The knock came half an hour into the holovid, just as the improbably well-armed wormhole pirates were beginning their raid. Ivan paused the action and collected some loose cash from the couch cushions for a tip before going to answer.
It wasn’t the delivery prole.
“Get dressed,” Byerly Vorrutyer said, making it past Ivan with the advantage of surprise. “Our reservation is in half an hour.”
“What?” said Ivan.
“Well, you can’t wear that,” By said, casting a disparaging look up and down Ivan’s ragged trousers and ancient, souvenir T-shirt – ‘Earth: Where It All Began’. He hurried up the short hallway and disappeared into the single bedroom.
Ivan shut his mouth, then the door, and followed. By had negotiated the mess on the floor – cleaning service was in tomorrow – and was flipping through Ivan’s closet, making disparaging or outright dismayed sounds.
“Byerly,” said Ivan, who had lived through thirty years of Cousin Miles and had perfected the exact tone of voice for these sorts of occasions – heavy on the annoyance with a strong dash of ‘what would your mother think?’ and just a soupcon of ‘whatever it is, it has nothing to do with me.’
“You military types,” said By, shaking his head over yet another pair of somber, dark trousers with black piping. “No flare, no sense of the – ah, here we go.” From the depths of the closet he drew a shirt in a deep, faintly shimmering purple, shaking it out and nodding consideringly. “This and—“ he retrieved a pair of the maligned trousers and a jacket to match. “It’ll do until we can go shopping,” he said, and slung the bundle of clothes at Ivan before heading for the bureau. “Hurry up. They give away your table if you’re more than twenty minutes late.”
“Who says I’m going anywhere?” Ivan demanded, finding his voice.
“Me,” said By, making a quick belt selection and moving onto lapel pins. “Or my marks, which will be paying for dinner at The Outpost.”
Ivan blinked, mouth watering involuntarily. He’d been once or twice, though the menu was purposefully priced to exclude all but the very wealthiest, which a captain’s salary certainly did not make him. The food was exquisite –just as good as Ma Kosti’s, except without the entangling dangers of a cousin gone abruptly and alarmingly political.
Ivan lunged across the room, slamming the top bureau drawer shut as Byerly opened it. “I can pick out my own underwear,” he snapped, outraged.
“Well, I suppose,” By said consideringly. “It’s not as if it will be on public display. Be quick about it, though.”
“I told you, they give away your table if—“
“No,” said Ivan. He would swear he could hear his back molars grinding. “Why are you taking me to dinner at the Outpost?”
“Late birthday present,” said By, looking pointedly at his chrono.
“My birthday is in two months.”
“Early present, then,” Byerly said, and headed back out to the living room. “Show some hustle, will you?”
Ivan stared after him, feeling that spinning sensation he’d come to identify as the centripetal force of a tightly focused will circling in on him. It was the sort of thing that Miles did when he needed someone to stand watch or do something illegal or carry his luggage. Ivan had a bad feeling about this, but he knew there was really only one option in situations like this: go quietly and keep your eyes open for the first chance to rabbit.
And in the meantime, he’d get dinner on Byerly’s mark.
Ivan dressed hastily, switching belts to be contrary. When he re-emerged into the living room he discovered By parked on the sofa, sniggering at the holovid and drinking a beer from the fridge.
“Right,” By said, gulping the last of the beer and bouncing up as Ivan appeared. “Off we go.”
Ivan trailed him downstairs. By had left his car in a no parking zone right in front of the building. Miraculously, it was neither ticketed nor towed off by the automated antigrav removers that prowled the city. It was a nicer groundcar than his, Ivan noted grumpily.
Byerly had the music cranked up to teeth-rattling levels, happily precluding any conversation.
The Outpost was in the southwest quadrant of the city, two blocks off the main commercial artery. Ivan tumbled out of the car, ears ringing, and did a little gawking as Byerly authorized a parking attendant’s palm print to operate the car. A steady stream of well-dressed people flowed up and down the street, most likely coming from the concert hall on the corner. In just thirty seconds of playing ‘my title is bigger than your title,’ Ivan spotted a troop of minor lords, a government minister, a fleet admiral, and two counts.
“Come on,” By said, ushering him into the foyer. They didn’t have to wait – By spoke briefly to the maitre d’ who nodded and smiled obsequiously, and passed them off to be guided to a quiet corner table. Ivan thought about complaining when Byerly took the chair against the wall, forcing Ivan to sit sideways to the room, most of his view blocked by a potted plant. But somehow there just wasn’t the right moment in the elegant flurry of wine lists and menus and then the near instantaneous arrival of an appetizer platter.
“So,” said Ivan, starting in on the stuffed mushrooms. “What’s the story? Are you trying to win a bet?”
“Nope,” said By cheerfully. “Good guess, though. Try the salmon – it’s imported from Earth.”
There were no prices on the menu, preventing Ivan from mounting a direct assault on By’s wallet. He let his stomach guide him instead, and settled on fresh vat steak, the new kind with the bovine DNA spliced back in.
“So,” said By, after the waiter had gone. “How’s your cousin?”
“Oh God,” said Ivan in realization. “Is this about Miles?”
“It’s a little something called ‘making polite conversation,’” said By. “You may have witnessed it once or twice. This has nothing to do with Miles,” he added, at Ivan’s continued suspicion. “If I wanted to know what he’s up to, all I’d have to do is read the politics supplement in the morning paper.”
“There you go, then,” Ivan said. “He’s discovering the joys of politics. Always knew he was twisted, but I never had any idea how much until now.”
“And discovering the joys of his lady wife,” By murmured.
“That too,” said Ivan. “Which means that even he can get middle aged and boring.”
“What is that?” By demanded, dropping his napkin into his lap. “They get married, and they age ten years over night.”
“So it’s not just me,” Ivan said, relieved. “M’mother says marriage is ‘a great gift and comfort,’ which makes it sound like she’s trying to sell me a new mattress.” He paused consideringly. “Though she also says it’s my duty to get married, which would explain the boring part.”
The food arrived. Ivan’s steak practically melted before the knife touched it, and even the green vegetables were tasty. It was just as good as Ivan had remembered, and they ate in silence for a while.
“Seriously though,” Ivan said, picking up his glass. “What’s the story?”
“Can’t a bloke just take a friend to dinner?” By asked.
“You’re a very suspicious man, you know that?”
“Environmental conditioning,” said Ivan.
“Oh, speaking of,” said By, grinning suddenly. “You know that rumor making the rounds about Nepvu?”
“Uh . . . yeah?” Ivan said, wondering with alarm what the Minister of Terraforming’s supposed habit of wearing women’s underwear had to do with his marvelous steak.
“Well if you’ve got any money in the betting pool, go all in,” By said. “Genuine holos should be hitting the news any day now.”
“Um thanks,” said Ivan, who’d already put fifty down on that very outcome. “How do you know?” he added.
“Again with the suspicion,” said By. “You’d think I was dangerous or something, the way you do go on.” He blinked guilelessly across the table, and Ivan refused to gratify him with either confirmation or denial. “Friend of mine was the, erm, intrepid holographer,” By said after a moment. “Undercover job.”
“Under covers, you mean?”
By grinned. “Hey, you’ve really got to admire that sort of devotion to a story. That’s real courage under fire, that is.” He paused and made a slight face. “Er, so to speak.”
Ivan sniggered into his wine glass, then turned to signal the waiter for a refill. “Oi, that’s Commodore Feran,” he said, beginning to stand. “I should go over and—“
“Keep your head down,” By snapped, slapping Ivan’s waving hand down to the table.
“Shh!” Under his glare, Ivan moderated his volume.
“Byerly,” he said between gritted teeth, “explain to me what is going on in your tiny little mind.”
By smiled urbanely, lifting his glass, and it took Ivan several seconds to realize that he was casually scanning the room under cover of the gesture. “Well, you didn’t manage to blow everything,” By said, relieved. “Finish your dinner,” he added, full attention returning to Ivan. “
The waiter appeared with the second wine selection, and Ivan shut his mouth with a snap.
“Would the gentlemen like any dessert?” the waiter asked.
“No,” growled Ivan.
“What do you have tonight?” By asked.
The waiter smiled gamely. “Well sir, tonight we have the Baked Chocolate Sabayon, which is a personal favorite, and –“
“Great,” said By. “We’ll take two.”
The waiter cast one mildly perturbed look at Ivan’s expression, then gave a fractional shrug. “As you wish.”
Dessert was outrageously good, which was only more irritating. Ivan kept his mouth shut, except to eat every last crumb. It didn’t seem to matter, though – By supplied an endless stream of chatter, hopping easily from the recent and lamentable resurgence of the sailor suit to Countess Vorberg’s affair with her lady’s maid to acrobats. He didn’t even seem perturbed when the bill finally arrived.
“Am I allowed to get up now?” Ivan asked when the transaction was through.
“Oh sure,” By said easily. “Feran left fifteen minutes ago.”
Ivan stomped out ahead of him, pausing only to snatch up one of the complimentary chocolate mints left on the table. It was a warm night, and Ivan yanked off his jacket during the brief wait for the car.
“So?” he demanded, once they were settled and pulling into traffic.
“Was that Meghan Lumic with Feran?” By asked, checking his rear viewscreen.
“How should I know,” snapped Ivan. “It’s not like I keep up with that crowd.” Miles had said a few snide things about cultural isolationism in the ranks when he’d needled Ivan into admitting he didn’t have any actual friends in the pack of maddeningly over-achieving Komarran early enlisters.
By cut him a quick look. “I do.”
“Why?” asked Ivan, though he was beginning to think he could guess.
“Because some people like to know,” said By. “And because your branch of the service has been getting remarkably leaky lately. No major operations have been bollocksed up, not yet anyway. But the brass is worried. You must have noticed.”
“Sure,” said Ivan. There were the new and irritatingly stringent security measures, now that he thought about it. He paused, frowning in thought. “You don’t think Feran . . .”
“Dunno,” said By. “At least one hand-picked Komarran officer is leaking information. Someone’s in for the long con. But at the moment, all I want to know is who Commodore Feran’s having dinner with these days. And, as it happens, he’s having dinner with the Empress’s second cousin who is also a distant relation of a Komarran family that bet on the wrong side during the revolt.”
“Well sure,” said Ivan. “So’s the Empress, for that matter.”
By shrugged. “True. It’s just . . . good to know.”
Ivan shifted in his seat, staring at him. Byerly drove with strange textbook precision, his attention studiously on the road.
“What?” he said, not looking around.
“Is that it?” Ivan asked. “I mean, is that what you do for, y’know—“ he waved in a vaguely easterly direction towards the ImpSec building. “Do you just eat in fancy restaurants and write down who’s talking to who?”
“Do I detect a note of jealousy?” asked By.
“No,” Ivan snapped. “I was just thinking that it really is true – the service promotes people to the height of their abilities.”
By laughed out loud. “Says the guy whose job is feeding information into a processor all day, running sims, and writing down who wins.”
“I like my job,” Ivan said defensively. It was generally true, too. The only real change that had come with his captaincy was that the bits of information he fed to the computers had slightly higher security ratings. And now he had an ensign to bring him coffee. Both of these things suited Ivan just fine. Most days, anyway.
“I like my job, too,” said By. “And I can guarantee you it’s a lot more interesting than yours.”
“Why’d you ask me along, then?” Ivan demanded suddenly. “You want to know who I’m talking to, and just figured you’d take the direct approach?”
“Ha, no,” said By. “You’re really not that important. No, it’s just you have a higher security clearance than most at your rank because of your family connections, and I need someone with a stronger social tie to this lot than I have.”
“So I’m . . . cover?” asked Ivan.
“And you look good doing it, too,” said By. He pulled up in front of Ivan’s building. “So, what do you say, going to help me out?”
“I have an option?” said Ivan, startled. Usually when he found himself playing dogsbody to someone’s covert operation, it was by way of being involuntarily drafted via family loyalty.
“Sure,” said By. “I mean, you can always say no if you really don’t want free dinners in the best restaurants Vorbarr Sultana has to offer.”
“Oh, this involves spending time with you, doesn’t it?” said Ivan, weighing up his options.
“I like that,” said By. “Buy the man dinner and he complains about the company. I’m a fine catch of an evening, I’ll have you know.”
“I bet you are,” muttered Ivan. He looked from Byerly to his building, mostly dark at this time of night. The holovid was still waiting, and his cold take-out, and an address book full of lovely and accommodating ladies. Whose average age seemed to be precipitously dropping as Ivan’s contemporaries all got themselves hitched. And it was funny, but he’d swear the new crop of available girls were more work than their older sisters had been. He’d used to like that part almost as much as the payoff, too.
‘More interesting,’ By had said, as if that would be a positive. Ivan had made a career out of ducking the interesting; everything just went so much more smoothly that way. And yet . . . “Okay fine,” he said, before he could think better of it.
“Great,” said By. “I’ll see you tomorrow at eight.” He popped the canopy.
“What’s tomorrow?” Ivan asked, already getting a sinking feeling.
“Opera,” By said brightly. “And don’t wear your gray suit,” he added as Ivan climbed out. “Or that horrid blue one. Or the brown. Or the – hmm. Let’s make that 7:30.”
He drove off before Ivan could answer.
“Hold on, who’s she again?” By’s breath was warm on Ivan’s ear as he leaned close to hiss the question.
Ivan turned his head, squinting. “Uh. She’s the one who was turned into a swan to hide her from her mother’s half-brother – the assassin one, not the acrobat one.”
“Huh,” muttered By. “So who’s she making time with, then?”
“That’s the assassin in disguise,” Ivan said. “Or possibly her brother. Not sure.”
They glanced at each other and simultaneously mouthed “eww.”
There came an entire two minutes of silence, save for the music. A whole lot of howling, at least to Ivan’s mind.
“Why’s she dressed as a boy, now?” By asked. The man in front of them turned to glare for the fifth time.
“You could always try wearing the translation set,” Ivan hissed, jabbing a thumb at the earplugs dangling around By’s neck.
“Well that would take all the fun out of it,” By said. “What’s the point of an opera when you know who everyone is?”
“I think she’s masquerading as one of the robbers,” Ivan said, and was promptly hushed by the woman to his right. He threw her an apologetic, charming smile, and got only vile loathing in return.
“Oh, please tell me she’s going to do some more canoodling dressed like that,” said By. “That might even make this worthwhile.”
“The, uh, target hasn’t moved,” Ivan said, checking over his shoulder. Byerly convulsed silently in his seat, sliding down and clapping a hand over his mouth. “What?” Ivan snapped.
“Target,” By burbled.
“Well what do you call it?” Ivan demanded in an irritable hiss.
“Usher,” said By, and straightened abruptly, hands folding primly in his lap and an expression of beatific attention fixing itself on his face.
“Wha—“ Ivan began, then he spotted the uniformed and glowering usher prowling up the nearest aisle, and shut his mouth.
“In my sector of the business,” By’s voice floated over, “we call them ‘marks’.” His lips were barely moving in the corner of Ivan’s vision, but he was definitely grinning. “Or sometimes ‘suckers.’”
“Remind you of anyone?” By asked. The ape on tour with the Traveling Galactic Zoo stuck a hairy digit up its nose, inspected the results, then popped it into his mouth.
“Aside from Count Vormuir, no,” said Ivan.
“Oh my God, that’s exactly what I was thinking.” By grinned manically over his spray of cotton candy. He was wearing a ridiculous wide-brimmed hat to protect what he called his ‘delicate complexion,’ but the tip of his nose was turning pink in the late afternoon sun anyway.
“It’s the personal hygiene that really does it,” said Ivan.
“I was thinking more the way he keeps humping that one with the wrong equipment,” By said, gesturing demonstratively. A well-dressed woman caught the movement, recoiled, and drew her young daughters hastily away. “I’m all in favor of a breadth of tastes,” By continued blithely, “but I get the idea this bloke’s just confused.” He checked casually over his shoulder, and it was a conscious effort for Ivan not to do the same. By was utterly disdainful of Ivan’s ability to surveil a potted plant, let alone a moving . . . target. “Come on,” By said, pushing off the glass enclosure. “I hear it’s mating season for the rhinos. You ever seen one of those on the prowl?”
The first person Ivan saw when he entered the ballroom was his mother. Almost like she’d been waiting for him. Which, dammit, coming half an hour late was supposed to avoid. She was standing with a bevy of what she called ‘protégés,’ but which Ivan persisted in calling ‘minions.’ They were a terrifyingly well-connected lot of protocol hounds, and Ivan made it a policy to keep out of their collective way.
Oddly, his mother didn’t immediately call him over, and Ivan actually bypassed her little group to the refreshment table without interference. He loaded up a plate, nodding as he passed friends and acquaintances, and then discovered that the bar was all the way on the other side of the expansive Vorbretton ballroom. Ivan struck off around the edges of the dance floor, pausing momentarily behind a pillar to avoid Katarina Vorsmythe. Go on one date with a pretty young thing, get bored to tears, decide it’s not worth another month of effort just to get laid so don’t return her calls, and all of a sudden she morphs into a raving harpy. Not his fault she was just about as eighteen as it was possible to be, and Ivan was certain that eighteen-year-olds had been a lot more interesting five years ago.
He never made it to the bar. Amelia Vorsoisson spotted him and dragged him out onto the floor. Ivan looked mournfully back at his abandoned plate over her shoulder, wondering what she could possibly want. They’d hardly spoken since she’d married two years ago – fidelity was really her thing, apparently.
It seemed that what she wanted was to smile bemusedly at him and ask him repeated variations on “so what are you up to these days?” Ivan tried various flavors of “same old, same old,” and took his leave at the end of the song. Amelia immediately homed in on a clump of fellow young attached females, and Ivan was so busy craning over his shoulder to watch their huddled conversation that he nearly ran smack into his mother. Only her sharp throat-clearing alerted him, and he pulled up short on the edge of the dance floor.
“Mother,” he said, locating a smile. “You look lovely tonight.”
“Thank you, Ivan.” She was eyeing him the way she’d used to do when he’d broken a porcelain teacup and hidden the pieces. Come to think of it, it was the same look she got every time he managed to get an appropriately placed girl not to marry him. Which he hadn’t done lately, and her cups were generally safe from him these days.
“What?” Ivan asked, shifting uneasily from foot to foot.
She inhaled audibly through her nose, lips compressing. Ivan took a reflexive step back, sudden alarms going off in his head. But then something very strange happened: she didn’t say anything. She just stood there, lips parted a little, and then made a very uncharacteristic gesture, nearly throwing up her hands. “Never mind,” was all she said,. “Carry on.” And she swept off into the crowd, leaving an unmistakable flavor of maternal exasperation in her wake. Ivan looked after her, puzzled, then shrugged it off and returned to his original trajectory alcohol-ward.
This time it was Miles who derailed him. His cousin ducked out of an alcove – with drink in hand, the rat – and snagged Ivan by the sleeve to tow him out of the flow of traffic.
“Nice to see you, too,” Ivan said, looking pointedly down at the grip Miles had on his cuff.
“I left you a message,” Miles said. “Didn’t you get it?”
“Sorry, haven’t checked the com in a while,” Ivan said. “I got home late last night.”
“You were having dinner on the river, I know, I know,” Miles said, with one of those ‘keep up’ hand flaps of his.
Ivan blinked. “How’d you know that?”
“Well, I think I’d managed to absorb it after the seventeenth person told me,” said Miles. “But I’ve got to say the skywriting was a nice touch.”
“What?” said Ivan blankly. And then, with sudden alarm, “Wait, you mean everyone’s talking about it?”
Miles gave him a look like his brain had just dribbled out his ear. “Yes,” he said, enunciating carefully.
“Well shit,” said Ivan, wondering what Byerly’s reaction would be to discovering his little covert surveillance wasn’t so covert anymore. Ivan couldn’t imagine how it could be his fault, but then again he could almost never imagine how things could be his fault.
“A bit of advice,” said Miles, and Ivan finally took a close enough look at him to realize what that look was – he hadn’t seen that much unholy, howling glee since Miles’d maneuvered someone into marrying him. “Just, you know, for your consideration,” said Miles, a grin twitching spasmodically at the corners of his mouth. “When you’re dating someone and you’re trying to keep it quiet, don’t have public dinners together.”
“Or snuggle at the opera,” Miles carried on. “Or take late night strolls down the docks. Or window shop together on Sultana Avenue.”
“Shut up,” Ivan said suddenly, lifting a hand. Astoundingly, Miles did. It’d never worked like that before, and Ivan made a mental note to revisit the technique. At the moment, however . . . “Oh my God,” he said slowly.
“What?” asked Miles. He wasn’t vibrating on his toes anymore; he almost looked concerned, in fact.
“I’m dating Byerly Vorrutyer,” Ivan said.
Miles grin came back full force. “I know,” he beamed. “It’s fantastic. I laughed so hard coffee came out my nose. You’ve offended and enraged every single social conservative in this city – I had no idea you had it in you.”
“ . . . oh my God,” Ivan said faintly. “My mother . . . oh my God.” Then, regaining some strength, “give me that.” He plucked Miles’s glass away and drained it in a half dozen long swallows.
“Hey,” Miles protested. “I was drinking that in your honor. For the –“ he sniggered uncontrollably “—health of the happy couple. God, why can’t every day be like today?”
“Oi, Vorpatril.” Byerly appeared between them and snagged Ivan’s elbow. Ivan wondered dimly why everyone seemed to think he needed to be led by force. “Oh, hello, Vorkosigan,” By added, waving vaguely. “You know Lord Vorgovya has cornered your wife over on the veranda?”
“Excuse me,” Miles said hastily. He ducked under Ivan’s arm to depart, pausing momentarily a few steps away and looking back. “Really, Ivan, I’m impressed,” he said. “And congratulations.” That was the painfully sincere face, Ivan distantly cataloged.
“Come on,” By was saying, tugging insistently. “Feran’s gone out for an intimate stroll in the gardens.”
Ivan let himself be led. Nothing new there. And it was a good thing By could babble on so comfortably without any input from him, because Ivan really wasn’t sure what might fall out of his mouth if he opened it right now. This was so incredibly, spectacularly not his fault. But when had that ever mattered before?
“Over here,” By said, urging him up a dimly lit garden path. “Couldn’t tell who he’s with.”
“Um, Byerly,” Ivan said carefully.
“Mmm?” By said, glancing between the tall rose bushes.
“”Um, well,” said Ivan. “I think we have a bit of a problem.”
“I’ll say we do – he’s coming back this way,” By said, abruptly reversing course. “Come on.” Ivan could hear footsteps on the crushed stone ahead, and By broke into a jog, then slowed and yanked Ivan off the path into a little sheltered alcove between two trees. The outer garden wall was cold and damp against Ivan’s back.
“Uh, By,” he tried again.
“Shh,” said By, peering out.
“I said – oh, fuck it.” By turned and kissed him.
“Mmm!” said Ivan, which simultaneously meant ‘no, really, I think you screwed up your operation’ and ‘your tongue is in my mouth.’
One of By’s hands had worked itself behind Ivan’s head, cushioning him against the stone wall. By’s fingers laced into his hair and gently pulled Ivan’s head back. The push of his tongue was slow, insistent, obscene. Ivan dimly heard footsteps passing close by, the murmur of voices and the tinkle of female laughter. By’s thigh had edged between his own. Ivan inhaled sharply when By released his mouth, and he saw the white flash of teeth in a shark’s grin.
By’s free hand slid down Ivan’s chest, settled at his crotch, squeezed hard. Ivan jerked, as much as he could in the close quarters. By had him pinned between the painful tug at his hair and the sweet grip at his cock. “Oh yeah,” By breathed. “I thought so.”
“Uh. I think they’re gone,” Ivan said.
“That’s nice,” said By, and bit his earlobe.
“Uh, we could – we could go back inside?” Ivan said, voice creeping up the register.
By paused in the act of dragging his tongue down Ivan’s throat. He looked up, face unreadable in the darkness. “Do you want to go back to the party?” he asked. “I’m sure, if you hurry, you can make the last set. In the mood for a lively waltz, are you?”
“Um. No,” said Ivan. “Now that you put it that way. Wait,” he added hastily as By leaned in again. “I have a question.”
“I’m about to make you come so hard you’ll see stars,” said By. “I was thinking just my hands, first, but on second thought—“ he caught up one of Ivan’s hands and slid the fingers into his mouth, sucking hard and then gently biting. “Is there anything else you really need to know right now?” he murmured against Ivan’s fingertips.
“Er, just one thing,” said Ivan, blinking hard. So maybe he wasn’t as quick as some people, but he usually got there eventually. “Is Feran the mole?”
“Nope,” said By. “It’s a Captain, not in your unit.”
“When’d you figure that out?” asked Ivan.
By shrugged elaborately. “Oh, about three weeks ago. It’s blindingly obvious. The bosses don’t believe me yet, but they will.”
“Oh,” said Ivan faintly.
By leaned in, breath warm on Ivan’s face. “Anything else?” he asked.
“No,” said Ivan. “That was it.”
“Good,” said By, and kissed him again.