The law is reason free from passion.
Count Vorhalas turned the page and read on, pausing now and then to make careful notes on a flimsy. Civil unrest was no reason to neglect the petitions of his liegepeople, nor was personal tragedy. Whether Vorkosigan or Vordarian won the day, the farmers of Novgayar would still need someone to back their interests against the Ministry of Industry's planning regime.
Vorhalas knew himself well enough to recognise too that it was easier to think about threats to the wheat harvest than to wonder if Evon had been Vordarian's catspaw, or if Vordarian was telling the truth and Vorkosigan had tried to kill the boy-Emperor, or even succeeded. Vordarian hadn't sought his support; perhaps he assumed he would have it automatically. Vorkosigan was death to his family.
He thought it likely it would all blow over. Everyone knew the army belonged to Vorkosigan, and even more so the space forces. This was an outbreak of midsummer madness, a little out of season. He merely had to wait. Last week, once ImpSec had finished ripping apart his household, he had taken his wife and daughter to the summer estate to grieve in private. Then when the news about Vordarian's attempted coup had broken yesterday, he and his armsmen had hunkered down to wait it out. There had been heavy fighting in the capital and in Hassadar overnight and throughout the day, and outbreaks across Vorkosigan's District, but he did not think it would pass the borders into his own lands. If Vordarian was serious, he would woo his fellow counts rather than invade them, and Vorkosigan was not such a fool. House Vorhalas was under a dark cloud, there was nothing he could do to affect the outcome, and under the circumstances he preferred to be neutral, alone with his grief.
He turned the page of the petition again, and adjusted the old oil lamp. The power was down across the whole region; the power grid did not respect neutrality, and the Vorhalas summer estate was no more than eighty kilometres from Hassadar. The house was quiet, the servants all in bed and only the regular guards at their duty posts.
But not completely quiet. Slow steps approached in the passage outside, hesitated outside the door of his study. Vorhalas sighed. "Yes? Come in."
The door swung open, and Vorhalas looked up sharply, because the man who entered was not in Vorhalas livery but in muddy fatigues. Before Vorhalas's eye could fully adjust to the contrast from the bright desk to the darkened corridor, the man stumbled in and pitched forward onto his knees on Vorhalas's study carpet, coughing as if being ripped in half.
Vorhalas sprang upright, but his shout for his Armsmen died on his lips. The recognition was slow, but it came before he could speak, and instead he walked slowly across the study, and stared down. Lord Aral Vorkosigan raised his head and looked directly at Vorhalas. His face was streaked with mud and his eyes were bloodshot, but their gaze was no less piercing.
"Who are you for, my lord Count?" Vorkosigan rasped, as if he had an army at his back and was not on hands and knees on Vorhalas's carpet.
Vorhalas stared back at him, and did not trouble to hide the anger in his voice as he replied. "I am for the Emperor. Are you?"
Vorkosigan tried to push himself to his feet, but fell back on his knees, braced with one hand on the wall. "The Emperor," he said. "Gregor." He stared at Vorhalas as if seeing something quite different, and then slowly slid forwards again. Vorhalas remained still even as Vorkosigan's head thudded on the carpet before him. He lay prone, his breathing noisy and rapid. That, Vorhalas thought distantly, would be the remnants of soltoxin pneumonia, no doubt exacerbated by the fact that Vorkosigan seemed to have crawled through every ditch between here and Hassadar.
With soldiers on his trail; if he was followed, then Vordarian's men would be here soon. Vorhalas glared down at the motionless body on his carpet. Death, three times over, that was all Vorkosigan had brought to his house, first Rulf, and then Carl and Evon, and now this.
He could go to the one working comm, call Vordarian, guarantee his wife's safety, his daughter's, his household, his own. Earn a place for House Vorhalas in Vordarian's new government. It was not impossible that Vordarian was in the right, that Vorkosigan had tried to slay the child-Emperor in pursuit of his own goals, that Vordarian with the support of Princess Kareen could govern Barrayar well enough, an experienced politician of his own party rather than an unstable and untried soldier. It would be easy to believe such perfidy of Vorkosigan, now. And had Vordarian presented him with a fait accompli, Vorkosigan dead, married to the Princess and taking stepfatherly care of the young Emperor, he would have followed his new Regent, perhaps not respecting him but accepting the change of face. He would not have wept at Vorkosigan's death, nor raised his banner in some futile and pointless rebellion that would bring nothing but suffering upon his liegepeople.
And then there was Evon, and at that thought Vorhalas too put a hand on the wall, staggered, the full scope of this temptation suddenly clear to him. If Vordarian pulled off his coup, then Evon would be spared, his attack on the Regent rewritten, no longer a cowardly night attack on a sleeping man and his pregnant wife, but a heroic attempt to put an end to a dangerous plotter against the Emperor. He could hand Vordarian victory, and place himself as kingmaker, his son turned from criminal murderer to hero.
It would be so easy. Much easier than stealing a soltoxin grenade, getting through Vorkosigan House security and firing it into a window. Evon had fired the first shot, Vordarian had struck the second blow, and now the man lay helpless at his feet. All that was left was to complete what Evon had begun. And make of himself a traitor and an oathbreaker alongside his heir.
Vorkosigan began to rouse again, coughing and struggling to raise himself. Vorhalas stood still, unable to move, unable to choose, either to help the man or to go for his stunner and the comconsole. Vorkosigan's face was tinged with grey, he swayed, but knelt upright.
"The Emperor lives," he said hoarsely. "Safely away from Vordarian. Gregor is alive, and my hands are between his, now and always."
"Yes," said Vorhalas, and he knew there was no choice at all for him here, only the hard path he was already bound to walk. "My lord Regent."
The Regent's eyes met his again, damnably understanding, even more damnably confident, as if he had known Vorhalas's answer before he reached it. But there was no time to wallow in self-pity, not when Vordarian's men could be at the gates. He bent down. "Are you pursued? Where are your men?"
"They made a diversion. Vordarian's men caught up with us on the road this morning. I had to go to ground. I've been playing hide-and-seek with them all day, but I think I've lost them now. But I need to reach Tanery Base, as quickly as I can." He pushed himself to his feet as if motivated by the thought, tacked unsteadily towards the small sofa and collapsed onto the hard leather surface. In the brighter light his face was grey, with red blotches on his cheeks that told a story that matched the heat beating off him.
"How did you get past my men?" he asked.
"Used to play here with Rulf, whole summers. Your housekeeper leaves a key to the kitchen door in the kennels, but the dogs haven't forgotten me. Not hard to evade the guard pattern, either." He broke off coughing again, then sagged limp against the sofa, head sinking back with exhaustion and eyes closing. "Vordarian's net was closing in. Didn't think I'd make Tanery Base cross-country, had to go... somewhere safe." He slumped further and went still.
Somewhere safe, Vorhalas thought grimly. And in what twisted recess of Vorkosigan's mind did that lead him to the house of those whose son he had killed, who had in their turn come close to killing him along with his wife and child? Safe. He waited for some further explanation, some smooth attempt to talk him round, persuading and arguing, but Vorkosigan slid a little further down on the sofa, eyes shut, head slipping sideways.
Indeed, he would not have made Tanery Base cross-country. Vorhalas clenched his fists. He could throttle the man where he lay, rid the world of such as he--but he had already made that decision, and he kept his hands still at his side.
Once you decide on a course of action, you must follow it through to the end. The thought came to him with a crushing load of pain, for he had told Evon and Carl that so many times, and they had chosen their actions and followed through. But he had sworn an oath to the Regent, and he had chosen now to keep it despite the cost, and that meant he must render aid now.
He looked down at the Regent. He was soaked to the skin, shivering despite the heat that rose from him, filthy and obviously ill. All practical problems with practical solutions. He picked up a throw and tossed it over the man, then went to study the map on his desk. It was a little under fifty kilometres to Tanery Base, and the sooner he got Vorkosigan there, the sooner this would be over. His first thought, of calling for his groundcar, loading the man into the back and driving him there, he discarded. Tanery Base was across the river in the direction of the capital, the roads would be crawling with Vordarian's men. Vorkosigan had evidently gone to ground in response to this, one anonymous man on foot; even with thermal scanners Vordarian couldn't possibly shake down and search out every farmer or shepherd or traveller heading up-country. Vorhalas picked out the route, along the farmland of the river valley, then over the ridge and down to the scrubby wasteland where the military spaceport was located. There was the river to cross, probably at one of the many farm fords, but he knew the region well. He stared at the map for as long as he could convince himself that he was planning out what to do, then reluctantly looked up.
Vorkosigan hadn't roused, stunned with exhaustion and illness. Moving with quiet caution, Vorhalas went out and along to the kitchens and housekeeper's room. They were deserted and dark; with the lights out, Vorhalas made do with a handlight from the emergency shelf. A few minutes produced the household medicine box, an insulated flask of reheated soup, and a bundle of other necessities.
On his return, he encountered his senior Armsman, Kalliston, who stopped and stared. "Is there anything you require, my lord?" he asked in slightly pointed tones, as might be forgiven an old and trusted servant of the house coming across his master behaving unusually.
Vorhalas stopped. He had never doubted his household's loyalty, and his trust had been confirmed by the cockroaches of ImpSec, who had been through everyone under his roof from Kalliston down to the most junior scullery-maid and had confirmed that none of them had aided Evon in his attack on the Regent. Nonetheless, they were human and they had loved both Carl and Evon: he would not ask anything of them that he would not do himself.
"I have a visitor. Fetch some spare clothes, fatigues or similar, about your size, then bring them to me in my study." He considered what Vorkosigan might be bringing behind him. But rousing the household would only arouse suspicions, and his twenty armsmen could not hold this country manor against Vordarian's forces. Secrecy, not weaponry, was what he must give the Regent.
It was easier to think of him as the Regent, as Ezar's appointee who held his oath, and not as his little brother's childhood friend.
Besides, there was one of his household he was not certain of. Rosa had been questioned and cleared by ImpSec with the rest of them, but he knew there were passions stronger than any oath. She had not approved what Evon had done, but she had watched Vorkosigan's face as the executioner hacked off her son's head. One of his kin had yielded to grief and rage; he would not allow any others the temptation.
Kalliston saluted him sharply and went to obey, but his eyes were curious and thoughtful.
Vorhalas bore his finds into the study. Vorkosigan had not moved, still half-unconscious on the sofa. Vorhalas set his teeth in his jaw. It was, he supposed, the fault of his House that Vorkosigan was thus weakened; it stood to him to restore his House's honour by making amends.
He bent over Vorkosigan, but the position was uncomfortable, and he was halfway to his knees on the study carpet when memory stabbed him, physical memory more immediate than anything in the mind, how he had knelt before Vorkosigan the day after Carl's duel. How he had pleaded on his knees. He straightened up again, pulled over a nearby footstool and sat on it instead.
He could read the tale of the past day and a half on Vorkosigan's filthy fatigues. The jacket was torn and soaked through--and it was made of the new technical fabrics, resistant to water and damage alike--and smeared with mud, but under the mud was a darker stain. Too much blood to be Vorkosigan's, or he would never have made it this far. No. Someone else had bled on him, bled for him, probably willingly. Vorkosigan could hypnotise the men in his command; he had certainly hypnotised Rulf, once. This man had probably been glad and proud to shed his blood for Vorkosigan, perhaps sheltering him from enemy fire with his body. For that poor fool's sake, Vorhalas was gentle as he slid the jacket off one arm, then had to half-lift Vorkosigan to get the other arm free. Vorkosigan mumbled something but did not rouse, his head heavy against Vorhalas's arm.
Underneath, Vorkosigan wore a civilian shirt in a loud floral print. Looking at it, he was seized with another memory, this time older and even less welcome. It was not the first time he had sat thus with Vorkosigan. Years ago, when Vorkosigan had been soldiering badly by day and debauching himself with Vorrutyer by night, Rulf had kept trying to intervene--banging his head against a wall, Vorhalas had told him then. Rulf had been visiting his brother on a rare leave, and after a quiet dinner they'd been finishing the evening off with a nightcap in a backstreets bar when the peace had been broken by the arrival of Ges Vorrutyer and Vorkosigan, along with an audience of other like-minded youths. Under his appalled gaze they'd drank and brawled and kissed and made up and fought again, and then Rulf had got drawn in to defending Vorkosigan, and the barkeep threw them all out and it became clear to Vorhalas that the only way he could extricate Rulf was if he also extricated Vorkosigan, so he'd ended up with the almost comatose Vorkosigan over his shoulder while Rulf got himself out of the brawl. That night he'd bandaged up them both, then he and Rulf had taken turn about watching Vorkosigan lest he choke on his own vomit. Doubtless Vorkosigan would have no memory of any of it. But more than once over the last weeks, he'd wished that Vorrutyer had finished the man off, that Rulf had been less dedicated a friend.
"Damn you, Rulf," he said aloud to Vorkosigan's motionless figure. "I believe you would still have followed him, even now."
He unbuttoned the shirt too, removed it a little less gently. Vorkosigan's body was bruised, but the only cuts were small and superficial, barring one on his left arm that had bled hard. Vorhalas could read a history of that too: an arm flung up to shelter face and body from some projectile. With warm water and the rags he had collected, he wiped away mud and dried blood, steeling himself to touch Vorkosigan's face. But this elicited no reaction. It was almost possible to imagine him a corpse. He'd laid out bodies before he was twenty in Yuri's civil war, fighting alongside General Ezar. That had seemed hard at the time, he seemed to recall as at some great distance. He had laid out Carl's body alone, after Rosa had been put to bed with a sedative. His vision blurred, and he swiped roughly at a smear of blood on Vorkosigan's cheek. Vorkosigan moved slightly, and he sat back, lowering his hands. To offer violence to a helpless man was dishonourable beyond words.
Cleaned of filth and blood, Vorkosigan's empty face was like the blank expression which was all he had offered at the execution. Vorhalas swallowed, and continued his work, his hands held steady and gentle, his jaw set.
He was startled out of his focus by a soft tap at the door. He stood up stiffly and stretched out his arms, muscles aching with tension. It was Kalliston with a bundle of plain clothes. "I have what you requested, my lord. Is there anything else?"
"Stay within call, please. I may have need of you later."
Kalliston carefully did not try to look around the door, but it wasn't hard to see him thinking. "My lord, forgive me, but... is it the young lord?"
Vorhalas swallowed hard at that thought, that possibility: perhaps this wasn't the cruellest choice fate could have forced upon him. If Evon had shown up, injured and desperate and needing to be hidden from Vordarian or Vorkosigan or both... but he very much doubted that would happen now. "No, Armsman. It is not."
Kalliston flinched and ducked his head apologetically.
"Carry on, Armsman." He shut the door firmly behind him and went back to his unpleasant duty. The rest of Vorkosigan's body told the same story: defence against a desperate attack, a long journey through mud and water, no major injuries but many small ones. He cleaned them all with antiseptic and liquid bandage, and pulled the clothes Kalliston had provided onto the man, then considered his next move. He should, he supposed, administer synergine, get Vorkosigan alert and moving again... but at least now he didn't have to speak to him, didn't have to hear his voice. He found a standard pain and fever drug in the kit, and administered that as a starting point, then picked up the blanket again. His hands moved automatically, spreading it out straight and tucking it round, and he stepped back quickly. This was no sick child of his here.
Then there were more footsteps outside, and he froze, for that was not Kalliston.
"Justin?" Before he could react, the door of his study swung open and Countess Rosa Vorhalas entered, still in her nightdress, with a subdued grey wrapper and practical house slippers. "I thought I heard voices--what's going on?"
He moved as if he could bar her view of the sofa, but it was too late. "Quietly, please, don't rouse the household," he heard himself say.
"But--what on earth--Justin, who is that?"
Her voice shook on the last word, and he knew she had recognised his visitor. He opened his mouth to answer, but could think of nothing to say. She strode over to the sofa and held the lamp high over the Regent, staring down at him. Vorkosigan coughed and twitched, and she lowered the lamp and turned away.
"I thought perhaps you'd killed him," she said, her voice so level that he couldn't tell whether she was pleased or disappointed to learn he hadn't. "I see the war isn't going well for him."
"He says the Emperor still lives. Safe away from Vordarian," Vorhalas heard himself say.
Rosa's eyes on him were intent. "And so you follow--of course you do."
"Would you have me do otherwise?" he asked. If Rosa asked him, now, to turn Vorkosigan over to Vordarian...
But she sighed, a sound he recognised as defeat, or grief, or both. "No. I never liked Vordarian, anyway." She kept her back turned to Vorkosigan. "What are you planning now?"
"Get him to Tanery Base. Declare our District for--for the Emperor, and Ezar's appointed Regent. Bring as many of my brother Counts as I can."
"They can hardly refuse to follow where you lead, in this."
"So I hope. The sooner this... idiocy... is over, the better."
In answer her hand rose almost unconsciously and she tugged at her shorn hair. There would be many grieving mothers across Barrayar now.
"But there is no need for you to be here," Vorhalas said. "I will do what is necessary. You should try to sleep."
She glanced quickly at Vorkosigan. "I don't know how you can do this," she said, but despairingly rather than angrily. "But you've been like iron ever since... I had better not stay."
He put his hands on her shoulders. "It's all right. I would not ask it of you."
He stepped away as he heard footsteps outside again, and then a third knock at the door. This time, he opened the door only a fraction, carefully blocking the room from sight.
It was Kalliston again, and Vorhalas opened the door a little more widely, for his Armsman was carefully averting his gaze from the room, staring down the corridor as he spoke.
"My lord, there are soldiers at the gates. Vordarian's men. They are asking for our assistance in hunting down, um, the Regent, they wish to search the estate." There was the faintest question in his voice: is the Regent still the Regent, Vorhalas heard him wondering. He drew himself straighter.
"The Regent. I see. Who's on the gate? Barrowhill?" Kalliston gave a nod. "I take it he informed these soldiers that they are in Vorhalas's District, on Vorhalas's own estate?"
"Barrowhill knows his duty, my lord," said Kalliston. "But... there's half a regiment out there. Not all at the gate, but searching the whole area. My lord, may I ask, what would you have us do?"
Soldiers at the gates, searching the area, wanting to search here for the Regent. Perhaps he could let them pass through his fields and farmland; they would surely leave the house alone. But if they did not--or if Vorkosigan had left some trail... he dared take no risks here. But if he refused--Vordarian must be desperate to be searching his District; perhaps he was desperate enough to permit his men to violate the household of his brother Count.
Rosa was beside him, watching him, evidently running through her own calculus of the many ways this could lead to disaster. She drew breath, hesitated, then said, "I have an idea." She looked at Kalliston. "Is there some sort of commanding officer out there?"
"Yes, my lady. Captain Leo Vorpinski. A young man."
"Perfect. Admit him alone. I will speak to him." She looked at Vorhalas, and he nodded understanding. To be Vor, he thought, was to use any weapon that came to hand, when fighting for your cause. And this weapon came willingly, if unhappily.
"We will not aid traitors," Vorhalas said to Kalliston. "As the Regent is for the Emperor, so we are for the Regent. But we cannot hold against an assault here. I think your Countess will be best placed to send them away again."
"I quite understand, my lord. Er... do you want me to prepare the groundcar?"
"No. I think I will want you to saddle Boreas and the easiest-paced hunter we've got who can make fifty kilometres before dawn. Kit them out lightly. But not until the soldiers are well on their way."
"I'll be down in a moment," said Rosa, hastening to the stairs. Vorhalas stopped her, caught her hands in his.
"Thank you," he whispered.
There was iron in her eyes as she looked back at him. "As you keep your oaths, so I keep mine."
"Countess," he answered, and kissed her hand before turning to his enemy in the study. The drug was working, he thought, Vorkosigan seemed to be sleeping now, and breathing easily. Vorhalas suspected that without further stimulant he would sleep the clock around. It would last at least until they saw off this next assault.
Kalliston had issued his orders, and Vorhalas waited in the inner corridor while Vordarian's officer was permitted entry and shown into the small drawing room, not letting himself be seen. Listening at doors was not precisely honourable, but if Rosa's gambit failed he would have to act swiftly to bring this right again. He could hear Captain Vorpinski inside pacing back and forth. When Rosa came down, she was dressed in her full mourning grey, but with shorn hair disarranged as if she had recently risen from her bed. She gave him an austere nod, then Kalliston opened the door for her.
"Countess Vorhalas!" Vorpinski exclaimed, sounding as off-balance and hesitant as any gawky young officer at a ball. "I am sorry... I hoped to speak to the Count--I would not have troubled you..."
"I was not sleeping," she said grimly.
"No... I understand... Countess, we do not wish to disturb your household, but we are searching for a fugitive and we have reason to think he may have come this way."
"What fugitive could possibly be important enough to rouse us in the middle of the night?"
Vorpinksi made a dubious noise. "This is military business, my lady... would it be possible for me to speak to the Count?"
"Anything you wish to say to the Count, you may say to me, Captain. This is a house of grief, and I will not have my lord disturbed because some petty sheep-rustler has run away from the bondsmen."
"It is no sheep-rustler, my lady. We are searching for the traitorous Regent, for Vorkosigan himself."
"The Regent," she said flatly. "And you believe he could be here?" Vorhalas heard a hard scraping, as if Rosa had pushed back her chair in standing up. "I begged him, weeping, for my son's life. He turned away. The next time I saw him was at Carl's execution. He came and he stood there and he watched without an expression on his face, without a blink. I called down a curse upon him then, and on all his descendants to the ninth generation, to return to him some of the pain he has dealt to me. And you think now he would come here for shelter, out of all Barrayar, when the ashes from Carl's funeral offerings are scarcely yet cold."
The young captain's voice had gone small as he answered, "Of--of course not, my lady. I just... we are ordered to search for him everywhere, and your estate is not far from where he was last seen."
"I wish I would never see him again," she said, and Vorhalas knew that for truth, a wish that would go ungranted. "Our men guard our estate well here, and you cannot imagine they have any more love for Vorkosigan than I do. I expect he would return to his District. He has no shortage of loyalists there. Though of course I know nothing of military matters." A statement that Vorhalas knew was false: when he had been fighting with Ezar during Mad Yuri's war, she had been helping her mother hold their own castle against Yuri's men.
"Yes, er, no, my lady. I'm sure you're correct. I'm sorry to have disturbed you, my lady. Please--please convey my master's kind regards to Count Vorhalas."
"Certainly, Captain. I will bid you a good night, and good hunting."
There was the sound of military-booted feet heading towards the main hall, no doubt escorted by one of the Armsmen. The inner door opened and Rosa came through.
"The Regent is safe for now," she stated, lips flat. "Do what you must, my lord. Will you return?"
"I will go," Vorhalas answered, "where my lord Regent bids me go."
"Indeed." She hesitated, then came to kiss him. He took her in his arms; she stood stiff and unyielding, so he held her very lightly.
"Do I do wrong?" he asked quietly. "I could call that young captain back, tell him the wretch he seeks is in my study and completely at his mercy."
"How would that be any better than what Evon did?" she retorted. "No. Our house is not so reduced as that. Continue, my lord. I will keep Nina safe here until you return."
He kissed her then, and she kissed him back, as any wife whose husband went away to war. Then she went quickly up the stairs, and Vorhalas returned to the study. Kalliston had posted himself outside. "Do you need any help, my lord?" he asked.
"Stand guard," Vorhalas said curtly. There was a kind of sympathetic admiration in Kalliston's eyes that he did not wish to endure.
Inside, Vorkosigan was tossing as if in the grip of some nightmare, mumbling under his breath. Vorhalas stood over him. There was little pleasure, little comfort, even in this. Vengeance was supposed to be sweet, but watching Vorkosigan tormented by his own guilty conscience he felt nothing, not sweetness nor satisfaction, nor pity, nor concern. But he had no need to feel anything. His duty was clear.
He drew up a hypospray of synergine and pressed it to Vorkosigan's wrist, then poured a glass of water from the carafe on the side table. Vorkosigan was beginning to rouse by the time he turned back, eyes blinking in confusion, then closing again.
"Drink," said Vorhalas, and held the water to Vorkosigan's lips.
Vorkosigan swallowed, coughed, then said faintly, without opening his eyes, "Rulf?"
Vorhalas stilled. "No," he said, and despite himself his voice was gentler, "no, it's Justin."
Vorkosigan's lips moved; Vorhalas offered him another drink to forestall anything else he might say. It had been a long time since he had last been mistaken for his brother.
Another minute, and Vorkosigan's eyes opened and gazed at him, but he was not yet fully alert and his expression was friendly and trusting. Vorhalas looked away, not wanting to see the moment when Vorkosigan remembered where he was, who he was with. What he had done. When he looked back, Vorkosigan was the Regent again, weakened still, but in full possession of himself, wrapped in the armour of his position.
Silently, Vorhalas brought over the food and placed it on the table beside the Regent. He stared at it blankly for a moment, then said, "Thank you," clearly automatic politeness. Vorhalas would rather he had said nothing. He went back to studying the map at the desk while Vorkosigan sat up and ate.
"Wasn't my first plan, making contact," Vorkosigan said after a few minutes. "I meant to quietly raid your kitchens for what I needed, lie low. But the last few kilometres were... harder than I expected."
"Your pursuers are heading elsewhere, at least for now," Vorhalas said in answer. "I do not think they mean to search my estate. But seeing them out of my District will be more difficult. We have no militias now, after all."
Vorkosigan put down the cup, hand moving instinctively to his hip. "They came here?"
"About half an hour ago. They're gone now." He did not want to tell Vorkosigan just what ploy he had used to see them off, nor mention Rosa's name at all. That much of her wish, he could grant for now.
"I didn't realise they were so close behind me." Vorkosigan checked for his weapons more consciously, and found that Vorhalas had laid them out on the end of the sofa: two knives and a strange mechanical gun that looked like he'd stolen it from a museum, except that it was in perfect working order. "It seems I did well to come here. I am grateful--"
"Do you still wish to go to Tanery Base at once?" Vorhalas interrupted this. There were words he did not wish to hear from Vorkosigan. The Regent gave him a sharp look, and the impression that he was surrounded by armour grew stronger.
"Yes. If the search is still close, I will need to travel cross-country. It's not that much further."
"Fifty kilometres, give or take," Vorhalas supplied. "You think you'll make it?"
"Do you still keep up your stables?"
Vorhalas nodded. Exactly as he had expected. But then, Vorkosigan's clan had led two insurrections across this soil. He knew what he was about.
"Grant me a loan of a good horse, then, and I will trouble you no more. I know the area well enough to find my way."
He could do that, Vorhalas thought. Obey the Regent and be done with this cruel hour. Let the outcome of this war, and Evon's life with it, fall on the throw of the dice, on whether Vorkosigan really could travel another fifty kilometres without being captured or falling by the wayside. Maintain his neutrality, as if this encounter had never happened. Doubtless Vorkosigan would be as glad to forget it as he would.
"My Armsman is already making ready at the stables," he said, temporising. "I have not named you to him, but he's no fool."
Vorkosigan nodded. He finished eating and reclaimed his weapons, put on the coat Vorhalas had left draped on the end of the sofa, and pushed himself to his feet, lurching a little but then recovering before Vorhalas had to move to help.
Kalliston was back outside the door, and his face was completely unsurprised as the Regent appeared. "Make sure there's nobody else about, please," Vorhalas said to him. "I have confidence in you all, but what eyes don't see, fast-penta can't discover."
"Yes, m'lord," said Kalliston, and headed down the darkened corridor ahead of them. Vorhalas led the Regent through the old manor to the rear door, where Vorkosigan faltered on the step. Vorhalas put out his hand, but Vorkosigan stiffened and pulled away, steadying himself on the wall instead.
They went outside and across the yard towards the stables, and Vorkosigan stumbled again. This time Vorhalas took his arm implacably.
"You cannot dislike this more than I do," he said, "but I have sworn an oath and I will keep it."
"I have no doubt of either," was all Vorkosigan said, but he leaned on Vorhalas, and Vorhalas knew that again he had no choice about what he must do next. There had been no choice this whole evening.
Kalliston had gone ahead to the stables, and Vorhalas could just see the tall shapes of two horses harnessed and ready. Vorkosigan stopped when he saw them.
"As I said." Vorhalas continued walking, and perforce Vorkosigan did the same. "I have sworn an oath. You may have played here with Rulf--" he was pleased not to stumble over that name --"but this is my land, my District, my estate. I know it in the dark. Besides, I wouldn't give much for your chances alone."
At that, Vorkosigan gave a harsh laugh that was half a cough. "Perhaps not. Very well, my lord Count. I would not have asked, but--"
Vorhalas interrupted him again. "You will be seeking the loyalty of the Counts now. Have any declared to your name?"
"I'd scarcely know if they had. I had twenty minutes at a comconsole in Hassadar this morning, and I used that trying to contact Tanery Base. Then they cut the powersat for all Hassadar. Here too, I suppose. I've been mostly in ditches since then."
"Then permit me to be the first." He turned about, facing Vorkosigan squarely. The oil lamp flickered so that they seemed to be surrounded by tongues of dark fire. He did not kneel, but he did bow his head, though as he was a hand taller than Vorkosigan the effect was muted. He extended his hands. Vorkosigan's closed around them very lightly, as if holding something wreathed with thorns. "My lord Regent, I pledge to the Emperor and to you the fealty of Vorhalas's House and District."
The Regent stood straight. "On behalf of my Emperor I accept your vassal-service, my lord Count." He released Vorhalas quickly, and they both turned to the horses without speaking. It was necessary; it was done.
Kalliston had chosen the black mare for the Regent, a sturdy hunter well up to his weight, very experienced over these grounds. Vorhalas checked her over and led her to the block for the Regent to mount. Vorkosigan swung himself up into the saddle, and Vorhalas saw traces of General Piotr's son in the easy way he collected the mare and walked her across the yard. Vorhalas went to his own Boreas, and in a few minutes they were both ready to leave.
They took the north track out of the yard. Over his own estate, Vorhalas felt they were safe enough from the hunt, and later on, once he took to the hills, he doubted any but a local man could find them at night. The sky was mostly clear and the half moon gave enough light that he would be able to find his path, and let the horses see the obstacles. He tightened his coat against the chill in the air, and nudged Boreas on. The Regent followed easily enough, the mare picking her own way along the path behind Vorhalas's rangy bay gelding.
They rode in near-silence, exchanging only the briefest of comments on the path, the horses. Vorhalas was glad. The quiet darkness seemed to invite private conversation, and he was half afraid that Vorkosigan would try to justify his acts, or worse, apologise for them, now, when no words could mend what was broken, now Carl was dead and Evon a traitor. Afraid too that if they spoke, he would apologise, for what Evon had done, for what Carl had done, for what he had done. Safer to be silent. He was keeping his oath; it was enough.
They crossed the Vorhalas estate and went through the gate onto a farm track that took them down to the river ford. There were more places to cross further downstream, but he thought it best to do it at once, while the horses were fresh, while they were fresh, and near to his estates which Vordarian's men were leaving alone. The river was an obvious chokepoint for Vordarian's men to focus their attention, but he doubted they knew all the fords in this region.
The water was higher than he would have liked, but neither horse baulked at it. They'd crossed here many times on the hunt. He took Boreas across upstream of the black mare, sheltering the Regent from the force of the water, but neither of them had any difficulty and in a few moments the horses were scrambling onto the opposite bank. On the shore they both halted, letting the horses rest, but it was exposed here and Vorkosigan nudged the mare forwards after only a few minutes.
The moon rose higher in the night sky as they followed farm tracks along the course of the river, passing nothing but the occasional field of goats or sheep, and once a herd of young bullocks came romping up to the gate to sniff curiously at them. Boreas was inclined to take exception to this, but the Regent's mare followed steadily.
They headed up into the hills after a good hour of this, skirting around a hamlet, following sheep tracks and deer tracks across the scrubby grassland. Now and then Vorhalas could see the moonlight gleaming on the river below in the valley off to his right, and the occasional dark shape of a farmhouse.
The track widened and he held Boreas back a little, allowing the Regent to come alongside him.
"Tanery Base," he said. "What do you think we'll find there?"
The Regent pulled himself a little straighter in the saddle. "Commodore Couer's in command. I have no reason to doubt him. I served with him at Escobar and he's honourable, a good soldier. I tried to contact them yesterday, but there was fighting at Signals and nothing was going through. If his men have followed him, if Vordarian hasn't struck--it's the best hope we've got."
It was less certain than Vorhalas liked, but it wasn't as if he had anything better to offer his liege-lord. He could pledge his District to Vorkosigan, but the days of private armies were long over, and the men under arms from his District were already embedded in their units, obeying orders. For their Count to stand up and order them to disobey their commanders could fracture all of Barrayar, even more severely than what Vordarian was doing now.
He made an acknowledging noise and let Boreas pull ahead again. Vorkosigan seemed well enough, and the horses were fit enough to go a bit further before stopping to rest.
The path sloped down a little, following the contours of the hill. Abruptly, Boreas's ears flicked and his head went up. Vorhalas halted him with scarcely more than a thought, and the mare stopped too. "Something there," he said, not whispering but speaking low.
Vorkosigan was turning his head from side to side like a hound casting for a scent. Vorhalas heard a louder rustle, as of some large animal moving through the bushes. "Deer," he said, relaxing.
"But what startled her?" Vorkosigan responded. "Hold."
The horses were war-trained in the Barrayaran tradition, and knew how to stand still. Vorhalas listened, and then he heard it: voices and steps in the fields below. The breeze picked up, and a few words drifted up.
"...you'd think he'd make for cover..."
He glanced sideways at Vorkosigan. "This way," he said, and nudged Boreas forwards again. Vorkosigan's mare followed. Vorhalas considered the land here. There was a farmhouse tucked down in a hollow, with the flatter farmland stretching down towards the river, and the steep partly-terraformed scrubland of the hillside where they were riding above. He led Vorkosigan to a small clearing where he dismounted.
"Leave the horses here," he said. "We need to know which way they're headed. There's a place up there where you can lie concealed while I scout--"
"No," Vorkosigan said sharply. "I go with you."
"Crawling through the brush?" he asked, matching Vorkosigan's tone. "Silently?"
"I can manage." In proof of this, Vorkosigan dismounted. There was a stream running through the clearing, as Vorhalas had known there would be, and he let the horses make their own way over to water.
"Very well. Stay close."
They walked the first few hundred metres through the scrubland, then when he judged them to be close, Vorhalas dropped down to hands and knees. Vorkosigan followed unhesitatingly, moving if anything even more silently than Vorhalas.
They crawled until they were on a bluff overlooking the farmyard, and saw the group of men moving through the fields towards the buildings. Vorhalas counted five, a standard squad, clearly just finishing a search of the lowlands and heading for the farmhouse.
Lights were coming on in the farmyard, and as Vorhalas watched, the farmer came out. He knew the man, one of the more prosperous farmers in this region, owning his land rather than a tenant of his Count. The soldiers clattered into the yard, and the farmer came out to meet him.
His voice carried clearly in the silence of the night.
"What's this foolishness, Jos?" he said, and as the lieutenant in charge of the squad turned, Vorhalas recognised him too, the eldest son of this farmhouse. He'd sponsored the boy to officer's training himself.
"We're searching this area. Vorkosigan may be hiding here, Father."
"The Regent?" the farmer said. "Are you crazy? What are you doing?"
"But, Father," Lieutenant Jos said, "you can't imagine our Count would wish me to do otherwise. I took my men to help the search at once. They're District-born, and we all know what Vorkosigan did to the young lord. Something cruel, it was. And now they say he's done harm to the little Emperor too. If we find him, I'll bring him straight before the Count for him to do justice upon him for what he's done."
The anger that had been simmering low and deep since Vorkosigan had landed on his carpet--since long before then, in truth--finally came to a full boil. "Stay here. Make no sound," Vorhalas said to Vorkosigan, who was looking at him in surprise.
"You risk--" Vorkosigan began, but Vorhalas ignored him. He circled back to where they'd left the horses, mounted Boreas and rode loudly and openly down the track to the farmyard.
The argument was still going on when he clattered up the lane. He stripped off his overcoat so that his House tunic would be clearly seen, but at his approach the squad had moved into positions of covering fire on either side of the gate. He rode openly up and halted just outside the yard. Someone shone a searchlight on him, and there was a muffled exclamation from one of the soldiers.
"It's m'lord!" he heard someone hiss.
Vorhalas sat up straight. He’d remembered the farmer’s name.
"Farmer Malinas," he called in a commanding voice, "what is this rabble doing upon my lands?"
More muffled exclamations, and the boy ordered his men to stand down. Vorhalas heeled Boreas into the yard and halted in the centre. Farmer Malinas himself came over to take Boreas’s head respectfully.
"My lord Count," he began.
"At whose command do these men bar my way?" Vorhalas said across this. He stared down at young Lieutenant Malinas, who was standing at rigid attention. His men had scrambled down from their vantage-posts and were forming up with him.
"My lord, we are searching for the traitor Vorkosigan--"
"At whose command?" Vorhalas repeated. All depended on the answer to this.
"My CO asked for volunteers," young Malinas began uncertainly. "All of us District men volunteered. After what Vorkosigan did, we knew you would be happy--"
"Be silent," Vorhalas snapped, "lest you call your Count a traitor to his face."
At Boreas's head, Farmer Malinas jerked, his eyes turning up to Vorhalas in sudden fear. "My lord, the boy may be foolish, but he was trying to do what he thought you would wish." He gazed up at Vorhalas, and though his words were brave and his voice steady, there was an expression of pleading on his face that stabbed Vorhalas with its terrible familiarity.
Shaken, he inhaled slowly to calm himself, and said in a gentler voice, "Inasmuch as your son is following the lawful orders of his commander, I have no quarrel with him." His tone hardened again. "But if he thinks to do my will by his actions, he is wrong. Vorhalas is oathsworn to the Regent, and oathsworn I remain."
The boy was stubborn, and in his stubbornness Vorhalas recognised grief as well. "But my lord, after what he did to the young lord, you cannot wish…" As boys, Vorhalas recalled, Evon and Carl had played with many of the country children. Jos Malinas had not been a close crony of his boys, but many of them had idolised Evon in particular.
"Enough," he said. "It is not for you to tell me what I can and cannot do, boy. Do I teach you so poorly in this District that you do not know who is your Emperor, or his Regent?" He swung down from Boreas, and every man flinched at the sudden movement.
"If you are obeying the lawful order of your commander, it is right and proper that you continue," he said. "But this is my District, and since it seems that my liegepeople are in some doubt--Farmer Malinas, tomorrow you will go to the Speaker in the town and charge him by my Breath and Voice to make it known across the District that Vorhalas is no friend to traitors and those who raise arms against their lawful Emperor and his Regent. Let it be known that I forbid my liegepeople to give aid or comfort to those who rebel against the Emperor. You will go at first light tomorrow."
Lieutenant Malinas stood very still before him. "My lord," he said. "I am not a traitor."
"You are a soldier of the Emperor," Vorhalas said. "You made your oath to Ezar and his heirs first, and second to your commanding officer. Remember that, leave politics to your Count, and your honour will be safe."
The boy stared at him, then his gaze flicked to his men, who had been looking like they wished to melt into the ground since Vorhalas rode into the yard. Then he drew a breath. "Father," he said, "it's getting late, and my men have been working all day. Will you let us have the barn to stay in tonight? I will call my other search parties in. I have thirty men across this region."
Farmer Malinas gave Vorhalas a shrewd glance. "At first light, you say, my lord? Very well, my boy. I think that would be wise."
Lieutenant Malinas stepped a little aside and spoke into his comm, calling off the search.
"I have a long journey tonight," Vorhalas said, "and I have no wish to be shot by some misguided fool in the woods. How many men are in this part of the District?"
"Only mine, as far as Blackstone Vale," the lieutenant said. "They gave this region to me, because I know it so well, and--"
And because of his keenness in the search, Vorhalas thought.
"My lord," said Farmer Malinas, "it is not good for you to ride unescorted now. Let Jos and his men accompany you tonight."
For a moment Vorhalas was tempted to accept. An armed escort might increase the Regent's safety--or endanger him, if any of these men proved disloyal or simply foolish. And he didn't think much of Lieutenant Malinas's subtlety or wit.
"You know it is my custom to ride my District alone," Vorhalas said. "I do not propose to alter my ways for this."
There were sounds from across the fields away towards the river, and soon they resolved out of the darkness into one of Lieutenant Malinas's search parties, these mounted on float-bikes rather than on foot. Vorhalas turned to his horse, and without being asked, Farmer Malinas came and took his booted leg to help him into the saddle. He was tired enough to be grateful for the liberty. There had been hasty conferences at the door of the farmhouse, so he wasn't surprised when Farmwife Malinas came hurrying out with a small package in her hand. "Please accept this in lieu of our household's hospitality, my lord."
Vorhalas thanked her and accepted the package, which turned out to be a flask of hot tea, and bread and meat wrapped in paper. He waited in the yard while the second search party came in, then rode out along the track. Another party was following them, but he received nothing but respectful salutes from the soldiers as they saw his tunic. When they were safely away in the farmyard, out of sight and earshot of any of the searchers, he turned back up the hillside.
It took ten minutes to work his way back to the clearing where the black mare waited. She nickered a greeting to Boreas, and at the same time, Vorhalas saw a flash as the moonlight glinted off something metallic. Vorhalas froze, but then the breeze blew the branches and he saw that the knife was in the Regent's hand.
"My lord," he said flatly, dismounting.
"You took a great risk there," Vorkosigan observed as he came over, but he sheathed the knife.
"All the search parties in this region are being called back for the night. They won't be about until dawn now, if that young idiot doesn't find a way out of his troubles. We had best stay here until we're sure they're all back, I can't be sure which way they'd jump if you came face to face with any of them. But then it will be much safer."
Vorkosigan studied him in the shifting moonlight, then sat on a fallen log. Vorhalas sat down too, closer than he would have liked, but they needed to keep their voices low. He opened the flask of tea and took a sip, then passed it to Vorkosigan.
"But I think that was not your reason for going," Vorkosigan observed after taking a long swallow of tea.
Vorhalas took the flask back. "You know full well it was not. Dammit, if even you know that I will not break my oaths... how can my own liegepeople be so--?"
"So foolishly loyal?" Vorkosigan drawled. "It's not a failure of your District's education, my lord Count. It's a failure of imagination."
Of course, Vorkosigan would have heard the entire exchange from his hiding place. He thought of what else Vorkosigan would have heard, and stared out at the shifting shadows, taking a swallow of tea.
"You were lenient to that boy, who would have killed me if he'd had the chance," Vorkosigan said, in the manner of a man poking at a bruise.
"He would not have killed you. He would have brought you alive to me for justice, and you would not have been harmed," Vorhalas said. "And he may be an officer of the Emperor, but he was not in violation of the law, and he is only a foolish boy. I think I may have taught him a little more wisdom tonight."
Vorkosigan said nothing for a long time, long enough that Vorhalas unwrapped the bread and meat and divided it between them. At last Vorkosigan said, "Count's Justice has more room for interpretation than the Emperor's Justice."
Vorhalas swallowed a dry bite of bread and stood up, moving so that he could see the farmyard path more clearly. The final search party was tramping down the opposite hillside and crossing the footbridge. He watched them go, and once they too had entered the barn, he turned to the horses.
"It's clear." He led the black mare up. Vorkosigan heaved himself into the saddle, using the log as a mounting block and landing with a grunt. Vorhalas mounted as well, and they rode through the trees back onto the trail. He said nothing more about justice, or oaths, or young men doing foolish things that they thought would please their father or their Count, and to his relief Vorkosigan too let the subject fall.
The night deepened and darkened as they rode on, the greater half-moon sinking low and the lesser moon not yet high enough to give useful light. But the track was simple here, an old road too rocky and muddy for groundcars, but easy for the horses to follow, skirting the edge of the farmland. Beside him he could see little more than a blacker shadow that was Vorkosigan on the mare, only his eyes and the horse's eyes catching the light now and then.
After another hour or so, when the lesser moon was above the treetops and lighting their paths again, he could see that Vorkosigan was slumping where he sat, head bowed down, with reins in one hand and his other supporting himself on the pommel of the saddle. But he did not ask to stop, and the horses were moving easily, so Vorhalas continued onwards. They turned away from the river valley, up over a low pass across the ridgeline and then down again into the farmland on the other slope, leaving the good path for a rougher journey across fields and scrubland.
The hillside sloped steeply downwards, and Boreas shortened his steps. Beside him, the mare suddenly pecked and missed a step, and he heard Vorkosigan swear. The mare recovered and they continued down the hill, but at the bottom Vorkosigan halted.
"I think she's gone lame."
"Ride on a little," Vorhalas said, narrowing his eyes to watch the mare's movement, and he saw her uneven stride. "Yes. Damnation." He brought Boreas alongside. Vorkosigan was patting the mare on the neck and murmuring to her.
"Sorry, old lady," he said, "that was all my fault. I'll lead her." He leaned forwards and swung to the ground, but Vorhalas saw his knees buckle and he had to hang on to the mare's neck for a moment before getting his balance.
"Don't be a fool," said Vorhalas grimly, dismounting as well. "Get up."
With no mounting block, he had to cup his hands to make a step for Vorkosigan, and even then he barely made it into Boreas's high saddle. If they hadn't already been going for several hours, he knew his horse would have bucked protest at the way Vorkosigan landed with a thud. But as it was he merely snorted as Vorkosigan gathered up the reins. Vorhalas took the mare's head and they headed off even more slowly.
"There's a farm down this track," Vorhalas said. "I won't force you any further," addressing the mare in a gentler voice, "you've done enough now." He felt a pang of absurd envy for the mare. But Vorkosigan was silent, and Vorhalas trudged on, leading the limping horse.
He left Vorkosigan at the end of the lane, and led the mare until he came to a gate, then untacked her and turned her loose in the field, leaving the harness on the fence. It had the Vorhalas arms embossed in it, the farmer would figure it out.
Back on the lane, Vorkosigan said, "This will delay us."
"It's only another fifteen kilometres or so." More like twenty, he knew, but it was not yet two in the morning. Even at a slower pace, they would make it before dawn.
"If you would rather turn back, or claim shelter at the farm--" Vorkosigan said. "I daresay I can make it from here alone, now that there is no pursuit."
Vorhalas only gave a snort. "I think not," and Vorkosigan didn't argue.
He walked alongside Boreas, settling into a stride that was almost as swift as the tall horse as they crossed the farmland and began to climb again onto the higher moorland. The breeze picked up, refreshing at first, then chilly as they reached higher ground. He tightened his coat. The Regent was silent, holding onto the saddle with his head bowed, and when Vorhalas took the reins and led Boreas he made no objection. Twice Vorhalas had to quickly reach up and steady him when Boreas took a scrambling step up the hillside and Vorkosigan nearly slid out of the saddle. The third time he halted.
"I'll be fine in a minute," Vorkosigan mumbled, unconvincingly.
"No, you're going to fall off and break your neck," Vorhalas said.
"God, you sound just like Rulf," was Vorkosigan's bleary answer; then, "Sorry, sorry," and a spasm of coughing.
"Save your breath." Vorhalas rummaged in the small saddlebag and came up with a couple of lead ropes. "I'm tying you on."
Vorkosigan gave up the struggle to remain alert and let himself slump forwards, lying against Boreas's neck. Vorhalas tied his hands underneath, then tied his feet to the stirrups, giving him an appearance of a prisoner.
"Is this really necessary?" Vorkosigan said faintly.
"Yes. It is. I don't think I'll be able to get you up again if you fall off, even if you don't break your neck in the process."
Vorkosigan was silent, only his harsh breathing now closer and louder in Vorhalas's ear as he took the horse's head again.
The sheep track winding up the hillside was stony and difficult, and Vorhalas stumbled and tripped over loose rocks in the darkness. Fatigue was slowing his steps now, and Boreas's too. He found himself chanting in his head, "Damn you, Vorkosigan, damn you, Vorkosigan," with every stride, then mumbling it under his breath. He reached the top of the hill at last, and paused.
"Don't stop on my account," Vorkosigan rasped.
Vorhalas was glad it was dark. "Damn you, Vorkosigan," he said clearly.
Boreas tossed his head uncomfortably, and he had to turn and look. The moon was behind clouds now, but he could see that Vorkosigan had slipped sideways. He reached up and felt Vorkosigan brace at his touch as if he were an enemy. That angered him, after this long night, and he was deliberately gentle as he pushed Vorkosigan back into proper balance again. He was too warm to the touch, and Vorhalas wasn't altogether surprised when after a few minutes he started to talk, in a low rough voice.
"My father would laugh at me for this. He likes to tell the story of how he rode almost a hundred kilometres across the Dendarii mountains with a broken leg, in a snowstorm. Of course, he was barely more than twenty at the time--" He broke off coughing, then went on, "Or maybe not. He wants to disown me, because of little Piotr. Miles. He won't let me give him his name, it was almost the last thing he said to me before...." He trailed off, and Vorhalas hoped he was finished, but then he went on, "They don't know if he has any bones at all, yet. No riding horses for him."
"But he'll inherit your countship," Vorhalas heard himself say.
"Not if Father disowns me. He might. I'll let him. I never wanted the district. That was always you and Xav. Rulf and I were the spares. Much better to be the spare. God, Justin, I'm sorry, I shouldn't..."
"No. You shouldn't."
"Yes... sorry..." Vorkosigan mumbled, and mercifully refrained from making further revelations about Count Piotr, or about heirs. Vorhalas was glad of his own fatigue that stopped him from dwelling on what Vorkosigan might say, or what he could do. They were getting close, this night would soon be over and forgotten, and in justice he could scarcely hold the man accountable for what he said in this condition.
He trudged up to the top of the rise. Across the moor and down on the plains below, he began to see lights, not of the base itself but of the growing village of Tanery beyond. It had been little more than a hamlet of a few smallholdings, but with the construction of the base, more homes and shops and some inns had been built to serve the needs of the soldiers. Brothels too, though Vorhalas officially forbade it, and places to hire groundcars and floatbikes for soldiers on leave. It was one of the many small successes he'd had in his District, getting this base built here on the relics of an old Ceta base.
But first they had to get off these high moors. The downwards slope was gentle, and both Vorhalas and the horse walked more swiftly on the easier ground. Then they came to where the hillside sloped steeply away downhill, and Vorhalas veered off to the south, where the track was. But it had been a long time since he'd last ridden out this far, and what he'd remembered as a narrow but rideable track down had been weathered into something much steeper, almost a gully, with thorny scrub growing up on either side so that the track almost disappeared into a tunnel of bushes. Boreas skidded several times and sidestepped unhappily. Vorhalas halted him and studied the path ahead, squinting into the darkness.
"I think you're going to have to walk this bit," he said as Vorkosigan lifted his head and made an enquiring noise. "It's a good six kilometres or more beyond this, and we daren't risk laming him as well." He unfastened Vorkosigan's hands and feet from the horse, and saw him sit up stiffly.
"I'll do," Vorkosigan said, and slid a leg over. Vorhalas helped him down, then crossed the stirrups over Boreas's saddle so they wouldn't annoy him.
"Wait here," he told Vorkosigan, probably a redundant instruction under the circumstances. "I'll lead him down and get the lie of the land, then come back up."
Vorkosigan gave a grunt of understanding, a dark huddled shadow against the darker shadows of the hillside. Vorhalas found the rest of the flask of tea and the food and left them with him, then led Boreas down the hill without looking back.
The path down was as bad as he'd feared, muddy, slippery, often all but disappearing into a tunnel of thorns. Unburdened by a rider, Boreas did not baulk at it, though he did snort his opinion of it several times. "I know, lad," Vorhalas said, patting his neck. "You're doing bravely. Just a little more, easy does it. There, my beauty, there you go." They emerged both muddy and scratched on level ground, and Boreas shook himself and put his head down to munch at the grass. Vorhalas knotted up the reins, stood catching his breath for a moment, then grimly began to clamber back up the hillside.
At first his own rustling through the last thorn bushes distracted him, but when he paused, the noise continued, and he was therefore unsurprised when he pushed through another thicket and discovered Vorkosigan making his way along the path, gripping the boles of the young trees for support. He'd managed a surprising distance, but the path was about to get much worse. He stood still and let Vorkosigan come to him, then moved in emotionlessly to hook Vorkosigan's arm across his shoulders in good 'how to help a mobile casualty' style, though in military training they had mostly raced back and forth across open fields in daylight doing this. He wished now they'd trained on a steep slope in pitch darkness. The thorn bushes were a little less encroaching after getting the horse through, but the ground was muddier and more churned, and Vorkosigan struggled to keep his feet under him, his breath rasping in Vorhalas's ear.
They were halfway down the steepest part of the path when a rock turned under Vorhalas's foot. Unbalanced by Vorkosigan's weight he skidded and they both fell hard, several metres down the gully. Vorhalas tried to stop himself by grasping a branch, but it broke in his hand. He crashed down hard and stars whirled in his vision.
He wasn't sure how long he lay there, dazed and winded and aching, but the next thing he clearly knew, there were hands on him, circling his head and checking him for injuries. "I'm all right," he mumbled, then realised who it was.
"Stay put a minute longer," the Regent commanded, and when Vorhalas tried to sit up, the Regent's hand pressed him down again. Vorhalas was shaken enough to obey.
When he did sit up, his head had mostly stopped throbbing, but his left ankle turned painfully when he stood. But it still bore his weight, so he bit his tongue on any complaint, got his balance and extended a hand to help Vorkosigan up. Very slowly and carefully they went on down the gully, Vorhalas gritting his teeth. Vorkosigan seemed not to notice his limping, his concentration only on making it the rest of the way down.
"Not much further," Vorhalas muttered to him, more reluctantly than he had to his horse. "Don't stop now, we're almost there, keep on going."
His breath rasping in Vorhalas's ear, Vorkosigan managed the last scramble down to where Boreas waited in the meadow, and they more fell than sat down on the grass nearby. Vorhalas stretched out his aching arms and back. "Damn you, Vorkosigan," he muttered again.
For a good ten minutes neither of them moved, until Vorhalas began to feel chilled to the bone. He sat upright and began to probe his ankle gingerly. He thought it was only twisted rather than a more serious injury, but he doubted it would stand up to another hour or more of walking.
Vorkosigan sat up too and studied him. "You're hurt," he observed.
"I'll be fine in a few minutes," Vorhalas said automatically.
"Mm." Vorkosigan gazed into the darkness. "He's your horse, but it seems to me he could carry us both the rest of the way."
Vorhalas hauled himself to his feet and limped over to where Boreas was nibbling the grass. "Well, old fellow?" he said. The horse was tired now, but he was fit and strong, and the military saddle could take two without too much discomfort. A few days' rest after this and he would be fine again. It was undoubtedly their best option.
"Very well," he said. He led Boreas over to a large boulder that could serve as a mounting block. Even with its help, it took three attempts to get Vorkosigan up. Vorhalas climbed up behind and took the reins. More slowly than before, Boreas started forwards. It was only a few minutes before he was having to hold Vorkosigan into the saddle, but there was no danger of him falling off now. He held on, urging Boreas across the last few kilometres towards the lights of Tanery, the Regent's head heavy and uncomfortable against his shoulder. At least he wasn't cold any more.
The sky began to turn from black to indigo, and Vorhalas realised he could see the barbed wire of the outer fence around Tanery Base silhouetted against the skyline. He watched, stupid with exhaustion, as it grew larger, then forced himself to pay proper attention to their surroundings. The scrubland was about to open up into the cleared space around the perimeter. He halted Boreas in the cover of some small trees and gave Vorkosigan a shake. His left arm was numb.
Vorkosigan startled, and Vorhalas had to hold him in a grim parody of an embrace to stop him slipping off. The Regent sat up wearily and blinked around.
He waited until Vorkosigan was sitting upright, then carefully dismounted. His ankle felt a little better for the rest. "I think you should stay here. I'll make contact."
Vorkosigan looked down at him strangely. "No," he said. "No. It's my risk to take. Justin--"
"My lord Regent," Vorhalas said. "I must insist." He was not going to drag the man all this way only to see him shot by the guards at Tanery Base. "If they are as loyal as you say, there is no risk to my House. And if not, they are less likely to shoot me than you. Unless you think that if they are Vordarian's I will turn you over to them?"
"No," said Vorkosigan quietly, "I don't think that. But--"
"My lord Regent," Vorhalas repeated in the same final tones that had always worked on Evon and Carl. Vorkosigan sat up straight, his hand moving as if to acknowledge a salute.
"Very well, my lord Count."
He left Vorkosigan atop Boreas, broke off a stick to help himself along, then edged through the thickets until he was well away from Vorkosigan before breaking cover. They'd find Vorkosigan quickly enough with heat scanners, but there was no need to make it easy for them. The fence was about three hundred metres away across the scrubland, with a guard point nearby, and doubtless vids and sensors monitoring the approach too. He did not look back.
The walk was inconveniently long, long enough to give him a chance to dwell on his doubts. If this went wrong, if Vordarian had his claws into the men here, he would soon find himself standing between the Regent and a nerve disruptor. Between Vorkosigan and a nerve disruptor.
There was a song about a warrior who remains faithful to a cruel and brutal lord, who upholds his lord even as his lord sends his family to their deaths. The warrior dies for his pains, but without dishonour, still devoted to his lord. It was not the same case, of course. He had no personal devotion to Vorkosigan, merely a family friendship now shattered. It was not for Vorkosigan he was willing to make this sacrifice, nor even the Regent.
He had gone to Vorkosigan desperately, the morning after Carl's arrest, not knowing how to plead for his son. Perhaps if he'd gone earlier, before the word 'duel' could be spoken. Perhaps if he'd gone to Carl instead, packed him off on the first outbound shuttle. Perhaps if he hadn't gone at all. Perhaps all this was his punishment for asking Vorkosigan to bend the law for him.
But Vorkosigan had not bent. Carl had fought a duel and killed his man: the penalty under the law was death, for friend or foe alike. It was, Vorhalas had found himself conceding in his wakeful nights, what Ezar would have done.
And then, if he had not encouraged Evon to believe that Vorkosigan might show clemency, if he had been more rigorous in demonstrating that he would abide by the law, perhaps Evon would have followed his example. Commander Illyan had fast-pentaed him in person, very carefully with an Imperial Auditor as witness, and he had not asked if Vorhalas had wanted to injure the Regent. Had he planned the attack with Evon, encouraged him, aided him, known of it in advance... he had asked all those questions, but not whether he wanted to see Vorkosigan cough blood into his lungs until he suffocated.
That was a question he was still uncertain of the answer to, even after all this long night. He knew he would not permit it to happen, not while there was breath in his body to prevent it. But wanted? It didn't matter now.
He was in plain sight of the sentry-post, and the guards on duty were coming out. Vorhalas had left his overcoat with the horse, and his tunic with the Vorhalas colours and Count's insignia was clearly visible. The guards had their weapons drawn, but not aimed.
"Good morning!" he called in a clear voice, keeping his hands open and still at his sides, discarding the stick. He limped up slowly; the guards stood still, watching him, but did not raise their weapons. When he was within easy speaking distance he stopped. "I wish to speak at once to your commander. Commodore Couer, I believe. Please inform him that Count Vorhalas is here."
The guards looked at each other, and Vorhalas assessed them. One was very young, a private without even a five-year service badge. The corporal was a ten-year man with shrewd eyes. Vorhalas fixed his attention on the elder.
"Your commander will wish to be informed that I am here," he said briskly. "Carry on."
Without taking his eyes off Vorhalas, the corporal spoke quietly into his wrist comm. Vorhalas heard his name repeated several times, but not the rest of the conversation.
"What is your business here, sir?" the corporal asked after a few minutes of conference.
"My business is for your commander. It concerns the events of the last day, and Vorkosigan." Best, he thought, not to give the Regent his title, until he knew which way they were going to jump. "I believe it will be to Commodore Couer's advantage to listen to me."
More conference on the wrist-comm, and then the corporal's eyes hardened. "Yes, sir, at once," Vorhalas heard him say, and then both guards had their weapons aimed at him.
"There's no need for that," Vorhalas said, but the corporal snapped, "Be silent," and Vorhalas dared not push it further. They jammed him against the side of the sentrybox and frisked him of the long war-knife that was the only weapon he'd been able to bring, then stood with disruptors trained on him, clearly waiting for something.
Across the tarmac of the base, he could see a sudden flurry of activity, a groundcar starting up and roaring across towards them. The two guards held him at disruptor-point, and within a very few minutes the groundcar had come out of the base through a gate nearby and came to a halt nearby. Six more soldiers leapt out, followed by an officer in undress uniform and commodore's tabs. Commodore Couer himself, followed by an aide.
"Tell your men to stand down," Vorhalas said, fixing Couer with a hard stare. "I am not your enemy."
"What have you done to him?" Couer whispered. "What have you done to the Regent?"
At that, Vorhalas realised he had left one possibility out of his calculations in leaving Vorkosigan behind and coming alone. If Tanery Base was Vordarian's it would be less dangerous for him than Vorkosigan, and if Tanery Base was Vorkosigan's then they would be loyal to Vorkosigan, but he was not Vorkosigan. And everyone knew what his House had done to Vorkosigan.
"I am a Count of Barrayar, confirmed in the Council and subject only to the Emperor," he snapped back, suddenly angry that he should be still so mistrusted, after it all. "Your men have no right to hold me against my will." He calmed himself with an effort. "Commodore, I believe you may be under a misapprehension. Vorkosigan is alive and unharmed--"
"If you think I will treat with you, after all that you have done," Couer said, and at a gesture the guards seized him and forced him to his knees. His heartbeat thudded in his ears, and for the first time he knew in his blood and bone that Barrayar was at war, and the shield of his position seemed flimsy indeed.
On the ground, he more felt than heard it, rapid hoofbeats approaching. They grew thunderous, the guards holding him turned, and the young private aimed his nerve disruptor.
"Hold your fire, you young idiot!" Vorhalas heard himself roar. "If you are Vorkosigan's man then hold your fire! Do you want his blood on your hands?"
Then Vorkosigan was upon them and Vorhalas was on his feet again. "Sir!" he heard Couer exclaim.
"What are you doing to my lord Count Vorhalas?" Vorkosigan demanded. "Release him instantly!"
Vorhalas's pulse was still racing as he found himself abruptly unhindered by any soldiers. He limped over to take Boreas's head and glared up at the Regent, swaying but upright in the saddle. "You fool," he said. "They might have shot you."
"They might have shot you," Vorkosigan retorted. "It occurred to me that Couer--not knowing you as I do--might not understand your position here."
"Sir," Couer said again, coming forwards in shock, "he's with you? Sir, I'm sorry, I thought he was offering to sell you..."
"My lord Count," Vorkosigan said to him, a startling amusement bubbling in his face, "I fear you may have been too politic for a simple soldier to follow." He laughed, then broke off coughing. Couer's expression of confusion increased.
Vorhalas turned to him. "You are quite certain of the loyalty of your men here, Commodore?" he said, and now his tone was uncompromising in its command.
Couer looked offended for an instant, then subdued. "Entirely certain, my lord."
"Then take the Regent for urgent medical attention. The journey here has not been easy."
Couer looked up. "Yes, of course." He gave the horse an uncertain frown.
"Please have your men look after this fine fellow too," Vorkosigan said, patting Boreas's shoulder. The look of panic in Couer's eyes was growing.
"This is a space installation," Couer began.
"Figure it out, Couer," Vorkosigan said wearily from atop Boreas. "There will be men here who know horses, even at a space installation. Figure it out." He was slumping now, the adrenalin-rush of the last gallop leaving him. Vorhalas led Boreas right to the door of the groundcar, and Vorkosigan more fell off than dismounted. Couer moved quickly in to help, and they bundled Vorkosigan into the groundcar between them. Then to Vorhalas's surprise, Vorkosigan dismissed Couer and his men with a gesture. Vorhalas stood by.
"Vorhalas," Vorkosigan said, the first time he'd used his name while fully alert, then, brusquely, "please sit, I can't talk with you looming over me like that."
Vorhalas perched on the edge of the groundcar's rear seat, as far away from Vorkosigan as he could. He would have sat more stiffly if he had been less tired, he thought. "My lord," he said distantly.
"If you wish, I will have you conveyed safely to your home again," Vorkosigan said. "You have been of great service, but I will not ask more of you, nor keep you from your wife and daughter any longer."
"As you will, my lord."
Vorkosigan looked narrow-eyed at him. "What do you wish? If--if you feel that this has been in some payment of a debt owed by your House, please be assured that it is paid in full. I will not ask more of you."
"It is not a matter of debt," Vorhalas said, not sure if he spoke truth. "It is my duty."
"Ah." Vorkosigan's eyes closed in an exhaustion that Vorhalas supposed must exceed his own, then without opening them he said, "And what do you conceive to be your duty now?"
"I do not desire war. I would like to bring this to as speedy a resolution as may be. Whatever I can do in pursuit of that goal, I will do. I could be of considerable use; I think my brother Counts will listen to me, on this subject."
At that, Vorkosigan suppressed a snort. "Yes. I daresay they will." His eyes opened. "My lord Count, I will use whatever weapons come to hand to end this revolt. If you wish, for their safety I will bring your wife and daughter here--Vordarian is seeking hostages..." He cut himself off.
"Vordarian already holds a hostage against me, hostage of his own free will. It changes nothing." Evon was undoubtedly at Vordarian's side by now; if he survived he would return to the condemned cell when this was over.
"My son," Vorkosigan said, "is in the capital also." He was silent. "There is much I cannot help, in this," he said at last. "But I can bring your household to safety, and unless you tell me otherwise, I will."
The delicacy of that offer startled Vorhalas, not requiring him to ask it of the Regent. He gave the shortest of nods.
"Good," Vorkosigan said. "Then I will place negotiations with the Council of Counts in your hands. I don't know what we'll find in here, but we should be able to establish communications at least. Good. Couer, let's go."
The commodore got into the rear compartment on Vorkosigan's other side, and the groundcar started up. Vorkosigan sat back, eyes closed again, then slid a little so that he was resting against Vorhalas's shoulder. Vorhalas endured it for a moment, then carefully pushed the man against Couer instead. The soldier would doubtless consider it an honour; if he wasn't careful he would end up another bloodstain on Vorkosigan's jacket.
Inside the base they were greeted with a flurry of soldiers and medics who took charge of them. Vorkosigan insisted that the medics check them both, with the result that Vorhalas was hauled off to the sickbay along with the Regent. As he went, he saw Boreas being led into the compound as well, over to a hastily-cleared hangar where a handful of soldiers were busy making ready for their low-tech duty. Content that his horse was cared for, Vorhalas allowed the medics to see to him. A busy half hour of assorted medical treatments resulted in them both being instructed to sleep, an instruction that Vorkosigan submitted to only when the courageous medic threatened to sedate him if he didn't go to bed for at least a few hours before getting back to work.
Then they were left alone in what was clearly the officers' sickbay. Vorkosigan sat up on the side of his bed and raised a hand as Vorhalas made to draw the curtain around his own bunk.
"Vorhalas, you have been--no, let me speak," he said as Vorhalas tried to step backwards with his most forbidding expression on his face. But the Regent would not be denied now, and Vorhalas braced for whatever he might try to say.
"You have been a good, a good enemy to me this night," Vorkosigan went on. "I know there are things that, once broken, can never be mended. There is too much blood on my hands now. Please believe me when I tell you I take no pleasure in it."
Vorhalas stood with his lips pressed tightly together. At last he said, in unwilling honesty, "I wish you great pain of it, my lord."
Vorkosigan did not flinch from this. "I know. And yet you will not inflict it yourself. Well, your wish may yet be granted a thousand times over. I have no idea where my wife and son are, nor any of my friends or kin; right now you are the best ally I have." He opened his hand to Vorhalas, who stood very straight, taking another step back.
"Understand this: I am not your ally. I have never been of your party. While you are for the Emperor and the law, my hands are between yours. Vordarian rises against you with violence and usurpery. I will not do that, and I will defend you against those who do so. But do not mistake this for supporting you or your politics, my lord Regent."
"The loyal opposition," Vorkosigan murmured. "I know I must have opposition. I am glad if it is to be led by you."
"Yes," said Vorhalas, then, in a voice almost as low, "I will be watching you, my lord Regent. And when you slip, I will have as much mercy for you as you have had for me and mine."
He felt a grim satisfaction as his words drained all expression from Vorkosigan's face, save for the pain in his eyes.
"Barrayar," Vorkosigan said at last, "needs such watchful guardians as you, my lord Count. If I fail her, I will bend my neck to your mercy."
He matched actions to words, his head bowed, and Vorhalas had to turn away sharply, for Carl had bent his neck to the headsman in just the same way. He pulled the curtains around the bed, sat down heavily, and covered his face with his hands so that the Regent would not hear him weep.