“To what do I owe the honor of this early-morning visit, Lady Vorpatril?”
It was not, in fact, early morning, but rather almost eleven; nevertheless, Alys’s host had answered the door in his pajamas, which were a gorgeous shade of peacock-blue silk. He was trying to project the air of an eccentric emperor who would jolly well hold court in his pajamas if he wished, but the effect was somewhat impaired by the fact that he was only in his middle twenties, in the grip of a raging hangover, and talking to someone who was on familiar terms with the actual Emperor. (Gregor was also in his middle twenties, but he possessed a gravity that the young man before her entirely lacked.)
“I think you know why I’ve come,” she said.
He blinked blearily at her. The long-lashed brown eyes were strikingly beautiful, but they did not predispose her in his favor. To people of her generation, those eyes triggered associations. “I’ve some idea, yes. May I offer you some coffee?”
Alys accepted coffee, mostly because the Vorrutyer boy looked like he might be about to fall over dead if he didn’t get some caffeine at once, and she wasn’t quite cruel enough to keep him from it.
“Would you like anything else with it? Water, painkillers, vodka? No? Well, do you mind if I indulge in all of the above?”
“Not in the least,” said Alys. His manner was also not predisposing her in his favor; his politeness was impeccable, but just exaggerated enough to add a detectable layer of irony. Don’t even think you can outplay me at social nuance, young man. If this was Lady Donna Vorrutyer’s favorite cousin, as she had been reliably informed, it didn’t strike her as a point in Lady Donna’s favor either.
Vorrutyer downed a couple of painkillers, poured coffee into two mugs, and motioned toward them. “You may choose for yourself, my lady. Just to prove that I’m not trying to poison you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Alys in a voice calculated to remind the Vorrutyer boy of just how young he was. “Why would I suspect you of trying to poison me?”
He added milk to his coffee, flopped onto the couch, and pushed the milk bottle and the sugar bowl across the coffee table to her, a gesture more suggestive of a friendly undergraduate than a sybarite. He had not, she noted, actually produced any vodka, which confirmed her impression that he was pretending to be more debauched than he was. “Well – this isn’t an entirely friendly social call, is it? I take it you’re here because you mistrust our entire tribe, and you’re hoping to extricate your son from the clutches of my notorious cousin Donna. Cheer up, my lady, it could be worse. It could have been me, for instance.”
“No, it couldn’t,” said Alys, “not with Ivan.”
“True. The remarkably dishy Ivan seems to be impervious to my manly charms. Not for want of trying on my part, I can assure you. I regret to inform you, my lady, that your son appears to be a confirmed heterosexual.”
Young Vorrutyer was transparently aiming to shock; but he had no idea that it was impossible to shock someone whose closest friend of more than two decades was a Betan. Impossible to shock her that way, anyhow. “Yes,” she said. “I’m disappointed too.”
Vorrutyer gave her a quick, surprised smile that didn’t quite sort with the jaded persona he was trying to project, and just as quickly toned it down into an ironic smirk. She might, she realized, have liked this young man if he weren’t perpetually posing.
“Ivan’s not really my type, anyhow,” he said, abruptly dropping a great deal of the posturing. “My type is willing. Preferably enthusiastic. And Donna’s, I assure you, is the same.”
Alys wondered whether he was simply pointing out that Ivan was just as culpable as Donna, or whether he ... knew enough to guess at some of the reasons the affair alarmed her more than Ivan’s other amorous adventures. Merely knowing that Ivan had been willing wasn’t enough; people had willingly entered into relationships with Vorrutyers before, and had still come away badly damaged. But she thought it was a genuine attempt at reassurance, and that was something.
“May I ask, by the way, why you’ve appealed to me rather than my-cousin-the-Count? Pierre, at least in theory, has some actual authority over Donna. I do not. Unless, of course, we’re working on the assumption that men in general have authority over their female relatives, in which case I must point out that assumption has some unfortunate implications for you.”
This last remark was not inaccurate, but it was decidedly cheeky; Alys shot him a look that would discourage him from trying that sort of thing again. “I did call on your cousin the Count.”
“He pretended to believe I was a secret agent from Cetaganda. Or perhaps he really believed I was a secret agent from Cetaganda, in which case I can only regard it as the most unusual compliment I’ve ever received. But I am inclined to think he was pretending.”
Vorrutyer nodded. “Pierre really is mad as a hatter some of the time, but not as often as he makes out. He finds it convenient because it makes people go away and leave him alone ... So, having failed to get anywhere with my cousin the antisocial Count, you’ve turned to me. Even if, hypothetically, we assume that I have the power to end Donna’s affair with your son, why would I want to?”
Alys had been idly scanning Vorrutyer’s flat, which was furnished with a rather well-stocked set of bookshelves; he was clearly much more of a reader than he liked to let on. One volume, however, caught her eye: The Fairest Flower of the Vor, by Cecilia Vorvayne.
“I’m very pleased,” she said, “to have met a fellow Vorvayne devotee. Historical romances are my guilty pleasure. I don’t believe I’ve read this one before. May I?”
Vorrutyer had started up in alarm and made a grab for the book. “No, please don’t – I mean, I beg your pardon, but it’s a gift for a friend – I don’t want the pages to get wrinkled.”
Alys, however, had already taken possession of the book. Without bothering to open it, she said, “I take it your friend is about to enter a training program for civilian operatives of the Imperial Security Service?”
For once, Vorrutyer appeared to be at a loss for words; he went a shade paler, and his eyes flew wide open. “My lady,” he managed to say after gaping for a moment or two, “how did you know?”
“There are a multitude of false covers available for the training manuals,” said Alys. “There are even ones disguised as a comcode directory, for people who don’t read at all and don’t have any other books to camouflage it. Always last year’s edition of the directory, of course, lest some chance visitor try to look up a comcode in it. Anyhow, I am sure Lev Brodsky instructed you – you are one of Brodsky’s boys, aren’t you? – to choose a cover that would blend in with the other books on your shelves. Not to pick the one that amused you the most, or the one that allowed you to tweak people’s ideas about masculinity for purposes of your own. This one would have been an acceptable choice if you were, in fact, a habitual reader of trashy historical romances, but it’s clear from the rest of your library that you aren’t. Also, if a visitor should happen to pick up your training manual, do not be obvious in your reactions. If it wasn’t by chance, you’ll only confirm their suspicions, and if it was, there are subtler and more effective ways of distracting them. You might, for instance, have offered me a fresh cup of coffee, or called my attention to another book on your shelf and asked whether I had read it. Both of those, by the way, would also have been more polite than trying to grab the book out of my hands and implying that I couldn’t be trusted to handle it without damaging it.”
Vorrutyer had been visibly wilting throughout this speech, but he began to recover toward the end of it. He had, Alys judged, a ready sense of humor, which would provide some insulation against the more blistering tirades of his superiors. He was going to need it.
“So Pierre was right,” he said. “You really are a secret agent. Just not a Cetagandan one.” He flung himself back onto the couch and began to laugh harder. “And – oh dear – you probably stopped by to tell me you were supposed to be my contact or something, and I assumed you were here about Donna and Ivan ...”
“Never disregard your first instincts, agent.” He wouldn’t be a properly fledged agent yet, but a touch of flattery would do no harm. “I came here, in all innocence, to talk about Lady Donna and Ivan. But it’s very likely I will end up as your contact now that I’ve surprised your secret – we’re both going to need to report this, by the way, and ImpSec likes to avoid ... redundancy. So it’s in the best interest of us both if we make every effort to get along.”
Vorrutyer had stopped laughing; his hands curled into tight little fists. “I had better find some way to separate Ivan from Donna, in other words, if I don’t want to be out of a job.”
He’d go to war on Donna’s behalf, she thought. In light of the other things she was learning about him, the discovery did not displease her. “No. That is not what I said, and I would prefer that you not accuse me of blackmail if we are going to work together. I meant it when I said I came to talk.”
“If it helps,” he said after a moment, “and if you’ll believe me – I’ve known Donna since we were children, and she ... was never the sort of child who broke her toys and left them for other people to clean up. When the time came to give them up, she passed them along to other little girls, good as new. Or better, even. Have you, by any chance, noticed any difference in Ivan’s attitude toward women these last few weeks?”
Alys nodded. Thinking about it, she suspected that Lady Donna had driven home certain lessons that she had despaired of ever imparting. “That does help, and I do believe you. Thank you.”
Vorrutyer was starting to uncurl, and was looking at her with what might be the beginning of trust. It made him seem younger, and triggered a distant memory. “Why,” she said, “we’ve met before.”
“Have we? I don’t remember.”
“You were only about a year and a half old. It was at a betrothal party – one of my school friends, and a cousin of your father’s.”
“Did we get along?”
“We did. You were most extravagantly complimentary. You had just learned the word ‘pretty,’ and you applied it to my hair, my dress, and all the jewelry I was wearing.” She remembered the long-lashed eyes, and the small hands grabbing at everything shiny or colorful that came within reach. Eyes and hands that hadn’t yet learned to dissemble, or to defend. “I’m afraid I returned the compliment by telling you that you were a very pretty little girl.”
He laughed – genuinely at first, and then more ironically. “Ooh, I just bet my father was thrilled.” He was looking up at her with rather more friendliness than before; she read, in his expression, Anyone who tweaks my father is an ally of mine. Very adolescent, but when she thought back on that party, she couldn’t blame him.
“He didn’t take it well, no.” She hadn’t been going to tell him about that part. She definitely wasn’t going to tell him about what had followed: the way Ges Vorrutyer had laughed and said, What have we here, a budding aesthete? How nice for you, little brother, that you’ll always have someone to remember me by. Jaques Vorrutyer had shot his brother a look of utter loathing, and when Ges had drifted off into the crowd, untouchable, Jaques had turned the same look on his own baby son.
And then another flood of memories hit her, because of course she had met, and been briefed about, the sister. (Having been assured that the incest rumors were groundless, Alys had seen potential there: a quiet, intelligent girl. Gregor had danced with her once for duty and a second time with quite evident pleasure, and had spent some time in private conversation with her. And then, unaccountably, he had denied any interest in pursuing the acquaintance, and Alys had been unable to talk him round. She had not pressed very hard, because at the time she'd been a little relieved. Byerly was right. She had mistrusted the entire tribe.)
She drew in her breath as it all came together and formed a tragic, inevitable pattern. What would Cordelia do right now? Hug him and say, it’s all right, kiddo, you know none of it’s your fault? Well, they weren’t either of them Betan, and they were certainly not the sort of people who did that sort of thing.
So she said only, “You ... know a bit about the sort of people who break their toys, don’t you?”
“Yes. Enough to be able to promise you that Donna isn’t one ... Was she there, at that party?”
Alys nodded, remembering a small girl with a tangle of dark curls. “She would have been around five or six. I remember, you made off with a brooch of mine, and she brought it back to me later that evening.”
“Yes, she tells me I was quite the little pilferer. Did she return it intact, I hope?”
“Good as new.”
“Well, there you are,” said Vorrutyer. After a moment, he added, “May I ask a question?”
Alys tensed slightly. “Of course you may ask. Whether I will answer depends on the question.”
“Does Ivan know? About you, I mean?”
She relaxed. Of course, he knew nothing of what had been passing through her head when she thought about his family, and of course he would have been dying of curiosity about her secret career. “No, and you are not to tell him. And your cousin Donna will not know about you. Neither will the rest of your nearest and dearest, whoever they may be.”
He nodded, taking in the finality of will not. This particular young man, she was sure, would have regarded should not or must not as a challenge. “I understand. If I may ask another question, how long have you, ah ...”
“About eighteen years.”
“My word.” He whistled softly. “Now I wish I hadn’t asked, because I’m dying to tell someone and I can’t.”
She smiled. “I think you’ll find that there are compensations, agent. Thank you for the coffee, and give Lev Brodsky my regards. I shall look forward to working with you.”