Sergeant Walton, A. E., 4430171955 Imperial Rangers, sat with a splitting head and the foul taste of a hangover in his mouth as the orbital shuttle made its descent to the Vorbarr Sultana military shuttleport. The hotshot pilot managed to bounce the crate on its skids twice, rattling his back teeth for him. There was a chorus of hoots and swearwords from the rest of the poor bastards bound for home leave, redeployment, retirement or worse, by the looks of the grim-faced Service Security detachment down the back with their hapless charges. Walton just winced and sighed. It wasn’t worth his breath. Twenty years of shuttles had inured him to the vagaries of pilots. At least it wasn’t a combat drop gone wrong. That was worth swearing about.
He followed the procedure for what might well be one last time. Unbuckle, form up, wait your turn, move smartly, collect kit and march into the transit office. His orders were pretty vague, report Col Ausekle Ops HQ 0800 hours dress greens. Dress greens. They knew how to turn the screw, didn’t they? He hadn’t worn dress greens in nearly a year. They all lived in their black combat fatigues aboard ship. He’d be up to all hours with the spit and polish bullshit. Still, if anyone was worth the spit and polish Colonel Ausekle certainly was. Officer in Command. The Ranger.
The bored corporal behind the arrivals desk processed his orders. He slapped various items down on the counter. “Travel chit. Pass for the transit barracks. Map to show you where to go, half a block away from HQ. Chit for dinner tonight. Chit for breakfast tomorrow. Don’t mix them up. Next!”
The monorail wasn’t due for twenty minutes so Walton found a bench, propped his boots on his kit bag and tilted his cap over his eyes. Hopefully nobody would disturb him. Fat chance of a snooze though. There was a public vidscreen nearby and the whiny voice of the newsreader grated on his nerves. He really couldn’t give a shit about the drought in Vorlaisner’s District. He was about to move when he heard a name he knew.
“There is still grave concern held for Count Voralys, injured in that shocking incident during the Birthday ball at the Imperial Residence yesterday. As usual when the Emperor’s security is concerned details have not been released. It is believed, however, that Count Voralys intercepted an intruder. The new count has made quite a splash lately, with major developments scheduled for Prestwich and New Sheffield in Voralys District. No one at Voralys House or The Residence has been available for comment.”
Voralys. Oh, yes, he knew that name. He’d heard about the security scare at the residence, too. Scuttlebut was that there’d been fatalities. His mother’s messages had been full for weeks of Lord Ivan Vorpatril this and Lord Ivan Vorpatril that and what an honourable man he was. She’d actually been happy when the Emperor had created him Count Voralys.
Honour. Walton felt like spitting. What a crock of shit. All those Vor were only interested in themselves and what they could screw out of the proles for their friends and family. All his Da could talk about while he was growing up was honour, and look where it had got him. Dead, that’s where. Dead and buried while he’d been orbiting Earth on the Prince Serg showing the flag for Barrayar. No chance to say goodbye, no chance of making it home in time for the funeral. There wasn’t any point worrying about compassionate leave when he was six weeks away and only three months short of his twenty-year discharge. He’d stayed with his friends instead. The Rangers were closer to family than his sisters now, who were married and gone these fifteen years. Some of those friends were closer than brothers could ever be. Half the time he didn’t fight for the Vor or even the Emperor. He fought for his friends, to keep their backs safe, the same way they fought for him.
By the time the Serg at last made Barrayar orbit he’d had time to think about his future. He hadn’t been doing much thinking last night, though. The RSM in the sergeant’s mess had magically produced half a case of single malt scotch whisky, smuggled aboard from Earth somehow, right past the noses of those Service Security goons sitting ten rows behind him. They’d managed to do them serious damage, polishing off five bottles between them. The sole remaining bottle was stashed in his kit right now as a farewell gift. Walton’s stomach churned at the thought. Give him a day or two. He’d do it some more damage then.
He had a month’s leave owing, plenty of time to see his mother and decide if he wanted to sign on for another twenty. Always supposing they wanted him, of course. He’d find out tomorrow at his discharge interview. It was too hard to think right now. As the monorail pulled in Walton slung his kit bag and joined the queue to board.
Ops HQ VS…Where the captains made the coffee. His stiff collar itched. His boots pinched. At least his head was clear after a decent sleep. When he was finally escorted through what seemed like kilometres of corridor and a spartan anteroom to Colonel Ausekle’s office, it finally began to dawn on him that this was not an ordinary discharge interview.
The grizzled colonel had more campaign ribbons on his uniform than any one man had any right to. Regimental lore had it he’d been at the conquest of Komarr as a fresh-faced ensign and every battle since. The old man looked up from behind his desk. “At ease, Walton. Thank you for coming in. I’ve been looking at your service record. Twenty years, eh? Well done. Do you have any firm plans? Another twenty, perhaps? We can always use good men.”
“I’ve been considering, Colonel. Since my father’s death my circumstances have changed somewhat. I’m not sure about anything anymore. I need to talk to my family before I make a decision.”
Colonel Ausekle scrolled through some data on his vid screen. “Ah, yes. A bad business, that. We might never get the whole story, of course. It’s even classified above my head. ImpSec hauled you in over it, I see, but you’re still with us. No black marks of any sort as far as I can tell. Nor should there be.”
Walton bristled. That interview still rankled, and badly. “I’ve never been on the wrong end of fast-penta before, sir. Service Security is one thing, but ImpSec…”
Ausekle inclined his head. “Where the Emperor’s safety is concerned we all have to be prepared to bow to the inevitable. And so you have a new District, in name at least, and a new count. How do you feel about that?” The colonel looked at his face to gauge his expression. “You can speak freely.”
“Any count would have to be better than the man my father gave his name’s word to. It broke his heart, I think, to serve a man like that. He was oath-sworn to the old count, first, who was an honourable man, so he knew the difference. As for this new one we’ve got now, well, I suppose my mother speaks quite highly of Count Voralys.”
“So you have no lingering loyalty to Count Vorclarence. Good. There’s a but?”
He was sharp, the old man. He’d seen the hesitation. “But who is he, sir, this Count Voralys? A high Vor playboy, polishing a chair here in Ops? Related to the Emperor? He hasn’t even seen any active service.”
The colonel acknowledged his doubts. “You think it was traditional Vor nepotism, do you? Vorpatril never made any waves when he was here at HQ, that’s true. He was, however, awarded an Imperial Gold Star, and if he’d still been in the service he’d be in line for another one, after the events of the last few days. Make no mistake. He’s a very brave man.”
Walton was keenly aware of the Silver Star on his own chest and knew what that had taken to earn, first to last. Voralys must have something going for him. “If you say so, sir. I’m not in a position to judge.”
Auskele shuffled some papers and pressed a button on his comconsole. “I’ve been asked to evaluate you for the possibility of an appointment and I’m happy to recommend you. There’s going to be another interview, but not here.”
He was being very cagey. Walton could sense something…odd. “What kind of appointment, sir?”
The colonel cleared his throat. “It’s not for me to say. Major Karasavas from ImpSec will take you to it. He’ll be waiting for you in the antechamber. Good luck with whatever you decide, Walton. There’s always a place for you in the Imperial Rangers. Don’t be afraid to say no and come back to us.” He handed over a code card. “Arrange with my secretary a time to see me if you do choose to re-enlist. We’ll have to see about another posting for you.”
Somewhat mystified, Walton saluted and marched out. ImpSec. He never wanted to see another ImpSec face again. There was a major waiting for him in the antechamber, slim, dark and unsmiling, the eyes of Horus pins on his collar proclaiming him to be this ImpSec man Auskele had spoken about. Shit. No avoiding him. He came back to attention. “Major Karasavas, sir?”
He was subjected to a cool scrutiny. “Sergeant Walton? I knew your father. You have the look of him.”
“You were in New Sheffield, sir?”
Karasavas nodded. “I’m posted there. I saw him frequently over several months and was close by when he died. I’m not permitted to speak about it but you can be very proud of him. I’ve got transport waiting if you’d like to follow me.”
It was a politely worded order. Walton had given up trying to second guess what was going on. He just followed half a step behind Karasavas as they made their silent way out of the building. The ImpSec major looked…not angry, but something was troubling him. Concerned, perhaps? Worried. Definitely worried. There were two creases between his pulled-down eyebrows. Once they were settled in an unmarked ImpSec ground car, Walton decided to ask him.
“Is something wrong, sir?”
“What? Oh, yes. Sorry, Walton. There’s always something. Nothing concerning you at this stage, however.”
And that was all he got out of him. Walton idly watched as the streets of Vorbarr Sultana passed the tinted windows of the ground car. They were in the Old Town, heading for…shit.
They were heading for The Residence.
Security was tight. They were scanned three times. Karasavas accompanied him as far as a room with a bland secretary, who looked up as they entered. An armsman, tall and menacing in his black and silver livery, loomed next to an inner door.
“Sergeant Walton? Good. Please take a seat. The Emperor will see you shortly.”
The Emperor? Emperor Gregor Vorbarra wanted to see him? Walton looked down at his uniform, checking for any fault. Dress greens. Right. Now he understood. He started sweating. He looked at the major in alarm.
“What the hell do I do?”
“March in, salute, stand to attention until told otherwise. Tell the truth. He won’t eat you.”
Easy for him to say. Luckily it was only a few minutes before the secretary beckoned him over and rose to open the inner door. “Sergeant Adrian Walton, Sire.”
The door shut behind him; Walton swallowed hard as he saluted. The Emperor looked up from his desk. He wore a very plain dark suit, almost stark in its simplicity. Only a few years younger than himself, his lean face held little evidence of any expression or interest other than a bland neutrality.
“At ease, Sergeant. Thank you for coming.”
Well, that was an impossible order from the leader of three worlds. Walton managed a very stiff parade rest. The Emperor leant back in his seat and regarded him gravely.
“We are very sorry for the loss of your father, Sergeant Walton. He died honourably.”
“So I’ve been told, your Majesty,” he managed to blurt out.
“What do you know about it all?”
“Only that. I presume he died defending Count Vorclarence. He was oath-sworn to do so.”
“Ah, no. It was quite the contrary.” The Emperor stood. “Come and sit down, Sergeant.” He led the way over to a grouping of chairs and couches by the window. Walton waited for him to choose a seat with his back to the light and then sat very uncomfortably himself on the edge of a hard chair.
“This is classified, of course, and you will not repeat anything said here, but you do have a right to know. Count Vorclarence committed treason. He gave his armsmen an illegal order to assassinate Lord Vorkosigan, Our Lord Auditor. This is after a failed assassination attempt on Our person. Very properly your father refused to comply, although it caused him a great deal of personal agony to do so, Lord Vorkosigan mentions in his report. Vorclarence had ordered the Municipal Guard to hold several hostages to ensure his Armsmen’s compliance. Your mother was one of them.”
He waited a moment as Walton struggled to digest what he’d just heard. His mother, in a prison cell?
The Emperor continued. “He later stood between Count Vorclarence and Our team attempting to rescue another two female hostages, trying to shield them. The count killed him with a shot from a plasma arc.”
If he hadn’t been sitting down he would have fallen down. Vorclarence had killed his Da? After more than twenty years’ loyal service? Walton could feel the blood running from his face. The Emperor continued.
“Lord Ivan Vorpatril was the leader of the rescue team at the time. Your father saved his life and later in the day Lord Vorpatril avenged his death.”
There was a much bigger story he wasn’t being told here. Walton struggled to think of something intelligent to say. “Is that why you invested him with the countship, Sire?”
“Only partly. He’s a very worthy man. He’s been doing excellent work in the district already.”
He’d meant that to sound neutral but the Emperor looked at him sharply. “You don’t approve?”
How to put this? Oh, to hell with it. “No-one needs me to approve, Sire. The Vor will do what the Vor do best. I can think of hundreds of very worthy men. District men. Count Voralys has obviously been well-rewarded for his loyalty.”
Good one. Piss off the Emperor when you’ve only met him three minutes ago. The Emperor’s gaze lingered coldly and his lips thinned. “You think he’s been well-rewarded? Come with me, Sergeant Walton.” He sprang to his feet, palmed open the door and marched into the outer office. The sudden shift in behaviour was bewildering. Walton could tell by the scramble that the Emperor’s actions were entirely unexpected. A squad of armsmen bolted from their ready-room to assist the one stationed outside the door. That armsman looked surprised.
“Sire? Your next app—”
“Not, now, Gerard. Come with me.”
With two black-clad armsmen ahead of them and two following they swept along the corridors from the north wing through to the entrance hall leading to the Great Square. ImpSec guards in their dress greens sprang to instant alert but the Emperor turned sharply away from the public areas and down another corridor to a pair of swing doors. The smell of antiseptic and change of flooring from ancient parquet to hospital grade sealed plas-med were enough of a clue before he saw the sign. Infirmary. No unauthorised entry.
The armsman the Emperor had called Gerard darted ahead of them. He was back in a few moments. “All clear.”
The Emperor nodded. “Follow me, Sergeant. The rest of you wait here.”
Outside an inner door leading to a separate section a Count’s armsman, dressed in dark blue and silver livery, stood to attention. Inside, the atmosphere was hushed in the small intensive care ward. A single cubicle was occupied, the only sound the hiss of a ventilator and the faint beep of a heart monitor. A tall figure lay very still on the bed, his eyes taped shut and a ventilator tube disappearing into his mouth. Other lines delivered saline and blood. More ominously, more blood lines led to a large machine pulsing away to one side. Whoever this was, he wasn’t in good shape.
There was a woman sitting by the head of the bed. She was dark eyed and beautiful. Those dark eyes were swimming with tears though, and the strain on her face was almost palpable. The Emperor walked over to press her back into her seat as she started to rise. She smiled weakly at him. “No change, Sire. He’s holding his own…just.”
The Emperor looked at Walton and indicated the supine figure. He spoke quietly, but the intensity of his words and the bright look in his eye told their own story. “Sergeant Walton, meet Lord Ivan Vorpatril, Count Voralys. You can see for yourself how well-rewarded he is for his loyalty and service to the Imperium. The poison he’s fighting now was meant for Us. This is the second time he’s been seriously wounded saving Our life this year.”
Walton looked down at the still figure. There was a lot to say for just being an ordinary grunt, wasn’t there? “I’m sorry, Sire. He obviously means a great deal to you. I’d heard something, at the shuttleport, while I was waiting for the monorail. I didn’t realise it was this serious.”
The Emperor took hold of the count’s hand for a moment, looking down at him in an imponderable silence. Finally he spoke.
“Neurotoxin is always serious. Deadly serious.” He squeezed the hand and laid it gently back down on the bed. “We would like to avoid this in the future. Count Voralys will be needing some more armsmen when he recovers. You can see for yourself the job is no sinecure. We would like you to think about it.”
Walton nearly fell over with shock. “Me, Sire? But—”
“We’ll discuss it outside.” The Emperor bent to kiss the woman on the cheek. “Stay strong, Raine. He’s going to pull through. Ivan doesn’t have Our permission to do anything otherwise.”
She smiled weakly. “I’ll tell him so, when he wakes up.”
Back in the hall, The Emperor let out a long breath. “We’d like to send you to Voralys House with Our recommendation. The senior armsman, Fox, will explain the life to you, but you have had inside experience already, growing up with an armsman as a father. There is absolutely no compulsion, of course, but We would like to honour your father’s sacrifice and give you the option to continue your family’s proud tradition of service. Count Voralys needs experienced, qualified men. This time you can be sure, if you do decide to take oath, that your liege lord will be a man well worthy of your trust, just as We are convinced he will find you to be well-equipped to be an armsman. You’ll want to talk to your mother, of course. My secretary will make arrangements for you to travel to New Sheffield to see her.”
The Emperor held out his hand. “Thank you, Sergeant Walton, for your service. We are only requesting. It’s not a Request and Require. The choice is entirely yours. Good luck with whatever you decide to do with the rest of your life.”
Major Karasavas reappeared at his elbow. “If you would come with me, Sergeant? Our transport is waiting for us.”
Walton noticed his lingering glance at the closed doors of the Infirmary. Count Voralys really mattered to this hard-bitten ImpSec major, didn’t he, as he so very obviously did to the Emperor as well.
Voralys House was much as he remembered it back when it had been Vorclarence House. The décor was different and there was still a lingering smell of fresh paint as he was led past the dining room. He’d stayed nearby in the armsman’s married quarters with his parents and visited as a small boy. The layout was still the same, but he’d only ever seen this ground floor and the staff wing, of course. Major Karasavas introduced him to the count’s Secretary, Philip Nicolaides, and his senior armsman, Marcus Fox, a tall, unsmiling man with the look of an ex-serviceman. More than that. He looked like a policeman. Service Security, he’d bet. Walton matched him for height, his build was much the same, even the eyes and dark hair, but Fox had that same look of worry in his brown eyes he’d seen in Karasavas. They shook hands in a business-like manner.
“Thanks for coming.”
“You’re the third person to say that to me today. I haven’t had much say in it, so far. Thanks implies I’ve made a choice.”
He sounded…ungracious…he knew, but he’d never much liked being forced into a course of action. This was no different. Fox didn’t take offence.
“I know that feeling. It’s a bit like a boulder rolling down a hill. Come and find something to eat, and we’ll let the major get back to his work.”
The kitchen was different. It smelled homely. Spices and warmth, and an air of welcome. The cook smiled at him as Fox made the introductions.
“You look like you need a good cup of tea, or would you prefer coffee? There’s gingerbread, just made, or apple pie. Why not both?” She bustled around and set a place at the scrubbed table. With a quick glance at Fox she set a second.
Walton hadn’t realised how tired he was. It wasn’t even lunch time yet and he felt like he’d been chewed up through a mincer and spat out the other side. He needed to mend some fences with Fox, too. “I’m sorry I was bad-tempered just then. It’s been a stressful day.”
“Don’t worry about it. I understand. Everyone is on edge right now.”
After a swig of tea and two mouthfuls of the best apple pie he’d ever eaten, Walton ventured to ask a question. “How did you get to be an armsman, Fox?”
Fox smiled for the first time. “Lord Vorpatril, as he was then, hauled me out of a prison cell in Rotherhall. I’d been beaten up by some of Vorclarence’s goons. After twenty years in Service Security I ended up on the wrong side of the bars on my fourth day back in the District after my discharge. His lordship made the captain of the Rotherhall Municipal Guard change places with me. It was…refreshing to see an honest man in action. I knew then I’d like to work for him, but armsman was a big decision. How long since you’ve been back to the District?”
“Four years, on my last long leave. I didn’t know whether to spit or cry. My father was being destroyed by Vorclarence. I couldn’t wait to get out of the place.”
“It’s different now. Lord Vorpatril blew Vorclarence to bits with his own grenade; one that he’d stolen from the Imperial armoury.”
“He did?” Walton took another swallow. He wouldn’t have thought twice about doing that himself, if he’d had the chance. “The Emperor told me he’d avenged my father’s death. He didn’t say how.”
“After that, once he’d been appointed count, some lunatic woman tried to kill him with a handgun, of all things. She would have succeeded, too, if his ImpSec bodyguard hadn’t stood in the way of the bullet. He was killed. Don’t think this job is a cushy number. You’ll need to be on your guard at all times.”
“I saw the count in the Infirmary this morning, before I came here. I know it’s not a cushy number. What happened to him?”
“He intercepted a traitor who was heading for the Emperor carrying a knife coated in poison. If the Count survives he’s probably going to need a liver transplant. They’re trying to grow him one now. He’d just asked his girl to marry him, not half an hour previously, which is why I wasn’t breathing down his neck. He wanted some privacy with her, and it was The Residence, after all. Supposed to be as safe as houses. Safer even.”
Fox stared down into his tea. His face turned grim. “I should have been there. I was only fifty metres away. The count had sent me to guard the Emperor.” He looked up, death in his face. “He sacrificed his own safety to make sure the Emperor was guarded properly. It is never going to happen again.”
Walton didn’t know what to say to that. Better to change the subject. “His girl. Is she a tall girl, real beauty, Dark hair, dark eyes?”
“That’s the one. Was she still there? She promised she’d come home with Kosa, but he turned up on his own three hours ago. Harper has the shift just now. You would have seen him.”
Walton nodded and Fox continued. “She’s been there all night. Simon Illyan will bring her home, when he takes Lady Vorpatril in to sit with her son. He doesn’t take any nonsense.”
Walton nearly choked on his tea. “Simon Illyan? The Simon Illyan?”
“The Simon Illyan. He practically lives here. Near enough the count’s step father as makes no difference. You’re not going to be bored in this job, if you take it. You’ll see all sorts of people. There’s an adopted daughter, too. Marie is the biggest sweetheart you ever saw, daughter of an old shipmate of mine who was killed on the Kanzian.”
The cook, Ma Belka, had been listening to some of the conversation as she went about her work. She spoke as she came over to refill their tea cups. “Count Voralys is the kindest man alive. He’s been so good to me and my Darek. We’d do anything for him, we would.” She swallowed down a sob and wiped a hand across her eyes. “We’re so worried. He has to come home. He just has to. They won’t be feeding him right in that place. I don’t care what anybody says.”
Walton thought of the motionless figure in the bed, only breathing because some machine was pumping the air in to him. Eating was the least of his troubles. “I haven’t heard a bad word said about him. He can’t be a perfect angel, surely?”
Fox glanced at the cook who’d gone back to cutting vegetables and lowered his voice. “Perfect angel? He’s certainly not that. More of a randy devil, actually. Biggest ladies’ man in Vorbarr Sultana, or so I’ve heard, or was, before he met his match. Love ’em and leave ’em, no hard feelings. Not the marrying sort. —Half his luck.” He thought for a moment and spoke a little louder. “He’d have been a good officer, though. He was a captain in Ops when I met him. The Emperor had appointed him as temporary Auditor.”
“Dreadful driver, my aunt told me,” Ma Belka added, pretending she hadn’t heard about his reputation. “She’s cook to Lord Vorkosigan. They’re cousins. His lordship won’t go in a ground car with him. Scares him to death, so she says.”
Fox got back to business. “There are some more candidates coming in over the next couple of days. We’re still ten armsmen short. There’ll be at least four of you to go through the courses and whatnot together, if you all accept, more, if you can think of anyone from the District. You shouldn’t have much trouble with them, being a Ranger. We could really do with you, but it’s for you and Count Voralys to decide between you, of course, in the end. Come on, I’ll show you your quarters for the night and you can get that kit off. Fatigues will do fine. At least our dress uniforms are comfortable. Major Karasavas told me you can travel down to New Sheffield with him tomorrow, if you want.”
Walton took his plate and cup over to the dishwasher. “Thank you for the pie, Ma Belka. Best I’ve had in years. Ever, probably.”
She took the crockery away from him with a smile. “The staff all eat well, same as the family. It feels like one big family here sometimes. Don’t you forget that.”
He smiled at her. “I can see that. Thanks again.”