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The Emperor's Man

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"I wish they would be quiet."

Gregor's voice was faint and hoarse, trailing off into another coughing fit. Miles stared expectantly at his mother as the trumpets played a fanfare under the window.

"I'm sorry, sweetheart," his mother said. "It'll all be over in a few hours. I know it's annoying, but if we cancel the Review because the Emperor is sick there'll be all kinds of trouble, Aral says."

"But he is sick," Miles said, looking between them. "He had to come back from school." Miles had to stay off school when he was sick all the time, but Gregor was almost never sick.

"Flu is not life-threatening." Mother pulled Gregor's blankets straight and ran a brisk hand over his forehead. "Fever's gone down a bit there, I think. Do you want the nurse back?"

"No. Thank you." Gregor closed his eyes. In the parade ground, the drums rolled thunderously, and Gregor shrank a little into the blankets. The racket had been going on all day and was reaching a crescendo now; there weren't any rooms in this entire wing of the Residence where the din from the Imperial Military Review didn't penetrate.

"I'm sorry," Mother said again. "I need to get back out there. Miles--"

"Can I stay here?" Miles asked quickly.

"Gregor doesn't want you bothering him when he's sick, love."

"I won't bother him, I really won't, I--"

"He's fine," Gregor said hoarsely. "Quieter than the review."

"I suppose even Miles can't be louder than a military review. All right. I'll check back on you later, dear."

She swept out, and Gregor turned over. Outside, a cannon fired. Miles saw Gregor wince.

"Order me to make them be quiet," he said suddenly.

"What?" Gregor turned back to look at him. "Miles..."

"Order me." Miles stood as straight as he could, facing his Emperor.

"I'm not... your father's the person who gives the orders, Miles."

"You're the Emperor."

"I..." Gregor broke off to cough again, and outside what sounded like a thousand horses began to clop over the cobblestones. "How can you even... oh, I don't care. If you can make it stop... I Request and Require you to make it quiet here, Miles," Gregor finished. "Please," he added.

"Yes, Sire," Miles said, beginning to bubble over with excitement. "I won't fail you, Sire."

He dashed out of the bedroom. Lord Vorthalia the Bold had travelled day and night across Barrayar, fighting bandits and monsters, to find a rare medicine to cure his Emperor from a deadly sickness. Miles had loved that episode. And now it was his turn to save the Emperor.

He hesitated on the stairs. His first plan--Alpha Plan, as Father would say--would definitely shut down the Review, but it would take a long time and might not work, and besides, he'd given his word as Vorkosigan that he would never press a panic button without a reason again. Beta Plan wouldn't break his name's word, but it would make even more noise than the Review before it was done... but what else--aha! He turned and dashed along to the old nursery, dragged out a battered old toybox from a cupboard, slid open the semi-secret compartment at the bottom and retrieved the contents. Three left. Perfect.

He dashed back down the stairs to a little servants' door that led into the parade ground. Then Miles forced himself to slow down. He was allowed to be out here, watching quietly, and the guard on the door merely nodded to him as he went past. He circled the edge of the parade ground, selected his targets, and threw his tiny weapons into the bustle with small flicks of his wrist. One landed amidst the largest band, another beneath the hooves of the horses drawing the cannon, and the third rolled between the boots of the Imperial Guard. Miles turned and began to saunter back to the door just as one of the trumpeters suddenly broke off mid-fanfare to gasp and cover his face with his hands. A horse snorted and shied, then another, and one of the Imperial Guardsmen began to retch. An errant breeze brought the scent to Miles's nose, and he held his breath.

Genuine Jacksonian stinkbombs, guaranteed foulest ever, the label had proclaimed. The first time he'd used one, a single stinkbomb had cleared the entire Great Hall in five minutes, and the smell had lingered for days. He'd bought them last summer when Mother had taken him to a toyshop specialising in imported toys in search of some Betan thing or other, and he'd slipped away and explored the Jacksonian toys with his pocket money. But after using one stinkbomb he'd put the rest away after the yelling, and had forgotten about them until now.

The chaos was spreading along with the stink: the band had fallen silent, the horses were shying and trying to bolt, and the Imperial Guards were backing away. A group of ImpSec men clutching breathmasks burst onto the platform and whisked his parents away, and more black-uniformed men began to appear out of doorways. Miles reached his escape route and stood in the doorway for a minute. Then he caught a glimpse of Uncle Simon, recognisable even with a breath-mask covering his face, moving into the chaos, stooping and picking up one of the stink-bomb cannisters. His eyes scanned across the crowd and landed on Miles in the doorway.

It was time for a strategic retreat. Miles turned and bolted back up the stairs. He'd saved the Emperor; it was time to seek refuge, and there was only one place that would be safe even from Captain Illyan. He went to Gregor's door, where the guard had already been doubled, and was admitted.

There was still noise coming from the window, but it was the clatter of everyone leaving the parade ground in disarray and, Miles hoped, heading for the alternate location for the Review, an equestrian field a good half-kilometre away from Gregor's bedroom. Miles went to his Emperor.

"I hear and obey, my liege," he said with an exaggerated flourish of a bow. "They're all leaving. Just, er, don't open your window for a while."

Gregor blinked blearily at him, and Miles dropped the affectation. "You look really sick," he added.

"I feel really sick," Gregor retorted. "Could you pass me the water, please?"

Miles obeyed, only spilling a bit on Gregor, who kindly didn't mention it, and perched on the side of the bed. The noise gradually died down outside, and Gregor's face relaxed.

"Oh, that is better," he said, and Miles beamed. "Thank you. What did you--no. It's probably better if I don't know, isn't it?"

"Um. Yes, probably," Miles said. "It's okay, it wasn't anything really bad." And he'd been obeying an order from his Emperor, though he wasn't entirely sure his mother or Uncle Simon would accept that argument. Father might, though.

"Good." Gregor pulled the blankets up to his nose and closed his eyes. Miles watched him for a minute, then decided to keep on being Vorthalia the Bold. He found a wooden sword he'd left here the other day, took hold of it and sat down at the foot of Gregor's bed. "Go to sleep," he said. "I'm on guard."

Gregor yawned. "Are you? Okay," he mumbled drowsily. In peaceful silence, Miles sat on guard until his Emperor fell asleep.

***

Two hours had passed when Illyan, furious, exhausted and with a persistent unpleasant odour hanging around his uniform even after a shower and a trip through the decontamination unit, tracked his quarry down to the Emperor's bedroom. He opened the door, then halted. The Emperor was asleep, stretched out under the blankets looking much better than he had earlier this morning. And curled on the floor by his bed lay Miles, also asleep, a wooden sword still clutched in his hand. Illyan stared at them for a minute, then quietly withdrew. The lectures could wait.