Residence, he realized as his eyes adjusted. Ornately carved ceilings arched far overhead and chandeliers lit the room. The usual gilded wallpaper, however, was blocked from view by the banks of machinery that lined the walls, enough to supply a small hospital. Ivan seemed to be hooked up to an unnerving number of them. An antique grandfather clock someone had shoved in the corner indicated it was an absurd hour of the morning. He'd been out for a while, then.

He turned his head, expecting-- his mother? Allegre, to quiz him about what had happened? Miles, even, though it hadn't been long enough for him to get back from the Southern Continent?

Instead, to his surprise, it was Gregor seated at his side, feet propped on the bed frame and tilted so he was balanced on the back two legs of his wooden chair. He was staring down at a reader with fixed expression and twirling a stylus back and forth between his fingers, so caught up in whatever he was reading he hadn't noticed Ivan waking up. He looked even more glum than usual, if that were possible, his lips pressed together and brows drawn down. He’d changed out of his clothes from the party and into something comfortable and nondescript, and he was wearing different footwear.

Ivan took a deep breath, coughed, and said with a voice that felt like speaking through ground glass, “Sorry about the boots.”

Gregor dropped forward, losing the stylus in the process. A series of expressions flashed across his face: surprise, then relief, then a touch of disgust as he processed Ivan’s words and remembered precisely what had happened to his boots. Finally he settled somewhere between relieved and irritated. It was much preferable, Ivan thought, to the depressed look of before.

“Ivan, you idiot,” Gregor said. Then the reader was abandoned on a side table and Ivan found himself engulfed in a tight hug.

“I just saved your life!” Ivan protested in automatic affront, face mashed into Gregor’s shoulder.

“And forgot to worry about your own in the process.” Gregor disengaged, holding him for a moment at arms length to look him over. “How are you feeling?”

Ivan took a deep breath, just because he could. “Alright, I guess. Jittery. Headache.” He coughed again on the exhale.

“That’s probably the oxygen deprivation. You stopped breathing for a few minutes, you know. You turned quite blue. Any longer and the doctors said you’d have permanent brain damage.” It was a sign of how worried Gregor had been that he passed over the obvious jokes. “Button to your right is painkillers, I gather.”

Ivan glanced around and located said button, though he refrained for the moment from using it; he liked to keep his wits about him (such as they were, Miles commented dryly in his head, apparently to make up for Gregor’s lack of humor.)

Another curiosity presented itself. The room was empty save for him and Gregor, though he’d lay money there was a bevy of Armsmen stationed just outside the door. He must have practically shoved them out. “Speaking of which: doctors? Or have you obtained a medical degree in all your spare time?” He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in a room alone with Gregor. Not since they were children, surely.

“Just the same military first aid classes you have, I’m afraid. Maybe an honorary one or two as well, though I’m afraid I don’t recall the details.” There was a pitcher or water by the bedside; Gregor filled a glass, holding it steady to ensure Ivan had proper hold on it before letting go. Ivan’s hands were still trembling ever so slightly. “I volunteered to watch over you for a few hours so Lady Alys could get some sleep. I am, of course, to call the doctors as soon as you’ve woken.” Gregor paused. “At which point they will contact your mother immediately to update her on your condition.”

Ivan coughed on a mouthful of water. “I’m sure there’s no hurry,” he said, wiping his mouth with his forearm.

“Mm. I had a feeling you’d say that.” Gregor eyed him. “She was quite worried when she found out, you know.” The so were we all was unspoken but understood. “It took quite a bit of persuasion to get her to go home.”

“I’m shocked you managed it at all.” Ivan remembered arching up off the floor, struggling to breathe. He shivered, and disguised it by taking a sip from the glass. The cool water was heavenly on his throat. “Surely you have things to be doing in the morning, though?” He glanced at the clock. Which was in… three hours.

Gregor waved his reader, showing a page full of dense text. “I’ve made a deal with my secretary. In exchange for clearing my morning tomorrow, I’ve promised to power through the next week of paperwork.”

Ivan… found himself actually quite touched by that. Gregor hated paperwork.

Gregor continued, “Besides, ImpSec is currently very busy tracking down the remaining threads of this conspiracy, and they’ve indicated they’d prefer if I would stay inside for a bit until that’s taken care of. Conveniently, this happens to be one of the most secure rooms in the Residence.”

Reminded, Ivan asked, “How did the arrest go?”

Gregor settled back into his chair. "I'm told it was quite exciting. Lady Emmaline ran as soon as she saw ImpSec coming for her. Nearly made it to the door before one of my Armsmen tackled her." He sighed. "She insists, of course, that she is completely innocent, and that she came in contact with the oil when she was transporting her plant. She had no idea that I was allergic."

Ivan snorted. "Which is why she ran."

"Ah, you see, it was one of the undercover ImpSec officers that was after her, so she thought it was a caterer coming to attack her. Even after he shouted 'Stop, I'm ImpSec' at her several times."

Ivan couldn’t help but laugh a little at that mental image. "She's awfully good at coming up with cover stories."

"Yes, well, she'll not be quite so clever once ImpSec has introduced her to fast-penta." Gregor’s mouth tightened, and he didn’t seem to see the humor in it.

“I s'pose.” Ivan coughed and shifted on the bed, trying to sit up; he was as weak as a kitten, dammit. Gregor was at his side immediately, helping him up and propping pillows behind Ivan's back. He even smoothed out the blanket. Bemused, Ivan let it happen.

Gregor dropped back into his chair, settling his own clothes back into place. "I've been thinking," he said, apropos of nothing. There was an unsettlingly pensive look on his face.

"I've been reliably informed by Miles that that's a dangerous thing to do," Ivan said, furrow forming between his brows.

"I think he just means that when you do it," Gregor said.

Ivan pressed a hand to his chest. “You wound me,” he declared.

Gregor barely repressed a roll of the eyes, which Ivan considered a victory. He continued, chin propped on his fist, “Traditionally, one is awarded the Hero of the Barrayaran Empire for saving the Emperor’s life.”

Augh,” Ivan said, awash with sudden horror.

“--However, due to the sensitivities inherent in my medical details, this case will be remaining classified.”

“Oh thank God.” Ivan fell back against his pillows, wilting in relief. Gregor regarded him with narrowed eyes.

“So the question becomes: what other reward is appropriate in this situation? A medal for being wounded in the Emperor’s Service, although accurate, seems a bit… underwhelming.” Gregor spread his hands to encompass the problem.

Ivan had a half-dozen in a drawer somewhere already, all Miles’s fault. One more would blend in quite nicely. “That seems perfectly fine,” he declared firmly.

Gregor sighed. "This is why it's so hard to buy you Winterfair presents," he said, a little peevishly.

Ivan paused. "Is that why I've gotten alcohol the last six years running, then? Not that it's not been very nice alcohol," he added, as Gregor's brows drew down. "Just a little, uh."

"Repetitive? Uninspired?" Gregor inserted, when Ivan couldn't figure out a way to finish the sentence. Ivan winced. “Yes, well.”

Just then there was a quiet knock at the door. Gregor raised an imperial eyebrow at Ivan and said, “Think on it,” before turning and calling, “Come.”

The door opened; General Allegre entered. Despite the hour, he was in undress greens, perfectly buttoned and starched, with a harried air about him. “Sire. Lord Vorpatril. I’m glad to see you’re feeling better.”

“We were just talking about the case.” Gregor waved Allegre to a seat. “Any updates?”

Allegre dragged the only spare chair over, some ridiculously ornate thing covered in gold leaf. “We’ve just finished the interview with Lady Emmaline,” he said. “It’s made a number of things rather clearer.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Gregor said. “How the hell did this one get missed, Guy? Shouldn’t it have come up during the Vornelson case?”

Allegre grimaced. "Unfortunately, Madame Vornelson is naturally allergic to fast-penta," he said, with a tilt of the eyebrow to acknowledge the irony. "As such, we've been having to run everything in her case down by hand. Not difficult, but tedious, and we hadn’t finished tracing all the threads yet. It hadn’t been a high priority, as there was already more than enough evidence to convict on. One of the pieces that had been missing in the case was how exactly the money she embezzled was being laundered; and as it turns out, Lady Emmaline is the treasurer for the Vor Flower Society."

Ivan whistled. "She managed to launder five million marks through it? I didn't realize they did so much business."

"They do a considerable amount; though not, it turns out, as much as had been thought. The Komarran business that constituted a significant portion of their profits was fake, a cover for the money being funneled from Madame Vornelson,” he said. “I gather that they intended to elope to Beta colony once they had enough to set themselves up a new life. Madame Vornelson’s arrest complicated that plan.”

Gregor gave a troubled sigh, drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair. “And the assassination plan? Who came up with that idea? And how?”

“Lady Emmaline-- and this is supported by testimony under fast-penta-- came up with the plan entirely on her own. For the record, it was not intended to be an assassination; she just wanted to make you ill. She bribed one of the Residence computer staff to hack into your medical records. And-- you’re not going to like this, Sire-- she’d bribed Vorkessler, who would have had the case in your absence, to let Madame Vornelson off with a light sentence.”

“Damn.” Gregor pressed his fingers to his forehead. “I assume you’ve arrested him as well?” Allegre nodded. “Good.” He sighed. “This case just keeps getting worse and worse.”  

“It’s ugly business. And we’d never have come across it if it weren’t for Lord Vorpatril. That was very nicely done. ImpSec owes you a great debt.” Allegre gave Ivan a very formal nod, almost a salute.

“It wasn’t like it was on purpose,” Ivan declared, hands up defensively. “If I hadn’t happened to run into Lady Emmaline in the hallway, I’d’ve never known.” He shivered, thinking of the consequences. She may not have intended it to be an assassination, but it could very well have had that effect.

“Yes, but it’s what you did with the information after you had it that made the difference,” Allegre said. “Most men wouldn’t have made the connection.”

“I’ve been trying to convince him to accept some kind of reward,” Gregor said. “He can’t seem to think of one. Any ideas?”

“How about a promotion?” Allegre suggested.

Ivan shuddered, headache starting to pound at his temples. “That’s almost worse. Majors have to actually do work. All I want is some peace and quiet, is that too much to ask for?”

“Even Miles asked for his captaincy, you know, after that whole mess with Illyan,” Gregor said. “Retroactive.”

“Perhaps it's escaped your Imperial attention, but I am not Miles.

"No. You're not." Gregor eyed him, puzzled. “Peace and quiet, huh? Well. I’ll come up with something. In the meantime-- thank you, Guy.”

Allegre stood; Gregor walked him to the door, and they stood conversing several minutes longer in the doorway with one of the Armsmen standing there. Ivan flopped back onto the bed, throwing an arm over his eyes. The conversation had exhausted him; he could feel sleep starting to pull him back under.

Gregor came back and pulled up his chair, balancing his feet on the frame. “Get some sleep, Ivan,” he said. “I’ll be here for a while longer yet.”

 

***

 

Two days later, Ivan arrived back home to his apartment, freshly released from the hospital, bearing bottles of medication and instructions from the doctor to avoid anything strenuous for at least a week. On his kitchen counter he found a dark, dusty bottle, freshly pulled up from a cellar somewhere. He checked the label and whistled. Now that was a good year.

Next to it was an envelope, addressed to him in familiar handwriting. He opened it and shook; an old-fashioned mechanical key fell into his hand. Frowning in puzzlement, he pulled out the card from within.

Ivan, it read,

This is a key to a vacation house on the east sea out in Vorbarra district. As far as I’m aware, neither Miles nor your lady mother know it exists. Enjoy your peace and quiet.

--Gregor

p.s. You owe me a new pair of boots.