“How many?” asked Shiv.
“Myself, my wife, and my mother-in-law,” said Ser Borgnin.
Shiv studied him; not quite telling the truth about something was his impression, although the shipping magnate’s desire to get as far away from Komarr as possible was wholly understandable under the circumstances, and his background checked out. More to the point, so did his finances.
“Three people, as far as Earth. That’ll be twenty thousand Betan dollars each. Plus a surcharge for any personal possessions over the weight limit.”
“That’s highway robbery,” protested Borgnin. You shouldn’t have hired a highway robber, then, thought Shiv. “It’s more than three times what passage to Earth would cost on any commercial shuttle line.”
“It’s the law of supply and demand,” said Shiv. “Good luck finding a place on any commercial line, under the circumstances.” Most of them had suspended operations to Komarr as soon as the war broke out, and any that were still running were fully booked.
“Fifteen thousand each,” Borgnin offered.
Under ordinary circumstances, Shiv would have accepted the invitation to negotiate, but something about the man put him off. “Twenty thousand is the price. Take it or leave it. But if you leave it, I wouldn’t count on getting to take it with you.”
Shiv stared him down. “Twenty. And you’re not being straight with me about something. The Deal is off if you don’t tell me what it is.”
“Well,” Borgnin shifted uncomfortably. “My wife and mother-in-law have this, uh, hobby. Genetic research. They’ll be taking their lab equipment. And, ah, their experiment in progress. Sera Borgnin refuses to leave any of it behind. So I suppose we’ll be over the weight limit.”
“That might be the least of your worries,” said Shiv. He’d known hobbyist geneticists on Jackson’s Whole, and he wasn’t over-fond of the breed, although you looked the other way if you knew what was good for you. “Tell me more about this experiment. Is it dangerous?”
“No! Not at all. And I promise you, my wife will see that it doesn’t leave her cabin. You won’t even know it’s there.”
“What do you mean, she’ll see that it doesn’t leave the cabin? Is it alive?”
“Well. Um. Yes.”
“Our standard rate is five thousand per head for live animals,” said Shiv, although in point of fact, he’d never smuggled a live animal before and was making his rates up on the spot. “Ten thousand if it’s anything big, like a horse or a cow. How many?”
“One. And it’s nothing like a horse. Much smaller.”
“Is it venomous?”
“Claws, horns, spikes, big teeth?”
“No. Nothing like that at all.”
“Right. That’ll be sixty-five thousand Betan dollars in total, then. Cash. Plus your signature that you agree to accept liability for any damages caused by your animal.”
* * *
The three of them – Mother, Udine, and Ruby – ended up crowded into a cabin built for two, with the lavatory and showers down the corridor. Udine’s useful Komarran husband – who was rapidly becoming less useful, now that he was a fugitive from the invading Barrayarans – had claimed their other cabin for himself, maintaining that he couldn’t possibly be expected to share with a fretful toddler. They had not taken any of the servants, including Ruby’s nanny, so Udine found herself playing nursery-maid herself. Someday the roles would be reversed – Udine had completed her education in genetics by designing her own servant, just as her mother had done many years ago, before being ruthlessly culled from the haut and given to General ghem Estif in marriage. But for the moment, Ruby was the one giving the orders.
There were small hands tugging at her all the time, and constant whining for Nana and for the stuffed rabbit that had been left behind in the rush to get away, and oh my God, the diapers. How did people without servants endure it?
Still and all, when they settled down for the night, with Ruby snuggled up against her making sleepy-toddler noises, Udine decided that it might not be all bad. At least it was nicer than sleeping with her useful Komarran husband, who snored.
Then, a little after midnight, the wormhole jumps began. They were all horribly jump-sick, but Udine was a little more functional than Moira, so she spent most of the next few days cleaning up vomit and trying to coax Ruby into drinking a little of the electrolyte solution that was supposed to stave off dehydration. It was vile, cloying stuff – the artificial fruit flavors had obviously been devised by and for naturals with no taste – so Udine couldn’t blame Ruby for spitting it out, but she grew more and more worried. Was it possible to die of jump-sickness? Ought she to have left the child on Komarr with the other servants, and hoped for the best, as her husband had urged? Udine had refused; Ruby was so little and trusting and vulnerable, and leaving her behind would have felt like a betrayal.
Mother usually thought Udine was inclined to spoil the child, but she had agreed that leaving Ruby behind was impossible: do you know what the Barrayarans would do to a child who looked like that? Of course, she hadn’t been able to resist getting in a few digs about how they wouldn’t have been in this dilemma if Udine had chosen a more tasteful design. (Udine had not wanted tasteful. One of her first memories had been asking Mother why people could be pink or brown or cream-colored or nearly black, but not red or blue or green, and Mother had never been able to supply a good answer other than it isn’t done. But Udine wasn’t a haut-lady, and she had done it, and Ruby was a perfectly beautiful little girl by any standard.)
Perfectly beautiful, and perfectly obstreperous. Just when Udine was on the verge of finding the smuggler captain and begging him to let them off at the nearest planet where they could find a doctor, Ruby miraculously recovered, polished off four juice-bulbs and a plate of cheese and crackers, and then went dancing down the corridor as soon as Udine tried to duck out and have a shower. Moira lunged at her rather feebly, but didn’t manage to catch her. Udine sighed and chased after Ruby, but she was still very woozy, and had to sit down for a moment when a wave of vertigo overtook her.
By the time she felt able to get up, Ruby had vanished.
* * *
“Hey, little missy,” said Shiv. “How did you get here?”
The child slipped a couple of fingers into her mouth and stared at him, wide-eyed and apparently unconscious that she was the one whose appearance would normally provoke stares. She was red. Not merely flushed or ruddy, but a deep, glowing, all-over red. Her hair and eyebrows were a shade darker, a rich garnet color.
“You can come closer. I won’t hurt you.”
She edged a little nearer, and then nearer still.
“That’s Vin over there, he’s a jump-pilot and he’s resting, so we can’t make too much noise. On the commercial flights, they have little pilot headsets to give the kiddies, but I don’t have anything like that here. I can show you some navigational instruments, though. Would you like to see?”
She took her fingers out of her mouth and nodded, and Shiv swung her up into his lap.
“What’s your name?”
“It suits you.” He tapped his navigational holocube to make it light up. “Look, Ruby, this is a navigational map, it shows you where you are and where you’re going. And this is how you find your bearings after a jump...” Not that Ruby would be able to follow a discourse about five-space navigation, but it was nice having someone to talk to other than his impossibly taciturn pilot.
When he’d run out of gadgets to show Ruby, he tried putting on some of the Jacksonian music he always used to keep himself awake on long, boring runs. He kept it quiet, so as not to wake Vin.
“I dance now,” announced Ruby. She squirmed down from his lap and twirled off across the floor, arms waving.
“Hey, you’ve got a pretty good sense of rhythm, for a kid. Where’d you learn that?”
“Mama,” said Ruby. Abruptly, she spun to a halt and began to look around for Mama.
Shit. Who was Ruby’s mama, and how in the hell had she gotten here? Shiv had no formal passenger manifest, but he reviewed his mental list of desperate Komarrans. None of them had mentioned bringing a child. One of his crew must have been bribed into taking on stowaways. Unless...
“Mama gone,” said Ruby, and started to whimper.
“It’s all right, missy,” said Shiv, picking her up. “We’re going to find your mama.” And then your stepfather and I are going to have a talk...
* * *
Udine had encountered one or two of the ship’s crew in her search for Ruby, but she shrank from asking them if they had seen the child. They were rough, shifty-looking, slinking men, the sort of creatures she would never have had to speak to or even look at in her former life. She did not care to draw their attention, but she was sure they were eyeing her, all the same.
Surely, she thought, the captain could not be as bad as the crew. Even if he was a Jacksonian mercenary and smuggler, and likely a hijacker as well. Even if she was nothing more than cargo.
She was just outside of the navigation room when she had a thought that almost made her turn back. If she reported a missing child, she would surely be expected to describe the child. And any remotely accurate description of Ruby would make it clear that she was one of a kind, and an exceptionally valuable prize for a Jacksonian mercenary / smuggler / hijacker / possible human trafficker.
Then she heard Ruby’s childish voice on the other side of the door, and a deeper one answering it, and she knew that she was too late.
She wrenched the door open to see Ruby actually in the arms of a strange man. He was quite a bit shorter than Udine, but powerfully built, with dark, deep-toned skin. Not a bad color, nor a bad match for his black hair, but that face was unfortunate. She blinked, wondering why she was even thinking about the aesthetics of the smuggler captain.
“Put her down,” she said, willing her voice not to shake.
He did. Not that that meant anything, when he could easily divert their course to Jackson’s Whole and have them all sold as slaves, and there wasn’t a thing Udine could do about it.
Ruby ran to her, obviously unharmed, and tugged at her hand. “Mama, Mama.” (Mother had said she ought to nip that in the bud and teach Ruby how to address her future mistress properly, but it seemed absurd to do that when the child wasn’t even two, and some part of her liked being Mama.)
“Sera Borgnin, I take it?” said the smuggler captain.
“You have the advantage of me,” said Udine, with as much starch as she could put into the words.
“Shiv Arqua.” The smuggler captain extended a hand, and ... good, Udine thought, he’s susceptible. She must look a fright – pale and sweaty from jump-sickness, clothes rumpled and hair unbrushed – but somehow men never seemed to notice those things.
She was conscious of his maleness, in ways she never had been with her useful Komarran husband.
“I hope,” she said, “that Ruby has not been any trouble to you.”
“Not at all,” said Arqua. “I like kids. Don’t get to meet too many of them, in my line of work.”
“No, I’d imagine not. Thank you for looking after her. Come along, Ruby.” Having been reassured of Udine’s presence, Ruby had, irritatingly, scuttled straight back to Arqua and started angling for a piggyback ride.
“There’s a small matter we ought to discuss before you go,” said Arqua.
Udine tensed. “Which would be?”
“Your husband neglected to mention that you had a child with you. And I like to know who my passengers are.”
“He told me it was all arranged,” said Udine. “He said you’d agreed on five thousand extra.”
“Yes, but he misrepresented what the five thousand was for. He said that you were bringing a genetics experiment, and, when I insisted on knowing more about what this experiment was, he gave the impression that it was something like livestock.”
“I see,” said Udine, her mouth tightening. “Well, you may rest assured that I will make up the rest of the fee for an additional passenger. As soon as we get to Earth. My mother and I have ... contacts there.” Truth be told, she doubted very much that their acquaintances on Earth were good for another fifteen thousand, but at least she could tell Mother to take Ruby and disappear, while she pretended to be raising the money.
“I don’t think you understand, Sera Borgnin,” said Arqua. “When your husband and I were discussing prices, he brought up commercial shuttle line fees as a comparison point. Well. Let’s grant that the services are roughly similar – although, of course, I find it reasonable to charge my passengers proportionately more, since I take them to places the commercial lines won’t go, and I’m doing so at considerable personal risk. So if we agree that it’s basically the same kind of service and the same sort of pricing schedule should apply, then I have to point out that commercial shuttles usually do charge more for animals, but they don’t charge anything at all for children under three.”
“What are you saying?” said Udine, who was beginning to feel lightheaded again.
“I’m saying that your husband seems to be a piss-poor negotiator. Among other things.”
She was about to snap back that her husband’s negotiation skills were really not the point here, when she caught the ironic spark in his dark eyes and realized that he knew it too. He wasn’t bad at subtlety, she thought, for a wild-caught.
“Are you offering to refund our five thousand dollars?”
“Too late,” said Arqua. “I never refund cash in hand. We have a saying on Jackson’s Whole, a bad Deal is a Deal all the same. But I am suggesting that you rethink who you mean when you say our.”
On her way back to the cabin with Ruby, she wondered whether that had been a proposition, or just some general life advice. Either way, she found herself seriously considering it.
* * *
Damn but she was beautiful. Shiv wasn’t the type to let such considerations turn his head or get in the way of doing business ... but another sort of man would have made a fool of himself, for sure. It wasn’t even her face, although the bones were elegant and the skin flawless, but something about the way she moved, a grace that almost made him cry out and beg her to stay with him as she turned and walked away.
Not that there was any hope in it; a woman like that wouldn’t say yes to a man like him. Except – she had said yes to Borgnin, and if Shiv didn’t deserve her, he was damn sure Borgnin didn’t either.
* * *
The news of the Solstice massacre caught up with them when they stopped to refuel at the Hegen Hub. The dozen or so Komarrans on their ship clustered in disbelief around one of the video monitors in the station café, some weeping, some cursing, some murmuring ancient prayers for the dead. Udine felt disinclined to do any of these things. What she wanted was revenge.
“Barbarians and butchers,” said Mother, pulling Ruby close. “We ought to have destroyed them all when we had the chance.” Udine could only take her word for it, having never known any Barrayarans herself, but she expressed her agreement.
“I am sorry, Sera Borgnin,” said a voice at her elbow, and a set of strong, stubby fingers closed on her upper arm, drawing her a little apart from the others.
She had seen a bit more of Shiv Arqua over the last few days; Ruby needed to be taken for regular walks around the ship so she could run off her excess energy, and she always wanted to go to the navigation room and visit her new friend. As the mercenary captain genuinely seemed to enjoy Ruby’s company, Udine had allowed it, and had also allowed herself to be drawn into conversation with him.
He’d never touched her before, and under virtually all other circumstances, she would have regarded it as an extraordinarily presumptuous act. Under the current ones, she found she didn’t mind.
“I don’t want sorrow,” she said. “I want to make them pay.”
“In cash, or in blood?”
The dark eyes were studying her, appraising. “That’s an unusual choice, for a Komarran. Most of them would take the cash.”
“I’m not exactly Komarran. I’m not really anything. Mother is a stateless person, and so was my father before he died. I have Komarran citizenship since I was born there, but I don’t really feel Komarran. But I’m not anything else, either.”
Arqua’s eyebrows twitched upward. “Has it occurred to you that you might be Jacksonian?”
What, like a pirate or robber baron? “No. I can’t say it ever has.”
“We’re good at making people pay in blood. Or cash. Or both, for choice. I think you’d fit in. Why don’t you ditch Earth and give it a try, and see how you like it?”
“I can’t possibly,” said Udine, aware that the mere fact that she was treating the offer as something other than a joke meant that she could. “What about Ruby?”
“Your daughter would be welcome, of course. And I don’t think Ser Borgnin is going to challenge you for custody.”
Udine decided not to correct the misapprehension inherent in daughter. She felt, instinctively, that Arqua would think less of her if she explained that Ruby was really only a created servant, and for some reason she didn’t want that to happen. “It’s hardly a place for a child.”
“I wouldn’t know,” said Arqua, “not having been a child anywhere else. And I like to think I turned out all right.”
Udine acknowledged the point with a nod; it came to her that he had turned out all right, very much so. “Tell me why I should go to Jackson’s Whole.”
“Because vengeance can be bought there, and because fortunes are made there faster than anywhere else. By anyone with a bit of nerve and a good head on their shoulders, without regard for caste or creed. I had made mine before I was twenty-three, and I came from nothing.”
“And you are working as a mercenary and smuggler ... why?”
“Well, I lost it when I was twenty-four,” Arqua confessed frankly. “Picked the wrong moment to gamble everything. That happens too.”
“I would not let it happen,” said Udine.
“No,” said Arqua, stripping her down to the bone with his eyes. “I don’t think you would. That’s why you should come to Jackson’s Whole. Because I need you.”
“Do you?” said Udine, who had heard that kind of talk from men before. What they meant, usually, was that they wanted her. Her eyes strayed toward the café table where her no-longer-so-useful Komarran husband and his comrades were steadily drowning their grief. Lately, she thought, he had ceased even to want, and she was tired of pretending.
“Yeah. You’d be the kind of partner a guy like me needs, you know? Good sense, steady head ... Killer instincts, too. Those are always a plus in my book.”
Well, at least he doesn’t want me for the same boring reasons as the others. “When you say ‘partner,’ in what sense are you using that word?”
“In all of them. What’s mine is yours, and all that.”
He hadn’t taken his hand away from her arm, and she was suddenly very conscious of his touch. Feeling hot and flustered, she said, “Isn’t it customary to be on a first-name basis with a woman before you make that sort of proposition? Maybe even have kissed her once or twice?”
“Well, Udine, if you insist,” said Arqua, and before she had time to reconsider the propriety of kissing a mercenary captain in a grimy shuttleport food court, at a time more suitable for mourning, he’d locked both of his hands behind her neck and pulled her down to his level, and ... oh. Screw propriety, screw everything.
“So,” he said, catching his breath and leaning against her shoulder, “once is enough?”
“My thoughts exactly. I told you we’d get along.”
It was when she reluctantly pulled away for a second time that she noticed they’d finally attracted her fellow-passengers’ attention. Right. This was going to take some explaining.
Or not. It came to her that Jackson’s Whole, whatever else it might be, probably wasn’t the sort of place that required explanations.
“Mother,” she said, staring them all down, “may I present Shiv Arqua. He’s invited me home with him. I’m going.”