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DECISIONS

Perhaps a week after 'Heat Wave'

Gregor Vorbarra sat perched on his stool like a thin, brooding raven in the precise, temperature-controlled oasis of his office, Imperial chin propped on an Imperial fist attached to an Imperial arm whose elbow rested in turn on a raised Imperial knee, and contemplated the silent images scrolling across the vid-plate before him. There was no sound, but then he didn't need sound to hear the squeals, the pleas, the hoarse cries, the whimpers, the gasps, and finally, and most tellingly, the silences... He remembered them all, and his memory was more than happy to fill in the blanks.

When the tape rolled to the end and the screen was filled with snow, he reached out, pressed the rewind button, and waited, thinking pensively. Pressed play. Watched again, coolly, dispassionately and analytically as the figure on the palatial bed arched and twisted in its bonds, screaming out its agony under the not-so-tender ministrations of its torturer. At one point, he extended one long, pale finger and pressed pause. Cocked his head and narrowed his eyes. Pressed play. Pressed pause. Pressed fast forward. Pressed play again. Leaned forward, turned up the volume just for a brief moment, in time to hear the one word break from the agonized victim's lips.

There was a soft knock at the door. Gregor Vorbarra sighed.

"Yes, Kevi."

"Simon Illyan, Sire."

Gregor reached out and pressed pause. "Send him in." The door swung open, and the short, slight figure of the Chief of ImpSec appeared, bowing deferentially.

"Sire," Illyan said.

"Good morning, Simon." Gregor waved him in. "What's up?"

"I have the medical reports you requested," Illyan said, and held out a stack of disks and flimsies. "From Lily Durona. On the last of the..." He paused, and his lips rippled in distaste. "Experimental cross-breeds developed in Ryoval's hothouses.The few that were left after Fell cleaned out the laboratories anyway; he sent them to her to see what could be done for them."

"Are any of them actually still alive?" Gregor asked as he took the pile, set the disks aside, and began to flip through the first report. Illyan grimaced.

"Oh yes," he said bleakly. "Though if you read the final analyses..." His voice trailed off. Gregor opened the folder at the bottom of the stack and flipped to the last page. Sighed and pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose.

"They were all Barrayaran subjects," he said. "At least originally?"

"Yes. The scans were capable of discerning that much, at least. The few common racial genetic markers that the Duronas pinpointed are quite distinctive, though the victims' specific DNA patterns were too scrambled to identify them as individuals."

"Dental records? Fingerprints? Anything?"

"Ryoval's people were quite thorough."

"Christ."

"Christ," the other man observed bleakly, "has not visited Jackson's Whole in quite some time, Sire. The disks there will confirm that, I think."

Gregor Vorbarra exhaled.

"We shall review the material," he said. "Thoroughly, We assure you. And We shall send Lily Durona Our decision within twenty-four hours." Illyan inclined his head.

"I'm sorry, Gregor," he said softly, after a moment. Gregor closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose again while he thought hard and rapidly on all of his several current dilemmas, their mutual common denominators and the potential consequences of experimenting with New and Improved Imperial Math. Finally, he pursed his slim lips in cool decision.

"Kevi," he said abruptly.

"Yes, Sire?"

"Cancel the rest of my appointments for the day. I don't care what it takes or who you offend; I want my schedule cleared and I don't want to be interrupted till dawn tomorrow for anything short of interplanetary war."

"Yes, Sire."

Illyan looked at him, and his face was grey. "Is there anything I can do, Gregor?" he asked.

"Yes." Gregor straightened the pile of flimsies neatly and precisely and swung to his feet. "Two things. Get Cordelia Vorkosigan on the line and tell her that We Request and Require her presence in Our personal apartments as soon as possible. And make sure Vorvolk's office is offline tonight. All night."

Illyan bowed silently and retreated. It was, the Emperor reflected, a mark of the extent of his security chief's personal levels of perturbed distress that he didn't even offer a token moue of disapproval at the last order. The door closed softly, and the Imperial fingers tapped on the desk, on the piles of flimsies and disks, once, twice. His eyes turned back to the frozen image on the vid-plate. The small round figure on the bed was caught, face distorted in unspeakable agony in the moment before he would crumple into blessed unconsciousness. The man leaning over him was holding a standard military issue shock-stick, and had it rammed and twisted so far up his bowels as to almost disappear. Gregor didn't have to press the 'zoom' button to know that the switch on the barely visible handle was powered to maximum. He sat down again and brooded for a long moment before pressing play. The man holding the shock-stick retreated as his victim collapsed into an inert pile of quivering, senseless flesh, and turned his back on him... The last thing Gregor saw before the tape ended once again was his own face staring back at him blandly as it looked up to smile at the camera, carefully hidden in the pot-plant next to the armchair.  A knock sounded again.

"Yes, Kevi."

"Countess Vorkosigan is on her way, Sire."

"Thank you." Gregor reached out and pressed one last button. There was a soft whirring sound as the com-console asked for confirmation of its order. He pressed the button again. After another moment, the now-empty vid-disk popped out from the drive, and he tucked it neatly in his pocket. Picked up the stack of flimsies and med-disks, and headed for the door, his personal armsmen falling into step behind him as he switched off the light.

 


 

 

Vorkosigan House

7.00 pm

Dinner at the ranch was a mere two-person affair tonight; Miles, recently declared hale, hearty and completely recovered from his recent joust with his own mortality, had left on his latest mission to rescue Lord Vormanoftheday from the pits of whatever passed for hell these days, and the Count was off somewhere Avoiding the soft, lingering over-ripe fruit-of-his-loins-by- technological-proxy as only he could. Mark knew this perfectly well and was not remotely offended by the fact; quite the contrary really... He had real hope that he and his father might actually be able to sit in the same room for more than fifteen minutes at a stretch soon before one or the other of them panicked and ran for cover, but he was also extremely aware of the fact that Aral's tolerance for the sight of Gorge in action was probably more than he would ever be able to reasonably expect. In the meantime, though, he was quite content with the company he was keeping; the Countess-his-Mother, and a huge bowl of thick, savory, obscenely flavorful onion soup heavily laced with the finest imported Terran swiss, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses and dense, fresh, buttery garlic croutons à la Ma Kosti.

"I saw Gregor today."

Mark looked up from around a mouthful of delectably gooey cheese, startled, and almost choked on a crouton. His mother had put her spoon down and was regarding him with that cool, analytical look in her eyes that he had come to recognize, dread, and adore. He swallowed convulsively and wiped a stray string of mozzarella off of his second chin.

"Oh?" Cautiously, casually, trying desperately not to sound overly interested while yet politely intrigued. Didhementionmedidhementionmedidhehuhhuhhuh?

"He sent you a note," Cordelia said calmly, and reaching into her bolero pocket, produced an elegant, extremely official looking envelope sealed emphatically with red wax and the Vorbarra coat of arms. Mark stared at it for a long moment and put his own spoon down carefully. He did not, however, reach out to take the letter. His mother continued to hold it out patiently, waiting.

"It's very official looking," he ventured. Cordelia eyed him, then examined the parchment.

"It is," she agreed. "And he addressed it himself, see?" She turned it around so that he could see his name embossed on the front; Lord Mark Pierre Vorkosigan and Friends, penned in that neat, precise, eminently Gregor-y handwriting. Lord Mark Pierre Vorkosigan stared at it some more, his eyes fixed on the last two words, and then his hands, quite independent of his brain, crept away from the tabletop to huddle together in his lap like two very small, quiet and terrorized mice. Somewhere deep inside the coal-mines of his psyche (or the pit of his stomach; the two were one and the same, really) the Black Gang looked around at each other, wide-eyed.

What the hell is this? Killer hissed. Which one of you rat-bastards fucked up so badly as to rate us... That? ! He's not even supposed to know we exist!

"Are you going to take the letter, Mark?" his mother inquired pleasantly. "Gregor spent quite some time on it, you know. I sat there and watched him write it; he must have gone through six or seven drafts before he got the wording right."

"I don't wanna," Mark said in a small voice before he could prevent himself. Cordelia sighed.

"He's had a rough day, Mark," she said gently. "I don't suggest you make it any worse." Mark's head jerked back.

"What?"

What ?" Howl said in alarm. What's that supposed to mean ?!

Jesus god , Killer said, and flopped back, eyes closed in resignation. Gorge, you asshole .

Hey! Gorge said, injured. What are you yelling at me for? I didn't do anything ! He likes me, remember? I make him happy!

I make him happy, Grunt said sourly, his characteristic bashfulness somewhat subdued in the face of that perfect, precise penmanship. You're just there to mop up.

And he does it very well, Killer snarked . He's a one sub-personality cleaning crew, our Gorge; have you looked at the results of his efforts lately?  Gorge, Howl and Grunt looked around the pit of their present environment. It was, they noted, somewhat more... spacious... than it had been the last time they'd had caused to check, though the strings of cheese and the floating croutons took up quite a remarkable amount of space.

He said he likes us plump , Gorge said plaintively. You all heard him!  

Plump, Killer said, is all fine and well, but that's not going to do us any damn good NOW, is it? Do you KNOW how hard it is to work around your attempts at ingratiation, you... you...

Killer! Grunt said, scandalized. What the hell are you saying?

There was a long, pregnant pause.

I'm scared, Gorge said in a small voice. Lord Mark reached out slowly, carefully, and took the envelope with one pale, plump, stubby hand.

"Do you know what it says?" he asked his mother softly. She looked at him gravely.

"I don't read other people’s mail, Mark," she said. "What do you take me for, ImpSec?" He hesitated, quite aware of the fact that she had not, when all was said and done, answered the question. He decided, all things considered, that it was probably best not to press the matter.

"Just how bad was his day, Mother?" he asked in a small voice, and he didn't even realize that he'd used the honorific for the first time since he'd begged her to help him recover Miles from beyond the veil of death itself. She just looked past him, her grey eyes wintry and remote, and got to her feet.

"Barrayarans," she said, half to herself, and shook her head as she headed towards the lift tube. He stared after her, terrified, tongue-tied, stunned by the galaxy's worth of pain and sorrow in her voice. At the anger, at the rage, at the sheer desolation .

Open the goddamn letter , Killer said roughly. Just get it over with .

Lord Mark broke the seal and extracted the paper. Unfolded it with shaking fingers.

Gentlemen,

We Request and Require your presence tonight. A car will pick you up at eight.

The envelope bore the Vorbarra seal. The imprint at the bottom of the page, however, was that of the Emperor of Barrayar, and the reddish-brown thumbprint was very definitely not ink. Mark set the letter down carefully, note paper and envelope both, and began, very quietly, to tremble.

 


 

 

Count Vorvolk's Office

8.17 p.m.

For the first time since their first session, Gregor was not there before him. Mark looked around the small dungeon cell uncertainly, unsure of what to do next. The pillow was there, a was a fresh clean blanket, and Gregor's toolbox (it actually was a toolbox, standard ImpMil issue and a leftover from his one year in orbital duty) was prominently displayed on the elegant, delicate wooden desk. It was locked, as per usual, and there was no note anywhere. Something was different though, and it took him a moment or two to realize what it is. The barred flap on the door, the covered peephole with the bolted-over shade, was gone. In fact...

Lord Mark's brow wrinkled. The door itself was different. It took him another moment to realize the particulars. There was no door handle. There was only a read-card slot, and now that he thought on it, the door had been open when he entered... It was not open now; his escort had closed it quite firmly behind him.

Oh dear.

There was nothing else but for it. He stripped down, folded his clothes neatly and placed them in their accustomed corner, knelt awkwardly on the cold stone floor, thighs spread, head bowed, hands laced loosely behind his back as he faced the door, and waited.

________________________________________________________________________

 

Midnight

killer paces restlessly, nervously, chewing on his fingernails, and gorge eyes him resentfully. leave some for the rest of us, he complains, it's been a long time since dinner and who knows how long we'll be here? his toolbox is here, howl reminds him, that must mean he intends to show up eventually; grunt is too cold and numb to add anything to the conversation and simply sits in a souring, curdling puddle of onion soup and weeps. what are you sniveling about, killer says irritably, but grunt doesn't know, he just knows that something is terribly terribly wrong and that somewhere, something has happened that has changed everything, and that nothing (never mind that 'nothing' is something that had barely begun) will ever be the same again. barrayarans , the countess-their-mother had said, but it had not been a curse this time, it had been a prayer and what in mark's name could be so bad that cordelia vorkosigan would weep for a planet that eats her and her husband and her sons every day? killer stops and stares down at him and takes his fat pale hands, it'll be alright grunt, he says, it'll be alright, and grunt shakes his head, and so do gorge and howl. he knows we're here , killer, someone says, and no one knows quite who, maybe all of them, it's possible, oh dear lord mark in haven yes, anything is possible now, and who told him we're here anyway, no one is ever supposed to know that we're anything but sheerly metaphorical, that was the Deal. elena knows; maybe it was elena, killer says, trying to think rationally now, as killer does, but howl shakes his head again. elena wouldn't tell him that, he says with certainty, not even if he requested and required it. she knows what it's like to have monsters inside you, oh yes she does, and there are some things that any child raised in the dark and glorious shadow of cordelia vorkosigan's god would know better than to drag out from under the bed into the light of day. the same cannot be said for cordelia vorkosigan herself, however, and the entire black gang sighs sadly. it doesn't take an impsec analyst, civilian or otherwise, to follow that little trail of crunchy buttery garlic croutons to its inevitable little wooden hut on chicken-leg stilts, oh no. all hail the betan baba-witch and her mutie babies, every single sorry one, though if she wants grandchildren she's just going to have to talk to Miles or  Naismith... barrayar may eat its children, but it would have a hell of a time wresting them away from gorge, and there're simply not enough bunks in the coal-mines for anyone else right now anyway.

"Lord Mark."

Mark raised his head slowly, and blinked owlishly. His neck was stiff and aching to the point of near-paralysis; his knees had long since stopped screaming or even whimpering for that matter, and his flesh was gray, numb, papery, and pimpled with chill. He did not know how long he had been kneeling there, and it was past mattering. Gregor stood before him, strong, slender hands in his pockets, looking down at him with an impassive and completely neutral expression.

"Yours to command, Sire," Mark rasped, and shook as he coughed violently from the effort of releasing the vowels through his parched throat. He coughed so long and hard and violently that he knocked himself off balance and fell heavily and painfully on his side; when he recovered, he pushed himself back up slowly and resumed his former position. Gregor had not moved. Mark waited, and after a minute or two, the Emperor went over to the toolbox on the desk and unlocked it. Howl tried to peek out of the corner of Mark's eye (more out of habit than anything else) but the other three grabbed him and pinned him down.

Behave , Gorge hissed. We want to make a good impression; it's the first time we're meeting him after all!  Then Gregor was standing before them again, and he hunkered down and lifted Lord Mark's chin with a long finger.

"So," the Emperor of Barrayar said softly. "Is everyone present and accounted for?" Mark nodded once, dreamily.

"I'm sure you're all wondering why I've chosen to host this little party here tonight instead of in the rather more comfortable environs you enjoyed last time?" Mark shook his head, once, still dreamily.

"No?" Gregor pinched the flabby flesh on his chin cruelly, and followed it up with a resounding double slap across each side of his loose ball of a belly. Gorge moaned in agonized shame (he doesn't like me any more, I knew it, I knew it, nobody likes me) even as Howl gasped in shock, pressing back, knowing instinctively that that wasn't even a shadow of an invitation. "Explain."

"It's your decision, Sire," Lord Mark whispered.

"Indeed." Another viciously hard and uncompromising slap, this one across the face, and Mark knew he would have to come up with a pretty damn good excuse for the livid bruise that was sure to result from that one. Everyone looked at each other, stunned, bewildered.

He's not happy with us , Grunt ventured. It was a question, not a statement. No shit , Killer said blackly, and picked himself up from where he'd fallen (that last slap, they all knew, had been directed straight at him; the look of cool challenge in Gregor's hazel eyes had been... blatant) as he straightened his metaphorical tie. Gorge and Howl tussled briefly and fiercely for the privilege of chewing Lord Mark's lip; Grunt poked them. Cut it out, he hisses . He doesn't like it when we do that ! They immediately desisted.

"Bed," Gregor said icily. "Now." Lord Mark fell forward heavily and clumsily on his numb hands and hauled himself painful inch by painful inch over to the metal bunk; gasping as he pulled himself up and settled gingerly and awkwardly on his back. The Emperor came over, crossed his arms and stared down at him impassively before reaching into his back pocket and pulling out a tiny, obviously specially crafted shock-stick, ( ooh, new toy?! lemmeseelemme see, Killer said excitedly, in spite of everything) that he promptly powered up and jammed without notice, warning or change of expression right against that most tender of places; the little spot right under the head of Mark's cock.

"Now. We're going to talk," the Emperor said pleasantly after a suitably unprecedented interval during which a bewildered Howl nearly split himself in two trying to reconcile obvious duty with pleasure. Grunt was now hiding shamelessly somewhere behind a rapidly dissolving crouton; he was fairly sure that that was a 'Hey boy, how ya doin,' imperially and sadistically speaking, but he wasn't  stupid enough to wave back. "We think it's time, don't you?" The dazed Black Gang (Lord Mark, twitching, convulsing and caught up in one long endless aftershock, was so far beyond coherent thought they didn't even bother consulting him) had an (extremely) quick, low and hurried conversation before coming to a consensus on how best to answer that one.

"If you say so, Sire." Obediently. It came out as a bubbly kind of keening moan, but it was an eminently fervent and assenting moan, and Gregor nodded coolly as he reached into his pocket again and pulled out a small vial.

"We understand," he said, "that you're at a little loss for words right now, but We appreciate knowing that you're at least aware of Us, Lord Mark," and he pried open the dark, opaque eyes one after the other and squeezed in a single drop per. "A special little concoction of Our own," he said conversationally; "We did so enjoy Our chemistry set as a lad," and Howl promptly abandoned all dignity and sense of protocol, tried (and failed) to throw himself at Gregor's shiny booted feet and declared his undying love in loud, maudlin and extremely embarrassing terms that made everyone around him cringe in thankfulness for the fact that The Tongue didn't work properly because they were pretty damn sure that there was a proposal of marriage in there, and this was definitely not the appropriate moment. Gregor just screwed the cap back on the vial, tucked it back in his pockets along with his hands, and looked down with mild and judicious interest.

"It won't blind you," he said affably after a minute or so. "It'll just ensure that you won't be able to close your eyes for more than the length of time it takes you to blink for the next couple of hours." He hunkered down and... kissed Lord Mark's nose ?!?!  before going to retrieve his chair and toolbox, and settling down beside the bed.

Oh dear, Mark thought hazily as the sharp sting of the hypo of synergine processed. He's gone from pissed to whimsical. I'm confused.

"Y'rs t' c'man' Si'," he said dizzily, and twitched. Gregor leaned over and rubbed his quivering belly soothingly, right over the livid red handprints, and followed it up with, of all things, a gentle but definite raspberry... Gorge promptly threw himself down right along Howl and timidly suggested that a nice rich crimson blood-red ink would look ever so lovely on the wedding invitations, what do you think, Sire, and Grunt and Killer looked at each other in dismay.

Be strong, man, Killer said firmly. He's gone certifiably insane, and it's up to us to mind the fort. Gregor reached out and stroked Lord Mark's cock softly, skillfully, tenderly even. Mark moaned.

Screw you, man, Grunt said; you're on your own, and Killer sighed, threw up his hands, and tried again for a peek at the cute little shock-stick in Gregor's back pocket.

 


 

Eventually the synergine took full effect, and after several futile efforts, Lord Mark managed to hotwire the connectors between his speech centers and tongue once again. Gregor sat back and watched, eating an apple that he'd retrieved from his toolbox and making no move to say anything further until the process was complete.

"Yours to command, Sire," Mark said finally, carefully. Gregor put his apple core down and leaned forward.

"Are you?" he asked, with that intent and serious look on his face. "Are you really, Lord Mark?"

Mark blinked. Once.

"Beg pardon?"

"I want you to understand something, Mark," Gregor said after a moment. "I'm not angry with you – if I was, you wouldn't be here – but I must say that upon reviewing our last session, I was less than pleased."

"What?" Mark looked at him, shocked. "Wh'... what'd I do wrong?" Gregor looked down at him for a moment.

"You said 'no' to me," he said quietly. "Right before you passed out. Why is that, Lord Mark?"

"I sa'... Wha?" Blankly, slurring again from sheer and abject horror. "I didn'!" He looked up, wide grey eyes black and bloodshot and dilated, and digested the sober, solemn expression on the Emperor's face.

"I did?" he said in a small voice. Gregor nodded. Once.

"You did," he said quietly again. "Or one of you did. We cannot continue on like this, Lord Mark, unless We are assured that we have the full and complete consent of all parties concerned." He held up a finger as Mark began to protest wildly. "We understand that your sub-personalities are manifestations of an extremely clever and complex psychological survival mechanism on your part rather than polarized symptoms of a weakened and fragmented psyche, but the end results are the same... We cannot afford to take anything of you at face-value." He exhaled deeply and tiredly. "We are a sadist, Lord Mark, but We do try to be a conscientious man, and a decent man, and  no matter how much We might enjoy our little adventures together, We cannot allow Ourself to ignore Our responsibilities. We owe you – and yes, your parents - too much, do you understand?"

"But I do want this," Mark wailed. "And you have my consent, Sire, you must know that! I volunteered for this, remember? I asked for it, I begged for it, I..." He would have cried, but whatever Gregor put in his eyes didn't allow for it, and Gregor watched silently as he did his best to clamber to his feet and kneel. He managed to roll, jelly-like, and landed with a thud on the stone floor, untangling himself and ending, finally, half-leaning for support against the cot with his arms wrapped around Gregor's waist and his face buried in his lap, moaning. He was so upset now that he simply didn't care how inappropriate it might be. Gregor sighed and stroked his hair softly.

"Then why did you say no?" he asked gently. "Tell Us that, Lord Mark. Tell Us that, if you can."

"I don't know ," Mark wailed again, muffled. "I don't even remember saying it!"

"That's rather telling in and of itself, don't you think?"

"It's nothing," Mark said, struggling to cry. "It's nothing, Sire, it meant nothing, I'm sure. I'm yours, I'm all yours, we're all..."

He stopped cold. Gregor tilted his chin.

"Precisely, Lord Mark. We have issued invitations at several points to all of your friends, and one of you is still holding back. And until he accepts Our invitation to parlay, this – " he gestures around at Vorvolk's office, at the toolbox, at ... everything.... "Stops. We do know he's here," he added. "He is a gentleman, and would not decline Our Request."

There was a long silence.

"You don't know what you're asking," Mark said finally, in that small, muffled voice. "He's not exactly tame, Sire. And I don't trust him as far as I can throw him."

Hey! Killer said indignantly. I resent that!

Oh, shut up, Killer, Howl and Grunt said crossly. Which one of you rat-bastards fucked up so badly as to rate us this Gorge mimicked  bitterly. Nice going, asshole .

"We would like to talk to him, nevertheless," Gregor said, and his eyes went dark and absent and remote. Lord Mark sat back on his heels (carefully) and looked up.

"Sire," he said. The Emperor looked down at him.

"Yes, Lord Mark."

"The Countess said that you had a bad day," Mark said, and he didn't know what prompted it, but he was almost positive that it came from the genetic half of him with roan hair and desolate, wintry grey eyes. "Does this have something to do with.... Whatever it is that's happened?"

Gregor pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose. Stood up, removed the baby shock-stick from his pocket, removed the cap, placed the cap in his toolkit, and carefully, gently, wrapped Mark's fingers around the tiny weapon.

"What..."

"We are unarmed," he said simply, and leaned against the door, the one with the read-card only slot, and no window. "Now would be an appropriate time, if ever there was one."

Mark sighed and hauled himself to his feet. "Third time's the charm, eh?" he said wryly, and lumbered forward carefully. Gregor watched him approach and didn't move. Mark reached up, straightened the Imperial collar gently, and examined the not-toy before pressing it against the bare smooth flesh of the Imperial throat. Gregor looked down at him expressionlessly. The Black Gang watched in horrified fascination.

Lord Mark? Howl said in a tiny whisper. Lord Mark, this would be a really, really good time for you to take charge again, don't you think?

"Oh, shut up, would you?" Killer said in disgust, and abruptly tossed the shock-stick into the air. It performed a neat double spiral and landed precisely in its designated spot in the toolbox. He let go of Gregor's collar and retreated to the bed, sitting down and leaning forward, forearms braced on Lord Mark's chubby, naked knees.

"I'd just like to say," he said. "That I'm wearing a proper suit and tie under all of this completely unnecessary flab. I have fashion sense, as well as a sense of the appropriate, which is more than anyone can say for the rest of these slobs." Gregor's lips twitched.

"Indeed," he said, and strolling over to his chair as if on his way to a picnic in the park, seated himself elegantly and crossed his legs at the ankle.

"Nice boots," Killer noted. "Very sharp."

"Thank you," the Emperor said politely, and waited. Killer examined Lord Mark's fingernails for a moment.

"Look," he said at last. "Don't take it the wrong way, Sire. You're a good man. Bright. Very insightful, and extremely good at your job. But the fact is, that unlike Lord Mark and the rest of his merry schlubs, I don't get anything out of this Deal. And if there's one thing that I've learned from my experiences with Galen and Ryoval, it's that it's a very bad idea to take, or obey, potentially lethal orders without obtaining appropriate remuneration for my efforts up front." He looked down at Lord Mark's bland and blubbery body a little sadly. "I'm not a mercenary sort – at least not in the fiscal sense; that's his hobby, not mine – but it'd be nice to have a reason to crawl out from under the bed in the morning, you know? If I'm to place myself in your service, I'd really like to know what's in it for me."

Gregor nodded thoughtfully.

"We thought that might be the case," he said. "And We certainly respect that. You are a man -'"

"Sub-personality," Killer corrected. "Though not submissive personality, and don't you forget it –"

"Sub-personality," Gregor continued with aplomb, "of action."

"I'm really, really tired," Killer admitted "of being repressed. Don't you have someone that you, you know, need taking care of? For the welfare and good of the Imperium? Some random irredeemable or irritating monster, maybe, that I can slay on Your behalf and in Your name? Hell, I'd even settle for a little of your metaphorical action right now, I'm that hard up for it." He actually sounded a little wistful. Gregor snorted with laughter at that, then sobered.

"It's what I was born for," Killer said quietly. "Literally, Sire. Both times. I can't just abandon that reality, but I'm not ready – not armed – to go out and take on Bharaputra and his ilk yet. I'm willing to wait for the appropriate moment, but this..." He waved around. "I see no reason why I should expend my energy here. I am not allowed to kill, I am not allowed, even, to protect, so what else is there for me, really, but to protest?  You say, rightly, that the nature of the Deal that you would strike with Lord Mark Requires not only my consent in these matters, but my full and whole-hearted participation, and there is no part of me that can reconcile that. I wish I could," he admitted honestly. "You make him happy, and he's had precious little of that. You make him feel safe, and he's had none of that . But neither of those things are what I want or need; indeed, they inhibit my own personal development and ability to perform my ultimate function."

Gregor sat back in his chair and watched him intently as he spoke. Killer sighed.

"You protect him from me," he said quietly. "You are teaching him to control me. To... minimize my influence. And while I can appreciate those efforts, and perhaps even the long term necessity if he is to survive and thrive as his own man, Miles' explorations of his own mortality are again a venture on his part that I do not wish to emulate. Do you wonder then, that I said no?'

Gregor's booted foot swung thoughtfully, and his intent gaze was considering.

"A knight assassin," he said at last. "How intriguing."

"Tally ho," Killer agreed dolefully. "I think it's fairly clear that there'll be no impaling anyone on my lance if this state of affairs – or Affair of State as the case may be - continues, wouldn't you say, Sire?"

"Mm," was all Gregor said, and rising to his feet, went over to the desk and opened a drawer with a small, ornate iron key. Came back with a hand-held holovid reader and a read-disk. "Have a look. All of you." Killer took the proffered objects gingerly and inserted tab A in slot B. The images shimmered on the screen, and the others huddled around to look.

Ah yes, Grunt said softly after a long, endless, roan and desolate winter of an interval. This explains a great deal, doesn't it . He pointed. I remember that one.

Looks like wine and cheese are the only things that aged well in House Ryoval's cellars, Gorge said sadly. Howl simply stared in horror.

That's just not right, he said plaintively. That's just not right! They're inside out!

Eh? Everyone looked at him, puzzled.

"Well spotted, Howl," Lord Mark said softly, almost to himself. "They are indeed." Killer looked up at the Emperor bleakly. Gregor looked bleakly back. Killer buried Lord Mark's face in Lord Mark's hands for a moment and sighed raggedly.

"Be careful what you wish for, eh?" he said  resignedly, sorrowfully, and slipped to Lord Mark's knees. The Emperor took Lord Mark's stubby, trembling hands gently between his own as Killer nodded his assent.

Wake me when we get there, he said, and to Gregor. "Alright then. Though I don't know why you bothered with all this rigmarole. You could have just, you know, asked." Gregor smiled ever so slightly, and glanced at his wrist chrono.

"Your jumpship leaves in two hours, Lord Mark," he said. "The Countess sent your bag over. It's waiting upstairs." He didn't move, however, even after he released Mark's hands, and Grunt, eyes downcast, couldn't help but observe that it might prove rather embarrassing for His Imperial Majesty to roam the halls of the Residence with his soft loose black trousers tented like that.

Such a thoughtful, considerate boy, Killer said, sourly amused.

I try, Grunt said, bashfully and modestly pleased at the compliment. Gorge nodded approvingly. Go on then, he encouraged his creche-brother. You know the drill.

Mmm. Howl said dreamily. Drills.

"You've had a long day, Sire," Lord Mark said, diffidently, and shuffling back clumsily, sort of bobbed and rolled forward till his flushed, still damp cheek was resting on Gregor's boots. "Please?" he begged timidly. "May I have the completely undeserved honor of sucking your cock for you, Sire, before I go? Please?" Gregor sighed and shook his head. Reached down, grabbed a hard and vicious handful of dark hair, yanked Mark up like a drunken, wobbly yo-yo, and his hazel eyes were suddenly iron-hard and glinting with...

"You can do better than that, Lord Mark," Sire said softly, silkily. "You're an articulate man. We know."

Oh, howlgruntgorge says blissfully as he saw what came out of the toolbox next. Oh. Oh yes, oh yes oh...

Hmm, Killer said, mildly impressed from his corner. Not only a poet, but an artist as well... My goodness. And Lord Mark, bent over the bed, ample, quivering ass upthrust obscenely, articulated unabashedly as the riding crop that he fetched for Gregor from his grandfather's stables got its first workout in over ten years.

 


 

Vorkosigan House

Some days later

Lord Mark packed the small duffle carefully, sealed it, and turned to check his reflection in his bedroom mirror. His appearance was immaculate. The elegant hand-sewn black suit was sleek and exquisitely tailored, the buttery-soft black leather half-boots were shined to a blinding gloss, the white gold cufflinks engraved with the Vorkosigan emblem of mountains and maple leaf gleamed austerely at his wrists, and the signet ring that the Count-his-father had dug up for him in the weeks after his return weighed lightly on his hand. He was scrubbed, shaven, combed, brushed, gargled, rinsed and repeated, and all that remained now was the one last order of business. He picked up the duffle and descended the stairs quietly, turning along the corridor to the landing and knocking politely at the door of his mother's study.

"Come in, Mark," she said, and he entered. Cordelia was sitting on her sofa reading an old-fashioned book; the Count-his-father sat beside her, feet up and comfortably delighting in the happy benefits of retirement. A soft Komarran sonata was playing. They looked happy. Content. Tired, but content. Mark decided that he really didn't want to know.

"ImpSec will be here in fifteen minutes," he said. Aral nodded, and his gaze flickered sharply and attentively over his son.

"You look very professional," he said. "He'll appreciate that."

"I hope so," Mark said sincerely. Aral sighed.

"I still don't see why he had to send you," he muttered. Cordelia lowered her book.

"It was my choice," Mark said steadily. "He didn't Request and Require it, you know."

"I should hope not," his father muttered again. "It should have been left to the doctors." Mark sat gingerly.

"They deserved better than death at the hands of dispassionate strangers," his son said. "And I was there too." He hesitated. Aral just looked at him. Cordelia eyed them both.

"Well, never mind that now," Mark said. "They were inside out, and their release turned them right side out again." He brought his hands together as if in prayer, then let them fly up and apart, like freed birds. Cordelia smiled down at the pages of her book.

"How many?" she asked, and Mark reached into his pocket and extracted three items.

"Eight," he said. Aral reached out and took two of three objects, and after a moment, he handed one over to the Countess and offered the first back. Mark accepted it carefully, unsealed his duffle, and tucked it inside. After another minute, Cordelia did the same.

"Did the Duronas ever figure out their names?" Aral asked as Mark rose to his feet and turned to the door.

"No," Mark said, and one finger traced over the signet ring absently. "But that's alright. We'll make do."

"Vorkosigans do that," Aral agreed, and rising stiffly to his feet, grasped Mark's hand firmly. "Go, boy. Gregor is waiting for his final report."

"We're taking our air car to Vorkosigan Surleau later this evening," Cordelia said, apropos of nothing in particular. "We'll be there for a couple of days. We probably won't be here when you return."

"I'll manage," Mark said again, and bent to kiss her cheek. "Drive safe."

"We will," she said, and he left as silently as he’d come.


 

Count Vorvolk's Office

Gregor entered the room quietly and closed the door behind him, surveying the sight before him coolly and clinically. His chair had been placed beside the metal cot, the pillow and blanket were precisely placed, and his toolbox sat neatly and at the ready alongside. There was a flimsy on the desk, and a holovid, again precisely centered. The small, round man in the immaculate black suit knelt beside it, head bowed, thighs apart, eyes closed and head bent. The Emperor came over and surveyed his efforts, brushing each of the remaining items on the desk's surface with long fingers.

"We did not order this," he said, and his tone was neutral, though slightly curious and not unapproving.

"They were Barrayarans," Killer said simply.

"Indeed," Gregor said, and picked up the small, shining pair of scissors before him and began to clip off locks of his hair, adding each – eight in total – to each of the tiny brass braziers and tripods arrayed before him, to the small mounds of roan, white, black, and matching steel grey. Lily Durona had added her own offering, and surprisingly, so had Baron Fell, who'd been on Escobar visiting his sister. When he was finished, he reached out and touched the small scrap of flannel that Mark had provided as the base of each, along with the fragrant scraps of maple chips.

"The blankets from each of their hospital beds," Killer said. The Emperor nodded.

"To Us," he said, and the small man lumbered to his feet, eyes still downcast. Gregor picked up the small torch, lighted it deftly, and held out his hand. Mark placed his own in it, and together they lit each of the death offerings. The two men watched them burn silently to ashes, and when all was done, the Emperor turned and pressed lightly on Lord Mark's shoulder. He lowered himself carefully back down to his knees.

"Strip," Sire said, and Lord Mark's hands immediately flew to his collar, to his cuff-links, and awkwardly began to struggle out of his beautiful suit without actually getting up off the floor. He managed in the end, and Sire took his clothes and folded them carefully, smoothed them over the hanger that Mark had placed in his duffle along with everything else and eased the entire ensemble through one of the hanging chain loops on the wall.

"So," he said, looking down with his hands in his pockets. "Is everyone present and accounted for?"

"Yes, Sire," Lord Mark and the Black Gang chorused.

"And We're free to indulge Our whims at leisure and without due recrimination and reproach?" Oh, so dryly. Lord Mark could almost feel the dehumidifying effects in the small dungeon room intensify with each syllable.

"Yes, Sire."

"Good." Briskly, and he strode towards his toolbox, giving Lord Mark a swift and vicious and supremely affectionate kick in the balls as he passed. Howl fell over in sheer bliss; Killer hauled him up by his screaming, quite possibly cracked, nuts.

Show some discipline, boy, he snapped, grey eyes blazing. And proper respect for your betters. We are contracted to the best of the best now, and you will show due appreciation for the privilege offered, understand?

"Now," Sire said, turning with his hands overflowing. "Let's see what happens, shall We?"