The Admiral was heading for the garage block again, the bottle in his hand gleaming in the moonlight, swinging this way and that as he made his way along the path. Sergeant Bothari followed five paces behind. There were outer and inner perimeters at Vorkosigan Surleau, it was a safe place, but Bothari kept alert anyway, scanning the bushes on both sides of the path. No attackers rose up for him to kill, and Bothari was forced to think about what was coming next. The lightflyer had been repaired after the last crash, and the Admiral hadn't suffered worse than bruises, but if he ditched it in the lake this time... Bothari's hand rested on his stunner, but this wasn't the kind of danger he was allowed to shoot.
The Admiral's lightflyer was out of the garage, parked on the far side of the landing ground. He wove his way across the open pavement, while Bothari scanned the perimeter. Silhouetted against the light, he would make a perfect target; if Bothari saw a muzzle flash in the moonlight he would have to react faster than the assassin, and in the darkness, he smiled.
A shadow moved at the side of the flyer as the Admiral approached, and Bothari drew his nerve disruptor, lips parting. But the shadow stepped into the light and he saw the Imperial uniform, undress greens and lieutenant's tabs and Horus-eyes on the collar, and something began to ache at the back of his head. Slowly, he lowered his disruptor, then took up his station at one side of the landing ground, within sight and earshot, but unobtrusive.
"Simon. Come for a ride, have you?" The Admiral's voice was challenging, underlain with anger. Bothari could have told Lieutenant Illyan that trying to talk the Admiral out of this was a bad idea.
"If you like." The lieutenant, almost neutral, but with something else in his voice that Bothari recognised. His fingers closed around the base of the nerve disruptor.
The Admiral took a drink from his bottle, then offered it to Illyan, who accepted without hesitation. "You must have something better than this," he said between coughs a moment later. "They serve Vorkosigan wine at the Emperor's table, and this is what you choose?"
"No point wasting the good stuff." The Admiral took the bottle back, and reeled a little backwards, leaning against the flyer. Illyan put out a hand in assistance, and the Admiral shoved it away. "Where were you last week?" he demanded.
"After almost six months on continuous duty, Captain Negri owed me quite a lot of leave, sir."
"He owes you more than that," the Admiral muttered. "I crashed this last week," he went on, patting the lightflyer the way Count Piotr patted his horses.
"I know." A strange note in the lieutenant's voice, then. "I told my relief to try not to let you be an idiot, but it seems he didn't succeed."
"And you will?"
"No. But I'll come with you."
"Only you, Simon, would hold your own body hostage for my good behaviour. What if I said I really liked flying the Dendarii Gorge by night?"
"It sounds great. Show me." Illyan turned to open the hatch, and the Admiral seized his arm.
"Damn you, you're always right in my shadow and then when I get rid of you for a few days, I actually missed you. Isn't that ridiculous?"
"You missed having a damned Imperial spy watching and taking notes every time you went for a leak?" Illyan said. It sounded like something the Admiral would say.
"I did," said the Admiral, and he pulled Illyan closer. Bothari stood still, understanding now why Esterhazy had announced that Lieutenant Illyan was always to be admitted. He watched narrow-eyed, one hand now on his stunner, but while the Admiral was drunk, he knew what he was doing, and the lieutenant was ImpSec, if he wanted to get away from this he could. The Admiral was leaning back against the flyer, his head tilted backwards, eyes closed, and Illyan was pressed against him. He was obviously not an expert at this the way Bothari had been, he was awkward and clumsy and far too emotional, but the Admiral probably liked that. Men wanted something different from their boyfriend than from a whore.
Bothari folded his arms and leaned back, satisfied. The Admiral wasn't going to be crashing his flyer in the lake tonight, and all he had to do was watch the shadows, and be ready to shoot.
Count Piotr walked slowly along the passage towards the private rooms where the Regent and his family slept. Where the mutant slept. The ornate carpet muffled his steps, the bright lights showed nothing but the Regent's father visiting these family quarters.
Lady Cordelia was taking tea at Lady Vortala's salon with a gaggle of other young Vor women, Sergeant Bothari was on sick leave, and Aral was in a security briefing. It was naptime, the quiet here was sacrosanct. Piotr recalled those days from his own children, Olivia snarling at him if he made some clatter or rattle that might disturb the boys after she'd got them to lie down for a nap. He'd stolen kisses from her snarl, sometimes, safe in the knowledge that he would not be interrupted by some wailing voice. A mockery of those blessed days, to let this obscenity sleep in their cradle.
There were no guards posted in this corridor, only the gullible young man at the outer door, who had passed him through without hesitating. He knew which one would be the nursery. The mutant-nursery. He went past Aral's bedroom door, and heard sounds: his son's voice, a low laugh, warm with intimacy. Was Aral following in the grand tradition of taking advantage of a sleeping child--but no, Lady Cordelia could not be back from Lady Vortala's salon yet. He paused, heard a second voice, muffled and indistinguishable, but most decidedly male and equally warm. His son again, then the other man, slightly louder: "Yes, sir."
There was the scrape and clatter of the other exit from the Regent's quarters, the one leading down the back stairs direct to the offices, and Piotr heard light footsteps approaching the door he was lingering outside. Two warring objectives collided in his head: to surprise whatever young officer Aral was apparently fucking behind his wife's back; or to slip quietly into the adjoining room and complete his business here. He took two quick steps towards the next door. If Aral was already fooling around, he'd soon learn all about it when it blew up in his face; and if he was fooling around already, perhaps Lady Cordelia would return to Beta Colony, with or without the mutant, and leave Aral free to sire a true Vorkosigan heir.
He put his hand to the doorhandle of Lord Miles's room, and someone seized him by both shoulders.
Outraged, Piotr whirled around, and found himself face to face with Negri's successor. His eyes were bitter cold, so cold that for several seconds Piotr wondered if there was some third man lurking here, because no man who'd come straight from anyone's bed, even his son's, could possibly look so angry. But his voice was level as he said, "Permit me to escort you back downstairs, my lord Count."
Piotr stepped sharply back and Captain Illyan relinquished his grip, but still held his weight poised, a snake ready for another strike.
"You should return downstairs," Piotr spat back at him. "And perhaps I will forget what I have just seen--and heard."
Unexpectedly, Captain Illyan laughed, a strange, disbelieving, calculating laugh. "You cannot imagine--my lord Count, what kind of security chief would permit himself to be blackmailed into winking at the murder of his liegelord's son?" He moved, placing himself between Piotr and the nursery door.
"Lady Cordelia is not in the Residence now. You cannot wish me to be forced to bring this to her attention."
"By all means do so. I will have the pleasure of watching her response on my monitors, after all. Come, now."
Piotr watched his face thoughtfully, weighing the situation. "You think she won't believe me? I know you were giving Aral some consolation when he was moping after Escobar, but your time is over now. And then, even if that Betan woman is cosmopolitan enough to tolerate your little affair, I don't think the General Staff will be pleased to know how you earned your promotion."
"Tell whomsoever you wish. Let me be clear, my lord. There is no way you can use this to force me to neglect my duty in the slightest way. Any other hurt or scandal you may wish to cause for your son will rest entirely on your own head."
The cadence was Negri's; a moment later Piotr realised that had to be deliberate, that this young upstart had Negri's voice recorded in his head a million times over and was using that to manipulate him. He began to smile. "I begin to see why Aral... values you. Very well, Captain. This round is to you." He gave a nod, as one bested in a round of fencing, and began to walk away. "Given how inadequate your security arrangements clearly are, it's not inadvisable for you to spend time in these bedrooms."
At that, Illyan flushed for the first time. "I assure you, that will not happen again. He will be dealt with."
Piotr snorted. "If it does, you can rest assured that I will be ready." So. Aral was fooling around, apparently with his wife's approval--well, Olivia had been similarly understanding, something Aral need never know--but he hadn't chosen too badly in this young idiot. Besides, if he couldn't find a way to use this against Aral, then nobody else in Vorbarr Sultana would find a way to do it either.
"And then there are the rumours about ImpSec," Alys concluded.
"Ah yes. Tell me, what have we been doing this week?" There was a rare gleam of humour in Captain Illyan's eyes. "According to the good people of Vorbarr Sultana, that is."
"Numerous people believe that Colonel Rykov's lightflyer crash was not an accident, even though he wasn't badly hurt. His regular habit of flying drunk seems to have escaped them. According to Lady Vorsmythe and her set, you have developed an infallible sensor that can indicate whether or not someone is telling the truth, without fast-penta. And young Masha Vorkalloner is, I'm afraid, utterly convinced that she saw you in a compromising situation with the Lord Regent." She sipped her tea and looked at Illyan under her lashes, carefully. "She's normally a good girl, not prone to these sorts of stories, but her elder sister has just received a Baba, so perhaps she's trying to make herself seem more important. According to her tale, she took a wrong turn on her way back from the ladies' at Vorkosigan House at the party two nights ago, and saw something improper." In fact she claimed to have seen the Regent on his knees before Illyan, but being a good Vor maiden she hadn't entirely known how to interpret this until some of her friends had expanded her education.
Illyan had that inward look that told her he was consulting his artificial memory chip, but the faint flush that was crossing his pale cheeks was entirely human. Ah. Alys had wondered, had wondered for several years, but never been certain. She had the sense of pieces snapping into place.
"You've been extremely discreet up till now," she went on smoothly. "Even I only had my suspicions. But this was different from the usual rumours." She picked up her teacup and took a sip, leaving the silence for Captain Illyan to fill.
He was shaking his head, not in pointless denial but in dismay. "In order for her to see anything," he said, "two sets of doors had to be open at the same time, and she had to be on the wrong side of our security perimeter. That should not have happened." Alys had rarely seen him so animated. "What made you suspicious--was it Lady Cordelia? I had wondered if she would discuss it with you."
"She's hinted at it," Alys said, "in hindsight. But, well, Aral does truly love his men, but I have only once seen him push past his own security detail to reach the medical gurney of one of his officers, then kiss that officer's hand before he is taken off for medical care."
Another brief inward look. "Three years ago," he said, "when that bomb went off under my groundcar. It looked much worse than it was, you know."
"I'll take your word for it." Alys had witnessed too many outbreaks of sudden violence, even since the end of the Pretendership. "Also, you're less discreet at Vorkosigan Surleau. Well, Aral is less discreet. But I don't imagine anyone else would put these hints together. But now, with this--that's another matter."
Illyan chewed on his lower lip. "What do you recommend? Is there anything I can do?"
"Don't do--that--with anyone, anywhere that is not completely private. And if you must, for heaven's sake stay aware of who's around you," she said tartly, and the flush drained from his face. "But yes. There is something you can do, though I don't suppose you'll like it much."
"You want me to distance myself from Aral publicly, maybe oppose him? I can do that, if necessary."
"No. Quite the contrary. Aral needs to kiss you, somewhere much more public and visible, and as a joke."
"I will be encouraging as many of the other rumours about Aral as I can. I think he has been paired with almost everyone prominent in this city, at one time or another. If he was a woman, we'd call him a flirt, but in a man it's charisma. Or so I'm told." She'd been a flirt, once. She'd had to learn other skills, as a widow who had no intention of altering that status. "The officers' dinner tomorrow evening will be perfect, so long as Cordelia attends. I want half Vorbarr Sultana to see it or know someone who did. It will all go down as just another Vorkosigan excess, and Masha's story will get mixed up with it. Aral will know how to carry it off. Would you like me to speak with him myself, or will you talk to him?" She hesitated for the first time. "I'm afraid it's not going to be entirely pleasant for you. You'll be the target of jokes for some weeks until some other mishap occurs to distract them all. But it will take the sting out of the story altogether."
Captain Illyan tilted his head, considering. "I see. I do enjoy covert ops, you know. It'll be fine. I'll talk to him, and let him know your recommendation."
"It's very important that Cordelia is present," Alys said. "I don't think many people in this city have the imagination to grasp that if Aral is not afraid of her seeing it, this does not mean it is not real."
"But you do," Illyan said slowly. "My lady, I would ask you not to--not to think the worse of him for this. I know it's not... proper, but--" He fell silent, but there was an unusual anxiety in his eyes.
"I don't," Alys answered. "It--it seems to work, for you all." There were a great many people in Vorbarr Sultana who loved Aral Vorkosigan. Far fewer of them were up to his weight, able to stand up to him without flinching. She wasn't entirely sure Aral saw just how devoted Illyan really was to him, because Illyan didn't let it show even when they were together, but she knew that Illyan was one of the very few people to whom Aral genuinely let down his guard. And, indeed, the reverse.
"Yes," Illyan said quietly. "It's all right, milady. It does work."
Captain Illyan entered the conference room and at once Jole thought, he knows. Illyan only gave Jole the slightest of glances, but there was something in those compressed lips that made Jole add to himself, and he's angry. But whatever Illyan thought about him, the security concerns of three planets took up a full hour of reports and discussions. Jole took notes, as if everything was as normal, as if nothing had changed. It was only when they paused for breath that Illyan looked directly at Jole.
Aral sat back in his chair, apparently relaxed, but with his new hyper-awareness of Aral's body, Jole could read the tension in his neck and spine. Incoming, he thought. "Yes, Simon? Say what's on your mind. Have you reported in to Cordelia already? You said her shuttle landed two hours ago."
Captain Illyan stood up, strode across the room, turned sharply and said in a low, tense voice, "He's practically a child, Aral. The same age as Gregor. And he's your secretary. What on earth are you thinking?"
Jole sat up straight. It was his job to be the last line of defence in front of the Prime Minister. Captain Illyan had drilled him on it personally. He'd have taken a crazed axeman above this particular attack. "There is no dishonour, Captain. It is entirely voluntary--"
Aral made a quelling gesture at him. "It's all right, Oliver. This is for me to answer." He turned back to Illyan. "What did Cordelia say?"
Jole had heard Captain Illyan repeat exchanges and conversations from his chip for the Prime Minister a thousand times in meetings. This time, Illyan closed his mouth, a faint mulishness about his eyes. Aral had assured Jole that his wife would have no objection to this, but as Illyan's silence stretched, Jole found he was holding his breath.
"What did she say?"
"I told Countess Vorkosigan as soon as she landed. I said--I said almost exactly what I just said to you," Illyan began, evidently as defenceless as everyone else against that dangerous rumbling tone.
"And what did she say?"
"'Don't you trust Aral's honour by now, Simon? I do. Calm down. It's not like you're short of real problems to worry about.'" The Betan accent in Captain Illyan's light voice gave Jole a weird feeling of disorientation. He kept his eyes on Aral, and was rewarded with the glimmer of a smile. "But a man can be mistaken, in all honour, Aral. The divide of experience, age, rank--"
"A lieutenant, and an admiral," Aral said in a low drawl, not seeming nearly as angry as Jole would have expected. "Where have I heard that before, I wonder, Simon?"
Illyan's head went back. "Then perhaps it's just that whenever anyone is set to follow you around and take notes, you fall into bed with him?" he snapped.
"Then, and twenty years down the line, if he'll still have me then." Aral's glance at Jole warmed him to the bone. Then Aral turned the exact same look on Captain Illyan, and Jole began to see the shape of an impossible thing, looming up in front of him like an asteroid on a collision course with his shuttle. "Will you, Simon?"
Illyan turned to Jole then and looked at him unspeaking, as if mapping him out down to the millimeter-level. "In all honour," he said at last, very quietly. Then, more clearly, "Dammit, Aral, yes, of course I trust your honour too. Very well."
The asteroid was looming closer now, a strange shape, one he had never seen before, one he scarcely knew how to understand.
"You were concerned about what," Illyan paused, then chose the informal first name deliberately, "Cordelia would think about you sleeping with her husband. I've seen all the monitoring vids," he added in an aside. "And Aral told you not to worry. You've been worrying anyway. But what Aral didn't tell you is, he and Cordelia worked all this out twenty years ago. With me."
"It wasn't entirely mine to tell," Aral said, and they both turned to him, the movements mirror-image of each other. Jole caught Illyan's eye accidentally, and looked away. "But I wanted you to know," Aral continued. "It seemed only fair, since Simon knows about you."
And impact. "I--for twenty years?" Jole said. "I had no idea. I didn't--I mean, the Countess, of course, I knew I wasn't, but... are there any others, sir?" That 'sir' slipped out unintentionally. "You don't have to tell me who, but--are there any?"
Aral watched him stutter through the understanding patiently, openly. "No others. Not now. In the past, well."
That caught Illyan's attention. "You need to tell him about that," he said. "Anyone--anyone in bed with you should know that." Jole parsed the expression on his face as concern. "If you would rather, I'll tell him about it."
"Later." Aral nodded acquiescence. "There was another, in the past. I'll tell you more later. For now... Simon?"
"I knew you were impossible twenty years ago," Illyan said, and there was a warmth in his eyes that Jole had never seen there before. "But I trust your honour too." He nodded to Jole. "Well, Oliver. I suppose you'd better call me Simon. In private."
Aral relaxed, the tension leaving him, and he moved his hand just a fraction in some invitation in a language that Jole was only beginning to learn how to read. But that was not intended for him. Illyan turned, and his face was no longer in its habitual impassive mask, and Jole saw that he had been truly distressed, truly worried about him, about Aral, about them both. Jole nodded to him, and Illyan went to Aral. Aral stood up, embraced him, then kissed him. Jole caught a glimpse of Captain Illyan's unguarded face, and understood that this too was a gift. He did not look away.
Miles sat by the bed, not quite dozing, waiting for the next round to start up. It had taken two hours to get Illyan calm enough to sleep, but he had finally stopped tossing and startling up with the too-familiar questions and was still. The lights were very dim, and here with ImpSec's soundproofing he could hear nothing except for Illyan's regular deep breathing. Even the medical monitors were silent, no aggravating beeping for ImpSec's most important patient.
Illyan turned over and reached out a hand lazily. Miles could scarcely see him in the darkness, but then Illyan's hand closed on his. "There you are," Illyan whispered. "Come back to bed."
Miles swallowed. "Go back to sleep," he whispered back. So, Illyan hadn't slept alone every night for the past thirty years. He had long accepted knowing that his parents had an active sex life; a Betan mother inured you to that. Finding out that his Uncle Simon also hadn't been completely celibate--well, under these circumstances, that was oddly comforting. Over the past day, Illyan had dragged him into a thousand horrific memories, a constant fast-forward through panic, pain and fear. But the man must have had some happy memories too.
Illyan's fingers twisted in his and gave his hand a strong pull. "Come back to bed, sir."
Miles recoiled so hard he nearly fell off his chair.
"Aral?" Illyan's voice sharpened. "What's wrong?"
His reflexes, honed over the past day of sitting here, kicked in. "Nothing. It's fine," he said, still speaking in a rough whisper. "I'll come to bed in a minute. It's all right. Go back to sleep, Simon." Miles forced himself to reach out again, brush his fingers against Illyan's. The small sigh of satisfaction from his Uncle Simon was, he feared, going to be high on the list of most confusing things he'd ever encountered in his life.
"Very well, my lord," Illyan said languidly, and to Miles's shock, he began to drowse off again almost at once.
Illyan. And Da. Illyan and Da. Illyan and Da in bed together. He assembled the pieces like building a tower out of blocks. Illyan had slept with his Da. From the familiarity in his voice, more than once. When? How long? Illyan and Da. Had Mother--knowing Mother, it was possible she'd locked them in a room together with a range of Betan informative literature.
The door opened quietly and Lady Alys came in. Miles stood up. "He's asleep," he said. He paced across the room towards her, hesitated, turned away, and turned back again.
"What is it, Miles?" Aunt Alys said in a deeply familiar, faintly annoyed voice.
"Can I--he said--did he--" Miles paused, took a deep breath, then said, "He woke up and thought he was in bed with my father."
Alys gave him a long, bland look. "I see."
"Close your mouth, Miles, you'll catch flies," Alys said. "Yes. Before your mother came to Barrayar, it started. Afterwards, well, why do you think you spent your childhood calling him Uncle Simon?"
"You know your own mother, Miles, do you really think she'd let your father make a fool of her?"
"I thought it was all lies, that Da... are there any others? Aunt Alys..."
"Ask your parents yourself, Miles. I don't gossip about them, even with you."
Miles shook his head automatically, then snorted. "Huh. Well, I guess Da had good taste, at least."
"There's nobody watching," Simon said, breaking the long silence that had settled comfortably around them.
Aral rested his head on the sofa and looked sideways in relaxed confusion. The library at Vorkosigan House was empty now, everyone else gone to bed, the fire dying down even as the snow heaped on the windowledge.
"Nobody, and nothing, is watching me now," Simon repeated. "No chip. No bugs in here. Absolutely nobody else has access to this."
"Privacy," Aral said. "What a thought. You and Alys are enjoying it, are you?"
"Alys thought," Simon said, leaning closer against him, "that I might like to enjoy it with you too."