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Hidden Depths

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Secretly, Laisa has started dividing Barrayarans into two categories: easy to get along with, and easy to get to know. They're not categories without overlap, nor do they seem to be good for much of anything but a little abstraction when she's feeling overloaded by her surroundings; still, she likes the rubric.

She also likes Delia Koudelka, even though she is as yet the best example of the first category Laisa has met so far. Easy to get along with, yes. Blunt, also, but in a very elegant way. And despite her feeling that she won't actually know the other woman well for at least a year, Laisa trusts her when she asks for an hourlong meeting in the Residence to talk, just the two of them.

(Knowing what she knows of her security situation by then, Laisa runs the request by Lady Alys – who must always be In The Know – and likewise by Gregor, who doesn't give her any clues, and that's her first hint that she might have something more than a simple social call coming up.)

 

“I'd definitely rather do this before it becomes a matter of showing you around your own house,” Delia says the next week, as she traces a seam in the gorgeous dark wood paneling of an unused office Laisa has never been in before. “Here, you can feel the difference -” and Laisa can, where the never-quite-cool texture of wood gives way to something cold, brushed, metallic.

So how does it open?” she begins to ask, only to feel a panel under her hand depress. “Oh!” She grins, she can't help it – the Imperial Palace has secret passages. Of course it does. Mix the planetary standard paranoia with its wonderfully  messy, surprisingly effective anachronisms, and what else should she have expected? But it was one thing for Delia to tell her where they were going  – it's another thing to see a dark, dusty chasm open into the unknown, and probably less than ten meters from the office and comconsole Laisa has been using to crunch surprisingly complicated wedding-related numbers and sort unsurprisingly-fraught invitation lists for the last few weeks. “So where does it go? Off the grounds, presumably, but -?”

“Want to see it now?” Delia smiles easily, though she casts a last look over her shoulder toward the office's shut door as the secret panel slides open a bit less than silently. There's security outside; these passages, then, obviously aren't need-to-know for even Gregor's higher level men.

Laisa only gestures for her to lead the way.

 

“So how long -” Laisa has to stop for a moment, to figure out how to slide the panel closed from this side. And the realization of how thin the panel is makes keeping quiet seem like a better plan, for now. A flash of light – Delia's wristcomm set to glow – gestures her a few steps over, and she sees a ladder running up and down, vanishing in darkness either side.

After a few rungs, Delia starts to talk again. “This was all built into the new wing, as a sort of replacement for some of the old Residence's less-known features. There are a few other ways in, including a panel in Gregor's office itself, sort of.”

“Sort of?” Laisa follows up.

“Well, it is a real, working safe. It just also happens to be large enough for a few adults to walk into, and rigged to descend belowground at the correct code input.”

“Oh.” Laisa feels there's a flippant comment about becoming a government resource somewhere here, but hasn't started it when she feels something greasy under her left hand. “Why didn't we take that one? It sounds more … convenient.”

Delia snickers. “Nah, it would set off other palace security measures that … we just don't want today.” A slight thump indicates that she's reached the ground; Laisa, gritting her teeth, doesn't look down. Even when Delia adds, “Besides, Gregor knows about that one.”

Finding solid ground herself, Laisa sighs, and turns to face Delia. “Not this one?”

Delia shrugs. “Face the ladder. Okay, from there, remember: go left.”

“Left is the way out?”

“Or north, if you can use your wristcomm. Or want to know which way you're going when you get out.”

“Generally good to know where we're going,” Laisa agrees, thinking grimly of a few scenarios that would leave her unable to use the wristcomm, climbing down that ladder in the middle of the night. Without Gregor? “Why doesn't Gregor know about this passage?” she asks again.

“I'm not sure he doesn't,” Delia said. “Ma – you know my mother was Princess Kareen's bodyguard, right?”

Laisa nods, a little uselessly. Ludmila Droushnakovi has, Gregor says, been one of the most important people in his life since before he could say her full name. Not that the woman has ever seemed unhappy to have less than her full name used – everyone but her daughters seemed to know her as “Drou”.

“She apparently consulted with ImpSec on where to set up the passages during the rebuilding, because – well, anyway, then we all spent a lot of time here when we were growing up, and she taught us – or me and Martya, at least – how to get out if there was an emergency. But she always said not to tell anyone, including Gregor, so ...”

“When you were children, or recently?”

Delia waves her free hand. “This was her idea, sure, but she didn't specify anything this time.”

It's that finely-honed but slightly-irritating Barrayaran code again, saying-without-saying: It's up to you, to ask your fiance how much he knows about this. But we know things you don't, and probably we don't even know ourselves which things those are, because no two of us ever quite agreed on what they should be

Laisa grimaces and shakes her head, watching the packed dirt underfoot work its dusty way onto her boots. It feels like time for a subject change. “Was Gregor really so serious as a kid? Lady Alys was saying – well, everyone seems to think he's Too Serious now, but ...”

“Oh, sure. We tried so many times to get him to play hide and seek – him seeking, while we hid in the tunnels, was the idea – but he'd never do it. Evacuation drills, absolutely, but never as a game.” Was Delia sticking out her tongue? “Never mean about it though, or snobby. Just … not going to get involved.”

Laisa considers what it usually means, in her experience, when Gregor got quiet. “Was it a hard way to grow up? I mean, obviously there'd be more pressure, but – I don't know. It sounds so lonely, really. Growing up an Emperor.”

Delia shruggs. “You'd really want to ask him yourself, wouldn't you? I mean, I used to think it'd be lonely to be an only child, but then I got a little older and figured out that it would be blissful.

Laisa laughs. “As an only child, let me say that there's a lot of pressure to not screw up too badly when your parents don't have other kids to put their hopes in. Or in Gregor's case, when there's not another heir for government ministers to set up ridiculous expectations for.”

“Well, there you go. Maybe he'll goof off more once you've mixed up some heirs to take the pressure off.” Delia stops for a second, casting some look over her shoulder in the too-dim light, and her tone softens apologetically. “Sorry, you're probably getting a lot of that from – Oh. Wait.”

A faint sound of splashing water rings through the otherwise-flat silence, and Delia directs her wristcomm light to their left. Laisa feels her jaw drop.

They've come to an underground river, of sorts – water flowing along curving brick banks, casting light from the wristcomms in shards onto a pale gray stone wall broken up by several finely-carved pillars.

“What is this?” Laisa breathes. Then she's holding her breath, because this may not be an ancient place but it looks like one, and that strange sense of timelessness she has only ever felt a few places in the galaxy is settling over her, holding her in place. The darkness is so complete, and the ground that can't have been walked often has resolved into uneven stone, not even dusty; the air, oppressively stifled all the way they've walked, seems to stir out from the thin ribbon of dark gray and its spare dapples of light – and Delia answers her:

“Storm drainage.”

Laisa laughs out loud. All her lofty thoughts, reveling in the mystery of the place, and of course the truth came down to sparse practicality. Risking a look at Delia's face, she saw a stiff, confused smile, and remembered again that she was speaking to the woman who'd decided to marry Duv. “Sorry,” she manages, nearly clear of the last snorting. “It's just so – I don't know. Not majestic, I guess. Primeval? But ...”

Delia nods, comprehending. “Not the kind of thing you'd have on Komarr?”

“Definitely not. It'd be machine-bored, smooth ceramic poured in place, maintained by … I mean, if we even needed storm drains in the first place.” Laisa shakes her head. “I guess things had to be more hands-on in … unexpected places, here.”

“Hmm,” Delia offers noncommittally. “Let's keep going.”

They follow the river only a few dozen meters before Delia points her to a concrete ramp, jutting upward on their left, and gestures for Laisa to lead the way. “It's a straight shot from here. We might want to keep quiet from here, though.”

“Where does it come out?” Laisa asks, more quietly despite not having taken a step yet.

Delia shakes her head. “Shouldn't be anywhere you recognize.”

It hasn't occurred to Laisa before that this might be a prank; Delia didn't seem like the type. But then, that office hadn't seemed the type of place to harbor a panic room; and not so long ago, Barrayar hadn't seemed like the kind of world that could claim control over others. Laisa, keeping these miffed musings to herself, took a breath and started up the ramp.

Delia stayed behind and to the side, angling her wrist-light ahead; soon it fell on a wall made of what looked like unfinished wooden slats. When Laisa stepped closer, a gingerly-extended hand confirmed it.

“We are about to get very archaic for you, Doctor Toscane,” Delia murmured at her shoulder. “See that hinge on the right side?”

Laisa had to reach up for it slightly, but her reflexive tug on it slid the panel, if just a bit; a sliver of yellow-gray light promised the end of the line was close.

“Here,” Delia interrupted, darting toward the gap to peer outside. “Pull it open, but stay behind the panel. I'll go out first.”

“Tell me this isn't a prank,” Laisa murmured, but pulled with more strength than she probably needed to.

Delia, who swept out of the space casually enough, turned back to grin at Laisa. “It isn't. Though maybe I should've planned a surprise party?”

“Happy First Escape Drill, Laisa?” Blinking in the still-limited light, it took her a moment to put the pieces together and identify their safe haven, such as it was. “Is this a stable?”

“It was. Now, it's … large enough for a few lightfliers, anyway.” Delia stamped a foot lightly on the ground. “Simple trapdoors to get to those.”

Laisa paused, trying to picture the secret garage underfoot. “I thought you promised me archaic?”

Delia shurgged. “Isn't it? Or do Komarrans have palace coup issues after all and you just aren't telling us?”

Laisa raises her eyebrows. “We only have to worry about angry shareholders, not murderous ones, I suppose.” Letting her tone turn snobbish, she adds, “like civilized people.”

Delia snickers appreciatively. “How boring. No wonder you left.”

Laisa shrugs. “Despite what Duv might have told you, our history isn't completely dull. There were a few misaimed water-bearing comet disasters at the start, and ...” something in Delia's expression catches her short; she realizes the woman might be expecting some very uncomfortable and much more recent disasters to come up. “... uh, public comment periods on transit access still get extremely acrimonious sometimes. We do insulting slogans quite well now.”

It's a weak play, but Delia lets it through. “Some of you definitely have a way with words. Not even just insults,” she adds with the sort of beatific smile Laisa's come to recognize as thinking of Delia Koudelka when Duv has it. Which of them picked it up from the other, she wonders. And is that sort of thing how so many couples end up looking alike?

She shakes her head. “So, do we go outside from here, or do we have to go back?”

Delia tilts her head. “Either way is possible. Which would you rather?”

Laisa, surprised by her own indifference, shrugs. “Is there a way from these underground garages to – I don't know, an actual garage we could leave less suspiciously?”

Delia seems about to answer, then stops. “I – don't actually know that,” is her considered choice. Her eyes dart at Laisa – jealously? “I'm sure you could ask around, though, in the next few months,” she finishes with false levity.

Laisa smirks. “I'm sure I will. Well, then, which way would you say gets us to lunch faster?”

“Oh, definitely the tunnel,” Delia answers. “And I'm not just saying that to punish you because you'll get to learn secret passages that I don't.”

“Fair enough. Can we just go back the same way, though?”

“Close. I'll show you.”

This time, Laisa leads the way through the secret panel, letting Delia slide it shut behind them.