It had been nearly two months, and Arkady still hadn't spoken to Tonton since before... since before.
First there were the awful days after the fast-penta, when he didn't know what to think, what to expect, what to ask for even if he could bring himself to ask Tonton about any of it. Then there was the Prime Minister and an assignment unlike anything Arkady had ever imagined. He was immediately drawn into a three-week whirlwind of training and briefings and meetings. He met the Emperor in the second week, for a few necessary moments, and encountered Captain Illyan often enough to stop thinking--really thinking--that this time he'd appeared because Arkady's secret had been deemed actionable after all, and they were going to take Arkady away.
Arkady also received a few innocuous-seeming injections at one-week intervals--maybe his death, maybe his salvation. He desperately wanted to talk to Tonton after those, but it was all he could do to stay awake long enough to eat in his off-hours. Anyway, Tonton had retired from the Service years ago, and Arkady had no idea what his security clearance might be. He didn't even know whether he was permitted to tell anyone about his special training, or about having the fast-penta allergy induced.
Arkady didn't really talk to anyone in those weeks. Even his weekly dutiful call home to his mother was reduced to a quick, apologetic vid message. There was no time for anything else. He had three weeks of training, in which he felt like he learned just enough to be properly terrified at the thought of being the last man standing between the Prime Minister and an assassin--to say nothing of organizing the Prime Minister's schedule.
Three weeks, and then suddenly he was on the job, feeling wetter behind the ears than he had straight out of the Academy. For a week he shadowed Smythe, who seemed equally impervious to worries about hand-to-hand combat or double-booking the Prime Minister. Smythe also had a tendency to mutter under his breath about starstruck junior officers and how he was sure he'd never been this bad.
Still, when the day came the Prime Minister handled the formalities of Smythe's promotion personally. He pinned on the new captain's tabs with his own hands, and Arkady saw his predecessor's composure crack just enough to show he was human after all.
Then Smythe was gone, and Arkady was racing through the days in the Prime Minister's wake. He met Countess Vorkosigan, whose reputation for mingled benevolence and ferocity was, he supposed, about what you'd expect of a Betan who'd been on Barrayar nearly as long as Arkady had been alive. In person she was disarmingly, frankly friendly and yet obviously quite as busy as the Prime Minister. Arkady was only ever the focus of her attention for a few seconds at a time.
Mostly he managed files and papers and schedules while he followed the Prime Minister from place to place. Arkady listened to him when he wanted to talk, and tried desperately not to make any awful mistakes. After a week the scheduling software had started to make sense, and Arkady wasn't sure whether he'd won or it had, but it did make the job easier.
Toward the end of the second week after Smythe's promotion, in a groundcar on the way from ImpSec HQ to Vorhartung Castle, the Prime Minister tilted his head back against the cushions and sighed. He rubbed his forehead with one hand, and said, "Jole, I don't suppose you could summon up a traffic jam to delay us another ten minutes, could you?"
Arkady looked down thoughtfully at his comm link and considered his options. He had been given several contacts with Lord Vorbohn's Municipal Guard, but he couldn't think off the top of his head of who should coordinate this and how. He'd mentally reviewed half of the relevant org chart before he realized that, unlike the rest of the terrifyingly complex things he'd been asked to organize in the last two weeks, that had been a rhetorical question.
Looking up again to see that the Prime Minister still had his hand half-covering his face, Arkady ventured to say, "Sorry, sir, I don't think I could guarantee ten minutes exactly."
The Prime Minister laughed a little at that, lowering his hand to look at Arkady. His grey eyes were suddenly bright, and intent on Arkady in a way that they hadn't been since he'd offered Arkady this assignment.
"I suppose you couldn't," he said. "But you'd try like hell, wouldn't you?"
Arkady shrugged, smiling a little and looking back down at his files to keep himself from staring into the Prime Minister's eyes. "I could set up a procedure for future use, sir. With a little planning we should have it fairly precise."
The Prime Minister just laughed again and said, "Never mind, I'm ready to face them now."
Arkady couldn't help grinning at that, but he kept his eyes on his files.
That night he did stay awake for a while, even after he was in bed, staring at the ceiling and trying not to think. The next day he was still trying not to think, especially not about the stupid funny feeling he got in his chest when he first saw the Prime Minister every morning. He told himself it was the job. He told himself it was loyalty. It was the Prime Minister's famous charisma. He was Arkady's commanding officer and Arkady liked him and wanted to please him. That was all.
Then came the late night working at Vorkosigan House. It was a night like any other in the previous month, except that the Prime Minister had teased him a little about the precision of his filing system, and casually ruffled Arkady's hair. Arkady couldn't help bending his neck for the touch, cat-like. There was a blissful, stupid moment after the Prime Minister straightened when Arkady dared to gaze at him after he turned away.
Everything was a sort of blur after that. Arkady heard Countess Vorkosigan's voice--jumped to his feet--the Prime Minister said something that sounded fond, amused. His actual words were lost to the rushing of blood in Arkady's ears. Arkady turned away, unable to look as she approached--
The Countess's voice was so friendly, so Betan, as she said, "Never fear. We're all on the same side."
Arkady suppressed a shudder--the same one he used to suppress almost daily when he saw Captain Illyan, the raw edge of terror-gratitude-resentment-relief-anticipation. He knew instantly that she had seen, that she knew, and that she didn't mind. She was bloody Betan, of course she didn't mind, though he didn't doubt the knives would come out if he didn't keep his hands to himself--as if he'd dare.
But for all that, it meant that she knew. He'd betrayed himself, and if to her then very, very nearly to the Prime Minister. Would the Betan Countess trouble to keep his secret from her husband? Could any wife keep such a thing from her husband? This was twice in two months he'd given himself away, and this time he'd done it for nothing. Captain Illyan had granted him the dignity of being forced, at least.
Arkady sat up most of that night staring at the comconsole, wanting to call Tonton and throw himself on his mercy. He wondered if he had any right not to call, when he was sworn to notify Tonton of any breach of secrecy with all due speed--but had it really been a breach of secrecy? Could the Countess have said what she said if she really knew? More than anything, Arkady was paralyzed by the thought of all he would have to confess, after all this time.
Eventually he went to bed, because he still had to work in the morning, until someone told him otherwise. The next day nothing had changed--the Prime Minister gave no sign of knowing, and Arkady didn't see Countess Vorkosigan at all. Worst of all, the stupid warm feeling in Arkady's chest was still exactly where it had been the day before, though Arkady made himself stand a little further away from the Prime Minister.
The day after that was the same, and so was the day after that.
For three days after Cordelia's ambush and their subsequent negotiations, Aral managed not to think at all about the things she hadn't quite said about Jole. Jole himself seemed the same as always--or at least within a standard deviation of the same as always, nothing Aral couldn't attribute to his own heightened awareness--which made it easier for Aral to pretend he didn't know things he shouldn't.
But it occurred to Aral, halfway through a morning briefing with Simon, that Simon had to know the actual truth, or at least a part of it. Simon had spoken to Jole under fast-penta before clearing him, and if the boy had a secret it would have been bound to come out.
When Simon told Aral that Jole had passed the advanced screening, he'd added, he hated it, in a dry tone that suggested a marked understatement. Aral had taken it as a cue to apologize and thought nothing else of it. But if Jole had that kind of secret, then Simon had taken it from him by force and made it a test of loyalty at the same time, and had done so under Aral's authority and for Aral's sake. It had never occurred to Aral that the interview might have gone that badly; Simon only ever told him that they passed, and Aral had not imagined Jole could have this kind of secret. He'd assumed that Jole had found it humiliating, as most men did--that was quite bad enough. This, though....
"I've lost you completely," Simon said, and Aral refocused on him immediately.
"Sorry," Aral said, wrenching his mind back to the task at hand. "Vervain, you were saying--"
Simon waved it off. "I was thinking aloud, so far it's nothing. We're pretty well done here, if you've got something else you need to get to."
Aral shook his head. When he walked out of Simon's office he'd be face to face with Jole. No need to rush that.
Simon's eyebrows lifted slightly, and he sat back in his chair, folding his hands and giving Aral his full attention. Aral looked away. "If I were to try to ask you just how badly Jole hated the fast-penta...."
"I would tell you that you know better than to try to get information out of me," Simon said promptly, confirming Aral's faith in him. "I only tell you whether they pass, and everyone you've ever requested for your personal staff has passed the security evaluation."
Aral nodded, and still didn't look directly at Simon. He wanted, horribly, to know just how bad it had been. He wanted to know what he'd put Jole through. He couldn't ever ask.
"And then," Simon said thoughtfully, "I'd probably suggest to Lady Alys that she might check with Cordelia about the precise depth of your interest in your secretary and his likes and dislikes."
Aral shut his eyes at that, but he couldn't help laughing a little. "I'm sure Cordelia would be accurate to the centimeter, if asked. She spared me the details when she pointed it out to me."
"Ah," Simon said, but of course Simon didn't sound surprised. Aral hazarded a look at him, and found Simon frowning slightly, looking up over head-height. Remembering something, replaying it. "You know Negri briefed me about you and Vorrutyer, in the run-up to Escobar."
Aral nodded slightly and looked away again. Simon had no doubt directly observed plenty to inform his opinions of them. To pass it off as knowledge from briefings was kinder, and they never spoke of Escobar if they could help it.
"What you may not know," Simon added, "though I admit the data set is limited, is that you have a statistically significant preference for tall, blond proles when you select your secretaries."
Aral met Simon's eyes to find a disconcertingly fond expression looking back. "They all stand in the same spot, you know. I did, too--maybe that's why I notice it. They're always just behind your shoulder, right at the edge of your field of vision. And even out of the corner of your eye, none of them could ever be mistaken for Ges Vorrutyer."
Aral opened and closed his mouth and finally said the only remotely sensible thing that occurred to him, which wasn't especially. "Antoniou."
Simon waved off the counterexample. "Nearly two meters tall and he even breathed with a Greekie accent. He may have had dark hair and brown eyes, but he more proved the rule than otherwise."
Aral stared down at the edge of Simon's desk, feeling suddenly exposed.
Simon added, "Obviously they were all eminently qualified, or I'd have said something a long time ago. You're allowed your preferences, Aral. To my knowledge you've never done anything stupid with them."
"Yet," Aral said, and then shut his mouth.
When did that happen? With a sinking sensation he realized, Just now. Just when I understood how much he's been hurt because of me.
Aral leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees and burying his face in his hands.
"Do you know," he said, his voice as light as his head felt, "I fell in love with Cordelia at first sight. My mutineers had just brutally attacked her Survey team, destroyed their camp, killed one man and mortally injured another. She was lying in the mud when I found her, vomiting from stunner hangover."
"Ah," Simon said again, and then was silent for a full minute while Aral tried desperately to sort out the inside of his own mind.
He thought of Cordelia first. For decades now he'd always thought of Cordelia first--he gauged situations by what she'd think of them, people by whether she'd like them or, in rare cases, in actual comparison to her. He knew she liked Jole, and he knew precisely what she thought of the situation, and....
For all that Aral had just realized about what had been done to Jole, the Lieutenant had served faithfully for the last month. Aral's memories of the Leper Colony had scarcely faded with the intervening years, and he knew the difference between willing service and motivated fakery. For Jole to face Simon's test of loyalty and agree to work with Aral--which meant, peripherally, working with Simon himself--spoke of more than the physical courage for which Jole already had a reputation. But there was more to it than even that. Aral thought of Jole's smiles, his constant excellence, his genuine friendliness even under pressure, and could not help but be reminded of a forced march with a prisoner--with two prisoners, never forget there were two--at his side.
Which brought Aral right back to Cordelia, and the strange and awful prospect of allowing his loyalty to her to be divided--and yet the prospect was already realized, for all that he was just now recognizing it. Despite this strange new thing he felt toward Jole, which he dared not even attempt to name to himself while sitting in Simon's office in the middle of his workday--Aral still felt as he always had toward Cordelia. She was his lodestone, and his heart still swung to north as it always had.
But as true as that was, there was already a stubborn part of himself that refused to set Jole entirely aside. That feeling was real, too, and all of this was entirely beyond him right now. He'd have to take it to an expert. Later.
For now, Aral composed himself, nodded a goodbye to Simon, and headed out of his office only two minutes behind schedule--well inside the buffer Jole usually allowed him on appointments.
"Cordelia," Aral said carefully that night, after they'd retired to their private sitting room but before either of them had made any move to undress. "I've been thinking."
She looked up from her reader and immediately set it aside, coming to sit close beside him. He expected her to tease a little and ease them both into it, but she said, "About Jole?"
He nodded, watching her closely, and she leaned in and kissed him before sitting back to listen. "I meant what I said. Everything I said."
Aral nodded, glad of the reassurance if only for the extra few seconds it had given him to marshal his thoughts before he spoke. "It isn't just that he's devastatingly attractive."
Cordelia's eyebrows lifted a little, and her mouth crimped up in a cautious smile. "Did you think it was? We were never having this conversation about some mere pretty face. You're not the kind to settle for anything less than everything."
He had in fact often settled for a great deal less than everything, which he thought Cordelia knew. He meant to say it, except that a separate process in his brain brought up the recollection of Ges, and just what everything had been with Ges. The gravity of that had been very nearly inescapable, and of all the things he didn't want to discuss now, he desperately did not want to talk about Ges and all that had gone wrong there. No need to draw the attention of those old ghosts. But with that specter in mind, he couldn't find the words to casually point out his stupider drunken liaisons, either.
Cordelia, as ever, rescued him. "Alcohol-fueled acts of desperation during certain unhappy periods of your life notwithstanding. Those were not exactly free choices. This is, I hope."
Aral sighed and leaned closer to her, allowing himself to surrender eye contact for skin contact. It was a far better reassurance. "Free choice is just the problem, dear Captain." The parallel struck him again, and he smiled grimly. "An unfortunately recurring theme with me, it seems. A prisoner of war, a subordinate officer--I'm the second most powerful man on the planet. I don't dare ask a twenty-five-year-old prole Lieutenant a question he thinks he can't say no to. And worse...."
Cordelia waited for him to go on.
Aral took a deep breath, briefly trying to guess what she'd say, and at what length, when he'd finished explaining. "I don't know any specifics, but an interview under fast-penta is customary to clear the men who work this closely with me--as Prime Minister, as Regent before this. Gregor's men go through worse. But if... if Jole has inclinations which have been kept secret, he'd have been forced to confess them. Simon couldn't have overlooked--"
Cordelia tensed, started to speak, and Aral closed his eyes and pressed bodily closer as he hurried his words out ahead of the inevitable explosion. "It's a vulnerability, Cordelia. Simon can't let a man close to me who could be easily blackmailed to betray me. But Simon was satisfied, so if you're--we're--right about Jole, then it goes to show that Simon didn't make any unfair judgments on that basis."
"No," Cordelia said, very, very dryly. "Only fair judgments on that basis."
Aral winced and drew back--it was worse when she didn't let herself vent--but Cordelia leaned into him in turn. "I know," she said on a sigh. "I know, you're all doing your best."
Aral nudged her a little, which was all it took. Cordelia sat up away from him, put her face in her hands, and launched into a multilingual and impressively vile tirade. Aral sat still and watched as her hands slid up her face--heels to eyes--and then into her hair, her knuckles pale above the red, her elbows pointing out at aggressive angles as she ended, inevitably, with, "--Barrayarans!"
Cordelia took a deep breath, sighed, and snuggled up against his side again. "Present company very slightly excepted."
"Thank you," he said, nearly as dryly as she had spoken before. "Though I believe the middle part was factually accurate for a couple of years when I was in my twenties."
"Which--no," Cordelia said. "I'm not even sure what some of the really colloquial Russian ones mean and I'm not asking now. We were talking about Jole, and how you've sensibly realized that you can't just proposition the poor man."
"Ah," Aral said. Of course Cordelia would have realized that. "Then how--oh."
Cordelia smiled. "You'll have a proper go-between. It will be very Barrayaran."
Aral snorted, even as he raised his hands in surrender. He had other worries about the whole idea, more occurring to him every second--what if they were entirely wrong about Jole? What if they were right, but he didn't want Aral, wanted Aral but not in the same way--but no doubt Cordelia would intercept every one of his anxieties just as blithely. Anyway, that was the go-between's business, sorting out all the expectations on both sides.
"There will be nothing proper about it, dear Captain."
Cordelia offered him a wry smile, and said, "I suppose not. But--well. He won't be the first young person in approximately this situation who I've talked through it, you know. Once we've sorted that out I imagine the go-between part will be relatively straightforward."
Aral shut his eyes for a moment, parsing. "When you say, not the first...."
"There is a certain set of young Barrayaran ladies who regard me as their natural confidante," Cordelia said almost primly, and Aral opened his eyes to see the look on her face--a little mischievous, but mainly serious, as she always was when she felt she was striking a blow for modern Betan freedoms. He'd always known that there were such women, of course--and of course they would go to Cordelia, notorious Betan that she was, for advice....
"Come to think of it," Cordelia added, "it might only be the part where I'm married to you that's so new, in the end. I have negotiated a certain number of introductions over the years."
Aral felt actually speechless for a moment, wondering which of the many bright young ladies who always flocked around Cordelia--no. No. Better not to know. Definitely better not to know. It was, however, crucially relevant to ask, "Only young ladies?"
Cordelia looked away, carefully casual and beautifully circumspect as she said, "There may have been a young man or two. Not as many."
Aral nodded slowly. That would be good, then. She'd have some idea what to expect from Jole--probably better than Aral would. It would never have occurred to him to seek out any older person for advice, at that age. But then he'd had Ges, and there had been no one like Cordelia in Vorbarr Sultana forty years ago. All the same--Jole had been through enough. Aral had to be sure she'd be careful of him.
"Anything you say is going to seem like getting caught, to him, you know. He hasn't sought you out."
"He hasn't," Cordelia agreed slowly. "But he already... he already knows I caught him, Aral. That night in the library--perhaps I was only projecting, but I'm nearly certain that he knew exactly what I saw. The way he reacted--"
"A week ago," Aral demanded, horrified. "A week ago, and he--Cordelia, he must be in agony, if he's been waiting a week for the axe to fall."
And yet he couldn't remember anything out of the ordinary, all week. Jole had seemed a little more serious, perhaps, a little tired, but it was the time when the job started getting to all his secretaries. Jole had been his efficient and indispensable self all week, seeming neither unduly stressed nor angry nor frantically eager to please. Only this morning Jole had smiled at him over his coffee, making jokes about how to fill the vacancy at the Ministry for Heavy Industries.
"That's why I said what I said, right then," Cordelia pointed out. "So he'd know I didn't mind."
Never fear, she'd said. We're all on the same side. She hadn't even been speaking to Aral, except incidentally. She'd been speaking to Jole.
Aral laughed, from the tension and horror and disbelief. "You already propositioned him for me. In front of me."
Cordelia smiled a little. "Well, perhaps. I think if he'd been inclined to hear it that way he'd surely have said something by now. It'll be better to clear the air, get everything straight between us. God knows I'm not going to go in guns blazing, like ImpSec all over again, demanding that he tell me his--his intentions."
"Good," Aral said, still trying to fathom how any of this might look to Arkady, after a week of wondering.... But if Arkady could hold up as well as he had to this pressure--either he didn't feel nearly as much pressure as Aral would have expected in the circumstances, or else Aral simply didn't know enough to be able to predict his reaction at all.
"Do take all the sensible precautions, though," Aral added. "Remember he's Barrayaran and a military officer. Don't get between him and the door, and keep your hands where he can see them. No sudden movements. Even if you're being gentle about it, he's going to be on edge. But--even if he doesn't want anything to do with me, you've got to speak to him, Cordelia. You've got to put him out of his misery."
"With all due haste," Cordelia promised, and Aral had to have faith in her. She was the best he could do for Jole, now.
For all that he was the second busiest man on the planet--a fact Arkady had been able to confirm in the process of working out appointments with other Great Men's schedulers, all of whom agreed that the Emperor's man was quite possibly superhuman where Arkady was only required to be very, very good--the Prime Minister's daily agenda had one consistent feature. Every day, he spent an hour at Vorkosigan House for lunch.
"When I was Regent, it was my time with my son. I took two hours, back then, except in actual time of war. I cut it down to one when Miles went off to the Academy, but I find it's good to hold a line somewhere against the work taking me over completely. It's my time with Cordelia, most days."
As a matter of fairness, the Prime Minister insisted that Arkady should also be off-duty during that hour each day, so he spent an hour each day in the vast and busy kitchen of Vorkosigan House. Arkady usually sat at a corner of the biggest worktable and ate whatever was put in front of him. And while he ate, he listened.
To the retainers and armsmen who kept Vorkosigan House running, Arkady's commanding officer wasn't the Prime Minister, nor even the Admiral, but the Count, who just a few years ago had been Lord Vorkosigan. In the living memory of a few old women whose exact function in the household Arkady had not yet determined, he had even been Lord Aral once. They told stories as if they'd happened last week, about a clever, mischievous boy with a solemn older brother, a pretty little sister, and a doting mother--the Princess-and-Countess whose murder, along with two of her three children, had turned General Count Piotr Vorkosigan against Mad Emperor Yuri, touching off a civil war.
They told other stories, too, eager for new ears, like a family who'd already heard each other's jokes and anecdotes far too many times. In his first weeks Arkady had already been treated to a variety of household stories, including the dramatic tale of the soltoxin attack on the Lord Regent. This was accompanied by an emphatic assertion from the assistant cook that Lord Vorkosigan wasn't a mutie, only injured before he was born--honorably injured. There had been nods of affirmation from everyone else in the kitchen, and Arkady had tried to nod just as firmly himself, and silently vowed never again to let the familiar slander of Lord Vorkosigan pass unopposed. In return, the kitchen folk had all accepted him as a part of the household, and spoke fondly of his predecessors--though, he thought, less fondly of Smythe than some, and none so fondly as Commander Koudelka.
More than a week after the incident in the library, Arkady was intercepted on his way down to the kitchen at midday by none other than Countess Vorkosigan. He suppressed his impulse to back away, offering a bland and slightly inquisitive smile. "Can I help you, my lady?"
The Countess smiled, and said, "Aral is taking lunch in the form of a sandwich at the comconsole today, writing an epistle to Miles at the Academy. Would you join me for a meal?"
For a petulant instant he wanted to refuse. This was his off-duty time, made inviolate by the Prime Minister's order, and he was supposed to go and eat soup and fresh bread and pastries. He'd been wanting to hear the latest gossip about who was likely to fill the recent vacancy in the Count's complement of armsmen. But she was the Countess, and she knew, and Arkady dared not refuse her anything.
"I'm happy to, my lady." Jole offered her his arm, which she took, patting him firmly on the arm, as if in--reassurance? Possession? He couldn't even begin to guess what she was about, approaching him now, when it had begun to seem she would let it go.
The Countess chatted about the house as they walked up to the third floor, and into the Count and Countess's private rooms. She mostly repeated things Arkady had heard already, from servants who'd worked here longer than the Countess had been on Barrayar, but Arkady made the right noises and filed away the relevant information, all the while wondering which way the axe was going to fall. Whatever she said to him, he could already guess she was probably going to be horribly kind about it.
And she expected him to actually eat, too. There was a table laid for two, and food enough for twice that. The Countess directed him to the seat which left him nearer the door, without having to turn his back on it. She took the place across from him and encouraged him to fill his own plate. Arkady took the smallest portions he politely could, keeping his eyes on his hands and his plate.
"Breathe, kiddo," the Countess said in a warmly knowing voice, startling Arkady into looking up at her in naked disbelief. "Like I said, it really is all right. I'm on your side."
In the next instant, Arkady dropped his gaze. As if they'd have a damned thing to talk about if it were really all right. As if he had a side that he'd dare to have her on. "Yes, milady."
"Yes, milady," the Countess repeated, and Arkady gritted his teeth against answering back. He was only being polite, he had to be polite. But--he forced himself to consider--her tone wasn't mocking, or angry. She sounded thoughtful. What she had to think about here, he had no idea, but apparently he'd made her think.
"Lieutenant--may I call you Arkady?"
Arkady squeezed his eyes shut for an instant. Say yes, he told himself. Smile, say yes, eat, charm the Prime Minister's wife, go along, get along. His stomach was a solid knot, and he realized he was compulsively flexing his toes in his boots, a stress-habit he'd had ever since he regained the use of his feet in ImpMil. It was his way of reminding himself he could run if he had to, but of course it had never come to that. How could it come to that?
Still, he couldn't make himself say yes. She wasn't his friend, she knew a secret he hadn't wanted to tell--a secret he shouldn't have to defend again, not to anyone, not after Captain Illyan. He took a breath, met her gaze, and said very evenly and without smiling, "Of course you may call me whatever you like, ma'am."
The Countess looked taken aback, as if no one had ever refused to accept her familiarities before. "All right, Lieutenant. I can see we're off to a bad start, but I promise you...."
She trailed off, and then sat back in her chair, folding her arms and narrowing her eyes a little, studying him. Arkady dropped his own hands to his sides and sat up straight. He kept parade-ground still, waiting for her next move.
"There's nothing I can promise you, of course," she said finally, her tone thoughtful, almost abstracted, as if she were not so much speaking to him as thinking aloud about him. "If you don't trust me, what is my word to you? Nothing I claim or assert is going to help, and merely the fact that I come from an enlightened world isn't going to cut any ice with you, or it would have already."
None of that had been a question, and Arkady wasn't obligated to respond. He forced even his toes to be still.
"Very well," the Countess said, then paused again, tapping a finger against her lips. "Let me simply be clear: I have observed your interest in my husband. I have extrapolated from it the likelihood that you have an interest in men generally. Lieutenant, as far as only you yourself are concerned, I really do not give a damn. If I did I'd have done something about it already; I am not known as a reticent woman."
Now they came to it. She was Betan, she didn't give a damn about Arkady himself, no--but then there was her husband, and the way she'd seen Arkady looking at him.
"It may interest you to know that I am perfectly well aware that before he met me, the greatest love affair of my husband's life was with a man."
Arkady's training and discipline paid off. One kept still on the parade ground no matter what was whispered or shouted at one, no matter what happened in one's peripheral vision, no matter what sudden pain or surprise occurred. Arkady kept his face utterly expressionless as Countess Vorkosigan herself repeated a notorious slander against her husband, who from all Arkady had seen adored and trusted her.
Arkady remembered abruptly that he had nearly repeated that slander himself, under fast-penta, to Captain Illyan, when the Captain asked him whether anyone could accuse him of homosexuality. People can accuse. People accuse the Prime-- and Captain Illyan had cut him off before he could speak another damning word, protecting him from his own speech when he could not protect himself. Repeating such an accusation against any Vor, let alone the Prime Minister, the former Regent, the Conqueror of Komarr and Hero of Escobar, Count Vorkosigan, to the Chief of ImpSec, would have been suicide.
Countess Vorkosigan repeated it blithely, over a dainty above-stairs lunch, and seemed to think that doing so would persuade him that she could be trusted.
"So you see," the Countess said, seeming to search his expression for a reaction. She wasn't going to raise a reaction from him, no matter what she said. "It isn't only about you, Lieutenant--and I do care very much, because Aral also feels--"
"Please stop, milady," Arkady said, before he realized he'd intended to say anything. That would have earned him hours of punishment detail, if he'd been on inspection when he did it. Of all the things to say: please stop. At least he'd remembered to properly append her title.
But the Countess stopped short, just as Arkady had when Captain Illyan ordered him silent, and stared at him with what seemed to be concern.
Arkady said nothing. Let her give up on it, let her just dismiss him. Whatever her purpose here, whatever else she might have been about to say about her husband, let her just forget it and let him alone--
"All right," the Countess said, and for an instant Arkady felt relief wash through him. "I don't mean to press you, or to force confidences from you, so we'll do it this way, Lieutenant. It's been a week, at least, and there must be things you're wondering about. Ask me anything you like about Aral, about what's going on, and I will tell you what I can."
Arkady could only stare. That wasn't an order, he told himself desperately. It can't have been an order, the Countess is not in my chain of command, I have no obligation to obey her. It was a damned good thing he didn't, because he'd sworn an oath nine years ago never to ask exactly those questions, and--she couldn't possibly mean what she seemed to mean, about her husband. About the Prime Minister. Aral also feels, she'd said, and not angrily or bitterly. I'm on your side.
Arkady had sworn nine years ago never to seek a man out who had not been introduced to him. He'd never thought he could seek a man out by accident, just by looking at him. Was he forsworn already? But even if he was, he couldn't ask--and all this time the Countess was watching him, waiting for him to comply, and he didn't know what she wanted, and he didn't know what she really meant to do with the power she held over him. What if she saw on his face how desperately he wanted to know, would that mean he had asked? He thought he was keeping a straight face, but he couldn't be certain. He shouldn't want to know, anyway--not about the Prime Minister, not about the Countess's famously devoted husband.
The Countess opened her mouth again, and Arkady couldn't bear to hear what she'd say next. He was on his feet and at attention before he knew what he was doing. "I can't speak of this, my lady. I am forbidden to speak of it, or to listen to another speaking of it. I beg you, please, stop."
The Countess blinked up at him, and then said, "I am sorry, Lieutenant. I wanted to put you out of your misery, and I fear I've added to it."
She was sorry, how could she be sorry, she'd said she didn't give a damn about him. Unless--unless--but he couldn't ask. He wasn't supposed to know any of this.
"If you ever are able to talk about this, and wish to," the Countess said, "I'll be happy to answer your questions at any time. If not--you can go, Lieutenant, I won't keep you."
He didn't realize until he pivoted on his heel that he'd been trembling with the effort of keeping still. For all that, he upheld the dignity of his uniform. He didn't start to run until after he'd shut the door behind him.
Scarcely a quarter of an hour had passed before Cordelia came into the library, very nearly slamming the door behind her. Aral looked up from the comconsole--he'd hardly had time to get distracted from writing to Miles--and then was on his feet. Cordelia was standing just inside the door looking worried.
"You were right," she said, her ruefulness a very thin veneer over her anxiety. "He seemed to think he'd gotten caught."
"Hell," Aral said, mind already skipping ahead to the ramifications. Cordelia sounded half-traumatized herself, and she'd come back far too soon. The conversation had gone beyond mere awkwardness. Jole had been under as much pressure as Aral might have expected--and either he'd just exploded all over Cordelia, or he was in a worse state than ever and Cordelia was blaming herself.
"He withdrew from the field in good order," Cordelia said, sounding as if she were putting the best face on it she could, and that was damning with faint praise if Aral had ever heard it. "But--I think every time I tried to reassure him I tripped another trigger. Within the first three minutes he was looking at me like he was facing a firing squad. I brought you up only to try to reassure him, but that made it worse. Finally I tried turning it around and asked him if he wanted to ask me anything. That seemed to upset him more than anything else, and he asked me to stop talking."
Aral rubbed his forehead. Firing squad. That might not have been just a figure of speech, and Jole might be even more worried than Cordelia herself realized. "He asked, at least. It's good that he dared to ask."
Cordelia said nothing, and when Aral looked up she was giving him one of those looks that had been so familiar in her first year here, horrified though not quite incredulous.
"It's always safer to keep silent," Aral pointed out. "You know his secret, you're his commanding officer's wife, you wield enormous power--it would have been much safer for him to keep quiet and let you say anything you wanted. It's a good sign that he felt confident enough to ask you to stop."
Or a bad sign, that he'd felt desperate enough to risk it. Aral thought he could see Cordelia arriving at that conclusion without his saying it.
She said, "Oh God, Barrayarans," and it sounded more than usually like a prayer.
Aral spread his hands in silent apology. She had not been a properly neutral choice of go-between, but it had seemed necessary for her to speak to Jole. Aral had relied too much, he supposed, on Cordelia's almost legendary success in turning people's minds around to her way of thinking. He should have remembered that Jole, though younger than himself, was probably more thoroughly Barrayaran than he was--or than anyone else who'd spent a long time in Cordelia's orbit.
That ought to suggest a way out of this, a way to mend things for Jole; he almost had it.
"Furthermore," Cordelia said, visibly returning to her intended report, "he said he'd been forbidden to speak about the matter--about being interested in men, I assume, though he was naturally a bit vague. He said he wasn't even allowed to listen to other people speak of it. He can't have meant a lawful order from within his chain of command."
There was a tone in Cordelia's voice that made that he can't have more an order than a question.
Aral shook his head. "No, it wouldn't be--among other things, I am his chain of command now, and neither I nor Gregor ever said any such thing to him, nor would Simon's men in training. It must have been something personal. I never even thought...."
Aral ran a hand through his hair. Beautiful, brilliant, young, heroic, friendly and open--of course Jole would have someone already. And that someone had given Jole instructions on how to keep them both safe by remaining unincriminated. Forcefully stated instructions, scrupulously obeyed--an older, more experienced lover, likely, or just someone with an irresistible force of personality. Someone, perhaps, who had been helping Jole to feel safe despite being caught, until Cordelia--at Aral's behest--forced it all into the open today.
The thought of Ges flashed through Aral's mind, and all the things he had done and not done because Ges demanded or forbade it. All the things he'd been idiotically unafraid of, with Ges at his side. The leverage one man could exert over another was almost immeasurable, when they were trapped together inside a secret.
"Aral?" Cordelia said. "He was frightened of disobeying that order. If someone in his personal life is scaring him that badly...."
"He was probably more scared of you than of the man he's obeying. You're the unknown quantity, from his perspective," Aral assured her absently, with most of his attention focused on what he could salvage out of this awful farce and how, and how quickly.
Jole deserved better than this, in every respect. It didn't matter what Aral felt himself; he had never had any real right to feel it. It only mattered that he could and must extricate a loyal man from the untenable situation he'd carelessly driven him into.
"I think I may have better luck reassuring him--at least I speak the language. Do you know where he is now?"
He'd retreated in good order, she'd said. Down to the kitchens for his lunch? But he was probably too rattled to eat--or perhaps Aral was only projecting. His sandwich was still untouched on the plate beside the comconsole, and even if he had time he didn't think he'd be able to eat anytime soon.
"One of the maids saw him running up the back stairs," Cordelia offered. "I suppose he could have ducked into any of the guest rooms, though I'm sure he'll keep out of the staff quarters."
Aral shook his head. If a man were going to seek high ground when he was threatened, he'd seek the highest ground available. The only question was whether Jole would have settled for the attics or attempted the roof.
Aral squeezed Cordelia's hand in passing, already on his way out the door as he called up the comm channel for the ImpSec detail who guarded the house. "Commander, I wonder if you've seen my secretary in the past five minutes."
For a moment, folded up on the floor against the furthest wall of the attic, Arkady allowed himself to believe that it was the sprint up the stairs that had left him breathless. After that, he took out his handkerchief, wiped the sweat off his face, and told himself that at least he had the better part of the Prime Minister's lunch hour left to get himself under control.
For now he was simply visiting the attics, making use of the Prime Minister's permission to explore the house during any free time he had there, which had been casually extended to him weeks ago. According to the kitchen staff Commander Koudelka's little daughters played up here when they visited. Arkady had as much right to be here as anyone.
He couldn't think. He wouldn't think. The sooner he forgot everything the Countess had said, the better. He was going to have to spend the afternoon pretending he'd forgotten it already. He had to try.
But if it were true, if her husband--if the Prime Minister--Aral also feels--
She couldn't have meant that. It couldn't be true. Even if it was, he didn't dare think of it. If he knew such things about the Prime Minister, then it would mean that he had sought out the man, the information--even if accidentally--and his oath was as good as forfeit. He could not listen to slander against the Prime Minister, let alone believe it. Therefore it couldn't be true.
Arkady froze when he heard a door open, and scrambled to his feet when he heard a familiar stride begin to approach down one of the long aisles. No, no, no, not now, not yet....
Once he'd gained his feet he just stood there, transfixed with his back to the wall, unable to make an advance and with nowhere to retreat.
The Prime Minister appeared from behind a stack of boxes, and Arkady forced himself to straighten up to attention. The motion made his ears ring and his heart move in an altogether different way than it usually did at the sight of his commanding officer. His skin was suddenly prickling with heat, though it had been cool in the attic a moment ago.
The Prime Minister was nearly scowling when he met Arkady's gaze, and he said, "Sit down, Lieutenant, that's an order."
Over the ringing in his ears Arkady heard his footsteps approaching at double-time.
It was just as well he'd been ordered, because Arkady's legs failed him--like so many of his bad days at ImpMil, like all of his nightmares. He tried to look up at the Prime Minister to assure himself this wasn't a bad dream, even if it was something worse instead, but a hand on the back of his neck forced his chin to his chest.
The Prime Minister's voice was shockingly gentle. "Breathe, boy, breathe. Oxygen first. All else can wait."
It was only a moment or two later that Arkady stopped feeling like he was about to die and started feeling like an idiot--an idiot who couldn't stop wiggling his toes--but he didn't raise his head right away. The Prime Minister's hand, which had felt cool at first, felt warm now. His thumb was moving slightly across the hairline at the nape of Arkady's neck, and Arkady wasn't sure that the bottom wouldn't fall out of his chest again if he met the man's eyes.
Arkady opened his eyes and peered out from under his lashes, and realized that the Prime Minister was on his knees. It was that sight that made him pick his head up, because that was all wrong, that he should be on his knees for Arkady, worried about Arkady. Arkady was the one who was supposed to be vigilantly monitoring the Prime Minister's health, not the other way around.
The Prime Minister didn't take his hand away even when Arkady met his eyes. His grip tightened, and Arkady thought for an instant that he was about to be shaken by the scruff, like a bad puppy, but the Prime Minister seemed only to intend to keep Arkady looking toward him. As if Arkady could look away, now, with the Prime Minister staring intently into his eyes.
I don't care if it's true or if it's not, Arkady realized, before the Prime Minister said a word. I'd fight assassins for you. I'd follow you anywhere.
"I swear," the Prime Minister said in a low, solemn voice. "By my word as Vorkosigan, Lieutenant, you have nothing to fear from me."
Arkady dragged in a deep breath and closed his eyes as that breath shook its way back out. The Prime Minister's hand stayed on the nape of his neck, warm and solid. He'd known that, of course he'd known that--surely he had to have known that--but to have it said, sworn....
"You have nothing to fear from my wife, either," he added dryly, "except the occasional enormously inappropriate conversation."
Arkady was startled into a bark of laughter, reflexive as breath escaping after a blow to the solar plexus. The Prime Minister smiled a little, ruefully, as though everything the Countess had said was merely an eccentricity of hers that he'd long accepted. His eyes were very intent, though, not relaxing into that smile, studying Arkady's reaction.
"I'm sorry about that," he said. "You could have told her to stop at any time, I assure you."
Arkady winced at the memory, and worse, at the strong implication that the Countess had already told her husband the way the conversation had gone. But if she'd told him that....
The Prime Minister's grip tightened, and his smile fell away into absolute seriousness. "I also hope you will never forget, Lieutenant, that I chose you for this duty. You may not be liege-sworn to me personally, but you are my man and my responsibility. You are under my protection, and whatever you may ever have to fear, from any quarter, for any reason, however private--you should know I will do everything in my power to protect you. Not because I like you, or because my wife likes you, not even for the sake of the good service you do me, but because I asked you to serve and you assented. At that moment I became responsible for you, and I will not forget that."
Arkady's breath stopped. It had to mean that the Prime Minister knew, knew everything about him and meant to protect him anyway. Even Tonton had demanded an oath from Arkady in return--that was only good sense--but the Prime Minister simply offered it to him, without condition. And then too, when this man said everything in my power, he promised a staggering force.
Arkady hauled in a breath and managed to say, "Yes, sir."
It ought to have been thank you at the very least, or one of those epic vows of eternal devotion that took up ten stanzas in a ballad, but it was all Arkady could manage on the spur of the moment. He had never been this safe, and he had never felt more like he was about to free fall off of the entire world. Only Vorkosigan's touch anchored him here.
Vorkosigan squeezed the back of his neck again, and finally let go, shifting to sit down. Arkady hastily drew his legs in, and the Prime Minister settled just past Arkady's feet, as close as he could be in the narrow little attic aisle.
"I don't suppose you got to eat any lunch," the Prime Minister said, in a perfectly ordinary voice. Arkady blinked a couple of times, tilting his head back against the wall to keep from placing his own hand over the spot where Vorkosigan's had been. It felt cold, now.
"No, sir," Arkady said, trying to shift his thoughts back to the ordinary. Lunch. "Did you? The Countess said you were writing to Lord Vorkosigan, did you--"
The Prime Minister waved this away. "If Miles has made it through the last twenty years without whatever piece of paternal advice I was going to convey, he'll manage to get through another day. But no, I didn't get any lunch either."
Vorkosigan--the Prime Minister--surely Vorkosigan, here in the attic, sitting on the floor--shifted and reached into his back pocket, withdrawing a small flat box full of something that probably wasn't breath mints. He plucked one out and then offered the box to Arkady, saying, "Antacid and glucose combined, soothes your stomach and boosts your blood sugar all at once."
A recurrence of Vorkosigan's ulcer was one of the top five health concerns Arkady was supposed to watch for; he wasn't to permit the Prime Minister to be badly stressed on an empty stomach, or to replace meals with coffee. He supposed Vorkosigan had probably had it drilled into him at least as sternly as Arkady had--and then too, Vorkosigan would remember what the ulcer had felt like.
"Thank you, sir," Arkady said, and popped one of the little pink things into his mouth.
Brillberry flavor--Arkady's favorite. He couldn't help smiling as he crunched the chalky sweet. Vorkosigan smiled a little back as he returned the box to his pocket. It struck Arkady all over that the Prime Minister--that Vorkosigan--knew about him, and the Countess knew about him, and she'd said--at least, she'd seemed to be saying....
Vorkosigan had chased him up to the attic just because he was upset, and promised to protect him.
Arkady felt the smile disappear off his face. He had made his own promises. He had sworn to have nothing to do with men who weren't part of Tonton's organization, and surely if Vorkosigan knew the code words and cared to use them he'd have just said by now. Anyway, it would be horribly dangerous, even if it were possible. Vorkosigan might protect Arkady, but if it came to that, Vorkosigan himself would be in terrible danger, and the scandal would touch the Countess, and young Lord Vorkosigan at the Academy, and all of the Prime Minister's party, all of Count Vorkosigan's allies. In this as in everything since he'd first met the Prime Minister, Arkady only had to make one mistake to affect the entire Imperium.
"Do you know," Vorkosigan said lightly, and when Arkady looked at him Vorkosigan was leaning back just as Arkady had been, his head tilted back against the stack of cases behind him, his gaze trained on the low ceiling. "The day I met Cordelia, she called me a hired killer, and two days later she called me the Butcher of Komarr to my face."
Arkady's mouth dropped open, though a couple of seconds later it occurred to him that that wasn't, in light of today's conversation with the Countess, really astonishing at all. Vorkosigan tilted his head just enough to look over at Arkady, and his eyes were smiling warmly. Arkady realized that Vorkosigan would welcome an actual response.
"That... sounds like an unpromising start, sir."
Vorkosigan nodded and looked away again. "She was my prisoner at the time, under wretched conditions. Inhumane for all of us, in fact. It was a terrible start, and it only got worse after that. Until she came to Barrayar after the war I had no idea that it was really possible that anything could come of it, but here we are, twenty-one years later. Ever since, I can't bring myself to give up entirely on anything just because it starts out badly."
Arkady's heart sped up again. Vorkosigan glanced at him and smiled almost shyly, which shouldn't be possible. Arkady was terribly aware that he was smiling unguardedly back, and he couldn't stop even when he knew that he must be giving himself away yet again.
Vorkosigan looked away and then got to his feet. Arkady tried to follow, bracing his hand on the wall and drawing his feet in, but Vorkosigan waved him back down with a stern look, and Arkady subsided. Vorkosigan moved just one stride further away, to peer into the top carton on a stack.
"It also changed my standards for awkward and inappropriate conversations," Vorkosigan explained, with one hand in the box. He was sifting through loose papers, from the sound, proper paper instead of flimsies. "She's gotten better with practice, but at times Cordelia is still very... Betan, in her choice of topics. If she brings up anything uncomfortable, you may always tell her so, without any fear of giving offense to her or, through her, to me."
Vorkosigan looked in his direction to see that he was understood, and Arkady nodded. He'd done as much today, though it had been more than merely uncomfortable. But perhaps it had been only that, only a conversation that seemed ordinary to the Countess. Perhaps the Prime Minister had moved away when he saw Arkady smiling, perhaps Arkady had entirely misunderstood.
"On the other hand," Vorkosigan went on, lifting a page out and tilting it toward the light to read it, so that Arkady could see the handwriting on it was antique and half-legible cursive, "if she should bring up a topic which you fear to pursue because it is improper--even, perhaps, actionable--"
Slander, that meant. Arkady held very still. Vorkosigan tilted the page the other way and kept his eyes fixed on it.
"You should know that Cordelia will bring these things up, without regard to the possible repercussions, when she knows she's speaking to someone absolutely trustworthy. She shares my good opinion of you, you see, so she feels free to discuss delicate matters with you as she would with me. You can trust that she will keep confidence just as she knows you will. So if you should find yourself interested in some topic she raises, it is quite--safe--to pursue the discussion with her."
Arkady looked down at his hands. If he looked at Vorkosigan--if Vorkosigan was looking at him--if he even thought this through, he would surely dishonor himself. He couldn't ask, not by word or deed. It wasn't just a conversation, and it wasn't just the Countess.
"Thank you, sir," Arkady said carefully, choosing his words with the utmost care. "It's good to know that. I think--in retrospect, I...."
Arkady trailed off, lost. In retrospect he still couldn't have said anything to the Countess but what he said, only politer. He still didn't know what he could say to Vorkosigan, no matter how desperately he wanted to; for the first time he found himself counting out the hours till he'd be off duty.
They were both silent. Even the paper didn't rustle. Vorkosigan had to be standing utterly motionless, and Arkady still didn't dare look up.
At last, Vorkosigan said, "Perhaps it was a conversation you could have found interesting, in some other circumstances. Perhaps discussing it would have entailed speaking for someone else, as well, someone you cannot speak for without leave."
"Yes," he said, quickly, gratefully, beyond wondering how Vorkosigan could know. "That is, there is another conversation I must have before I could speak to the Countess about that--that topic. But I--I will speak to someone else--because I do want to speak to her, if I can."
He did. He wanted to talk to Tonton, this instant, with an urgency that he hadn't felt since he was sixteen years old and wondering if Major Lord Vorgorov would really answer if Arkady called the number on the card. And if--if, if, if--he would willingly brave the Countess again, and find out if Vorkosigan were saying anything like what he seemed to be saying, if Tonton would only give him leave. Arkady had nothing to fear from Vorkosigan, in any case. Nothing but the terrible temptation to give up on caution and honor.
Vorkosigan was silent for so long that Arkady did look up. Vorkosigan was staring intently into the carton in front of him, both hands gripping its edge. As Arkady watched, his lips parted, closed, parted again.
"If that is what you want," Vorkosigan said slowly, and Arkady saw uncertainty from Vorkosigan for the first time. That's for me, he realized. That's because he's not sure what I want. It was heady for an instant, and then horrible--he wasn't free to express himself plainly, but he couldn't bear to leave Vorkosigan wondering, either.
Then again, for all Vorkosigan had said, he hadn't needed the words to reassure Arkady.
"Sir," Arkady said, and Vorkosigan looked up sharply. Arkady reached his hand up. Vorkosigan crossed the distance between them in a single decisive stride, offering his hand to help Arkady up, but he didn't quite close the distance. Arkady did that, pressing his palm to Vorkosigan's and taking hold. Vorkosigan's grip tightened on his hand a beat after, following his lead.
Arkady meant to make it only symbolic, to push himself up under his own power, but Vorkosigan hauled him up before he'd gathered himself. They were suddenly face to face, only their clasped hands between their chests. Arkady was disconcerted to realize he was looking down at Vorkosigan. They'd never stood this close before, and Vorkosigan had the air of a big man even if not the actual height of one.
"Breathe, Lieutenant," Vorkosigan admonished softly. Arkady thought Vorkosigan was scarcely breathing himself. He was still holding on to Arkady's hand, but then Arkady was still holding on to his.
"Yes, sir," Arkady replied. "Yes."
A quiet and discreet noise from the direction of Jole's wrist comm made Aral look up from the box of papers he was sorting through. Jole had made a plausibly interested noise when Aral offered to show him some old papers written by the sixth Count Vorkosigan's aide-de-camp--a predecessor of sorts to Jole.
(Not like that, Aral found himself thinking. Surely not. Though one could, in that light, reconsider those ubiquitous margin-sketches of the sixth Count....)
It had given them both a chance to regain their composure, and Aral honestly couldn't say which of them had needed it more. By the time he'd let go of Jole's hand--seconds, ages too late--Aral had felt like a teenaged boy out back of the stables again. It was ridiculous, at his age.
It was, at his age, a gift all unlooked for.
And now the quiet interlude in the attic was at an end. Jole silenced the little alarm, and said, "Sir, we should head back to the office. Minister Rastka is probably already waiting for you."
Aral nodded and set down the papers he'd been looking through, brushing the dust off on his palms. He hoped those papers from the sixth Count's aide hadn't all crumbled away up here, or been appropriated by Miles and Ivan and Elena, or Kou's girls, for some game of spies and secrets.
Jole neatly closed the box he'd been looking through, and followed Aral down the narrow attic aisle one proper stride behind. He came closer to Aral's shoulder once they were out in the corridor, and moved smoothly to precede him down the stairs. Aral was occasionally irritated by that particular point of protocol--if he were clumsy enough to trip on the stairs he didn't particularly want to take his secretary out on the way down, and if there were assassins waiting below things would have already gone too far wrong for a human shield to help--but on the other hand it meant he could spend five flights of stairs looking at Jole without being particularly obvious.
Aral was just thinking that he'd have to take Jole up to the attic again sometime to look around for those papers when Jole stopped abruptly. Aral, still a couple of steps above, had no trouble seeing over his shoulder. Cordelia had just stepped up onto the landing below them.
Her eyes flicked quickly from Jole to Aral and back, her expression cautiously neutral. Aral remembered abruptly how anxious she had been about Jole, and that he had left her with scarcely a word--an inevitable triage that seemed less obviously correct now, seeing her so uncertain. Aral stepped quickly down and around Jole to stand between them, if only so that he could see both their faces at once.
Jole followed him down off the lowest step to stand on the landing just behind Aral's shoulder; he would be visible just from the corner of his eye if Aral didn't turn his head to look. Jole held his ground, and his expression was as cautious as Cordelia's. They were mirrors of each other, in fact, and Aral stood between them. If he looked closely, he thought he might see himself reflected back infinitely between those two pairs of eyes.
And yet it wasn't his place to speak to, or for, either of them. Cordelia and Jole had to be able to deal with each other directly or all else was impossible. Aral kept still and quiet, watching them both and waiting.
"Lieutenant," Cordelia said after a moment.
Jole nodded quickly. "Milady."
Jole said, "I think--" just as Cordelia said, "I should--" and they both stopped short. Aral wondered if it was as obvious to each of them as it was to him that they were both trying desperately not to smile when the other might think it meant they weren't taking this seriously.
Jole bowed slightly, yielding precedence to Cordelia, who said, "I apologize for earlier, I fear I talked so much you didn't get a chance to eat. That was thoughtless of me. The cook is packing up some food that will keep, for both of you, to eat whenever you do get a chance."
Jole did smile a little at that. "Thank you, ma'am. And I also apologize. I have no questions for you at the present time--" there was a distinct stress on the words, and Aral knew that this adhered to the letter of whatever Jole had been forbidden. "But I think I may, soon. Perhaps even tomorrow, if--if that would be convenient, milady."
Tomorrow. Aral dropped his own gaze to his toes, and forced himself not to think about that. He'd never get through the day if he could only think tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.
"Any time, Lieutenant," Cordelia assured him. "Tomorrow would be fine, but if not tomorrow--any time."
"Understood, ma'am," Jole said, and Aral glanced up sharply to see Jole's firm nod--as close to a salute as Jole was likely able to offer to Cordelia--and Cordelia's warm answering smile.
Cordelia turned that smile on Aral for just an instant, the first direct attention she'd paid him. She pressed a quick kiss to his lips and then brushed past him, continuing up the stairs. Aral looked over at Jole to see him watching her go; Jole met his eyes before he'd looked away and offered a small, shy smile, and Aral returned a smile that he suspected was downright foolish.
This time when Jole stepped around him to precede him down the stairs, he skirted so closely past Aral's side that their hands brushed between them. Aral went on smiling at Jole's back all the way down to the foyer.
They were eating privately in their suite that night. Aral closed the door behind him with a feeling of relief that seemed all out of proportion with the day, and glanced over at Cordelia just in time to see her visibly relax. She felt it too.
"Dear Captain," he murmured, and had scarcely finished speaking before Cordelia turned, reaching for him. He caught her in a fierce embrace, burying his face against her shoulder.
After a few seconds she said, "You know, for a day where neither of our lives were in danger...."
Aral nodded and didn't let go. He found himself laughing a little, giddy and almost silent, and then Cordelia started giggling. They stood there clinging to each other and laughing helplessly until they had to break apart--neither of them would ever catch their breath when they kept setting each other off.
They moved by common consent over to the little dinner table, taking their customary seats. Cordelia had brought Jole here for lunch today, and Aral realized as he sat down that she would, of course, have told Jole to sit in his chair.
When he looked across the table at her, all traces of humor were gone. Cordelia was remembering what Aral could still only infer.
With a shadow of the afternoon's anxiety, she asked, "How was he?"
Aral opened his mouth to answer, and found himself making an unaccustomed calculation, which led to another, which led to him saying, with barely a pause, "Will you begin to hate him if I guard his privacy from you?"
Cordelia looked as taken aback as Aral had felt when he realized he couldn't quite speak absolutely freely to his confidante--his confessor--of more than twenty years. But Jole's white face and wide, frightened eyes, and the look of utter faith which had followed.... No man, however young, deserved to have such vulnerabilities discussed in his absence. Aral would hold them in silence. He had promised to protect Jole, and he would, even in this.
"No," she said at once, automatically. Aral watched her face as she worked it through, frowning at first and then smiling ruefully. "It's not that I didn't realize there would be things that were private between you. I just didn't realize you'd have gotten started on that before I even managed to explain it to him. Or did you sort yourselves out entirely? You were up there a while."
"No," Aral said, just as quickly, scrubbing a hand over his face and trying not to get lost in yet another mental replay of Jole's every carefully-chosen word. "No, far from that. As he said--he'll speak to you when he can, if he can. All I did was reassure him that it was all right to speak to you. And...."
Aral was silent a moment, wondering how to even sum up all that neither of them had said. Cordelia was patiently silent until he said, "I think I managed to give him the impression that there was something to speak about."
Cordelia smiled, and Aral dared to mirror it. "You don't have to tell me what you talked about, in words or otherwise. You're right, Jole will tell me what he wants to tell me when he's ready."
That concession was given too easily, and Aral felt, perversely, that he had to protest it. "You have some claim on my honesty, surely."
"Your honesty, yes," Cordelia said, frowning thoughtfully. "I have an absolute claim on your honesty. If you're telling me you haven't settled anything with Jole but in truth the two of you are planning to run off to Athos together, then you will have wronged me."
This being a purely rhetorical suggestion, requiring no answer, Aral put his chin on his hand and watched his wife sort things out. It was a sight he never tired of.
"What I don't have--what no one has--is an absolute claim on your candor. That's what makes fast-penta such a violation, after all. It's not that it makes you tell the truth, but that it doesn't let you choose which truth to tell. It...."
Cordelia paused, frowning into space. She must be remembering that she was still angry about Jole having been subjected to fast-penta, but her expression looked more thoughtful than that. After a few seconds her gaze returned to Aral, and he saw her dismiss her train of thought to return to her main point; whatever it was she'd realized, she didn't intend to tell him about it now.
"There are things you would never dream of telling the Lieutenant about me, I'm sure. It's only fair that you don't tell me the equivalent things about him. I withdraw my question and offer an observation. Judging by what he said on the staircase, it seems I didn't do him any permanent damage."
Aral smiled. "I think not, no. We talked a little and then spent twenty minutes looking through old papers--I believe he was sorting them as he went. I saw him surreptitiously reordering the pages."
Cordelia grinned. "Spinal reflex, I'm sure, after following you around for a few weeks. The last time I heard from Antoniou he said he still catches himself thinking through your standard message-triage protocol when he opens his own mail."
Aral started taking the covers off the serving dishes, suddenly starving. It had been hours since he and Jole had carved out fifteen minutes between appointments to eat their packed lunch at Aral's desk.
That had seemed ordinary enough--they ate dinner or breakfast that way occasionally, as his schedule required--but this time Aral had hesitated before sending Jole back out of the office, feeling unaccountably as if this hurried meal had been something different, something private and protected.
He'd said, "Ah, Lieutenant," and reached out to brush a miniscule crumb from Jole's shirtfront.
Jole had raised his eyebrows slightly, not quite smiling, and subjected Aral to a brief visual inspection. After a few seconds he'd reached out and brushed at the front of Aral's tunic, and then said, "There we are, sir. All presentable."
Cordelia made a small noise, and Aral returned to the present with a start. Her eyes were alight, and Aral ducked his head, smiling.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Cordelia said, "I'm not even going to ask, I'm just trying to think of a word to describe the look on your face that isn't entirely destructive to your dignity."
Aral snorted, and dared to look up again. "My dignity is, as ever, yours to do with what you will."
Cordelia grinned. "Adorable."
Aral shook his head silently, unable to deny the charge, and began to fill his plate. Reaching for some safer topic of conversation, he said, "When did you hear from Antoniou? I haven't had anything from him in months--not since that batch of letters from the diplomatic pouch that he wrote all in hand-encrypted code just because he was bored at the embassy. I suppose it's just about return-time for another batch of messages from Earth since then."
Cordelia smiled, taking her vat-meat portion and unerringly leaving all of the real stuff for Aral. They could both tell the difference perfectly well no matter how it was prepared, though Aral also suspected that neither one of them cared anymore nearly as much as the kitchen staff all cared about getting it right for them.
"Simon was bitter about that for days. His analysts had been so excited. But, yes, I had a long message from him yesterday. That is, it was very properly directed to both of us, but it was mostly about this girl he's fallen desperately in love with who works for the Polian embassy down the block, so I took it upon myself to send back some sensible advice."
Aral laughed at that, and dared to ask what constituted sensible advice for Antoniou and his Polian lady. They ate dinner and carried on a perfectly ordinary, comfortable conversation about Antoniou, and how Smythe was doing with ship duty, and Miles's last message--not intentionally cryptic, they agreed, just excessively laconic.
They made it to coffee and pastries on a thorough meta-dissection of Alys's dissections of Ivan's messages home, and then Cordelia said, as if casually but perfectly timed, "And when she'd finished picking over poor Ivan in absentia, Alys mentioned that Simon told her to ask me whether you'd taken up any new hobbies lately."
And there, all the thoughts that had been restlessly circling at the back of his mind--Jole, Simon, Jole, honesty, Jole, candor, Jole--were brought sharply back into focus. "Simon threatened to do that, a few days ago. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that he meant it. Did she know exactly what she was asking?"
Cordelia was giving him a very Betan sort of approving smile--he hadn't mentioned, before now, that he'd said anything to Simon, but naturally it was obvious now.
"She did--she went right into Professional Social Arbiter mode as she said it, which I suppose makes sense if Simon felt he had to set her on us."
Us. That was almost reassuring enough to make him not mind that Cordelia wasn't telling him exactly what either of them had said.
"I said you didn't have any more time for hobbies than you ever had, but I had high hopes for your friendship with Lieutenant Jole. Alys gave one of those despairing sighs, and then we had our annual debate about whether I will ever develop an appropriate sense of discretion."
Aral smiled cautiously. "Alys is an optimist."
"Occasionally to the point of delusion," Cordelia agreed cheerfully. "Anyway, I'm sure she'll be checking in again once she's thought of some new and interesting euphemistic way to refer to Lieutenant Jole."
Aral raised an eyebrow and Cordelia tilted her head, waiting. Yes, she'd offered him a straight line. No, she wouldn't press him to take it.
"I'll trust you to set her straight if she refers to him in such trifling terms again."
"Of course," Cordelia agreed. "He is not a man to be trifled with."
Aral let out a breath and gave up on pretending he didn't want to discuss this--not the heart of it, but there were parts he had to debrief to someone. And, he justified to himself, Cordelia already knew most of it, and Jole already knew that Cordelia knew, so....
"In the attic, today, it was like--like one of those fairy stories where the hero is under a curse and can't tell anyone how to break it. We managed to make ourselves understood to each other--at least, I think we understood each other--but there's something going on and I've no idea what. I thought it must be that he had someone else, someone with a prior claim on his affections, but he--the way he looked at me...."
Jole had looked at him with shining eyes, nakedly full of hope and longing. Aral had been struck dumb, unable to think anything except, It's not just me, then. He'd assumed for a few blissful minutes that there couldn't be anyone else--how could there, when Jole looked at him like that? But soon enough it had occurred to him that, after all, there was someone with a prior claim on Aral's affections. He could only hope Jole's was as accommodating as Cordelia, and yet what were the odds of that? But Jole had been determined that he could obtain at least the freedom to speak to Cordelia--Jole had offered Aral his hand, had said yes. Aral had to trust him to know his own mind.
Aral looked down, away from Cordelia's fond smile. "All I can think is that I'd hate to be whoever Jole's talking to, tonight, because he's determined to get free of his obligation so he can talk to you about me. And I'm terribly afraid that he's already sacrificing more for this than I am."
Cordelia stood up abruptly, but when Aral looked up to follow the movement, she simply moved into Miles's long-empty chair, tugged it closer to his, and propped her feet on the side-rung of his chair to bridge the distance between them. Aral settled his hand on her knee, and she squeezed his shoulder. "It's his choice, love. And if he's making a straight choice between you and someone who scared him so badly that he can't face an honest conversation--well. It's his choice."
Aral nodded, but now that he'd started talking the next thought was headed for daylight, barely slowing down to let him say it in an even tone. "You aren't the only one with a claim on my honesty, you know."
"No," Cordelia said, and he looked at her long enough for her to realize he wasn't--entirely--talking about Jole anymore, and then looked down at the table, though he kept his hand on her knee, anchoring himself. Cordelia's hand covered his warmly.
"On the other hand," she said, "I have observed that Barrayarans customarily lose practically all candor when discussions of sexual activity or even romantic feeling run up against generational boundaries."
Aral smiled slightly. "Rules four and seventeen, as I recall. And twenty-nine and thirty. It took you a while to realize it didn't matter how many generations or which direction."
"Where I come from we explain things to people who don't know them yet," Cordelia said, her Betan accent sharpening for a moment. Her voice relaxed into its usual soft, half-assimilated sound with her next words. "Which one are you more worried about?"
Aral sighed and shook his head. What an impossible question.
"Gregor is my Emperor. Next to that, it doesn't mean a thing that I'm old enough to be his father." Gregor was, in point of fact, not quite a year older than Jole, and if Aral's first marriage had produced a daughter she'd be just about Jole's mother's age, but that was neither here nor there now. "There are things I haven't told Gregor yet, things I have no intention of ever telling him, and things that are none of his business. This might be all three, but all the same there are ways it could come out. I have no idea what I'd say to him."
"Do you have any idea who you'd be saying it to?" Cordelia asked gently. "If you're reporting to your Emperor on a matter which affects your service to him, then you tell the truth as he requests and requires. If you're discussing an involuntarily exposed personal matter with your foster-son, that's another thing altogether."
Aral sighed, nodding acknowledgment of Cordelia's good sense, which still didn't answer the unanswerable question--really just an endless chain of what ifs. "Simon knows as much as there is to know at this point. If you'll be so good as to keep Alys briefed on the broad outlines when she asks, she'll no doubt convey the intelligence where it will be needed. Simon will have enough information to decide whether he ought to go to the Emperor about it. Or demand I go, I suppose--Simon wouldn't take on that briefing if I'd done something to require explaining it to Gregor."
It was enough to ask that Cordelia and Alys save him from having to have these conversations directly with Simon, but he thought they would both be willing to intercede that far.
"And if that should happen," Cordelia said firmly, "then when Gregor asks me whether I have been wronged, and whether you might have unintentionally used your position to pressure Lieutenant Jole into doing anything he wouldn't have otherwise, I will be able to reassure him on both points. Aral, after that whole business with Vordrozda, Gregor's not going to rush to judgment against you again. Whatever you're thinking he'd do, if you told him about this--he won't."
Aral shook his head faintly. "Not what he'd do. What he'd think. I've no idea what stories he's ever heard about the Prince, but I don't want--"
"Stop right there," Cordelia said, squeezing his hand hard. "There is nothing to compare. I know that, you know that, and if for some brief period of time in the future Gregor doesn't know that, he will very quickly be put right. End of discussion."
"End of that discussion," Aral said, and Cordelia squeezed his hand again but said nothing.
"Miles," Aral said carefully, "is more Barrayaran than you tend to think he is."
Cordelia opened her mouth with a look on her face like she was about to dispose of his worries about Miles just as she had his worries about Gregor. Aral realized This one worries me more as he twisted his hand to grab hold of hers.
Cordelia visibly redirected, and said carefully, "You do know there's a little observer effect in action, there. He meets each of us on our own terms."
Aral grimaced acknowledgment of that--if he wanted to protest that it wasn't true, he'd be doing exactly the same thing he always thought Cordelia was doing when she insisted Miles was more Betan than Aral thought. "But it'll be me he's meeting, if it comes to this, Cordelia. If he has to be told, you have to let me do the telling, even if it means more...."
Aral trailed off, trying to picture that confrontation and coming up utterly blank. Or rather, rapidly picturing a lot of awful things that didn't quite--
"He's not you, love," Cordelia said. "He's very emphatically not the person you were when you were twenty, and more importantly, you're not your father. However this would have gone with you and him--"
That was it, Aral realized. He was whipped abruptly between two entirely disjoint memories: on the one hand, a half-dozen ugly alcohol-blurred confrontations with his father in the days after his wife's death and that wretched farce of a funeral, and on the other hand, the moment when Cordelia--Commander Naismith, then--had laid open his infected wound, one definitive slice that reduced the pressure and pain to something suddenly bearable.
"No," Aral said, blinking at Cordelia and feeling, not for anything like the first time, as if he'd just fallen in love with her all over again. "No, I suppose he's not."
Cordelia leaned in for a kiss. "And you're not. And the only thing we can ever be sure of is that he'll surprise us."
Aral smiled wryly. "Granted."
"So it's no use trying to guess what you'll do if you ever have to discuss this with Miles," Cordelia said briskly.
"Promise me, though," Aral said. "Promise you won't give in to the temptation to sort us both out for our own good, if it comes to that. I don't know if I'll have the courage to insist on it, when the time comes, and he deserves to hear it from me. He'll want my word on it, anyway, because it touches my honor and so touches his, as well."
Cordelia studied him for a moment, and then nodded slowly. "I will not interfere if you have to tell Miles about this, or at least not until after you've had a chance to shout yourselves hoarse at each other."
Cordelia smiled crookedly and added, with the sort of irony that didn't detract at all from her sincerity, "I swear, by my word as Vorkosigan."
Arkady actually ran--only four strides, but he ran them--from the door of his flat to his comconsole. He punched in Tonton's number with shaky fingers. He'd spent the whole day second-guessing himself, but--there had to be a way, didn't there? Surely Tonton would understand, or--perhaps he could be released from his oath if it came to that--but if it did, then what would become of him after? How could he ask Tonton to take him back, if he insisted on breaking away now? But how could he simply let this--let Vorkosigan--pass him by? How could he let Vorkosigan down? He had all but promised--tomorrow--but he still had so much to explain....
Tonton's face appeared over the vid plate, and before Arkady could put words together, he said, "Yes, my dear boy, come at once. I've been waiting ages for you to call."
Arkady nodded and cut the connection. He was stepping out of the cab in front of Tonton's house before he realized he hadn't actually said a word.
Tonton didn't rate actual armsmen, but the man at the door, like all of Tonton's house staff, wore a uniform in Vorgorov colors. By some bit of trickery in tailoring or terminology it was not technically livery. Tonton had explained the distinction to Arkady once, when Arkady mistook them for Count's men. Arkady recalled that long-ago gentle correction of his mistake as the uniformed man escorted him from the foyer to Lord Hector's private study.
He'd never been frightened of Tonton, but Arkady was frightened of everything, just now--including himself, and what he might do. He just had to try to explain himself to Tonton. Somehow. It had been an accident, Tonton wouldn't punish him for an accident. Tonton was understanding about mistakes. He would set Arkady right.
Arkady was desperately afraid that Tonton was going to set him right.
The footman did not announce him by name, simply opened the door for him and waited for him to step inside. When he had done so, the door closed with the peculiar solidity of expensive security measures. The room looked and smelled and felt the same as it had every time Arkady had visited, though he hadn't been here since before he was assigned to the Prince Xav.
Even as Tonton rose to greet him, Arkady was conscious of something he hadn't felt in years, the tangible sensation of being in a different place, almost a different world, from the rest of his life. Here he was safe. Here he could say anything, do anything, and trust to Tonton's discretion and protection.
All the way here he'd been trying to compose his first speech of explanation, but now Arkady crossed the space to where Tonton stood--not running, not quite--and dropped to his knees at Tonton's feet, kneeling as he had not since he took his oath. Meeting Tonton anywhere else, Arkady couldn't have made such a gesture, but here--here it was all right. Tonton would understand what he meant by it.
"Oh, Arkady," Tonton murmured, his fingers catching Arkady's chin and tilting it up. Arkady met his gaze, because he had no choice. Tonton was smiling fondly. "Is it that bad, then?"
Arkady looked down miserably, and Tonton sighed and returned to his seat, leaving Arkady kneeling a meter away. "Make yourself comfortable, then. I can see this is going to be a long talk. Whatever you have to tell me, you know I'll listen, sweetheart. It's probably not as bad as you think it is."
Tonton had said things like that before, when Arkady had come to him years ago, wrought up over this man or that one, but there had never been anything like this. Arkady glanced around, considering the chairs.
Nearly five years ago, as a fresh graduate of the Academy, he had sat across the fire from Tonton in that armchair, drinking with his fellow-officer and enjoying his heady new adulthood. He had sprawled on the sofa the very first time Tonton brought him here, trying to seem sophisticated and at ease when he was all but hyperventilating with nervous eagerness. Never mind just the length of the cab ride--he had been thinking for weeks of sitting in one of these chairs, looking Tonton in the eye from a meter or two away while he explained himself.
Tonton had told him to make himself comfortable, and it was an important word with Tonton--he had said nothing you are not comfortable with often enough for it make a permanent impression. Comfortable did not mean merely an armchair, a footstool, a uniform collar loosened. Comfortable meant you don't have to look me in the eye, it meant would you rather be touched or not, it meant we can go somewhere public if you'll feel safer with other people around.
Arkady gave into a childish impulse he had not been old enough to indulge before now. He moved to sit on the floor beside Tonton's legs, facing away from him, and rested his head on Tonton's knee. Tonton's hand settled lightly on his head, and Arkady thought of the moment--surely longer than just a week ago--when Vorkosigan had ruffled his hair, and the Countess had seen, and everything had begun cascading inevitably toward this.
But even before that, there had been so much to tell and ask.
"Captain Illyan," Arkady said, and then hesitated, unable to accuse or question or simply report.
"Yes, I briefed and debriefed him for your interview. He needed details to check, and wanted an expert opinion of what you'd said, afterward. You did fine, Arkady. I couldn't have asked for one of my men to do better in those conditions. I was not ashamed to call you my own, when the Captain came back and told me what you'd said and done."
Arkady shook a little with the relief, and felt the strange physical lightness of a guilt absolved merely for the asking.
"Thank you, sir," Arkady murmured. "I feared to disappoint you."
Tonton said nothing, only stroked a gentle hand over his hair, and Arkady knew that Illyan had not neglected to mention the handkerchief. But Tonton wouldn't say anything, of course, and neither would Arkady. The touch spoke for them both. Arkady shifted his hand to curl over Tonton's foot, to make sure he was understood.
"But that's not what you wanted to tell me about tonight, is it? Something's happened today."
Arkady had tried to find the words for this a hundred times. There was so much he was not permitted to say, by the terms of his oath. He must not name names, nor imply that he intended to do what he had sworn not to. He might find a way to beg permission, once he had made Tonton understand, but that first obstacle still loomed before him. And above all, he must confess that secrecy was already broken--but he could not bring himself to start there. That part would become obvious, once he found a way to say the rest.
"There is a man who I work with. You have not introduced me to him, I only know him from work, but--Tonton, I--I cannot...."
Tonton's hand stilled, and Arkady went still under it. "Well, now. Let me think. I know the kind of men you like. What man does my Arkady work with who might have driven him to this extreme, I wonder?"
Arkady turned his head, hiding his face against Tonton's thigh. The whole thing was as foolish as it was forbidden, and even Tonton's gentle teasing found raw places.
Tonton's hand slipped down over the nape of his neck to grip his shoulder and shake him a little. "There is a man, now I think of it. His first name is Aral. I think you would like him very much, and he might well like you. I'm sure you've already met."
Arkady lifted his head and twisted to look Tonton in the eye. Aral. He had never let himself think it before now. When Tonton introduced him to a man, it was always by first name only.
"This will not make much sense to you until I explain a little," Tonton said, smiling a little sadly. "But this Aral--he might not know it, but he has always been one of my men. Ever since Tatie and I made our first pact to protect each other, we have considered that we should protect him, too, if we could. We have always felt we owed him as much loyalty as we owed to each other."
It was like a fairy story, some enchanted and impossible Winterfair gift all out of season. It was a miracle fit for a ballad; the secret suitor had been the honorable betrothed all along. "Sir, I don't... You're right, I don't understand."
"You're young," Tonton said. "I don't suppose it's ever occurred to you to wonder how I got to be Tonton, has it? Or how we came to be organized this way, or why. It makes sense to you just the way it is. To be a man like you or me is dangerous on Barrayar, so of course we band together to protect ourselves and each other."
Arkady nodded slightly, and settled in to listen to the story Tonton was obviously ready to tell.
"There was another danger once, a worse one than the law. Twenty-eight years ago I was a lieutenant under Ges Vorrutyer."
Arkady scarcely had time to register the fact that Tonton gave Vorrutyer neither rank nor title before Tonton made the insult explicit, spitting into the fireplace to clear the name from his mouth.
"I've heard of him," Arkady offered. "I've heard...."
"Take the worst you've heard and triple it," Tonton said steadily. "Vorrutyer was filth, and he could sense a weakness from the opposite end of a starship. He used my nature against me until I felt I was as much a monster as he was--and maybe I would have been in truth if I hadn't chanced to meet Alyosha."
Arkady did not try to fill in the parts of the story Tonton glossed over. He was too busy thinking of the many, many times that Tonton had questioned him about the way a man treated him, or assured him that if a man did anything at all that Arkady didn't like, Arkady had the right to say no--even to Tonton himself, for Tonton had discussed it with him right here nine years ago, the first time Arkady visited him privately. If he did not feel he could say no at the time, Tonton told him time and again, he could tell Tonton or Tatie afterward. If there had been anything amiss, even if it was only in his own head, they would do whatever could be done to make the thing right.
Arkady had been so sure that there could be no rape or coercion among Tonton's men that it had never occurred to him to wonder why Tonton guarded so vigilantly against it. Just as Tonton had said: the system seemed an end in itself, to him. But not to Tonton and Tatie, who had once been just Hector and Alyosha, trying to survive.
"Vorrutyer had done the same to him, and somehow he found the courage to speak to me, to tell me I wasn't alone. We looked for others after that, quietly as we could. Vorrutyer would have played us off each other if we gave him reason to, so we lived as if we were no more than brother-officers, not even friends, just barely civil. Vor and prole didn't mix as much back then, and that was the time of the political officers, anyway. We all knew how to keep our secrets in those days.
"Alyosha and I learned of two men who'd killed themselves for what Vorrutyer had done to them, and four others who still lived. One would not confess it though the signs were as plain to us as scars. The other three joined with us in secret; they swore their loyalty to us and we to them. I had the highest rank and loftiest name, then, so I was made chief of us. That was the beginning."
Arkady's mouth was dry with horror, trying to guess, but he forced himself to speak. "This--this Aral, was he...."
"He wasn't any of those I mentioned. He and Vorrutyer had been lovers," Tonton said, and the bald statement struck Arkady like a blow, almost more surprising than the fact. Tonton's hand on his shoulder flattened over Arkady's spine, a reassuring steady pressure.
"It started when they were schoolboys. Our Aral had already ended it years before I served under Vorrutyer, because he could no longer endure the forms Vorrutyer's pleasure took. Half the time it seemed as if Vorrutyer didn't know it was over. Words were his cruelest weapon and the one he used most, and he would speak of our Aral sometimes as if he wished to burn him alive, and at others as if he would destroy worlds just to please him. Both in the same breath, more often than not. We knew that whatever we suffered at his hands, he'd have done ten times worse to Aral if he could."
Arkady made a small, pained noise at the thought, unable to quite contain it. The Countess had said it herself. The greatest love affair of his life before me was with a man. She had not said what kind of man, or how her husband could have loved a man so much and then fallen so deeply in love with a woman.
"But she--" Arkady said, and then silenced himself. It was not a conversation to bring a lady into, but this one could hardly be excluded.
"Ah yes, the lady," Tonton said, in a tone of comfortable nostalgia. "A goddess who came out of the void of space to save us, avenging all the wrongs done and killing the monster on the eve of his victory, turning it all to defeat. She rescued our Aral from under Vorrutyer's power, and left him alive to bring the survivors safely home. For her ferocity and her mercy he fell in love with her."
Arkady had run from her today, but Tonton spoke of her with true warmth. She rescued our Aral, Tonton said, and he would have done ten times worse to Aral if he could.
Perhaps Tonton would not mind so much that she had discovered what Arkady was, and who he wanted. Tonton seemed to understand that she was not a force to be resisted.
"That is the story some would have you believe, anyway," Tonton added. "No one knows the whole truth but him and her and maybe Captain Illyan, who was there, but I'll tell you this--our Aral only survived to bring us home because he'd been arrested for the murder himself. It was all forgotten after the disaster, but some who were there can still tell the tale. So maybe it was himself who struck back in the end, as all of us wished we could have.
"We never approached him. He kept away from Vorrutyer as much as he could, and when he couldn't there was no protecting him, and he was in no position to protect anyone else. After the war he was married, and safe, and seemed happy--and then he took an assignment that put him out of our reach forever. But we knew what he had suffered, and whether he killed the monster himself or only protected the woman who did--and brought her home just in time for her to slay another beast for us and end the Pretendership--he earned our trust and our loyalty. He and his lady, both."
"She knows about me," Arkady said, and was proud that it didn't come out as a whisper. His voice got stronger and steadier with each word. "I didn't mean to tell her, but I gave myself away. She--she saw me looking at him. At her husband. When I thought no one was watching."
"Huh," Tonton said, with a merely interested tone to his voice, neither angry nor unsurprised. "Well, she's a perceptive woman, I won't blame you for what she saw. But I can't quite guess--did she threaten you, or offer to share?"
Arkady couldn't make a sound for a moment. If Tonton's easy acceptance hadn't rendered him speechless, the uncanny aptness of the question would.
Tonton laughed a little and rubbed his back again. "I've met her a couple of times--her conversation can be very Betan even after all these years."
"That's what he said," Arkady managed. "Her husband. I--I couldn't listen to her, I couldn't bear that she knew my secret and just spoke of it. I had to hold to my oath, besides--so much as I could, when I'd given myself away--and I'm afraid I was--not courteous. But afterward he came to me and spoke to me alone and he said...." Arkady couldn't repeat most of what Vorkosigan had said to him--to say nothing of what had not been said in words--but they were speaking of the lady. "He said I shouldn't worry, if she said anything very Betan to me, only to tell her to stop if I was offended."
"Ah," Tonton said, and then waited for Arkady to say more.
"But he also said--he said if I found her conversation interesting, I shouldn't fear giving offense by discussing even a very delicate matter with her. And I--I knew what he meant, and he knew that I knew, but I didn't--I didn't say anything, sir, not quite. Not in words. But it seems she--I think he already knew. I think he knows, about me, and that means I, I know about him. And she really was offering. To share. Her husband, with me."
There. He'd said it. He'd said it and Tonton's hand still moved slowly up and down his back, and Tonton had already said he trusted the Countess and that--that Aral was as good as one of their own men. And that meant that something was possible which Arkady had been sure could never happen. No fairy tale would have invoked such miracles for a story like his.
"If you feel you require it, you have my particular leave to speak freely to the lady in question, Arkady. Consider yourself introduced to her--and her husband--by me; in fact, direct the lady to me if she wants a reference for you, I would be glad to talk to her. And know this, Arkady. I don't only trust them to be discreet and proper. I trust them with you."
Arkady ducked his head to hide his smile. He'd always supposed, when he had time and space to think of it, that Tonton made all his men feel this way--as though they particularly were important to him. He hoped everyone got to feel this way. Even if they did, it didn't take anything away from this moment. Arkady still preened at the implication that that was an important thing, an especial honor, for Tonton to entrust Arkady to them.
"And now," Tonton said, tugging gently upward on Arkady's shoulder. "Why don't we both move to the sofa, and I'll have some supper brought up for you to eat while you tell me all about this man you met at work and how very much you like him, hey?"
Suddenly--give or take how very much he liked the man in question--it was just like any ordinary conversation with Tonton, all right and proper. Arkady was allowed to tell, allowed to like and to desire and to--to cherish, if he cared to mix his heart up with everything else. He grinned at Tonton as he got to his feet, and Tonton laughed.
"And coffee for me," Tonton said. "I can see we're going to be at it a while."
"I imagine I'll be busy with this for a few hours," the Prime Minister said the next day at mid-morning, after they'd returned to Vorkosigan House so he could make a series of arm-twisting calls to Counts not yet prepared to vote for the next round of appropriations for Sergyar.
Arkady nodded obediently and gathered his own papers. "I'll be down in the library if you need me."
"Good," the Prime Minister said. "Oh, Lieutenant, I think my wife is in there this morning. If you want to work alone you can always use the sunroom or the small study, instead."
Arkady's heart sped up. "I see, sir. Thank you."
Vorkosigan glanced his way for a moment, nodded very slightly, and then disappeared back into his work. Arkady turned and walked out of the room and down the stairs. For just an instant he wavered in the corridor, considering his responsibilities--but he had nothing pressing just now, and those calls really were likely to eat up the rest of the morning at least. Waiting was a part of Arkady's job, too, and the Prime Minister had never demanded that he fill every moment spent waiting with something related to the job.
It was all his own choice, now. He could choose to go into the library or not; he could choose to listen to the Countess or not. He could even pretend he didn't want this, if he chose to, but he didn't think he could stop wanting it. Arkady settled his papers under his arm--not across his chest like a shield--and let himself into the library.
The Countess was sitting in a window seat reading, her legs tucked up and her feet hidden under her skirt like a girl. The sun shone off the red and silver of her hair and she didn't move as Arkady approached. Even when he diffidently cleared his throat, she only looked up, offering the same neutral expression she'd shown him yesterday on the stairs.
"Hello, Lieutenant. Were you going to work here? You can use the comconsole, you won't disturb me."
Arkady set his papers down on the nearest table without looking away from the Countess. The Countess slipped a bookmark into her book and closed it, setting it down beside her.
"Yesterday," Arkady said carefully, having spent much of the previous night when he ought to have been sleeping thinking through his opening gambit. "You asked if I would mind if you called me Arkady. I would be honored if you would, ma'am."
The Countess raised her eyebrows, and smiled a little. "Thank you, Arkady. Why don't you sit down, so we can talk comfortably."
He smiled a little at the word, even as his heart raced faster, and he took a seat on one end of a sofa. Only after he was settled did the Countess rise from the window seat and sit down at the other end, turned to face him.
"I don't suppose I can persuade you to call me Cordelia, Arkady."
Arkady blinked. "I don't think so, ma'am."
She grinned outright at that. "Some other time, perhaps. But maybe I would have an easier time persuading you to call Aral by his first name, under suitably private circumstances?"
Arkady licked his lips and nodded carefully. It was strange talking about this with a woman, irreducibly scary to be discussing this with the Countess, but she was smiling and Tonton had assured him it was all right, and so had--so had Aral.
"I think so, ma'am. Yes."
The Countess smiled like that had been a correct answer. "Arkady--if you don't mind my asking, I can see something has changed since yesterday. Is it all right if I ask what?"
Arkady nodded. This was safer ground, easier to talk about. Tonton had given explicit permission and instruction, here. "Last night I went and talked to a man I know--Major Lord Hector Vorgorov. He said he'd met you once or twice. I don't know if you'd remember him."
The Countess frowned in thought. "Major Lord Hector--a nephew of the present count, yes? Fourth of five sons in his family, I think, and his eldest brother is Lord Vorgorov."
Arkady nodded, though he couldn't have sworn to the number of Tonton's brothers.
"Major Vorgorov," the Countess repeated. "His younger brother--they were both Captain Vorgorov during the Escobar war, and his brother was killed. One of his older brothers was killed during the Pretendership. Hector retired from the service and is decidedly apolitical, and he and his wife had three daughters before their son--and all of them by replicator--which shows more sense than the average. And... he's a friend of yours, Arkady?"
Arkady ducked his head and shrugged. "He's... I don't know what you'd call it, ma'am. I call him Tonton, but of course he's not my uncle. Not that kind of uncle."
The Countess nodded slowly.
"I mean, everyone calls him Tonton, all of--there are others, like me. Tonton protects us. We swear not to go looking for men other than the ones Tonton introduces us to, and in return Tonton keeps us safe. I--"
The Countess's expression had gotten very neutral, and Arkady stopped short and looked down at his hands. He had a sudden memory of scratching his hands raw under fast-penta, and laid his hands flat on his knees.
"I don't think I'm explaining it properly. But Tonton is someone I trust absolutely, and I would never--I could never consider doing anything with a man, or even saying anything to him, without Tonton's permission. Every man I've ever," Arkady forced himself not to hesitate or stumble over the words, "had sex with, since I was sixteen, Tonton introduced me to him. I had to talk to Tonton before I could say anything to anyone else. He told me to tell you that he's happy to speak to you about it--about me--if there's anything you want to know."
"So it's a sort of... sexual mutual protection society," the Countess said slowly. "You all band together under oaths of secrecy, for safety."
Arkady nodded quickly. "I don't know most of the men--none of us know everyone except Tonton--Major Vorgorov." There was, Arkady had already decided, no need to bring up Tatie and wander off into a further set of explanations.
"It's safest not to be able to betray each other. Even when I was fast-pentaed..." he hesitated, but the Countess nodded, requiring no explanation. If she knew--but then she already knew his secret, and he'd been told he could trust her. Tonton, who knew all about the fast-penta, had told him to trust her, and Tonton must trust Captain Illyan to work with him. Captain Illyan had said no one had to know what Arkady said, but maybe that was only part of the test. The Prime Minister would surely have the right to ask, and cause to want to know about him.
Arkady pushed the whole question aside and kept going with barely a pause. "Even if Captain Illyan had asked me--I don't know most men's last names, and I've only met the ones Tonton thought I would like. Most of them I couldn't possibly incriminate."
"That does seem wise," the Countess said, sounding rather like he'd just given her a horrible gift she still felt obligated to accept with thanks. "And it reminds me, Arkady--I owe you an apology. I hadn't really thought it through, but what I did to you--seeing how you felt and acting on that information without your permission or even your knowledge--that was worse than fast-penta. At least ImpSec told you what they were doing. I'm sorry. It was terribly wrong of me."
Arkady felt the tables abruptly turned. He was the one with the awful Winterfair gift on his hands now, and no idea what to say. Why should she apologize now, just when it was all coming right? But it was obviously well-meant.
He ducked his head in an abbreviated bow. "It's just as well, ma'am, all things considered. I understood why I had to be fast-pentaed, when the Prime Minister came to offer me the job, and I understand why you did what you did, too. It was all for the best."
The Countess looked like she might want to debate that, and Arkady redirected quickly. "I think I understand, anyway. I suppose it's different on Beta Colony, being married?"
The Countess looked a little relieved. This must be a topic she was ready to discuss. "It depends on the people in the marriage, but yes. People mostly only marry there to raise children together, and not everyone chooses to have children. Those who do marry choose their own partners freely, and are free to structure their relationships as they choose--some are monogamous, but many aren't, and any combination of genders is equally acceptable. A person can be married to more than one person simultaneously, or be married to one person and still have other relationships outside of marriage. The main thing, on Beta Colony, is that everyone is honest about what's going on."
Arkady tried to imagine living without secrets like that, everyone just knowing--introducing his mother to the succession of men he'd gone to bed with in the last nine years. Maybe there would have been fewer of them, if he hadn't needed to follow Tonton's advice and keep from getting too attached, or allowing the others to get too attached to him. There wouldn't have been any Tonton, either--or there would only have been Tonton. Arkady would probably just call him Hector, and when he introduced him to his mother he would say, this is my--my--
Arkady shook his head. "Is everyone honest to everyone? Not just each other, but everyone?"
The Countess nodded, and touched the jewels dangling from her right ear. "On Beta Colony most people, of all genders, wear earrings. There are particular designs for the earrings--it's like wearing a uniform, or House colors--so that, at a glance, anyone can tell your relationship status. Married, attached, single, willing to be approached or not, looking for a particular kind of relationship, or any, or none."
The Countess's gaze went distant for a moment, her fingers worrying at her earring, and she added, "Mind you, there are people who abuse the system. There are people who will seek to subvert any form of relationship, no matter how much choice they have about entering into it. But the goal is honesty, and by and large no one suffers for being honest."
Arkady touched the lobe of his own ear and tried to picture himself walking around wearing anything that just--just proclaimed what he was. He tried to picture the Prime Minister doing the same, and his brain drew an utter, blinding blank.
"But we're on Barrayar and naturally things are very different here," the Countess said quickly, so his face must have given at least a little of that away. "For our purposes, it is enough that you and I and Aral are honest between ourselves, and honest with the few people we trust to know about what is--or what might be--going on. Your Major Vorgorov is one, and I'm glad you have someone you can trust to discuss this with. I hope you'll understand why Aral and I also each have someone we'll tell. Lady Alys Vorpatril, in my case, who is a close friend of mine and a relative through marriage. In Aral's case--Simon Illyan."
Arkady felt himself go still, as much in answer to the Countess's careful tone as because of what she said. She was watching him intently, waiting for his reaction to that, and Arkady made himself nod. It was fair and sensible as long as he didn't think too much about Captain Illyan--who already knew so much about him--knowing what he was doing in bed.
With the Prime Minister.
Arkady leaned forward and put his face in his hands, reminding himself to breathe. Just like Vorkosigan had told him to, yesterday--he remembered that hand on the back of his neck and shivered, nearly overcome with a mixture of terror and anticipation that was rapidly becoming familiar.
"Arkady?" the Countess said gently after a moment. Arkady looked up, and found that she had reached out a hand but wasn't quite touching him.
"It's all right," he said. "I just--I'm a prole, milady."
"So was I, before I married into this name," the Countess pointed out, settling back on her end of the sofa. "So is Simon Illyan. If you stay at this altitude long enough, I promise you'll get used to breathing the air. And, Arkady, I do hope you'll stay around."
"Oh," Arkady said, and he was so relieved to have an answer to the question he hadn't dared to even really wonder about that he just blurted it out. "Like ship duty, then."
The Countess blinked, and Arkady hastened to explain. "I was wondering if he wanted just once, or a little while, or... or longer. Usually I don't--none of us that I know of--go with one man more than a few times, because that's how you get caught, and people get attached, and that's how things go bad. But when there's a few of us assigned to the same ship, then we're all in it together for as long as we're on the ship, and we have to know more about each other than usual, because there's no hiding it. We just have to be careful and handle things and look out for each other. So it could be like ship duty, while I work for the Prime Minister."
"Yes," the Countess said. "Yes, I suppose it could."
Arkady sat very still for a moment, feeling half-stunned, right down to the weird prickling feeling in his extremities. He hadn't--he really hadn't thought he could hope for that much, even after everything else. This assignment might last as much as a year, and he'd always been so careful to keep his liaisons brief with men he liked even a fraction as much. A year, an entire year....
"Arkady," the Countess said, slowly and cautiously, "hypothetically and entirely counterfactually--if I had told you I didn't mind you going to bed with Aral as long as it was only once, what would you have said?"
Entirely counterfactually, which meant she really did mean to tell him it was all right for him to go to bed with Aral, and more than once. Arkady bludgeoned his brain for actual words that weren't please yes please please please, and found the right ones fairly quickly. They'd been well-rehearsed. "Once is better than never."
The Countess nodded, then looked away, blowing out a long breath before she looked back to Arkady, squaring her shoulders. "The thing is, Arkady, I think--for Aral, I think once would be worse than never. There are things he hasn't told me--things you have a right to hear from him first, directly--but I know Aral, and I think that if you allow it he could be very much in love with you. And to my knowledge, Aral doesn't stop loving people unless he's forced to."
It was Arkady's turn to turn his face away, feeling actually staggered by the Countess's words. There was the warm, giddy rush of the idea that the--that Vorkosigan--Aral--could care so much about him--not merely an attraction, an infatuation, but something real, something dangerous and complicated and worth risking anyway. And at the same moment, he felt a chill go down his spine, remembering Tonton's words. He could no longer endure. There was no protection for him.
"Countess," he said, and then hesitated too long trying to retrieve that as a proper form of address, gave up and went on. "Yesterday, when I talked to Tonton, he told me the same thing you told me yesterday. That there had been a man who he--who your husband loved, before you, for a time. Only he said that man was terrible."
Arkady didn't even know what he wanted to say, or ask. He looked up at the Countess helplessly, willing her to share the sick sense of horror he'd only just discovered, at the idea of someone treating--our Aral--that way.
"Ges Vorrutyer was a monster," Cordelia said firmly. "I will say this of very, very few people, but he needed killing."
She didn't say I killed him, Arkady noted. But even after all these years it would be dangerous for her to say that she hadn't; she would protect the secrets that needed protecting. And even if she hadn't killed Vorrutyer, she understood that her husband was a man worth fighting for, worth killing or dying for.
"I met the Emperor, a couple of weeks before I started working with the Prime Minister," Arkady said, staring down at his knees. "It wasn't a formality. It was so that he could personally issue me a set of weapons to carry at all times in case they should be necessary to defend the Prime Minister's life. At the time I just thought it was scary, the idea of facing down assassins with a pocketknife, but--I would. I mean, I always would have done it, it's my duty. But yesterday I realized I'd be glad to, no matter what happened to me. I'd be happy to do it, for him."
The Countess was silent for so long that Arkady looked up, worried that he'd been misunderstood. Her expression was strangely fond. "Barrayarans," she said, shaking her head slightly. "Never so open about your emotions as when you can phrase them in terms of lethal violence."
Arkady smiled cautiously, and the Countess gave him a rather weary smile back.
"If I understand you properly, Arkady, you are saying that you feel very strongly about Aral, and you do not mind the possibility of a long-term relationship? Naturally you might simply prove incompatible and decide to part, but if all goes well...."
Arkady tried to picture all goes well. His face went hot. Up to now, that had never meant anything but pleasing a man in bed and being pleased in his turn, enough to tell Tonton that he'd like to see the man again if the man would like to see him. But the Countess seemed to be speaking of higher, and more complicated, standards, and Arkady could not even guess what that might mean.
"I don't know, ma'am," he said, feeling his blush cooled by his uncertainty. "I've never--I've never just chosen a man for myself, before now. I've never... we don't talk. We don't get to know each other. If I ever thought I was fond of a man it was just because of the way he looked, or the way he touched me, or the way he said my first name--because that was all he knew to say to me."
The Countess was studying him intently. "You said ship duty was different. I know you've had ship duty, Arkady."
Arkady looked down again. He felt his shoulders drawing up as he tensed. He had had ship duty. Everyone who knew anything about him at all knew he'd had ship duty.
He tried not to think about them, now that they were gone. Leighton was lost to him as completely as Kallas, and he could hardly speak their names to anyone. But he did have permission to speak to the Countess. She would keep his confidence, and if he could convince her that he had done right by his shipmates, she would approve him for her husband.
"Commander Leighton," he said quietly, "And Sergeant Kallas, on the Prince Xav. We got along. Kallas and I both wanted Leighton more than each other, but it wasn't fair to fight for the little bits of time when he could be with one of us or the other, so we kept each other company, too. Leighton was careful to take even turns with us, though neither of us ever said. He was very fair. Not that Kallas wasn't--Kallas was an excellent man. I always felt guilty for wanting Leighton more. We were shipmates, we had to help each other.
"There was once--we'd been on the Prince Xav together about four months, and then we got leave on Komarr and Leighton told me to meet him at this out-of-the-way hotel. I was so excited, but when I got there Kallas was there, too. Then I was afraid they were both angry at me for something, or they were going to tell me they were cutting me out--only Kallas looked frightened, too. I went and sat beside him, and we held hands behind our backs, where Leighton couldn't see."
Arkady looked down at his hands, remembering that grip, the press of Kallas's shoulder and thigh as they sat together on that enormous bed, waiting for something.
"Leighton laughed and pulled out a bottle of wine and said we mustn't look so scared, and then he told us about the Emperor's decree. It had come out weeks before, I think. Maybe months, but this was the first he'd had a chance to talk to us both at one time since he'd heard of it. That was--we were very happy that night, and we drank the whole bottle between us and...."
It had been silly and awkward and all three of them had wound up with bruises in strange places, after, but Arkady had been happy even for that. Bruises were something to remember it by. That had been a good night.
"Were things different after that?" The Countess's voice was gentle, and didn't seem to expect one thing or the other.
Arkady shrugged. "Not really. Kallas and I both still wanted Leighton more, and of course everything still had to be secret. We never spoke to each other where anyone could see--what would I have to do with some Greekie tech sergeant, or the commander with a junior officer or a minor non-com? And we had never wasted our time alone together with talking. The decree didn't change anything. I mean," Arkady looked up quickly to check that the Countess didn't misunderstand him, "I mean, we were all grateful to the Emperor, of course. I am. But the law doesn't matter as much as it matters what people think, most of the time, especially on ship duty when you're all stuck with each other and...."
And what they think of you might determine how hard they try to save your life.
Arkady stuck to safer ground. "After that leave on Komarr it seemed like everyone had heard about the decree. They mostly just joked, so we had to joke, too. People said you wrote it," Arkady added, thinking that maybe if he'd believed that more he'd have been less scared of the Countess--but then the law wasn't the important part most of the time.
The Countess gave him a crooked smile. "I didn't, as it happens. Gregor and I discussed it a great deal, and I made some suggestions, but the language was all his."
Gregor, in that fond and casual tone. Right. Arkady looked away again. "They said you did it because you're Betan. Some people said you did it to protect your husband, because he...."
Knowing it was true made it actually impossible to finish that sentence. Arkady looked over at the Countess helplessly.
"Well," the Countess said gently, "we both know that the decree would help him even less than it helps you, don't we? Even when the laws were in force, it wasn't prosecution that was a danger for him."
Arkady nodded. A Vorkosigan would have gone into exile, or committed suicide with his honor legally intact, but he never would have faced a trial. But that wasn't what stopped Arkady's tongue, not really. He tried again. "They repeated all of those slanders about him, the ones who hated the decree the most. Only now I don't know if--if."
"If it's meant as a slander, it usually is," the Countess said. "Even if it's factually accurate, the underlying insinuation is certainly false. And very few of the slanders against Aral achieve even factual accuracy--there's not a sadistic bone in his body, in case you were worried about that."
"Oh," Arkady said, and he couldn't have said whether the weird spark of feeling he got when she said that was relief or disappointment. "Sadists mostly aren't so bad, really, ma'am. All the ones I've met remembered the stop-words and were well up on their first aid qualifications."
There was a long, silent pause, and when he looked up again, the Countess's expression had gone back to being strangely fond. But she said, "You were telling me about ship duty, and Leighton and Kallas."
Arkady nodded. There was no escaping it. "Our leave on Komarr, that was almost a year before the accident. You know about the accident, ma'am?"
"I've read the official report that was included with your commendation."
Arkady nodded. That made it simpler to describe. "You might remember that Sergeant Kallas was killed, then. I was in the next section over from the initial accident that led to the micro-breach, and properly I shouldn't have gotten involved, but it was where Kallas was, and I couldn't--I couldn't fail him. And I couldn't let Leighton see me fail him. I told my men to evacuate and rushed in to help. Kallas and Lieutenant Vorversk helped me secure the men who were injured in the initial accident, but the breach went catastrophic before Kallas could get into a suit.
"I survived. He didn't. Leighton volunteered to be the officer at my bedside when they woke me up, after, so I'd know...."
Arkady stared steadily out a window for a moment. He tried never to think of that moment, waking up in a strange place with Leighton standing beside him and knowing there was nothing but bad news. He flexed his toes until he realized he was doing it, and then made himself stop.
"I haven't seen him since," Arkady said, when he had his voice steady. The Countess would probably think that was important to know. "He shipped out again the next day, and I already knew we wouldn't keep in touch. It would have been conspicuous, and anyway we never talked, so there was nothing to say. I try not to think of him too much. I try not to think of Kallas. They told me I did everything I could, and I was a hero. I tried to be worthy, but I don't know."
He saw the Countess move in his peripheral vision, and she said softly, "Arkady."
He looked up. Moving slowly enough that he could have backed away if he wanted to, she scooted across the couch and pulled him into a hug.
"I'm sorry," she said softly, holding him tight. After a startled instant he held on right back, because she was warm and alive and she knew all about him, and it seemed that she did give a damn after all. "I'm sorry, Arkady. No more questions."
That night Cordelia said simply, "He's all yours. Try not to get him killed, I'm afraid he'd find it romantic."
Aral stared blankly for a moment--he'd imagined, somehow, that there would be protracted negotiations, but apparently Arkady's shy smile this afternoon had represented a whole other kind of nerves. Aral was glad he hadn't realized until just now; he'd never have had the patience for the day's near-endless political brangling if he'd known.
Aloud, Aral said, "He's very traditional. Death is the height of romance, on Barrayar."
Cordelia shook her head, but kissed him soundly and said, "Time for new traditions, then. Getting laid is a very popular one, on Beta Colony. I propose that you two try it and see how you like it."
Aral went blank again, but managed to say, "Tonight?"
Cordelia raised her eyebrows. "Well, it's been a long day, so if you only want to go and tell him good night and maybe another time...."
Aral's uncertainties all rushed him for a moment, filling the vacuum when his brain went blank at the implication that Arkady was waiting for him. "He really does want...?"
Cordelia smiled wryly. "He mentioned being willing to fight assassins with a pocket knife on your behalf--apparently Gregor issued him one for just that purpose."
Aral had never noticed Jole carrying a blade. Not that the knife was the important part of that sentence. "Oh. Which room is he in?"
Cordelia nodded eastward. "The blue suite. It's less than ten meters, I'm sure the servants will manage not to see you walking back and forth."
Cordelia had never entirely mastered taking it for granted that servants didn't see, hear, or know anything they shouldn't.
"Yes," Aral said, not at all sure that made sense as an answer to what she'd said, "and thank you." He kissed Cordelia soundly.
After a moment she pushed him away and said, "It's Arkady's turn! Go. I'm going to take a very long bath and then sprawl out across the entire bed to sleep. Don't hurry back."
"As ordered, dear Captain," Aral said, and let himself out into the corridor, shutting the door behind him without allowing himself to break stride. His momentum kept him moving until he reached the door of the blue suite, second down from his and Cordelia's own, and he forced himself to knock even as he came to a halt.
He heard the muffled thump of bare feet moving quickly on the other side of the door, and then it was jerked open. Aral caught a split second of careful neutrality on Jole's face, but it vanished instantly into an eagerness so incandescent as to be contagious. He felt his own body catch fire from it; yesterday's look, which he had thought told him what Jole felt, was a shaded candle to tonight's mountain-top signal fire.
Suddenly pushed beyond any ability to hesitate, or indeed the ability to speak, Aral laid his hand flat against Jole's chest--he'd taken his tunic off already, and opened the collar of the cream-colored shirt beneath, as well as taking his boots off, so that they were an inch closer in height than usual--and pushed him back inside, just far enough for Aral to reach out with his other hand and shut the door behind them. There was a limit to what the servants should be expected to not see.
With the door shut Aral turned his push into a grab, tugging Jole toward him. Jole caught on with his usual speed, crowding Aral up against the door with his hands on Aral's shoulders, ducking his head to Aral's for a kiss they both went into already breathless. For a half-second Aral remembered to worry about things he hadn't thought about in decades--does he like this, does he like me, what the hell am I doing--and then he forgot all about it, because it was a kiss, their kiss. He was kissing Jole--kissing Arkady--his lips were on his beloved's lips, his tongue was allowed entrance to that clever mouth. There was no room to think of anything else.
Arkady made a series of half-voiced noises, all sounding pleased, and followed or echoed Aral's every motion. His hands kneaded restlessly at Aral's shoulders, and Aral made himself release his own death-grip on Arkady's shirtfront, raising his other hand to Arkady's side, just to touch, just because he could.
Arkady lifted his head just barely far enough to look into Aral's eyes and say, "Can I--do you--"
Aral grinned, and found he could speak even with his heart doing its best to hammer its way out of his chest and all his blood headed somewhere else as fast as it could go. "I didn't come down here just to say good night, Arkady."
Arkady grinned at that, his bright face flushing, and he ducked his head and closed his eyes, dropping more short kisses on Aral's lips, with breaks for a few words at a time. "No. I suppose not. Aral."
Aral tugged him closer at that, getting Arkady to press him bodily against the door so that he could feel that beautiful, lithe, and, oh yes, eager, body against his. Arkady writhed encouragingly against him, and without lifting his head again he moved his hands to Aral's collar. He got the obnoxious tunic collar undone--backward--without breaking the kiss or jabbing Aral in the throat, and Aral thought, Good, you've done this before.
Aral occupied himself with demonstrating that he still knew his way around someone else's uniform shirt, getting it unfastened the rest of the way quickly enough that he had his hands on Arkady's bare chest by the time Arkady had finished unfastening his tunic. They were officially at the point where they were about to start getting tangled in each other's clothes. Aral shoved Arkady back a step. "Bed."
Arkady went immediately, almost dancing backward as he tossed his shirt away and unfastened the top catch of his trousers, and Aral managed to peel out of his own shirt before he caught up with him again at the edge of the bed. Aral planted his knees on either side of Arkady's thighs--his turn to lean down into the kiss, now. Arkady arched up into it eagerly, his hands on Aral's hips, anchoring himself as he wiggled--shimmying out of his trousers, Aral realized, when he looked down to find Arkady markedly more naked than he'd been a moment ago.
Arkady gave him a smile somewhere between cocky--well, how else, just at the moment--and ravenous, and said, "Help you with your boots, sir? Please?"
Aral grinned back. "How long have you been waiting to ask that?"
"Just all afternoon," Arkady said, blue eyes dark with desire. He licked his lips and added with obvious daring, "How long have you been waiting for me to ask?"
Aral wouldn't discourage that daring for worlds, so he said, "Not quite that long, but by all means, do."
Arkady grinned, and Aral kissed him once more before he shifted to sit on the bed. They were side-by-side for just an instant before Arkady kicked his way out of the rest of his clothes and twisted down gracefully to kneel naked between Aral's booted feet.
The beautiful younger man kneeling at his elder's feet was, Aral was aware, precisely how this was supposed to work, inasmuch as this was supposed to happen at all. Arkady had done this before, and it was obviously what he expected--and he showed nothing but enthusiasm for what he expected. Still, Aral had to reach for him, tousling his blond hair. Arkady wore it just at the limit of regulation length, and it cried out to be disarranged.
Arkady looked up, even as he expertly removed Aral's left boot, beaming at Aral under that touch, and Aral remembered--how could he have forgotten for even a moment?--where this had all begun. Arkady set Aral's boot neatly aside and turned to the other, getting it off just as quickly. As soon as he'd put it aside, Aral tugged gently on Arkady's hair, derailing him from the entirely predictable next step. He was glad Arkady had done this before, glad that he knew what he wanted. That didn't mean that Aral didn't want to surprise him; he had no intention of being just one more older man attracted to a bright and beautiful young officer.
"Come here," he said, but Arkady was already pulling himself up to his feet, his hands on Aral's thighs for balance. Arkady kissed him again without further prompting--taller again, while he stood and Aral sat--and reached for the fastener of Aral's trousers. Aral caught his hands, breaking the kiss to shake his head.
"Lie down," he said. "Let me see you."
He could see it in Arkady's eyes, the jump from one mental script to another--"lie back and get fucked," now, instead of "demonstrate excellence in cocksucking." Arkady still looked pleased, and Aral still hadn't surprised him. He slipped past Aral to lie down on the bed, kicking the turned-down covers out of the way so that he was sprawled on the clean white sheet, displayed to perfect advantage. He was golden-haired everywhere, from the mere dusting at his ankles to the darker curls at his crotch, framing his erection, to the mussed blond waves Aral already knew so well. Arkady folded his arms behind his head, as though the order to be still and not touch was implicit. Aral sat still and watched him for a moment, watched his breath rise and fall, watched him determined not to squirm.
He had the pale skin of a Space Service officer, which his stint in ImpMil had naturally done nothing to correct. Aral reached out and set one hand on Arkady's right shin, just below the knee, where the scars criss-crossed. Arkady caught his breath a little, and his foot twitched sharply, but he kept still even for that. Aral bent his head and kissed another scar higher up, on his thigh, and smiled as the muscle jumped under his lips. He kissed up higher, on whole skin, and Arkady twitched again, spreading his legs slightly.
Aral shifted into a more comfortable position, half-lying alongside Arkady's bare legs, and planted one hand on the bed on the other side of Arkady's thighs as he kissed higher still, and then licked the hairless line at the crease of his hip. Arkady made a small, strangled noise.
Aral looked up, smiling. He had achieved surprise. "You'll be patient with me, won't you? It's been a while."
Arkady bit down hard on his lip and nodded, wide-eyed. Aral shifted his weight onto his opposite hand and ducked his head to lick the head of Arkady's cock. He closed his eyes and let himself be guided by feel and taste, by instinct, which meant by experience he didn't quite remember plainly. It all felt familiar, it all felt right. It also felt like Aral should have taken his pants off before this, but he could wait. He'd waited a long time for this--he could keep waiting for as long as he had to.
For now Aral closed his mouth around Arkady's cock and sucked, shifting his weight again to free his right hand. He curled it around the shaft, stroking and getting familiar with the taste and weight and heat on his tongue, the best rhythm to breathe in as he sucked, even as he listened to Arkady's gasps turning quick and erratic.
His own hair was too short to get a grip on, but he looked up immediately when Arkady's hand touched his head. Aral pulled off regretfully, before Arkady said anything.
"No, not yet," he murmured, and Arkady shut his eyes for a second and took a deep breath. Aral moved away from him, letting him get control of himself--he was sweating now, breathing harder, his pale skin gone pink from his forehead to his chest. His cock was flushed dark and twitching a little with Arkady's gasps, shiny-wet from Aral's mouth.
Aral unfastened his pants and shoved them off quickly, unceremoniously, but Arkady looked up at the sound. His eyes devoured Aral, moving eagerly up and down his body and evidently finding nothing he didn't like. Aral's scars were more scattered than Arkady's, his skin showing sharp lines between tanned and not, and there was plenty of grey hair everywhere, but when Arkady's eyes met his again, Aral felt as desired and desirable as he'd ever been.
Aral sat down on the bed and leaned down over Arkady to kiss him again. Arkady pushed up into the kiss, and his hand found Aral's knee and slid steadily up the inside of his thigh. Aral managed to keep kissing him until his hand reached Aral's cock, and then he broke off to catch his own breath. Arkady pushed up to a half-sitting position as Aral raised his head, his hand stroking Aral's cock.
His lips were nearly against Aral's as he said, "Yes. Whatever you want, that's what I want. Yes."
Aral discovered that he couldn't quite think and breathe at the same time, and chose breathing. Still, it was nearly spinal reflex to say, "You're sure?"
Arkady smiled against his mouth, and his fingers did something wonderfully clever. "I'm assured you're not a sadist, and I had time to read the labels on everything in the drawer of the bedside table. I'm pretty sure."
Aral kissed him, for knowing what he was doing with his fingers, with himself, for trusting Aral and looking after himself at the same time, for being Arkady and wanting him.
"I want you to fuck me," Aral murmured.
Arkady's hand stuttered--startled, for all that--but he recovered quickly. He kissed Aral and said, "I guess that's been a while, too, hm?"
Aral kissed him back and didn't bother to answer, because--"Wait, what did you find in the drawer?"
Arkady laughed, nerves and delight all together, Aral thought. He took his hand off Aral's cock--probably for the best, and Aral bit his lip to keep from protesting--and flipped over. He lay nearly across Aral's lap as he reached for the drawer of the bedside table. Aral set a hand on his perfectly shaped ass, which made Arkady shake his hips under the touch and glance back, beaming, over his shoulder. "You're allowed to change your mind any time."
Aral smiled, squeezed, and leaned over Arkady to look. He noted, as he did, that Arkady had emptied his pockets onto the bedside table before Aral came in--two distinct groups of pens and styluses were set in neat rows at right angles to each other. There were enough to keep an entire squad in writing utensils if only they actually were what they looked like.
Arkady scooped up a handful of little bottles and packets from the drawer and twisted onto his side to show them to Aral, who recognized all of them at a glance--as well as the more elaborate items further back in the drawer. His Captain was playing quartermaster, apparently.
"Mmm," Aral said, plucking one out of Arkady's hand. "I think that's all we need just now, unless you're feeling particularly creative."
Arkady turned to drop the rest back into the drawer and close it, saying, "Maybe next time?" with his face hidden from Aral.
Aral dropped the bottle on the bed and slipped both arms around Arkady, hugging him from behind. He dropped a kiss on the nape of Arkady's neck and murmured, "Definitely next time."
Arkady twisted in his grip and Aral held himself still, to meet Arkady's shining eyes. Arkady put his arms around Aral's shoulders, dragging himself up for another kiss, and his lips moved from Aral's lips to his cheek to the line of his jaw, until they were simply holding each other close, with Arkady's mouth pressed against his throat.
Tomorrow I can't kiss you every time I look you in the eye, Aral thought, and his arms tightened around Arkady. Arkady's grip tightened in response, and then loosened as he twisted around again. Aral could feel Arkady's erection against his hip, and Arkady dropped one hand down to Aral's thigh.
"So," Arkady murmured, "you were saying."
"I was," Aral agreed, sitting up and considering their options. He'd been a little more flexible the last time he did this.
Aral moved to get properly onto the bed for the first time, shifting past Arkady and touching him as he did--a hand on his hip, side, shoulder--only because he was there, because he could. Arkady did the same as Aral stretched out on the bed, his hands not directing Aral, but simply moving over his skin, tracing the line of a scar, the shape of his ribs and spine.
Aral settled facedown, one leg tucked up, though he stayed propped on one elbow as he looked back at Arkady--who had picked up the little bottle off the bed and was staring with a slightly dazed expression somewhere a couple of feet south of Aral's face. Aral couldn't help laughing--to think he had the ability to distract anyone's eyes, even now--and Arkady's attention redirected quickly, another bright flush painting his face.
Arkady grinned, though, and said, "Can't blame a man for looking."
"No," Aral said, "never. Unless looking's all you intend to do."
Arkady merely shook his head at that, and stretched out to hold himself above Aral, touching him nowhere but in a brief kiss. Then Arkady murmured, "Relax, let me," and Aral obediently settled his head on his folded arms and waited.
Arkady kissed the top of his shoulder, the groove of his spine, dragged his mouth warmly over the line of one rib and then the top of his hip. Aral closed his eyes deliberately, ignoring the array of concealed weapons laid out on the bedside table, ignoring Arkady's easy access to points of vulnerability, which was after all the point. He trusted Arkady, and if his trust was not easily or thoughtlessly given, that only made it a better gift. Arkady's mouth moved downward, slowly and on no particular pattern, but reliably, so that Aral was not startled to feel Arkady's tongue trace down the line of one buttock, Arkady's breath on his cleft, Arkady's tongue pressing against his hole.
Aral let out an encouraging groan, and Arkady made a small, pleased humming noise and continued, licking around and in with maddening slowness, while Aral kept himself carefully, desperately still. Other sensations, other thoughts, diminished until there was nothing in the world but this, Arkady's mouth on him and the knowledge that even this was just prelude. Aral gasped, as much in surprise as pleasure, when Arkady's fingers traced over his balls, cupping for a moment and then moving on, reaching under his body to stroke his cock, which was still hard and jerked in Arkady's hand, not quite subject to Aral's determination to keep still.
Arkady kept it up until Aral was gasping, sweat broken out all over him. Aral found he was mumbling something into his wrist, and then realized it was Cordelia's obscene tirade from days before. He found himself laughing when he got to the really colloquial Russian parts, though his laughter was breathless and stuttered with every one of Arkady's motions.
Arkady's mouth lifted off him, just enough for Aral to feel Arkady's breath puffing in the same broken patterns. He murmured, "That sounds good," against Aral's skin.
Aral couldn't think what language to speak in, or what to say; he merely tilted his hips up, waiting. Arkady kissed his tailbone and said nothing, but Aral felt the shift of his weight, heard the liquid-slick sounds of lubrication, and was nearly back to Cordelia's litany of improper practices before Arkady's hand left his cock to brace against his hip, because Arkady was slowly, carefully, inexorably pushing inside.
Aral found himself exhaling every breath as a yes as he was filled up, opened up, made to take what he'd asked for. Arkady's body settled down against his own, his weight half-trusted to Aral's body along with his cock. He was very still for a moment, breathing loudly in Aral's ear, and Aral waited, ducking his head to hide his own smile. He remembered being young, and fighting to keep control of himself at moments like this.
When Arkady dared to move again, Aral moved with him, against him, twisting and tilting his hips under Arkady's thrusts to find the angle that worked best. Aral couldn't quite control the sound he made when he found it, and Arkady gave a triumphant low noise that was almost a growl, and moved quickly, steadily, every stroke hitting the spot. Aral was dizzyingly, agonizingly close when Arkady made a desperate noise of a different pitch, and Aral said, "Yes, yes, go."
Arkady blew out a hot breath against his shoulder and clutched Aral's hip as his thrusts lost their rhythm, though he was perfectly silent through his orgasm. He was only still for a moment after--long enough for Aral to nearly catch his own breath, but not quite long enough to formulate any actual thoughts. He tugged Aral backward by his hand on Aral's hip, tipping them both onto their sides, still joined, still pressed as closely together as it was possible to be.
Arkady's hand closed around his cock, his grip tight and a little slick, and he was kissing Aral's throat as he stroked. His tongue traced the curve of bone behind Aral's ear, and he murmured, "Please, Aral, please."
Aral closed his eyes and surrendered himself to sensation, spilling over Arkady's fingers. Just for a moment, he lost track of everything, but when he opened his eyes again Arkady was still there, pressed against his back, his left hand resting against Aral's belly. Aral reached back with his left hand, settling it with only a little fumbling on the nape of Arkady's neck. He squeezed lightly, and Arkady turned his head just enough to kiss the inside of Aral's wrist.
When Aral shifted gingerly away from him, Arkady held still, but when Aral sat up, Arkady sat up too. Aral smiled at him and tilted his head toward the door to the suite's bathroom. "Just a moment."
Arkady nodded, his throat squeezed shut with uncertainty, and mustered a smile as Aral stood and walked away from him.
Arkady watched him go. With any other man, in any other situation, this would have been the point where he got dressed, went home, and took a shower. But he had been offered the hospitality of the house, without condition, and it would be conspicuous to leave so soon after accepting it. Naturally Aral would want to make himself presentable before he left this room--before he went back to his wife, just down the hall. Arkady's mind went a little blank at that thought.
That wasn't Arkady's business, anyway. Arkady would wait until Aral came out, and say good night. Then he would lie in this enormous bed, which was nicer--and probably older--than anything in Arkady's entire apartment building, and smile into his pillow until his face felt like it was going to crack open, because he--and Aral--and--and next time--and....
Arkady couldn't keep still anymore, and channeled his giddiness into gathering up Aral's clothes and setting them neatly on the foot of the bed, ready for him to put back on as many clothes as he needed to safely traverse the hallway. He looked up from shaking out the tunic when the bathroom door opened, and was staggered all over again by the sight of Aral, standing naked in the doorway and smiling at him. Aral seemed amused by something, and Arkady dropped the tunic and tried to look, perfectly truthfully, like he hadn't been sniffing it or anything. Aral just stepped out of the bathroom and said, "Your turn."
Arkady nodded jerkily and moved toward the bathroom, passing Aral halfway there. Aral's knuckles brushed the back of Arkady's hand, and Arkady bit his lip and smiled as he shut the door behind him. He would clean up, then, as directed. Maybe Aral would slip away while he was in the bathroom, though Arkady somehow couldn't imagine that--which meant he'd be waiting in the bedroom for Arkady to come out and say good night. He was probably getting dressed. Aral would be standing there all done up in his uniform--the Prime Minister would be standing there--and Arkady, still naked, would kiss him goodbye.
Arkady cleaned his teeth thoroughly, but quickly, and when he was all proper and presentable--as proper and presentable as he could be, while also naked--he stepped out of the bathroom.
Aral's clothes had disappeared from the foot of the bed, and Arkady's clothes had disappeared from the floor, but Arkady didn't look to see where they'd gone. Aral was sitting in the middle of the bed, naked, his legs folded tailor-fashion as he leaned back on his hands. Waiting for Arkady.
"Oh," Arkady said thoughtlessly, hesitating in the doorway. The room seemed very bright, and the bed seemed very far away.
"I'll go if you want me to," Aral said, smiling. "But I had this feeling that you didn't, really."
Arkady didn't decide to move, he was just there, at the side of the bed, reaching for Aral's hand when Aral held it out, half-tackling him down to the mattress. Aral laughed and did something that threw Arkady's momentum off at an unexpected angle; suddenly he was flat on his back with Aral straddling his hips.
"Haven't managed that one in a while," Aral said, a little breathless and grinning. "But I suppose you don't know any of my tricks yet. Well, you'll learn."
Arkady nodded happily, wondering what next, what next, what next but Aral just leaned down to kiss him and then stretched out to lie against Arkady's side.
"I was sitting here trying to guess--" Aral said, and raised his hand just far enough to wave it toward the bedside table, then dropped his arm across Arkady's body, "which one is the knife."
The knife wasn't a secret, though the whole point of arming Arkady in the manner that he was armed--rather than simply having him shadow the Prime Minister with a plasma arc on one hip and a nerve disruptor on the other--was that he had an inherent element of surprise.
"So," Arkady said, looking back and forth from Aral to the bedside table, "go ahead, guess."
Aral exhaled a soft laugh at that, and muttered, "Challenge me, Lieutenant."
He raised his left hand again and, without hesitation, picked up the knife from among the neatly lined-up contents of Arkady's left pocket. It was a little thicker than the others; Arkady wouldn't have liked writing with it, if it were actually the pen it was disguised as. As a knife, it fit his grip like it had been made for him, which it had.
Aral tilted it back and forth in his hand, and then pressed down on the hidden catch. The dull grey blade sprang out, and Aral tilted it in his hand again. Arkady watched, because he couldn't take his attention away from it when it was open; the blade nearly disappeared, edge-on.
"They made me practice with a duplicate of that one," Arkady said, his gaze on the knife even as he spoke. "I don't know why, the whole point of the blade is that you can't dull it. But I can behead a very lifelike dummy in six seconds, or make a fatal stab with my eyes closed."
"Let us hope you're never called upon to behead anyone," Aral replied, and Arkady knew he must be thinking of the Countess, and Vordarian's head. Arkady had been five years old when he first heard the story, and he and every other boy he knew had been obsessed with it for months afterward. The girls on his street had been more obsessed, though. Some of them had been downright scary; it had seemed like a good idea that none of them were allowed to have blades.
Aral turned the knife in his hand again and then said, "How in hell do you retract the blade when you're done beheading people?"
"Oh, it's fiddly," Arkady said, and raised his right hand to cover Aral's, slipping his fingers in between Aral's to hold down the two necessary pressure points at once. The blade disappeared with a faint metallic whisper, and Arkady let his hand drop as Aral set it back among the rest of the things Arkady carried in his pockets.
"It's a wonder you don't clank when you walk," Aral said, settling his arm across Arkady's body again, and Arkady smiled.
"Smythe told me where to go to get my uniform trousers' pockets made specially. They have little loops to keep everything in place, so I can't confuse them."
"Of course," Aral said, and then said nothing for a while. Arkady closed his eyes and dared to settle his arm alongside Aral's, his fingers curled tentatively around Aral's elbow. Not holding on, really, just... curving to fit that spot. After a while he felt Aral's weight shift beside him.
Arkady half-opened his eyes, but Aral had only moved the arm he was lying on, curling it up so that his fingers could comb gently through Arkady's hair. Arkady closed his eyes again, and let his face tilt a little toward Aral.
"I can't call you Arkan, I suppose," Aral murmured. "Your mother probably calls you that."
If I introduced you to my mother, Arkady thought, I could say, this is Prime Minister Admiral Count Vorkosigan, my commanding officer, who relies upon me, and she would be prouder of me than she's ever been.
It was all right to answer a question now. It was all right for them to know things, to know each other, if they chose. Arkady chose.
"No," he said without opening his eyes, letting everything stay like a dream. "She calls me Kado. Cadeau, you know, like--"
Aral laughed a little, sounding startled. "What, like Arkady Durand, from that holo? Good God, you were born the year after, weren't you--were you named after him?"
Arkady blinked, taking in the look on Aral's face: fond, amused, surprised. "You didn't know that."
Aral shook his head, even now not realizing. "No, I had no idea. Arkady's not such an uncommon name, and I haven't thought of that holo in years."
"You didn't know," Arkady repeated. "I--when Captain Illyan told me to give my name, under fast-penta, that was the first thing I told him."
"Ah," Aral said, and some of the humor went out of his eyes, but none of the warmth. "And you never knew, for certain, what he might have told me."
Arkady lowered his gaze and shrugged. Now was not the time to carry tales about what the Countess had said.
"I thought about asking him," Aral said quietly, as though he'd heard Arkady's thoughts, and Arkady looked up sharply.
"Cordelia told me--well, Cordelia didn't quite tell me anything, in so many words, but she allowed me to draw the inference that you were attracted to me, and I thought about asking Simon if you were inclined that way. I knew he would have found it out, if you were. But it would have been an abuse of my power to ask, and in any case Simon would never have told me anything but that you passed--and that you hated it, but I didn't guess what that really meant until I knew more about you, and pieced it together. I told Cordelia that much, that you'd hated it, and what I suspected you must have been questioned about, but that's all that either of us knows."
Arkady fixed his gaze on Aral's shoulder. They didn't know, either of them; they could have asked, and they didn't. You have nothing to fear from me, Aral had said, and he'd meant it.
"It could have been much worse," Arkady assured him. "I thought--I had no idea what it was really about, at first. I thought I was going to have to betray everyone I knew, give names. I was terrified. But he didn't ask, really, not anything but what he needed to know."
Aral was silent and still for a moment, and then shifted infinitesimally closer against Arkady's side, and started running his fingers through Arkady's hair again. "I don't think he'd mind me telling you, all things considered. Simon's had that memory chip since he was a freshly-promoted lieutenant, younger than you are. Emperor Ezar and Captain Negri used to use him as a kind of human recording device. But the recording's no good if you can't download it, so they would fast-penta him when they wanted to know what he'd seen. It kept him from being tempted to edit what he remembered. They would dose him three or four times in a week, sometimes.
"Simon insisted that it could have been worse. They never asked personal questions, just about what he was supposed to have observed. He observed me, for a while. That's how we met. But I can't imagine what it was like for him--going in to work every day and knowing today might be the day they ask you a question they have no right to ask, when you have no choice but to answer."
Arkady bit his lip and looked up at Aral, who met his eyes steadily. "Simon gave himself the injections for the allergy treatment with his own hands, starting about two days after we got back into Vorbarr Sultana after the Pretendership."
Arkady nodded slightly, meaning I had it too, though of course Aral knew that as well as they both knew that Aral hadn't just been talking about Captain Illyan.
"It doesn't quite make you safe," Aral said softly, sounding sorry for it. Arkady let his gaze dart away to the bedside table. Even without the knife, he carried half a dozen methods of suicide in his pockets every day, escapes from the old-fashioned methods he might be subject to, because he could never again be questioned under fast-penta. Arkady knew precisely how safe he was.
"I know you'll keep the secrets you're entrusted with," Aral said softly, sliding his hand up from Arkady's side to rest over his heart. "That is your sworn duty, for matters that touch the Imperium--but Arkady, promise me you'll never let any kind of harm come to yourself rather than tell this secret. I would not forgive myself. I could not. This would only be a scandal. It's not worth one drop of your blood, nor your sweat or tears, if it comes to that."
I would die for you a thousand times before you'd ask me to, because you'd never ask me to. But this wasn't an unreasonable request; it was a calculation of risks, one Aral was better equipped to make than Arkady was. It was something Aral would ask him for, and Arkady would never deny him that. "Yes. I swear."
Aral nodded, seeming satisfied. Giddy with adoration, Arkady asked, "What about you? Were you ever...."
He remembered, as he spoke, all the old stories that made it a horrible question to ask, but Aral looked only thoughtful, not offended.
"No," Aral said. "I've never been questioned under fast-penta. I offered, after Komarr--" Aral's eyes grew distant, creasing with something Arkady didn't think was quite a smile. After a pause he said, "actually, I suppose I demanded. Demanded it of Negri, first, and when he said I'd already confessed and it was a waste of a dose, I went and demanded it of the Emperor. He refused to even speak to me--called me Piotr's younger boy to Negri and told him to take me away, like a dog who didn't know how to behave indoors.
"At the time all I could really see was that they wouldn't let me retrieve my honor. I'd confessed to the murder of the Political Officer--not that they needed my confession with that many witnesses--and that was officially the only crime I was charged with, after the Solstice Massacre. But I wanted to be vindicated of the rest. I wanted them to ask me why I killed him, and I wanted to tell them under fast-penta, so no one could say I was lying. Eventually I realized it wouldn't have accomplished anything. No one who wouldn't believe my bare word would believe I'd really been under fast-penta when I cleared myself. Now it's worse--I hold too many secrets, and the number of people I could trust to be in the same room with me while I was on fast-penta has dwindled much further. No one would take Cordelia's word for my truthfulness, or Simon's."
There wasn't an answer to that, and it was at once just what Arkady deserved for asking a thoughtless question and more than he could ever have deserved. Arkady closed his hand gently on Aral's wrist, and Aral's eyes focused on his face, searching his gaze. Arkady looked back, willing Aral to know that he was honored by Aral's confidence--even if it was only a fraction of the confidence he had in people who had been close to him long enough to have earned his complete trust.
Aral shook his head faintly. "You don't need fast-penta when a man's willing to talk," he murmured. His hand still rested over Arkady's heart, and his thumb swept a short arc over Arkady's skin, as if marking out territory. "You can ask, if you like. You have a right to know things about me. I want you to know things about me. Ask me anything. I'll tell you all the truth I can."
Arkady kept breathing steadily, though he thought Aral must have been able to feel his heart speed up. It was a test, all the more important because he doubted Aral thought of it as one. Aral lived like this every day, in an atmosphere where everything was a test, and the reward for passing the test was getting to go on to the next test and the next and the next, and the penalty for failing didn't bear thinking of. Arkady asked himself what it was he actually wanted to know, what he dared or dared not ask, what truth he wanted from Aral, but he found it was very simple. Wonderfully simple, though he couldn't have imagined having the temerity to ask it a quarter of an hour ago. He raised his hand to Aral's shoulder, turning onto his side to face Aral directly.
"All I want to know," Arkady said firmly, "is whether you're going to stay here with me tonight."
Aral's face brightened into a smile--a real smile, sun-bright--and he rolled Arkady over into another kiss, his body pressing Arkady to the mattress as he murmured, "Yes, Arkady, yes. Yes."
The heat of the day had gotten almost homelike--though Cordelia suspected, deep down, that she'd long since forgotten what the heat of Beta Colony really felt like--when she walked down to the lake's edge to find Aral. He was sitting out at the end of the dock dressed in disreputable vacation clothes, bare feet dangling over the water, and he had one hand resting on a small, flat bundle of cloth at his side. Even from behind, as she walked down the dock, she knew the expression on his face: utter contentment and relaxation. The sun was shining, they had arranged ten days away from the capital and, unless she very much missed her guess, Aral was watching Arkady swim.
Cordelia sat down at his right hand, letting her feet dangle over the water like his. The lake's water level was good this year; she could just dip her toes in if she scooted forward and pointed them. Following Aral's gaze, she spotted a distant blond figure in the act of tagging the farther buoy and then turning back.
There was only one point on which Cordelia was unclear. "Did you take his trousers hostage, or were they surrendered peacefully?"
Aral looked over at her with a breathtakingly sunny smile. No ceiling on happiness, she thought, beaming helplessly back at him and knowing that they only amplified their delight between each other.
"They have been entrusted to my guardianship," Aral explained. "He didn't want to be too far away from the contents of his pockets, so I promised to keep watch over them."
Cordelia shook her head, turning her gaze to see Arkady swimming steadily back toward them. After a moment--since she really had not come down to the lake only to watch her husband watching his boyfriend--she said, "You know, I was all set to reassure Harra about how safe she'd be in an aircar, and then Pym told me they were going up into the mountains on horseback."
Aral's expression of contentment did not waver. "It made sense on every level--more familiar for Harra, a better first impression for Miles to make in Silvy Vale. Dropping down in an aircar says invasion of the technologically advanced city folk. Miles on horseback says look here, this is Lord Vorkosigan."
Cordelia couldn't actually argue with that logic--and yet, "It also means Miles will be out of your hair for several days while you introduce Arkady to the pleasures of Vorkosigan Surleau."
Aral looked over at her again, his smile striking an uncertain balance between sheepish and smug. "It's not as if I would have sent Miles away if he weren't needed; it simply worked out this way. And if I couldn't devise a tactical plan over breakfast with no opposition on the field and have it serve two purposes at once, I should retire down here for good."
"A pity, then," Cordelia sighed, but she smiled, and Aral shook his head, the sheepish smile winning out.
"Someday," he promised, and went back to watching Arkady, who was close enough now that Cordelia could appreciate his steady, strong motions. She also noted how little he was wearing; he was very fair, and she made a mental note to make sure there was a good sunburn remedy in his bathroom, later.
"He's a very good swimmer," she observed, merely for the pleasure of watching that look come over Aral's face that always accompanied any discussion of Arkady's manifold virtues.
This one was tempered a little, and Aral said, "Apparently it was the only part of physical therapy he didn't hate--but he'd never had a chance to swim outside a pool before now. I could hardly believe it." Aral shook his head, and a slightly different variety of fond smile took over. "City boy."
Cordelia--recalling, with moderately time-softened horror, Aral's attempts to teach her to swim in the lake--mentally marked down swimming and lake activities in general as Arkady's Territory, and returned to her intended topic. "Pym must think he's being punished, you know."
"Pym hasn't done anything to be punished for," Aral said, so serene as to be deadpan. "I'm sure his conscience is clear. He's the new man and the new man always gets the worst jobs. He was ImpSec, which will be useful to Miles, and he can ride a horse, which was obviously essential. And then, too...."
Aral's gaze dropped thoughtfully. Cordelia turned her own eyes back to the surface of the water, just in time to see Arkady's surface-skimming stroke convert into a silent underwater dive. She watched him approach, moving smoothly as a fish under the water, until Aral said slowly, "Miles is an adult, and Lord Vorkosigan, and I have every confidence in him. Pym had never met him before this week, and that makes this his first real impression of Miles; after this he may be the only one of my Armsmen who looks at Miles and sees a capable adult. Miles deserves at least one, I think."
Cordelia covered Aral's hand with her own, and neither of them spoke of the Sergeant, who no Armsman could ever replace. Time moved on, and what Miles needed from the Count's liveried men had changed.
Cordelia glanced sideways at the sound of a small irregular splash against the piling beneath her, and saw Arkady's head above water. He was treading water, nearly under the dock on her side and out of Aral's sight. Arkady made a couple of expressive gestures. Cordelia smiled.
"So," she said briskly, turning her attention back to Aral. "Simply another facet of your excellent tactical plan, then."
Aral went back to smiling, and looked up and out at the water, then frowned. "Do you see Jole? He ought to have tagged up--"
Cordelia heard the small splash and slap of skin on skin, and got both hands on Aral's back even as he looked down. Her shove ensured that he cleared the edge of the dock as Arkady yanked him down, and Aral went into the water face-first, with a yell and a colossal splash.
A bit of movement in Cordelia's peripheral vision alerted her that the inevitable ImpSec man on a skimmer had jumped to his feet. She waved and gave the all's well hand signal, even as she looked down to see if Aral would surface promptly.
He did, teeth bared in a fierce grin as he gasped for breath, with one arm locked around Arkady's neck. Not too tightly, as Arkady came up laughing for a bright instant before Aral drove him back down under the water.
Cordelia prudently pulled her feet up, folding them under her, and sat back in the sunshine to listen to the splashing under the dock.