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Aptitude

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Miles added, "Security was never on my top-ten list of assignment choices."
"Not choice. Aptitude."

The Vor Game


Everyone in Vorbarr Sultana was talking about the row between the Lord Regent and his Chief of Security. Miles would have put it all down to the usual nasty gossip if he hadn't heard it himself. Not the argument itself: his father whispered when he was angry, and he'd never heard Uncle Simon raise his voice no matter what the provocation--and Miles had provided plenty of provocation over the years--but he had heard the blow. And he had seen the livid mark on Uncle Simon's face as he stormed from the house.

Nobody would tell him what it had been about. The one time he mentioned it to his father, Da had turned such a glower on him that Miles had backed down at once, and he'd barely seen Uncle Simon since it happened. He didn't believe any of the rumours, not the one about his father trying to abolish ImpSec, nor the complicated one about money and audits, nor the weird one he hadn't been meant to overhear about Uncle Simon trying to kiss his father (eww, said Ivan). He'd asked his mother, and she had simply said that people couldn't get on well all the time and no doubt it would all blow over. He'd even asked his Aunt Alys, and she'd said it was all nonsense, but looked so angry as she said it that he knew it wasn't nonsense at all.

But a month passed without it blowing over. If anything, it grew worse. He did not again hear his father arguing with Uncle Simon, but he knew from his mother's conversation that the rift between them had deepened, though she still gave him no clue as to the cause. Miles knew things were difficult with the Cetagandans right now, and everyone he saw around Vorkosigan House seemed tense and uneasy. On the few occasions he saw his father and Uncle Simon together, they were icily polite to each other, which was all the more unnerving when Miles was used to hearing them amiably teasing each other about work. Now, conversations between the adults stopped when he entered a room.

Ivan didn't know anything about it either. While he was visiting during the Winterfair vacation, he and Miles discussed it but got no closer to the answer. Ivan's mother usually knew these things, but Ivan said she wouldn't tell him anything. Besides, said Ivan, he didn't care about all that stupid politics stuff anyway, it was boring.


Miles and Ivan slipped into their seats with muttered apologies, and applied themselves to the food. The kitchen staff had done well for the family supper, even though they had a reception of hundreds to cater for as well. When the edge of his hunger was abated, Miles started to pay attention to the conversation.

"… not going well," his father was saying. "We're leaking like a sieve at the moment. ImpSec says they're working on it, but… well." He paused with the little grimace that any reference to his intelligence agency brought on lately. "But if things are this bad now, how much worse will it get? I swear sometimes it looks like every other person in the capital is spying for someone."

"Nonsense," said Grandfather crisply. "The Cetas have always been good at the intelligence game, but there's a long step between that and any real military action."

"But they do have the fleets," Kou said. "But you don't think there are any high-level agents, do you?"

"Oh, undoubtedly, more than one," said Da, very matter-of-fact. "Everyone has their price. And I have to say the pattern of some of our problems lately suggest a more highly-placed traitor than we might like."

At a stern glance from Aunt Alys, Da cut off further remarks about the political situation. Miles knew his aunt didn't like having political matters discussed 'in front of the children', as she put it, though Miles thought that since he and Ivan were both twelve now they weren't children any more. But he knew better than to start arguing with his aunt right before a big reception.

Ivan interrupted the political conversation with a plea for a glass of wine with his dinner, and finally emerged with a half-glass, well watered. Miles was automatically awarded the same.

"You know I could get my child license taken away for this, back home," Mother complained. "Providing neurotoxins to minors."

"Neurotoxins?" Grandfather said with a biting laugh. "You can't be serious."

"It's quite legal here," Aunt Alys said soothingly. "Customary, in fact."

"By those boys' ages I had--" Grandfather began, but stopped at a glower from Mother.

In search of a distraction, Da turned his attention on Miles. "Have you finished all your schoolwork?" he asked. "Your mother tells me you were having trouble with history. I could go over it with you, once we get down to Vorkosigan Surleau tomorrow."

Miles shot a betrayed glance at his mother, who merely said, "If you have a family expert in Barrayaran history in your house, make the most of it. It's good tactics."

"I'm fine," Miles said with as much stiff dignity as he knew how. "I can do it myself."

His parents exchanged one of those irritating glances, like they knew everything that was going on in his head better than he did.

"May I be excused?" he asked.

Da gave a weary smile. "Off you go, then."

Ivan scurried after him. On the stairs, he said, "Do you think Uncle Aral will help me with the history? I hate the civil war stuff."

"I expect so," said Miles glumly. "And when we get back to school, Mr Singh will say how fascinating it is to have the opinions of a real historical figure in the lesson, and give me that look, and everyone will whisper. And won't that be fun."

"Well," said Ivan, "Uncle Aral really is a historical figure."

Miles glared at him. "Next year we'll be studying Grandfather."

Ivan snickered and went off into his room.

Miles watched the guests arriving from the corridor window. The groundcars edged slowly into the wide courtyard, each one passing through the ImpSec scanners and proceeding up to the steps, where one pair of footmen stood formally by the entrance and another hurried to open the doors of the cars and usher the guests out. Miles saw a long train of silver groundcars emerge slowly from ImpSec's clutches and watched the Cetagandan ambassador, in full face paint and robes, emerge with his entourage, some twenty or thirty guests. Miles felt the hairs prickle on the back of his neck. The Cetas were threatening to withdraw their ambassador, Da was talking about violation of treaties, and Miles, secretly, was scared. He glared defiantly down at them as they were bowed inside and tried to get a glimpse of every face in the Cetagandan train.

Then an idea struck him and he rushed back to his own room. His new Vorkosigan House uniform was hanging carefully wrapped in his closet. He had hated the tryings-on and fittings that had gone into making it, but they would be worth it for this. He began to struggle into it, caring for the first time whether the high collar was straight and smoothing the trousers over his leg braces. When he was ready he crossed to Ivan's room.

"Come on, Ivan, come here, I've got an idea."

Ivan was sitting at his console. "Miles! I'd nearly got to level six! Go away!"

Diverted, Miles went to peer over his shoulder. "What is it? Oh, Dendarii Raider. I got to level ten on that months ago."

"Then bugger off," said Ivan, and looked around for his mother reflexively, blushing. Then he stared at Miles. "Why are you all dressed up?"

"I'm going to the party."

"You? Why do you want to go to the party?" A frown crossed his face. "I thought we weren't supposed to go downstairs tonight."

"If I wait a bit, till they've started on the drinks, nobody will notice," Miles said positively. "I've done it before, remember?"

"Yes, and I remember when your grandfather caught you and made you go and write an essay on good manners and read it out at supper."

"And your mother was there and told me everything I'd got wrong or missed out." Miles scowled in remembered resentment. "But this time I know how to do it, it'll be different."

"Well, you're not dragging me along."

Miles considered arguing. He knew Ivan would come if he asked him again. But it occurred to him that one uninvited guest would be less conspicuous than two. "All right. Don't go to bed, though, and I'll tell you about it when I come back up. And if Bothari looks in, tell him--well, just tell him I'm at the party, I don't think he knows I'm not allowed. But he probably won't come here, he's on patrol tonight. It's all going to be fine."


Secret Agent Miles penetrated the perimeter. The ImpSec guards had no orders to keep him out--it was his own home, after all. He avoided his most dangerous enemy by a whisker, ducking behind a huge flower arrangement when he saw Aunt Alys sweeping by. Then he looked around for the Cetas. He spotted the Cetagandan ambassador talking to poor Gregor, who had been dragged along, and to Prime Minister Vortala. His father was safely tucked away in an intense-looking conversation with two of his generals, and his mother was chatting with a woman in Komarran dress. Miles's uniform meant that he received a few half-amused, half-patronising smiles from some of the off-world guests, and acknowledging nods from the Barrayarans. He tried to work his way towards the ambassador and Gregor. Surely that would be where the interesting stuff was going on.

Danger, danger! Grandfather was moving in his direction. Miles didn't think he'd been spotted yet--Grandfather's expression was unruffled--but there was nothing to duck behind here. He was going to have to write another essay--no! He glanced rapidly around to check that nobody was looking at him, then slipped beneath the long white tablecloth of the buffet table.

It was a perfect hiding-place, he realised. He could see out through the gaps where one cloth bordered another, and the table ran all the way across the room, so he could move. And there was plenty of space for a small person to be comfortable. The only problem, he realised after a moment, was that he was much more clearly an intruder. Wandering around in his House uniform he was a plausible guest, hiding under the table he was a spy.

He listened to the conversations around him for a while, but they were disappointing: two Barrayarans, minor governmental officials by the sound of things, talking about their plans for the Winterfair break, and someone with a thick accent Miles couldn't place, trying to order a drink that suited his medical requirements. He came up on two Cetagandans togther, and leaned forward to listen, but they were talking in a different language, one he didn't speak, so he gave up on them and kept crawling along under the table, hoping to find something interesting.

Miles came to the end, then peered out cautiously. Jackpot. Standing with a wineglass and a supercilious expression was one of the men who'd come in with the Cetagandan ambassador. He was not in robes and facepaint, but a Barrayaran-style suit with a high collar and piping down the legs. Trying to blend in, Miles thought gleefully, but I've spotted him.

Unfortunately, his chosen target seemed to be absorbed in nothing more politically exciting than the choice of canapés. Miles was about to crawl away again when he saw a small device near the leg of the table. For a glorious moment he thought it was a bomb, but then he recognised it as a sonic baffler. Kou had shown one to him once and explained that people would stand near them for important conversations so they couldn't be overheard. Miles grinned to himself. He was inside the active zone. If anyone did have an important conversation here, he would be able to listen.

He waited for a few minutes, then saw another pair of feet approaching, wearing plain civilian brogues, mirror-polished. Miles hesitated, wanting to peep out but not willing to risk it, when the new arrival spoke.

"The salmon or the cheese puffs, do you think?"

Miles groaned. It was his Uncle Simon, Captain Illyan, and he was only interested in the food.

"Suit yourself," said the Cetagandan shortly.

Rather to Miles's surprise, Uncle Simon did not pick up a canapé and walk off. Instead he dawdled, his feet moving a little. If Miles hadn't known it was impossible, he would have said he was nervous.

"There is," Uncle Simon observed in a conversational tone, "a very good sonic baffler here."

Miles swallowed a squeak of outrage. Why should Uncle Simon say a thing like that to the Ceta? He calmed down. Perhaps the Ceta was a double agent, working for ImpSec. This would be fun.

"But it must be monitored by someone," the Ceta replied.

"Oh, it is," and Miles could hear the smile in Uncle Simon's voice. "I monitor it."

The Ceta gave a little snort. "That is very convenient for us all."

"Which is why you are interested in what I have to say," Uncle Simon replied smoothly.

Miles couldn't make head or tail of this.

"So you accept?" The Ceta's voice was level, as if he didn't care about the answer at all.

"Yes."

There was a pause, during which Miles tried to understand what he was hearing. What did Uncle Simon accept? Why was he having such a long conversation with a Ceta?

"I heard about your … disagreement … with the Lord Regent. A little rash of you, don't you think?"

"Rash?" Uncle Simon said. "It was the last straw, what he said to me. I've been eating his shit and smiling about it for the last five years or more. Our disagreements are only news to people outside the inner circle." He paused, then went on more intensely, "I've given them everything, I've let them destroy my very mind, and this is what I get in return. I've had enough."

Miles shivered. Uncle Simon's voice was so cold, so bitter. He'd never imagined that the kindly man who'd spent two hours teaching him how to win at Strat-O last summer could sound like that. All the little arguments, the disagreements he'd heard between his father and Uncle Simon over the years were popping up in his mind. Had this grim hatred been behind them all?

"Well," said the Ceta, "our neurosurgeons are the best in the galaxy. They can certainly remove that chip without damaging your brain, if that's your price. But talk's cheap. I want something now. Something real that we can use."

Uncle Simon hesitated a moment. "Fair enough," he said, "but it has to be untraceable. How about this? You can keep pushing on the jumppoint negotiations. Vorkosigan will cave, he's just bluffing about trade sanctions through Komarr. The Komarrans would kick up too much of a stink if he went through with it, and he can't afford trouble there now."

The Ceta gave a satisfied grunt. "We suspected as much. Good. All right. We'll contact you when we need you."

He walked away. Miles interpreted his rapid steps as jauntily smug. Uncle Simon stood still, and Miles nearly burst out right then and there, but just when he couldn't hold himself in any longer, Uncle Simon walked slowly off to rejoin the other guests.

Miles felt sick. When he'd come down, he'd had visions of discovering a Ceta plot against his father, of himself as triumphant hero, Gregor and Ivan amazed, Grandfather saying 'well done, boy'. But now he wished with all his heart he'd stayed in his room.

He looked at his chrono and was surprised to see that less than an hour had passed since he'd left Ivan upstairs. It felt like a century. There was plenty of time for him to stay and listen for more, but the idea made him shiver.

Carefully, he crept back under the table to the end, near a small servants' entrance, but there were some guests standing too close for comfort, so he had to stay under the table and wait for them to go. Still a little curious despite it all, he peeked out at them and saw one of the many military men, Commodore Vorbohn, and another Cetagandan in dark blue flowing robes. He tried to make them move by force of willpower, but they stayed still, talking and nibbling canapés with agonising slowness.

"... but I'm not sure what would be most appropriate," the Cetagandan was saying. "What do you think?"

"A present for your wife?" Vorbohn replied. "Well, there are a lot of traditional handicrafts sold in the Westgate Market..."

Miles waited and waited whilst they talked about traditional Barrayaran crafts and the Cetagandan's wife and Vorbohn's own wife and children and what they liked, on and on until he was almost hyperventilating with impatience. Finally they began to move away, and he could escape.

He sneaked out of the reception hall and through the passage to the kitchens, then back to the main hall, about to head back upstairs when a firm hand gripped his shoulder.

He whirled around. It was Kou.

"And what are you doing down here?"

"I just--I just wanted to see," he managed. Kou's lip quirked.

"Wish I found receptions so thrilling. Back you go to bed. If you're quiet I won't give you away." He winked at Miles, who gave an unfelt smile and fled up the stairs.

Ivan was still up, still struggling with Dendarii Raider. Miles stood in the doorway for a while, listening to the tinny explosions and warning beeps the game emitted. How could Ivan care about shooting fake Cetagandans when there was a real Cetagandan conspiracy downstairs?

"You're back sooner than I thought. Get caught, did you?" Ivan's voice, as he turned, was mocking.

"No. Well, yes, but it was only Kou and it was after I'd left anyway." Miles shut the door behind him and went to sit on Ivan's bed. "Captain Illyan's a spy," he blurted out.

Ivan stared at him. "Yes," he said patiently. "He works for ImpSec. I'm not a complete idiot." He paused. "Did you sneak a glass of wine down there? Perhaps I should have gone down too…"

"No I didn't!" Miles glared at Ivan, then dragged himself back to the real issue. "I mean, he's spying for the Cetas. I heard him!" He stuttered breathlessly through what he'd heard Uncle Simon say to the Ceta. It sounded even worse, up here in this comfy bedroom where he and Ivan had watched so many book-films about spies and soldiers and treason.

"But I don't think Captain Illyan would work for the Cetas," Ivan protested when Miles ground to a halt. "He was captured and tortured by them before he took over ImpSec, he can't want to help them after that."

Miles, diverted, said, "How did you know that? He never tells me anything about when he was a real spy."

"Oh, he didn't tell me, it was Mama, she told me once. Dunno how she knew."

Miles subsided, mollified, then sat up again. "Then he must be a traitor. Nobody could escape from the Cetas once they were captured. They must have made him into an agent and then let him go, and he's been biding his time ever since."

Ivan frowned. "Well, maybe." Then he asked the question Miles had been dreading. "So what are you going to do?"

Miles thought about that for a moment, and his dramatic instincts, subdued by his discovery, began to waken again despite himself. He had discovered this all by himself. He could unravel the entire plot by himself. He had a sudden glorious vision of going to his father, like Leo Vorthalia in the story, with the entire plot solved and the Empire saved.

"Keep it secret. If anyone--if the Cetas, or Uncle Simon, suspect we know, we could be in danger."

"But Miles--shouldn't we tell someone? If Captain Illyan really is a Ceta agent, then we need to tell people. Tell your Da."

"Nobody would believe us," Miles replied at once, remembering the time a few years ago when he'd tried to persuade Da that Gregor's pastry-cook was a traitor because he wouldn't give them extra cakes. "You don't even really believe me. Uncle Simon can cover up all the evidence, it's just our word against his. We need some better proof of it all." He smiled suddenly as a beatific vision burst upon his mind. "We'll be going down to Vorkosigan Surleau tomorrow anyway, and then we'll be able to do something. I have a plan."

Ivan groaned.


Miles could hear voices approaching. Ivan, amazingly, was getting his lines right.

"Sir? Miles says could you have a look at his skimmer, please? We need a bit of help."

"I'm sure there's someone else who can help you boys." Uncle Simon's voice was distant and cool.

Miles fidgeted, not sure what Ivan would say in response to this. He'd expected Uncle Simon to come right away. But Ivan's voice took on a wheedling tone.

"No, please, it won't take long and--and Miles says he wants to say hello. He misses you."

Miles made a face. Ivan was making him sound like a baby. But Uncle Simon said, in a kinder voice, "Very well, just for a minute, then I need to get back."

Footsteps came nearer. Miles gripped the stunner in a hand suddenly damp with sweat, and waited. His heart was pounding so loudly he felt sure it would warn his target.

"What's wrong, then?"

"It's the canopy, look, it's jammed, we just need someone to--"

Uncle Simon's head abruptly appeared in Miles's line of fire. Miles squeezed the trigger.

It worked exactly the way he had imagined. There was a buzz, Uncle Simon jerked in surprise and then collapsed across the back seat of the skimmer. Ivan stood transfixed.

"You did it! You actually did it."

Miles did a near-caper of delight, not least for the awed respect in Ivan's voice. "It's working. Right, we need to get him properly in and tie him up. I'm not sure how long he'll be out for. Come on."

Ivan was reluctant to touch their captive, but Miles made him shove and pull until the traitor was completely inside the skimmer. Then he took the cords and began to tie his arms and legs, pulling the knots as tight as he could. Bothari had been happy to teach him knots and had, entirely unprompted, volunteered a lot of information about how to tie people up securely. Miles supposed that was just how Bothari thought. But today was Bothari's day off and the less paranoid Esterhazy wouldn't get a chance to interfere with this plan.

"Get in, Ivan, don't just stand there, we need to hurry."

Miles took the controls and they launched into the air. He had to force himself not to set the skimmer flying at its stingy maximum height and speed, which would be bound to upset the guards. They must see nothing unusual, just Miles and Ivan going off to play in the woods, staying inside the security perimeter like good boys. The weather unfortunately did not support their story, but he and Ivan had been scolded frequently enough for staying out in poor weather that he hoped nobody would care this time.

Da and Grandfather had been talking all yesterday about the way the jumppoint negotiations were going with the Cetas, and Miles had nearly blurted out what he'd heard when the negotiators finally had to concede all sorts of things to the Cetas, but he'd stopped himself in time. He wanted to do this properly, wanted to figure it all out for himself first. And he'd already had the plan worked out anyway.

Getting hold of a stunner without anyone noticing had been the hardest part. He had seen the possibilities of their playhouse in the woods at once, and when they were at Vorkosigan Surleau people were always flying back and forth from the capital to talk to Da, and he'd known it would only be a matter of time before Uncle Simon came. But the stunner had been difficult, until he had tracked down one of Bothari's spares in one of the places Bothari believed were secret. And he'd warned the duty guard that he might be doing some target practice with it, so that they wouldn't be alarmed by the energy discharge on their monitors, and no guards had come rushing up when he'd fired it.

He landed the skimmer as close to the playhouse as possible, to avoid having to drag the prisoner too far. It would be much easier to be a secret agent if you were tall and strong like Ivan, Miles thought. Fortunately, he wasn't a large man. They got their prisoner--under the circumstances, Miles didn't like to think of him as Uncle Simon--into the little hut and let him fall onto the dirt floor. Then Miles set up the little datacorder where it would pick up everything.

"How long is this going to take?" Ivan asked, looking doubtfully around. "People are going to notice we're gone."

"No they won't. Everyone will think he--" a nod to the unconscious man "--has gone straight back to the capital, and they all think we're playing here by ourselves. Nobody will suspect a thing. And once he confesses, we can take him and the recording to Da and explain it all."

"But what if he doesn't confess?"

Miles glared at Ivan. "He will. We have proof, he can't get out of it."

"But--"

Their prisoner groaned, cutting Ivan off. Miles looked at his knots again, but they were exactly how Bothari had taught him and should be able to hold anything. Good.

Miles hadn't realised just how long it took to wake up from a stun beam. On the vids, people opened their eyes and jumped up when the stun wore off and went back to what they had been doing. But Uncle Simon coughed and groaned and twitched, and for a horrible moment Miles thought he was going to throw up all over everything. It seemed to take an age before his eyes finally opened and he stared around, discovered and tested his bonds, and focused on Miles.

"What the hell are you playing at?" he croaked.

Miles's throat was suddenly too dry to speak. He tried to swallow, licked his lips and jerked his chin upwards.

"Untie me this instant!"

"How long," Miles began, coughed and started again, "how long have you been a Cetagandan spy?"

The glare that Miles had always dreaded was turned upon him with full force. Then, to his utter consternation, Uncle Simon began to laugh.

"I don't believe this," he said when the laughter trailed off. "What on earth made you come up with that?" He sobered abruptly. "And who have you spoken to about this? Have you been telling your bright ideas to half of Vorbarr Sultana?"

Miles opened his mouth to excuse and justify himself, then bit his tongue. "I'm asking the questions," he said, trying to sound menacing. He fortified his courage with the memory of the betrayal he had heard last week.

Uncle Simon's raised eyebrow nearly destroyed him. "Ah yes, of course," he said, contriving somehow to sound like he was giving Miles permission to ask questions. It was infuriating.

Miles got to the point quickly, before Uncle Simon could throw him any more off balance. "I heard you," he said, and his voice was full of the pain of love and trust betrayed. "I heard you passing top secret information to the Cetas. You told them how to get Da to agree to their demands, and I know it worked and it helped them and you promised them more and now we're going to be invaded and it's all because you betrayed us!" His voice cracked with intensity.

Uncle Simon's face had gone from half-amused anger to utter seriousness as Miles spoke. "I see," he said quietly. "Would you mind not shouting, please? You were at the ambassador's reception last week, I gather. I had not thought you were invited." He paused, and Miles recognised the inward look he had when accessing his chip. "Were you under the table? There was no other concealment nearby."

"I'm not telling you anything," said Miles stoutly.

Uncle Simon grimaced.

"So it's true?" Ivan said. "You really did say all that stuff to the Cetas?" He edged away from the bound man and picked up the stunner.

Miles looked away from Uncle Simon to glare at Ivan. "I told you he did," he said.

"Yes, but—" Ivan made a helpless little gesture with the stunner. "Sometimes you, um, your imagination is, um…"

"To spare you the trouble of quarrelling," Uncle Simon put in ironically, "yes, it is true. What Miles reported is what I said, more or less."

Having the suspect confess was supposed to be a good thing. It always seemed like a good thing on the vids. But somehow Uncle Simon managed to make it sound like passing information to the Cetas was the most sensible and reasonable thing in the world.

"Why?" he finally said, and his voice cracked again. "Why? You said awful things about Da, you said—"

Uncle Simon's face turned completely blank. "I'm not going to discuss this further with you. I recommend you go and tell your story to your father and see what he has to say."

Miles glared at him. Go ask your father, go talk to your father, go tell your father. That was all anyone ever said to him. Nobody thought he could do anything by himself. He wanted to go to his father triumphant, with a confession and a cowed prisoner, not approach him like a student stuck on his homework begging the teacher for help. Why didn't people understand that?

"Why do you want me to see Da? You can't fool him," he demanded, trying to continue his interrogation. "He must suspect you already, and that's why he's stopped being friends with you. He already knows—" Miles broke off. He stared at Uncle Simon for a while, then said in a different voice, "He already knows. This is a trick, isn't it? You're tricking the Cetagandans, aren't you?"

Uncle Simon's face was still blank. Miles began to pace up and down. "You and Da are going to get the Cetas to believe that you're on their side, and then when the time is right you'll destroy the Cetagandan Empire!"

Uncle Simon's lip twitched. "A little ambitious, don't you think?"

"Well, you'll do something," Miles downgraded this. "You don't have to tell me. It's obvious."

"I sincerely hope not," muttered Uncle Simon. "Does this mean you'll untie me now?"

"He's really on our side?" Ivan asked, still fingering the stunner. "Are you sure?"

"Don't you see? It all makes sense now," Miles said. "Yes, he's on our side." He wasn't sure whether to be proud or miserable. His dream of foiling a Cetagandan conspiracy and impressing his father was in ruins, but he had uncovered a different plot instead. And his Uncle Simon wasn't a traitor. He bent down and began to fumble with the knots he had tied.

"There's a knife in my belt, use that," Uncle Simon offered after a frustrating struggle. Miles took it, and discovered that it wasn't as easy to cut ropes loose with a knife as he had imagined. He nearly sliced into Uncle Simon's fingers as he got the ropes off his wrists, and was more grateful than he could express that Uncle Simon said nothing.

"Ow," Uncle Simon commented as he tried to stretch his arms and legs out. "You did those very well." He retrieved his knife from Miles and pushed himself upright, rubbing his arms and stamping his feet to restore circulation.

"So," he prompted as Miles and Ivan stared at him, "shall we get back to the house? Preferably before someone notices that I'm missing and turns out the entire of the guard?"

"Oh, they won't, I told your man you'd gone back with Lord Vortala, since he was heading up to the capital at the same time," Miles said at once.

Uncle Simon's brows drew down. "Did you indeed." He raised his wrist comm and looked at it for a moment, and his frown deepened. "They should," he said in a suddenly more dangerous voice, "have double-checked that with me, but nobody has even attempted to contact me for confirmation."

Miles brightened for a moment. "Do you think you have a Ceta spy in your personal guard?" he demanded.

"Incompetence would be my first guess," Uncle Simon said, with a quelling look at Miles. "Or there's a flaw in the procedures. Something to look into, in any event. Perhaps I should get you to test some more of my security procedures--no. Better not. But if I'm supposed to be halfway back to the capital already, I'd better get moving. And it's not getting any warmer out here."

He looked around, spotted Miles's datacorder, and said, "Ah yes. The evidence. I'm afraid I'll have to destroy that. I will replace it for you." He picked it up, wiped its memory, then slid it into his pocket.

They went out to the skimmer. Miles sat at the controls defiantly, before Uncle Simon could suggest that he would fly them back, but Uncle Simon only sat down on the rear seat, ducking his head to fit in the child-sized vehicle. Ivan scrambled in last, and Miles pressed the ignition.

Nothing happened. He pressed it again, and stared at the control panel. A little red light blinked at him: battery dead.

''What's wrong?'' Ivan asked. "Why aren't we going?"

"It says the battery's dead."

From the rear, Uncle Simon remarked, "The lights were on when we came out. When did you last recharge it?"

Miles stared at the controls wretchedly. He couldn't remember when he'd last let the mechanics who looked after the Vorkosigan fleet of ground and air vehicles have his skimmer for servicing, though he could remember his mother nagging him about making sure he took proper care of his toy. And now it had broken, at the most inconvenient moment.

"Um," he said. Asking his erstwhile captive to solve their problems seemed unfair. From the slight quirk at the corner of Uncle Simon's mouth, Miles suspected he was enjoying this.

"Well," said Uncle Simon cheerfully, "looks like we're going to have to walk back." He opened the hatch and climbed out, followed by Ivan. Slowly, Miles got out too. He wanted to swear, but knew from experience that Uncle Simon would tell him off.

It had just started to snow again. The playhouse was almost two miles up into the woods from the house, and Miles hadn't walked it for several months, now that he had the skimmer to play with, but he found the old path through the woods without difficulty and began to trudge through the thin layer of snow. He was nearly crying with chagrin and shame. His traitor wasn't a traitor, all his spy work had been a waste of time, and now his getaway vehicle wasn't working because he'd made a stupid mistake. Worst of all, Ivan had witnessed the whole fiasco. He marched beside them, staring fixedly ahead.

"You're not the first, you know," Uncle Simon said suddenly. "My young hotshots are forever spotting imaginary traitors in the ranks. Your father has had to sort out a few who were utterly convinced I was a double agent, over the years. I think of it as a good thing, all in all. Every spy network has its moles, and it's good for my men to be aware of the possibility at all times and in all directions."

"You've been arrested by ImpSec before?" Ivan said disbelievingly.

"Oh yes, twice. Aral had a terrible time with one of them who wouldn't take no for an answer and was desperate to protect him from me, and I don't think he ever really was convinced I was innocent. A good agent, though. Fortunately he's out on galactic business now, or else he'd probably have beaten you to this accusation. But I haven't been successfully kidnapped and interrogated for quite a while now, so you can chalk that up in your favour."

It was a transparent attempt to make him feel better, Miles thought, but it was working all the same. The snow was falling more heavily now, blanketing the frozen ground, and the clouds made the evening winter light even dimmer. Miles was glad of his overcoat, and secretly wished he hadn't ignored the motherly parlourmaid who had advised him to wear a hat as well.

"Careful here, it's very slippery," Uncle Simon said, leading the way down a steep slope. He turned automatically to check on Miles. Damn it, Miles thought, I'm not a baby any more. He rejected Uncle Simon's offered hand with a glare. Uncle Simon's face was bland as he absorbed this rebuff, but he turned away quickly. Too quickly. He lost his footing and skidded, then fell, crashing through the bracken, and settled in a heap in the bottom.

Miles and Ivan stared at each other in panic, and began to rush heedlessly down after him.

"You young idiots, be careful," Uncle Simon shouted up to them, reassuring Miles's initial terror--the same fall would have broken half a dozen of his bones, after all. Ivan grabbed Miles's arm and they stumbled down to where Uncle Simon was sitting up brushing snow off his clothes.

"Are you all right?" Ivan panted.

Uncle Simon didn't answer, but pushed himself upright. He grimaced, favouring one leg, and caught hold of a young tree to steady himself.

"What's wrong?" Miles asked. His voice gave an embarrassing squeak, and he glared at Ivan pre-emptively, but Ivan was looking worried.

"Knee," Uncle Simon said laconically. "Just twisted it a bit. Give me a minute." He tested his leg again and his face went very blank.

"I guess you'll have to call for help, then," Miles said glumly. Everything was going wrong now.

Uncle Simon looked up at him. "I don't think you fully understand this situation," he said. "Nobody must know this little, um, excursion took place. Nobody. The only hope of my operation succeeding is in utter secrecy. Your father and I are at daggers drawn; I can't say I was horsing about in the woods with you boys now, and we certainly can't tell anyone the true story. And all calls are being recorded these days, even on the private lines."

"You could say you were kidnapping us, but we fought back and pushed you," Miles suggested. "I mean, not to everyone, but you could say that to the Cetas."

"They don't want me to kidnap anyone."

"But if you said that we found out--and it would even be true, that bit--and that you had to eliminate us and lured us away, only it went wrong... we could fake our deaths so that they think your secret is still safe." Miles cheered up at his solution. "Then it would be all right."

"God," Uncle Simon muttered, "I am so very glad you're not one of my agents. Miles, the entire purpose of a spy's life is to be boring. Everything I do has to fall into my dull, ordinary routine, with not a sniff of any idiotic side-shows, until we spring the trap on the Cetas. Besides," he added after a contemplative pause, "if I told the Cetas I'd been discovered by two twelve-year-olds, I don't think they'd be filled with confidence in my usefulness to them."

Miles subsided. "So what are we going to do?" he asked, and felt like a baby when he heard the plaintive note in his own voice.

Uncle Simon didn't answer this directly. Instead he tested his leg again, grimaced and said, "Come here, Ivan." Ivan approached warily, looking like he'd rather run in the opposite direction. "Lend me your shoulder… that's right." Leaning on Ivan, Uncle Simon began to limp forwards, his lips pressed tight together. Miles followed miserably.

They continued along the path through the woods in oppressive silence. Ivan looked as wretched as Miles felt; by comparison Uncle Simon seemed oddly cheerful.

"Don't look so miserable," he said to Miles. "A twisted knee is hardly life-threatening. Besides, you were perfectly happy to stun me and tie me up just a short time ago."

Miles flinched and couldn't think of anything to say in answer to this. They were going much more slowly now. Miles was used to being the slowest in any group, having to stretch his legs and work to keep up, but now he had to slow down and wait for Ivan and Uncle Simon. He noticed suddenly that Uncle Simon was shivering. While he and Ivan had proper winter coats, Uncle Simon only had the uniform tunic he'd been wearing when Ivan had decoyed him outside, now damp where he'd fallen in the snow.

He grimaced and looked away and tried to distract himself from the disaster he'd created. And he wasn't even any help now; even Ivan was more useful than he was. They trudged up another hill, and at the top, Uncle Simon stepped awkwardly, and Miles's ear, all too acute, heard his sharp intake of breath. Then he stopped and stood with his bad leg off the ground, one hand on Ivan's shoulder and the other on a treetrunk.

"Time for a break," he said, in a calm and steady voice. He surveyed the path ahead, then looked back at Miles and Ivan. "Thank you, Ivan," he said. "Miles, what's the matter?"

Miles didn't look up.

Uncle Simon hobbled closer to him and his hand landed on Miles's shoulder, lightly.

"This isn't your fault," he said. "You didn't make me trip. It was pure accident."

"I wish I'd never gone to that party," Miles blurted out, his thoughts spilling over in a confused tangle. "I got everything all wrong and I've messed up your plans and I got you hurt and I had to spend about a million years listening to Commodore Vorbohn and some Ceta talking about presents for their wives."

Uncle Simon's hand suddenly tightened on Miles's shoulder. "What?" he said sharply. "What's this?"

"After--after I heard what you were saying, I wanted to go back upstairs, but I couldn't get away for ages because of them standing in the way, talking and talking about traditional Barrayaran crafts the Ceta could bring home to give his wife."

"'A present for my wife'? Were those the exact words?"

There was an alert tension in Uncle Simon's voice. Miles looked up at him properly, trying to think back.

"Yeah," he said finally. "Those words. They finally decided to go to the Westgate Market together and look at stuff." He thought harder. "Tomorrow, that's when they're going."

Uncle Simon hissed through chattering teeth. "Damn. Damn, damn, damn." Miles had a feeling he would have been using stronger language if he and Ivan hadn't been there.

"What does it mean?" Miles asked, his attention caught despite himself. "Commodore Vorbohn can't be a Ceta spy, he's just boring. He talks to me like I'm six years old when he comes to see Father."

"Commodore Vorbohn from Engineering, that's right?" Uncle Simon said instead.

"Yeah. The second cousin." His eyes were widening with speculation. "You mean I was listening to them making plots and I never even knew it?"

"I need to get back to HQ. I need to get back to HQ right now," Uncle Simon muttered, beginning to limp forwards again. "We're not running Vorbohn, so either they have bought him after all, or MI is playing more damned power games with me again, and..." He cut himself off, but started talking again after a moment, as if he was trying to distract himself. "'A present for my wife' is one of the Ceta codes at the moment," he explained. "They don't realise that even if I'm out of earshot and concentrating on something else, I can use my chip memories to lipread afterwards. That's Cetas for you--so convinced they're superior that they underestimate everyone else. But Vorbohn!"

"He's working on the new wormhole forts, isn't he?" Ivan said unexpectedly.

"Is he going to give details of them to the Cetas?" Miles asked.

"I don't know," Uncle Simon said in a grim tone.

If the Cetas had details of the new wormhole forts, that would make invasion much easier for them. Miles shivered. But they'd found it all out now, and Uncle Simon would sort it out.

"But he's here," he said suddenly, remembering. "I mean, he's coming here. Mother and Da were arguing about it." His mother didn't like it when Da brought lots of work to Vorkosigan Surleau, but sometimes when the politics were being difficult he did anyway. "They added him to the schedule just before I came out."

Uncle Simon stopped dead. "I was just going to collect the updates when you decoyed me out here," he muttered. "And you said he's arranged to meet the Ceta tomorrow? Shit."

Miles winced.

"All right," Uncle Simon said, moving more rapidly. "We need to get on. This is going to need delicate handling--I can't appear anywhere, not if I want to keep my cover. We'll--"

He took an incautious step, his leg gave way beneath him and he made a strange choked noise and sat down hard in the snow. Miles and Ivan both jumped, then hovered worriedly over him. It wasn't, Miles was pretty sure by now, just a twisted knee. He didn't want to look at Uncle Simon's face, afraid of what he might see there. Uncle Simon made an effort to get up again, and gasped aloud in pain.

"I'm sorry," he said a few moments later, his voice gone thin, "I don't think I can walk on this any further, boys." He wiped a hand over his face, breathing raggedly. Miles had been in a similar position often enough to know exactly how bad it must hurt right now, and it made him want to sit down in the snow next to Uncle Simon and cry, because this was the worst disaster he'd ever made in his life.

Ivan was staring at Miles in dismayed horror. He didn't speak, but his lips moved. What are we doing to do?

Miles looked around, but the answer was not written on the trees or the snowy ground. But they had to do something. He had to do something. He'd made this mess, and he was Lord Miles. He had to fix it. He forced his brain into high gear.

They had to stop Commodore Vorbohn. And get help for Uncle Simon, and make sure his cover story stayed intact and that nobody knew what had happened out here. And there was only one way to do that. He didn't want to do it, but it was the only thing left now. He had to go and ask his father for help.

"I'll go," he said. "I'll go and I'll tell Father what's happened, I'll warn him about Vorbohn and get him to come out here and help."

Uncle Simon looked up, white about the lips. "Yes," he said. "But Miles, you have to be very, very careful."

"I know. I understand. Ivan, you stay here."

Ivan stared at Uncle Simon in dismay, then back at Miles.

"I can get in to find Da better than you can, and--and someone needs to stay here."

Ivan made a face, but reluctantly nodded.

"It'll be fine. I won't be long."

Uncle Simon gave a nod. Miles turned and began to hurry away. He would fix this. He would.

He managed to force himself not to sprint all the way back to the house. It wouldn't help if he did the same thing as Uncle Simon. Instead he jogged, and, since there was nobody to watch and make remarks, went carefully and slowly over the steepest and slipperiest parts of the path. It wasn't that far, at least, and within ten minutes he was at the back door. The house was quiet--mostly, he supposed, since he and Ivan weren't there--and he didn't encounter anyone as he went in, not stopping except to kick some of the snow off his boots and take his winter coat off. He went straight to Da's study, trying to look normal, but he didn't really know what he looked like, normally, so he couldn't tell if it was working.

In the corridor outside his father's study, he stopped dead. Armsman Jankowski was standing outside, alongside Commodore Vorbohn. Miles stared at him. He didn't look like a traitor. At least, not like the traitors on the vids. Miles took a deep breath and went to the door. It was standing ajar, and Da was inside, talking to Kou and Lieutenant Smythe, his current secretary. Miles jittered from foot to foot.

"Would you like a bit of chocolate?" Commodore Vorbohn said kindly, reaching in his pocket. "I had some for my little boy."

Commodore Vorbohn's son was five, and almost as tall as Miles, and Miles wasn't sure Vorbohn realised Miles wasn't the same age. He flinched away.

"No. Thank you," he managed.

Kou moved towards the door, then turned back, exchanging a joke with Da. Miles clenched his fists, nails digging into his palms. Finally, he came out, and Lieutenant Smythe followed him.

"The Lord Regent will see you now," he began, looking at Vorbohn.

"I need to talk to Da," Miles blurted out, and ducked past Smythe and shut the door on him, then turned the key for good measure.

Not looking up from his papers, Da said, "Ah, Commodore--"

"Da," Miles said quickly.

Da looked up. "What are you doing here?" he said mildly. "Your mother was starting to wonder where you'd got to. This isn't a good time, Miles, if you could just wait half an hour or so--"

"No," Miles said. "No, it can't wait. Da, you can't talk to Commodore Vorbohn. You have to come help."

A look of familiar resignation crossed his father's face. "Can't Bothari--no, it's his day off, isn't it--well, can't your mother or one of the other Armsmen help instead? I just have one more meeting to get through, and I want to be done by dinner time."

"You can't talk to Vorbohn," Miles repeated. He leaned forward and whispered, "He's spying for the Cetas."

Da stared at him. "If this is your idea of a joke--"

"It's not a joke. He's a spy. You can't talk to him, and you have to come help Uncle Simon right now, and I think I'd better explain on the way."

"If Captain Illyan wants to talk to me, he can make an appointment like everyone else," Da said, his voice so cold and stern that Miles was almost convinced despite himself.

He waved a hand impatiently, a gesture he'd copied from Da. "It has to be you, I don't know whether anyone else knows and we have to keep his cover story alive."

"Cover story?" his father said, dangerously quiet.

"The Cetagandan triple agent stuff," Miles said quickly. "He's hurt his knee or something, and it's really cold out, and you have to come help. Come on."

Da stared at him, eyes half-closed. "Does Simon think I shouldn't talk to Vorbohn?" he asked at length.

"Yeah. He figured it out, when I told him about what Vorbohn was saying to the Cetas last week. He's working for them."

"All right." Da seemed to change before Miles's eyes, all his movements becoming controlled, crisp, moving like a soldier rather than a politician. He stood up and put his coat on. "Keep quiet," he muttered to Miles as he turned the key again and opened the door. Miles felt like he might explode with excitement as they went out into the corridor.

"I'm sorry, Commodore," Da said in a friendly voice. "I'm afraid I need to go give the boys a hand for a few minutes. If you don't mind waiting--Armsman, perhaps you could get the Commodore some refreshments?" He made a tiny hand signal to Jankowski that Miles recognised: keep alert.

"Yes, my lord," said Jankowski, giving a good impression of a wooden servant, and Da nodded courteously to them both, as if everything was perfectly normal.

Miles trotted at Da's side and they went around the corner towards the back door. Miles stopped at the housekeeper's cupboard and grabbed another coat and his first-aid kit. Da, observing this, said, "You'd better explain exactly what is going on here, Miles," in a commanding voice.

"Yeah," Miles said. He took a deep breath, and, once they were out of the house and on the path up the hill, he said, "I left the lights on the skimmer on, so we had to walk back and Uncle Simon tripped and hurt his knee, and he said we couldn't call for help because it would give the plot away if people knew he'd been off with us. And then we figured out about Vorbohn, so I came to get you."

"Slow down," Da said sternly. "How did he come to be with you in the first place? He was supposed to go straight back to Vorbarr Sultana, not hang around here playing games with you kids."

"Um," said Miles. "Well, I, um, I kidnapped him. Ivan helped."

His father stopped dead and stared at him. "You did what?"

Simple honesty was going to be best here, Miles knew from experience. "We got him to come outside to the skimmer, and I stunned him and we tied him up and flew out to the playhouse."

His father was silent. At length he said, in a pained whisper, "Why?"

"I thought he was working for the Cetas, and we wanted to, to, um, ask him about it. But then I figured out the real plan, and we were going to come back, only the skimmer stopped working and so we had to walk, and Uncle Simon slipped in the snow and that's how it happened."

"How long ago was this?"

"I don't know." Miles felt awful again as he remembered Uncle Simon falling, sick with guilt and worry. "Hours, it feels like." He paused, then whispered, "I wish I'd hurt my knee instead. I wish I'd broken my leg. It was all my fault."

His father said nothing, but he began to stride out so that Miles had to run to keep up, and it was only a few minutes before they were up in the woods. The light had failed enough that he couldn't see Ivan and Uncle Simon until they were a few metres away. But there they were, Uncle Simon sitting up and Ivan still hovering nervously beside him. Miles relaxed a little. It would be all right now.

"So," Da said as he swung to a halt in front of them and crouched down. "The Chief of ImpSec lets two twelve-year-old boys kidnap and interrogate him."

Ivan stood up hastily and backed away. Uncle Simon scowled. "'Let' is not the word I would use under the circumstances. And I have every intention of declaring this entire episode so classified that it's not even going into the records at all."

"Ha. But having done all that, you then decided to go and hurt your leg and freeze half to death. What is this, a concerted effort to sabotage the entire plan?"

Uncle Simon made an impatient gesture. "Vorbohn," he said. "What happened?"

"You're going to have to explain to me exactly how you came to have suspicions of him," Da said. "He's at the house. I haven't spoken to him yet."

"Good," Uncle Simon said on a long sigh.

"You look like shit," Da observed. He took the first-aid kit from Miles and, with hands gentler than his words, dug out a heat pack and passed it to Uncle Simon along with the coat Miles had been carrying. "So, what's your next move?" he asked after a minute, when Uncle Simon looked a bit less pale and frozen.

A sudden sharp smile crossed Uncle Simon's face. "I think I'll ask our secret agent masterminds here for advice."

The two most powerful men on Barrayar gazed expectantly at Miles and Ivan. Ivan swallowed and stared at Miles too. Miles wished he had someone to look at.

He took a deep breath. "You have to get back to ImpSec without anyone noticing anything unusual, I guess. And especially without Commodore Vorbohn seeing any of it."

"And you need some story to explain how he got hurt," Ivan put in unexpectedly.

"And an explanation for why I took Da up here now," Miles finished, starting to see the whole thing. He stared into space for a while, visualising things that might have happened to keep them all here. There were so many ways...

"Boring," Uncle Simon put in quietly, looking up from rummaging through the first-aid kit and putting a medical brace on his knee. "Boring stories, Miles."

Miles made a face. Boring. But Commodore Vorbohn was boring; that was why Miles hadn't suspected him. So he tried to think of boring reasons. "You stayed here to do some work," he said finally. "In your little office, on your own. On the security files here, which you couldn't take away with you. And then you--you trip and fall on the stairs--" which was how Miles had last broken his legs "--but decide to go back to ImpSec first because you're fighting with Da so you don't want to ask anyone here for help." He paused. "And if you go after your security for not checking up on where you were, then they won't be a problem, either. You can say I accidentally told them the wrong thing, too."

Uncle Simon snorted. "You've got a twisty mind, Miles. Yes, that will undoubtedly keep my security distracted. Poor sods."

Da gave an approving nod. "Fine. That'll work out."

"But what about Vorbohn?" Ivan said.

"Jankowski's watching him," Da said. "He knows to keep him away from anything interesting until we all get back. But we still need a distraction so that Simon can get back to his office without anyone noticing, and then head off to his flyer from there." He looked at Miles. "I think this is your area of expertise, Miles."

Miles hesitated. Ivan glanced at him, and he knew they were thinking the same thing. It would be a pity, but ... this was real. And important.

"I have some fireworks," he said, looking away. "In the head gardener's shed. I was going to--I was going to let them off on Winterfair night," he said in a rush, "since we're missing the fireworks in the capital, to have a party of our own here--"

Da made a small choking sound, and Miles couldn't tell whether he was laughing or angry.

"They're safe fireworks," he protested. "They wouldn't make a security breach or anything, just ... just some noise and flashes."

"For the first time," Uncle Simon said, sounding equally choked, "I'm glad that I'm going to miss Winterfair with you here this year. Well, it'll certainly make a diversion."

"All right. Fireworks it is," Da said. "And that's why you called me away from my work, is it? You were decoying me away to be sure I didn't miss the fireworks."

Miles nodded.

"And once you're safely away," Da said, his eyes glinting, "then I will talk to Commodore Vorbohn."

"Aren't you going to arrest him?" Miles asked.

"Arrest a known spy?" Uncle Simon said incredulously. "No, no. We'll just make sure to tell him anything we particularly want the Cetas to know. We want them to think they're winning, Miles. Right up until they aren't." He frowned down at Miles and Ivan. "I want to impress upon you both that it is utterly essential that you continue to behave exactly as normal. Forget that you know this. Don't allow your knowledge to alter your behaviour in any way."

"They'll be staying down here until it breaks anyway," Da said. "I'll keep my eye on them, don't worry." He stooped down and helped Uncle Simon up. "All right, let's do it. I'll yell at you both later for the fireworks, you understand," he said as as they set off along the path.

Miles supposed that made sense, and he'd been expecting to be yelled at afterwards anyway.

"The morning meetings just aren't the same without you around," Da observed to Uncle Simon after a minute. "I'll be glad when this is over."

Uncle Simon snorted. "By my memory, the last time we had our morning meeting, you called me a paranoid idiot and suggested I try Betan therapy. Twice."

Da laughed. "That's not very imaginative, repeating myself. I'll have to think of something better next time."

Miles hadn't realised how much he'd missed having Uncle Simon around until he heard him and Da teasing each other again. He smiled to himself and followed them down the path.

"Now," Da said, his voice lower as they reached the edge of the garden, "you boys go and get started on your diversion. We'll deal with the rest."

Miles nodded, then paused, looking at Uncle Simon. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.

"It's all right," Uncle Simon said. "You boys keep safe now." Then, just before Miles turned to go, he reached for his pockets. "Do you think you'll need these?" He pulled out a small box of matches.

Miles opened his mouth, then closed it again, feeling himself blush. "Yes," he said in a small voice.

Ivan, inevitably, said, "Oh, it's good you had those, or we wouldn't have got the fireworks lit." Miles glared at them both, but Uncle Simon's eyes were crinkling in the corners. Miles took the matches and hurried away, Ivan following. They crept around the edge of the kitchen garden and over to the gardener's shed. It wasn't used much over the winter, but, since it contained nothing more valuable than some of the older garden tools, a samovar and a lot of pots and trays, it was only locked with a simple mechanical key that was kept under a rock by the door. Miles swept away the snow and unearthed the key, then went in. They groped around in the darkness for a minute, then Ivan found the fireworks under a pile of old sacks.

"Where should we set them off?" he asked.

"By the old stables," Miles said after a moment of thought. "Uncle Simon and Da will be going to the back door, and if we set them off there everyone will be looking the other way."

They hurried back through the gardens. They were leaving a trail in the snow, of course, but, Miles supposed, it didn't really matter, since they were bound to be caught anyway. Ivan set the fireworks in place, and Miles struck a match and lit the fuses. He and Ivan both scurried backwards around the corner of the old stables when the first went off.

They hadn't had time to put them out in the traditional Winterfair pattern Miles had planned, so it wasn't as as spectacular as it should have been, but it wasn't bad at all. And there were cries of surprise and alarm and confusion from the house, and that was as hilarious as Miles had expected. He looked around, but didn't see Father and Uncle Simon. But that was good, he told himself, because they weren't supposed to be seen.

He and Ivan hurried towards the house, hoping to be able to fade into the background chaos of Armsmen and servants and ImpSec, when a hand caught him by the shoulder. Miles whirled around, and then, seeing who had caught him, decided to surrender at once.

"Well, boys," his mother said, catching Ivan with her other hand. "And what have you been up to this time?"


Two hours later, Father, Mother, Aunt Alys, Grandfather and Senior Armsman Akim had all yelled at Miles and Ivan for setting off illicit fireworks in the garden. There had been twinkles in Father's and Mother's eyes as they yelled, but Miles had still been sent to his room after supper without any cakes. He was sitting up in bed, thinking about everything, when there was a knock on the door.

It was Da. He came in and perched on the end of Miles's bed.

"You've certainly had an interesting day," he observed. "I'm glad to report that there doesn't seem to have been any permanent damage done, either to my plans or to my Chief of Security."

"Did Uncle Simon get back okay?" Miles asked, since that was the thing he'd been most worried about.

"Yes, that's all fine. And we have Vorbohn under very discreet surveillance now, so we'll know what he tells the Cetas and what they want of him. That, I must say, is a very good outcome from all this excitement." He frowned at Miles. "I hardly know what to say to you about attacking Simon. Except this: if he really had been a double agent for the Cetas, you would have been in extreme danger."

That sounded thrilling. But Da must have read his mind, for he went on, "And it wouldn't have been a fun adventure, my boy. It would have been terrifying and ugly, and you probably wouldn't have survived it, nor Ivan either. And he would have been able to continue his plans unhindered. You must--you really must--learn to ask other people to help you. You don't think I go around solving everything single-handedly, do you?"

"But I did!" Miles protested. "I did come to you for help."

"Yes," Da said slowly, "you did, in the end. And that was the right thing to do, but it would have been better if you'd started there instead of finishing there." He shook his head, staring into space for a while. "It was a stupid, stupid thing to do," he said, and Miles wilted, but then he continued, "but still... you carried it through extremely well. You collected your intelligence carefully, you planned well, playing to your strengths, you responded well to changing circumstances--if you were a junior officer of mine, I'd slap you over the wrist for exceeding your orders and then commend you for your competent work."

Miles felt like he might float up to the ceiling. "Will you tell me how it comes out?" he asked. "With Vorbohn, and with--with the thing Uncle Simon's doing? Please?"

"Yes," Da said. "You've earned that, you and Ivan both." He nodded gravely, as if Miles really were one of his junior officers, then gave a smile. "Anyway," he went on, "I think it's safe to say that Father Frost will find his way here tomorrow night for you, fireworks or no fireworks, and not with a lump of charcoal, regardless of what your grandfather says. Now go to bed." He bent down and, unusually, gave Miles a kiss on the forehead. "Good night."

Just as Da was about to go out the door, Miles blurted out suddenly, "Will you help me with my history homework?"

Turning in the doorway, Da gave a sudden smile. "Yes, I will. In the morning."

When his father had gone, Miles lay back and went to sleep, and dreamed of saving the Empire.