The queue shuffled forward as the group at the front was shown to a newly vacated table. Byerly Vorrutyer was content to wait in the line, his gaze scanning the crowd to watch his mark without making it obvious. With his tall frame he could see over the heads of most people, and standing in the queue like this he could stay close without having to buy a vastly over-expensive coffee. With any luck the man would leave before By found a table and he could pretend to be tired of waiting. ImpSec expenses didn’t run to coffee at Shoko’s.
On the day after the Imperial Wedding the Great Square was still decked out in all its finery. To one side the looming bulk of The Residence flew rippling standards from every possible high point and some impossible ones as well. The newly repaired statue of Dorca the Great was still wreathed with flowers, as was his horse, with a garland of white roses around his neck to rival the winner of the Vorhartung Derby. All the shops, cafes and government offices lining the square on the other three sides flew more standards, and colourful bunting fluttered everywhere in the afternoon breeze. It was enough to give a man a headache even without the excesses of the day before.
By let his gaze wander idly across the tables again. Most of the faces looked familiar. All the great and the good, and the not-so-good of Barrayar were in the capital for ImpWed and most of them had decided to visit Shoko’s today, and they were in no hurry to leave, or so it seemed. There was one face he knew well. He’d been sitting in her aunt’s lounge room, not so very long ago, trying to annoy Lord Auditor Vorkosigan. Ekaterin Vorsoisson had never taken him seriously, of course. No one ever did. She was lovely, and Miles Vorkosigan had unaccountably won her affection.
The lady with her he didn’t know so well. Valeraine Vorfolse. Who would ever have thought the Vorfolses could have produced anything as gorgeous as that? Ivan Vorpatril was well-smitten, going on what he’d seen at the wedding. That was something very close to impossible to believe, that any woman could finally catch Ivan Vorpatril. By didn’t want to think about that. He’d let himself hope, after watching Ivan evade the matrimonial traps for years. He’d begun to daydream that perhaps, just perhaps, Ivan wasn’t inclined to matrimony, wasn’t inclined that way at all. He’d been fooling himself, he knew, and once he’d seen the two of them together even his faintest hope vanished.
There was movement out in the square. There were hundreds if not thousands of people milling around, but By’s subconscious had registered a man just minutes before, and here he was back again. He was sweating in the cool breeze, ill-at-ease and definitely edgy. The hackles rose on By’s neck as he gave the man his full attention. Something was not right. He followed the suspect’s line of sight. Count and Countess Vorbataille sat with Count and Countess Vorguriyev, but directly in front of them, at the adjacent table, Raine laughed at some remark Ekaterin had made.
By abruptly left the queue and started walking towards the ladies. He hadn’t moved three paces before he saw the man pull something from under his jacket; something lethal. His raised his weapon and shouted just as By bellowed at the top of his voice.
“Ekaterin! Down! Get down!” He dived for the table, knocking it over towards the assassin with the needler gun. He reached round Raine’s waist to pull her off her chair down onto her knees. Ekaterin was further away. All he could do was grab her right arm and haul. The table made very poor cover but he bundled the two of them behind it, Ekaterin on top of Raine and himself on top of the both of them as best he could, all in a tumble of plates and glasses. Ekaterin shrieked in pain and fright as the darts from the needler whined overhead.
“Shit!” By gasped in horror. A lock of dark brown hair, his hair, flopped down to land on the back of his hand, along with shredded greenery from the grape vine. It had been that close. Tentatively he felt his scalp. There wasn’t even a graze. Another few millimetres would have told a different story.
The man, whomever he was, didn’t get a second burst away. Stunner buzzes, like a swarm of angry bees, sounded from at least three different places to add to the pandemonium as the packed café erupted. Chairs and tables crashed to the ground. Glasses and cups smashed to litter the area with razor-sharp shards. People scrambled in every direction, some towards the danger and others away from it. By, for the first time in his life, wished he had a burly physique. He couldn’t spread his scrawny self widely enough to protect both of the women.
“Stay down. Stay where you are. Don’t move.”
He risked a quick glance around the side of the table. There was a body lying in the square with an armsman standing over him, surrounded by an ever-growing crowd of green-uniformed ImpSec troopers. By had only taken a glimpse but it looked like a Vorbataille armsman who had dropped the attacker. What had the man shouted? He couldn’t be sure. He’d been screaming too hard himself to hear anything else. There was something about Barrayar, but that’s all he could remember.
Next to their own huddled pile of arms and legs and heads, Countess Vorbataille moaned in shock as blood ran down her arm. Several people were converging on her to help. By promptly forgot about the countess as he eased himself off Raine and Ekaterin.
“Are you hurt? Did he get either of you?” He rapidly scanned the two of them, still lying on the ground behind the table. Best not start feeling them all over. They might not appreciate that. Raine looked as white as a sheet. Her breath came in short, shocky gasps. She’d probably been winded and was just getting her breath back. She’d been on the bottom of the pile, after all. Her liquid brown eyes were wide and staring with the same shock. All she could do was shake her head at him.
Ekaterin had tears running down her face. She held her right arm with her left and bit her bottom lip in an effort not to cry out loud.
“Blast it! I’m sorry, Madame Vorsoisson. I’ve hurt you.”
By stuck his head up again. “Hey, you!” He shouted at an ImpSec corporal close by. “Find a medic for Lord Vorkosigan’s fiancée. Jump to it!”
He felt a manic grin come to his face as he slipped his arm back around Ekaterin and righted a chair for her to sit on. He felt close to hysterical. “I know, I know, I’m a shameless name-dropper, but if that doesn’t get us some help ASAP nothing will.”
Once he was sure Ekaterin wasn’t going to faint he turned to Raine, who had found her own chair. He took hold of both of her hands.
“Big breath and hold it. That’s right, and another one. You’re safe now. I’ve got you.”
What a singularly useless thing to say. As if he could make any difference to Raine’s safety, but it did seem to calm her a bit. She managed a weak smile of gratitude.
“I should let Ivan know I’m safe. He’s going to be worried when he hears about this.”
The corporal returned at high speed with not just a medtech but General Guy Allegre himself in close company, with two more men towing a float pallet behind that.
“It’s not that bad, just her right arm. Countess Vorbataille might need the pallet.”
General Allegre assessed the scene very rapidly, moved Ekaterin down his list of priorities and nodded, moving off just as quickly to the next hot spot. The medic took more time. Ekaterin rolled up her sleeve for him and tried to smile.
“I just got such a fright. I’m so sorry to cause a fuss. I’m better now, really. There must be other people who need you more that I do.”
The tech smiled at her, talking in a soothing voice as he gently felt for broken bones and ran a scanner over her shoulder joint. “Let me worry about that. I’m following orders, Madame. It won’t take a minute to check you out.”
He brought a soft pack pouch out of his kit and broke the inner vial, mixing a freezing solution almost instantly. Once it was ready he wrapped it round her arm and produced a sling for her.
“I can give you a painkiller and some synergine, maybe a half shot?”
She shook her head at him and waved away the sling. “No, it’s quite all right. My shoulder’s not dislocated. This is just what I need.”
By devoutly wished the medic would give him a shot of synergine. He’d never been so shit-scared in his whole life. He let go of Raine’s hand to try and use his wrist com but his fingers shook so badly he had to give up the attempt for the moment. After checking Raine briefly the medic passed on, but not before ordering them to stay exactly where they were.
“Don’t try to leave. There are troopers out there with orders to shoot to kill. Wait for General Allegre to call them off. He’ll want to talk to you all again, too.”
Ekaterin had regained most of her composure after her initial fright. “We’ll wait here. If someone could contact Lord Vorkosigan for me I’d be very grateful.”
“I’ll pass the message, ma’am. If you’ll excuse me.” He bustled off, following a prompt from his ear bud.
By tried his wristcom again. This time his fingers worked but there was no signal.
“ImpSec must have shut it down for the moment. Official communications only, I would guess.” He tried to ease the mood, pinning on a happy smile as he looked at them both. “Let’s chat amongst ourselves while we’re waiting. When shall we three meet again, do you suppose?”
Ekaterin snorted with laughter. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, probably, seeing as there’s not much chance of thunder, lightning or rain.”
She was quick. He liked quick wits. Raine wasn’t too slow to join in either.
“We’ll be waiting a while. When the hurlyburly’s done, I should think.” She tried her own wristcom. Nothing. “Ivan and Miles are going to be so worried.”
It was another ten or fifteen minutes before By finally managed to get through to Ivan Vorpatril. Before he could even open his mouth Ivan snapped at him. He sounded frantic.
“Not now, By. Raine is missing.”
He had to be quick before he cut the com, but he managed to get Ivan’s attention. “Ivan? I’ve got them. They’re both safe. Where are you?”
“By? You’ve got Raine, and Ekaterin?” There was muffled shouting on the other end of the com. Ivan came back to him at last. “They’re safe? You’re sure?”
It took a while to convince Ivan, and it only worked when he gave the com to Raine to talk to him. By finally worked out from what he could hear that Ivan was locked down at Vorkosigan House, but Miles was missing. He dismissed that. Miles would be raising all hell wherever he was. And now that Aral and Cordelia Vorkosigan knew where they were, it wouldn’t take the pair of them long to get them out of here. He heard Countess Vorkosigan talking.
“Bring them back to Vorkosigan House, Byerly. We’ll send an air car.”
They had some more sitting around to do before General Allegre strode back to talk to them.
“Vorrutyer. I’ll need you to accompany me to headquarters for questioning.”
What? By opened his mouth to protest, but Ekaterin beat him to it.
“General Allegre, Byerly has just saved both of our lives! He’s an absolute hero. He deserves a commendation, not an inquisition. Countess Vorkosigan has requested him to escort us back to Vorkosigan House to report to the count. I’m sure you’ll be able to reach him there. We’d like to get back as soon as possible and we simply can’t go without Byerly.”
The general blinked in astonishment at the unexpected opposition. He opened his mouth to reply but changed his mind before the sound came out. With another blink he masked his expression and instead looked By directly in the eye.
“You will wait for me at Vorkosigan House, Vorrutyer. I have several other people to debrief and Madame Vorsoisson is obviously more comfortable with your escort. Do not make me come looking for you anywhere else. Is that understood?”
He could have kissed Ekaterin’s feet. She’d saved him from god knew what at ImpSec HQ. Fast-penta, at the very least. He really hated fast-penta. “Of course, General. I wouldn’t dream of it. My word as Vorrutyer.”
By collapsed into a chair when the general left. He held his head in his hands.
“Oh, god. ImpSec!” He looked up again to see Ekaterin with a twinkle in her eye.
“Thou lily-livered boy! And after what you just did, too!”
He swiped the back of his hand across his brow in a theatrical gesture, but it was only half acting. General Allegre really had scared him. He could see his hands shaking again. “Unnatural deeds breed unnatural troubles. And of all the unnatural troubles I can think of, an ImpSec interview has to be at the top of the list.”
Ekaterin was having none of it. “Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold. Buck up, By, here comes a sergeant looking very official. I think he’s our fairy godfather come to wave his magic wand and transport us back home.”
The air car ride was very swift, barely a hop and a jump before they landed just behind the count’s ground car, still parked under the porte-cochère at Vorkosigan House. Two armsmen hurried out to escort them inside, first Ekaterin and then Raine. By, acutely conscious of his dishevelled state, followed behind. This wasn’t the way he wanted to come to Aral Vorkosigan’s attention. There was no escape, though. While a frantic Ivan grabbed Raine and Countess Vorkosigan enveloped Ekaterin in a hug, the count sought him out to wring his hand.
“Thank you, Vorrutyer. This is very good of you. We’re in your debt.”
When they were taken through to the library By homed in on the drinks trolley. One of the liveried armsmen handed him a glass of wine and stood with the bottle ready for a refill. By downed the first glass and had it topped up before he turned around. He must look an absolute wreck, but the ladies were no better. Ekaterin’s hair had fallen down her back and Raine’s beautiful Komarran-style suit looked dusty and unkempt. He tried to straighten his hair, at least, but there was a jagged gap in the front where he normally swept it off to one side of his forehead. The reminder upset him all over again.
Once his initial frenzied relief died down and he could bear to part from Raine, Ivan Vorpatril came over to shake his hand. Not for the last time, By suspected, he told the story of what had happened. They were still talking about it when the door opened and Miles Vorkosigan erupted into the room.
Miles’s short stature and wiry-to-the-point-of-thinness frame never made the impact his personality did. His grey eyes blazed with anger and concern in his deathly pale face. Ekaterin had to put up with him checking her all over again. He didn’t listen to a word she said until he found the bruise and cold pack on her arm.
“What’s this? That looks like finger marks! Who did that? What happened?”
He whirled in a blaze of fury to glower at them all.
“Guilty, your honour.” By put his hand up. “It seemed like a good idea to get her behind some cover as quickly as I could. I’m sorry I was rough.”
Ekaterin squashed her firecracker fiancé at last. “Miles! I’ve been trying to tell you!” Her version of the story was very similar to By’s. She finished off with a suggestion. “He wouldn’t let us up for ages. You really should thank him, you know.”
Shit! Before he could move By felt himself hauled downwards and enveloped in a huge hug. Miles bounced around like a pea on a drum, back to Ekaterin again. It was exhausting just watching him. It would be nice to sit down round about now. Aral Vorkosigan did his best to calm his son down, but that idiot Ivan Vorpatril had to open his mouth again, just when he thought the attention had been diverted.
“Just what were you doing at Shoko’s? That’s not the sort of place you usually hang out.”
What did he think he’d been doing, the moron? Ivan really needed to learn not to put his foot in it like that. By flicked a quick glance at Miles, devoutly hoping he was a lot quicker on the uptake that his cousin. Ivan realised what he’d done just in time and tried to cover up.
“You went for the gossip, not the coffee, obviously.”
Countess Vorkosigan intervened to smooth over the need for a reply.
“Why don’t I take Raine and Ekaterin to get cleaned up? Miles, perhaps you can show By where he can do the same? Pym can help, I’m sure.”
Just what he wanted, an inquisition session with Miles Vorkosigan, but he’d already had one of those, after all, when Dono had had his brush with that vibraknife. His conscience was clear, for once. By let himself be led off, the ubiquitous Pym as escort. Today had not gone as planned, and he still had the joys of General Allegre to come. He muttered to himself as they climbed the stairs.
“I’m seriously getting too old for this shit.”
Pym disappeared ahead of them as they reached the top of the stairs and returned to what must be Miles’s apartments with a robe and a grooming kit.
“I’ll do what I can with your suit, sir, if you would like to clean up.”
There was a fairly austere bathroom leading off the bedchamber. By extricated himself from his shape-hugging tunic and trousers. He had to take his boots off first, of course, and Pym collected those as well before he disappeared. After a quick wash By sat in front of a dressing table and looked in dismay at his hair. Miles Vorkosigan caught the significance of the missing chunk quite quickly. He whistled.
“It really was a close shave, wasn’t it, By?”
“You have no idea. That needler spray would have missed Ekaterin, though. I actually ended up pulling her towards it, but down. Not that I meant to. It was closer to—” He stopped suddenly. His gaze, looking into the mirror, met that of the Lord Auditor’s. The calculating expression in the grey eyes deepened. Miles finished his sentence for him.
“Raine. It was closer to Raine.”
“Or Count and Countess Vorbataille. They were right behind her. The count wasn’t quite quick enough to pull his lady away in time. The needler caught her arm and shredded the grape vine behind her.”
“Hmm. Maybe.” He didn’t sound convinced. “Can you remember what he said?”
“I honestly can’t and I don’t think fast-penta would help my recollection. I was too busy shouting myself. All I head was something about Barrayar.”
“Guy will get it from the other witnesses. You reckon it was a Vorbataille armsman who took him out?”
“It’s hard to mistake that grey and green. It’s such a vile shade. I’d call it viridian, myself, wouldn’t you?” He tried to resort to his usual glib tone, but it didn’t come out like that at all. He needed to work on that, when he wasn’t quite so freaked out.
“No, I wouldn’t.” Miles didn’t deal in aesthetics, obviously. “Did any of it look staged?”
“Hell, no. He’d worked himself up to it, which is what tipped me off. He was sweating like a pig and his breath was jerky, you know, like he’d been running, only he hadn’t been. I’d seen him about two minutes earlier, walking the other way.”
By took a comb from the set Pym had given him and tried to disguise the short ends.
“Here. Let me.” Miles took the comb from him and picked up a pair of scissors.
By reared back in alarm. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Vorkosigan? You’re not going to touch my hair.”
Miles pushed him back into the seat. “Just a spot of grading. Watch. Pym showed me how, one time.”
“Pym? He’s had a military buzz for thirty five years at least. What would he know about fashion?”
Miles did a neat trick with his fingers and By slumped back into his seat. “Ow!”
“Sit still. This won’t hurt a bit.” With the comb on an angle Miles snipped away and feathered the edges of the longer sections, disguising the chunk missing from By's side-swept fringe. It actually didn’t look too bad when he’d finished. There was nothing he could do about it being short, of course.
“See? Perfect. Here’s Pym back with your clothes.”
The armsman nodded approval at the result. “You missed your calling, my lord. Vorrutyer’s quite the picture of tonsorial elegance. Don’t you think so, sir?”
By glared at Pym in the mirror. “Tonsorial—” he stopped. He’d caught the gleam in Pym’s eye. The armsman was having some fun at his expense. “Quite so.” He stood and held out his hands for his suit. “Thank you very much for the help, Pym. I really appreciate it. It just doesn’t do to appear in public quite so…disarranged. Not until nearly dawn, anyway.”
Pym sank to one knee. “Allow me, sir.” He held out the trousers for By to step into, then waited with the tunic while he fastened them up. He eased the sleeves up to his shoulders and smoothed the fabric over his back.
“Not a wrinkle to be seen.”
There was something to be said for having a valet. By’s boots looked miraculously restored to good order; he’d feared the scuffs on the toes were going to prove fatal when he’d first noticed them. His thanks as Pym slid them on were a shade more fervent this time. New boots would have been an expense he really couldn’t afford. Not from where he usually bought them, anyway.
Miles interrupted them. “Let’s get back downstairs. There might have been more news come in.”
It only took the vaguest of suggestions, like hovering near the drinks trolley with a hopeful look on his face for Miles to take the hint and pour another drink. By stood to one side and watched as Miles summed up Aral Vorkosigan’s stance with Ivan Vorpatril, cast his mind back for clues and rapidly come to same conclusion they had upstairs, that it had been Raine Vorfolse who’d been in danger. It was fascinating to watch him at work. There was a no-question genius hidden in that short body.
General Allegre, some time later, wasn’t quite so fascinating. By tried to escape his obvious disapproval but the count called him back. It was a shock to think the great man thought he could help with anything, but being a part of the inner circle was too much of an honour to pass up, even if he could never gossip about it. He could do some leg work for them, perhaps. He was good at that.
It was a horrible shock, later, to be forced to sit beside Countess Vorkosigan at dinner. Even the unheard of treat of a Ma Kosti dinner didn’t quite make up for it. He’d rather face General Allegre any day. Hell, he’d rather face a lunatic with a needler gun. He’d managed to do that and come out with credit. He could do this.