Ivan Xav Vorpatril, Count Voralys, stood at the viewport of the Barrayar space transfer station. He leaned forward, forehead resting against the thick plexiscreen, fists clenched, watching to the very last as in the far distance the little firefly that was the brand new Toscane Industries passenger liner Empress Laisa prepared to jump. With a twinkle and a shimmer she disappeared.
Raine was gone.
He thumped his fists against the port, impotent fury choking his throat. After a few seconds he drew in a deep breath then rubbed a hand across his eyes. They hadn’t slept much last night. He’d have a large empty bed to sleep in now. Raine was on her way to Beta colony and he had a to-do list as long as his arm. How in three worlds had he got himself into a mess like this again?
An ImpSec captain materialised at his elbow as he turned away from the window. What was his name? Ivan hadn’t been paying a whole lot of attention when Vorberg introduced him. Vorberg was on his way to Beta with Raine, though, and he was going to have to get used to having this new man around.
Fenerty. That was it.
“The shuttle is still holding for you, Count.”
He sounded accusing. Well, let him. What did he know, anyway? All Ivan wanted to do was see the bottom of a bottle. He didn’t even care if it was maple mead, just right now. “Lead on then, Captain Fenerty. We’d best be on our way.”
About forty pairs of resentful eyes watched Ivan take his seat and buckle in. The clamps popped and the pilot backed from the docking bay. Ivan slumped down against the viewport and closed his eyes, his tired mind thinking back, trying and failing to work out what had gone so wrong…
The day after the Royal wedding Ivan woke with the scent of Escobaran moon flowers tantalising his nostrils before he even opened his eyes. He nuzzled into the soft warmth and felt butterfly kisses on his eyelids.
“Good morning, handsome.”
He was in Raine’s bed. And so was Raine. She was way too far away now that he had opened his eyes enough to see, propped on her elbow, smiling down at him, her luxuriant dark hair tumbling wildly all around her, her brown eyes filled with a smoky, simmering need. He reached for her, pulling her down onto his chest to feel her yielding softness.
“There’s only one thing better than sleeping with a gorgeous woman,” he said, combing the hair away from her eyes with his fingers, “and that’s waking up with her.” He cradled her gently for a few moments, half-dozing, savouring her scent, her warmth and the satin feel of her skin. He needed nothing more from life, until she moved against him. That woke him up. His eyes flew open again.
“If you kiss my ear like that I’m not going to be responsible for the consequences,” he warned her. Raine took no notice, trailing the tip of her tongue down his neck.
“You taste like salt, and you smell like you want me.” Her breath was hot against his neck. He didn’t need a second invitation.
Utterly limp and sated at last, they lay twined together as their breathing slowed and pulses returned to normal. Ivan summoned up the strength to twine his fingers through her hair. He loved her beautiful hair. “Marry me, Raine?” He asked. “Please? I love you. I don’t want to live without you for another minute.”
He could sense her withdrawal even before she pushed back a little.
“I’ll think about it. I do love you, Ivan.” She smoothed his hair back across his forehead with slow, gentle strokes. “I love this floppy brown hair of yours—” her palm moved down to cradle his cheek, “—and your handsome face and the way you look at me with those big brown eyes. You’re the kindest, most thoughtful man. I never dreamed…” She trailed to a stop as a shadow crossed her expressive features. “There are going to be people not happy with you marrying me. Important people.”
“Who?” Ivan demanded. “Do you mean my mother? She’s not as important to me as you are. I’m not going to let her opinion influence who I marry. She’ll probably be delighted.”
Fear clawed at his belly. Didn’t Raine want to marry him? But she had to! He needed her so badly. She put her fingers across his lips to still his protests.
“I don’t know anything about being a countess. It’s a huge job, and so important to get it right. I don’t know if I’d want that sort of responsibility. It needs lots of thinking about.”
His dismay threatened to turn into panic. “I’ll give it away. I don’t want to be a Count if I can’t have you with me.”
She just shook her head at him. “You can’t do that. You took oath with your Emperor.” She rolled out of the bed, away from him and away from his arms. “It’s getting late. Weren’t you going to go and say goodbye to Marie today? What time did you say they were leaving?”
Ivan had forgotten Marie, his adopted daughter, leaving on holiday today with his mother and Simon Illyan. He couldn’t break a promise to her. “1300. What time is it now?” He searched for his chrono and yipped in horror. “It’s 1130. I have to go.” He felt torn. He couldn’t leave Raine with any uncertainty between them, but he’d promised Marie. Surely Raine could understand he couldn’t let down such a little girl? Marie was only six years old.
“We have to talk about this. Promise me we can talk about this. It’s a pity we can’t discuss things over breakfast, like we planned.”
Raine found her red satin robe and pulled it on. “You have first shower. I’ll go make some coffee. I’m meeting Ekaterin later on, for afternoon tea.” She paused to grin. “We’re going to Shoko’s.”
“Urgh! Don’t remind me!” The last time he’d gone to Shoko’s and met Ekaterin Ivan had ended up on that social tittle-tattle programme Good Morning VS. He held out a hand in invitation, trying out his most charming smile. “About that shower. You could join me?”
She shook her head. “Oh no, you don’t. I’ll save that one up. Showers with you are way too much fun to rush. You’d never get away on time, so you have your shower and I’ll see you in the kitchen.” She vanished. Strategic retreat. Ivan sighed and hauled himself out of bed. Better make that a cold shower. His thoughtful valet had packed a casual street outfit for him to wear and if he’d hung it up last night it wouldn’t be quite so creased as it looked this morning. Ivan hadn’t been doing too much forward thinking last night. He hadn’t really been using his brain at all, except for his caution in not scaring Raine. He looked at the creases and blasted his navy knit shirt with a shot of hot air from Raine’s hair dryer until the worst of the crumpled look dropped out. By ten to the hour he was ready to face the world. He’d even remembered to page his security before he hopped in the shower. His ImpSec minder, Lieutenant Vorberg, should be waiting by the time he made it outside.
Raine shooed him out of the door at last. In a half-daydream Ivan drifted down the lift tube. His dismay had turned back to optimism. She’d marry him. Of course she would. She’d said she loved him, after all. That was something to cling on to in the dark moments. Gregor had never believed someone could love him, and look how wrong he’d been. He only hoped the Emperor had had as good a night as he’d had. He idly wondered how the honeymoon was going.
It wasn’t likely any of them would find out.
His groundcar wasn’t waiting for him outside. It was a huge, armoured behemoth idling at the kerb. Ivan didn’t need the sight of the familiar armsman; he’d know the Vorkosigan ground car anywhere. Pym popped the canopy. “Count Vorkosigan would like to speak to you, Count Voralys.”
Ivan bent down to look inside. He’d last seen the stocky, grey-haired man yesterday, at the wedding. “Uncle Aral? What’s happened? Where’s Vorberg and his squad? I was just off to my mother’s place.”
Aral gestured him inside. “Guy Allegre called off Vorberg. He’s gone back to Voralys House. I need to speak to Simon, and to you, of course.” He didn’t just look grim. He looked…menacing.
Ivan slid in beside him. “Bad news, sir?”
“Wait until we get to Alys’ apartment. No use repeating myself. I take it you had an enjoyable day yesterday? It looks like it ended well, at least.”
Ivan nodded, trying and failing to suppress the grin on his face. “How could anyone not enjoy yesterday? Gregor looked so happy. It was wonderful.”
“That was a bit of a spectacular show you pulled off, yourself, with that beer dray. Everyone loves horses. Very nicely done. Gregor showed me his new seal dagger, too. You’ve been busy. I think you’re going to surprise us all, Ivan.”
The Voralys District contribution to the Imperial wedding had been a Time of Isolation beer dray, loaded with ales, beers and ciders and pulled by a six horse team of Barrayar Blacks. It had created the stir Ivan had hoped for and more. He really should get back to Voralys House and see them safely on their way home, but it didn’t look like he was going to make it. Eccles and Sinclair would excuse him, he hoped.
There was no time to say more as the ground car only needed to travel a few blocks down the same street. Ivan remained seated while Pym cleared the area before he opened the canopy. He hopped out first, waiting for Aral to make a more dignified exit. They travelled up to the penthouse in silence.
“My Ivan!” Marie rushed over to say hello before he was half in the door. He’d adopted Marie after her mother had been killed in a thwarted assassination attempt in the Great Square. Ivan had prevented Gregor’s murder, but he hadn’t been able to save Anna, Marie’s mother. He still felt bad about that.
Marie wore a playsuit of pink overalls and a stretchy cotton shirt underneath. Her dark hair was tied up with pink polka dot ribbons in bunches on either side of her head. His mother had only chosen dresses for her before this, but he approved of the casual attire.
He picked the little girl up and tickled her. “Hello, princess! All ready for your holiday?”
She squirmed, giggling. “I wish you were coming, too.”
“I know, honey, I do, too, but I have work to do. Mamie and Papi will look after you.”
Simon had come up behind Marie to shake hands with Aral. Ivan watched the look that passed between them. Simon’s whole body language changed in the blink of an eye and Ivan felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. This was suddenly the old Simon, focussed, intent and deadly.
“My Ivan? What’s wrong?” Ivan hadn’t realised he’d tightened his hold on Marie. Hastily he smiled at her and tickled again.
“Nothing, honey. I just forgot you haven’t met my Uncle Aral. Say hello, then we need to talk to Papi Simon for a little while.”
Aral smiled at the little girl and held out his hand. She shook it gravely.
“So, you’re the young lady I’ve been hearing so much about. It’s very nice to meet you.”
Marie ducked her head into Ivan’s shoulder, suddenly shy.
“Come on, princess, I’ll take you back to Ma McIver and then I’ll come and say goodbye once we’ve finished talking.”
Aral and Simon were seated either side of the desk in Simon’s study, talking quietly, waiting for Ivan. As soon as he sat down Aral began without further preamble.
“Simon, Ivan’s friend Mademoiselle Vorfolse was assaulted by a man calling himself Cezar Vorresiak about eight years ago, in Vandeville. Two nights ago at the Residence dinner she was badly shaken by the Emperor’s resemblance to her attacker. Cordelia and I both had the same disturbing idea about this man and asked Guy to look into it.” He paused. “ImpSec has been working round the clock on this. What we have so far is that a gene scan on record at the Imperial Orphanage matches DNA samples obtained from Mademoiselle Vorfolse’s medical records and municipal guard reports.” Aral paused again, his expression darkening. “It was one of the children brought back in the replicators from Escobar, Simon. There is no record of anyone by the name of Cezar Vorresiak. No such family has ever been recorded, with or without the Vor. It’s completely spurious. He supposedly had a wife in Darkoi but she can’t be traced, either. His whole identity was probably bogus. The child was adopted from the orphanage at age five but there’s no trace of the family who took him. ImpSec went through all the male gene scans for three years to match him up as there was no direct name link to go on. They checked the female ones as well, to be sure there weren’t any other siblings, god forbid! The boy was called Amon before he left and the only other clue is the family had an address in Vorguriyev District. Allegre’s following up on that.”
Simon Illyan sighed. He looked old, suddenly. “And the rest? What else do you know, Aral?”
He knew Aral far better than Ivan did. He’d worked with him every day for nearly thirty years.
Aral rubbed his face with one blunt hand. “This Amon boy and Gregor share twenty-five percent DNA. They’re definitely closely related.”
Ivan whispered the words. “Half brothers?”
Aral nodded. “Half brothers.”
They looked at each other in appalled realisation.
Simon was the first to speak. “Who else knows?”
“Only Guy Allegre. I want this cleared up before Gregor comes home from his honeymoon. He’ll have to find out eventually, but not now.”
Ivan stirred restlessly in his seat. “Someone else knows. Look at the alias. Cezar could be a variation on Caesar, but drop the c and you get—.”
“Ezar.” Aral sighed. “His grandfather’s name. Who else could possibly have guessed who the child was?”
Ivan wasn’t finished. He’d had hours to think about this man. “My Russian is fine, but my German is pretty non-existent. I do know some words, though. Resiak, for instance. Turn it around.”
Simon answered this time. “Kaiser.” His voice dropped. “Emperor. Someone is having a sick joke.”
Ivan tried to work out what they knew. “But who? This Amon boy disappeared at age five and turned up fully grown, say in his early twenties, what, eight years ago, on the Southern Continent. So that makes him younger than Gregor and older than Miles and me. If he’s into sexual assault that surely wouldn’t have started happening until after puberty, at the very earliest. He probably just pulled the wings off bugs or tortured kittens before that. Civil crimes wouldn’t ring ImpSec’s bells, though.”
Aral nodded agreement. “Not under that name, but as it’s an alias that’s hardly surprising. He could have had several of them. The description is hopeless as it would fit half the males on Barrayar. The hazel eyes would be our only clue as they’re less common than brown, or failing that DNA records. He might not have been so careless again. We need to see if there’s been a pattern of assaults, unsolved crimes, things like that.”
He continued urgently to Simon. “Was there any hint? Can you remember anything, Simon?”
Simon shook his head. “There was nothing…I’m sure I would have remembered something as big as this. There’s not been a whisper. He’s been hiding in plain sight for twenty-five years.”
“Off planet?” Ivan suggested. “Jackson’s Whole, or Beta? Not Komarr. He would have left some sort of record on Komarr. Or if he kept to the districts there’d be no central record. ImpSec need to start crunching data, if they haven’t started already. Perhaps his mistake was to go to Vandeville. That’s in Imperial Territory.”
Aral jumped up to pace the room. “They’ll find him. They have to. What worries me is the man who has sat in that council chamber for twenty-five years, who stood behind Gregor when he threw Dorca’s lance and called for loyalty, the one who has concealed this…plot.”
“You think it’s a Count?” Ivan didn’t quite follow the logic.
“It has to be. No-one else could keep a lid on something like this. Or father and heir, perhaps?”
Ivan still didn’t get it. “What’s the motive, though, sir?”
Aral sighed. “What is it always? Power and control. Blackmail, perhaps? Remove Gregor, remove anyone else in the way, install him as a puppet, perhaps marry him to a daughter, the grandson inherits the camp stool, eventually. What they don’t understand is what a burden that power is.”
Ivan couldn’t believe it. He didn’t want to believe it. He was one of the ones in the way, along with Miles.
“But he’s a monster. What he did to Raine, sir; I’ve seen some of it. He’s a sick pervert.”
Ivan watched another look between Aral and Simon. A penny dropped. “I’ve heard some stories about Serg. Were they true?”
They both looked solemnly at him. “He was more evil than you can possibly imagine, Ivan. What Kareen didn’t go through, first to last. His death was the greatest mercy for Barrayar,” Aral said, quietly. “Gregor escaped the taint. It would seem this one hasn’t.”
Simon glanced at his chrono. “Do you want me to cancel our trip?”
Aral shook his head. “No, there’s nothing we can do on our own. We have to leave it to Guy and his investigations. I’ll be staying on here on Barrayar until it’s resolved though. I thought I might use you as my alibi, Ivan; I can go down to your district with you to advise on what should be done. Guy can just as easily contact me there as here. It’s only two hours away.”
“I would certainly welcome that help, and while you’re there you could meet your old shipmate from the General Vorkraft,” Ivan suggested. “That would be another good reason to give publicly for the trip.”
“Yeoman Nilesa. Yes, we got your message about him." Aral grimaced. "Cordelia was delighted to get the news. She’s always had a soft spot for him but I hope his cooking’s improved.”
Simon stood up. “Keep me in the loop. I find I don’t care to be sidelined quite as much as I am. Who knows? Something might come to me.”
Ivan hadn’t spoken to his mother yet. She looked as imperturbable as ever, dressed in what for her, was a casual outfit of navy blue skirt and bolero with a cream blouse. Her hair was coiled in a simple knot. She kissed both Ivan and Aral on the cheek.
“This is an unexpected honour, but I doubt it was on my behalf, otherwise Cordelia would have been with you.” Her voice sharpened. “I hope you haven’t been upsetting Simon, Aral. You forget he’s retired.”
“Yes, just like me.” Aral bared his teeth in a semblance of a smile. It sounded innocuous, but Ivan caught the feral look in his eye, “We have some unfinished business. I wanted to see you both again before you left, anyway, as we may be gone before you come back from Vandeville.”
“Quite possibly.” Alys cast a suspicious look between the two of them, but let it rest. She turned to Ivan.
He forestalled her. “Have a wonderful holiday, mother, and don’t worry about a thing. Yesterday was magnificent. It was all brilliant from start to finish. You were marvellous.” He folded her in a big hug, careful not to disarrange her hair. “I love you, mamère. Look after Simon for us.”
She hadn’t been expecting that sort of approach from him as they hadn't exactly parted as friends the last time they'd met. She looked surprised for a moment. “Well, yes, of course I will. Thank you, Ivan.”
“And look after Marie. I’ll try and call every day. Make sure you buy her a pink ice cream.” He turned to swoop up Marie again, who had come in with Ma McIver. “No more than one a day, and not if she doesn’t behave herself. No giving cheek to Ma McIver. I’ll hear about it if you do. Promise?”
Marie pouted so he tossed her up in the air. “Did I hear you say promise?”
She shrieked. “I promise! I promise.”
With one last hug he set her down again. “That’s my darling girl. I’ll miss you. You haven’t forgotten Steggy, have you? Come on, Uncle Aral and I will see you all to the groundcar.”
Marie ran for her stuffed stegosaurus and they all floated down to the lobby.
Left alone with Aral at last, Ivan watched until the groundcar finally disappeared round a bend.
“We might learn something more if we go back to Count Vorfolse, sir. The tricky bastard hasn’t told me all he knows, I’m sure. He must have got involved when Raine was assaulted. He might be a bit more frank with you.”
Aral’s brows drew down. “Vorfolse, eh? You’ll never get a straight answer out of him, but it’s worth a try. We can’t afford to leave even the slightest lead unfollowed.”
Count Vorfolse’s apartment still smelled of borscht. It hadn’t changed since the last time Ivan had visited. The count wasn’t forthcoming with anything other than a grudging offer of a chair and then sat in silence, waiting for Aral to talk. Ivan just folded his arms and watched.
“Count, a very serious matter pertaining to the security of the Imperium is being investigated. I’m quite sure you wish to offer all the assistance you can in pursuit of security and stability.” Aral fixed him with a penetrating stare.
Vorfolse twitched in his seat, shifting uncomfortably under the unrelenting gaze. “I can’t think what you’re talking about, Vorkosigan. There’s nothing I can help you with.”
“Does the name Cezar Vorresiak mean anything to you?” Aral pressed, leaning forward. The tension in the room stepped up a notch as Vorfolse paled. Aral continued after a long pause. “The criminal assault of your kinswoman, perhaps? You must have investigated that. It was your sworn duty.”
“I remember the name. At the time there was nothing I could do, as the women weren’t living in my District. It became an Imperial Security matter. He’d said he came from Darkoi, but that was a lie. There was no trace of the man past Vorbataille’s District. That’s where the trail ran cold.”
“And the link with Vorguriyev?”
“What link with Vorguriyev? What do you know? I’ve never heard anything against the man. He’s an upstanding conservative.”
“We both know he narrowly avoided attainder after Vordarian’s Pretendership, as did others.” Aral paused again, his gimlet gaze boring through Vorfolse. “I’ll ask you again. What do you know about the connection between Vorresiak and Vorguriyev?”
“There is no link that I’m aware of,” Vorfolse insisted. He crumbled a little under the force of Aral’s gaze. “It’s possible this Vorresiak was heading for Vorguriyev’s District, but there was no trace of him past Vorbataille’s. He crossed on the ferry from Vandeville and took the monorail, but he gave the authorities the slip in Vorbataille Servian. The monorail continues north that way, as you know. There will be no use asking Vorbataille as he wasn't involved at the time and he's only concerned over his son at the moment. Falling into bad company, so Vormoncrief told me yesterday.”
Aral crossed his arms. “Well, if you do think of anything else I’ll be staying on Barrayar for the foreseeable future. Allegre will know where to find me.”
Vorfolse shuddered. “I have no wish to converse with General Allegre.” His attention sharpened fractionally. “So you’re not returning to Sergyar? That’s…unexpected.”
Ivan could sense his uneasiness at the news. Excellent. It would do him good to feel Aral Vorkosigan’s hot breath on his neck for a while.
Aral stood up to leave. Ivan opened the door for him as Vorfolse seemed to be rooted to the spot. They didn’t speak until they reached the groundcar, where Aral pressed his wristcom. “Did you get all of that, Guy?”
Allegre’s voice came back over the comm set. “We did, my lord. There are some reports of assaults and possibly one murder we are investigating. Strangely, although there is one historical incident from Vorbataille’s district there’s nothing from Vorguriyev’s. There is some possible link to Vorlakial’s District, too, but not the supposed wife. She never existed. We’re continuing interviews in Vandeville.”
“Keep on it, Guy. We have to find him. I’ll be visiting New Sheffield, probably tomorrow or the day after. Alert your man down there for me, will you?”
“That’s Major Karasavas, my lord. You’ll find him very satisfactory.”
“Good.” Aral cut the comm.
Ivan sat back uneasily. “You don’t think Miles could help with this, sir?”
“He could, but he’d be obliged to inform the Emperor sooner than I would like. This is going to be very painful for Gregor, no matter the outcome. I can’t see it being a good one.”
Ivan felt completely out of his depth. He was supposed to keep secrets from Gregor? There was no manual or flow chart for this type of work. He wasn’t cut out or trained for this kind of weaselly investigation, not like Miles.
“I’d rather not be involved, except I gave my oath to track down this Vorresiak, or Amon, or whatever his name is. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I just stumble along in the dark, Uncle Aral.”
Aral wasn’t entirely unsympathetic to his complaint. “We just sit back and wait, Ivan. A very great soldier once said, take time to deliberate, but when the time for action comes, stop thinking and go in. Right now, we deliberate, but be ready.”
“Was that your father the General, sir?” Ivan asked.
Aral snorted a short laugh. “No, boy, that was Napoleon Bonaparte.”
Ivan had heard of Napoleon Bonaparte, of course, at the Academy. No doubt Miles would have studied up on him.
They were on their back to Vorkosigan House to confer with Cordelia when Pym suddenly sat up straighter in his seat, instantly alert. Ivan leaned forward, trying to see and trying to shield Count Vorkosigan from any danger on his side, but it was a comm message that had alerted Pym.
“There’s been an incident on the Great Square, my lord,” he told them. “At Shoko’s.”
Raine had been meeting Ekaterin at Shoko’s. Ivan felt his blood run cold.