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Three's Company

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"Is this it?" Miles asked, checking Fat Ninny for a moment.

"Up here," said Piotr. "The path narrows soon, keep close behind me." He looked over his shoulder at the unwelcome third member of this little expedition. "You too." He surveyed the rider with a forbidding frown. "Did my son send you with us as a particularly subtle form of torture? You wouldn't have lasted five minutes back in the day, we'd have staked you out as bait for the Cetas."

Captain Illyan made no response, but his seat improved. A little. There was plenty of scope for improvement.

"Bothari's on leave," Miles put in, not for the first time today. "And Da said Uncle Simon needed a day off."

"And is this your idea of a day off, Captain?"

"I think the Regent thought it might be," was all Illyan said in response, nudging his horse on, and at least at that precise moment there was nothing obvious Piotr could see to criticise about his riding. He brought his horse in beside Miles. There would be plenty of time. Perhaps Aral had sent Illyan as a whetstone for him to sharpen his tongue upon.

And he would. The true reason Illyan was with them nagged at him like a stone in his boot, pressing into his foot with every step. He was not permitted to take his grandson with him without an armed escort. Armed against him, because he was never to be alone with the boy, had never been alone with him in the past nine years. He had grown used to it, ignored it as completely as he was able, but it was always there, the stone he couldn't remove. Perhaps it was better this way. The escort made it unnecessary for him to consider his decision. He was forced to tolerate a mutie heir at gunpoint; very well, he would tolerate him. If the weapon was lowered... he had never been a man to back down.

But Illyan was still an insult. Bothari was crazy, but the kind of crazy Piotr could respect, fanatically devoted to the boy and his mother, beyond any oath or sense. He would have taken on the old Emperor, Ezar himself, to protect Miles. That was the sort of man Piotr was happy to face. This Illyan was some mere functionary. He seemed to serve Aral well enough, but beyond that he was a blank, for all that Miles seemed fond of him. Children were notoriously indiscriminate in their affections.

"Up here," Piotr said to Miles, reverting to ignoring Captain Illyan, "is where we made our headquarters five summers running, until we had an exceptionally wet winter and it was flooded out. Forty men working out of these caves. I ran them in patrols of four, working sabotage and interception across the whole District. You can't get in here except on foot, or better on horseback if you've got a decent mount." He looked again at Miles's young Fat Ninny, at Illyan's hack from the stables. Dendarii-bred, both of them, they'd do. "Let him have his head up here. He can see the path better than you." He pitched his words loud enough for Illyan to hear too.

The path wound steeply up, seeming almost to take him back into the past as he rode. He couldn't look back to check on Miles, the movement would unbalance his own mount, but he could hear the nimble hoofbeats behind him, and he knew the sound of every step. The boy was fine. The path suddenly crested a ridge and went down. Piotr heard Ninny scramble over without trouble, then Illyan's horse too. All clear. He felt that if he closed his eyes he might hear Ezar again, reporting in as he arrived.

They twisted, turned, and Illyan dropped behind, but both pairs of trailing hoofbeats sounded secure enough. He'd brought worse riders down here in his time.

"I bet you could have some great ambushes here," Miles said from behind him. "Did you?"

"No need," said Piotr. "No Ceta would ever have got this far. We kept a picket from five miles out, and if anyone came near we diverted them, then killed them further away, so that they didn't notice any pattern of suspicious deaths in this area. They never came close to finding us here."

"Yeah," Miles said. "Yeah, I can see that. Wow."

Piotr rode around the final steep bend and his horse scrambled down into the narrow vale that had once been their makeshift stables. Behind him, he heard Ninny's pace increase as he sensed the end of the journey was near.

"Steady there!" Piotr snapped, but too late. The young horse stumbled, dropped a leg off the edge of the path, then clambered back up again with a snort. But as he heaved himself back, he shed his rider. Piotr couldn't tell if Miles had fallen or thrown himself off, fearing to fall off the path with his horse. Either way, Miles landed hard on the path with a gasp of pain, and Piotr sprang down from the saddle. Ninny was spooked, and skittered off towards the vale, nearly knocking Piotr over as he went. He stared at his grandson, then rushed forwards.

He had never been ambushed in this path before. But now, as he hurried over to Miles, a voice rang out from the top of the rise.

"Stand back from him!"

Piotr glanced up. Illyan was dismounted, jogging down the last section of path, and his stunner was trained steadily at Piotr.

"He fell off the horse!" Piotr shouted back, but did not move.

"Walk slowly back. Return to your horse and stay there with it." Illyan's voice was like hammer falling on iron.

"Uncle Simon?" Miles was trying to raise himself, and the first fear in Piotr's heart subsided as the boy moved and spoke. "Gran'da?"

Piotr's fierce glare at Illyan made no impact, and if Miles's voice had touched him either, he showed no sign of it. "Now, Count Vorkosigan."

"I was wrong about you," Piotr said as he took a step away from his grandson. "Negri chose you well. We'd have put you on infiltration. Sent you to cosy up to the Cetas, then stab them in the back when you got them comfortable."

"Now!"

Piotr held out outstretched hands and walked slowly away. He saw out of the corner of his eye Captain Illyan closing the distance to Miles, kneeling down beside him, checking him carefully, speaking to him in a low voice. He watched as Miles sat up. It hadn't been a hard fall, and he was getting more robust now. A little. Perhaps. But Illyan frowned over the boy and made him lie back down again.

Piotr crossed to Fat Ninny and unbuckled the kit from behind the saddle, then walked slowly back towards the pair. Illyan's head turned sharply, and Piotr halted.

"You'll be wanting this," he said, in a flat voice. Irony seemed inadequate.

Illyan grunted acceptance, and Piotr came closer. Illyan's initial paranoid reaction seemed to have faded a bit, but Piotr still took a prudent step backwards. It was foolishness to provoke the angry guard dog. This is what he was for.

"Tibia, I think," Miles said in a whisper.

Illyan had the diagnostic scanner out. "Fibula," he said in answer. "Tibia's all right. Hold still."

Piotr remembered the first and only time he'd broken his leg, hit by shrapnel from a botched explosion. The Jacksonian gun-runners had sent them cheap degraded materials, and Xav had gone after them viciously. He hadn't lain there quietly, knowing which bone was broken and making no sound. Admittedly with all the rest of what was going on, nobody had heard his screams then. He had learned to be silent under pain later on.

But Miles was only nine. Piotr watched with impassive face as Illyan administered a medical stun and immobilised the leg. The lines of pain on Miles's face eased.

"Better?" Illyan said, and there was genuine affection in his voice, Piotr had to admit.

"Yeah." Miles propped himself up on an elbow. "It wasn't--I threw myself off. I thought Ninny was going to go over. Gran'da didn't--"

Illyan gave a slow nod. "Good. Very well." He stood up, replacing the items in the medkit and closing it up again, and passed it back to Piotr. "Look after the horses. I'll call for help. I'm afraid your historical outing will have to wait for another day." His tone was brusque, cool. Negri's pupil indeed.

"You'll be lucky to get a signal--" Piotr began, then turned sharply.

Illyan had merely abandoned his horse when he'd seen Miles lying on the path, not tied it up or hobbled it. Separated from the others and trapped in a narrow tunnel-like passage, with shouts and noises from the other horses, the gelding had panicked. Much like his rider, Piotr thought even as he moved towards Miles. The gelding had figured out where his friends had gone, and came charging down the path towards the narrow valley.

Illyan leaped forwards, as if he could somehow interpose himself between Miles and a spooked half-ton animal. Piotr snatched Miles up into his arms and pressed himself against the rock wall, between Miles and the agitated animal. Illyan went flying, the horse clattered past Piotr and within moments had settled down into the vale with Fat Ninny and Piotr's horse, as if nothing had happened.

Miles was wide-eyed. "You were fast," he said in tones of awe.

Piotr gave a grunt, and looked round for Illyan. He was scrambling to his feet, rubbing his shoulder ruefully. "Horses," he was muttering. "Who wants a method of transport that randomly runs off and tries to kill you when you leave it alone for five minutes?"

"There's nothing random about it," Piotr told him. "It's completely predictable behaviour." He did not relinquish his hold on Miles. Watching him, Illyan reached for his commlink again. Piotr was entirely unsurprised when Illyan frowned at it, gave it a shake and tried again.

"There's too much rock around here," he said. "It's almost like being in the caves. You won't get a signal. Won't get a flyer or whatever it is you're thinking of, either. The Cetas couldn't get in here with all their tech and power, and you won't either. The only way out is the way we got in."

"Mother won't let me ride with a broken leg," Miles volunteered. "I tried once, but it doesn't really work."

"I wasn't suggesting you try," Piotr said.

"What are you suggesting, then?" Illyan demanded.

"I can carry him and ride back out. Call from help from there. You can go ahead and be ready to meet us."

"You can't carry him and control a horse at the same time!"

"You couldn't," Piotr said. "I can. Wouldn't be the first time, either."

Illyan's hand drifted in the direction of his stunner again, and Piotr could see him thinking it through. With Piotr on horseback, carrying a fragile child in his arms, his stunner would be of no use whatsoever.

Miles was looking back and forth between them, but uncharacteristically, he said nothing.

"I'll carry him. Walking. You can lead the horses."

"You saw the path in. Do you really think that will be safer, on those climbs?"

"Safer than what?" Illyan said, and made an unexpected gesture of frustration. "Safer than letting a man who's tried to murder this boy carry him off when I can do nothing to protect him?"

Piotr was silent, recognising the stance and tone of a man who had his back to the wall and would not surrender. But Vorkosigans did not surrender either.

"It'll be all right, Uncle Simon," Miles said then. It wasn't the voice of a nervous child trying to placate angry adults. It was a more confident tone, filled with a child's trust, trust in a completely unwarranted future.

Trust your Uncle Simon, Piotr found himself thinking, remembering another small boy who had trusted him to keep him safe. He stepped forward and handed the child over to Illyan without saying anything further, and went back to catch the horses.

He did not mount, but led all three over to the start of the path. Illyan walked down the steep bank into the vale, carrying the boy, and arrived with only one dangerous slip on the rocks. Piotr's heart lurched. It had always lurched when Miles came close to some possibly fatal accident, and he wasn't sure when it had stopped being a lurch of hope and became one of fear. It was almost the same, either way.

"Get up, then." Illyan still spoke without any deference to his rank or position. But he stood at the stirrup, then unhesitatingly passed Miles up to Piotr. Piotr settled the boy carefully across his saddlebow, supported with both arms.

"You made me do this with a big sack of flour once," Miles observed.

"Now you see why." Piotr waited for Illyan to mount. "Ninny will follow us through here," he said. "Ride behind. I'm sure you have a lethal weapon there as well as the stunner, so you can be avenged at least, if you're right."

"If you harm him, I'd do better to use it on myself," said Illyan sombrely. "Aral would kill me anyway."

"You're a more vicious dog than I imagined," Piotr returned. "I think Aral will need you. I'll engage not to give you cause. Today," he added, but knew the sound of a hollow addition even as he spoke. Not today, Captain, and not any day.

Miles grinned up at him, as if he too recognised the falsity of that addition, and Piotr sighed inwardly. There would be no going back from this now, no matter what he might say.

"Did you really carry injured rebels through here, Gran'da?" Miles asked as they started up the path.

"Prisoners too, sometimes," Piotr answered. "For interrogation. We killed them afterwards, so there was no risk of them giving us away." He steadied his horse with seat and legs, carefully assessing the path, the likelihood of jolting this child's injured leg, and adjusted his grip slightly.

The path doubled back on itself and he could see Illyan below, halting for a moment as he finally managed to get a comm connection, leaving Piotr to carry his heir through the mountains unguarded.

The boy looked down too, and Piotr saw him run the same calculation. Good. Vorkosigans should not be too trusting, should be able to see all the implications, even when it came to family. Especially when it came to family.

Then Miles looked the other way and gestured to the steep drop on the other side. "Did you throw the bodies in there, Gran'da?"

"If you don't hold still," Piotr said, "you'll end up in there yourself," and Miles laughed, and looked back at him with eyes that held no hint of fear.