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Shakedown Visit

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"I think we're ready for you to move in, my lord."

"You think you're ready?" Aral gave Captain Illyan a narrow-eyed look over the heap of papers that covered his desk. "Either you're ready or you aren't, Captain."

Cordelia effaced herself. She'd broken in new subordinates of her own, and she suspected Aral had forgotten she was here, to critique his officers in front of her.

"I've been over the entire building personally, and the personnel. We have a full security perimeter, and--well, you don't need the detail now. But I'm confident that we can secure your household better there than we can here."

Aral gave a judicious nod. "Very well. We will inspect tomorrow, and if it's all as you say, Count Piotr will collect the Emperor and he can join us there." He looked over at Cordelia then. "Are you ready to move? I'm afraid it will be into a building site. You did rather a lot of damage to the Residence."

"It took some time before it was cool enough that we could safely survey it all," Illyan said in agreement. "But all essential services are restored to your quarters there. Your suite, I should say. And of course the Emperor's."

"I'm sure it will be educational," Cordelia said. She was prepared to move into the Imperial Residence even without the hot water and security perimeter. The building hadn't been fit to inhabit after Aral's forces had retaken Vorbarr Sultana, and so they'd been forced back to Vorkosigan House, where Aral and the Count had studiously avoided speaking to each other on any subject other than official business. She had spent as much time as she could at ImpMil, sitting by the replicator, but even with this escape the atmosphere was horrific. She had been thinking that she might prefer holes in the roof, even in this Barrayaran winter, rather than stay any longer in the same house as Piotr Vorkosigan. She smiled at Illyan. "I'm ready to move as soon as you give the word."

"You will take a pair of Armsmen," was all the Count said when Aral informed him that they would be inspecting the Residence prior to moving in.

"Captain Illyan has it all in hand," said Aral.

"Nonetheless. Negri kept ImpSec on a tight leash, and that's broken now. You know full well our House cannot rely on ImpSec."

"Why is that?" Cordelia asked despite herself. Both Aral and the Count gave her identical looks of surprise, how can you not know this obvious piece of family history, or perhaps it was Barrayaran history. They were much the same thing for the Vorkosigan clan.

"ImpSec massacred our family," said the Count bluntly. "They were Yuri's tools then."

"You can't imagine any of them are still taking orders from Yuri, after all these years."

"Half of them were taking orders from Vordarian a few weeks ago," the Count retorted, which Cordelia had to admit was a cogent point. "I don't care how good you think he is, that young hotshot with galactic hardware in his head, nobody's that good."

"I trust Illyan," said Aral.

"You always were too sentimental. I will give the Armsmen their orders."

The Armsmen accompanied them. Cordelia didn't mention it since Aral didn't. She wasn't sure whether their presence meant Aral agreed with his father about the unreliability of ImpSec, or whether he'd chosen not to fight this particular battle when there were so many others ahead. Illyan gave a blink of surprise at their presence, but he too made no comment. Doubtless he knew all the painful history involved, though he couldn't have been much more than a baby when ImpSec had massacred Aral's family.

"This way, my lord, my lady."

Cordelia followed Illyan. From here, you couldn't see the burned shell of the other wing, but Cordelia fancied she could still smell it, that faint hint of smoke in the air. Perhaps it was from the funeral pyres. There had been fires burning every day since they'd returned to the capital. She swallowed, to get the taste out of her mouth. Aral's gaze flickered to her, and she jerked her head up. She was escaping Count Piotr, she didn't care even if the building was still on fire.

"Allow me to present Colonel Morotz, in command of the Residence security."

Morotz was standing at strict attention before his Regent. He looked a little young for his rank, though not, Cordelia had to admit, anywhere near as young as his new boss. But he seemed to know his business, taking charge of the tour, indicating security posts, defensive lines, force screens and saferooms. It all seemed properly paranoid. The security certainly was: even here behind all these new defensive lines, Illyan had provided a pair of black-clad guards who followed behind the tour. Aral seemed unconscious of the parade following him around, but the Armsmen kept a wary eye on the ImpSec men as the tour wound on. Cordelia didn't try to memorise the layout yet: she'd only just started to know her way around Vorkosigan House. Eventually she'd figure it all out.

"And these are your personal rooms," said Illyan. "There's a final perimeter here, at the door, and--"

"Outside the door," Morotz said across this. "We maintain a line outside the door here, and the doors are fully reinforced."

Cordelia frowned at Morotz. Even in the informality of the Survey, you didn't interrupt your seniors, and the Barrayarans had always seemed highly alert to these distinctions. Aral's eyes were narrowed too, but Illyan offered no rebuke, just gestured for Morotz to continue.

The tour led them down from the private living rooms to the State rooms. As they entered a suite of offices, there was an echoing crash. Morotz and his men whirled about with commendable speed, and the Armsmen moved convulsively towards Aral. Illyan stood still, relaxed. "It's the construction work," he said. "Unloading something, I believe. I'm afraid even over on your side, it's not going to be the most peaceful living quarters, not for several months."

"It's fine," Cordelia said quickly. "There's rebuilding going on all over this city right now, no reason the Regent shouldn't stand his share of it like everyone else."

Aral laughed. "Don't worry. We'll be moving in here soon."

They went on through the offices into an unlit back corridor. Cordelia looked around for the lighting controls, and Illyan said, "There was a faulty circuit here this morning, I'm afraid. It should be back by tomorrow."

"Through here, my lord," Morotz said, opening the door at the far end into another equally dark room.

It was pure chance that Cordelia saw it. Illyan was following her, and the two ImpSec guards picking up the rear. But the man who took up the final position as they went through the door was not the same man who had entered the corridor.

For an instant Cordelia was confused, wondering if she'd misremembered, mistaken one Barrayaran face for another. But a deeper instinct was screaming at her, reading the narrow-eyed focus of the substitute guard, the hostile intent in his eyes. She drew breath. "Aral!"

The next moments were a confused blur. The other guard turned, moving automatically in front of her. The ringer shouldered past him, and there was a knife in his hand. Illyan spun around, the Armsmen sprang in front of Aral, the ringer lunged forwards with his knife, and someone fired a stunner.

Cordelia heard a gasp of pain, and saw the ringer slump to the ground, not quite hit square on, but immobilised and semi-conscious. His knife clattered to the floor at her feet, and she saw blood on the blade.

Then one of the Armsmen grabbed her and pulled her over to Aral, where they stood quivering guard over them both. Aral had a nerve disruptor in his hand, and his back to the wall, covering the entire corridor.

"Are you all right, Cordelia?" he snapped.

"Fine. You?"

"Fine." He kept the disruptor pointing outwards. Morotz had a stunner in hand, as did Illyan and the real guard, who was standing ferociously over the would-be assassin, already binding him.

"Aral?" Cordelia said, trying to get her breath back.

"What superb timing that was," Aral said, not lowering the disruptor. "The darkened corridor, the guard--you told me you had every confidence in your men here. Is this what you call confidence?"

Illyan was standing perfectly still, even paler than Aral, breathing fast. Only his eyes moved, scanning around the corridor ceaselessly. "I am--I do believe you are safe here, my lord."

"How many times can I and mine be attacked under your watch, and I still have confidence in your loyalty?"

"Doubt my competence if you must," Illyan said quietly. "Not my loyalty."

At that moment the reinforcements arrived, another dozen black-clad men under the command of a grim-eyed sergeant, with floodlights casting sharp-edged shadows around the corridor. They ground to a confused halt as they saw Aral and his Armsmen training weapons on their boss, and two raised their own weapons in return, targeting the Armsmen.

"Stand down!" Illyan snapped. "The Regent and Consort are safe. Stand down and await his orders."

"Sir, Philippides is dead. Neck broken, just outside the door," the sergeant said. "No other breaches of security here."

Cordelia looked again at the bloodied blade on the floor.

"He didn't miss his target." It came out as a whisper. "He didn't miss the target, Aral. Look at Simon. Look at him properly."

Illyan was still standing perfectly still, but there was a dark shadow on his dress greens that wasn't cast by the lights, spreading across his back. Aral saw it too.

"You damned fool," he said, lowering his weapon. "Sergeant, I'm not the target here. Chief Illyan is. Get a medic." He stepped out, past his Armsmen, in time to get an arm around Illyan as he swayed. "So busy looking for plots against me you stopped watching your own back, Simon?" Aral said to him. "Don't do that again. You're one of the big players now, you're a target in your own right. Apart from the rest of it, what's the good in me being safe if my best men are dropping like flies?"

The medics hurried forwards, and Aral stood by as they began to examine Illyan, the other men still standing bristling guard around them both. Cordelia took a step backwards, looking at the would-be assassin still lying on the ground.

"Simon?" she said. "Why on earth would you try to kill Simon?"

To her surprise the man answered, his voice slurred by the stun. "He's not fit. Destroying all the old ways... the Emperor deserves better. Colonel, you know--"

"Shut your mouth," said Morotz sharply, but there was an odd flush to his face. Cordelia turned to face him.

"What do you know, Colonel?"

Morotz's flush deepened. "I admit, my lady," he said, "I have had my doubts about our new commander."

"I have my doubts about everything when it comes to Barrayaran governance." She stared hard at him, putting her old Captain Naismith Commands tones into her voice. "Did you put this man up to this?"

Morotz braced before her. "No, my lady!"

From where the medics were working, Illyan's voice came clearly. "Morotz is a reliable man, Lady Cordelia. He's merely suffering from nostalgia. He'll get over it."

"Sir," Morotz said in a strangled tone. .

"Hm," said Aral. "See that you do, Colonel."

The medic looked up from his work. "It's superficial," he said. "You'll be sore for a few days, that's all."

"Lady Cordelia alerted me," Illyan said, standing up against the medic's faint protests. "Otherwise it would have gone in. Kaspar had good hand to hand training." He looked down at his assailant. "You could have served the Emperor and the Regent well," he said. "Take him away under close arrest." He turned then to Morotz. "Please continue with the tour, Colonel. I'm afraid I will have to leave it with you for now."

Morotz stood even more stiffly before Illyan than he had before Cordelia, and snapped out a drill-sergeant's dream of a salute. "Yes, sir."

"Yes," said Aral. "Go get that properly taken care of. But then--it occurs to me that there's something we haven't done yet, Captain Illyan. I know we were planning next week, but now I think this is the right moment. Are you up to it, Simon? In two hours, at your HQ?"

Illyan turned to Aral, eyes widening. "Oh? Oh yes. That would be perfect, sir. I'll be ready."

"Don't you think it would have been better to wait?" Cordelia asked, sitting in the groundcar outside the oversized main entrance to Imperial Security Headquarters. "For a time when he hasn't just been stabbed, for heaven's sake?"

"You saw Morotz, and the others. This is the perfect time."

Count Piotr was sitting in the front of the vehicle with one of the ever-present Armsmen. Aral hadn't spoke to his father, but undoubtedly the Armsmen had reported in when they'd returned briefly to Vorkosigan House for Aral to change into his parade uniform with the insignia of the Regent of Barrayar. As well as the Vorkosigan Armsman with Piotr, there were two men in black and silver livery who Cordelia vaguely recognised from the Residence, indicating Aral's Imperial role. And, at a distance, flanking rows of soldiers arrayed on the square. Only on Barrayar, Cordelia thought, was it no trouble to throw up a formal military ceremony on a few hours' notice.

Aral got out of the vehicle, and gave his arm to Cordelia. She took it formally, and was glad of it as they went slowly up the stairs to the main entrance: they were uncomfortable to climb, each stone slab a little higher than a natural stride. At the top, one of the black-liveried men went and pounded on the huge door. Cordelia stood a little back. This was Aral's ceremony, her job was to stand here and look decorative and smile. She could manage the smile, at least.

"Open up in the name of the Emperor and his Regent!" the liveried man shouted, and the doors swung open.

Captain Illyan stood there, flanked by rows of his senior men, all in their parade uniforms. The men stood back as Illyan walked slowly through the door. He was still too pale, Cordelia thought, but perhaps that was just the ceremony.

Aral stood forwards, and Illyan drew his ceremonial sword into a full flourishing salute, the gestures both flowing and millimetre-precise. "My lord Regent," he said, "Imperial Security stands ready to serve the Emperor."

He knelt before Aral then, and raised his hands. Cordelia had watched scores of Barrayaran formal oaths over the past months, reluctant oaths and perfunctory ones and passionate ones and grim ones. Illyan took oath as Chief of ImpSec like some ancient martyr offering himself to the lions, freely, joyfully, and utterly terrified. At the end, she saw Aral discreetly helping him stand again, then turn to the massed officers of ImpSec.

"Your new Chief," Aral said, and while his voice didn't seem very loud, it carried. The men raised a formal cheer, which Illyan acknowledged with a crisply perfect salute.

Then it was Cordelia's turn to go forwards and shake Illyan's hand, which she did with genuine pleasure. "All Aral's best men have been terrified at this point," she told him in an undertone. "Don't worry. You're going to be great."

Aral, standing by, caught this. "Just so. They're all yours, Simon. Get to work."

Illyan's hands twitched, as if reliving their oath from a minute ago. "Yes, my lord."