Barrayarans. Cordelia looked at herself. Hair tied back neutrally, genderless uniform revealing little. Perhaps she could get out of this without being subject to Barrayaran sexual violence. Or was it Barrayarans who believed in sexual initiation of young men by older ones ... no, that was some other backwater planet. Everyone was heterosexual on Barrayar, or pretended to be. And their military was all male.
"Commander Naismith of the Betan Astronomical Survey," she said, deepening her voice and squaring her shoulders. "We are a scientific party. Non-combatants."
The Barrayaran officer introduced himself in turn. "Sir," he said, "you are my prisoner."
The Betan commander was stunning. Aral watched him as he laboured to dig a grave for his dead comrade. No Barrayaran officer could have shown more loyalty to his fellow soldiers. And though his shoulders were slim and his waist narrow, he was working relentlessly. Sweat beaded his high forehead and streaked into his reddish hair. Normally, Aral would have considered it an insult to offer to help a man with such a task, but Naismith had been stunned and concussed not long ago. And he was Betan, and they did things differently there. Perhaps he'd accept a friendly gesture.
Vorkosigan looked over his shoulder and smiled broadly at her, and Cordelia's heart turned over. Her initial fears, she was beginning to realise, had been groundless: Vorkosigan had treated her and Dubauer with respectful courtesy and consideration, even to the point of risking his own safety for theirs. She was tempted to reveal herself, but held back; she'd been wrong about people before. But his smile, the sudden warming of his stern features, the way his eyes crinkled and gleamed... that smile made her wish most strongly that he'd been giving it to her, not to an imaginary Betan man.
Aral wasn't sure whether it was his rising fever or Commander Naismith's distracting presence that was making his head spin more. Naismith was competent, intelligent, attractive and a man of obvious and profound honour. Some chances only came once.
"On Beta," he said at last, "is it true that a man can take any partner he desires? Woman or, or ... man?"
Naismith looked up from wrapping a blanket around Dubauer. "Of course," he said absently. Then he looked at Aral, and Aral saw comprehension dawning in his eyes. It took all Aral's courage to reach out a hand to him.
Cordelia understood Vorkosigan's meaning all too clearly, and her heart sank. This would be awkward. "I'm sorry."
She pulled her hair from its utilitarian ponytail and let it swing around her face, shrugged off the fatigue jacket. "I have placed you in a most unfortunate situation," she said. "My name is Commander Cordelia Naismith. I was afraid, when I was captured by Barrayarans..."
She could see his eyes taking it in: her fine jaw, her wide hips, the breasts now revealed, and a mask fell over his face.
"I understand," he said mechanically. "You need fear nothing from me, madam."
A woman. Naismith was a woman. The past three days flashed through Aral's head, every word Naismith had spoken, every act he--she--had done. He understood her fears all too clearly, imagining what use half the officers he'd known would have made of a female prisoner.
A woman... and an officer. He looked at her soldierly bearing, even without the jacket, at the way she had half an eye on their surroundings even as she watched his reaction, her quiet strength.
Possibilities began to blossom in his mind.
"Perhaps," he said, offering her a hesitant smile, "we should begin again, Commander."