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High Fidelity

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'I'd be obliged,' Cordelia said to him, 'if you would send either your most or least cosmopolitan agent to trail at my pantlegs this trip.'

Simon raised his eyebrows from where he was seated across from Cordelia at her desk. They were, ostensibly, making plans for the Lady Vorkosigan's month-long visit to her mother on Beta; ostensibly , because at some point Cordelia had summoned a tea service and thereby fired first in a war of culinary obfuscation. Simon wasn't sure what the point was: did she think he'd forget to issue her a security detail if the sandwiches set in front of him were superlatively better than the slop she knew he got at HQ?

Go on , he motioned with one hand.

'Considering it'll be a month on Beta,' Cordelia said, eyes laughing, 'I'd like for my ImpSec shadow to either be able to blend in or - failing that - at least learn something.'

'They'd better not do either,' Simon said firmly. Cordelia didn't respond, but she did look at him over the top of her teacup. Simon marked off a name from the potential roster and then put away his flimsies, shuffling them into order. 'You will never win, Cordelia – one way or another, there will be security: attentive security. I do you the favour of showing you my cards only so that you and your mother can–' Simon pinged, gently (for god alone knew how much the set was worth), his own untouched teacup '– assault them with food and chores while they attempt to stand guard.'

'If you didn't show me your cards,' Cordelia mused, 'would I get points if I managed to spot my spook?'

Simon smiled. 'The wheel of justice turns, so yes: you'd gain points, just as they'd earn demerits.'

Cordelia sighed and stood, and that effectively ended their meeting; Simon rose as well. She waved her hand at him. 'Get out of here, Simon; I'll have cook package the sandwiches for you to go.'

'M'lady,' Simon said, and sketched a little ironic bow when he heard her mutter - just loud enough for his ears - 'Barrayarans! '

The little act was enough to give Cordelia pause. 'You're in a good mood,' she observed.

Documents in hand, Simon shrugged. It was true enough. Aral's Prime Ministership was going well, and for once there had been a long period of nothing but the usual low-grade titillation of the Courts and Ministries to feed ImpSec's paranoia. A good political climate, regardless of the day-to-day weather.

'No one tried to kill your husband today, or this week, or even this month. I can be forgiven for feeling human, at least in the presence of a Betan.'

'And in the presence of your fellow Barrayarans?'

'Oh, never,' laughed Simon at once. 'That would be asking for it.'


 

The Countess left a week later, just as Vorbarr Sultana froze solid. The weathermen proclaimed it one of the worst winters in years. Bare trees grew dagger stalactites that threatened death to the prole pedestrians unfortunate enough to have to walk beneath them. Pipes burst in old buildings as water lines froze solid. In one fell evening alone, twenty-five centimetres of precipitation came down in less than four hours, coffining the city in snow.

Street ploughs were rendered useless at best: they created hedge-mazes on sidewalks as they lumbered along, and as more snow fell those banks solidified into walls as high as a man's shoulders. Only the streets around Vorhartung remained relatively clear by virtue of heating panels that had been laid beneath the roads in years past by some urban planning committee gifted with sufficient foresight. Still, while it cleared the way for groundcars, it made attempting to achieve Vorhartung on foot a slippery act of peril when melted slick froze back into ice. At least two ministers were in ImpMil with various minor injuries acquired in their attempts to cross the Great Courtyard going between buildings. After Count Vorinnis' flyer nearly collided with a broadcasting tower for want of visibility, the Council finally declared a recess and shut its doors against the fist of winter.

Vorhartung hunkered down as well; the castle became a hollow gargoyle of a building perched on the banks of the frozen river. Even the Emperor had given up on working in its drafty offices; he absconded to the Residence, where the fireplaces were less than three centuries old and less likely to backfire.

ImpSec HQ, meanwhile, continued its work unimpeded. Having so few windows, scarcely any of the analysts much noticed the change in the weather. They were glad for it, in fact: it made activity in Vorbarr Sultana almost non-existent. Nothing better than a somnolent populace.

While villainy hid, Simon seized the opportunity to catch up on both his backlog and some future plans. He took a groundcar to Vorkosigan House instead of walking, discretion being the better part of valour. Simon's driver shoved his identification through the window at the poor bastard manning the gate when they drew up and had them cleared with a minimum of cold air allowed into the vehicle. Simon briefly contemplated awarding the man a medal.

The blast of warmth that greeted him when Simon pushed past the broad main doors was thoroughly welcome.

Vorkosigan House was a resplendent example of a Count's residence done in native wood styles. Other families richer in purse than in government honours would spend fortunes, over the years, on marbles, jasper, gilts, imported lumber -  but not the Vorkosigans. They had tightened their belts and kept to local materials, and not much had changed even with Aral's ascendency. The floors in ballroom and formal dining halls were parquet, but not of earth wood. Aral's office, where Simon was headed, was panelled from floor to ceiling across two walls in handsome dikaya maslina shelving.

Simon got halfway down the corridor before he stopped short at the sight of two members of the household staff, a maid and a valet, standing – hovering, really – outside door to the study.

God help me , Simon thought. Vorkosigan staff eavesdropping ? For a lot that believed in death over a failure of discretion, it might as well have been the end of the world.

Simon clicked the heels of his boots obnoxiously loudly against the floor on his next step as a forward courtesy. The two snapped to looking busy at once, but they glanced sidelong at him like co-conspirators. Simon took the cue and then spared them the embarrassment of being caught by asking, 'Is Lord Vorkosigan available?'

'He's inside,' said the valet - Jorgen, a man hand-picked by old Esterhazy himself. If Simon were to ask if he'd been listening at keyholes, the man would probably cut his own ears off in denial. Regaining himself, Jorgen rapped smoothly on the study door. 'I'll announce you, Captain,' he said, then he cleared his throat and opened the door. 'Captain Illyan to see you, my lord.'

Simon stepped through and took immediate inventory of the large study. Nothing was markedly different: Aral had his comconsole and desk squared away in their usual corner, matched by his secretary's diagonally across the room. There was an unremarkable assortment of books and flimsies and other such dross scattered here and there; a lunch tray eaten from and then abandoned on a side-table; a samovar puffing in one corner. Nothing out of place.

'Simon?' prompted Aral. Simon looked over to find the Prime Minister giving him a quizzical look. Lieutenant Jole was beside him, a set of printouts in hand. 'Is something wrong?'

'No,' Simon said, and sat himself down. He nodded at them both. 'You've looked over my agenda, I presume – let's start at the top.'

They broke two hours later for something approximating tea; it felt more like supper. Cook, knowing her audience, had dispensed with cakes and dainties and presented them instead with three steaming bowls of the closest thing to a farmhouse stew that could still be respectably served to a Count's heir. Accompanying the meal was a carafe of coffee that, when set on the table next to the westward window, caused a bloom of condensation to puff up over the glass.

'Wind's picked up,' Aral observed, looking out as he poured himself a mug. The force shielding around Vorkosigan House kept ambient noise to a minimum, but when Simon looked himself he could see wisps of fresh-fallen snow whip across the streets past the front garden.

'It's going to get worse before it gets better,' Jole added. 'They predict another half-metre before the evening's half through, and there's an advisory warning that a supercell might hit the capital, if the conditions are right - it's been too warm to the east, recently.'

Aral grunted and sat back down at his comm. 'Sounds like you might have to dig your way out, Simon - I'm not letting you out of here any time soon. I haven't had you in one place for so long without having to nail you down first for years. I can have a room made up, if you want.'

'I'd rather not give your detractors more reasons to call me Vorkosigan's dog ,' Simon replied, dry. 'Imperial Security needs must sleep in its own bed.' Aral gave him a look , to which Simon returned an unrepentant half-smile. 'Though if you lend me skis, my foray back to HQ might be more enjoyable.'

Aral looked back down at his reader. 'You don't ski.'

'I didn't juggle, either, until someone thrust the shambles of ImpSec into my hands,' murmured Simon.

Aral did look up, then. 'Keep it up, Simon, and if you do get stranded here I'll have the staff go looking for a kennel instead.'

'Amongst my other skills, I also sit, fetch, lay down, and - if properly incentivised - occasionally play dead, my lord.'

'Don't tempt me.'


 

It hailed brutally a half hour later as the forecast supercell surged across Vorbarr Sultana. The worst of the ice persisted for over twenty minutes and hammered buildings, vehicles, service lines. Vorkosigan House stood undaunted, but even with its shielding the cacophonous thunder of hail making impact on the roof made the inside echo like a constantly-beaten drum.

Groundcar alarms were going off in noisy disarray by the end of it; owners dared not venture out to turn them off for fear of more freak weather. Simon commandeered one of the secure comconsoles to review the initial damage estimates.

'At least fifty are being treated for injuries in ImpMil,' he conveyed to Aral. 'Lightning struck a generator plant, and so power is out in the Caravanserai and south of Lord's Row. Emergency services are being dispatched, but the going will be slow. The meteorologists at the University have put out recommendations that people stay inside; the roads are in no good shape.'

That was the rest of the evening gone: Simon rode the lieutenant's console while Aral worked on his own, a small Prime Ministership operating from the cocoon of the study. When they ran out of things that could be done and plans that could be planned, it was well past dinner and tar-pitch black outside.

'You'd be a poor officer if you made your man drive in this,' Aral told him.

Simon waved a hand in acknowledgement, then bit back a yawn. 'I'll make sure he's settled. Then I'll take that kennel, if the offer's still on the table.'


 

They put him in a room on the second floor. Simon could have cared less, except that there was a shower and endless hot water courtesy of the House's isolated generators. He dressed himself down in just his uniform shirt after towelling off and went in search of a drink. He found one in the library and Aral alongside it. The man had his eyes closed, his boots off and his feet before a fire.

'Pick your own poison,' Aral called out when he heard him enter. Simon - blind to all labels - poured himself something from the first bottle he laid hands on.

'Bored of your enforced bachelor lifestyle?' he asked, coming round to sit down.

Aral snorted. 'You must underestimate how highly I value boredom.'

'Ha! Fair point.'

Simon closed his own eyes and let the heat wash over him. Less visual input was always pleasant after a long period of chip-usage: there was no good way to record the crackling of a fire or the way that its unsteady, flickering heat felt against his skin. He sipped his liquor blind and savoured that as well.

Simon let Aral have entire uninterrupted minutes of peace. Always best to flank a Vorkosigan rather than charge head-on; even better if the Vorkosigan in question was made content first. When he deemed the moment right, Simon casually threw out a line. 'I happened upon Jurgen and Ursula standing by your study door earlier. They looked like children listening at keyholes.'

Aral grunted.

'Care to explain? Or is it none of my business?'

'You don't think anything is none of your business,' said Aral.

'Your business is the imperium's business, which makes it also my business,' said Simon. 'I'm asking, Aral. Not interrogating. I'm even asking as a friend.'

'Imperial Security nothing to worry about,' was all that Aral gave him.

Simon had to resist the urge to open his eyes and sigh. 'Statements like that are damning, you know - like asking someone not to think about white elephants. Voila, there are now elephants in the room.'

Aral made a rumbling noise; he sounded both thoughtful and amused. 'Do you not trust me, Simon?'

'I witness you, and what I witness upholds my trust in you. Still - it is not your word I have been given, is it?' He cracked open an eyelid and looked over. 'Do you give that to me?'

Aral looked back. 'I can't swear for more than myself,' he replied, cryptic but - in his own way - clear. A third party, then.

Simon brought a hand up to rub his temple. 'You make my head ache, Vorkosigan. Who is it? What is it? Why does your staff care at all? Does it-' Horror struck like a flash of lightning. Simon turned to Aral, white-faced. 'Does it have anything to do with the fact that Cordelia left for Beta?'

Aral stared at him for a moment, then burst into laughter. He remained paralysed for quite some time. 'I know for a fact that you know,' Aral gasped when he'd recovered enough to speak, 'that Cordelia started planning for this trip a year ago. If you're worried she's run off home because of the state of our conjugal relations , Simon-' And he was off again, guffawing.

Simon waited him out. Eventually, Aral wiped his eyes and set his glass aside. 'Simon. You have been my ally and my spy for so long: what have I ever kept from you?'

'Plenty,' Simon said sharply, with more force of emotion behind his voice than he'd intended to put there. He drained what was left of his drink, and tried to let the alcohol temper him. 'No man wants to live a life on permanent audit by the imperium. Gregor suffers it because he must. I suffer it because I don't have a life worth auditing. But you, Lord Vorkosigan, have amongst many other things a past I never want to have to plumb for the shit I'd find there. Don't think I think your adrenalin-junky days are over, Aral. Don't make me have to find out the hard way.'

Aral, to his credit, only cocked his head to one side. There came no swift rising anger nor lecture from the moral high ground. Not even a switch in address over to Illyan , or - worse - Captain . Instead Aral laid open one palm and said, 'I know, Simon, I know.'

Simon felt his anger drain. Exhaustion settled down in its place, and he closed his eyes against Vorkosigan the martyr. 'Then let me witness you. Shoot these phantom worries for me before they live to haunt me in my sleep.'

Simon heard the noise of a glass being refilled, then felt his grow heavier in his hand: Aral wasn't being stingy with his pours. 'I don't know, Simon. Some things you might not want to witness.'


 

Aral said nothing more, after that, and he had asked nothing else. Paranoia followed Simon to bed regardless.

The mattress beneath his back was firm but comfortable. A double layer of linens had been laid out for him, and so Simon lay pressed beneath a heavy duvet while his fingers traced senseless lines against the cotton sheets. The pillow under his head could have been a cloud. Still sleep evaded him despite ensnarement by creature comforts.

He could let it go, Simon knew. If Aral hadn't nearly admitted to having something to hide, he could have let it be: there was no proof of anything, nor even negative space where proof could be seen as lacking. Not everything was conspiracy or liability or vulnerability or risk. He could let it go.

And you can be, an old voice said in his head, just a little bit pregnant.

Simon was ready to surrender to insomnia when he felt his wrist comm vibrate; he recognised the pattern as a call from the Prime Minister's private line. Why the hell Aral was calling him when he was only doors away was beyond the capabilities of Simon's impoverished imagination. He picked up. 'What is it?'

No response. No response meant for him , in any case, even though Simon recognised Aral's voice on the other end of the line perfectly well. What he didn't recognise was its cadence as it tripped over a soft groan and then slid down along a slow exhalation. The comm must have been on or very near a bed, because Simon heard the groaning creak of a wooden bedframe and the slither of sheets rubbing against each other. Bedroom tectonics.

For a moment, he wondered if this was Aral's idea of proving the strength of his conjugal relations with Cordelia, but then the voice that rose in counterpoint to Aral's was not Cordelia's in the least.

Simon stared up at the ceiling and thought to himself: how do you miss something that's in plain sight?

'Louder, Oliver,' he heard Aral urge. His voice was low; the words were unrushed. 'For me, Oliver, let him hear you, for me.'

Simon shut his eyes, and witnessed.