Back | Next

Chapter Two

Half-dressed, Miles wandered across the spacious bedchamber-sitting room the Barrayaran embassy had assigned to him, turning the glittering rod in his hand. "So if I'm meant to have this, am I meant to stash it here, or am I meant to carry it on my person?"

Ivan, neat and complete in the high-collared tunic, side-piped trousers, and half-boots of fresh undress greens, rolled his eyes ceilingward. "Will you quit fooling with that thing and get dressed, before you make us late? Maybe it's a fancy curtain-weight, and it's meant to drive you crazy trying to assign it some deep and sinister significance. Or drive me crazy, listening to you. Some ghem-lord's practical joke."

"A particularly subtle practical joke, if so."

"Doesn't rule it out." Ivan shrugged.

"No." Miles frowned and limped to the comconsole desk. He opened the top drawer and found a stylus and a pad of plastic flimsies embossed with the embassy seal. He tore off a flimsy and pressed it against the bird-figure on the rod's cap-lock, then traced the indentations with the stylus, a quick, accurate, and to-scale sketch. After a moment's hesitation, he left the rod in the drawer with the pad of flimsies, closing it again.

"Not much of a hiding place," Ivan commented. "If it's a bomb, maybe you ought to hang it out the window. For the rest of our sakes, if not your own."

"It's not a bomb, dammit. And I've thought of a hundred hiding places, but none of them are scanner-proof, so there's no point. This should be in a lead-lined blackbox, which I don't happen to have."

"I bet they have one downstairs," Ivan said. "Weren't you going to confess?"

"Yes, but unfortunately Lord Vorreedi is out of the city. Don't look at me like that, I had nothing to do with it. Vorob'yev told me the haut-lord in charge of one of the Eta Cetan Jumppoint stations has impounded a Barrayaran-registered merchant ship, and its captain. For importation infractions."

"Smuggling?" said Ivan, growing interested.

"No, some complicated cockeyed Cetagandan regulations. With fees. And taxes. And fines. And a level of acrimony that's going asymptotic. Since normalizing trade relations is a current goal of our government, and since Vorreedi is apparently good at sorting out haut-lords and ghem-lords, Vorob'yev detailed him to take care of it while he's stuck here with the ceremonial duties. Vorreedi will be back tomorrow. Or the next day. Meanwhile, it won't hurt to see how far I can get on my own. If nothing interesting turns up, I'll bounce it over to the ImpSec office here anyway."

Ivan's eyes narrowed, as he processed this. "Yeah? So what if something interesting does turn up?"

"Well, then too, of course."

"So did you tell Vorob'yev?"

"Not exactly. No. Look, Illyan said Vorreedi, so Vorreedi it is. I'll take care of it as soon as the man gets back."

"In any case, it's time," Ivan reiterated.

"Yeah, yeah . . ." Miles shuffled over to his bed, sat, and frowned at his leg braces, laid out waiting. "I have to take the time to get my leg bones replaced. I've given up on the organics, it's time to go with plastic. Maybe I could persuade them to add a few centimeters of length while they're at it. If only I'd known I had all this dead time coming up, I could have scheduled surgery and been recovering while we traveled and stood around being decorative."

"Inconsiderate of the dowager empress, not to send you a note and warn you she was dropping dead," Ivan agreed. "Wear the damn things, or Aunt Cordelia will hold me responsible if you trip over the embassy cat and break your legs. Again."

Miles growled, not very loudly. Ivan could read him entirely too well, too. He closed the cool steel protection around his lumpy, discolored, too-many-times smashed legs. At least the uniform trousers concealed his weakness. He fastened his tunic, sealed the polished short-boots, checked his hair in the mirror over his dresser, and followed the impatient Ivan, already at the door. In passing he slipped the folded flimsy into his trouser pocket, pausing in the corridor to re-key the door lock to his own palm. A somewhat futile gesture; as a trained ImpSec agent Lieutenant Vorkosigan knew exactly how insecure palm locks could be.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Ivan's prodding, they arrived in the foyer at almost the same moment as Ambassador Vorob'yev. Vorob'yev was wearing his red and black House uniform again. Not a man who liked making a lot of decisions about clothing, Miles sensed. He shepherded the two younger men into the embassy's waiting groundcar, where they sank into soft upholstery. Vorob'yev politely took the rear-facing seat across from his official guests. A driver and a guard occupied the front compartment. The car ran on the city net's computer control, but the alert driver sat ready to hit the manual override in case of some non-natural emergency. The silvered canopies closed, and they oozed out into the street.

"You may regard the Marilacan embassy as neutral but non-secured territory tonight, gentlemen," Vorob'yev advised them. "Enjoy yourselves, but not too much."

"Will there be many Cetagandans present," Miles asked, "or is this party strictly for us off-worlders?"

"No haut-lords, of course," said Vorob'yev. "They're all at one of the late empress's more private obsequies tonight, along with some of the highest-ranking ghem-clan heads. The lower-ranking ghem-lords are at loose ends, and may be out in force, as the month of official mourning has reduced their usual social opportunities. The Marilacans have been accepting a great deal of Cetagandan `aid' in the past few years, a greediness I predict they will come to regret. They think Cetaganda won't attack an ally."

The groundcar climbed a ramp, and swung around a corner offering a brief vista down a glittering canyon of high buildings, strung together with tubeways and transparent walks glowing in the dusk. The city seemed to go on forever, and this wasn't even the main center.

"The Marilacans aren't paying sufficient attention to their own wormhole nexus maps," Vorob'yev went on. "They imagine they are at a natural border. But if Marilac were directly held by Cetaganda, the next jump would bring them to Zoave Twilight, with all its cross-routes, and a whole new region for Cetagandan expansion. Marilac is in exactly the same relationship to the Zoave Twilight crossings as Vervain is to the Hegen Hub, and we all know what happened there." Vorob'yev's lips twisted in irony. "But Marilac has no interested neighbor to mount a rescue as your father did for Vervain, Lord Vorkosigan. And provocative incidents can be manufactured so easily."

The alert rush in Miles's chest faded. There was no personal, secret meaning in Vorob'yev's remarks. Everyone knew of Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan's political and military role in creating the swift alliance and counter-attack that had driven off the attempted Cetagandan capture of its neighbor Vervain's wormhole jumps to the Hegen Hub. No one knew of the role ImpSec agent Miles Vorkosigan had played in bringing the Admiral to the Hegen Hub in so timely a fashion. And what no one knew, no one got credit for. Hi, I'm a hero, but I can't tell you why. It's classified. From Vorob'yev's and practically everybody else's point of view, Lieutenant Miles Vorkosigan was a low-ranking ImpSec courier officer, a nepotistic sinecure that shuffled him off into routine duties that took him out of the way. Mutant. 

"I thought the Hegen Alliance gave the ghem-lords a bloody enough nose at Vervain to keep them subdued for a while," said Miles. "All the expansionist party ghem-officers in deep eclipse, ghem-General Estanis committing suicide—it was suicide, wasn't it?"

"In an involuntary sort of way," said Vorob'yev. "These Cetagandan political suicides can get awfully messy, when the principal won't cooperate."

"Thirty-two stab wounds in the back, worst case of suicide they ever saw?" murmured Ivan, clearly fascinated by the gossip.

"Exactly, my lord." Vorob'yev's eyes narrowed in dry amusement. "But the ghem-commanders' loose and shifting relationship to the assorted secret haut-lord factions lends an unusual degree of deniability to their operations. The Vervain invasion is now officially described as an unauthorized misadventure. The erring officers have been corrected, thank you."

"What do they call the Cetagandan invasion of Barrayar in my grandfather's time?" Miles asked. "A reconnaissance in force?"

"When they mention it at all, yes."

"All twenty years of it?" asked Ivan, half-laughing.

"They tend not to go into the embarrassing details."

"Have you shared your views on Cetagandan ambitions toward Marilac with Illyan?" Miles asked.

"Yes, we keep your chief fully informed. But there are no material movements at present to support my theory. I'm just reasoning on principle, so far. ImpSec is watching some key indicators for us."

"I'm . . . not in that loop," said Miles. "Need-to-know and all that."

"But I trust you grasp the larger strategic picture."

"Oh, yes."

"And—upper-class gossip is not always as guarded as it should be. You two will be in a position to encounter some. Plan to report it all to my chief of protocol, Colonel Vorreedi. He will be giving you daily briefings, as soon as he returns. Let him sort out which tidbits are important."

Check. Miles nodded to Ivan, who shrugged acquiescence.

"And, ah . . . try not to give away more than you gain?"

"Well, I'm safe," said Ivan. "I don't know anything." He smiled cheerily. Miles tried not to wince, nor mutter We know, Ivan, under his breath loud enough to be heard.

Since the off-planet legations were concentrated in one section of Eta Ceta's capital city, the drive was short. The groundcar descended a street-level, and slowed. It entered the Marilacan embassy building's garage and pulled into a brightly lit entry foyer made less subterranean by marble surfaces and decorative plants trailing from tiers of tubs. The car's canopy rose. Marilacan embassy guards bowed the Barrayaran party into the lift tubes. Doubtless they also discreetly scanned their guests—it seemed Ivan had mustered the good sense to leave that nerve disruptor in his desk drawer, too.

They exited the lift tube into a wide lobby, opening in turn onto several levels of connected public areas, already well populated with guests, the volume of their babble invitingly high. The center of the lobby was occupied by a large multi-media sculpture, real, not a projection. Trickling water cascaded down a fountain reminiscent of a little mountain, complete with impressionistic mountain-paths one could actually walk upon. Colored flakes swirled in the air around the mini-maze, making delicate tunnels. From their green color Miles guessed they were meant to represent Earth tree leaves even before he drew close enough to make out the realistic details of their shapes. The colors slowly began to change, from twenty different greens to brilliant yellows, golds, reds and black-reds. As they swirled they almost seemed to form fleeting patterns, like human faces and bodies, to a background of tinkling like wind chimes. So was it meant to be faces and music, or was it just tricking his brain into projecting meaningful patterns onto randomness? The subtle uncertainty attracted him.

"That's new," commented Vorob'yev, his eye also caught. "Pretty . . . ah, good evening, Ambassador Bernaux."

"Good evening, Lord Vorob'yev." Their silver-haired Marilacan host exchanged a familiar nod with his Barrayaran counterpart. "Yes, we think it's rather fine. It's a gift from a local ghem-lord. Quite an honor. It's titled `Autumn Leaves.' My cipher staff puzzled over the name for half a day, and finally decided it meant `Autumn Leaves.' "

The two men laughed. Ivan smiled uncertainly, not quite following the in-joke. Vorob'yev formally introduced them to Ambassador Bernaux, who responded to their rank with elaborate courtesy, and to their age by telling them where to find the food and pointedly turning them loose. It was the Ivan-effect, Miles decided glumly. They mounted stairs toward a buffet, cut off from getting to hear whatever private comments the two older men went on to exchange. Probably just social pleasantries, but still . . .

Miles and Ivan sampled the hors d'oeuvres, which were dainty but abundant, and selected drinks. Ivan chose a famous Marilacan wine. Miles, conscious of the flimsy in his pocket, chose black coffee. They abandoned each other with a silent wave, each to circulate after his own fashion. Miles leaned on the railing overlooking the lift-tube lobby. He sipped from the fragile cup and wondered where its stay-warm circuit was concealed—ah, there on the bottom, woven into the metallic glitter of the Marilacan embassy seal. "Autumn Leaves" was chilling down to the end of its cycle. The water in the trickling fountains froze, or appeared to, stilled to silent black ice. The swirling colors faded to the sere yellow and silver-gray of a winter sunset, the figures, if figures they were, now suggesting skeletal despair. The chime/music faded to discordant, broken whispers. It was not a winter of snow and celebration. It was a winter of death. Miles shivered involuntarily. Damned effective. 

So, how to begin asking questions without revealing anything in return? He pictured himself buttonholing some ghem-lord, Say, did one of your minions lose a code-key with a seal like this . . . ? No. By far the best approach was to let his . . . adversaries find him, but they were being tediously slow about it. Miles's eye swept the throng for men lacking eyebrows, without success.

But Ivan had found a beautiful woman already. Miles blinked as he registered just how beautiful. She was tall and slim, the skin of her face and hands as delicately smooth as porcelain. Jeweled bands bound her blond-white hair loosely at the nape of her neck, and again at her waist. The hair did not trail to its silky end until halfway to her knees. Her dress concealed rather than revealed, with layers of underslips, split sleeves, and vests sweeping to her ankles. The dark hues of the over-garments set off the pallor of her complexion, and a flash of cerulean silk underneath echoed her blue eyes. She was a Cetagandan ghem-lady, without question—she had that attenuated-elf look that suggested more than a tinge of haut-lord genes in her family tree. True, the look could be mimicked with surgeries and other therapies, but the arrogant arch to her brow had to be genuine.

Miles sensed the pheromones in her perfume while still spiraling in from three meters away. It seemed redundant; Ivan was already on overdrive, his dark eyes sparkling as he decanted some story featuring himself as hero, or at least protagonist. Something about training exercises, ah, of course, emphasizing his Barrayaran martial style. Venus and Mars, right. But she was actually smiling at something Ivan had said.

It wasn't that Miles enviously sought to deny Ivan his luck with women; it would simply be nice if some of the overflow would trickle down his way. Though Ivan claimed you had to make your own luck. Ivan's resilient ego could absorb a dozen rejections tonight for some smiling thirteenth payoff. Miles thought he would be dead of mortification by Attempt Three. Maybe he was naturally monogamous.

Hell, you had to at least achieve monogamy before you could go on to larger ambitions. So far he had failed to attach even one woman to his sawed-off person. Of course, nearly three years in covert ops, and the period before that in the all-male environs of the military academy, had limited his opportunities.

Nice theory. So why hadn't similar conditions stopped Ivan?

Elena . . . Was he still holding out for the impossible, on some level? Miles swore he wasn't nearly as choosy as Ivan—he could hardly afford to be—yet even this lovely ghem-blonde lacked . . . what? The intelligence, the reserve, the pilgrim soul . . . ? But Elena had chosen another, and probably wisely. Time and past time for Miles to move on too, and carve out some luck of his own. He just wished the prospect didn't feel so bleak.

Spiraling in from the other side a moment or two after Miles came a Cetagandan ghem-lord, tall and lean. The face rising up out of his dark and flowing robes was young; the fellow was not much older than Ivan and himself, Miles guessed. He was square-skulled, with prominent round cheekbones. One cheekbone was decorated with a circular patch, a decal, Miles realized, a stylized swirl of color identifying the man's rank and clan. It was a shrunken version of the full face paint a few other Cetagandans present wore, an avant-garde youth fashion currently being disapproved of by the older generation. Was he come to rescue his lady from Ivan's attentions?

"Lady Gelle," he bowed slightly, and "Lord Yenaro," she responded with a precisely graded inclination of her head, by which Miles gathered that 1) she had a higher status in the ghem-community than the man, and 2) he was not her husband or brother—Ivan was probably safe.

"I see you have found some of the galactic exotics you were longing for," said Lord Yenaro to her.

She smiled back at him. The effect was downright blinding, and Miles found himself wishing she'd smile at him even though he knew better. Lord Yenaro, doubtless inoculated by a lifetime of exposure to ghem-ladies, seemed immune. "Lord Yenaro, this is Lieutenant Lord Ivan Vorpatril of Barrayar, and, ah—?" Her lashes swept down over her eyes, indicating Ivan should introduce Miles, a gesture as sharp and evocative as if she'd tapped Ivan's wrist with a fan.

"My cousin, Lieutenant Lord Miles Vorkosigan," Ivan supplied smoothly, on cue.

"Ah, the Barrayaran envoys!" Lord Yenaro bowed more deeply. "What luck to meet you."

Miles and Ivan both returned decent nods; Miles made sure the inclination of his head was slightly shallower than his cousin's, a fine gradation alas probably spoiled by the angle of view.

"We have an historical connection, Lord Vorkosigan," Yenaro went on. "Famous ancestors."

Miles's adrenaline level shot up. Oh, damn, this is some relative of the late ghem-General Estanis, and he's out to get the son of Aral Vorkosigan. . . . 

"You are the grandson of General Count Piotr Vorkosigan, are you not?"

Ah. Ancient history, not recent. Miles relaxed slightly. "Indeed."

"I am in a sense your opposite number, then. My grandfather was ghem-General Yenaro."

"Oh, the unfortunate commander of the, uh, what do you folks call it? The Barrayaran Expedition? The Barrayaran Reconnaissance?" Ivan put in.

"The ghem-general who lost the Barrayaran War," Yenaro said bluntly.

"Really, Yenaro, must you bring him up?" said Lady Gelle. Did she actually want to hear the end of Ivan's story? Miles could have told her a much funnier one, about the time on training maneuvers when Ivan had led his patrol into gluey waist-deep mud, and they'd all had to be winched out by hovercar. . . .

"I am not a proponent of the hero-theory of disaster," Miles said diplomatically. "General Yenaro had the misfortune to be the last of five successive ghem-generals who lost the Barrayaran War, and thus the sole inheritor of a, as it were, tontine of blame."

"Oh, well put," murmured Ivan. Yenaro, too, smiled.

"Do I understand that thing in the lobby is yours, Yenaro?" the girl inquired, clearly hoping to steer the conversation away from a fast downslide into military history. "A trifle banal for your crowd, isn't it? My mother liked it."

"It is but a practice piece." A slightly ironic bow acknowledged this mixed review. "The Marilacans were delighted with it. True courtesy considers the tastes of the recipient. It has some levels of subtlety only apparent when you walk through it."

"I thought you were specializing in the incense contests."

"I'm branching out into other media. Though I still maintain scent is a subtler sense than sight. You must let me mix for you sometime. That civet-jasmine blend you're wearing tonight absolutely clashes with the third-level formal style of your dress, you know."

Her smile went thin. "Does it."

Miles's imagination supplied background music, a scrape of rapiers, and a Take that, varlet! He tamped down a grin.

"Beautiful dress," Ivan put in earnestly. "You smell great."

"Mm, yes, speaking of your craving for the exotic," Lord Yenaro said to Lady Gelle, "did you know that Lord Vorpatril here is a biological birth?"

The girl's feather-faint brows drew in, making a tiny crease in her flawless forehead. "All births are biological, Yenaro."

"Ah, but no. The original sort of biology. From his mother's body."

"Eeeuu." Her nose wrinkled in horror. "Really, Yenaro. You are so obnoxious tonight. Mother is right, you and your retro-avant crowd are going to go too far one of these days. You are in danger of becoming someone not to know, instead of someone famous." Her distaste was directed at Yenaro, but she shifted farther from Ivan, Miles noticed.

"When fame eludes, notoriety may serve," said Yenaro, shrugging.

I was a replicator birth, Miles thought of putting in brightly, but didn't. Just goes to show, you can never tell. Except for the brain damage, Ivan had better luck than I. . . .

"Good evening, Lord Yenaro." She tossed her head and moved off. Ivan looked dismayed.

"Pretty girl, but her mind is so unformed," murmured Yenaro, as if to explain why they were better off without her company. But he looked uncomfortable.

"So, uh . . . you chose an artistic career over a military one, did you, Lord Yenaro?" Miles tried to fill the breach.

"Career?" Lord Yenaro's mouth quirked. "No, I am an amateur, of course. Commercial considerations are the death of true taste. But I hope to achieve some small stature, in my own way."

Miles trusted that last wasn't a double entendre of some sort. They followed Lord Yenaro's gaze over the rail and down into the lobby, at his fountain-thing gurgling there. "You absolutely should come see it from the inside, you know. The view is entirely altered."

Yenaro was really a rather awkward man, Miles decided, his prickly exterior barely shielding a quiveringly vulnerable artiste's ego. "Sure," he found himself saying. Yenaro needed no further encouragement, and, smiling anxiously, led them toward the stairs, beginning to explain some thematic theory the sculpture was supposed to be displaying. Miles sighted Ambassador Vorob'yev, beckoning to him from the far side of the balcony. "Excuse me, Lord Yenaro. Ivan, you go on, I'll catch up with you."

"Oh . . ." Yenaro looked momentarily crushed. Ivan watched Miles escape with a light of ire in his eye that promised later retribution.

Vorob'yev was standing with a woman, her hand familiarly upon his arm. She was about forty-standard, Miles guessed, with naturally attractive features free of artificial sculptural enhancement. Her long dress and robes were styled after the Cetagandan fashion, though much simpler in detail than Lady Gelle's. She was no Cetagandan, but the dark red and cream colors and green accents of her garments worked as cleverly with her olive skin and dark curls.

"There you are, Lord Vorkosigan," said Vorob'yev. "I've promised to introduce you. This is Mia Maz, who works for our good friends at the Vervani Embassy, and who has helped us out from time to time. I recommend her to you."

Miles snapped to attention at the key phrase, smiled, and bowed to the Vervani woman. "Pleased to meet you. And what do you do at the Vervani Embassy, ma'am?"

"I'm assistant chief of protocol. I specialize in women's etiquette."

"That's a separate specialty?"

"It is here, or should be. I've been telling Ambassador Vorob'yev for years that he ought to add a woman to his staff for that purpose."

"But we haven't any with the necessary experience," sighed Vorob'yev, "and you won't let me hire you away. Though I have tried."

"So start one without experience, and let her gain it," Miles suggested. "Would Milady Maz consider taking on an apprentice?"

"Now there's an idea. . . ." Vorob'yev looked much struck. Maz's brows rose approvingly. "Maz, we should discuss this, but I must speak to Wilstar, whom I see just hitting the buffet over there. If I'm lucky, I can catch him with his mouth full. Excuse me. . . ." His mission of introduction accomplished, Vorob'yev faded—how else?—diplomatically away.

Maz turned her whole attention gratefully upon Miles. "Anyway, Lord Vorkosigan, I wanted to let you know that if there's anything we at the Vervani Embassy can do for the son or the nephew of Admiral Aral Vorkosigan during your visit to Eta Ceta, well . . . all that we have is at your disposal."

Miles smiled. "Don't make that offer to Ivan; he might take you up on it personally."

The woman followed his glance down over the railing, to where his tall cousin was now being guided through the sculpture by Lord Yenaro. She grinned impishly, making a dimple wink in her cheek. "Not a problem."

"So, are, uh . . . ghem-ladies really so different from ghem-lords as to make a full-time study? I admit, most Barrayarans' views of the ghem-lords have been through range-finders."

"Two years ago, I would have scorned that militaristic view. Since the Cetagandan invasion attempt we've come to appreciate it. Actually, the ghem-lords are so much like the Vor, I'd think you'd find them more comprehensible than we Vervani do. The haut-lords are . . . something else. And the haut-ladies are even more something else, I've begun to realize."

"The haut-lords' women are so thoroughly sequestered . . . do they ever do anything? I mean, nobody ever sees them, do they? They have no power."

"They have their own sort of power. Their own areas of control. Parallel, not competing with their men. It all makes sense, they just never bother explaining it to outsiders."

"To inferiors."

"That, too." Her dimple flashed again.

"So . . . are you well up on ghem- and haut-lord seals, crests, marks, that sort of thing? I can recognize about fifty clan-marks by sight, and all the military insignia and corps crests, of course, but I know that just scratches the surface."

"I'm fairly well up. They have layers within layers; I can't claim to know them all by any means."

Miles frowned thoughtfully, then decided to seize the moment. There was nothing else going on here tonight, that was certain. He drew the flimsy from his pocket and flattened it out against the railing. "Do you know this icon? I ran across it . . . well, in an odd place. But it smelled ghemish, or hautish, if you know what I mean."

She gazed with interest at the screaming-bird outline. "I don't recognize it right off. But you're correct, it's definitely in the Cetagandan style. It's old, though."

"How can you tell?"

"Well, it's clearly a personal seal, not a clan-mark, but it doesn't have an outline around it. For the last three generations people have been putting their personal marks in cartouches, with more and more elaborate borders. You can practically tell the decade by the border design."


"If you like, I can try to look it up in my resource materials."

"Would you? I'd like that very much." He folded the flimsy back up and handed it to her. "Uh . . . I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't show it to anyone else, though."

"Oh?" She let the syllable hang there, Oh . . . ? 

"Excuse me. Professional paranoia. I, uh . . ." He was getting in deeper and deeper. "It's a habit."

He was rescued from tripping further over his tongue by the return of Ivan. Ivan's practiced eye summed up the attractions of the Vervani woman instantly, and he smiled attentively at her, as sincerely delighted as he had been with the last girl, and would be with the next. And the next. The ghem-lord artiste was still glued to his elbow; Miles perforce introduced them both. Maz seemed not to have met Lord Yenaro before. In front of the Cetagandan, Maz did not repeat to Ivan her message of boundless Vervani gratitude to the Vorkosigan clan, but she was definitely friendly.

"You really ought to let Lord Yenaro take you on the tour of his sculpture, Miles," Ivan said ruthlessly. "It's quite a thing. An opportunity not to be missed and all that."

I found her first, dammit. "Yes, it's very fine."

"Would you be interested, Lord Vorkosigan?" Yenaro looked earnest and hopeful.

Ivan bent to Miles's ear to whisper, "It was Lord Yenaro's gift to the Marilacan embassy. Don't be a lout, Miles, you know how sensitive the Cetagandans are about their artsy, uh, things."

Miles sighed, and mustered an interested smile for Yenaro. "Certainly. Now?"

Miles excused himself with unfeigned regrets to Maz the Vervani. The ghem-lordling led him down the stairs to the lobby, and had him pause at the entrance of the walk-through sculpture to wait for the show-cycle to begin anew.

"I'm not really qualified to judge aesthetics," Miles mentioned, hoping to head off any conversation in that direction.

"So very few are," smiled Yenaro, "but that doesn't stop them."

"It does seem to me to be a very considerable technical achievement. Do you drive the motion with antigrav, then?"

"No, there's no antigrav in it at all. The generators would be bulky and wasteful of power. The same force drives the leaves' motion as drives their color changes—or so my technicians explained it to me."

"Technicians? I somehow pictured you putting all this together with your own hands."

Yenaro spread his hands—pale, long-fingered, and thin—and stared at them as if surprised to find them on the ends of his wrists. "Of course not. Hands are to be hired. Design is the test of the intellect."

"I must disagree. In my experience, hands are integral with brains, almost another lobe for intelligence. What one does not know through one's hands, one does not truly know."

"You are a man capable of true conversation, I perceive. You must meet my friends, if your schedule here permits. I'm hosting a reception at my home in two evenings' time—do you suppose—?"

"Um, maybe . . ." That evening was a blank as far as the funeral formalities went. It could be quite interesting, a chance to observe how the ghem-lordlings of his own generation operated without the inhibitions of their elders; a glimpse into the future of Cetaganda. "Yes, why not?"

"I'll send you directions. Oh." Yenaro nodded toward the fountain, which was starting up with its high-canopied summer greens again. "Now we can go in."

Miles did not find the view from inside the fountain-maze all that much different from the outside. In fact, it seemed less interesting, as at close range the illusion of forms in the flitting leaves was reduced. The music was clearer, though. It rose to a crescendo, as the colors began to change.

"Now you'll see something," said Yenaro, with evident satisfaction.

It was all sufficiently distracting that it took another moment for Miles to realize that he was feeling something—tingling and heat, coming from his leg braces lying against his skin. He schooled himself not to react, till the heat began to rise.

Yenaro was babbling on with artistic enthusiasm, pointing out effects, Now, watch this— Brilliant colors swirled before Miles's eyes. A distinct sensation of scalding flesh crept up his legs.

Miles muffled his scream to a less-edged yell, and managed not to jump for the water. God knew, he might be electrocuted. The few seconds it took him to pelt out of the maze brought the steel of his braces to a temperature sufficient to boil water. He gave up dignity, dove for the floor, and yanked up his trouser legs. His first snatch at the clamps burned his hands, too. He swore, eyes watering, and tried again. He tore off his boots, snapped loose the braces, and flung them aside with a clatter, and curled up momentarily in overwhelming pain. The braces had left a pattern of rising white welts surrounded by an angry red border of flesh on shin, knees, and ankles.

Yenaro was flapping about in distress, calling loudly for help. Miles looked up to find himself the center of an audience of about fifty or so shocked and bewildered people, witnessing his display. He stopped writhing and swearing, and sat panting, his breath hissing through clenched teeth.

Ivan and Vorob'yev shouldered through the mob from different directions. "Lord Vorkosigan! What has happened?" asked Vorob'yev urgently.

"I'm all right," said Miles. He was not all right, but this was not the time or place to go into details. He pulled his trouser legs quickly back down, concealing the burns.

Yenaro was yammering on in dismay, "What happened? I had no idea—are you all right, Lord Vorkosigan? Oh dear . . ."

Ivan bent and prodded at a cooling brace. "Yes, what the hell . . . ?"

Miles considered the sequence of sensations, and their possible causes. Not antigrav, not noticeable to anyone else, and it had slid right past Marilacan embassy security. Hidden in plain sight? Right. "I think it was some sort of electro-hysteresis effect. The color-changes in the display are apparently driven by a reversing magnetic field at low level. No problem for most people. For me, well, it wasn't quite as bad as shoving my leg braces into a microwave, but—you get the idea." Grinning, he got to his feet. Ivan, looking very worried, had already collected his flung boots and the offending braces. Miles let him keep them. He didn't want to touch them just now. He blundered rather blindly closer to Ivan, and muttered under his breath, "Get me out of here. . . ." He was shivering and shocky, as Ivan's hand on his shoulder could sense. Ivan gave him a short, understanding nod, and swiftly withdrew through the crowd of finely dressed men and women, some of whom were already turning away.

Ambassador Bernaux hurried up, and added his worried apologies to Yenaro's one-man chorus. "Do you wish to stop in to the embassy infirmary, Lord Vorkosigan?" Bernaux offered.

"No. Thank you. I'll wait till we get home, thanks." Soon, please.

Bernaux bit his lip, and regarded the still-apologizing Lord Yenaro. "Lord Yenaro, I'm afraid—"

"Yes, yes, turn it off at once," said Yenaro. "I will send my servants to remove it immediately. I had no idea—everyone else seemed to be enjoying—it must be re-designed. Or destroyed, yes, destroyed at once. I am so sorry—this is so embarrassing—"

Yes, isn't it? thought Miles. A show of his physical weakness, displayed to a maximum audience at the earliest possible moment . . .

"No, no, don't destroy it," said Ambassador Bernaux, horrified. "But we certainly must have it examined by a safety engineer, and modified, or perhaps a warning posted. . . ."

Ivan reappeared at the edge of the dispersing crowd, and gave Miles a thumbs-up signal. After a few more minutes of excruciating social niceties, Vorob'yev and Ivan managed to get him escorted back down the lift tube to the waiting Barrayaran embassy groundcar. Miles flung himself into the upholstery and sat, grinning in pain, breath shallow. Ivan eyed his shivering form, skinned out of his tunic, and tucked it around Miles's shoulders. Miles let him.

"All right, let's see the damages," demanded Ivan. He propped one of Miles's heels on his knee and rolled back the trouser leg. "Damn, that's got to hurt."

"Quite," agreed Miles thinly.

"It could hardly have been an assassination attempt, though," said Vorob'yev, his lips compressed with calculation.

"No," agreed Miles.

"Bernaux told me he had his own security people examine the sculpture before they installed it. Looking for bombs and bugs, of course, but they cleared it."

"I'm sure they did. This could not have hurt anyone . . . but me."

Vorob'yev followed his reasoning without effort. "A trap?"

"Awfully elaborate, if so," noted Ivan.

"I'm . . . not sure," said Miles. I'm meant to be not-sure. That's the beauty of it. "It had to have taken days, maybe weeks, of preparation. We didn't even know we were coming here till two weeks ago. When did it arrive at the Marilacan embassy?"

"Last night, according to Bernaux," Vorob'yev said.

"Before we even arrived." Before our little encounter with the man with no eyebrows. It can't possibly be connected—can it? "How long have we been scheduled for that party?"

"The embassies arranged the invitations about three days ago," said Vorob'yev.

"The timing is awfully tight, for a conspiracy," Ivan observed.

Vorob'yev thought it over. "I think I must agree with you, Lord Vorpatril. Shall we put it down as an unfortunate accident, then?"

"Provisionally," said Miles. That was no accident. I was set up. Me, personally. You know there's a war on when the opening salvo arrives. 

Except that, usually, one knew why a war had been declared. It was all very well to swear not to be blindsided again, but who was the enemy here?

Lord Yenaro, I bet you throw a fascinating party. I wouldn't miss it for worlds.


Back | Next