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A Safe Bet

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"Heads or tails?"

"It's my name on the back of that one," Aral pointed out. "I think I have to be tails."

Cordelia tossed the old Regency two-mark coin. It came up showing Gregor's boyish face. "You lose. Here." She collected the data disks from her secretary, who had grown used to the Viceroy and Vicereine's ways and didn't do more than smile at their method of allocating work, and began to sort through them. "Two from the Ministry of Agriculture, that's bound to be thrilling; ImpSec--oh, you've got two ImpSec disks as well, lucky you; the Imperial Treasury, just one from them today; a personal message from Gregor, probably all about Laisa, I'll take a look at that later; the report from that new District Boundaries sub-committee; oh, here's one for me about the backwoods medical services foundation; something from Tsipis; something from your voting deputy, and ... ah. I'll keep this one."

"Alys again?"

"No, it's from Miles."

Aral raised an eyebrow. "Someone must have sat on him to make him message home. Even Mark writes more often than he does. Do you suppose that Captain Quinn has finally agreed to marry him?"

"We'll have to see."

As an exercise in self-control, Cordelia finished the letter she was writing before slotting Miles' message disk into her console. Miles was wearing civvies, she noticed, neither his Barrayaran nor his Dendarii uniform, and his face was strained. He was still too thin, after everything that had happened to him over the past year. She studied him for a moment longer, then began to play the message.

"Shit." Aral's voice broke across Miles' opening remarks about how he was fine and everyone was well in Vorbarr Sultana. Cordelia paused Miles.

"What is it?"

"Illyan. Says here he collapsed ... what, two days ago, now, and is in the ImpSec clinic with severe neurological problems. Haroche is acting chief of ImpSec. They haven't ruled out some kind of deliberate assault."

"My God. Poor Simon. Is he going to be all right?"

"They don't say. There's not a whole lot here, just a summary. Does Miles say anything about it?"

"I doubt it. This was sent physically, not by tight-beam, so whatever Miles knows is almost two weeks old by now."

Aral rubbed his hand over his lips. "Damn. Well, let's hear what Miles has to say."

Cordelia tapped her console, and Miles spoke.

"I've been fired." He gave a nervous laugh. "Simon fired me. I falsified a report to him, he caught me, and fired me. Officially it's a medical discharge, but really he kicked me out. I'm not in the Service any longer." He took a deep breath. Cordelia watched his face intently. She had never heard Miles repeat himself so many times before. Behind her, Aral had gone very still. Cordelia recognised his action-mode, the tiger looking out over the savannah, waiting for prey.

"I've been having seizures," Miles went on, and Cordelia caught her breath in sudden terror. "Since my cryo-revival. I thought they would go away, but they didn't. I concealed them from everyone except my Dendarii physician, but Simon found out. I had one in the middle of a mission, accidentally switched my plasma arc on and sliced the legs off the hostage we were supposed to be rescuing. He's okay now, by the way, he survived and my medical team got his legs reattached. Then I falsified the report to Simon to make it look like an accident, like it was my suit that malfunctioned. The thing is, I knew I could have had a seizure when I went out there. So Simon recalled me and fired me."

Aral had his arm around Cordelia's shoulders now, and she was glad of it.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," he said. "I apologised to Gregor, but I'm done with the Imperial Service now, and I don't know what there is to do around here for a mercenary admiral. Which I'm not, any more.

"I'm going to see the doctors here about the seizures, see if they can do anything, but ... well, it's too late now. Simon won't take me back, and he's right." Miles fell silent a moment, then said, "I'm sorry. I know I let you down. I just... I couldn't lose the Dendarii. But now I have anyway." The bleakness on his face terrified Cordelia. "I guess I'll be around at home a lot more now.

"Well. Goodbye, then. See you sometime."

His image froze as the message ended. Cordelia leaned back against Aral.

"Do you think we ought to go home?" she said.

"I ... maybe. The question is, is this mixed up in the business with Simon, or is it completely separate? I don't like it. Simon fires Miles, then collapses? I was thinking that the best thing we could do would be to send a message to Miles telling him to discharge our House's duty to Simon in whatever way necessary, but now...."

"And Alys is on Komarr," Cordelia said, "otherwise I'd ask her to look into it."

"Damnation," Aral growled. "I always thought he was too attached to those mercenaries, too caught up in the role. What the hell was he thinking!?"

"By the looks of it," Cordelia said softly, "he was scared out of his wits."

"He's Vor. We don't lie."

"He's been a covert agent for the last decade," Cordelia pointed out. "Lying is what he does best, I'd say."

"That's different, and he understands why. Lying in the line of duty is one thing, lying to someone you owe your honour and loyalty is another matter altogether."

"Well," Cordelia said, "I think he knows that now."

Aral's anger faded as he looked at Miles' face, frozen in misery. "Yeah." He rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I thought—I thought he'd finally settled. He was doing so well with them, he was on top of it all. We were going to move him back to the capital soon and groom him to replace Illyan when he retired."

"You never mentioned that to me!"

"Well, it's moot now. Gregor floated the idea with me, and Simon could see the merit too."

"It wouldn't have suited him."

"I think he could have served there."

"Service!" Cordelia said sharply. "What about Miles, and what he wants?"

"Miles wants to serve. He's Vor." Aral released her and paced across the room. "It's his privilege and his duty and his life. But he's thrown it away."

Cordelia stood up too and faced Aral. "I think," she said, "that Miles doesn't know what he wants any longer. Except the Dendarii. He wants to be Admiral Naismith, he feels safer there. I think he's going to go back to them."

Aral clenched his jaw. "If he does that," he said, "he can never come home again."

"Are you speaking as his father, or as a member of the government?" Cordelia asked in a dangerous voice.

"Neither." Aral made a sharp gesture. "It's just a fact. If he takes the Dendarii and sets up as a truly independent force, not covertly working for Simon, then he can never come home again. We'd have to arrest him and execute him."

"We could still see him on Beta," Cordelia said. "They wouldn't arrest him. It would work out in the end."

Aral's face was reddening, and Cordelia bit her tongue on further words. The doctors had assured her that Aral's new heart was up to whatever strain he put on it, but Cordelia had no intention of testing it too far. She knew that however this came out, Miles wasn't going to be executed. She could trust Gregor for that. But there was her other fear, that she wasn't sure whether or not to mention. Miles had imbibed far too much Vorishness for her taste, and the Vorish approach to disgrace was suicide. She hoped he would have the sense to run instead, if he thought he couldn't survive on Barrayar.

"He won't run," Aral said. "He won't turn his back on Barrayar like that." Cordelia thought Aral's words were half plea, half magical invocation, as if his breath was really law the way it had once been.

"How many times has Barrayar turned her back on him?" Cordelia said. "Well, we'll just have to find out the hard way, like everything else he's done." She managed to smile. "If he stays on Barrayar, I'll do all the mail for a month."

"Done." Aral's lips twitched in return. "I'll make sure they send all the financial reports, I'm sure you'll find them thrilling." Then he looked back at today's mail. "But that doesn't get us any further with the problem with Simon, whatever it is."

"I suppose we'll just have to ask for more data. You don't give orders to ImpSec any longer, you know, it's not completely unreasonable for them not to send you everything."

"Simon's still my liegeman," Aral said. "And my friend. I owe him a lot."

"I know. But ImpSec will look after him, they're reliable that way."

"I suppose so." Aral looked back at his ImpSec report, then shook his head. "Miles. You idiot."

"Perhaps we should go home," Cordelia repeated. "Just ... to be there for him."

"Miles is thirty now," Aral said slowly. "He's a full-grown man. We have to let him make his own decisions."