The night the earbugs stopped working, the night that language spoke without words, began with the planning for an ordinary state dinner. If, indeed, such a thing could ever be ordinary, and this preparation was more chaotic than most. It was the first banquet following Gregor's majority that included a foreign prince as guest (the eldest son of the Baba of Lairouba, traveling the galaxy as part of his education), and as it happened many other visiting dignitaries from a remarkable range of planets were in Vorbarr Sultana and could not be ignored. And when you invited them, you were also required to invite the relevant ambassadors or consuls resident in the city: those from the same planets, and those from the planets which were their allies or -- more importantly -- their enemies. And spouses, and senior staff.
Which added up to a guest list of well over a hundred, including all the important Barrayarans who could be trusted to behave themselves in the same room with galactics. They'd had less lead time than usual for security arrangements, and Simon was managing catnaps at his desk and not much else. Exhaustion meant that his chip was sulky and uncooperative; or, in more rational terms, he was dealing with inferior retrieval of data and irrelevant infodumps, and swearing a lot. He'd reached the hair-tearing stage by the time Aral and Cordelia entered his Residence office the evening of the day before the dinner.
"Simon," said Aral, with what he likely thought was full understanding and empathy in his voice. "One minute of your time, please."
He drew in breath through his nose and sighed out, "Gladly, Prime Minister," and there was no doubt Aral understood that.
"We wish to make an addition to the guest list," he said.
Simon grimaced. "Have you told Lady Alys?"
"Not yet, but," Aral managed before Simon broke in.
"Do you have any idea how many guests we don't yet have full security briefings on? And you want to add another. I just hope it's someone we've already cleared."
Cordelia smiled. "Security isn't an issue in this case."
"Security," said Simon patiently, "is always an issue. Who is it?"
"You," said Aral.
Aral did this to him a few times a year, though usually with more warning. Not that making diplomatic dinner table conversation while sniffing out spies wasn't in the nonexistent job description, but Aral did that kind of thing like breathing and Simon did it like turning handsprings through hoops. Impressively, but with great difficulty. And he'd had too little sleep this week.
Which showed in his response. "Is this one of the 'Simon, you've been working too hard and we just want you to relax for an evening, the Residence walls will stand up without you, and oh, by the way' ones? Or are you going to tell me flat out who you need me to eavesdrop on?"
Aral smiled. "I want you to watch the dynamic between the Minister for Agriculture and the Escobaran ambassador. They'll both be at my table, as will you. And Lady Alys."
"Who will need to kick someone down below the salt to accommodate your whim. She's not going to be happy. Not that any of us are in this for happiness."
A pregnant pause followed, a pause with a gargantuan belly hanging off it, then Cordelia gave a short laugh and said, "I'll tell her. I'm used to Alys's brand of righteous vexation."
"So am I," Aral and Simon said in doleful chorus, then looked at each other and broke into chuckles.
"Have you told Gregor whatever it is you suspect about his Minister," Simon said, "that I'm sure you're not going to inform me of because it would prejudice my observation?"
"I will, as soon as you tell me," Aral said. "Alexei's not going to pull out a plasma arc in the middle of the second course. He's not likely to do anything at all; I'm just... concerned. Watchful." Simon let out an irritated huff of breath. "Turn over all the stones you wish to and have time for," Aral said. "I don't believe you'll find anything, though."
"You do know that Alexei Baturin and I are from the same District? The same town, in fact? That we were children together?"
"I'm aware of that, Simon."
"Very well. Thank you for the invitation. Red-and-blues, I assume?"
"Oh, absolutely," said Aral. "This is a spectacle, after all."
Simon nodded, stared them out of his office, and sat down to his work, waiting for Alys's infuriated voice to arrive over the com.
The next evening, after a period of preliminary socializing, which for Simon consisted of hovering at his deputy's side and snapping out instructions as he thought of them, the signal for dinner was given and he took Lady Alys's arm to enter the grand hall. She rated a socially higher-ranking partner, but since she set protocol she could do as she pleased, and she pleased to hiss last-minute words of advice in Simon's ear, rather as he'd been doing to Major Desmoulins a moment before, but probably not with as lovely a waft of scent on drawing near. The blue of her gown matched the blue in his uniform with august precision.
"The Lairouban who'll be seated between us," she muttered, "has two illegitimate children he doesn't want anyone to know about, so I'd keep off the topic. Oh, and don't mention snakes to the Illyrican trade delegation leader to your right. You'll see why."
"How about bastard snakes?" he whispered back, and Alys made a face. "You know what she'll want to talk to me about," he added, and tapped his head. "And that should be enough dancing around for me for one night, but perhaps you will honor me later...?"
"Of course, Simon," she said, "but you'll have to wait through several ambassadors first. And I'm not sure my feet will outlast the one from Pol."
"At least it's not the elephant," he murmured. He'd been seated next to the elephant's owner, who was now Polian minister for galactic affairs, at a banquet the year before, and had learned far more than he wanted to about elephantoid digestive matters. Information was information, of course, and he always appreciated the obsessed.
When they reached the table Simon squired Alys to the foot and took his own seat two to her right. Between them sat Mahdi Elmandjra, a tall and portly man who was Prince Amir's primary attendant. Simon glanced across the table: Minister Baturin was directly opposite him, with Ambassador Vargas of Escobar on his left hand. They clearly knew each other, and had already begun discussing something Simon couldn't quite hear over the buzz in the room. It didn't look at all suspicious, but he didn't have much time to observe before the Illyrican next to him claimed her conversational privilege as the soup was being served.
She was in her early forties, a few years his junior, and her lovely brown eyes and olive skin helped her carry off the eye-popping shade of yellow she wore. The skin on her neck, however, was marred by a ghastly if mostly-faded necrotic scar. "Miranda Antonietti," she introduced herself, "but you knew that. And you're Captain Illyan. We all know you; you've been carrying our technology around in your head for over two decades."
"Bought and paid for," he reminded her. Paid for many times over.
"Of course," she answered. The Illyricans had a nearly Jacksonian devotion to the Deal, though most of their transactions at least involved money. "But you're very unique, you know."
He bowed modestly. I'm unique. You don't need to qualify it, he wanted to say, but criticizing his dinner partner's semantics would put him in Alys's bad graces, if nothing else.
"We suppose," Miranda went on, "that eventually another customer would have survived the implantation, if our scientists hadn't given up on further development. It simply wasn't cost-effective to continue, however."
Because, he thought, eventually someone would wriggle through some loophole in your liability agreement. He didn't mind at all being unique.
His next glance across the table was noted by Miranda. "Missed the signal," she said.
"Your Barrayaran friend. Missed Lady Vorpatril's signal to turn right. He's talking to the wrong person."
I hope not, Simon thought grimly, and then said, "Lady Alys's signals are like Betan earrings in that you have to know the code. I'm afraid Minister Baturin can be a bit dense in that regard, though he's very good at his job." Getting farmers to sacrifice for the Imperium, mostly.
"She's stuck talking to two people at once," Miranda said, meaning Alys.
"Yes, and one of them doesn't speak any English. Or French, Russian or Greek." Elmandjra was polyglot only in the sense that he spoke both Arabic and Lairouban. "A surprising number of our guests tonight possess none of the Barrayaran languages or the galactic standards thereof. Hence the earbugs," he added, touching his: the one that translated, not the one that sent him rushing out to deal with security crises.
"Oh, I was wondering," Miranda said, touching hers as well. "Hand them out to everyone and then you can talk to anyone you want? And they do a good job; I've used them quite a lot, of course, in my travels."
Simon hesitated for a moment before saying, "I don't like them."
"They fight with my chip." It was a judgment call, always, how much to reveal about the functioning of his artificial memory. Some of it was certainly classified, but Miranda seemed to be aware of the basic facts already, and he felt, oddly, that he didn't mind telling her a bit more. "It does translate for me, but only bits of vocabulary I've been exposed to. And no matter how many dictionaries I skim, it's not the same as really knowing a language, like the content providers for the earbugs do. The chip doesn't manage unfamiliar euphemism and figurative phrases well, not to mention the wilder expressions of linguistic humor." When it did construe a pun correctly, it tended to dump the entire logical structure of the explanation on Simon as well, with linked prior examples. Earbugs never offered more than a brief footnote.
"So what's the difficulty? Can't you tell the chip to shut up for a while?"
"Yes," Simon said cautiously, "but it can be useful. If, for example, you were to tell me in a particular dialect of Kibou-dainian that I had soup on my face, I believe the earbug would take it literally. It's not something most people familiar with the language could interpret. The chip knows, because somewhere in the database of my brain I know, that it means I've been marked for assassination."
"My goodness," said Miranda.
"That's merely one of a thousand bits of criminal jargon one might run into. Dining with Jacksonians," he added, "is particularly exhausting."
Miranda grinned. "Are any of them here tonight?"
"No. Thank God."
"Well, you may rest assured that anything I say about soup is to be taken literally. It's delicious, by the way."
He hadn't eaten any of his yet, and hastened to do so. "Tell me something about Illyrica I missed while I was there," he said to Miranda. "Which would be nearly everything." She smiled and started to talk about handicrafts.
The chip, he imagined, slumped a little. Until now it had been logging the conversation with what he couldn't help but think of as impertinent glee. To assign emotions to his bioelectronic memory device was to court madness, but it was true that he was not usually conscious of ongoing recording, even though it never stopped except in deep sleep. Likely the glee was actually his, suppressed and leaking out around the edges, rather than the chip's. But it was amusing to think of it sitting there smugly aware that it was being discussed. Perhaps that was why he'd far outlasted all the others who'd had this done to them, because he could find humor in the predicament.
Everything else he could see or hear was being recorded as well, and he tried to take unobtrusive glances at the rest of the table and the room to establish visual references, while setting Miranda on a tour through the Illyrican countryside. Apparently the native plant life tended toward shades of purple... he could see Baturin and Vargas out of the side of his eye only, but the chip recalled for him every facial expression he'd caught, and compared them with those of previous encounters. Still nothing to be worried about. Though they hadn't eaten much soup either.
Simon made socially-correct responses to Miranda's travelogue, his eyes occasionally sliding past her to glimpse Aral at the head of the table, a Komarran on his dexter and a Cetagandan on his sinister side, which seemed wholly appropriate. Finally, the soup was cleared and the fish course was served: sole, with sugar snap peas on the side. Miranda smiled at him and turned to speak to her right-hand neighbor, and when Simon looked over he saw that the Lairouban was still mesmerized by Alys; well, mesmerized by her cleavage, perhaps, but also by her conversation, and Simon wasn't about to deny him a harmless appreciation of either.
He gazed out into the room, of which Alys's seating assignment had provided him a good view. Gregor sat at the head of the high table, young Prince Amir on his right and the wife of the Galactic Affairs Minister, who was just as good at subtle direction of discourse as her husband, but less threatening and more decorative, on his left. That was Alys's "just in case" effort, but Simon could read Gregor's expression well enough to know that he wasn't struggling. He'd certainly had plenty of practice at exercising social charm, poor boy.
The table opposite his was headed by Cordelia, talking animatedly with the envoy from Parampara, Count Vordrozda looking on sour-faced. Aral must be trying to wring some concession out of him, to ask Alys to rank him so highly. Farther down the room, what they would never call the children's table was not headed by a Vorkosigan, out of tact, but Miles was dominating it anyway. With the chip's help, Simon filtered out noise until he could hear Miles clearly, the baritone now freed of its soprano squeals going on about maple syrup, of all things. He kept listening in the back of his head, attuned to conversational land mines arising from geographic association, such as "guerrilla cache" or, well, "land mine." Or anything like the joke Ivan had regaled the children's table with at the last dinner, about Dendarii hill girls and their premature and often kin-based loss of virginity. He did seem to have learned something from the subsequent maternal tongue-lashing. Also, he was preoccupied by the daughter of the Marilacan consul. Who was, the chip informed Simon, only thirteen. Well, Ivan couldn't get too badly into trouble at a state dinner, and Alys's innate debauchery detector would pick it up if he did, even behind her back.
The rest of the tables, each headed by a high-ranking military officer, Count or Minister, painted the room in a multicolored palette, with a recurrent theme of gaudy red-and-blue uniforms: like poppies in a field, the chip supplied, rather frivolously. They weren't uniforms for fighting in, though they included swords. A subtle point of diplomacy, Simon thought, that made it difficult to sit down.
He turned his attention back to his plate, speared a pea, and called up a chip image from a moment ago: Baturin, pea pod in his pale hand... gesturing with it? No, calling attention to it, saying something about fertilizer with that air of determined disappointment Simon recalled in the hardscrabble farmers of his youth, including Baturin's father. He tried to get the chip to isolate the ongoing conversation as he'd done with Miles, but somehow that was harder just across the table, probably because the recorded voice came in a beat behind the real voice and he couldn't help listening for both. Baturin was speaking Russian (hm, interesting) with phrases here and there in halting Spanish (intriguing); and Vargas was replying in Spanish, which the earbug had to translate for Simon after the chip fetched the words.
More words, in English, behind his back. He turned his head: one of the waiters, a face familiar from ImpSec's corridors. He wasn't done with his fish, but he let the man collect the plate anyway, so as not to call attention to himself.
"I'm sorry good manners had to interrupt our conversation," Miranda said, turning back to him, "but I suppose you don't mind being alone with your thoughts." On his left, the Lairouban was still talking to Alys, and it was time for Alys's other neighbor to be silent, as Vargas and Baturin showed no sign of speaking to anyone but each other. Miranda had put emphasis on "alone." She knew Simon never was. And always.
"I was thinking about my childhood," he said, recalling a second too late that he wasn't supposed to mention children; but no, that was to the Lairouban, and surely speaking of himself as a child was acceptable in any case? "Our District supplies much of the pea crop for the capital," he dredged out of memory, both mechanical and organic. "Long cool wet summers. Bitter cold winters. Winters out of hell." It was how he'd got so cold himself, he often thought.
Miranda nodded, though he knew, one factoid out of millions in his brain, that no part of Illyrica ever froze. Like Escobar, the chip added irrelevantly. Of course, Miranda traveled for a living; she'd seen all sorts of planets.
"Oh! There's a storm," she said, and she meant here and now; Simon heard thunder for the first time, though the chip had been registering it for... four minutes and twenty-three seconds. "Did you notice?"
"Yes," he said.
"Tell me more about your childhood," she said, and he did, the stodgy boy who had been Alexei Baturin always at the edge of his consciousness and never emerging from his mouth.
They talked on through dressed-up vat protein and more vegetables, and then Simon and the Lairouban sat silent by each other eating salad as Alys engaged the shy Vervani on her other side; then Simon ate meltingly delicious cake and listened to Miranda talk about her childhood in the Illyrican rainforest and her education in its capital city, as the thunder outside got louder. The last course was cheese and fruit, by Barrayaran tradition. And finally the Lairouban spoke to him.
About Alys. "She is beautiful, is she not?" mumbled Mahdi Elmandjra around Vorbretten's District goat cheese. The earbug translated for Simon, he hoped flawlessly. "Not like a woman of our people, not so modest, but... still she wears the veil. Invisibly. Yes?"
Simon agreed, and informed him that Alys was a widow, and of great importance to the Emperor. No, His Imperial Majesty would not take her for a wife; she helped him by planning banquets of this sort, and other events. Yes, Elmandjra understood how essential that was; he assisted with some of the same work on behalf of the Prince; recently there had been a dinner for five hundred, and they had served a salad with raisins, the Arabic name neatly footnoted by the earbug, and cheese much like this one, and--
"Ferakh maamer, bistilla, tanjia," his voice droned on for a second, and then the lights went out.
Simon gave a massive security-induced twitch and nearly shot out of his seat, commlink in hand, before Alys's candlelit frown stopped him. Miranda clutched his arm, and Elmandjra gasped something in Arabic, probably that his earbug had stopped working, as had Simon's. In Simon's other ear Desmoulins, on the emergency channel, was efficiently distributing agents to respond to any threat. Barring that of weather: the storm was raging now, rain battering against the great windows.
Cordelia rose, the silver embroidery on her gown glittering in the candlelight, and cleared her throat. "Ladies and gentlemen," she said into the silence, her voice calm and reassuring enough to persuade those who couldn't understand her words, "please continue with your meal and, where possible, your conversation. This is merely a weather-related power outage," and Simon believed her, even though Desmoulins was still muttering orders about securing entrances, and Cordelia didn't have a security earbug -- and why one of his had gone out and not the other he would leave to the engineers, a particular frequency of electronic pulse after the last lightning strike, no doubt. She didn't add "no one is to leave the hall," but Simon knew they'd be stopped if they tried.
Elmandjra murmured something to excuse himself, and scurried to the high table, kneeling at the Prince's side. Simon sensed Gregor's Armsmen tense and then relax. He could barely see Gregor's face, just a glimpse of long nose and high cheekbone in the flickering light, but he remembered encountering many a game of Resistance guerillas in the poorly lit west wing corridors, and he knew the boy wasn't afraid of the dark. Nor was he a boy any longer.
Prince Amir, on the other hand, seemed to be a nyctophobe, clutching his attendant's shoulder, staring into the candelabra, and Gregor was looking down at his plate, then up again briefly, unwilling to engage. Unbidden, memories of the last hour tumbled into Simon's mind, glances at Gregor he'd taken unconsciously through long-nurtured protective instinct. One facial expression after another, collectively an illustration of insecurity. The Prince was Gregor's own age, not yet a ruler in his own right, not trained to do battle or negotiate peace, not even better-looking, and yet Gregor felt himself to be in the Prince's shadow. Less polished, less sophisticated, less witty: Simon could read it all in Gregor's uncertain gestures and tentative, humorless smiles.
His soul ached; his brain told him that Gregor was not his job at the moment, and neither was putting the lights back on. Emergency backups must have malfunctioned as well, but someone had corrected the error, and soft light now filtered into the hall from its edges, rendering the great space a degree more visible, but dinner guests were still revealed by candlelight, faces eerie and misshapen in the uneven glow.
Simon looked at Baturin and Vargas. They were leaning toward each other, emboldened by darkness, and he wondered for a moment if it was a love affair he was supposed to be uncovering, but the body language wasn't quite right; they didn't long for forbidden touch, but they longed for something. Baturin picked up a slice of blood orange, Escobaran orange, and sucked at it, licking his lips, his fingers. A mental flash of Alys, brushing a crumb away from her mouth as she treated him to tea in her office, the windows white with snow, and then Elmandjra slid back into his seat between them, graceful for such a large man. He spoke in Arabic while Vargas spoke in Spanish, and Simon realized both had said "so lonely in the dark."
He knew neither language but the words echoed in his skull along with incongruous images of sunlight on bougainvillea and lime sugar brightness, and Miranda's sympathetic smile, alone desolate forsaken forlorn unique, ice dripping from the eaves, and he looked straight at Vargas and saw forty-five stories of glass and lean steel, and he knew. Baturin didn't want Vargas; he wanted Escobar. He wanted to emigrate; he wanted to grow oranges in the sunshine, not peas in the mud.
Simon didn't blame him one bit.
He'd have to tell Aral, of course, and let the machinery of investigation churn. He hoped Baturin hadn't already managed to commit treason in his grasping at escape.
But he still didn't know where the words had come from. The chip was processing unfamiliar vocabulary for him now that the earbug was off, and it had been a simple enough phrase, using words some part of his brain must know in Spanish. Not in Arabic, however. He wondered if they'd actually said what he thought they had, or if his own melancholy had translated the spirit of the words rather than their substance.
"So lonely in the dark," he said under his breath, but Miranda heard him.
"It's not the loneliness," she murmured. "It's what hides there."
He looked at her, and he saw, with what only concentrated self-possession told him was not his eyes, the snake that was not a snake curling up over her shoulder, fangs bared. Blinking the vision away, he stared at the scar on her neck, shadowed from the candlelight.
"I was bitten, yes," she said. "I tried to find my childhood again, and it nearly killed me. Let that be a lesson to you, Simon Illyan," she added with laughter in her voice.
He opened his mouth, tried to say something, failed. "They aren't really snakes," Miranda went on. "They're an indigenous Illyrican species that only happens to resemble snakes, fitting into the same ecological niche. Not that it really matters. They still terrify me."
Simon found words. "It's an instinctive fear. Carried from Earth into the galaxy, lasting centuries through which no one saw a snake. Here on Barrayar, for example. We still use the creature in metaphor: twisty, slithery, evil."
"And on Illyrica we have rediscovered the reality behind the metaphor. It's as if a creator put them there on purpose, knowing we'd come. Do you believe in God, Simon?"
"No. Not any more." He was not in the mood for theological discussion. "Miranda," he said, accusing with the intimacy of first names. "I have just had a remarkably realistic hallucination. Have you put something in my wine?"
"It was deep blood-purple, with darker patches behind the visible ears, multifaceted eyes, and teeth like glass." Her voice was trembling. "Yes?" He nodded. "And when you were on my planet you watched wildlife vids. You don't remember, but you did. The chip remembers. And I expect my ophidiophobia is part of your security analysis. In case you ever need to torture me."
He stared at her. "Who are you?"
Her mouth curved up. "That can wait. I'd take advantage of this gift while you have it, Simon. The lights may come on again any moment." As if to defy her, lightning flashed and thunder rumbled the floor. The illumination turned Miranda's dress into a sheet of flame, wrapping tight about her writhing body. Yellow snakes engulfed her dark hair; she was still smiling, but her smile was Kareen's.
Simon pushed back his chair and fled. He had the presence of mind to touch his earbug and lean over his wristcomm as if speaking to Desmoulins, but ImpSec's security protocols were far from his thoughts, and a second later he did the heretical thing and switched the earbug off. Alys glanced at him as he turned away, disapproving but concerned; the image of her face lingered, the graceful, sensual line of her neck, flesh and tendons, hard collarbone, soft breasts: for a second there was an anatomy text in his inner vision, and then bare skin all the way down, the head thrown back in passion, his name on her lips, his lips on her...
No. No. That was not for his imagining.
But it wasn't imagination. He might have fantasized such a thing, yes, though he kept such strict control over his fantasies that they'd become more like index images to flip through and dismiss than real indulgences, which he'd have to share with the chip anyway. It wasn't even embarrassing salacious urges that he avoided most fervently -- those just meant that he was human, or as he sometimes put it in disturbed moments, still human -- but, instead, the brain-rubbish inventions about people he cared for being hurt or lost forever, or saying ridiculous sentimental things to him. Or telling him that it was fine if he wanted to emigrate to Escobar and certainly they'd let him and his chip leave the Empire without trailing assassins. Ha.
But this. Not a fantasy, not a fuzzy visualization of stimulus and response; but heart-pounding, blood-rousing mirage, devastatingly real, every detail present, at least... hm. Every detail he was aware of. Tucked safely into the shadow behind a pillar, across the room from where he'd been, he forced himself to reexamine the illusion; the chip eagerly complied. He'd never seen Alys naked, so the nakedness was a little generic, if plausible. The rest was perfect: skin down to pores and laugh lines; the scroll of her ear; the curl of sweat-dampened hair behind it; the scent of her body; the timbre of her voice. The construction of the vision, the joining of observed parts into a fictional whole, was very well done. He'd supplied the arousal (he was supplying it again), but as for the rest...
The chip glowed, deep in his brain; that was just as much a fiction as Alys in his bed, but he could see the brightening nonetheless, response to praise. Oi, you, he addressed it; he would not anthropomorphize, if that was the right word, sufficiently to give it a name. Random erotic visions are not your department. You're supposed to give me what I ask for, and only that.
But you wanted it, came the response. His words, of course; enough sense of a separate entity in his skull to warrant two voices.
I didn't want Miranda catching on fire and being attacked by snakes. That was showing off, and it told me nothing I needed to know.
There'd been the epiphany of Escobar, though. He supposed he could call that useful. What else have you got? he challenged. You can do better than pornography. Show me.
And he turned to face the hall.
The closest table to him now was Cordelia's. Borrowing images from the chip's memory, he enhanced his vision of her until she was no longer candle-shrouded. He could light her in fullness; he could not do as much for her neighbor, but the envoy from Parampara seemed to make her own light: the rings on her fingers, the bracelets on her arms, the silver about her dark neck gleaming. Her sari was silky brown, a brown more brilliant in its way than Miranda's yellow, alive with color, iridescent, a full spectrum from brown to brown. It was embroidered in silver.
He hadn't noted that consciously before; how odd. Cordelia was in green: last year's Winterfair gown. She hated not to wear things twice; it was wasteful otherwise. But this woman from across the galaxy was wearing Vorkosigan colors. Vordrozda had seen it; he'd been glaring at her all evening. For a moment, in Simon's eyes, his resentful face flattened, lengthened; a forked tongue flicked out...
Simon dug his fingernails into his palms, and the snake shrank back into Vordrozda again. Remember, it hissed in vanishing, and then the woman from Parampara lifted a hand to emphasize a point; the bracelets glittered, the silk shifted over her shoulder blade, and the entirety of Simon's vision filled with brown and silver: the hall and its furnishings chestnut and mahogany, all the faces brown, the clothes brown with metal finishings; the red-and-blues were brown; silver sparked from the dishes and the candles and the darkened lights; and, heresy of heresies, Gregor's black-and-silver Armsmen were clad for a new allegiance.
Simon shook his head violently to expel the treachery, and the vision disappeared. But no wonder he hadn't noticed the colors of the sari, if that was how he saw the world. He breathed shallowly, feeling himself wasting away in the Great Square. He wasn't Vor, though; they'd probably just shoot him. They did, in his head, and his brown prison rags fell away, leaving a naked red-and-blue corpse.
Cordelia had sensed the headshake, or his stare; she turned, met his eyes, and gave him an amused grimace. The walls will stand up without you, Simon. But they wouldn't; the pillar behind him was trembling, the stones of the Residence shifting and loosening: an earthquake memory, training in the Black Escarpment, before the chip went in, but vital and immediate and terrifying. The building was falling down. What long years of war and conflict had failed to do, Simon was doing with his mind. Stop. Make it stop, he ordered, pressing his body into the pillar, and in a moment it did, but not by his effort.
Aral rose, and grew until he was as high as the room. His shoulders flexed; his hands touched the ceiling, flattened, and held: an Atlas in a red-and-blue uniform, literally a great man, preserving his people from destruction. Serving, in any way necessary. He would let the stones bury him before he betrayed Gregor; Simon knew that. That was their rock, foundation to both of them. He looked down at the solid ground under his feet, and when he glanced up again, Aral was in his seat, a little shorter than the men near him, talking with relaxed gestures that made the candle flames bow and pray. Yes, Miranda; I believe in God. It just isn't as simple as you think.
He backed further into the shadows. Well, he told the chip, that was visually impressive, but all rather obvious. Tales out of childhood, deep-seated fears, love and loyalty. Tell me something I don't know.
The chip went very quiet, as if contemplating its next move. The room quieted as well, though Simon could see that everyone was talking as they had before. The chip was directing his ears toward one voice out of the cacophony: one very low, quiet voice speaking in French, in the darkness behind him.
As soon as the chip had isolated the voice for him, he recognized it: Ivan Vorpatril's. He shot a quick glance at the children's table. Ivan was no longer in his place, and neither was the Marilacan girl. He could hear her now, too. French seemed to be the language they had in common, though neither spoke it very well.
At first, Simon was sure he would have to intervene on Alys's behalf any second, but the endearments Ivan was using were gentle, not urgent -- ma mie, mon coeur en sucre -- and he seemed to be telling her a story rather than attempting a physical conquest. It was, not unexpectedly in a fourteen-year-old, the story of Ivan; and not the usual The Time I Beat Miles At tale. There were few enough of those, and Simon thought he'd heard them all. This story was pure invention, a very Barrayaran tale of derring-do; he could locate most of the sources in his databank, in some cases with accompanying vid, and without request the chip inserted Ivan's face in place of the hero's. The tale came to its thrilling end, and Simon applauded silently. The girl's response was breathless; kissing was likely to happen any second. Lucky Ivan, to get to kiss someone at a state dinner. He'd give him about one blissful minute before he went over there and shocked them with overkill, the Chief of Imperial Security interrupting a pair of teenagers necking.
And then Ivan surprised Simon utterly. "Ce n'est pas vrai, rien de tout cela," he said. "Mais je veux être cet homme dans l'histoire. Pour tu."
It's not true, not any of it. But I want to be the man in the story, for you.
It wasn't a line dangled to make her bite harder. Simon didn't think Ivan was that clever. It was just the truth. Ivan Vorpatril wanted to be a hero, a knight in blue and gold armor, and at the moment he'd slay a dragon for this girl.
He should go to Illyrica, Simon thought. He thought it in French, actually: the language of love, everyone said, though Simon's very few courtships had been conducted in English, or with no words at all, and all French meant to him was his mother crooning lullabies and telling stories. Cet homme dans l'histoire. Histoire, story, history: what Barrayar had too much of.
In the next second he was engulfed in history, flooded with it: history blocking his ears and clogging his pores and shoving itself into his nostrils like the mud so many Barrayaran soldiers had died in. All the centuries landing on him at once in a hot blood-saturated rockslide, all the civil wars his people had fought because they had no one to fight with but each other, alone desolate forsaken forlorn, the backbreaking work to force food from the alien ground, the knives slicing children's throats; and all the voices, all the names, all the hundreds of stories, horrible and happy and mostly true, that he'd heard or read in his lifetime. All at once. He was suffocating in history.
He clawed his way to the surface of his mind, silently insisting I'm not impressed. So what if you can bury me alive; it's just data. But it wasn't, of course; it was people, it was places, it was weather, it was days and hours and minutes and words, words, words. It was his ancestors, persuading petits pois out of the recalcitrant soil, and Aral's, discovering how to be liege lords and vassals too. Aral himself, taking his cut out of Yuri's stomach in a justifiable coup d'etat.
And the lieutenant conducted reconnaissance, and the general led the brigade on a sortie against the castle, he translated dryly from the images presented. Oh, very funny.
Très amusant, the chip corrected, and proceeded to bury him again, this time in words, each sensed in fullness of meaning, sight, sound, and smell, pounding at him incessantly. Battalion artillery platoon volley battery assault siege. Strategy, terrain, terror alarm dismay horror trembling. Desolate apart deserted separate unique. Peasant, prince, elephant, dragon, serpent, regent, dungeon, treason, orange, prayer, admiral, heroism, debacle debris loyalty lingerie, it spat out more slowly, and then before he could breathe buffeted him with diplomacy embassy protocol etiquette rapprochement alliance envoy conquest sovereignty.
Surveillance, it added in an echo of the dry tone he could no longer muster. Espionage. Security. Imperial Service. Captain.
It was silent for two beats, and then, with a little bow -- he could see the hat being doffed, a hat with a feather, with panache -- it added aide-mémoire.
And fuck you too, he threw at it, as Anglo-Saxonly as possible.
Mea culpa, murmured the chip. Mais je ne regrette rien.
It was still courting insanity to be furious with his bioelectronic memory device, even if it was a smug bastard. "Fine," he whispered. "You're all that, then. Better with words than the damn earbug." He pulled that out of his ear and threw it; it skittered away across the floor. "Is that what you wanted? To show me you're a better fucking translator? Or a more clever and snarky one? Quick, good at drawing connections? That's me, you idiot. You have nothing that's not mine."
Feelings pulsed at him in response; they were his own feelings, they had to be, but... submission, acquiescence, respect, adoration, love. A deep genuflection, nearly obscuring a niggling little need for personal honor.
So the chip believes in God too, he had time to think, and then his world exploded in color.
He was crouching behind the pillar, staring out at the hall, before he could take another breath. It couldn't have been a bomb: no falling stones, no horrible injuries, no crying and screaming. Everyone was still just sitting there talking.
But what was coming out of their mouths... he stared, muscles going slack, defenseless against the beauty. Banners, clouds, vines and tendrils of the purest hues, rising and bending and swirling in the air. Great concussions of harmonic scent and silent orchestras painting gorgeous music. He shook himself; the vision didn't alter. It was glorious; it made his heart sing.
He focused on Cordelia, who was producing green and silver ribbons, sharp-edged, twisting into complicated knots, loose ends fluttering like flags of battle. The same colors as those she wore; symbolic of her integrity, he supposed. Symbolic, he suddenly knew, of the honesty and power of the words she was speaking: language with a visible soul behind it, an illusion constructed from years' worth of his memories. The Paramparan envoy, next to her, he knew only from her security profile, skimmed in an exhausted state late at night, but her soul was on display as well, and was easily Cordelia's match. She was no longer merely brown: flowers in bright crimson, heliotrope, and gold-edged magenta hovered above her, dancing together in formal equations and lingering flirtations, and he could smell the flowers too: ginger and honey and lemon, and musk that bypassed his nose and went straight to his groin. She must be speaking English, but another language gleamed and sparkled within it, a language full of song and blossom and the sweetness inherent in calamity. Opposite her, silent Vordrozda glowered dark toxic smoke and chartreuse flashes, and then he spoke, and the speech spread around him in an oily rainbow sheen, oddly lovely. Simon shivered.
He could still sense Ivan and the Marilacan girl behind him, though their colors were dimmed by the darkness: blue sky and sun on wheat fields, thunder on the horizon, for French-speaking, English-thinking Ivan; an unexpected tumult of deep, rich shades for the girl. Their colors were lapping at each other, touching and caressing, words subdued by sensation. Rather a lot of sensation, actually, and few words; he sighed, edged closer and cleared his throat. Bright-edged panic, in pulses, and then scuffling and scurrying as they ran back to their places, sparking with the excitement of discovery more than with frustration.
Simon followed them, trying not to feel like some sort of anti-Baba. The children's table stirred at the reentry, and then subsided into the self-absorption of adolescence, all the speech-bubbles distinct and in separate hues. Miles did note Ivan's reappearance, in mere possessive reflex, Simon thought, not jealousy, or not jealousy over the girl, anyway. She wasn't Miles's type (not that he'd previously considered that teenage boys had a type other than "breathing," but Miles's panting after Elena Bothari was painfully obvious); it was only that he needed to know who was pulling Ivan out of his own orbit.
The distraction marred a rhythm, though Simon wasn't sure how. He passed casually behind Miles, security-mask on his face, letting the illusion have its way with his perceptions. Miles was speaking quite calmly to the Komarran boy next to him; he seemed to be providing him a history of the Imperial Service Academy. With each phrase, a smooth gray river-washed pebble formed and dropped solemnly to the table from his mouth, a charming image out of fairy tale. But turmoil lurked behind the tidiness. Simon looked back after he passed and saw, above Miles's head, explosions of martial red and blue, every shade of red and blue imaginable, shooting off in all directions with unsuppressed energy, flying madly until lost and distant in the dark, then creeping home, mute and hurting. The pebbles were still dropping like little jewels, yet this combative paroxysm, this fury of ambition and thwarted desire, was just as much part of Miles's self-expression as the controlled words. Simon devoutly hoped he would never be Miles's commanding officer; it would be like holding down an alarmingly persuasive firework.
By association, he turned his attention to his titular commander-in-chief. Something, maybe the wine or maybe Prince Amir's phobia, had restored Gregor's confidence; it was a very, very quiet confidence, dangerously quiet, but the colors were true and they weren't all black, but glowing royal blue and purple, and each new word emerged from his mouth fully-formed, margins defined and precise, the intelligence in it clear. The Prince's replies were brighter, true, a fiery red-orange, but thin around the edges and dissipating quickly into the air. Simon could sense the dark-green Arabic thought behind the English words; it was a touch more solid, but still nothing to what Gregor was producing.
Am I seeing truth? he wondered. Or just what I want to see? It all came out of his head, and certainly his head was a spacious chamber; but not infinite in breadth or depth of knowledge, not godlike and all-knowing, no matter what the chip thought. Or didn't think. Because that thought was his as well. He was observant, analytical, coolheaded, a good judge of character, and yes, imaginative; without those traits he wouldn't be as successful as he was, but absolute truth was outside his purview.
Tell me something I don't know, he'd challenged the chip; it had been absurd, and yet... no furtive insights, no secrets heretofore classified beyond his celestial level of clearance, but a new viewpoint. When you get stuck, stand on your head for a bit, he told his analysts; he meant it metaphorically, though he'd caught a few of them maintaining precarious and literal inversions in their HQ cubicles. In some real sense, he was standing on his head tonight, though no one was going to catch him at it while he strolled through the middle of a dinner party looking like he always did, like a very dull spy. If he could see himself with these new eyes, he suspected his soul and the colors of his language would be well-cloaked. Dark and tucked-in, with occasional bubbles and trailing threads of wit, but... he glanced across the room again, at Cordelia and the Paramparan envoy, thirsting for the tempest of grace they were creating together, the monsoon of blessing, bringing life to the desert; then he looked down at himself. Shrouded, and nothing under the wrappings.
Because it's all out here, Simon, the chip-voice admonished, and the chromatic luminosity in the room pulsed brighter in demonstration. This is your soul, this whole spectacle, the wonder and the questioning; this is you, watching and learning and protecting. Surveillance. Supervision.
The puns didn't thud down in the chip's usual heavy-handed style, but were presented lightly, expectantly. He laughed out loud. Countess Vorinnis glanced over her shoulder and raised an eyebrow; he catapulted it to the ceiling and made it turn somersaults. Not that she noticed her eyebrow's coerced gymnastics, not even when it grew huge and menacing, looming over the assembly like a hairy arch of doom. A knight in subfusc armor, he struck it with a sword of lightning, and it diminished and returned to the Countess's brow, unremarked.
So it wasn't truth he'd been given, but a new way of looking at the truths he knew, whimsical and piercing, subtle and histrionic. And what should he do with this gift? What he always did: his job. Relax, Simon. Hold up the walls, Simon. Observe, and tell me what you think. He strolled, slowly and unobtrusively, to a spot behind Aral, and looked at Alexei Baturin.
He was still talking to Vargas, his speech emerging like prosaic but well-nurtured vegetation: strong stems, green leaves, voluptuous fruit, viable seeds. Simon saw him in time-lapse, over the course of the evening as through a season of growth; he'd practically not altered his position all night, except to shift a little closer to his seducer. God, he'd make a terrible spy; he was so obvious. And Vargas wasn't much better. They were both on display; they'd been that way all night, and right in front of the Chief of Imperial Security, too. Either Baturin was stupider than possible in a man of his position, or he wanted to be shot for treason, or something else was going on.
Simon assessed Baturin's colors again: good honest green and red, the colors of their District count, very Winterfair, very agricultural, cherries and apples, and tomatoes in the greenhouse because it was too cold to grow them outside. They'd played in the greenhouses as children; he'd always wanted to be the Cetagandan spy, hiding under the benches, listening to conversations. Alexei had been the dashing colonel, leading his men into treacherous Ceta tomato ambush, plucking victory from the vine of defeat, or sacrificing himself, brave and red-stained, in fealty to his lord. He'd stayed on the farm; Simon had gone into the military, and look where they'd both ended up. Neither of them belonged at dinner parties.
Better men had become traitors. Duller men had, as well. And some form of treachery was at stake here; Vargas was too smart to snatch a high-placed government official without requiring sensitive information of him, and it would have nothing to do with terraforming or fertilizer. The Escobarans were brilliant at agriculture, as they seemed to be at just about everything else; they didn't need Baturin's farming expertise. It was something more damning than that.
A lull in the conversation: both men's eyes shifted, just for a second. Baturin looked at Simon... no, he couldn't see Simon; the candles would be dazzling his eyes. He couldn't see Aral, either, but it was Aral he was looking at. And Vargas was looking the other way, beyond Alys, toward Cordelia's table. Señora Vargas, or Lucia Domanova, Escobaran cultural attaché, the Ambassador's wife and chief spy, was seated there. She wasn't facing him, but the history of glances between them over the evening registered in Simon's enhanced vision like a thousand threads twisted into a strong rope, the sort of rope you hanged people with.
It was so tedious, hanging people. Shooting them, cutting off their heads, leaving them to starve in the Great Square, offering them poison or knives to cut their torment short. The cold futility of it washed over Simon, gray and dreary, a depressive fog, a chill that froze fingertips onto anything they touched. Fingers clenched, short strong fingers that weren't his, but he knew them as well as if they'd pulled on his socks and written his memorandums and clutched his hair to yank it out by the roots in frustration, as if they were his own and not Aral's.
Aral's hands; Aral's dispirited, weary feelings about his world, his beloved planet that no one in his right mind would choose to live on. They all wanted to leave him: Baturin for the oranges of Escobar, Gregor for the veiled women of Lairouba, Cordelia for Parampara's sunshine, Miles for anywhere in the galaxy, Simon for Illyrica to get the damned chip out of his head. Aral wasn't thinking any of this specifically -- that was all Simon, again -- but he was feeling it; his soul was numb and clouded and hurt and Simon wanted to wrap his own body around the raw shivering cold and warm it with his blood. He didn't question, for a second, that his instinct was right; there was really no way that he could see into Aral's soul, but whether he'd collected points of evidence and connected them through deductive reasoning, or stumbled into the ice field by magical accident or miracle, he needed to build a fire right now and hold Aral's hands over it, and give him a shot of vodka and something warm to eat. What he'd learned growing up in the cold had to be good for something, after all.
He studied Vargas for a moment more, and then stepped forward and leaned close to Aral's ear. "I think we're looking at a defection," he whispered. He could feel the temperature drop further under the hand he'd unconsciously placed on Aral's shoulder. "Vargas," he went on. "Coming to us. And if it isn't an incurable brain tumor causing the apparent insanity, I think he'll be an excellent catch. See you in the morning, Prime Minister?"
Aral put his hand over Simon's for a second -- warm flesh, confident muscle, bone and blood -- nodded slightly, and went back to trading witticisms with the Cetagandan consul. Not a battle he'd ever win, but his colors shone out bright and victorious, and as Simon stepped back he could see them permeating the atmosphere of the entire room, as they had all along: twining around Cordelia's, propping up Gregor's, catching Miles's wild rockets and sending them safely home. The chill was still there, banked like cold fire, controlled, not dangerous. But necessary. They'd all burn up, without a little frost in their hearts.
He looked at Alys through the candle flames. Cool, icy blue; pale and dark, like a veil, like a bruise. He played with the image, making of her a goddess, a giant mother suckling Elmanjdra at her breast, a dominatrix forcing the besotted Lairouban to kneel, a small fragile woman fighting like a wildcat for some kind of power in a hard world. None of them stuck; Alys was Alys, not for him to define. Above him in every sense but the most obvious. And assuredly not his to touch.
The chip drew his notice to Miranda, still seated at the table, still chatting animatedly with her right-hand neighbor in his long absence. You could touch that, I think, it told him.
Hm. The scar, he returned, a little... intrusive in bed, don't you imagine?
Amused, the chip delicately cleared its nonexistent throat. Permission, sir, to call your attention to pots calling kettles... Black, he finished for it: elegance and mourning and the Imperium and absence. But no, black wasn't the absence of color; it was every color in the world smashing together in disastrous atomic fusion, creating the beauty of annihilation.
Everyone's got their problems, he laughed back. Their demons or familiars. He walked along the table's length, touching Miranda lightly on the bare flesh of her arm; passed on, carefully not meeting Baturin's eyes across the table.
A few minutes later, she joined him in his pillar-shadow, her yellow gown refusing to vanish into its protection. Together, they were a riot of primary colors. "Simon," she said, taking him by the hand. "Have you been enjoying yourself?"
"Becoming a visionary?" he said, still not sure how she'd known. "It's been..." Interesting, the fall-back adjective. Enlightening. Heart-stopping. Terrible and awful and pierced through with unrelenting wonder. Glorious.
"Unique," he finally said, and she smiled, and he knew it was the right word, that this would never happen again. He leaned forward and kissed her: another one-time event, likely, but one he'd savor while it lasted. "I've remembered who you are," he said finally, drawing back. "Or were."
"Really? Tell me."
"It's vague. The days immediately before and after the chip went in got swallowed up in amnesia; they said that was normal, as if there'd been precedents. But I do have rags and patches of memory. You were there, in the hospital. A nurse?"
"Nothing so elevated as that. I did squalid things like changing bedding and helping patients to the toilet. I was young then. Younger even than you. The daring adventurer from another planet, offering up his life in the service of his emperor. You didn't have the faintest idea what you were getting into, did you?"
"No, I suppose not. They changed my shift as soon as you started to get better; took me off the floor entirely, so I stopped seeing your less successful compatriots as well. That much was a relief," she said, and he knew suddenly how she'd recognized that he was seeing the invisible. "I'm not sure if my supervisors had" -- she gestured at the glittering tables -- "something like this in mind, though I can assure you that no one approached me before this journey and I have earned my position through hard work and cleverness. And I thoroughly intend to come out slugging when we start negotiations with the trade minister tomorrow. I'm not a spy, Simon. Not more than anyone else, at least."
"You're not a nurse, either," he observed.
"I spent a lot of time in hospital after I was bitten. It soured me on places of healing. Though it still pleases me to observe health." She touched his cheek. "I believe a more thorough examination will be required in this case. You might have to take your clothes off."
"Miranda. Are you..." Of course she was; he didn't need any eyes but his own to see that. Uniqueness was overrated; he kissed her again. "I am not on duty," he declared; if anyone could declare that, it was him. "And there's nothing left of this banquet but boring speeches and dancing, if the power comes on at all." He'd asked Alys for a dance, but there were so many ambassadors ahead of him, it was rather hopeless.
"Your place or mine, then?"
His bugs were less subject to review, but... "Neither. The Residence has rooms that no one spies on but me."
She grinned. "So delightfully paranoid. Let's go and perform for your secret vid recorder, Simon."
The chip hummed in anticipation. Chip, meet scar, he murmured to himself. I think you'll get along just fine.
He glanced back at the hall. The colors were fading, and he'd already known from the kisses that the night would bring them no mind-melding or transformative acrobatics of the soul. Sex unadorned by ribbons and flowers suited him fine. He was pretty damn lucky, in fact, to get to have sex during a state dinner.
Mon Simon, il est certainement un chien chanceux, the chip offered. He told it, affectionately, to get fucked. Then he took Miranda by the arm and slipped off to the little back stairs in the west wing.
Mid-morning the next day, after checking in at HQ, he walked into his Residence office and discovered Aral waiting for him. Neither of them had had enough sleep, he suspected, but they couldn't have found a gram of weariness to share out between them.
Aral was grinning. "Guess who came to see me at Vorkosigan House this morning?" he said. "Not long past dawn, in fact. Farmers' hours, I suppose."
"And what did Alexei have to say for himself?" Simon said, sitting down.
"Oh, that Vargas is ready to come over as soon as we're ready to take him in, that they were pretending the opposite so as to fool Vargas's wife, that he's bringing some good snippets of intelligence with him, that he hates Escobar's climate and easy living and never wants to go back. It's all a big diplomatic headache, but so it goes. Negotiations will be in process soon, so you'll need to alert your head of Galactic Affairs." Simon nodded. "I'm curious," Aral went on. "Was there some sort of... I don't know, childhood feud between the two of you?"
Simon thought back to the greenhouses, and lobbing tomato grenades, and being told off for spoiling the crop. "Not really, no," he said. "We didn't actually know each other that well."
"Because this whole episode reads to me as an effort to one-up the Chief of Imperial Security." Simon shrugged. "Well," Aral added, "perhaps I need to look around for a new job for Alexei. You don't care to invent an Agricultural Affairs division, I suppose?"
"I don't think there'd really be much purpose to such an entity."
"No? Very well, then." Aral didn't move to leave, however, and though his grin had vanished, Simon could still feel it poking out through the cracks. "You thought it was Alexei who meant to defect, didn't you?" Aral said finally. "At first?"
"Yes. Early in my observation."
"Well, he doesn't trust you either."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Simon said patiently.
"He suspects you of wanting to emigrate. He told me you were getting cozy with the Illyrican trade delegation leader."
Aral's lip twitched. "More than cozy, I'm guessing."
"You know I never do things by halves, sir."
"Simon, you do things by all sorts of fractions, and by powers of ten when you're so inclined. But I'm glad you didn't spend the whole evening leaning on a wall. We all need to relax sometimes." He sighed. "All right. I'm off to discuss infrastructure. Something must be done about these power outages."
"Most certainly. An interval of candlelight is quite pleasant, but well-lit rooms are far more secure."
"It was pleasant, though, wasn't it? Made everything somehow more attractive and agreeable. Not that I'd want to live that way. Cordelia said much the same thing last night." Aral brightened. "She's ordering a sari made. I'm looking forward to that. Though I don't know when she's going to wear it. I suppose Alys will tell her."
"Did..." Simon hesitated, then asked a slightly different question. "Did the dancing happen, in the end?"
"Oh, yes. We gave up waiting and just danced in the dark. It was a bit chaotic, and the musicians hated it, but we muddled through. With moments of brilliance, I like to think."
"I'm sure you're right about that, Prime Minister," said Simon.