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When the Reckoning Arrives

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It's like the disaster aboard the Prince Xav in a couple of ways. For one thing, it happens just as his shift is about to end; he's winding up his day's work and thinking about what he'll have for supper, whether to watch some holovids or pick up one of the books he's been meaning to read.

For another thing, at first it doesn't seem so bad. An ImpSec captain walks into the office where he works, and that's not so strange. Arkady's gotten used to ImpSec the way a soldier gets used to being surrounded by deadly weapons. He never exactly forgets what a danger they are, but they're everywhere and he has other things to worry about. The man who's just walked in comes over to Arkady's desk, and Arkady rises smoothly to his feet and salutes.

The ImpSec captain returns Arkady's salute, and before Arkady can offer to direct him to whichever officer he's looking for, he says, "Lieutenant Jole, I need you to come with me."

That's like the Prince Xav, too: the instant of perfect, undeniable realization. Arkady knows exactly how bad this is. He's drilled for this in his mind thousands of times, and now that it's happening he knows exactly what to do without having to think.

He keeps his shoulders straight and shows only a little concern on his face. He says, "May I just send a message first?"

He may be forbidden, but he has to try, and there's no use trying without asking permission. The captain nods toward Arkady's desk. "As long as you send it from that comconsole."

Which means it will be intercepted. Maybe it won't even reach its destination--but if they're coming to take him, they already know something. Maybe it's pointless to send the message, but the message is the contingency plan. The message is his responsibility, his bit of blasted hull to secure.

"Thank you," Arkady says, his voice as cool as he remembers it sounding when he ordered his men to evacuate the section. He takes his seat again, enters the long-memorized code, and offers the vid pickup his third-best smile. "I'm terribly sorry, but I'm afraid I won't be able to make it to dinner tonight, darling. Do forgive me."

Arkady ends the transmission and then there's no more reason to hesitate. He closes down the comconsole, takes one last glance around the office he'll likely never see again, and walks out one step ahead of the ImpSec captain. Not in restraints, at least. He tells himself that's something.

The captain escorts him into ImpSec HQ, up and down various lifts and through a series of perfectly featureless corridors. Finally they enter a small, windowless room with some cabinets and a counter and sink on one wall. It looks sterile, vaguely medical, but the only furniture is a small table with one chair on either side. The captain directs Arkady to sit with his back to the door, and Arkady discovers that there's a ring set into the table on that side, probably for securing handcuffs to.

Arkady sits with his back straight and his hands in his lap, staring at the far wall. I don't know much, he thinks. I really don't know anything at all.

In his peripheral vision, the ImpSec captain shifts his weight. He's only carrying a holstered stunner. They won't kill me, Arkady tells himself. Emperor Gregor gave us the decree. We're legal. Maybe they'll make me resign, but they won't kill me. They won't disappear me. Maybe I have to emigrate, maybe the men I name have to emigrate. That's not the end of the world. They won't kill me. This isn't the Ministry of Political Education, this is Emperor Gregor's Barrayar. It won't be so bad.

There's a slight noise, a click and hiss of moving air. Arkady flinches, then stills himself. It's only the ventilation, but it's forced him to acknowledge how afraid he is, jumping at shadows. Worse, the ImpSec captain has seen.

Arkady's angry, suddenly, that he's even in this position. They have the decree. They're legal. It's not supposed to be like this now, and it's not fair that it's ever been like this. They're not mutie-makers or disease-breeders, whatever some ignorant bastards call them--they're not harming children nor raping each other. Maybe they're muties, yeah, but every other kind of mutie in modern Barrayar is allowed to live his life in peace. But not them, no. They get dragged to ImpSec HQ, get their careers destroyed, get to sit and wait for the hiss of the hypospray and the end of life as they know it.

Arkady's fury dissipates with his next carefully even breath. Not they, not everyone: just Arkady Jole, hero of the Prince Xav. Tonton had warned him, way back when he was seventeen and about to go off to the Academy, about flying too high, drawing too much attention to himself. Arkady wanted to be the best, but the best suffer an obligation to be perfect, or at least to seem perfect.

Arkady gambled and now he's lost, and Tonton will lose because of him, and so will everyone else Arkady is about to betray. Arkady's only consolation is that Tonton knew what he was like from the start, and accepted him anyway. Arkady did send the message, and maybe it's only him after all--maybe Tonton will find out in time to warn the others, to shield them somehow. That's what Tonton is there for, after all, to protect them.

Arkady feels a little thread of hope that maybe Tonton can protect him, too, but he crushes it out. A man with Arkady's secrets is a security risk, too vulnerable to blackmail to be allowed to rise very high in the Service. This was bound to happen sooner or later. And after today, Tonton's going to want nothing to do with helping Arkady.

The door opens behind Arkady, and even as his head turns the ImpSec captain who escorted him says, "You may stand."

Arkady does, shaking inside but moving smoothly, to face the senior ImpSec captain who has just stepped through the doorway. Captain Simon Illyan, who sees all and forgets nothing. It can't be just Arkady, if Illyan is investigating personally; it must be everyone, from Tonton and Tatie on down. Everything is lost.

Illyan returns Arkady's salute. Arkady is still in uniform, not yet stripped of rank and the formalities that accompany it, and not yet under arrest.

Illyan comes around to stand at the other side of the table from Arkady. He carries no files, no autocorder. He needs none.

"Lieutenant Jole," Illyan says, in a calm voice with no obvious note of foreboding. "I am meeting with you today because you are being considered for an extremely sensitive assignment, one which requires an unusually high level of security clearance. I personally review candidates for this position, and I have noticed some things in your files which raise urgent questions. I will require you to answer these questions very candidly. Do you understand?"

Arkady meets Illyan's eyes. He keeps his chin up and his voice steady and subdued. "Fast-penta, sir?"

Illyan nods. "Unfortunately, Lieutnenant, if you refuse to submit voluntarily to fast-penta, you will have supplied me with grounds upon which to require it."

Arkady grits his teeth. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't, but he's known that since the first moment. "It doesn't matter what I say, then, does it, sir?"

"Oh, everything you say matters," Illyan says, mildly correcting, as if Arkady had misremembered some detail of a ship's spec. "If you consent to the fast-penta, you will be going forward with the process of being cleared for an extremely sensitive assignment. If you are approved, there will be no need to inform your future commanding officers of the content of our conversation. If you decline, you decline the assignment, and will be the subject of a hostile interrogation by ImpSec."

Arkady's eyes go unfocused for an instant, his whole body buffeted by the shockwave of that calm statement. Illyan is offering him an out. If he cooperates, truly cooperates, then he might yet be forgiven everything he is about to confess. If he resists, there will be no mercy.

They want the others. He's valuable, perhaps, as a well-known up-and-coming officer, a decorated hero. They want the others and they might be willing to cut Arkady loose, if he shows he's willing to cooperate. In any case, Illyan's dangling some plum promotion, and even without everything else it's career suicide to turn down such an offer from such a man.

All Arkady has to do is willingly cooperate in the betrayal of his own kind. All he has to do is violate the oaths he's sworn to Tonton and to every man who's shared the risk with him.

Arkady closes his eyes for an instant, but he's rehearsed this moment a thousand times, too. He's relieved to discover that he doesn't have to make a decision, not really. There is only one path out of this moment. He tilts his chin up as he opens his eyes, taking a last moment of pride in keeping his honor.

"I'm sorry, sir." Arkady's voice is again very level, almost disembodied, the way he heard it through his suit radio when he realized he was looking out through a hull breach big enough to drive a groundcar through. "I must refuse. I will not submit to fast-penta."

Illyan shows no reaction to Arkady's words, merely looks away from Arkady to the captain still hovering behind him. "Restrain the suspect, please."

Arkady sits under the pressure on his shoulder and sets his hands on the table, one to either side of the little metal ring. His sleeves are pushed back for the cuffs, which are locked in place in turn. After it's too late he wonders if he should have fought, on principle.

Illyan doesn't sit down across from him as Arkady expected, but steps halfway around the table and says, "The kit, please, and then you may go."

"Sir," the captain says, hands a small box to Illyan, and leaves without waiting to exchange salutes.

Arkady is alone with Simon Illyan and a hypospray of fast-penta, and he has already refused to cooperate. It's like free fall. It's like knowing that he's more than likely going to die in the next few minutes. There is remarkably little to worry about. The worst has already happened; he just can't feel it yet.

Illyan sets the kit down just outside of Arkady's reach and flips it open, withdrawing first a little test-patch.

"Allergy test," Illyan explains, as if Arkady hasn't seen this a thousand times in holovids. The back of Arkady's hand stays pale and unblemished, and Illyan unbuttons Arkady's left uniform sleeve and rolls it up neatly to his elbow, without ever touching Arkady's skin.

"All right," Illyan says. "Despite your stated objection, I am administering fast-penta... now."

Arkady closes his eyes again at the cold touch of the hypospray.

"Count backward from ten," Illyan instructs.

Arkady grits his teeth, but he starts to count down in his mind automatically, like counting how long he can last on a breath before he has to get to oxygen.

"Six," he hears himself say, air gushing out of him. "Five, four, three, two, one."

"Good," Illyan says, going around to sit across from him. "Thank you. Please state your rank and full name."

"Lieutenant Arkady Pascal Jole." He leans forward a little, resting his elbows on the table. There is only one bit of interesting information about his name, and he shares it. "My mother named me after Captain Arkady Durand, from some old holovid, Durand of the Forest or something--Arkady marries his count's daughter after he's saved her from the Cetas. Mother loves that one."

"Durand de la Forêt," Illyan corrects, folding his own hands together. "What about your father?"

"I don't know," Arkady says, frowning. That ought to have been part of the story, but Mother never told him that. "His father was Pascal, I guess that was his part of naming me, but Mother never told me if he liked Durand. He must have, though, mustn't he? Or I'd have been called something else. Maybe they watched it together."

Arkady smiles, his gaze straying off to one side, picturing them. "I like to think of that sometimes, things they might have done. I think they must have loved each other very much, because Mother is such a romantic about everything, especially Father."

Illyan nods slightly, and Arkady refocuses on him, pleased that he agrees with Arkady's theory of his parents' romance. He's never told anyone because he doesn't think anyone would agree with him, but Illyan does, and Illyan knows everything.

"What happened to your father, Lieutenant?"

"I don't know," Arkady says, looking down at his hands, which are gripping each other tightly, though he can't quite feel them. "I thought you would know, sir. Mother always told me he died on the Lord Regent's side, that his unit was loyal and fought for the Emperor, but I don't know for sure."

"Why don't you believe your mother?"

Arkady shrugs miserably. He loves his mother, he does, and he's sure Father was a good man, but.... "When I was fourteen I wanted to know for sure--I wanted to go where he died and burn a death offering. I knew it would be in the city somewhere, he was garrisoned here. I started researching. Father was a sergeant. They didn't record which side any of the dead were on below the level of captain. I wanted to be a captain. I want them to write my name down. I want it to matter which side I'm on."

"Which side are you on, Lieutenant?"

Arkady looks up quickly and the words tumble out in an eager gush, "The Emperor's, sir. I'm an oath-sworn officer and I serve the Emperor. And Tonton, but Tonton is loyal, sir, loyal as loyal."

"Who is Tonton, Lieutenant? Neither of your parents has any brothers living."

Arkady smiles. "Not that kind of uncle, sir. Tonton's what we all call him. That's what young men always call an older man they like, don't they? So they don't say what he really is. I don't even know what else I'd call him, if not Tonton. I did have sex with him. Not everyone does, you know, but he liked me. He does like me. But he's going to be so angry with me."

Arkady looks down at his hands and sees his fingernails digging into the backs of his hands.

"Lieutenant," Illyan says, "my liege's livery is dusk."

"And I wear gold trim," Arkady counters automatically. Illyan already knows the code--Arkady didn't give it to him. That has to mean Illyan's already gotten the information from someone else, but that's....

"But that's an old one," Arkady adds, even as he's thinking that he shouldn't say it, should let Illyan believe it's current information. "I haven't used that one in ages, not since my first year. Lately we say something like--"

"Major Lord Hector Vorgorov gave you that code, didn't he?" Illyan inquires, seeming not at all concerned with gathering current intel.

"Yes," Arkady says, nodding vigorously even as his hands twist against each other, trying to stop the words by the force of his grip. "When I was sixteen. I went to him for a recommendation to the Academy, because I asked Ruslan who to ask. I kissed Ruslan behind the stables at school when we were twelve and I knew he was like me, but we stayed away from each other, mostly, because we knew it was dangerous, but once we--"

"Ruslan told you to go to Major Vorgorov for a recommendation to the Academy?"

Arkady blinks, distracted by the incredibly vivid recollection of Ruslan Desny's hands opening his uniform trousers. "Yes, Ruslan told me. I knew he was doing things, he was always talking about how you can find anything in the city, it's practically like offworld, and I knew he meant sex. Sex with men, like us."

"You particularly wanted a man like you to recommend you to the Academy?"

Arkady smiles, feeling an echo of sixteen-year-old lust, even if it's backed with twenty-five-year-old dread, somewhere way down deep where it doesn't stop him from talking. "It was an excuse to go meet an officer, a properly grownup one, not like the cadets and ensigns who'd come back to school to visit and show us what we'd look like in a few years. Ruslan told me to try him and I liked him so much, he was so--so--commanding--I flirted like a little idiot, it scares me to death now when I remember it." But it doesn't scare him, actually, not right now. He knows it should scare him. If it scared him maybe he could stop talking, but he hears himself going on. "Tonton said I was charming, and he did like me."

"What is Tonton's full name?"

"Major Lord Hector Vorgorov," Arkady recites, smiling foolishly at the mere recitation of the syllables. He's always liked Tonton's full name, and he doesn't think he's said it out loud more than twice since he was sixteen. "I call him Tonton and Colonel Trottier Tatie, I think everyone does. Everyone I've met calls them that. It's dangerous to use names, you know--we try not to know each other's names. But I know some. Everyone knows some, we can't help it."

"Colonel Trottier, who you call Tatie, that is Colonel Aleksi Trottier, is that correct?"

"Yes," Arkady nods. "Alyosha. Tatie. He's nothing like a lady, but it wouldn't do to have two uncles and no aunts, would it?"

"I suppose not," Illyan says dryly. Arkady nearly smiles, and feels his face twist in a useless snarl at Illyan's mockery as his mind and mouth battle. "You had a sexual relationship with Vorgorov, is that correct?"

Arkady nods quickly. "For a little while. Tonton says nothing can last too long, we mustn't ever get attached. It's dangerous to carry on a long affair. It's dangerous to get jealous. So he introduced me to Tatie, even though we don't really suit each other so we didn't do anything. After I was sworn they introduced me to Mathieu--I never knew his last name but he was a sergeant, and he'd fought in the Escobar War and the Pretendership, and he had a tattoo--"

"I'm sure he did," Illyan says firmly. He keeps cutting Arkady off from giving details, and it doesn't make any sense. Fast-penta is for details.

"Did Vorgorov require you to have sex with him in exchange for the letter of recommendation he wrote?"

Arkady actually laughs, then. He knows it isn't going to be something this simple, but wouldn't that be nice, sorting out some accusation of quid pro quo? "No, sir, no, of course not. He would never have trusted me that fast, I was sixteen, I didn't know anything. He interviewed me and I flirted, that was one contact, then he met me again to show me the letter he'd written and say he was sending it, that was another contact, and then when I called him up all on my own afterward, that was a third contact and that was--"

"Have you ever been coerced into sex by Vorgorov or anyone connected to Vorgorov?"

The laughter stops abruptly. Even under fast-penta it's not funny. "No. Never by anyone, we're not--"

But Illyan doesn't let him explain, and swerves abruptly in a more dangerous direction. "They didn't introduce you to other men until you were sworn, you said. Did you give your oath to these people?"

Arkady shudders all over, feeling danger with every inch of his skin. This might be so much worse, so very much worse than he thought.

"Yes," he says, and snaps his teeth shut.

"You're an oath-sworn officer, Lieutenant. Did you swear obedience to another when you'd already sworn yourself to the Emperor?"

"No," Arkady says. His hands twist around each other helplessly.

"Did you swear yourself to the Emperor when you'd already sworn to someone else?"

"Yes," Arkady admits, "But it's--we say right in the oath, we say Never forgetting that our first loyalty is to the Emperor and Barrayar--please, sir, it can't be treason--"

"I didn't ask you whether it was treason," Illyan says coolly. "You swore an oath to Vorgorov and Trottier before they would introduce you to men. What did you swear to do?"

"Never seek out a man they had not introduced me to, never seek out further information than a man gave me, not even his name or rank, never to use what information I do have to betray another. Never--never betray another, never betray Tonton and Tatie."

Arkady blinks rapidly, hunching over the table to wipe ineffectually at his eyes with his clumsy fingers. He jerks back a few centimeters when a plain, standard handkerchief appears between his hands. Without raising his head, he looks up to see that Illyan is leaning across the table to offer it.

"This doesn't mean I agree," Arkady says, accepting the handkerchief and wiping his face. Even that doesn't stop him speaking. "I did say no. I did. I can't help fast-penta."

Arkady crumples the handkerchief and drops it on the table, where it unfolds and looks damningly like a flag of surrender.

"No," Illyan agrees, taking the handkerchief back and putting it out of sight. "You can't. What would happen to you if you willingly betrayed one of the others, or Vorgorov or Trottier?"

"No one'd ever find my body," Arkady says firmly. "Twelve years back, before my time, somebody tried something, and Tonton just made him disappear. We can't be turning on each other. No one would dare."

"And what do you suppose would happen if someone made statements about you?"

"Tonton would get me away," Arkady says. "If it goes so far that I'm in real danger I must go straight to the Betan Embassy. Tonton says they'll take us as refugees from Barrayar, they figure all men like us are in danger for our lives all the time. We're not," Arkady adds scornfully, even as he's wondering if it's true and screaming at himself to shut up, shut up, Oh God, they'll stake out the embassies now. "Not unless we're careless, but Tonton's men aren't careless."

"What if it were only threats? What if someone told you they had information about you and you must pay them off to keep it from being made public?"

"Tonton," Arkady repeats doggedly. "Tell Tonton and that man disappears. Tonton says if you cave to a blackmailer it only makes him stronger."

"You've never incriminated yourself to anyone outside Vorgorov and Trottier's organization? There is no one else who could accuse you of homosexual conduct?"

"Well, people can accuse," Arkady says, waving his hands until they come up sharply against the cuffs, which makes him frown a little. His mouth keeps going on the same track. "People accuse the Prime--"

"Stop," Illyan says sharply, so Arkady does, freezing absolutely still.

"Lieutenant, have you ever had sex with a man outside Vorgorov's organization?"

"No, sir. I swore. I wouldn't even know where to find a man on my own--how would I know he liked men like me? Everyone likes something different. I heard on Komarr there's places you go where everyone's like us, clubs, like, but then everyone's in one place and everyone sees everyone else. What if they were raided? What if you looked up and saw your commanding officer or your neighbor or something? And anyone could walk in without being really one of us and inform on who he'd seen there? That's dangerous. I wouldn't do that."

"There's never been anyone whatsoever from outside Vorgorov's organization, even when you had leave on Komarr?"

"No," Arkady says, "No, except I did flirt awfully with a ship's captain on Komarr two-three years back--he was just so handsome and he bought me a drink first, sir, he did, and I wasn't trying to meet anyone, I was just lonely and he was so nice."

"Do you know the man's name?"

"No. But his ship was called Glorious Dawn, and I could have looked him up, he said to look him up sometime but I didn't. I knew that was dangerous, sir, I never did, I promise I never did! I swore not to look for information."

"And you only sat with him in public? You didn't go anywhere alone with him?"

Arkady shakes his head sharply, making himself a little dizzy. "I bought him a drink back, that was all, and we talked, but I knew I must be careful, I didn't do anything obvious. I'm not sixteen anymore, sir, I know better now."

"Think carefully, Lieutenant. Was there anyone else, in all the last nine years, other than men who Vorgorov and Trottier introduced you to? Is there anyone else who knows about you?"

Arkady shakes his head. "I've always been careful, sir, always, and I gave my word. Going with outsiders is dangerous for everyone. I never did, never."

"Good," Illyan says. "In that case, I'll be administering the antagonist now."

He stands as he says it, with another hypospray in his hand, and presses it to the same spot on Arkady's elbow.

"Count up from ten, Lieutenant."

"Ten," Arkady says, staring at the crook of his elbow. "Eleven, twelve, thirteen--"

He falls silent, and lowers his face into his hands. He can feel the stinging scratches, now, raked from wrist to knuckle. He used to do that all the time when he was young, when he was trying to make himself not think of the things he found himself thinking of. Then he'd gotten a bit older and decided it was perfectly all right to think those things, to act on them, and look where it's gotten him.

Shame is twisting down his spine and curdling in his guts--the things he said to Illyan, the names he gave up--only it could have been so much worse, because he didn't actually ask Arkady to give names. Illyan didn't make him give up Leighton, or poor dead Kallas, from the Prince Xav, whose names he couldn't avoid knowing. He hadn't even asked for Ruslan's last name.

Arkady straightens up and sets his hands flat on the table. Illyan is sitting across from him again.

"As it happens, Lieutenant, I am acquainted with Hector Vorgorov and his organization. If we didn't have eyes inside such an opaque community we couldn't permit it to exist."

Arkady opens his mouth, shuts it again, tries to think. If this is true, if Tonton is an ImpSec informer, if....

"Homosexual conduct is legal, and has not been vigorously prosecuted in Vorbarra's District in Emperor Gregor's time; even if it were it would not be a matter for ImpSec. I am only concerned about your loyalties and your vulnerability to outside pressures. You answered all the questions I asked you correctly."

Arkady stares, and Illyan smiles slightly. "In particular, you answered the most important question correctly: the one I asked you before I gave you the fast-penta."

Arkady looks away, gritting his teeth against more tears. It was a test, all a test, and he passed. He held to his honor and he passed, and now Simon Illyan himself considers Arkady trustworthy, and doesn't give a damn who he's ever slept with.

Illyan stands again, comes over and removes the handcuffs. Arkady doesn't move his hands and doesn't look up.

"You're free to go as soon as you feel steady enough to leave. There will be a man outside the door, when you're ready. He'll put you in a cab home. If you're chosen for the assignment I mentioned, you'll hear about it in a week or two."

Arkady sits for a few minutes after Illyan is gone, staring at the wall, but there's no point in staying. The test is over.

It's been nine days, and every day he's thought of calling Tonton.

He hasn't called because it's been nine days and he still doesn't know what he'd dare to ask, never mind what he actually wants to know. He hasn't called because he doesn't want to be introduced to anyone new and he doesn't think he could look anyone in the eye who he's met before without wanting to confess how close he came to giving them up. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered, maybe Illyan wouldn't have cared, but still he keeps remembering the near-disaster and being scared all over again.

Four times now he's walked down to the Embassy district and strolled down the row, carefully not lingering as he passes the flag of Beta Colony. He's not careless, and apparently he wouldn't be in danger even if he were, but he can't shake the memory of that moment when he knew his life was over. Even if he's safe now, it's unsettling to know how easily he could believe that they would kill him, disappear him, force him to betray everyone he knew. He's never thought Barrayar was perfect, but there's a bad taste in his mouth, now. His oaths hang heavier on him than they ever have before.

The last three days he's been thinking he should call Tatie and ask Tatie to talk to the Baba for him. He knows there are women like him, who have their own Tonton and Tatie, or whatever they call them. If he married that would mean he's sure he can stay, sure he wants to bring his sons up to serve the Emperor. If he married it would mean he's accepted that he has to marry a woman, that he's never going to be like that young Vorlaisner who ran off to Komarr and married his valet. He's never thought he would be--he's always planned to marry, give his mother grandchildren, have a son and name him Christophe after his father--but everything seems up in the air, now.

He's thinking of Komarr, too, maybe Sergyar in a pinch. He could request a transfer before anybody can offer him some plum. He could get himself sent somewhere obscure and let everyone forget about him, never again draw attention from such a high place. Then he'd never have to worry about what it is they want him for that they had to test him like that.

He wonders what they want him for, that they had to test him like that. He thinks he might be staying put just because he can't bear not to know whether it was maybe worth it.

Arkady glances up and feels a wave of vertigo as an ImpSec officer walks in. But he only looks around and then walks back out. Another man walks in and Arkady is on his feet and at attention as Prime Minister Admiral Count Vorkosigan walks toward him.

The Prime Minister is, unaccountably, smiling.

He returns Arkady's salute and says, "Sit down, Lieutenant, I just need to speak to you a moment."

Arkady obeys--Arkady cannot think of not obeying--and watches in a daze as the Prime Minister snags the chair from Joliffe's desk and pulls it over near Arkady's. He sits down in it and leans back casually, his hands on his knees.

"Lieutenant, I know you recently went through an additional security screening--Captain Illyan tells me you found it rather unpleasant, and I apologize for the necessity."

The Prime Minister pauses there, as if he were really apologizing, as if he is waiting for Arkady to answer. Arkady shakes his head slightly. "I've been put through worse, sir."

He clamps his lips shut as soon as the words escape--that was terribly impolitic--but the Prime Minister just smiles wider, showing teeth. "And you've overcome worse, Lieutenant. I'm told you keep your head under pressure. That's a commendable quality in a young officer."

Arkady wonders if it was Illyan who told him that, and feels all over again at double time everything he's been feeling for the last nine days: a mingled revulsion at the test and pride in overcoming it.

The Prime Minister's smile fades a little. "The reason you were subjected to that, and the reason I'm here now, is that my current military secretary, Lieutenant Smythe, is soon to be promoted. He'll be leaving for another assignment, and I had hoped that you might be willing to replace him."

"Oh," Arkady says.

He never imagined this. He pictured secret missions, ship duty of another kind; he thought of how little interest he has in facing cold vacuum again after what happened aboard the Prince Xav. It's been nine days and he never thought the Prime Minister would be looking at him like he was a hero. The Prime Minister probably doesn't even know. He doesn't ever need to find out, either; that's what the test was all about. If Arkady can keep his secret, one of Barrayar's greatest men might look at him like this every day.

The Prime Minister is still smiling, and Arkady can't help smiling back, despite everything. Somewhere down deep where it doesn't keep him from speaking, he feels sixteen again.

"Yes, sir."