The cellar door burst open, interrupting Ivan’s contemplation of his work. Uneven footsteps clattered down the steps. About halfway down, they started to sound less rushed and more casual, though no less uneven. At the bottom of the steps, they paused.
“Hullo, Miles,” said Ivan, still facing the wall at the far end of the cellar.
“Hullo, Ivan,” said Miles, nonchalantly. He limped toward his cousin. “Whatcha doin’?”
Ivan had a collection of substances, paints, brushes, and various types of lighting. He was trying to work out a method of writing a message on the wall that would only be revealed under certain conditions. Gregor would be returning from school for the summer holidays soon, and Ivan wanted to shock and surprise (and impress) both him and Miles. It was rare to get one up on Miles and just about impossible on Gregor, but Ivan thought he’d hit upon the very thing.
Every year, a few weeks before the Midsummer season went into full swing, the Vorkosigans took a vacation from the Imperial Residence in Vorbarr Sultana to come down to Vorkosigan Surleau. Maman and Ivan were usually invited too. It was sort of a working vacation for Maman and Uncle Aral and the other adults, but he and Miles, and Gregor when he wasn’t at school, had plenty of free time. Sometimes too much free time, the adults complained, when the kids (i.e., Miles, thought Ivan) got into trouble. Last year, to prevent unauthorized spelunking, they’d taken a supervised trip to visit the caves where the guerrilla fighters against the Cetagandans had hid. In a way, the sanctioned trip had been even better than adventuring on their own, because Count Vorkosigan had gone with them, and he had fought with the guerrillas himself, had been their general, even; and he answered many of the million and one questions that Miles asked.
Among those questions had been about the guerillas communicating with each other, since they couldn’t use comm links that the Cetas could eavesdrop on and they couldn’t leave messages where the Cetas might find them.
“They never found us,” Count Vorkosigan had said. “Mostly we talked to each other in person.”
Still, Miles had gone on and on about possible secret codes and hidden messages. Really, sometimes he could make things much more complicated than they needed to be.
But that gave Ivan his idea. They weren’t allowed to go back to the caves on their own, but the cellar under the house was sort of cave-like, and not off-limits. Also, the house had been the Armsmen barracks back in the old days. So maybe the cellars could have contained secret hidden messages. Or rather, it would contain some, from Ivan’s efforts.
If he could work out how to make one. He’d had only limited success so far.
Miles didn’t wait for Ivan’s answer, which was just as well, since Ivan didn’t want to tell him (that’d spoil the whole point) and he wasn’t very good at making stuff up on the fly. His cousin always saw right through him. Instead, Miles, uninvited (when did he wait for an invitation), picked up a cold light and a lantern and shone them over the wall. “Oh I see, you’ve written your name over and over. That’s very clever, Ivan.”
“Shut up,” muttered Ivan, making a grab for the lights. They swung wildly as the boys tussled over them. Ivan caught a glimpse of something else on the wall and he pointed the lights toward it. ‘That Idiot Ivan’, ‘Ivan the Idiot’, ‘Idiot Ivan’, read the messages.
All in Miles’ handwriting, of course.
“Oh, I see, you’ve written my name over and over. That’s very clever, Miles,” said Ivan snidely.
“Yeah, isn’t it?” agreed Miles enthusiastically. “Check this out.” Using just the lantern light, only one spot of writing was clearly visible, a few others vaguely discernible. Adding the cold light, the others became clear. “Now for the pièce de résistance.” Miles turned the other lights away and picked up the UV light. More rude messages about Ivan covered the wall. Well, covered it from about fifteen to thirty centimeters from the floor. One message was written higher. Miles must have stood on a crate or something to reach that high. “You see, what I figured out is, if you soak a rag with the stinky cleaner and press it to the wall and then instantly cover it - the cleaner, not the rag - with a clear varnish lightly brushed on, it’s practically invisible except under the UV light. And then if you let the first coat of varnish dry and cover it with a second coat, you can scuff the second coat so it blends into the rough surface of the rest of the wall, see, and then no one can even tell anything’s there unless you know where to shine the UV light. And it won’t even get cleaned off. You can still see it even under a coat of paint or whitewash, if they don’t put it on too thick,” continued Miles breathlessly. Though lack of breath never stopped him from talking, like it would normal people. He’d been poisoned as a baby when he was still inside Tante Cordelia, and it left him with messed-up bones but also this weird ability to keep talking and doing things even when regular people got tired and just wanted some quiet time to themselves.
Thinking of which, Ivan remembered why he’d come down to the cellar in the first place. “What are you doing here, anyway?” he asked, interrupting Miles’ monologue.
“Oh, uh, Da’s upset about, um, something and I thought I’d stay out of his way for a while.”
“Upset about what?” asked Ivan, worried. He usually tried to stay out of Uncle Aral’s way regardless, but when angry he was especially to be avoided.
“Well, um, the window in his study got left open, and then it, uh, rained, and, um --”
“You mean you left the window open! When you were trying to elude Sergeant Bothari this morning.”
“Don’t deny it! I remember!”
The morning had been a hot one, and Miles had told Ivan to meet him at the lake. Not at the dock, but in a little cove they enjoyed for playing and swimming. Some time later Miles had scrambled down the bluff, breathless and alone.
“Where’s Bothari?” Ivan had asked.
Miles’ face had his stubborn set to it. “Everyone’s too busy to swim, so I had to ditch him.”
Miles had recently taken to swimming underwater, as long and as far as he could without coming up for air. Bothari couldn’t swim and wasn’t interested in learning, so now that Miles could swim farther than Bothari could wade out, Miles’ parents insisted that another adult (one who could swim) supervise him at the lake. But they didn’t really need one, thought Ivan, since as Miles was about half his own size he could pull him out if need be. Even soaking wet, Miles weighed little more than a baby. But the adults ignored his offer to be Miles’ lifeguard. Even Miles himself just glared at Ivan’s suggestion, the ungrateful git. Especially since Ivan had pulled him out of so many scrapes already. Not that he was stupid enough to mention that in front of Uncle Aral.
Still, Ivan had to take his opportunities to tweak Miles when he could. “A bodyguard can only guard your body if you let him stay near you, y’know,” he’d pointed out.
“I don’t need guarding! No one’s trying to hurt me,” Miles said dismissively.
“No one but yourself,” observed Ivan.
“I can take care of myself,” Miles scoffed. To prove it, he dove into the lake. He popped back up, rubbing at a small cut on his forehead.
“What happened?” asked Ivan.
“Hit a rock,” admitted Miles. At Ivan’s look he added, “I won’t hit it again now I know it’s there!”
For a kid with fragile bones he was sure hard-headed, thought Ivan. “How did you escape from Bothari, anyway?” he asked.
“Opened the study window.”
“Your Da’s study? We’re not supposed to go in there.”
“I didn’t go in. I just opened the window.”
Ivan thought for a minute. “From the outside. So that Bothari --”
“-- would think I went inside, but I didn’t. Yep. C’mon, enough chit-chat, let’s swim.”
Ivan was brought abruptly back to the present when the cellar door banged open. Uncle Aral’s voice came echoing down the stairs. “The boys have to be down here. We’ve checked everywhere else.”
Ivan could hear Tante Cordelia’s calm voice saying something in reply, though he couldn’t make out what.
“I’m sick to death of that boy and his idiot pranks! He’s caused serious damage this time. He needs to learn!” At the bottom of the steps Uncle Aral flicked the overhead light on. Ivan had just time to kick his materials behind the box he’d brought them down in, when Uncle turned his ice-grey eyes on him. “Where’s Miles?” he demanded.
Ivan looked around in a blank way. With quicker wit than himself, Miles had managed to curl himself into one of the crates that littered the cellar. You never forgot how small Miles was, but then somehow you always forgot just how tiny he could make himself when he wanted.
“I dunno,” answered Ivan. “We’re playing Find-the-Spy?” he offered into Uncle’s increasingly angry expression.
“You ‘dunno’. Of course not, idiot boy,” Uncle muttered. His eyes narrowed. “Were you playing Find-the-Spy in my study earlier?”
“Um… yeah,” Ivan said reluctantly. Well, sorta, he thought. Though it was more like Lose-the-Spy between Miles and Bothari.
Uncle Aral stalked towards him. Ivan would have backed away, but he was already next to the wall, and anyway, Vor didn’t run away, or cower or anything like that. Even when they really really wanted to.
Uncle was saying, “You know you’re not supposed to--”
“I was just hiding!” protested Ivan. “I didn’t touch anything, I swear!”
“Nothing?” Uncle Aral asked in that harsh rasp that meant he was really angry. “Not even the window?”
“Oh. Um… it got really hot while I was hiding.” The study did, too, in the mornings with the sun full on the windows.
“So you opened the window.”
“And you didn’t close it again because…?”
“You idiot child!” hissed Uncle harshly. “Come see the damage you’ve wrought.” He grabbed Ivan’s upper arm and hauled him upstairs, Ivan running alongside to keep up.
The study was a disaster. The afternoon storm which had kept Ivan and Miles inside had blown flimsies all over the place. Rain had blown in as well, soaking the furniture and floor and all the flimsies into a muddled mess. Uncle Simon and Maman were trying to sort through and clean and organize things.
“A week’s work destroyed because you were where you shouldn’t have been,” Uncle Aral spat. “And because you forgot!” He shook Ivan by the arm in emphasis.
“I’m sorry,” cried Ivan. “I’m really sorry!”
Tante Cordelia took hold of Ivan’s shoulder and with her other hand eased Uncle’s grip off his arm. “Hurting the child won’t fix anything,” she said gently.
“It might correct his tendency to break rules.”
Ivan hung his head and rubbed at his upper arm, where Uncle’s grip had left a red mark.
“Perhaps he could help clean up,” suggested Tante.
Uncle Aral looked into the study. “We have to get the flimsies sorted -- again,” with a glare at Ivan, “and then… I’m not sure deep-cleaning the carpets and furniture is a task for an inexperienced youngster.” He stared at Ivan, tapping his thick fingers against his thigh. “Armsman, take Lord Ivan here to the kitchen. I’m sure the servants there will have work he can do.”
The Armsman smiled at Ivan and he went along compliantly, happy to get away from his intimidating uncle. At the kitchen the cook sent him out with a scullery maid to pick vegetables for dinner. When that task was complete, the gardener said he could use a boy with light feet and nimble fingers to pick weeds. This wasn’t as much fun as it sounded, since most of the weeds either stung you or pricked you or made your skin break out into a rash. Ivan tried wearing the smallest pair of gloves they could find, but then his fingers were too clumsy to pick out the weeds. Vor are not defeated by mere weeds, thought Ivan, and went back at them bare-handed. Vor or not, after some time silent tears were running down his face from the pain. The gardener finally took pity on him and cut off the tips of the glove fingers, so at least most of Ivan’s hands could still be protected.
By the time he went in to wash up for dinner, his hands were scratched and pricked and his fingers were red and swollen. He put some medicine salve on it (ointment was kept handy for all the cuts and scrapes and scratches that Miles was always getting) which took away a lot of the pain, but his hands were still a mess. Even old Count Vorkosigan’s hands never looked this bad, after a day of working with his horses. At least I’ll be able to eat, Ivan thought, which was the most important part after all. Turns out an afternoon spent working in the garden can work up an appetite.
Maman smiled at him when he arrived clean and neatly dressed at the table. He hoped that meant he was forgiven. But when she saw his hands as he picked up his fork and knife, she frowned. “What happened to your hands?” she cried.
Everyone at dinner looked at Ivan’s hands. He wished he could whisk them away under the table.
“Ivan is learning about manual labor,” said Uncle Aral. “Manual labor is what someone does who doesn’t know how to use his head.”
Ivan didn’t think Uncle Aral had forgiven him yet.
When the dessert was being brought out (Ivan was eyeing the cream cakes, calculating their number and how many people were at the table and how many he could get away with eating), the cook made an appearance to convey her and the gardener’s gratitude for Ivan’s assistance. “He worked hard and cheerfully and was a great help to us,” she said, smiling at him.
“That’s excellent; I’m glad to hear it,” replied Uncle Aral, “since Ivan is going to continue helping you this evening. Go along now, boy.”
Ivan’s hand was hovering over the plate of cakes. “What, now?” he said, aghast.
“Yes, now,” said Uncle Aral sharply. Maman was frowning at him too. Not forgiven.
Ivan stood up quickly and gave a brief bow. “Yes, sir.”
Miles got down from his chair as well. “I’ll go help Ivan.”
Uncle Aral frowned at his son. “You will stay at the table until excused, Miles. Bear in mind that the Vor are a warrior caste. Each of us in this household has our work to do.”
Miles sent Ivan an agonized, apologetic look as he mumbled, “Yes, sir,” to his father and climbed back up in his chair.
At least the cook was still smiling gently at Ivan as she walked him back to the kitchen. The evening’s work went by easier than the afternoon in the garden. The maids took one look at his hands and found small, lightweight housework gloves for him; then set him at some of the easier, though still tedious tasks.
He was chatting cheerfully with two other maids while they were all at work polishing the silver, when Miles snuck into the kitchen. “Here, Ivan, I brought you these,” he said, taking out of his pocket a couple of slightly squashed cream cakes wrapped in a handkerchief.
“Oh, thanks!” said Ivan, immediately stuffing one in his mouth. “Though we had some too,” he said, his words somewhat muffled. He pointed to the plate of pastries he’d been sharing with the maids while they worked. He swallowed down the lump of cake. “You can have the rest, if you want.”
Miles looked at the remaining crumbles of berry tart on the plate and declined. “No, thank you. I’m not hungry.”
Ivan shrugged. That was another of Miles’ strange powers - having all that endless energy without ever eating much. Ivan himself seemed to be hungry all the time. He ate the other cream cake. “Thanks for thinking of me. These are my favorite.”
“No problem. Polishing the silverware, huh? Want some help?”
“Sure!” One of the maids, Rina, pulled over a stool for Miles and handed him a cloth.
Miles had cleaned half a fork when he interrupted the maids’ good-natured gossip. “You’d think there’d be an easier way to do this. Isn’t there a machine or device or something to do this for us?”
“We’ve got a machine that washes most of the dishes,” answered Rina, gesturing towards it. “But it doesn’t get all the nooks and crannies on this old pattern done well.”
“And you need to run a separate cycle for the silver than for the ceramics and glass,” added the other maid, Oni.
“Huh,” said Miles. He got down and went over to inspect the dishwasher.
“Don’t open it while it’s running!” laughed Rina.
“Hmm.” Miles looked all around it, but there wasn’t much to see from the outside. He climbed back on his stool and resumed work on the fork, frowning as hard as he rubbed with the cloth.
The maids had resumed their conversation when Miles interrupted again. “What’s this polish made of?”
Rina laughed again. “I don’t know. Ask the housekeeper!”
Miles turned to Ivan. “C’mon, Ivan, think! This is basic chemistry. What makes silver tarnish? How would you reverse that process?”
Ivan shrugged. He had the periodic table memorized all right, and he knew a bunch of ways to make things explode, but he didn’t recall ever studying silver specifically.
Miles went on muttering about oxidation and catalysts. Halfway through his second fork he threw it down and asked to use the kitchen’s comconsole. He bounced between it, the silver cupboard, the dishwasher, and the pantry while Ivan and the maids finished up the polishing.
Finally Ivan was excused to bed. Halfway out the door he turned back to Miles, who was still muttering at the comconsole and marking down notes. “You coming, Cinderella?” he asked.
Miles waved him off. “I’ll be up in a minute. Oh, ha ha, very funny,” he added as Ivan’s remark caught up with him.
Ivan was climbing under the covers when Miles came into his bedroom (uninvited, as usual). “They’re not using the dishwasher properly for the silver; that’s why they say it doesn’t work well. Works just fine if you use it correctly.”
“Frankly, I’m hoping I never have to worry about it again,” said Ivan.
“It’s chemistry and engineering!” exclaimed Miles. “If you want ship duty, you have to learn about those, y’know.”
“Maybe,” conceded Ivan. “But probably not about polishing silver. Unless you’re going to attack the enemy through his tarnished tableware.”
“Oh, ha ha, you’re a riot, you are,” said Miles, throwing a pillow at him.
This late in an eventful day even pillow-fighting exhausted the boys pretty quickly. Ivan lay on his back and stared at the ceiling while Miles idly thumped a pillow at the foot of the bed. “So what ‘Vor’ things did Uncle Aral have you doing today?” Ivan asked.
“Ugh. This afternoon I had to do whatever Bothari wanted me to do, to make up for ditching him to go swimming, and also for hiding from him when we, uh, played Find-the-Spy.”
“What did Bothari want you to do?” Ivan was glad it hadn’t been him; the intimidating Armsman freaked him out.
Miles scrunched his nose. “Read to him. And just when I would think he was asleep and I’d stop reading, he’d tell me to keep going. And then I had to write an essay about what I’d just read and then read the essay to him.”
“Yeah, pretty much.” Miles paused. “Sorry about your hands, though.”
Ivan shrugged. “I did battle with weeds and won. Better than homework.”
Miles hummed. Ivan took that to mean agreement. “After dinner I got to help sort all those flimsies,” Miles added.
“Hey! How come you could help when I couldn’t?” Ivan tried to decide if he should be offended or not. He wasn’t actually an idiot, whatever anyone said.
“I think they’d already sorted out the important ones. I was just putting back in order all these old boring documents from like ten years ago.”
Ivan calmed down. “Oh. More home-”
“-work, yeah, basically. So, anyway, um, thanks for, y’know…”
Ivan’s demeanor took on a pious expression. “My noble self-sacrifice in throwing myself on the wrath of the fierce and deadly Admiral Lord Regent Vorkosigan?”
Miles rolled his eyes. “Not ratting me out.”
“I would never!” If he had the energy, Ivan would be offended.
“Yeah, well, I shouldn’t’ve run away,” Miles admitted. “I didn’t mean for you to get in trouble.”
Ivan shrugged. “‘Salright. We cousins gotta stick together, right?” He had a vague notion which he couldn’t articulate, that Uncle Aral already didn’t think much of him, and Miles would have been in a whole lot more trouble than Ivan had been. Uncle Aral would have been so much more disappointed in his son and it would have nearly killed Miles to have disappointed his Da that much.
Not to mention Ivan really wasn’t a rat or tattle-tale.
Uncle Aral knocked on the open door and came in. Both boys immediately sat up. “Bedtime, Miles,” he told his son calmly.
Miles stood up, straightened (as much as he could) and jerked his chin up to look Uncle Aral in the eye.
Uh-oh, thought Ivan. Miles looked about to confess. Now, of all times! What a waste that would be.
Miles opened his mouth and glanced at Ivan, who shook his head minutely.
“No, son,” said Uncle Aral. “No arguing. Bedtime.”
Miles deflated and then left after a simple, “Yes, Da.” Uncle watched him go, shaking his head, but with a small fond smile.
He turned to Ivan and the smile faded. “Let me see your hands.”
Ivan held them out. They weren’t too bad, still red and somewhat swollen, a little sore. The pillow fight maybe hadn’t been the best idea. Uncle took out a tube of ointment from his pocket and sat down on the bed beside him. Gently he spread the medicine on Ivan’s hands, holding each in turn between his own much larger hands. “This should take away any pain. By morning they should be fine. If they’re not, we can apply some more.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Ivan.
Uncle Aral smiled. “Of course.” He hesitated a moment. “I didn’t mean for you to be hurt, boy.”
“Oh, no, sir, I never thought so. Anyway, the weeds got the worst of it. They’re all dead.”
Uncle chuckled. He put a hand on Ivan’s shoulder. “I’m glad you can use your hands. But in the future, I expect you to use your head, too, understand? I know you can.”
“Yes, sir, I will.”
Uncle smiled and ruffled Ivan’s hair as he stood up. “Goodnight, Ivan.”
“G’night, Uncle Aral.” Ivan lay down and got comfortable under the blankets. He smiled as he closed his eyes.