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Winterfair Interlude

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The party was boring. At least, as boring as a party at the Betan Embassy could ever be, but it was the tail-end of the Winterfair season and all the good gossip had been chewed to death, and this wasn't even a major event. But the Betan Ambassador was celebrating his sixtieth birthday, and it was only polite to go along to the celebration. Alys held her glass of rather poor champagne and smiled and listened to the Ambassador's partner--not his wife, she had been given to understand at some length when they had first arrived on Barrayar--talk about her plans for their skiing holiday in the Black Escarpment next week.

"... never going to get over the sight of snow. And the cold! Though you can make it surprisingly comfortable with the right equipment..."

Cordelia was much less obnoxious about it these days, but the Betan-discovers-Barrayar story was sufficiently familiar to Alys that she could let it wash over her and make appropriate responses without needing to think about it. She scanned the room. Aral and Cordelia had found each other again after working the party separately, evidently not seeing any reason to make too much effort at this event, and Alys couldn't blame them. The scattering of other Barrayaran guests were looking variously pained or amused by their Betan hosts. She saw Count Vorhalas looking particularly blank and wondered why he'd even accepted the invitation. Illyan was propping up the wall and frowning impartially at everyone; having been on the receiving end of a muted but clearly frustrated rant about Betan security practices, Alys thought she knew what was going through his mind.

The Ambassador came over to join them, and again Alys was grateful for Cordelia, because she could smile serenely as they engaged in far more touching than she considered decent between even a married couple in public. The conversation turned to the Winterfair social season and future plans, and Alys took care not to show that she found this more interesting than the previous topic. She didn't have much longer of this party to survive in any case.

That was when there was a sudden loud explosion, a window blew in in a shower of glass, and a nerve disruptor beam seared across the room. The Ambassador screamed. Alys flung herself to the floor behind an armchair, poor cover but the nearest she could see, and then couldn't move, her blood seeming frozen in her veins after the first instinctive urge to hide had passed. The room was full of shouts and crashes and dust. Some Betan security personnel rushed in and grabbed the Ambassador and his partner, nearly trampling on Alys in the process; she tried to force herself up to follow them, but another nerve disruptor beam hissed nearby and she couldn't make her legs bear her weight. Turning her head, she saw Illyan shoving Aral and Cordelia towards another exit where a group of ImpSec agents surrounded them, then wheeling back to tackle one of the intruders out of her field of view.

Calm, she told herself as forcefully as she could. Think. Think. There was a door there... she could reach it if she went now... her whole body was reluctant to move, as if the gravity was doubled, but she got up into a crouch--and someone grabbed her by the hair from behind.

This time, she screamed. The bell-muzzle of a nerve disruptor pressed into her back, and her voice died in her throat, the pain swallowed up in pure terror. Her lips moved on a word, Padma, but she made no sound. Her vision seemed to narrow so that she could see nothing but the man now beside her. He was wearing the same dark outfit all the servitors here were wearing. That must have been how he'd got in. She abruptly remembered one of Illyan's many complaints, that the Betans relied too heavily on technological protections rather than human guards, and faking an identity to a machine was sometimes easier than to a person.

"Move," the man growled to her, and she found she could walk now, too late. Across the room she saw Illyan clubbed to the floor by two more attackers and lie motionless, but she was unable to feel any more terrified than she already was. She was pressed face-first to the wall, and could see only the green and grey leaf pattern on the paper the Betans had chosen for this room. It wasn't what she would have chosen, but Betans loved trees and plants in their decor. Her legs were weak, her heart racing, and she had no idea what was happening around her. Even her hearing seemed dulled, the heavy breathing of the man behind her drowning out all other sounds.

It felt like years she stood there, but then the man behind her moved away and she realised that it was quiet now, the only remaining noises distant. She turned her head fractionally, and when nothing happened, dared to look around. The room was sealed off, and most of the guests had escaped. Beside her Count and Countess Vorhalas stood, also prisoners, and just starting to look around in shock. There was a man watching them with his nerve disruptor held tightly, but not pointed at them, and two others standing by the door.

Looking further, Alys saw four motionless bodies on the floor: one of the attackers, one Betan security guard, one in ImpSec uniform, and--Alys forced herself to look impartially at them all--one man in drab civvies. Captain Illyan.

"Are you hurt, my lady?" Vorhalas asked her, moving cautiously closer, watching the guard. He didn't move. It seemed they were hostages, but would not be immediately killed.

She blinked at Vorhalas and said finally, "I don't think so."

By the door, one of the attackers was now speaking to someone on the other side. Negotiating, Alys supposed. Perhaps she and the Vorhalases would be traded for these men's escape, and ImpSec would track them down later.

The thought of ImpSec made her look back at Illyan, and she felt a sudden surge of hope, for Illyan's eyes were open and he was gazing around the room, assessing. He would help. So long as none of the men noticed him. Alys sniffed, covered her face with her hands, and began to sob noisily and distractingly. The guard glared at her. "Quit it, Vor bitch," he said.

Count Vorhalas looked at her with a mixture of pity and annoyance, but moved forward, between her and the guard. "Have courage, my lady," he said in a faintly patronising voice, and Alys had to choke back a snort. But it was better if he didn't notice Illyan either. She watched through her fingers, sniffing. Illyan rolled slowly onto his side, then went still, the colour draining from his face, and his eyes closed again, and Alys saw the pool of blood beneath him. She gave a real sob then, as her raised hopes were thrown down in ruins.

There would be no rescue from him, no bold and cunning ImpSec plan to save the day. He would need rescuing too, and quickly, before that pool of blood became a lake. They couldn't afford to stand around while the negotiators wore their kidnappers down, but she daren't go over and help him and let the kidnappers know he was alive at all.

"All right, move. Get over here, away from the windows," their guard said, waving his nerve disruptor at them. Alys flinched.

Her gaze fell back on Illyan. There was blood was staining the white collar of his shirt. He'd never get that out, Alys found herself thinking, that shirt was ruined now. Her eyes continued their survey, and the idea dropped into her mind as soundlessly as a feather falling. She didn't let herself consider it too hard lest the paralysing fear return. It was just ... there. She continued to cry as she moved in the indicated direction, tripping on her jewelled heels as if she'd never worn them before, as if she couldn't dance a mazurka backwards in them half-drunk, letting herself fall a little behind the Vorhalases. Then she stumbled and fell almost directly across Illyan, never taking her eyes off the goal.

The stunner came loose from his well-oiled holster in an instant, and she rolled over and took aim at the nearest guard, who was just starting to say, "Hey, there, what--"

She fired, and it was just like shooting pheasants on her father's estate. He fell. Illyan moved suddenly, as if he'd been waiting for this, and began to pull out his nerve disruptor. Alys fired a second time just as he got off a shot at the third man, and they were all down.

Illyan fell back, dropping the nerve disruptor, and Alys just managed to catch his head before it struck the floor. She shifted sideways so that his head was in her lap, feeling entirely unequal to standing. The fear had returned now, late, and her body was shaking in waves.

"That was perfect," Illyan said hoarsely. "Are you all right?"

The irony of that question squeezed a lunatic giggle from her throat. She tried to choke it back, but it emerged as a sob instead, and Illyan raised a hand with difficulty to grasp her arm.

"It's all right. First combat experience. You'll be fine."

His grip was too weak. Alys pulled herself together, blinking rapidly and giving her head a little shake. "I'm fine," she echoed a bit mechanically. "Don't try to move." She could see where he was bleeding now, and with hands that only trembled a little, she pulled off her silk scarf, folded it into a pad and pressed it against his side. He turned a few shades whiter, but his eyes stayed open.

"Comm link," he whispered. "Call. Tell them it's over."

Alys unfastened the comm from his wrist, then realised that the Vorhalases were standing over them. She passed the link up to Count Vorhalas. The blood was already soaking through her scarf and onto the palm of her hand. She pressed harder.

Count Vorhalas began to speak into the comm while the Countess, perhaps more practically, went over to the door and pulled it open. And was nearly shot by two ImpSec marksmen. There was a lot of shouting, and Illyan tried to prop himself on one elbow to take a look. Alys pressed him flat again, and was dismayed by how easy it is. "Stay still," she said. "It's all fine now."

A few moments later and ImpSec officers, Betan security personnel and medics were streaming into the room, descending on the motionless bodies of the kidnappers, on the Vorhalases, on Alys and Illyan. She gave way reluctantly to let the medics take over, and within moments they were lifting him onto a grav-stretcher and starting treatment. He turned his head to face her, frustrating their efforts to administer oxygen.

"Your victory, my lady," he said, and his hand twitched as if in salute. She smiled then. The medics were surrounding her now with questions and fuss, but she didn't respond or look away from Illyan until he was out of the room.