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Bolts of Iron

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The Count is humming something that is not a mountain tune.
"What's the song, General?" someone asks.
It's a very old tune. From before the Time of Isolation, maybe even from Old Earth, although like as not to be butchered beyond recognition by now. For a moment, he does not want to answer the question; it's just one more relic of pointless Vor privilege: ancient, lush music played in Vorbar Sultana on instruments too fragile to survive the Dendarii mountains.
"Something my grandfather taught me," Count Piotr answers eventually.

When the Cetagandans are gone, he uses the bastardised comms systems left in place to broadcast concert hall music from the capital, and does not enquire as to whether anyone listens.

*

"But why can't the man become an officer?"

"Because," the Count snaps, "He is not Vor."

And just like that, iron bars are snapped in place.

*

You would have to put on a radiation suit to nurse the dying of Vorkosigan Vashnoi through their final hours. The city's dead were burned away; these survivors - you cannot really call them survivors - are peasants from the surrounding countryside. Those that make their way back to civilisation must be hardier than most. Deformed by cancers, shrivelled and misshapen, inhuman, at first they are driven away.

"Sir, they're mutants!" his Armsman says.

"Their hands are still between mine!" the Count rages. "What do good mothers do for their mutant children? Why do you think a Vor Lord carries a dagger?"

Arrangements are made. Radiation suits acquired. Drugs, in short supply, administered. The Vor dagger never called for.

"People thought you'd gone mad," his Armsman says, later. "We had visions of them living out pitiful lives somewhere, locked away out of sight."

"I am not that cruel," the Count says. Instead, the dying peasant woman, her face swollen and red-mottled like some horror of Cetagandan war paint, is locked away in the altogether more secure prison of his memories, which he knows she will never leave.

*

"But," says the Count, carefully, "why can't the man become an engineer?"

And just like that, iron bars are melted away.

*

The crunch of the child's fragile bones. His hunched posture and pain-clenched eyes, teeth gritted with determination until his jaw is like to crack. The Count sees much to admire in him. Much to fear, too. He has known too many casualties of war that have lived beyond their time.

The universe has a cruel sense of humour.

The prejudices of the old man's heart do not melt for Miles. They shatter, like glass, sending sharp fragments spinning painfully; glittering shards which cut them both to the core.

 

*

"I request and require," Miles says, stumbling a little over the not yet familiar phrase, "that you be the maiden."
"Shan't," says Ivan.
"You have to," Miles says, "when I ask like that. 's the rules."
"Naw." Ivan is certain. "My hands ain't between yours. In fact," Ivan is struck by a moment of inspired pedantry, of the sort that may well get him into trouble in later life, "I'm Lord Vorpatril. You're only Lord Miles. I request and require that you be the maiden."
"You can't," says Miles. "Can you?" He is horrified - a way for Ivan to win arguments so easily would wreak untold havoc on his accustomed style.
"I," says Gregor, softly, "Request and Require that you stop trying to use your oath status to win."
There's a moment of silence. Then:
"Miles started it," Ivan says, foolishly.

The breath of Miles' oaths is stronger than cold iron, and far more subtle, and like any good Vor lord he has practiced its power since childhood. But he spends the rest of his life trying to win without doing anything other than his best by the people whose hands are locked, as surely as any tower-bound maiden's, between his own.

*

“What are you humming, Miles?” Ekaterin asks.

Something that makes me think of you, m’lady, Miles doesn’t say.

“Something my grandfather taught me,” he answers, eventually.