Byerly Vorrutyer was not a happy man. It was freezing, even for Vorbarr Sultana in the week before Winterfair. Every breath of glacial air hurt his nose and burned his throat and lungs. He turned up the collar on his greatcoat and tucked his favourite emerald green scarf more tightly round his neck and jaw and across his mouth. He’s been a fool to think he could walk in this.
This was a howling blizzard, with horizontal spikes of ice determined to penetrate every nook and cranny—down his coat sleeves, the back of his neck, even into his boots. Mother Nature had taken up arms and was firing her needlers just as fast as she could.
It was past 22.00 hours. He should have been home ages ago. The cab had dropped him at the corner, not willing to risk getting stuck in the narrow street in the Caravanserai where his apartment entrance was situated. It was only a hundred metres but it seemed more like a polar trek as he bent into the wind and struggled to keep his footing on the treacherous pavement. Sela would be there. His partner had gone to pick up groceries and return home just after lunch when they’d heard the forecast, leaving By to finish up the loose ends. The commission at Vorbretten House was done at last. René had offered him a bed for the night and he should have taken him up on it, but he’d wanted to get back to Sela. It hadn’t been one of his smarter decisions. People died in this sort of weather.
The notion had no sooner formed in By’s mind when he thought he heard a faint cry in the narrow alley off to his left. The wind ceased its shrieking for a few seconds and he heard it again, a definite call for help. No mugger in his right mind would be trying to lure a victim down an alley in this weather, surely, but desperate people did still live in the Caravanseri. He hesitated. His door was less than fifty metres away. He’d be home and dry in five minutes, maybe less.
“Shit.” He who hesitates is lost. By turned to his left and trudged down the alley to find the voice. “Hello? Who’s there?”
“Please! Please help.”
He nearly fell over a man, huddled behind a rubbish skip in a futile attempt to find shelter. There was someone else there as well, behind the frail protection of the man’s body. “What the hell are you doing here? You need to get indoors!”
“It’s my wife! She needs a doctor. Please, can you help?”
By caught sight of the woman’s face. She was white as a sheet and the tip of her nose looked blue in the feeble light of the streetlamp. Hypothermia? Something else? It didn’t matter. She needed to be out of the weather now. As he stood there the man made an effort to lift the woman up. He was trying to carry her, and he looked too exhausted to even stand up straight. By snatched the woman out of his arms before he dropped her again. She was a dead weight, and heavy. He grunted with the effort of hauling her over his shoulder.
“Hold on to my coat,” he yelled. Not waiting to see if the man did what he told him By staggered back out of the alley as quickly as he could. The ice had turned to pure snow, blinding white and disorienting in its whirling fury. His anxiety sharpened into fear as he rounded the corner and the full force of the blast hit him again. It would be so easy to lose his way, and he knew every inch of this street.
Light blazed from the lobby of his apartment block. Almost sobbing with relief By shouldered through the entrance door. Sela was there, watching for him. “Oh, Byerly, I was so worr—eek!” Sela yelped as By thrust his burden into its arms.
“Get her in the warm!” The man hadn’t followed him in. Where the hell was he? By turned to go back out. He sucked in a deep breath of air, trying to make his unwilling feet leave the shelter. He had to go now, or the stranger might blunder past the door in his confusion. He’d only taken one step forward when the door opened again and a billow of snow accompanied the man who fell half over the threshold.
“Thank the gods for that.” By’s relief left him shaking. He hadn’t had to be brave after all. Instead he leapt forward to haul the man to his feet. “Hang on, we’ll get you inside.”
Sela had already headed to the lift tube. They’d disappeared out of sight and only By and this half-frozen victim of Mother Nature’s fury were left to close the doors against the wind. By unwound his scarf and knocked the worst of the snow and ice off the both of them before it melted all over his nice clean floor upstairs.
“Come on, you need to warm up, too.” With one arm hooked over his shoulder By took most of the man’s weight and staggered off to the lift tube. It was a relief to feel the anti-grav take over and waft them upwards. It was only a momentary respite until they reached level three and they stumbled out and along the short corridor. Sela had left the door open for them. By deposited his burden on the couch and stripped off his greatcoat to wrap around him. Sela had already turned up the heating, but where was it?
There was a groan of pain from the bedroom. Sela appeared at the door. Its eyes were wide with shock. “Byerly, we’re in trouble.”
“What? What is it? Is she hurt?”
“Not hurt, pregnant, and the baby is most definitely on the way. She’s had two contractions already and we’ve only been here five minutes. I’ve started timing.”
“What?” By’s throat closed over. His immediate reaction was to panic. “She can’t have a baby here!”
Sela put its hands on its hips and gave him a look. “So, are you going to go in there and tell her that? As sure as hell is hot I’m not going to do it.”
“What are we going to do? We’re never going to get any help in this.” By waved vaguely towards the window. And to think he’d been worried about getting his floor wet! He dived for the liquor shelf and poured three shots of vodka, downing one and pouring another before he handed Sela a glass and closed the stranger’s hand round the third, helping him to drink it down. “Let me think.”
There was another groan from the bedroom. Sela glanced at his chrono. “Make that four minutes.”
“Oh, gods.” His hair was ruined already. He clutched at it, trying to think. A doctor. Where could they find a doctor? Was that where they’d been trying to go? Who the hell were these people, anyway?
“What’s your name?”
He was a young man, maybe twenty-five standard, typically Barrayaran with his dark hair and eyes and long limbs. He was wearing a service greatcoat, By realised belatedly.
“Lieutenant Osip Devidov. I don’t know how to thank you, sir.”
“Vorrutyer. Byerly Vorrutyer., and this is my partner Sela. I presume the lady is your wife?”
“Er, yes, sir. Mariya.”
“Well, Devidov, what the hell are you doing sitting on your backside? Get in there and tell her everything is going to be just fine.”
Devidov swallowed hard. “In there? Shouldn’t I go for a doctor?”
“Only if you want your child to be an orphan. It’s suicide to go out there now. You’re ready to die for the Emperor, aren’t you? Well, man up and go help your wife!”
Devidov looked like he’d rather face a Cetagandan death squad. Mariya groaned again. She was in serious pain.
“Move!” By yelled at the hapless lieutenant, who threw off By’s greatcoat and leapt into the bedroom, shedding his own coat as he went. By took a deep breath, and another, trying to think. It only took a moment to fire up the com link. He punched in the emergency code and stared in disbelief at the message that flashed up.
All emergency lightflyer services are suspended. Calls will be answered by ground personnel when conditions permit. He cut the com. That was worse than useless. They could be hours. Shitohshitohshit. What to do? He forced his stupid brain to think.
Ivan! Ivan’s father-in-law was a doctor, well used to emergencies. The network was still holding. He offered up a thankyou to the gods of communications as the call went through. It seemed like an eternity but it was only four chimes before a familiar face came into view. “Voralys House.”
“Armsman Fox! Thank god. This is an emergency. I need to talk to Admiral Waleska, and don’t you dare tell me he’s not at home!”
Fox didn’t blink. “I’m putting you through to the library comconsole now, sir. I believe all the family are there, together with Lord Auditor Vorkosigan.”
That was a bit of good news. Miles might have the clout to get them some help. Ivan answered the call but he didn’t look best pleased to see By. “Fox put this through as an emergency call. What the hell are you playing at, By?”
“It is an emergency! Admiral Waleska, is he there?”
“Oh, right.” Ivan didn’t mess about. He’d obviously caught the panic in By’s voice. He called over his shoulder. “Wally, you’re wanted. It’s By Vorrutyer, and something is badly wrong.”
Admiral Stefan Waleska (Retd) was unflappable. He appeared very quickly, though, not wasting any time. “Take a deep breath, start at the beginning, and tell me exactly what’s happened, Vorrutyer. Is the casualty breathing?”
A scream rent the air behind him. Mariya’s fortitude had deserted her at last. By could feel the blood draining from his face. “Hell, yes, she’s breathing. It’s a young woman, in labour. She was caught in the storm and I brought her here. Her husband’s with her. The emergency services are grounded. What the hell do we do?”
“Labour? A baby? The last baby I delivered was in training, forty years ago.” The unflappable admiral didn’t look quite so calm all of a sudden.
“You’re the best we’ve got, Admiral. Please help.”
Wally shook his head, focussed again. “Of course. I don’t know what I can do from here, though. How many weeks along is she?”
By shouted over his shoulder. “Sela, how many weeks?”
Sela stuck its head out of the bedroom door. “She says forty-one, and contractions are three minutes apart already. Waters haven’t broken, yet.”
By opened his mouth to relay the information but the admiral cut him off. “I heard.” The doctor thought for a moment or two. “It might be a big baby, but if it’s coming that quickly it should be a fairly straightforward procedure. Ivan and Miles are already working on getting you help. What you need to do is find something waterproof for the bed, and a pile of towels to mop up and wrap the baby once its delivered. Everything as clean as you can, of course. Just let the mother do what she wants at this stage. Come back and tell me what medical supplies you’ve got at hand. I’ll hold.”
Medical supplies? Medical supplies? One poxy first aid kit and half a bottle of vodka, that’s what medical supplies they had! By flew around his little kitchen, opening and slamming doors in his haste. He found the first aid kit and a box of disposable gloves, a bottle of hand sanitiser and a pack of paper towels. Sela had an emergency rain cape By would never let it use, he remembered, and ferreted around in the drawer on the hall stand until he found it. Another scream from the bedroom made him drop the lot and he scrabbled to pick it all up again.
This was ridiculous! He was better than this. There were clean sheets and towels in the bathroom closet. He grabbed an armful and strode into the bedroom.
“Let’s get you more comfortable, Mariya. Can you stand up for a moment?” He tossed the hand sanitiser to Sela and they rapidly stripped off the bed as Osip helped his wife to stand. With the cape spread out and clean sheets firmly tucked in over it he tried to think of something they could use for a nightgown. There was nothing except a bathrobe. That would have to do. The lieutenant could help his wife. By and Sela went back out to report to the admiral. He shook his head when he saw them.
“No luck with any help. The city is frozen to a standstill. Ivan’s still trying, but it doesn’t look good. What have you managed to find?”
“Clean sheets on the bed. Her husband’s getting her undressed. We have hand sanitiser, towels, disposable gloves and painkillers. The sort you use for hangovers.”
“Ditch the painkillers. They’ll do more harm than good. Just stay calm, keep reassuring her and let nature take its course. It’s important she doesn’t start pushing until she’s fully dilated. I don’t suppose you’d care to check?”
“You got that right.” By looked at Sela in hope.
Utterly horrified at the thought. Sela threw its hands up. “Not me. either. Perhaps Osip can do it.”
“It’s not essential. Just—” Wally broke off as there was another scream followed by a thumping crash from the bedroom.
By winced. “Yuri’s snot! What the hell’s happened now?”
Sela ducked in and ducked back out, shaking its head. “Waters have broken and the Emperor’s finest just fainted. We need you, Byerly.”
Admiral Waleska waved him away. “Just use your common sense, Vorrutyer. We know you can do it. I’ll be here if you need me. Take everything slowly, just guide the baby, don’t pull or anything like that. If the cord is round its neck you’ll need to try and ease it off. Let the blood drain from the placenta back down the cord. A doctor will need to look at it, once it’s delivered, so find something to hold it in.”
Oh, the placenta, not the baby. There was an ice bucket on the shelf next to the vodka. By grabbed it and squared his shoulders. He was Vor, and there was no-one else. Where was a Cetagandan death squad when he needed one?
Mariya lay propped up against the headboard with every pillow they had behind her. Sela had its arm around her shoulders and was busy sponging her face with a wet cloth. Swallowing hard, he took a look.
Fascination took over from his fear. “I can see the head, Mariya! Not long now. Osip, you moron. Get up, or you’re not going to see your baby being born.”
He replaced the upturned chair Devidov had knocked over when he fainted and hauled the still-groggy lieutenant up to sit on it. “Don’t you dare faint again. Put your head down if you feel yourself going.”
By couldn’t spare any more attention for the useless lieutenant. He found himself a clear pair of gloves and slapped the hand sanitiser on them to be doubly sure.
“So, what are your plans for Winterfair, Mariya? Spending it with your family? You just breathe for me, that’s right. Sela and I have been invited to Voralys House. I hope it turns out better than last Winterfair. Count Voralys asked me to play Father Frost for his little girl. Me, as Father Frost. Can you believe that? I only let him persuade me because red really suits my colouring.”
He chatted on every time she stopped pushing, keeping up a stream of funny stories and anecdotes. The gaps between contractions shortened away and it wasn’t long before the head began to crown.
“Here comes your baby, Mariya! Look, Sela. Osip, oh, for heaven’s sake, open your eyes! Aren’t you watching this?”
Mariya let out a guttural, strangled scream as the head popped clear. The cord wasn’t visible anywhere yet. By closed his eyes in silent thanks; someone was looking after them. They all held their breath as the baby turned. First one shoulder and then the other emerged.
“One last push should do it. Gently, though.” By could feel the tears streaming down his face as he deftly caught the baby in a towel. He transferred the little boy to Mariya’s belly. Let her see what she had without him blabbing about it. Osip sobbed and blubbered as he leaned over to cradle his wife and little son.
Sela had the good sense to call out the time. “00.15 hours, Byerly.”
The little boy wasn’t crying, but he was breathing and a good, pink colour. His eyes blinked solemnly in the harsh light. By quickly counted the fingers and toes. All exactly as they should be. “Oh, look at him. He’s perfect.”
Mariya hardly noticed when the placenta was delivered. By quickly scooped it up into the ice bucket and held it up until the cord drained white.
Osip spoke up for the first time in what seemed like hours. “Shouldn’t we cut that?”
“Not yet. I’ll go speak to Doctor Waleska. We need to find something clean to tie it off with, too. I could soak some shoelaces in the vodka, I suppose. That might do it. Let me check with him.”
The comm link was still open. There was a crowd sitting or standing behind the admiral. It looked like no-one had gone to bed. By slumped into the seat, totally exhausted. “it’s a boy,” he managed weakly. Ivan whooped and cracked open a bottle of champagne. Miles had the glasses ready.
“Breathing and pink. The placenta’s delivered and the cord is white. Can we let his Da cut it? I was going to soak a lace in some vodka.”
“I’d just leave it for now. Don’t worry about a bath yet, either. Clean the mother up as best you can and give her a cup of tea and some sort of pad. We’ll get help to you just as soon as we can. Just let them rest and relax. Sleep, if they can.”
“Where am I supposed to sleep? They’ve got my bed!”
Ivan appeared again over Wally’s shoulder and raised his glass in a silent toast. “Oh, come on, By. This would have to be the best thing you’ve ever done in your whole sorry life.”
By felt a huge smile bubble up from somewhere. Ivan was right. He was delighted. “Well, that is true. Perhaps they’ll call him after me. There’s always the couch, I suppose, unless Sela gets it first.”
Wally left a few more instructions, then signed off for the night, with strict orders to call him if needed.
Sela was busy in the kitchen, making hot tea and loading the launderiser. It whipped up a batch of sandwiches, too, with the last of their bread. By reached over for one, but Sela whisked the plate away. “Mariya is starving. We can wait.”
“Don’t let that sorry excuse of a husband have any, then. He did bugger all tonight, apart from get in the way, and get his wife into this mess in the first place. Too cheap to use a replicator, was he? Let’s hope he’s learned a lesson.”
“He’s asleep. He’s just come off twenty-six hours straight duty and it took him another two to get home. They must have been out there for over an hour before you found them. The rest you know. They only live three blocks away. They got turned round in the storm, and no-one would let them in. The maternity centre is three blocks the other way, near the Star Bridge.”
“Oh, yes, that one. They never would have made it. I wouldn’t be letting anyone in, either, if they came thumping on my door at that time of night. Not round here, at least, for all it’s supposed to be cleaned up these days.”
Sela stopped on its way past to lean over and kiss By. “They’ll be eternally grateful that you stopped for them. We would have lost them both, not to mention little Manushka.”
“Is that what they’re going to call him? Not Byerly?”
Sela laughed. “Oh, the ego! Manuil, but Manushka for short, although it’s longer than Manuil, which is so like Barrayaran logic. You rest up now. Lie on the couch. You’ve done all the hard work. I’ll see to the rest of the cleaning up.”
By was so full of a mix of adrenalin let down, relief and worry all churning in his mind together it was impossible to sleep. He wandered into the bedroom half an hour later. Mariya and Osip were both fast asleep in his bed, sleeping the sleep of the exhausted. Sela had taken a drawer out of their dressing table to pad up with towels and sheets and make a little crib, but the baby wasn’t there. Sela had it held against its chest with the little downy head just under its chin. It looked up as By came in and he thought he’d never seen anything more beautiful than Sela with the child. Sela whispered to him.
“Can’t sleep either? Why don’t you sit here and have a cuddle? I’ll go lie on the couch for a while.”
With a bit of juggling Sela swapped places in the cramped bedroom and left By to cradle Manushka the way he’d seen Sela do it. This was the first time in his life he’d ever held a newborn, he realised. They were so tiny, and so fragile. What was life going to throw in the way of this little one? By certainly hoped he’d have a kinder journey that the one that had been handed out to him, happy as he was now.
With the dim light, the sound of relaxed breathing and the warmth of the little bundle against his chest, By felt his own eyes start to droop. He laid Manushka into his crib before he did something unforgiveable like dropping him, carefully placing him on his back like Wally had instructed, with his airways clear. The chair was too uncomfortable. By stretched out on the floor next to the baby and pillowed his head on a rolled up greatcoat, his or Devidov’s he didn’t much care. He laid a protective arm across the drawer with its precious contents and finally dozed off.
He woke up to Sela kicking his foot. “We have visitors.”
The baby was gone! By looked around in panic as he scrambled up, but Mariya had him. She was propped up in the bed again with Maunshka at her breast. Osip was still snoring. There was light filtering into the room and the sound of voices from the lounge.
“You look like hell, By,” Ivan greeted him. Admiral Waleska merely nodded as he brushed past him into the bedroom, carrying his case and a fluffy toy that looked like a cross between a sheep and goat. He held it up briefly as he passed. “A present from Marie. She’s dying to see the baby.”
Ivan held two bottles of champagne and a basket of spiced bread. The aroma was wonderful. “Ma Belka sends her regards. There’s enough food to feed an army. Harper is bringing it up once they find somewhere to put the lightflyer. We’re just the advance guard, so to speak.’
We included the Lord Auditor, By finally realised. He wasn’t going to be left out of anything as exciting as this. Miles Vorkosigan handed over a data disk. “The Emperor’s compliments. A message from him and a finder’s fee for saving Admiral Desplain’s newest aide-de-camp.”
“What? That useless prole is aide-de-camp to Desplains? The Empire is doomed.” By wasn’t interested in what the Emperor had to say just now. He appropriated the basket of spiced bread and headed for the coffee machine. Sela must have set it to brew not long ago.
"No, not Devidov, although he is on the Admiral's staff."
Vorkosigan always did like being cryptic, but By wasn't in the mood. The spiced bread was much more interesting. Wally reappeared from the bedroom before he finished his first cup of coffee. “Well done, Vorrutyer. Mother and baby are in excellent condition. I’m sure Father will recover, given time. His boss will be pleased.”
The three of them stood looking at him. Ivan was biting his lip. Wally had a big smile on his face and the Lord Auditor was hopping from foot to foot in glee. By was obviously missing something important. “What? What is it? What have I done now?”
Miles grinned at him. “Well done, Uncle By. Mariya Devidova, née Desplains. Didn’t you know?”
“No, I didn’t know, and what difference does it make?”
Ivan explained. “Half the Imperial Staff Headquarters volunteered to look for that pair last night, before Desplains called them off himself, too worried someone else was going to die on his account. He’s been in agony worrying over them as he wouldn't let Devidov go home when he first asked. He’s on his way over right now. You might want to get cleaned up before he kisses you.”
By looked from Vorkosigan to Waleska to a grinning Voralys. “Miles, Wally and Ivan. A trio of comedians.”
Ivan put his hands on his hips in pretend outrage. “We come bearing gifts and good news. What’s so funny about that?”
By put his head down on the kitchen counter, too tired to argue.
“Not a thing, Ivan. Not a thing. Perhaps I should just call you the three wise men.”