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The Hand that Rocks the Cradle

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Alys did not look back as Kou led off down the narrow passages of the caravanserai. Cordelia would be fine. They would all be fine. Lieutenant Koudelka would look after her. She repeated the assurance in her head like a mantra, like a prayer. It diverted her attention from her body.

Before they had gone four blocks she was flagging, breathless, her every muscle shrieking complaint about the hard work it had done over the past days. Kou tried to lend her his arm, nearly dropped baby Ivan, swore, blushed and apologised. Alys wanted to burst into tears. Instead she raised her chin and struggled on, hearing her mother's voice in her head. You are Vor, my girl, control yourself! She wished her mother were here now, all the more when Ivan woke up and began to wail.

"What do I do, milady?" Kou asked in a voice in which panic was starting to take hold, trying to rock the baby at arm's length. The sound of his shrieks seemed to go straight to Alys' spinal cord. She could feel herself tensing, her numb exhaustion overridden by the hormone-driven need to act, to make it better.

"Give him to me." She lifted the small wriggling form and cuddled him close. It didn't help, he just bawled more loudly and kicked her in the stomach. Almost exactly like he had before he was born, she thought. Late pregnancy, two weeks overdue, had been wretched, but she wished Ivan were still inside her now. Safe. And much easier to care for.

"I daresay he's hungry," she said. "And don't call me milady."

"Oh. Yes. Well, can you, er, feed him here? Only I don't think we can go anywhere better right now."

Alys sighed. She'd made an attempt to feed Ivan before they left precisely to avoid this, but Ivan had stubbornly slept through her efforts. Now she tried to remember what the brothel-keeper had told her last night about feeding babies. None of it had included how to manage in the middle of an alley. She picked the driest-looking step from one of the houses and collapsed onto it, unbuttoning her unfamiliar blouse. Her modesty must have been destroyed last night, for she didn't hesitate even when Ivan's flailing arm pulled her blouse half off in his frantic hunger. Kou flushed, and Alys gave her thin peasant shawl an impatient tug.

Figuring out how to attach a screaming, flailing baby to her breast was every bit as difficult as she had feared, but in the end Ivan was sucking rather than screaming. It seemed to relax her as well as the baby, and she sat back against the wall, a brief oasis of calm. Kou stood with arms folded, leaning against the wall beside her, trying to project confidence and not entirely succeeding. He was tired and frightened too, she realised. Unexpectedly, the thought made her feel stronger rather than weaker. Instead of a helpless passenger on Kou's mission, she could be an equal partner. If Padma had let her be an equal partner instead of… she cut that thought off. He was dead and nothing she thought or did would make any difference now. But she could avoid making the same mistake twice.

"Where are we going?" she asked.

Kou jumped, looking at her out of the corner of his eye as if he didn't believe he was allowed to talk to a nursing mother.

"Um. The new truck depot, I think. I should be able to get us a lift on a truck heading out of town, south to Vorinnis' district where we can get the monorail. The Central Market is probably going to be guarded, but the smaller depots give us a better chance. We'll go by back streets as much as we can, keep away from any official checkpoints." He paused, evidently planning routes in his head. Alys realised she had no idea where they were or how to get to any place she knew.

"How far is it?"

"A couple of miles, I guess. We'll come out at the edge of the Old Town, head down into the Russian Quarter, and it's in there."

Alys nodded. It seemed like a good plan, so long as she could keep going. She would just have to find the strength. She recalled her aunt once saying that after she'd given birth, she knew how much she could endure. Alys thought she understood that now. She'd survived last night; she could survive anything.

Ivan's eyes were drifting shut, his grip on her blouse slackening. Alys watched him, mesmerised by the movements of his eyelids. She felt she could sit and look at his face all day. But the constant awareness that all Vordarian's men must be searching for them kept her from drifting too far into a maternal reverie. She pulled her blouse shut awkwardly and pressed Ivan close under the shawl, his head on her collarbone. Kou helped her up, and she stumbled on through the narrow alleys of the caravanserai.

They came to a junction, and abruptly Kou stopped. Alys, all her attention on keeping upright and moving, nearly collided with him. From around the corner there were voices.

"Four men killed, and the prisoners gone. They should just bomb the whole quarter, then we'd be sure to have them. It's just criminals and layabouts around here anyway, it'd improve the city."

"Yes, sarge."

Alys felt weirdly calm, as if time had slowed. Vordarian's men were just around that corner, talking about what had happened last night. Kou silently turned around, and Alys realised she had to do the same. She forced herself to inhale. Ivan's eyes were flickering open, objecting to her stopping. Alys began to walk, willing Ivan not to scream. His eyes opened, closed, opened again. Alys didn't know whether to rock him or keep her arms very still lest she disturb him more. Kou turned again down an even narrower alley, dark and dirty. Alys followed, wrinkling her nose at the smell.

"Thought I saw something," she heard from the soldiers on the road. Abruptly, Kou broke into a jerky run, his arm dragging Alys with him. Alys' legs could barely manage it, pain shooting through her at every jarring step, but she followed doggedly. The alley wound around a corner and came to an abrupt dead end, a foul-smelling yard full of refuse and rubbish, rats scurrying away at their approach. Kou stared around wildly, then pushed her into the far corner behind an elderly dustbin.

"Stay there," he breathed. He pulled out a nerve disruptor she hadn't realised he was carrying, and stumbled to the corner, then sat back in a low firing crouch behind a mouldering and broken wardrobe, steadying himself against the wall. Alys clutched Ivan and kept perfectly still. A rat nosed towards her, and Alys screwed her eyes shut, then opened them again when she heard the soldiers saying, "... might have been a rat."

The men came around the corner, and for a moment Alys thought they would glance around and go back. Then Ivan let out a sleepy whimper that seemed to echo around the alley. The soldiers all moved forward, and Kou opened fire. Alys closed her eyes again, and wished she could cover her ears too. The hiss and sizzle of the nerve disruptor seemed deafeningly loud, the odd broken groans and thuds even worse. A few moments later silence returned, and Alys forced herself to open her eyes. Kou, white-faced, was standing up and looking about. Three soldiers lay on the ground, all dead. And Ivan, his brief protest finished, had gone back to sleep.

Kou limped towards her, still holding the nerve disruptor, and Alys flinched away from him. He grunted and the nerve disruptor vanished back into his clothes.

"Come on. We'd best get out while we can. Lucky there weren't more, but they have to search in small parties down here, it's too much of a warren."

Alys was shaking so much that she could barely stand. Kou had to put an arm around her and lead her past the bodies, her steps dragging and her breathing ragged. Ivan seemed to have doubled in weight.

"It's all right," Kou said awkwardly to her. "They didn't get a chance to call for backup, and people vanish down here all the time. We'll be well away before anyone notices."

Alys nodded and forced her legs to steady, pushing the images of last night away, trying not to think that the man holding her had just killed three people in the blink of an eye. He saved your life, she told herself, and Ivan's too. Padma had been a soldier, had killed people in battle, so had her father, so had almost all the men she knew, but she'd never witnessed it until these past few hours.

They trudged on, both silent and tense, hesitating at each turn and junction, but they saw no more soldiers. Kou turned down another alley, and at the end of that one they found themselves suddenly in a wide, handsome street. The tall houses were finished with elegant stonework and wrought-iron fences. It was the less fashionable part of the Old Town, mostly full of university professors and poor relations, but Alys recognised Groome Street at once.

"I had no idea that led into the caravanserai," she observed to Kou, trying to speak normally again.

"Everyone's on top of each other here," said Kou. "Are you all right to keep going?"

Alys nodded. The smarter surroundings encouraged her. This was territory she recognised, not like the alien caravanserai. She knew how to survive here. She shifted Ivan to her other shoulder and plodded on. The morning rush hour was just beginning, and there were groundcars on the roads and a few other people about now, mostly head-down and focused on getting to their work. Alys imitated them, and thus failed to notice the middle-aged woman approaching them, walking a white fluffy dog.

"Why, Alys! Whatever are you doing here? And your clothes! Surely you don't think peasant chic is coming in?"

Alys stopped dead, and heard Kou stifle a gasp. She looked up. It was Louisa Vorlightly, one of her many Vorlightly cousins... and yes, of course she lived just around the corner. Alys cursed herself for not thinking. But Louisa was clearly as empty-headed as before.

"You've had your baby!" Louisa went on, not waiting for a response. "Ivan, of course. He looks very handsome too, dear, and how's Padma?"

Alys swallowed the first four responses that came into her head. At least two of them would have made Kou blush. "Dear Louisa," Alys said, deciding on the approach to take, "how lovely to see you." She gave a smile that would have passed at the Residence. "I trust Boris is well?" Imitating Louisa's style, Alys gave no time for a response. "I'm so sorry not to have time to stay and chat, but we must be going. I'm sure--" she gave Louisa a coy smile "--you'll have an invitation from me soon." To Padma's funeral, or Ivan's nameday, or both.

She found strength she hadn't known she had to walk briskly on, trailing a dumbfounded Kou. They turned left at the crossroads, and Alys stumbled. "Damn," she muttered. Kou took her free arm. "That was close."

"Will she ... tell someone about us?"

"Louisa? Of course she will. Everyone she meets. But telling her to keep it a secret would only have made things worse, because then she would have told everyone that I asked her to keep a secret. And nobody listens to her if they can help it. I think it would take a while for her gossip to reach Vordarian."

Kou gave her a blank look. "But couldn't she have helped us?"

"Louisa? No." Alys needed her breath for walking, so she didn't try to explain to Kou that she wouldn't have trusted Louisa to pour her a cup of tea without watching sharply lest she bungle it, much less ask her help to escape Vordarian's men. Also, there was a good chance Louisa preferred Vordarian; she'd always had execrable taste.

She kept a sharp eye out as they went through the Old Town, but saw nobody else she knew. Of course, someone in one of the groundcars could have recognised her, someone looking out a window... she stopped that train of thought. She was alive now, and that was all she had to focus on.

The road sloped uphill as they moved away from the river, and Alys slowed yet further, exhausted. Kou paused in a small square. "Why don't you sit here for a minute whilst I have a look ahead. I want to see if there are any checkpoints on the Imperial Way, because it would cut a good mile off the walk."

There was a bench against a bank of shrubbery in the centre of the square, and Alys collapsed onto it.

"If I'm not back in fifteen minutes or so," Kou began, but Alys shook her head.

"You'll be back," she said.

Kou gave a jerky nod and limped away, moving much more quickly without her. With the rocking of her steps stopped, Ivan began to rouse. It was probably time to feed him again. Alys vaguely remembered reading about baby care, a few weeks ago in another life, but she hadn't paid close attention to what needed to be done in the first few days. She had expected doctors, nurses, people who knew all about this to help her get started out right. She put Ivan to her breast again, a little less awkwardly than before, and hoped Kou would be all right.

The traffic was increasing, men in business suits and women leading children to school. Nobody gave Alys a second glance. She was surprised that so many people seemed to be going about their life as normal. Didn't they know that there was a civil war, that she was on the run, that her husband had been shot dead last night and the Emperor was missing? Just as she was thinking this, a patrol of Vordarian's men came marching by. The people on the pavements gave way to them with nervous sidelong glances. Alys tried to breathe normally. One soldier looked at her, saw what she was doing and flushed, his eyes moving onwards. She was another prole woman with a baby, probably a cleaner or a nanny working here, not a fugitive High Vor carrying the third in succession to the Imperium.

The patrol rounded a corner, and Alys realised that was the direction Kou had gone in. She tried to think. They probably weren't looking for Kou the way they were for her; he was supposed to be safe in Tanery Base with Aral, but he was also much more distinctive with his height and his ungainly walk. Over the noise of the traffic she doubted she'd even hear the sound of an arrest.

Ivan began to drop off to sleep again, and Alys rewrapped him in his blanket and leaned back against the bench, huddling into her thin shawl against the cold wind from the river. Despite her anxiety Alys felt herself drifting into a dreamlike reverie as Ivan's body relaxed in sleep. She could just rest her eyes a moment...


She blinked alert again. Kou stood over her, looking strained.

"The Imperial Way's no good. I nearly walked straight into a patrol of Vordarian's men, and they're stopping everyone further along."

"Yes, they came by here. They didn't bother me."

Kou helped her up. Alys was very stiff, very tired and extremely sore. Ivan's head was still misshapen from the birth, and she stroked it wonderingly, then steadied him against her shoulder, half-covered by the shawl. She felt like the walk to the corner would be too far, but she didn't have a choice. Kou was moving painfully too, and Alys recalled that he had left his cane with Drou. But he didn't complain, so Alys bit her tongue and followed him.

They walked through back streets as the rush hour traffic peaked, out of the smart Old Town area and into a mishmash of tall new apartment buildings constructed after the Cetagandan war, and older rows of terraced houses, some with the front room converted to shops selling everything from groundcar parts to secondhand furniture. Most of the signs were in Russian now, and Alys switched languages in her head, mentally reciting long-ago-learned Russian poetry to distract herself from her exhaustion.

Her legs were shaking and her breath was rasping in her chest when they stopped again. "Right," Kou said. "The depot is just a block away. I think you should wait somewhere and let me go do the talking."

Alys hesitated. "Are you sure?" She didn't want to be left out of important decisions now.

"Um," Kou said. "Er. The drivers will be easier to persuade if, um, if you don't look too desperate. Or, um, sick."

Alys supposed she must look awful. There had been mirrors in the brothel, of course, but she hadn't dared to look in any of them. "I see. Where shall I meet you?"

They both looked around. Around a corner there was a coffee shop-cum-bakery doing its morning trade. "In there," Kou said. "Sit down, get a drink, refresh yourself. Try not to attract any attention. I'll be at least half an hour, maybe more if I have to ask around a bit."

Alys stumbled the last few steps to the coffee shop. Like the other shops around here, it had clearly once been part of the owner's home, though they'd given up most of the ground floor to the large eating area and counter. It was very unlike the high-class salons she was accustomed to patronise. She took a deep breath and went in. Inside was warm, and smelt of food and coffee, and Alys realised she'd never appreciated how good it was to be warm before. There were only a few people seated at the tables; mostly customers were buying drinks to take to work. Alys ordered tea and a selection of pastries, thinking that Kou might be glad of something when he arrived.

"Four marks ninety," the girl behind the counter said in a bored voice.

Alys tried to balance the unfamiliar weight of Ivan in one arm whilst rummaging through her equally unfamiliar clothes for one of the smaller of the wad of notes Cordelia had given her. A plump woman with two small children staring greedily at the pastries watched her efforts, and Alys flushed. Ivan chose that moment to start his remarkably loud cry, and Alys nearly dropped him in sheer frustration.

"Here," said the woman, "I'll take him a moment." She gathered up Ivan before Alys could object and jiggled him competently on her shoulder. Alys grimaced, especially as Ivan stopped crying at once, but managed to find her money and pay for the food. The woman holding Ivan was cooing at him, and Alys resisted the urge to snatch him back and flee.

"He can't be more'n a few days old," the woman commented. She looked more closely at Alys. "You look like you oughta be at home in your bed, dearie. When was he born?"

Alys found herself telling the truth. "Last night."

"Ah!" The woman caught Alys' arm with her free hand and almost dragged her over to one of the long wooden tables, shooing her children before her. "You poor thing. Your first, is it? And you all alone, too. Don't you have any family to look after you?"

Alys wondered whether and how to resist this flood of sympathy. "My husband'll be back soon," she said feebly.

"He oughtn't to have taken you out of your bed in the first place," the woman answered rather ferociously. She led Alys to the far end of the table, opposite an elderly lady who had been drinking coffee and surveying the room with bright-eyed curiosity.

"Something bothering you, Irina?" the elderly lady said, her voice tart.

Irina's vehement explanation attracted the waitress, who perched casually on the bench beside her, and before Alys quite knew what was happening she found herself the centre of attention. She thought fast.

"We were trying to get out of the city before Ivan came," she said, not needing to act to sound exhausted. "But--well, he came anyway. But all our family's out in the country, and this city's no place to be now. There was fighting all around where we live."

"Huh, that's sure right," said the waitress. "Wish I could get out."

"Were you all alone, when he came? No midwife or nothing?" demanded Irina.

Alys nodded, with a mental apology to Bothari. The flood of sympathy redoubled, and she found herself on the verge of tears. Damn the hormones.

She swallowed a mouthful of tea. It was strong and bitter and wonderful. She drank again and nearly choked. Four men in black fatigues strolled into the shop, and on their arms were red and yellow bands. Vordarian's men. Alys forced herself to sip her tea as if everything was normal. The elderly lady now in possession of Ivan didn't even glance up as the soldiers went over to the counter and began chatting to the shopgirl, though the small children moved closer to their mother and the waitress's mouth tightened. Good. They weren't disposed to be friendly towards these men. But if they inquired about her…

But the soldiers seemed to be off-duty. They bought coffee and sat down at another table, sublimely ignoring the feminine gaggle around Alys.

"Isn't he a strong one, then?" the old lady cooed, her knotted finger encased in Ivan's fist. "A good bonny boy, he'll be."

Alys had to swallow another gulp of tea in her dry throat before she could speak. "Do you have sons?" she asked the old lady. She had learned how to make polite conversation under all circumstances, once upon a time. It proved a fruitful diversion, and she listened with every appearance of fascinated attention as the old lady outlined the careers of her five sons, two daughters and nineteen grandchildren. The plump lady, Irina, turned out to be her daughter-in-law. Ivan fell asleep again on the old lady's shoulder as she talked, and Alys began to relax despite the soldiers, who had gone for refills and were guffawing about something she couldn't quite make out. For all she knew they had been amongst the men who'd killed Padma last night. She found herself wondering whether his body was still lying in the road or if someone had taken it away, and where. There would have to be a funeral. She tried to distract herself by working out who should be invited, but images of Padma's body in the road kept flashing through her mind. He'd stayed awake with her two nights ago, rubbing her back through the early contractions that kept her from sleeping and trying to reassure her that everything would be fine. And now he was dead.

She was crying now, she realised, and tried to choke it back. The elderly woman gave a tolerant smile and patted her arm. "It took me like that too, after each of my kids was born. Kept crying for no reason at all. It'll pass, dear, don't worry."

Alys wanted to say that she had no shortage of reasons to cry, but instead she wiped her eyes with a coarse paper napkin and reached out for Ivan. The old woman surrendered him instantly, and Alys stared down at him. She had to keep this together now, so that she could get him somewhere safe. If they were captured now, she'd be spared, but Ivan would be killed. She bit down on her tongue until the sharp pain cleared her mind, finished her tea and took another deep breath.

"Good girl," the old woman said. "You'll be fine."

The soldiers all stood up. Alys bent her head over Ivan, rocking him and trying not to let herself look up. She heard their footsteps pass, then the door banged behind them. Alys waited a few moments more, in case one turned back, but they did not return.

"Good riddance," Irina said. "If all those blasted soldiers would go fight each other in space instead of down here we'd all be better off."

The waitress returned. "Anything else you need?" she said to Alys.

"A way to get out of this city and home to my mother," Alys said wearily. "I'll be all right, thank you."

"Hmm," said the old woman. "Just you and the baby?"

"My husband too," Alys said.

"Ma Volkov will know what to do," said Irina, nodding to the elderly lady. "Isn't that right, Ma?"

Ma Volkov said nothing, but gave Alys long considering stare. Alys bent over Ivan and realised there was an unpleasant smell coming from him. She sighed.

"Is there somewhere I can change him?" she asked. She had a few spare--well, in fact they were square pieces of cloth, which the brothel-keeper had deftly folded and fitted to Ivan, and Alys wasn't at all sure what she should do with the soiled one or whether she could replicate the folds, but it had to be done regardless.

"Oh yes." Ma Volkov stood up. "Round back. I'll show you."

Alys stood stiffly. She felt a little better now, but still like a week in bed would be a good idea. But that wasn't an option. She followed Ma Volkov through a door at the back of the café, and suddenly she was in a private house. "Come through, dear," said Ma Volkov.

They had running water and sewerage here, and there was a small table in the cloakroom. "There you are."

Alys had hoped Ma Volkov would leave her to fumble in peace, but instead she propped herself against the door. "You know, dear, you're the living spit of your grandmother."

Halfway through laying Ivan down on the table and unfolding the blanket around him, Alys froze.

"Why don't you let me do that; I've had plenty of practice. Changed your Da a few times, come to think of it."

Alys still couldn't manage to say anything.

"Back before I married Volkov I started out as a parlourmaid for Countess Vorlightly," the old woman continued. "My, she was a beauty then." She smiled broadly, taking Alys' place at the impromptu changing table and setting to work. "So was I, of course, and that's why I married Volkov two years after your Da was born, and then my first came along... well, as it happens he came along a little before we were married, but the Countess was very kind about that."

"Oh," Alys managed at last. "I ... didn't know that."

"Of course not, you weren't even a twinkle in your Da's eye then. But I knew you the moment you walked in here, my lady."

Ma Volkov' manner to Alys was now halfway between maternal and deferential.

"Now, this is my daughter's place these days, but I've family all over this part of the city, and I'm sure one of them will be able to help you. When Lord Vorpatril gets back we'll do whatever we can for you."

"Not Lord Vorpatril," Alys said, her voice carefully controlled. She looked at Ivan. "It's one of Lord Vorkosigan's men, he's pretending to be my husband."

Ma Volkov frowned, the maternal note in her voice overpowering the deferential. "My lady, you didn't ought to be playing games on your husband at a time like..."

Alys' look at her could have bent steel. "You presume too far," she said through set lips. "Lord Vorpatril was shot by Vordarian's men last night. One of Aral's men saved me a moment before it was my turn."

Ma Volkov went very still. "My lady," she said quietly, "I'm sorry." After another moment she said, "If you'll describe him to me, I'll put the word out to see he gets here safely."

"Yes, he should have been here earlier. He went to the truck depot to see if he could find us a lift out of the city."

Ma Volkov was shaking her head. "Won't work. They caught some stowaways on a meat delivery yesterday, the Count and Countess Vorvayne. They're searching them all now. No. You need something different."

She pinned the nappy on Ivan, pulled the ragged baby gown back down and smiled. Ivan's eyes were open and he wasn't screaming, most unusually. Ma Volkov tickled his chin and picked him up. "Back to your mama, little one," she said. "Come with me, my lady, and we'll think about how to get you out."

She led Alys not back to the café, but to a back room that was evidently her daughter's sitting-room. A moment later a young woman entered, then stopped and stared. "Grandma? Do you want anything?"

"Helga, good," said Ma Volkov. "This young lady needs a bit of help. Can you find her some things for the baby, and anything else she needs?" She looked critically at Alys, who wasn't entirely used to being studied in that way. "Might want to do something different with your hair, it's a bit, ah, memorable." She flicked her fingers at Helga, who scurried off again.

"One of my granddaughters, Katya's third," Ma Volkov said. "Good girl, but she needs to settle down. She'll get you sorted. I'll go have a word with a few people."

Alys sat back on the sofa and rocked Ivan slowly, trying to catch up with the events of the last ten minutes. Her mind was fuzzy from lack of sleep, her energy nonexistent. Ivan stared around curiously, his hands waving in front of his face. Alys was in the middle of a silly game with him when Helga returned with a neatly folded pile. She came over.

"Do you want me to do your hair? I'm good at hair," Helga said, smiling with appalling cheerfulness and energy.

Her hair, falling loose and unwashed over her shoulders, was likely so appalling that even a peasant girl probably couldn't make matters any worse. "Go ahead. I, um, often wear it down, but I think it should probably be different."

"I'll braid it up Russian style," Helga said. "Like my Ma wears it. It'll suit you."

"Good. Thank you."

Helga was good at this, Alys could tell from the way she braided, pulling firmly but not uncomfortably tight, working steadily. Helga slid some pins in to hold it in place, then nodded. "That'll do. Now, I have a change of clothes for the baby, and some more nappies, and a better shawl. It's cold out there today. I could probably find you some gloves too."

"Thank you," Alys said. She watched Helga unfold the shawl for her. "Do you work at the café?" she asked curiously.

"No, I used to have a job at Taylor's Hotel, before all this, but it got shot up two weeks ago. There was a government minister staying there, and his men had a big fight with Vordarian's men. I don't know what's happening now."

Taylor's was in the Old Town, an elegant place. Helga had evidently acquired some polish there, and she seemed to have good natural taste. Alys considered the girl. If they all survived this, she would owe something to these people, and finding Helga a suitable post in her household might be a good way to repay them.

"I'll just go see whether Ma needs me in the café," Helga said, after helping dress Ivan in the new and much nicer baby clothes, and left Alys alone.

She seemed safe enough here for the present, but they had to get out of the city. Still, Alys found herself leaning back in the chair. Ivan was watching his fists wave about with apparent fascination. Alys watched him drowsily, aware that she couldn't go to sleep whilst he was awake, but also extremely tired.

Voices outside the door roused her to full alertness.

"... where you are taking me!"

Alys sat up. It was Kou, and he sounded upset. "In here, Lieutenant," she called. The door opened and Kou came in, flanked by a corporal in combat fatigues, and a man in a labourer's coveralls. Both bore an unmistakeable resemblance to Ma Volkov.

"My--um, Alys," Kou said. "What's going on? Are you all right?"

"I'm fine." Kou, on the other hand, didn't look fine. He was holding one arm stiffly and seemed more awkward than usual. "What happened to you?"

"There were some soldiers at the depot. They, um, were going to detain me, but then this guy took me away instead and refused to explain anything. What's going on?"

"Ah." Alys hesitated. "Ma Volkov knew my grandmother. She's offered to help us."

"Your grandmother?" Kou said blankly. "Oh."

Ma Volkov nodded to her two descendants, nephews or sons or something, Alys supposed. "Get back to work, then," she said curtly. "If I need you again I'll send word."

Alys had seen Counts dismiss their retinue like that. Once they were gone, Alys said, "Ma Volkov knows who we are, Lieutenant, but we can trust her."

"I'm not telling the children," Ma Volkov said. "They didn't know the Countess. But they'll do what I want." She gave Kou an assessing look. "I have a nephew, Jamil, about two blocks from here. He's a plumber, and he's got a contract with a big company that takes him on calls out of the city all the time. I asked his wife, and she says he's due to go out to Reuville later on this morning. If I ask him, he'll take you along in his van."

"That's in Vorinnis' District," Kou said. "We should be able to get on from there."

"The monorail in Reuville is running as usual," Ma Volkov said. "Jamil took my cousin to the station there just last week, so that she could get to her great-grandson's nameday." She looked at Alys. "Shall I make arrangements, my lady?"

It was reassuring to be asked for orders. Alys understood giving orders. "I think it's our best chance," she said. Kou nodded assent.

"Very well, my lady," said Ma Volkov, her tone suddenly one that would have fit in at the Imperial Residence. Alys almost began to cry again at this unexpected reminder of her normal life. She went out, and a few moments later Helga reappeared with a tray, bearing a steaming teapot and a plate of sandwiches. She placed it silently on the coffee table and bobbed her head in Alys' general direction. With an appreciative noise, Kou attacked the tray.

"How on earth did all this happen?" he asked after demolishing three sandwiches.

"Ma Volkov used to be in service with my grandmother, Countess Vorlightly," Alys explained. "I take after her, and she recognised me. I think we can trust them."

"Seems likely." He sighed and drained his teacup. "Nobody wanted anything to do with me at the truck depot, and then a bunch of off-duty soldiers swept in. I thought I was done for, but then those guys just grabbed me and rushed me away."

"Ma Volkov seems to have considerable power in this part of the city," Alys said with a slight smile. "I can only deduce that she learned it from Grandmaman."

Kou raised his eyebrows, then resumed his attack on the food. Alys followed suit, though she didn't feel hungry. She had no way of knowing when they'd have a chance to eat again today, after all.

When they were finishing the last sandwiches, Ma Volkov returned. "It's all sorted. If you go over there, Jamil will give you a lift. He's leaving in half an hour."

"Thank you," Alys said. "We're very grateful for all you've done."

Ma Volkov gave an expressive shrug. "It's easy enough."

They made their way back through the café, said their farewells to Ma Volkov, and started down the road. Alys gave a sniff. "Something's burning."

She and Kou looked around, and spotted the thick dark smoke rising in a pillar and slowly dissipating in the currents of the air.

"Something big," he said. "Huh. I hope it wasn't a bomb."

They heard sirens wailing in the distance. Alys shivered. "It doesn't sound good." In a lower voice, she added, "I hope Cordelia's all right."

Kou gave the pillar of smoke a worried glance, then shook his head. "Whatever it is, it's not here. Come on."

They followed Ma Volkov's directions--down the road, left after the comconsole repair shop, past the free clinic towards the main road--and found the plumber's workshop. Kou gave the area a professional scan, then nodded.

They went through the gate to a small inner courtyard piled with pipes, ladders and various large tools Alys didn't recognise. There were two vans with Volkov and Harris, Plumbing Solutions inscribed on the side in Russian and English, and a collection of small shields with the emblems and colours of the counts he'd done work for. Scanning them, Alys concluded that Ma Volkov's nephew had a very well-established business. The Vorbarra arms were missing, but Alys thought that if they got out of this alive she would see to it that Volkov got one of the coveted Vorbarra contracts. Vorkosigan contracts too, undoubtedly.

There was an office door half-open on the far side of the courtyard, and a short man in practical coveralls and boots came out as they approached. He gave them a sharp look.

"You the ones?" he said tersely.

Kou nodded.

"Hop in." He opened the rear door of one of the vans. "Nobody's ever asked to look in here any time I've been through the checkpoints, and the guards all know me after I unblocked their toilets for them, but if they do a search, you climbed in when I wasn't looking and I don't know a thing." He eyed Ivan. "You'll need to keep him quiet."

Even a lazy checkpoint guard would be suspicious of a screaming baby in the rear of a plumber's van, Alys supposed. She felt her stomach clench, but said, "I will," in a low voice. Jamil nodded, and jerked his head at the van.

Kou helped her in, and she sat on the floor wedged against a small workbench and a stack of buckets. Kou sat opposite, stretching out his legs stiffly. Jamil slammed the door behind them.

"If they fast-penta him they'll know his story isn't true," Alys said.

Kou sighed. "If that happens, that will be the least of our worries."

"Well, yes."

The van started up and began to bump along. Kou looked around the dim compartment and picked up a large spanner. Alys doubted it would be much use if there was trouble, but noted herself the position of a length of metal pipe.

The bumping of the van seemed to have a soporific effect on Ivan, and Alys was relieved of one worry as he dozed off against her shoulder. Alys tried to work out whether they were going through any checkpoints, but Jamil was evidently a better plumber than a driver, and they went through any number of abrupt halts and equally abrupt starts until Alys began to feel a little seasick. They were bounced around for what felt like hours, and finally the van came to another jerky halt.

Alys tensed, and Kou's hand fell on the spanner again, but the hatch from the front opened and Jamil said, "We're just around the corner from Reuville station. You ought to be able to get a ticket to wherever you're going from here."

"Thank you," Alys said, as Kou opened the rear door. "We are in your debt."

Jamil shrugged. "When Ma Volkov says hop, you hop. T'weren't any trouble, anyhow."

Alys passed Ivan to Kou and climbed down herself, legs stiff and sore.

"Station's that way," Jamil said, gesturing. He gave a cheery wave and drove away. Alys collected Ivan from Kou and they began to walk again.

There were no soldiers at all in the monorail station, a most welcome absence. Kou and Alys studied the departure screens. "There's nothing direct to Thiessy for two hours," Kou said. "Just the stopper, and I'd rather not have to stop."

"We can't stay here," Alys said. "Isn't it better to keep moving?"

"Yes, but the next train stops at all sorts of places. Hassadar. That's--" Kou cut himself off as two men in Imperial undress uniform entered the station. They didn't seem particularly interested in any of the passengers, but the illusion of safety was shattered.

"All right," Kou said quietly, "the next train it is."

He bought the tickets whilst Alys took Ivan off for another change and clean-up at the blessedly clean and quiet station toilets. Even under these circumstances, the trains were dead on time. Boarding, Alys felt oddly nostalgic. The last time she had been on the monorail was when she'd been going away to school, before Padma, before any of this. For a moment she could pretend she was back then, carefree. Then Ivan wriggled in her arms and she was drawn back to the present.

Not many people were travelling, and those who were on the train tended to look down when another person entered the compartment, and avoid making eye contact with anyone else, a contrast with the usual chattiness of the French-speaking areas of Barrayar. Alys was grateful. She and Kou sat down at the end of a compartment, away from anyone else, and Alys dared to relax a little. They were out of Vorbarr Sultana, they were away from soldiers and fires and arrests, and all she had to think about now was trying to keep Ivan from making a racket and disturbing the other passengers.

Kou went down to the restaurant car and returned with hot drinks and rolls, and they took turns holding Ivan and eating, since he protested vigorously at being laid down on the seat next to Alys.

"What do we do next?" Alys asked after a while.

"Hire a car in Thiessy, and drive south till we get to our lines near Tanery Base," Kou said. "We should just have enough money left for that. Thank heavens Lady Cordelia brought as much as she did."

"She kept enough for her to get out too?" Alys asked.

"I'm sure she did."

They sat in silence for a while after that, Alys half-dozing, Kou rubbing his legs and jumping at small noises. After an hour the train approached Hassadar station, and Alys glanced out the window and froze. The platform was lined with scores of soldiers in black combat fatigues. Kou, following her gaze, swallowed visibly.

"They have to be Vordarian's. He holds all Vorkosigan's District," he muttered. "If they're get on..."

Alys didn't need Kou to tell her what the dangers were. If they were searching the train, even a routine ID check would betray them. She gazed out the window as the train decelerated.

"They've all got kit bags," she observed.

"Ah. Vordarian's moving men." Kou took a breath. "It might be all right. Put the shawl over your head," he said.

The other people in the compartment were staring at the soldiers with equal dismay and anxiety. Alys pulled the rustic shawl over her hair peasant-fashion, and settled Ivan on her shoulder, trying to breathe steadily. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do except wait and hope. Getting off the train at Hassadar would be suicide.

The door to their compartment swung open and a man in undress greens and lieutenant's tabs entered. "You'll all have to move along, we need this compartment."

Alys was careful not to be the first to stand up, nor the last. Kou steered her through with the others along the train. The troops were taking up four entire compartments, but there weren't enough other passengers to make the train crowded. They found seats, the last of the soldiers got on board and the train pulled out of the station and began to pick up speed. A few moments later a handful of officers--the commanders of the men, Alys judged from their tabs--came and sat in the same compartment, a few rows away. Alys kept her eyes downwards like a modest country woman. Kou moved uncomfortably in his seat.

About ten minutes into this leg of the journey, Kou bent forwards and murmured to Alys, "The colonel over there is staring at me. I think I've seen him in staff meetings, back before all this. Why don't you get up quietly and go sit somewhere else, just in case?"

Alys grimaced. But having an argument with Kou about whether or not she should leave him if he was caught really wasn't the right thing to do now. Obediently, she stood up, carrying Ivan, and moved along the compartment. She found an empty bay in the next compartment and sat down, feeling abruptly alone and vulnerable. She might not even know if Kou was arrested, from here.

A few minutes later, the door to the compartment slid open again, and the colonel came in. He looked around, spotted Alys, and went towards her. Alys looked around, but there was nowhere to flee and only a few elderly people and self-absorbed businessmen nearby, nobody who looked likely to help her.

"This seat free?" he asked, and Alys had to nod. He sat down opposite her and stared at her for a while, until Alys began to frame a sharply-worded rebuke of his behaviour. "Madame Koudelka," he said quietly before she could speak, "I have a question for you."

Knowing that her life might hang on how well she could lie, Alys blinked innocently at the colonel. "I'm sorry," she said, "I believe you are mistaken."

"I didn't know Lieutenant Koudelka was married, but I assume, since you were with him..."

"I think you must have mistaken me for someone else," Alys said, trying not to allow her arms to tense around Ivan lest she wake him up.

"Your loyalty does you credit, madame," the colonel said. "I don't mean your husband any harm--nor you either. But..." his voice lowered, "he's the Regent's personal secretary, is he not? I wonder if he would be interested in setting up a meeting."

Alys took a breath. "You wish to meet the Lord Regent?"

"General Timms would like to meet him," the colonel said. "Possibly some of his colleagues also. I thought it might be safer--for everyone--if I spoke to you first instead of approaching the lieutenant directly."

Alys could see his train of thought. If Kou was actually Vordarian's man, the colonel would have his purported wife as a hostage against him telling Vordarian of their betrayal, and in any event Alys would make a good Baba for this potential match.

"I think it might be possible..." she began, when the compartment door slid open yet again and Kou himself entered. He stared at Alys, eyes narrowed in concern. She gave him a short nod, and he limped up and abruptly sat down beside her.

"What's going on?" he demanded.

"This gentleman wishes to arrange a meeting with Aral," Alys said. The colonel's eyes widened, and she realised her mistake. Prudently, she made no attempt to explain why she might be on first-name terms with the Lord Regent of the Barrayaran Empire, and Kou gave a nod.

"Really," he said. "Well. Who do you represent?"

"General Timms. All the men on the train are ours, and there are two more platoons still in Hassadar. We've been recalled to the capital, but ... it seems better to go this way."

Alys wondered whether any of the ordinary soldiers knew that their commanders were selling out to Vorkosigan's side, or whether they were just going where they were told to go. That would be more usual for Barrayaran military types, she suspected.

"Ah," Kou said. "Well, something might be arranged. Give me your personal comm number, and I'll contact you when I can."

The colonel wrote on a scrap of paper, which Kou stuck in his pocket. "In the meantime," he said, "the best thing you can do is carry on as normal. Leave us alone, you don't want to draw attention."

"Oh no."

"And when we arrange the meeting," Kou said, "there will have to be assurances to ensure that there is no risk of an ambush. I'm sure the Regent's security will have certain requests."

"I quite understand, and we will be prepared to negotiate on that."

Kou nodded judiciously.

"Very well," the colonel said. "I will convey your words to the general." He stood up and returned to the military compartments.

"My God," Kou said. "If we can pull this off... if Timms brings a few others with him, it could swing the whole balance of this region. We might even get Vorkosigan's District back."

Alys supposed it was good that Kou was looking further ahead. She couldn't bring herself to think beyond this journey, this endless nightmare day. She rocked Ivan gently back and forth, and wished the endless cramping would stop. Kou settled down to watching the unterraformed countryside rush by and dozing, and the rest of the journey passed smoothly. It was strange, Alys thought, how the officers' negotiations had changed her view of the soldiers. Now she saw them as pawns, tokens in the deadly game Aral and Vidal were playing between them, moved about the board as their officers' loyalties shifted.

At Thiessy station, they got off and stuck with the crowd of other civilians, working their way out of the station. The soldiers remained on the train, heading for Marigrad, Alys supposed.

Hiring a car was surprisingly easy. The garage Kou selected--a bit shabby, unpainted and small--offered a couple of small elderly groundcars and no awkward questions. All Alys had to do was stand behind Kou and smile. It did use up most of the money Cordelia had given them, but it would get them to safety.

They left Theissy, Alys puzzling over the elderly map in the rear of the groundcar with Ivan and trying to direct Kou along quieter roads, always heading west and south. They had to stop for directions in a particularly obscure village where the road marked on the map seemed to lead directly into a lake, and discovered that a new reservoir had rearranged the landscape for miles around. Kou did the talking, because Alys' Vorbarr Sultana accent was more noticeable here in the backwoods.

The diversion meant that they had to take a main road after all, across the border from Vorkosigan's District into Vorvolynkin's. It was busier, but Alys was just hoping that it would work out for the best when they rounded a corner and were suddenly a hundred metres away from a roadblock. She caught her breath.

"Turn around," she said urgently.

Kou, braking hard, hesitated, then shook his head. "Turning around all of a sudden now would draw too much attention to us. We'll have to talk our way through. If we just sit tight and keep our heads down... and there's still some of Lady Vorkosigan's money left."

They were already worryingly close to the gun posts set up on either side of the road. Alys nodded and forced herself to breathe regularly as they approached the checkpoint. There were other groundcars going through without a great deal of delay, which gave her hope. It couldn't be that hard to get through. They joined the line and edged forward. Some cars were being searched, others waved through after a brief conversation, a few with only a single glance. Alys wrapped Ivan up carefully and laid him down on the seat beside her.

"Papers?" said the guard in a bored voice as they reached the front.

Kou gave him a blank look. "Which ones do you want?" he asked.

"Permit to travel," said the guard, "and your District IDs."

"That's not what they told us in Thiessy," Kou said. "I asked the officer there specially what we needed, and he said there wasn't anything particular."

The guard scowled at him. "Well, he told you wrong. Permit to travel and District IDs."

Kou shook his head. "I'm telling you, it was the District Travel Officer in Thiessy, and he said we wouldn't need those."

"Where are you going?" the guard asked.

"To my inlaws. M'wife's just had a baby."

Inevitably, the guard craned his neck to look in the rear, where Alys and Ivan sat. He grunted non-committally.

"If we have to go back we won't get there till well past midnight," Kou said. "And with the baby and all... I don't suppose..." He put a hand to his pocket suggestively.

The guard looked fractionally more interested for a moment, then abruptly went rigid as a figure in an officer's dress uniform appeared in the background. "I don't know what you mean," he said in tones of outraged virtue, "but I'm going to have to ask you to step in here." His partner behind him had a hand on his nerve disruptor. Alys shuddered.

Then she saw the person in the background full on, and a wash of relief went over her. She smiled and opened her door, ignoring the two troopers, and called, "Stefan!" She made no effort this time to speak with a prole accent, almost over-exaggerating her usual Vorish enunciation.

The officer turned instantly, and Alys gave a small wave and smiled up at him, then cast her eyes down. Stefan--Captain Lord Vordrozda--strode over to the groundcar. The two troopers moved to attention. He stared at Alys.

"What on earth--?" With a rapid motion of his hand he dismissed the troopers. Kou was gaping at her, and Alys shot him a fierce glare. Sit still and don't interrupt me.

"Oh Stefan, thank goodness," Alys said. "I need your help."

Stefan looked into the car and saw Kou. He frowned. "Who's that?"

"My driver," Alys said promptly. "Stefan, I must speak to you privately." She wasn't sure where she was going with this, just that she had to keep talking and charming him until she got what she wanted.

"Come to my office," Stefan replied at once. Alys left Ivan with Kou--no sense in drawing any more attention to him than she needed--and pushed herself out of the groundcar. Her head whirled a little as she stood, but instead of moving on regardless she allowed herself to waver. Stefan immediately took her arm, saying, "My dear Lady Alys, you are not well." He turned briefly to his men, now standing at a polite distance. "Get this car out of the road. They'll be a little while."

Alys leaned on Stefan as they went into the guard building, more heavily than she actually needed to. Stefan gave her the best chair in the office, bowing as she sat.

"What happened?" he asked. "What are you doing here? I thought you must be with your family. It's not safe for you here."

"Padma was killed last night," Alys said, deliberately blunt. "We had to flee... it was awful." She allowed her voice to choke a little, but didn't permit herself to cry. Stefan didn't like crying women. She watched his face as he processed the news. Dismay, understanding, calculation, hope, a touch of actual sympathy.

"I am so sorry," he said smoothly. "Was it..."

"Vordarian's men." Alys raised her chin a little.

"I see." He extended a hand. "What do you want of me, my lady? If I can do it without dishonour, I will."

"All I wish right now," Alys said, "is to go and spend my mourning year somewhere quiet, a long way from politics and war." As she said it, she almost believed it. She hadn't thought in terms of a mourning year before.

"Dear Alys," Stefan said, which made her flinch a little, since she hadn't given him permission to address her so familiarly, "this puts me in a very difficult position."

"Does it truly?" Alys said, eyes wide. "A widow in mourning is so very dangerous?" She put out a hand to him. "I'm worried for you, Stefan. If Aral carries the day, what will happen to you? There's a lot of fighting still in Vorbarr Sultana."

Stefan paused, his mind pushed in the direction Alys wanted it to go. "I've heard rumours," he admitted. "Perhaps ... perhaps you had better just continue. Where is it you're going?"

"My father's estate, of course," Alys said, heartened by his choice of words. The Vorlightly District was actually in this direction, but several hundred miles further than Tanery Base. "I will be able to find peace there for a time. Of course, my friends will be welcome to visit."

"Well," Stefan said, visibly weakening, "for you... all sorts of scoundrels are sneaking and bribing their way through the checkpoints, I daresay, both ways. Why shouldn't a virtuous and honourable woman also pass through?"

Feeling that something was required of her, Alys placed her hand on his. He raised it to his lips. "I hope to visit you once this is over."

"It would be my pleasure."

For a moment Alys was worried he would try to kiss her, and that she would have to allow it to get through the checkpoint, but he simply helped her to her feet and squeezed her hand. "I know you are grieving now," he said, "but perhaps I will be able to give you comfort one day."

Alys only smiled faintly and moved towards the door.

"Everything is in order," Stefan said to the guards by their car. "They can proceed." He opened the rear door of the car for Alys himself and bowed her in. He did have exquisite manners, Alys had to grant him that. Ivan was still sleeping peacefully on the rear seat, covered with a blanket. Stefan closed the door and gestured to Kou, who started the engine, eyes wide. They drove away.

"What on earth happened there," Kou said as the checkpoint faded into the distance behind them. "That was Captain Lord Vordrozda, wasn't it? What did you say to him?"

"I asked him to help me."

Kou blinked. "I don't understand."

"He was Padma's nearest rival. Now that Padma's... now he thinks he has a chance again. He is sincerely fond of me, I think."

"So he let us go?"

"More or less. I did also hint that things weren't going well for Vordarian, and that it might be as well for him to have a friend in the Regent's camp. He quite saw the point." She curled a lip scornfully. "Stefan always has kept his eye firmly on the main chance. He's very eloquent on honour and duty, but his acts betray his real self."

"And he was prepared to let Ivan go too?"

"He could hardly kill my son in front of me and then hope I'd marry him. I daresay he believes that if I tell his Baba yes, he will be able to steal a bit more influence, not to mention legitimacy, from Ivan's connections for himself."

Kou sighed. "He's a Count's son, though. I imagine he'll have to be executed, after this."

"It's possible my influence may alter that." She sighed. "He did let us go, after all. And he's only a captain."

Kou was silent, radiating disapproval. "Would you actually marry him? He chose Vordarian!" he burst out at last.

"He understands how to survive here," Alys countered. "But no. I have no intention of marrying him." She swallowed, remembering her wedding, and rapidly changed the subject. "And what about you? I think you may be planning to get married?"

Kou looked over his shoulder at her. "Did Drou say anything to you?" he demanded.

"Not particularly," Alys answered, smiling faintly. "But she seems a very suitable choice for you."

"Hm," was all Kou said to that.

"If you wish," Alys said, "I can recommend a most excellent Baba."

"Maybe," Kou said. "If we all survive."

"She's with Cordelia," Alys said, trying for encouragement. "Cordelia will take care of her."

Kou looked like he still couldn't quite get his head around the notion of a female officer, but he only nodded once and turned his attention to the roads. As soon as possible he turned off the main road, away from any more roadblocks, and they drove through narrow backcountry roads as the sky darkened, dusk and rain arriving together. Alys sat half-dozing, part of her mind always aware of Ivan, another part still expecting to be attacked at any moment. They had to stop twice more for directions, and a third time when Kou had to get out and pull a fallen branch out of a road evidently so little-used that nobody had cleared it since the last storms. At least it proved there were no soldiers here.

It was full night before they descended into a valley and the road abruptly widened again. They began to pass other vehicles. Kou kept yawning, which made Alys worry that he would fall asleep whilst driving. Ivan woke up and started crying, and Alys couldn't get him to stop. He wouldn't nurse, he wouldn't go back to sleep, and Alys felt like his every shriek sapped her strength a little more. Kou stoically drove on, only once commenting, "He's almost as loud as the fire alarm at barracks when I was doing basic training."

Ivan finally exhausted himself and fell back asleep, half-waking every few minutes to let out another whimper, then dozing off again. Alys held him with arms that felt like they'd set in place. She didn't ask Kou how much further they had to go, afraid of the answer.

Abruptly they crested a hill and Alys saw a barrier across the road a little way down the hillside, floodlit and with a guard post alongside.

"This is it," Kou said. "This checkpoint is ours."

We hope, Alys thought, but didn't voice that fear aloud. Kou pulled up the groundcar and got out, carefully leaving his nerve disruptor on the seat. He was moving almost as slowly as Alys. She picked up Ivan and wrapped him up in the blanket again. It was sleeting outside. She wrapped the shawl around her head and tucked Ivan into it the way Ma Volkov had taught her, leaving her hands free.

Searchlights picked them out of the darkness, the beams lighting up the drops of sleet in the air. "Stop right there!" shouted a man with a megaphone. "Don't move! Raise your hands above your head!"

Alys and Kou obeyed, but Ivan woke up and began to screech at the dazzling light in their faces. The man bellowed, "Silence!" which Alys thought unusually stupid.

"He's a baby!" she retorted haughtily.

The lights continued to shine on them as four soldiers advanced, stunners out. Alys supposed she ought to be grateful it wasn't nerve disruptors.

"You can't go any further. This checkpoint is closed for the night."

"I work for Lord Vorkosigan," Kou said. "I need to speak with him urgently."

Alys couldn't see the soldiers' expressions, but she wasn't surprised by the tone in which one said, "Sure you do. Let's see your ID."

"I don't have any. My name is Lieutenant Clement Koudelka and I'm the Lord Regent's personal secretary."

"That's a good one. And who's this, the Dowager Princess Kareen?"

Suddenly there were guards flanking them both, and Alys was twenty-six hours in the past, being marched out of the house by Vordarian's men. She could feel the terror in her chest as vividly as she had last night.

"Don't touch me!" she said, and realised she had almost shrieked her words.

"Lady Alys?" Kou said urgently. "Leave her be, she's had a rough time," he said to the guards.

Alys took a long steadying breath. They were Vorkosigan's men, not that she could tell the difference. "I am Lady Alys Vorpatril," she said. "I've spent a great deal of time and effort getting here with my son, and I demand to speak to someone more senior at once."

There was a silence. The lights shone on both their faces again. "You'd better come inside," said one of the guards. "We'll have to search you first," he added to Alys. She nodded curtly.

One of the guards took Ivan from her whilst another patted her down, quickly and as inoffensively as possible, then ran a security scanner over her. She couldn't quite see, but suspected Kou was getting rougher treatment. Then the guard returned Ivan to her and led them both into their command post.

They were seated at the side of an office whilst a man with sergeant's tabs began to place a call with their HQ. Kou argued with them, and the call was passed gradually up the hierarchy until they came to someone Kou knew, the duty officer at Tanery Base. He took one look at Kou and said, "Lieutenant. One moment, please."

Another holding pattern appeared, this time with ImpSec's Horus-eye flickering in the centre. Alys stood up and went to join Kou at the console.

"The Chief of ImpSec," the duty officer announced.

Kou looked into the comconsole. "Sir?"

Alys blinked as the holding pattern dissolved not into Captain Negri's face but that of a mere boy, Aral's new security commander. She frowned.

"Ah. Kou." There was, Alys thought, a lot of meaning in those two syllables. "Get your ass here right now, Lieutenant. Do you have milady?"

"No, sir, but I have Lady Alys Vorpatril and Lord Ivan Vorpatril with me."

That made Captain Illyan blink. "Lord Ivan...?"

Alys moved into the pickup, still clutching Ivan. "My son."

"I see." He hesitated fractionally. "And Lord Padma Vorpatril?"

Kou shot a sideways glance at Alys. She gave an acknowledging nod. No, telling security flunkies won't make me fall apart. "Padma was shot by Vordarian's men. He's dead."

"I am extremely sorry to hear that, my lady," Illyan said, not quite smoothly. "We will arrange for you and the young lord, and Kou, to get to Tanery Base within the hour."

After that, Alys and Kou were given all the comforts a roadside checkpoint in the backwoods could offer, which wasn't much but did include a hot meal, which they were halfway through when they heard the sound of a lightflyer screaming down. Alys was feeling lightheaded with personal relief, but the downside of that was that for the first time she had the mental space to worry about Cordelia and Kareen and Gregor and Miles. A soldier politely gave her his arm to the lightflyer, another passed Ivan to her, and they sped up through the night towards Tanery Base.

Kou was trying to get news out of the copilot without much result, and after a while Alys gave up listening to that. She dozed for half an hour, then was woken up by her ears popping as they descended. Ivan began to cry again, and Alys rocked him exhaustedly. She wanted to put him down and have someone else take care of them both, but that wasn't going to happen, so she whispered, "Ssh, ssh, it's all right," to Ivan and tried to believe it herself.

They landed at Tanery Base and were almost shooed into the depths of the military tunnels by a squad of soldiers with ImpSec insignia. They were scanned, politely but thoroughly, and then taken through to an empty room where Aral stood, flanked by Illyan. The moment she saw Aral's face, she knew someone had already told him of Padma's death. He moved to her. "Alys. I am so sorry."

Alys merely nodded, unable to summon the correct polite responses for Aral. He had loved Padma deeply; in some ways more deeply than she. He reached out to touch Ivan's face, very carefully. "And, um, congratulations." Alys thought he appreciated the bleak irony of her conjoined grief and joy as well as she did.

"Thank you," she managed. "Cordelia was well when I last saw her," she added, and it was Aral's turn to be silent.

"Good," he said at last. "We'll get you and baby Ivan taken care of right away." Then he turned to Kou.

"What the hell were you doing going AWOL like that?" Abruptly, Aral's resemblance to Piotr was acute. "What did you do with my wife?"

"Sir, I didn't--I didn't leave willingly. I didn't desert."

"My wife overpowered..." Aral's indignation seemed to fail him, and since Alys thought she'd probably have a chance at overpowering Kou if she had to, she didn't see that there was anything unlikely about the idea that Cordelia could physically compel Kou. "Well," Aral said at length, "at least you rescued Lady Alys."

Kou gave Aral a faintly defiant look. "There were more than a few times when she was rescuing me, sir."

"Ha. Very well. Debrief, Kou. First, tell me why you left Cordelia and when you last saw her."

Abruptly, Alys felt she couldn't stay on her feet another moment. Aral and Illyan both saw her sway and moved to support her. "Is anything in Lady Alys' debriefing essential, Kou?" Aral demanded.

"No, sir, I don't think so."

"All right. Simon, you get started with Kou. I'll take Alys to sickbay and get her settled, then I'll join you and you can bring me up to speed."

Aral took Ivan from her and put his other arm around her. "Come with me."

Alys leaned gratefully against him and concentrated on staying upright and not crying. They passed through echoing military corridors, and Aral rocked Ivan against his shoulder.

"God damn it," he muttered. "He survived Yuri, and a decade of military service, and it all comes to this."

"It was a few seconds," Alys found herself saying. "Just a few seconds. Kou and Bothari and Drou were right there, but that vile bastard shot first." She could see it so clearly in her mind, more clearly than the blurry corridors. Aral's arm tightened around her.

"It's always just a few seconds," he whispered, and there was so much weight to his words that Alys was jolted out of her own morass of grief for a moment. Then Aral straightened. "But we'll keep you and Ivan safe," he said. "Whatever happens. There are all sorts of rumours from the capital ... Cordelia's stirred something up for sure. But you and Ivan will be all right here."

They reached the sickbay, where a slightly bemused-looking doctor met them. Alys suspected he wasn't used to female patients, let alone babies. But mercifully soon she was clean and lying down in a real bed.

"There's nothing to be concerned about," the doctor said. "You've torn a little, but it's too small to be worth stitching, and Lord Ivan is an extremely healthy little boy. I recommend you get some sleep whilst you can."

Too tired even to feel silly in the unflattering hospital gown, Alys obeyed.

She woke from extremely unpleasant dreams to the sound of Ivan crying and a commotion outside the half-open door of the infirmary. Wearily, she went to him, picked him up, sat down on the uncomfortable chair by her bed and began to feed him.

"… I need that solution right now," a voice said clearly above the general bustle. Alys peered past the half-drawn curtains around her bed, and saw a number of techs surrounding a man with a patch over one eye, carrying something Alys couldn't clearly see. She rubbed her eyes with her free hand, and went back to attending to Ivan.

A short while later there was another bustle.

"Morgue's through here," said a medtech, and Alys saw a black-fatigued soldier gingerly carrying something covered with a piece of cloth. "What is that, anyway?"

"Look for yourself," the soldier said. He glanced sideways, saw Alys and hastily pulled the infirmary door fully shut. A loud exclamation rang through the door, making her jump. Ivan began to wriggle and fuss, and Alys swapped him to the other side. He was just starting to fall asleep when the door opened again and a most welcome face appeared.


Cordelia came over, looking almost as tired as Alys felt. She sat heavily on the edge of Alys' bed as if she might never get up again, but her eyes on Alys were warm. "I heard you were magnificent," she said.

Alys looked down at Ivan. "We got here," she said, obliquely accepting the compliment. "What happened with you? Did you..." she hesitated, not wanting to ask too bluntly what had happened to Miles. But there was no bone-deep grief in Cordelia's face.

"We got Miles back. He's next door, actually, in Vaagen's lab. We think he's going to be okay." Her face clouded a little. "Or at least, no worse off than before."

Alys felt obscurely guilty for Ivan's evident health and strength. "Good," she said.

"It's all over, Alys," Cordelia said. "Vordarian's dead. Aral is going to be negotiating surrenders all day, but the worst is over."

Alys blinked at her, not sure her sleep-clouded mind was understanding correctly. "Over?" she echoed.

"Yes. We killed Vordarian." Cordelia hesitated. "I'm sorry, Alys. Kareen was killed too. I know you were close. I couldn't…it was all so quick... "

Alys put out a hand instinctively, feeling Cordelia's grief more strongly than her own. She was already numbed, Kareen's death was just a blow on frozen flesh. "Gregor?" she asked, fearing the answer. Cordelia hesitated.

"He's alive. I'm not sure I should say anything more yet."

Alys nodded.

"But in time, things will back to normal, soon I hope," Cordelia said. She yawned. "What are you going to do now?"

Alys pressed her lips together in the effort not to snap at Cordelia that she had no idea beyond the next few hours. Cordelia noticed her expression and flushed. "I'm sorry. It's much too soon for you to think about that, isn't it?"

Alys nodded. There was an awkward silence, which Alys broke after a while. "I'm glad it's over." She looked up at Cordelia. "Thank you. For everything."

Cordelia gave a weary smile. "I did what I could." She stood up with an effort. "I'm sure you want to rest. I'm going back to Miles." Alys pushed herself upright too. Very carefully, she laid Ivan down in the cot the military doctor had dug out from some ancient store, and pulled a blanket over him. Cordelia stooped over the cot and brushed Ivan's cheek with the back of one finger. He turned his head, sleepily opening and closing his mouth, then was still again.

Then Cordelia went back to the laboratory. Alys got back into bed and tried to get back to sleep, knowing that Ivan would wake up again in a few hours. But Cordelia's untimely question was still echoing around her head. What would she do? She knew already that getting married again after her mourning year, to some new-made Count perhaps, and continuing to be the leading trend-setter in Vorbarr Sultana wouldn't be enough any longer. Before last night, Alys had complacently believed that she would always be protected. By her husband, by her father, by the Emperor. But her husband had been killed in front of her, her father was lying low in his District and the Emperor was a four-year-old orphan in hiding. But she had protected herself today, and protected Ivan too.

And she could protect him in the future. What he needed--what everyone needed--was peace. For Aral to stay as Regent, hand over power to Gregor in due course and for Gregor to be as strong an emperor as his grandfather had been. Technically, women played no part in Barrayaran politics, but of course in practice some did. Until now, Alys had felt a faint contempt for their sober middle-aged earnestness. In Vorbarr Sultana society one was either fashionable or political, and Alys was the most fashionable of all. As her father's eldest daughter, as Padma's wife--as Padma's widow and as Ivan's mother too, she realised--she held a great deal of social influence. Up till now she had only played with it, bringing people and styles in and out of fashion according to her whim. But power was power, and she could use this. How much she could do she didn't know, but she could never have imagined a day like this one. Ivan made a small noise in his sleep, and Alys looked at him. He would not be killed in yet another civil war, not if Alys could prevent it. She sealed up her grief behind that iron determination, and began to think about what she would have to do.