It was 3 AM when the comconsole chimed. Miles woke immediately, but it took him an instant to realize why. Since the twins were born, calls were screened downstairs before they were passed on up to him by the staff. Only ImpSec and the Emperor himself had direct access at all hours. His stomach plunged.
Beside him, Ekaterin stirred. "Mmm?" she said muzzily.
"Stay in bed," he told her, sliding to the floor and pulling on a robe. She did as he suggested, but sat up, pulling the sheet up around her. Her hair was sleep-mussed, her eyes foggy with fatigue. Miles took a seat at the comconsole, took a breath to center himself, and keyed it on.
Gregor's face materialized, tense and gray and very, very grim. He did not waste time with preliminaries. "Vorhovis was just killed by a sniper in Vorgarin's Landing. Pack a bag and be at the Residence in thirty minutes."
A hole opened in the pit of Miles's stomach, but he didn't waste time with questions. "Yes, sire," he said. The image winked out.
Miles wasted thirty seconds of that half hour staring at the blank space from which Gregor had just spoken to him. Then he keyed the console on again. Pym's face appeared almost instantly. "My lord?" he said.
"Wake Roic," Miles instructed, "and tell him to get a bag together and meet me in the portico in ten minutes ready to travel. Call for a car, and get someone up here to get a bag together. I need to be at the Imperial Residence in --" His eyes flicked to the clock in the corner of the console, "twenty-nine minutes. I need to handle some personal matters."
"Yes, my lord." Pym's expression was tense, but his voice was perfectly level. Miles killed the connection and turned in his chair. Ekaterin, sitting on the edge of the bed, no longer looked at all tired. Her eyes were wide. They met Miles's, and he instantly felt the tension drop several notches.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I don't know how long this will take, but I'm going to be in it for the duration. I'll go say goodbye to the twins. Can you stay and help them get my bags together?"
"Of course," she replied. "And of course you do. Will you be able to call home?"
"Every few days, at least," Miles said. "I'll try to make it every day, to talk to Aral and Helen. I can't make any promises."
"I know." She reached out her hands, and he caught them in his own, placing a kiss on each of them. "You'll miss the birthdays?"
"Probably," he admitted. "Do something fun with them, and I'll set aside a few days when this is all over."
She nodded silently, then tugged on his hand. He let himself be drawn a step closer, and she leaned in to touch her mouth to his. "Be careful, Miles," she said.
"I will." But that was the only allusion to the danger they would let themselves make, and he released her hands, sketched a brief bow, and turned to leave the room. On his way down the hall, he passed the servant coming to handle his packing.
Aral and Helen's room was two doors down from his. He keyed it open with a touch, stepping into the soft glow of their night lamps. The new beds, bought for their second birthdays, were empty against the nursery wall. Aral and Helen lay tangled together in their crib, Helen's thumb in her mouth, fast asleep.
For several seconds, Miles just looked down at them, his heart too full for action or breath. He felt the tears pricking at the backs of his eyes, and wasn't sure where they came from. He needed to come in here more, he thought, to watch these secret sleepy moments. There were not infinite opportunities, though it sometimes seemed the days could go on forever. Seize the moment, he told himself silently. This moment, alas, was not his to seize.
He reached through the side of the crib to touch Helen's tangle of auburn hair. "Helen," he murmured to her. "Helen, lovie, wake up." She stirred under his touch, blinked, and let out a quiet sound that was almost a whimper. "Helen," he repeated, and she turned toward his voice, her sleepy disorientation turning to a groggy recognition.
"Da?" she said. Her motion inevitably woke Aral, as well, who clawed his way out of sleep faster and more violently, popping upright in the crib. "Hi!" he said brightly, pushing to stand up by the crib rail. "Play jump!" he demanded.
"It's not morning yet," Miles told them, his voice low and soothing. "I have to go work. I want to say goodbye before I go."
"Jump!" Aral said again. "Jump jump jump!"
Miles leaned down to lift Helen, almost too heavy for him, and rested his cheek against Aral's dark head. "We don't have time to play jump right now," he said. "I'm sorry. I love you both very much."
Helen's fingers, tangling around his neck, felt sticky and warm. Aral's head was soft and smelled of the shampoo Ekaterin bought for them. "Story, da?" Helen asked.
"Jump!" Aral put in.
Miles checked his chrono. "One jump," he relented. "Then a short story. Then back to bed."
"Two jumps!" Aral countered.
"Two jumps," Miles agreed.
"Two jumps." Miles's voice was firm.
Aral scrunched up his face. Miles put Helen down on the floor, then reached out to his son, who grabbed his arms gleefully. A heft, a swing, and Aral was standing on the chair. "One," Miles said, "two... three...."
"JUMP!" Aral shrieked as Miles swung him up, reflecting guiltily that Ekaterin would probably not approve of this as a 3 AM goodbye ritual. Back down onto the chair Aral went, as Helen watched with her thumb back in her mouth.
"One, two, three..." And up went Aral again, laughing with hysterical glee.
The story was too short, as Miles sat with his children on his knees, cuddled in against his shoulders. This little slice of happiness could not last forever, no matter how much he wanted it to. Four minutes, five, and then he had to place kisses on two small foreheads and swing them back into their crib, where they blinked uncomprehendingly up at his affectionate goodbyes. They did not cry when he left, though he suspected tears would come soon after, as they sat in confused wakefulness after their nighttime interruption.
He stopped back in the room to do a survey and decide whether to grab any last items. "Your bags are downstairs already," she told him. She was up and dressed, ready for a day that was starting much too early.
"I'm sorry about this," he told her.
"I know," she replied. "It's nothing either of us would change if we could, Miles. Don't apologize for it." Her words were quiet and calm. He drew that calm into him, like a warming blanket. Seconds ticked away while they stood there. "I'll tell everyone in the morning," she said. "Go."
He went. Roic was waiting in the portico as ordered, looking more alert than he doubtless felt. He came to attention as Miles emerged, greeting him with a crisp, "M'lord." Pym himself was driving, already in the cab and ready to go.
Miles nodded a response and moved to the groundcar, whose door Roic opened smoothly for him. He climbed inside and looked out the far window as Roic shut the door between him and his home.
It wasn't until they were out of the driveway and past Ekaterin's garden that Miles began to really process the news. Vorhovis was dead. He thought of the lean, analytical Auditor, whose style he had sought to emulate early in his career, and could not quite emotionally wrench the man out of his universe. He suspected the upcoming briefing would have raw data enough to underscore the man's death.
Vorhovis had been married. His wife – his widow – probably didn't have the news yet. He imagined Ekaterin, in that moment, sleeping peacefully while the Empire's power moved in the night to avenge his own death. He did not think, in the end, she would thank the Empire for those extra hours of uninterrupted sleep. No doubt Madam Vorhovis would be equally unappreciative. At least their children were grown and out of the home, old enough to give comfort as well as need it.
He didn't know much about Vorhovis's case. It was a financial investigation, he knew, into an Empire-run mining base on South Continent. Some numbers not lining up somewhere. A financial investigation given the run-around. They hadn't discussed it much as a group, because the matter seemed relatively simple, as these investigations went.
Had anyone suspected more than pure financial crime? The murder of Lord Auditor Vorhovis certainly suggested a deeper plot than was visible on the surface, but Miles couldn't begin to guess what it might be. Devoid of any raw data at all, his mind chewed over the possibilities, unknowable and innumerable, as the groundcar made its stately way through the dark streets of Vorbarr Sultana.
It was not a long drive to the Imperial Residence when there was no traffic to interfere. They made the thirty-minute deadline with six minutes to spare, and Miles was greeted at the gate by a Vorbarra armsman. "They're meeting in the Emperor's office, my lord Auditor," the man said.
Miles nodded an acknowledgment before turning to Roic. "Unload the bags and stay here with them," he said. "We'll either be only a few minutes or several hours, depending on whether we're getting the briefing here or on the way. If I'm gone more than half an hour, have someone bring you something to eat."
"Yes, m'lord," Roic answered.
Miles turned to glance in the cab of the groundcar, where Pym sat with deceptive stillness. "Bring the car home," he instructed. "You're seconded to Ekaterin and the children until I get home. Take care of them for me."
"Of course, m'lord," Pym answered. "Good luck."
"Thank you." Miles worked his jaw for a moment, trying to think if there was anything he'd forgotten. Finally, he shook his head and turned to the waiting Vorbarra armsman. At his quick nod, the man led the way into the night-quiet building.