Miles turned, slowly. He was truly grateful to Christos Vorrutyer. Dealing with this slime-on-legs had trained him to show no reaction, no matter what the provocation. Miles was sure that lesson would pay off in his future. And that was what school was for, wasn’t it… to learn. He’d learned as much outside the classroom as in it.
And just to prove his value in the scheme of things, Christos was also the perfect practice target, always available when Miles needed to learn new and even more devious ways of taking revenge. Look for the positives, Miles reminded himself, it was one of his mother’s favourite sayings. There’s always a positive. Or, as his father phrased it, look for your enemy’s weaknesses, and push.
“We’ve got just the job for you, Vorrrrkosigan.” It was Christos’s usual smirk.
Miles smiled sweetly, “Happy to help, Rooty. Now, try to remember it this time – your right is the hand you hold a stylus to write with. Right-write, remember? Well, in your case a crayon, but the principle still applies. And your left is the other hand. Would it help if we painted the letters on your shoes?”
There was a satisfyingly unmuffled series of snickers from the audience. And Christos wasn’t as good as Miles at hiding his feelings when he heard that reaction.
A point to Miles in their ongoing undeclared war.
The problem, Miles decided – well, one of the problems – was his year on Beta. At twelve, when they all started at this noble institute for the flower of the Vor, the reactions to his appearance had been… as he expected. It had taken a year to make them afraid to target him, and another year to start earning grudging respect. He was just beginning to actually enjoy the place when he’d gone off to have a year on Beta. Which had been wonderful, terrible, fulfilling, shattering and extremely educational.
And now he was back, and in his absence Christos Vorrutyer had appointed himself top dog.
Miles wasn’t going to be his chew toy.
Oddly, the thing that irritated Christos even more than being forced to breathe the same air as a mutie was that, shortly after his return home, this mutie had been named as Count Aral Vorkosigan’s heir. A Count’s Heir, in this virulently status-conscious little Vor tribe, outranked ordinary Vor. Even though, as Christos pointed out whenever he could, he was really almost practically a Count’s Heir himself – since Uncle Pierre wasn’t going to marry and produce a sprog now, and soon Christos’s father Richars would be Count, and Christos would be the Heir. Soon.
And in the meantime he could while away the time by making a certain mutie Count’s Heir miserable. Or trying to.
Christos shook his head and tried to get back on track, “Vorkosigan. We’ve chosen the play for this year. And there’s a perfect role for you.”
Miles waited, apparently calm and unruffled, as his mind raced. Every year the graduating class at the school performed a play, to prove that they weren’t completely uncultured louts. Since practically every other lesson was firmly aimed at the Academy entrance exam, the play was either a blessed ray of light or a total waste of time, depending on attitude. The students formed a committee each year and chose the play themselves. Casting, direction, staging – it was all their own responsibility. They could choose any play they wished, as long as it was Shakespeare.
Some years were more successful than others. Othello nearly caused a political incident when the lead was taken by Tirios Vorkopoulos, and the Count-his-father objected on racial grounds, claiming anti-Greek prejudice. In retrospect, the modern-day production of Merchant of Venice with Jean-Claud Vortienne as Shylock could have been thought through a little more carefully, too, especially as his father was a leading light in the notoriously touchy and somewhat paranoid French-speaking community. On the other hand Julius Caesar, updated to Mad Yuri’s reign, was quite a success. Romeo and Juliet was one of their best productions ever, although it did seem to have an unfortunate effect on the actor playing Juliet – but it was agreed that he’d always been a bit artistic. Macbeth, set during Vordarian’s rebellion, was also a hit with most of the audience, although there was some uncomfortable wriggling from audience members whose families had chosen the wrong side at the time. Hamlet was a daring production with the lead character rather too obviously representing a young Gregor Vorbarra and an Aral Vorkosigan look-alike as his uncle. There were serious discussions after that one, and a string of comedies instead of the great tragedies followed. Twelfth Night, Tam Lin, Much Ado About Nothing, Emperor Vlad’s New Bride and A Comedy of Errors followed triumphantly.
And now it was time to do it again. Ivan, watching from a not-quite-safe-enough distance, wondered idly how long it would take Christos Vorrutyer and his friends to realise just how massively vast their mistake had been. He wondered if he could make it to cover before Miles spotted him and dragged him into some devious plot. He wondered if the new maid really meant it when she winked at him, but that wasn’t related to the events he was watching, just a reminder that life might have something pleasant in store for him, possibly to make up for whatever suffering he was about to undergo.
Miles sighed dramatically, then smiled again, or at least showed all his teeth, “Now, Christos, what other help do you need? You want someone to read you all the long words in your colour-in book? Don’t tell me you spilled something on your readpad again, and stuffed up the verbal functions. Do you think your father could send you a waterproof one?”
Christos was enjoying this moment too much to be distracted. “Vorkosigan, you’re going to be a star. The star of our play. We’ve saved the best role for you.”
“If I’m Beatrice to your Benedick, I warn you now there’ll be no tongue when we’re kissing. You’re not my type.”
“Not even close. You’re going to be the king. King of the whole play. It’s even named after your character.”
Ivan could see the moment when Miles realised where this was going. He made a mental note to double-check that all the weapons used in the play were totally, unassailably fake. Murder on-stage, in front of all the parents, would make the play rather too realistic.
Miles froze for a moment, and then he smiled. Ivan shuffled a little further away, and started revising First Aid procedures in his mind. Miles took a step forward, and started bouncing up and down in apparent excitement, “Oh, wait – I have a wonderful idea! No, truly, this is way better than anything, I just know it! Please please can we do – this is just perfect – can we – especially if I’m going to be the star – can we do – you’re going to love this – it’s just perfect – this year we have to do Richard the Third!”
Miles bounced and smiled in thespian bliss. Ivan watched as Christos’s look of snide glee froze. Did he really think he could get ahead of Miles? The rest of the audience was just as ready to appreciate Christos as victim instead of Miles, and many of them were already grinning in appreciation, as Miles cut the ground out from under Christos’s flat feet.
“Now, Christie, I know you want to play Cordelia to my King Lear, although Ivan leers better than anyone, and personally I’ve always seen you as a Goneril, but this, it’s way better. No, really, and not an opportunity to lose. Richard the Third, it’s perfect – oh please say yes!”
Ivan winced at the overacting.
Christos gaped for a moment, struggling to deal with a victim who turned the situation on the attacker so smoothly.
Miles surveyed the assembled horde, and smiled sweetly, “Now, everyone, we need to get organised. Christos is the producer, so I’ll be the director as well as the st- main character. But there’s plenty of starring roles for everyone. Ivan, start writing this down. Cast list….”
Ivan sighed and dug a stylus and writepad out of his pockets.
And so it began.
Miles as director was imperious, abrasive, driven, coaxing, flamboyant, terrifying, and surprisingly effective. Miles as actor was without peer in the cast, he seemed to step naturally into the role and become a totally different person.
One of the Director’s decrees was that their efforts be kept a secret from outsiders – which in this case meant other students, staff, parents, and anyone else with more common sense than a bunch of hormone-crazed adolescents.
Rehearsals were organised as if they were drop-missions in enemy territory. Miles had memorised the whole play, to make it easier to direct and prompt his minions. He could also play every role, he’d perform the part and then coax, threaten and bewitch the bewildered actor into delivering the same performance.
Ivan flatly refused to play Lady Anne, or the Duchess of York, or any other female role. He avoided Edward IV and finally ended up as Henry Tudor, although he had a nagging sense that this might be a slight error of judgement. But that was a bit like complaining about a stubbed toe when you’d just broken your leg in five places, so he just learned his lines, doubled as Assistant Director and General Dogsbody to Miles, and watched the action with interest.
Christos had somehow ended up as the Duke of Clarence.
And so the play was learned, rehearsed, staged and finally, in front of the proud, assembled families – a large slice of High Vor society – performed.
It was agreed, later, that it was an excellent performance, on par with many professional companies. And the starring role was superbly cast and performed – Miles, as Richard III the bitter, ambitious hunchbacked usurper, was electrifying.
In fact, the brilliance of his performance was discussed at length, in a deadly-quiet voice, by Count Vorkosigan backstage after the show.
“What were you thinking?” Aral paced across the study as he asked the question yet again, too tense to sit still.
Simon Illyan stood grimly silent, leaning against the wall, arms folded. He could deliver serious threats just by standing and watching.
Cordelia sighed and surveyed her stressed menfolk. Barrayar – even a school play had political overtones.
Miles stood stiffly at attention, radiating outrage. “We did a good job – “
“Oh yes,“ Aral was frozen and still now, “In front of all the assembled High Vor parents you gave a brilliant performance of a younger brother who yearns for the throne. And who schemes and murders his way to get it. And then, when he fails, the throne goes to a distant cousin…” He swung around to survey Ivan, who had almost turned invisible by sheer willpower alone. “And extra veracity was added to the whole situation because the actor playing the ambitious younger brother actually IS the Emperor’s young foster-brother. And the distant cousin who ruled at the end is the cousin who has the next best claim on the throne. I’m sure that the whole of Vorbarr Sultana knows about your ambitious performance by now. You were very convincing. Setting it in modern times and using Barrayaran military uniforms just added the extra finishing touch.”
“An eloquent response to the situation.”
“What can I do?”
“To fix this? Nothing. Just go back to the rest of the cast and keep out of any more trouble. And let it all blow over.”
Miles hesitated, his urge to argue, to take action, warring with his ingrained obedience. Finally he nodded crisply and spun to march out of the room. Ivan scuttled along behind him. As they left Cordelia reached out to pat her son on the shoulder, “It was a brilliant performance, kiddo. A little too brilliant maybe, but you should never be ashamed of being good at something. Just… use your powers carefully, ok?”
Miles gave her a weak grin, nodded again, and headed out.
After a few moments Ivan chuckled. Miles glared at him, “You think this is funny?”
“I think it’s hilarious. You can even make Shakespeare a dangerous weapon.”
“Hmph… Oh sure – Don’t move, I have a bard and I’m not afraid to use him!”
“Look on the bright side – in a few weeks we do the entrance exams for the Academy, then we’ll be way too busy to get into any trouble. This was probably your last big disaster.”
“True.” Miles was already on the upward swing again.
“And you really were brilliant.”
“A whole new career opportunity – acting! I can pretend to be someone else whenever I get sick of being me.”
“That’s the spirit! And acting must be safer than the military, so there’s another plus.”
“It’s almost a pity I’m going to the Academy. The world of acting has lost out on a great talent.”
Ivan didn’t point out that the acting roles for an undertall actor were severely limited. Miles was marginally better when he was bouncy, egotistical and obnoxious than depressed, egotistical and obnoxious. “Maybe you’ll find a use for your skills. You could entertain your crewmates on long missions.”
Full of happy plans for the future, they went to find Christos and needle him for a while.
Everyone agreed that the school’s end of year performance was brilliant. And a little disturbing.
The Principal started toying with the idea of a nice musical next year.
When he'd calmed down, Aral got hold of a vid of the whole play (Impsec had, of course, recorded it all). He watched it again, three times, then sent a message of congratulations to Miles for his brilliant performance, and clever direction.
Miles glowed with triumph.
Christos was baffled to find that somehow he was no longer top dog. And due to a combination of missing notes, mysteriously lost assignments and poor grades, he didn’t make the cut for the Academy. He went to manage his father’s country estates instead, and settled down to wait for Uncle Pierre to die so that his father, and then Christos himself, would become Count Vorrutyer. A glorious future indeed.
Ivan bedded the housemaid.