"My darling Alys, you must give me some hope. You can't lead me on like this and then spurn me so cruelly."
Alys wasn't quite sure how she'd allowed Lord Vorsmythe to back her into this corner. She'd been trying to detach herself from him for the past ten minutes, and hadn't been able to prevent their course taking them further from the rest of the guests.
"I have no intention of remarrying," she said as sternly as she could. "You will make yourself ridiculous if you carry on like this."
"Ridiculous! What do you mean, ridiculous? I have excellent connections, we are of equal rank and I can easily support a wife. And I know you are not indifferent to me, darling Alys, it's ridiculous for you to play with me like this when I know--"
She'd gone wrong, she thought, when she hadn't slapped him down the first time he'd used her name without her title like that. Or perhaps it was when she'd danced with him last week, though he was one of dozens she'd danced with that night. Or perhaps... but it was folly to think like this.
He seized her hands and Alys recoiled, and started to wonder if she should press the panic button on her comm link, the one that would bring the might of ImpSec to her side in less than nine seconds, or so Captain Illyan had assured her six months ago when he'd issued it to her. But she couldn't summon ImpSec because Lord Vorsmythe wouldn't stop pestering her. Could she? It was for emergencies only. She stood frozen, and Vorsmythe began to cover her hands with kisses.
She tried to jerk backwards, but there was nowhere to go, and she couldn't reach her comm link because Vorsmythe was holding her wrists, and she was starting to hear the sizzle of nerve disruptors, drowning out the sounds from the party beyond.
"Lord Vorsmythe, you must stop this," she said, and knew it sounded feeble. "I am not going to marry you." She pulled back her hands at last and wiped them on her gown unconsciously. Vorsmythe's brows lowered, and Alys tried to edge sideways.
"How can you say such a thing? Is there someone else? But none of your other suitors can offer--" but whatever it was Vorsmythe could offer, he didn't say. Alys, her vision narrowed to his face, saw it contort with pain, then registered that someone had grabbed his right arm and bent it up behind him. She moved sharply out of the corner as Captain Illyan turned Vorsmythe away from her, apparently without effort. There were two brawny footmen a step behind, blocking the view of the rest of the room.
"Lord Vorsmythe," Illyan said very softly, "you must be drunk. I think you should go and sit down for a while. These young men will help you." Vorsmythe made an unwise attempt to struggle, and Illyan twisted his grip. Vorsmythe went limp. "And I must add that should you annoy Lady Vorpatril again, you will not find me so lenient."
He released Vorsmythe and stood between them, and Alys gazed at him in passionate relief. Vorsmythe, breathing heavily, glared at them both, then snarled, "Oh, I see how it is. You slut. He's just some prole, not even Vor, how can you--"
The ImpSec servants moved in towards Vorsmythe, and he backed away. "Unlike some of the Vor," Alys couldn't resist saying to him, "he has both courtesy and sense. Do not persist in this, Lord Vorsmythe. You will not succeed."
Captain Illyan did not move until Vorsmythe was halfway across the room. Then he turned to her. Alys was starting to tremble now, her stomach churning, but she kept her chin high. "Perhaps that will get rid of him. I wish I could make them stop."
"You have been much harried lately," Illyan agreed distantly, and Alys felt relief that he was not going to show her concern or kindness right now. She was afraid she might break down crying. "It was only chance that I happened to see him just now. Your panic button is there for a reason, my lady."
"This wasn't a security issue."
"On the contrary," he said, "ensuring that you and young Lord Ivan do not get drawn into some usurpation plot is very much a security issue. ImpSec will assist in any way we can. Call on me at will, Lady Alys." He glanced across the room after Vorsmythe. "You never know, perhaps his false inference will be of some help to you there."
Alys gave Vorsmythe the barest glance. He was still watching her, staring between her and Captain Illyan with jealous suspicion. Impulsively, Alys said, "Yes, well, in that case, Captain," and sank into his arms.
After a second's reaction that Alys thought was a stifled attempt to hurl her to the ground, some combat reflex kicking in and being overruled, he held her loosely. His arms were wiry and tense, very different from Padma's solid grasp. He drew her cautiously closer and said into her ear, "Some warning next time would be nice. I don't think Vorsmythe would find it convincing if I put you in a headlock."
"Sorry," Alys said, and for a moment she did start to cry, just three breathy sobs that made Captain Illyan stroke her back and say, "I will see to it that this does not occur again, my lady. With Vorsmythe or any of the other men pursuing you."
The low menace in his voice should not have been comforting, and his awkward grasp should not have made her feel safe, but for a moment, Alys relaxed.
Then she pulled back, and he released her instantly. "If this deters some plotters," he said, "I will play any role you wish, my lady. I hope I do not need to assure you that you will be safe with me."
At that, Alys smiled. "No," she said, "you don't. And please call me Alys."
"Why," Cordelia asked after no more than ten seconds of niceties, "have six people mentioned your affair with Captain Illyan to me this week?"
"Has it spread that fast?" Alys said innocently. "I'm impressed. I would have thought Vorsmythe would be too embarrassed to say much."
"I haven't got your grasp on Barrayaran gossip trees," Cordelia said. "I'm more curious as to whether Simon is okay with this."
"He said it might help cut down on plots."
"That's an excellent reason," Cordelia said, deadpan. "Are you going to marry him too, to really get rid of the plots?"
Alys gave Cordelia a quelling look. "You know how brutal it's been, Cordelia. If this buys me some respite, and Ivan too, then I'll get caught in Captain Illyan's arms at every party for the next three months."
"Drou would be happy to teach you how to kick them in the teeth yourself," Cordelia said. "Kou will lend you a swordstick. Aral will give you a pardon in advance, I expect. You don't have to play this sort of game."
"This works very well for me."
Cordelia's eyes narrowed. "Do you like Simon?"
"You like matchmaking," Alys retorted. "Stop. The reason I am doing this is because I have had enough of people trying to make matches for me. Captain Illyan is perfect: he's not Vor, he's known to be intensely loyal to Aral, and everyone else is afraid of him. He doesn't have a wife or partner to make things complicated. It even makes his life easier too. It's perfect. And no, of course I'm not going to marry him. Madame Illyan would not be allowed to be Gregor's social hostess. But until this dies down, I will keep up the pretense."
"Barrayarans," Cordelia muttered.
"Last night," Captain Illyan said as they met in what Alys was coming to think of as their usual corner, "an unusually incompetent assassin took aim at me and shouted something about you. This masquerade of yours seems to be developing some interesting complications."
Alys swallowed. "Are you all right?" she asked, catching hold of him by both arms and studying him intently.
Illyan raised his eyebrows. "I said he was incompetent. The only danger was that he was so obvious, my security team didn't really believe he could be the threat, assumed he was a decoy and wasted time looking around for the real assassin. Nobody was injured, not even the assassin. It was Lord Vortaine. The preliminary fast-penta interrogation confirmed that he was hoping to clear his path to your side."
"I did not," Alys said, "ever imagine that this might happen. Captain, I am so sorry--"
"I did. I just didn't think your would-be lovers would be such incompetent assassins."
Alys blinked. "I'm sorry to provide such poor sport, then." She twined her fingers in his, because people were watching. "For my part, I have to report that General Vorbretten took me aside and told me that whatever dastardly--that was the exact word he used, he's almost seventy--whatever dastardly hold you and ImpSec had over me that was forcing me into this cruel situation, he would be willing to help me get free if I would accept the protection of his hand."
"Dastardly," Illyan echoed. "At least ImpSec's reputation is still solid. I'll keep an eye on Vorbretten."
"Oh, no, look, there's Lord Vordrozda," Alys said, and pulled Illyan closer to her. He kissed her cheek, chastely, and put his head close to hers.
"I suppose I should be insulted at the notion that there's no other way I could have won you," he said. His tone was matter-of-fact, but his hands were tight around her.
"Vorbretten's a fool," she said, and put her head on his shoulder. His fingers were warm around the base of her neck, and she sighed, and closed her eyes.
Simon entered her office and Alys automatically embraced him and kissed his cheek. Simon took a step back. "There's nobody here but us," he pointed out.
"Oh. Yes. Habit, I'm afraid." She studied her supposed lover. "Is everything all right? You look--tired." Awful, in truth, hollow-eyed and far too pale. If she were really his lover, she would whisk him away from Vorbarr Sultana for a long weekend somewhere warm. They wouldn't even get out of bed.
Instead, Simon took a seat on her sofa. "It's been a busy week." He paused to consider that, then said, "Month. Six months. I'd have to check with my chip to know when I last slept in my own bed all night."
"I don't have a bed in here," she said, "but none of my gossip is urgent, and I do have a sofa. And we're supposed to spend time together. You should take advantage of that. I have letters to write."
Simon gave a weary smile. "I think I'd better. In two hours I have to face the Ministerial Commission for Departmental Funding. They aren't allowed thumbscrews any more, so they use spreadsheets instead." He lay back unceremoniously and tossed the embroidered throw blanket across himself.
"Who's on that commission? Isn't Horace Vorbataille leading it?"
Simon blinked up at her. "Yes, why?"
"Have you announced the new ImpSec training facility in Redbridge?"
"What's that got to do with anything?" He yawned and closed his eyes.
"Jobs in his father's District. They're suffering after the plascrete manufacturer moved south. Mention it in the meeting. It'll help."
"If you say so." He curled up on the sofa. After a moment he said blearily, "Thank you, my love," and fell asleep.
It was habit, of course, just as her greeting had been. Alys turned her attention sternly to her letters, but it was unaccountably difficult to find the right words. Simon tossed the blanket off in his sleep, and Alys went to spread it back over him. She knew by now how paranoid he could be when touched unexpectedly, but this time he didn't stir even when her hand brushed his cheek.
It had been a long and eventful night, and Alys was finally sitting down for the first time in hours. She heard booted steps and turned, then gave a relieved smile as she saw it was Simon. But as he approached, she sat up a little straighter. He was walking with a stiff-legged purpose that suggested something new had happened.
He did not sit down. "I've been thinking," he said. "And I finally sat down and ran the analysis. It's been over three months since any of your previous suitors have so much as looked twice at you."
"Has it?" She did not usually play the fool with him, but she could see where this was going and it wasn't something she wanted to think about right now.
"I think your scheme has worked." His tone was strangely cool. "Vorbarr Sultana has got the message: you are off-limits, when it comes to romantic attachments. There's no need for us to continue with this any longer. You can have your spare time to yourself again."
She couldn't misunderstand that. "Ah. Yes. You're quite right. And you have so many other things to deal with too. I should have mentioned this myself."
He nodded. "Indeed. Of course I will need to continue working with you over the Residence security." He seemed to be changing before her eyes, turning from a man into a machine. She wanted to reach out to him, try to halt the process, bring him back--but of course this had only ever been a security arrangement. Instead she pulled all the dignity of a High Vor lady around her shoulders like a thick, ugly shawl.
"Of course," she echoed, almost equally mechanically. "Well, thank you for all your help, Captain Illyan."
This time his nod was as jerky as a puppet's. "It was no trouble, Lady Vorpatril."
"Simon's working himself half to death, and you've been snarling at everyone who comes within range for the past two weeks," Cordelia said. "Are you going to do anything about this, or am I going to have to lock you both in a room together until you figure it out?"
"Captain Illyan can get out of any room you lock him in," Alys said impatiently. "And no, I am not going to 'do anything', because there isn't anything to do. It was just for security reasons, and it would be a distraction from my work. From everyone's work."
"An argument I would find more convincing if I wasn't the person on the receiving end of your work these days," Cordelia retorted. "I know I'm not Barrayaran and I'm a terrible trial to you, but you haven't exactly been easy to work with recently. And I mean it about Simon. I saw him after a meeting at Vorkosigan House and he looks like death warmed over, not even Aral can make him take a break. I don't think he'll listen to anyone except you."
Alys said flatly, "There's no reason Captain Illyan should listen to me."
Alys formed three solid resolutions to talk to Simon, all of which foundered on the frozen, untouchable front he presented each time she encountered him. The fourth time she encountered him was when he sprinted towards her in the Residence gardens, seized her bodily and flung her down behind a stone wall as a nerve disruptor bolt hissed above their heads. Alys managed not to scream. Simon pressed her down hard, and returned fire. There was a silence.
"I love you," Alys said in it.
"What?" Simon reached for his comm and snapped into it, "Status report, now." Then he stared at her, and she knew from the look in his eyes that he was listening to his chip's playback of her words. More than once.
More disruptor fire passed over them. She heard the tinny echo of voices speaking into Simon's earbug.
"Understood. Go ahead," he said to his men, then to her, "Do you mean that?"
"Yes." She stared up at him, slim frame silhouetted against the sky as he crouched over her. "All I've been able to think of for weeks is how much I miss you."
"Keep the perimeter stable," he said to his comm, then to her, "I didn't think I could do this, and work at the same time. I could spend time with you for work, but not for any other reason."
"You can," she observed as he listened to his earbug again, said, "No, start with Black One," and shifted position to make her more comfortable. She moved to kneel beside him, trying to untangle her skirts, and he caught her hand.
It was just a graze; she hadn't felt it until he mentioned it. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. Alys made an impatient noise, and he leaned down and kissed her on the lips instead, first dry and close-mouthed, the way they'd kissed before, then with a sudden searing hunger that had her snaking her hands around his head and pulling him down on top of her.
Of course, that was when the ImpSec rescue team arrived. "We're fine, hold back," Simon said, muffled. There was a great deal to be said for military obedience, Alys thought dimly. And she was so used to being caught in compromising situations with him, she scarcely noticed the audience, and besides, they weren't even interested in her this time.
The messages on Simon's earbug were evidently getting pressing, because after several necessarily monosyllabic answers, he had to pull back to address them fully. Alys kept her hand on his hip; he kept one hand cupped around her cheek.
"Come on," he said then, and made a commanding gesture to his men with his free hand. He helped her up and brushed dust off her skirts and bodice, or at least she thought that was what he was trying to do, but the result was that she arched her back and pulled him into another embrace. There was the most absurd smile on his face; she caught one of his guards choking back some emotion of his own that might have been incredulity or delight or horror or all three.
Less than ten minutes later, Alys was on her back in one of the many spare rooms of the Residence, and Simon had taken off his tunic but not his earbug or commlink. "Your timing," he complained to her between kisses. "Was that really the best moment?"
"I wasn't going to wait for them to take a second shot at you, just in case," she countered. "Besides, it's always like this. We have to work around it, if this is going to succeed."
He ran his hand up her leg, under her skirts, and gave another order into his comm about where to take the captured assailants. "Don't you mind?" he asked her. "I always assumed no woman would stand for me being constantly on call."
"It wasn't a problem before. And you're only going to get a fraction of my attention sometimes too," she responded. "Do you mind?"
"Watching you at work is almost as much fun," he said. His touch was both familiar and completely, delightfully new. She recognised the warmth and shape of his hands on her skin, but the intensity, the urgency, was all new. She reached for his belt buckle. They evidently didn't have much time now, and she'd been waiting long enough.
"My thoughts precisely," she said, and pulled him down on top of her, and he ignored his comm completely for almost fifteen minutes.