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"The proper name for the Cetagandan imperial residence is the Celestial Garden," said Vorob'yev, "but all the galactics just call it Xanadu. You'll see why in a moment. Duvi, take the scenic approach."
"Yes, my lord," returned the young sergeant who was driving. He altered the control program. The Barrayaran embassy aircar banked, and shot through a shining stalagmite array of city towers.
"Gently, if you please, Duvi. My stomach, at this hour of the morning . . ."
"Yes, my lord." Regretfully, the driver slowed them to a saner pace. They dipped, wove around a building that Miles estimated must have been a kilometer high, and rose again. The horizon dropped away.
"Whoa," said Ivan. "That's the biggest force dome I've ever seen. I didn't know they could expand them to that size."
"It absorbs the output of an entire generating plant," said Vorob'yev, "for the dome alone. Another for the interior."
A flattened opalescent bubble six kilometers across reflected the late morning sun of Eta Ceta. It lay in the midst of the city like a vast egg in a bowl, a pearl beyond price. It was ringed first by a kilometer-wide park with trees, then by a street reflecting silver, then by another park, then by an ordinary street, thick with traffic. From this, eight wide boulevards fanned out like the spokes of a wheel, centering the city. Centering the universe, Miles gained the impression. The effect was doubtless intended.
"The ceremony today is in some measure a dress rehearsal for the final one in a week and a half," Vorob'yev went on, "since absolutely everyone will be there, ghem-lords, haut-lords, galactics and all. There will likely be organizational delays. As long as they're not on our part. I spent a week of hard negotiating to get you your official rankings and place in this."
"Which is?" said Miles.
"You two will be placed equivalently to second-order ghem-lords." Vorob'yev shrugged. "It was the best I could do."
In the mob, though toward the front of it. The better to watch without being much noticed himself, Miles supposed. Today, that seemed like a good idea. All three of them, Vorob'yev, Ivan, and himself, were wearing their respective House mourning uniforms, logos and decorations of rank stitched in black silk on black cloth. Maximum formal, since they were to be in the Imperial presence itself. Miles ordinarily liked his Vorkosigan House uniform, whether the original brown and silver or this somber and elegant version, because the tall boots not only allowed but required him to dispense with the leg braces. But getting the boots on over his swollen burns this morning had been . . . painful. He was going to be limping more noticeably than usual, even tanked as he was on painkillers. I'll remember this, Yenaro.
They spiraled down to a landing by the southernmost dome entrance, fronted by a landing lot already crowded with other vehicles. Vorob'yev dismissed the driver and aircar.
"We keep no escort, my lord?" Miles said doubtfully, watching it go, and awkwardly shifting the long polished maplewood box he carried.
Vorob'yev shook his head. "Not for security purposes. No one but the Cetagandan emperor himself could arrange an assassination inside the Celestial Garden, and if he wished to have you eliminated here, a regiment of bodyguards would do you no good."
Some very tall men in the dress uniforms of the Cetagandan Imperial Guard vetted them through the dome locks. The guardsmen shunted them toward a collection of float-pallets set up as open cars, with white silky upholstered seats, the color of Cetagandan Imperial mourning. Each ambassadorial party was bowed on board by what looked to be senior servants in white and gray. The robotically-routed float-cars set off at a sedate pace a hand-span above the white-jade-paved walkways winding through a vast arboretum and botanical garden. Here and there Miles saw the rooftops of scattered and hidden pavilions peeking through the trees. All the buildings were low and private, except for some elaborate towers poking up in the center of the magic circle, almost three kilometers away. Though the sun shone outside in an Eta Ceta spring day, the weather inside the dome was set to a gray, cloudy, and appropriately mournful dampness, promising, but doubtless not delivering, rain.
At length they wafted to a sprawling pavilion just to the west of the central towers, where another servant bowed them out of the car and directed them inside, along with a dozen other delegations. Miles stared around, trying to identify them all.
The Marilacans, yes, there was the silver-haired Bernaux, some green-clad people who might be Jacksonians, a delegation from Aslund which included their chief of stateeven they had only two guards, disarmedthe Betan ambassadress in a black-on-purple brocade jacket and matching sarong, all streaming in to honor this one dead woman who would never have met them face-to-face when alive. Surreal seemed an understatement. Miles felt as if he'd crossed the border into Faerie, and when they emerged this afternoon, a hundred years would have passed outside. The galactics had to pause at the doorway to make way for the party of a haut-lord satrap governor. He had an escort of a dozen ghem-guards, Miles noted, in full formal face paint, orange, green, and white swirls.
The decor inside was surprisingly simpletasteful, Miles supposedtending heavily to the organic, arrangements of live flowers and plants and little fountains, as if bringing the garden indoors. The connecting halls were hushed, not echoing, yet one's voice carried clearly. They'd done something extraordinary with acoustics. More palace servants circulated offering food and drinks to the guests.
A pair of pearl-colored spheres drifted at a walking pace across the far end of one hall, and Miles blinked at his first glimpse of haut-ladies. Sort of.
Outside their very private quarters haut-women all hid themselves behind personal force-shields, usually generated, Miles had been told, from a float-chair. The shields could be made any color, according to the mood or whim of the wearer, but today would all be white for the occasion. The haut-lady could see out with perfect clarity, but no one could see in. Or reach in, or penetrate the barrier with stunner, plasma, or nerve disruptor fire, or small projectile weapons or minor explosions. True, the force-screen also eliminated the opportunity to fire out, but that seemed not to be a haut-lady concern. The shield could be cut in half with a gravitic imploder lance, Miles supposed, but the imploders' bulky power packs, massing several hundred kilos, made them strictly field ordnance, not hand weapons.
Inside their bubbles, the haut-women could be wearing anything. Did they ever cheat? Slop around in old clothes and comfy slippers when they were supposed to be dressed up? Go nude to garden parties? Who could tell?
A tall elderly man in the pure white robes reserved for the haut- and ghem-lords approached the Barrayaran party. His features were austere, his skin finely wrinkled and almost transparent. He was the Cetagandan equivalent of an Imperial majordomo, apparently, though with a much more flowery title, for after collecting their credentials from Vorob'yev he provided them with exact instructions as to their place and timing in the upcoming procession. His attitude conveyed that outlanders might be hopelessly gauche, but if one repeated the directions in a firm tone and made them simple enough, there was a chance of getting through this ceremony without disgrace.
He looked down his hawk-beak nose at the polished box. "And this is your gift, Lord Vorkosigan?"
Miles managed to unlatch the box and open it for display without dropping it. Within, nestled on a black velvet bed, lay an old, nicked sword. "This is the gift selected from his collection by my Emperor, Gregor Vorbarra, in honor of your late Empress. It is the sword his Imperial ancestor Dorca Vorbarra the Just carried in the First Cetagandan War." One of several, but no need to go into that. "A priceless and irreplaceable historical artifact. Here is its documentation of provenance."
"Oh." The majordomo's feathery white brows lifted almost despite themselves. He took the packet, sealed with Gregor's personal mark, with more respect. "Please convey my Imperial master's thanks to yours." He half-bowed, and withdrew.
"That worked well," said Vorob'yev with satisfaction.
"I should bloody think so," growled Miles. "Breaks my heart." He handed off the box to Ivan to juggle for a while.
Nothing seemed to be happening just yetorganizational delays, Miles supposed. He drifted away from Ivan and Vorob'yev in search of a hot drink. He was on the point of capturing something steaming and, he hoped, non-sedating, from a passing tray when a quiet voice at his elbow intoned, "Lord Vorkosigan?"
He turned, and stifled an indrawn breath. A short and rather androgynous elderly . . . woman?stood by his side, dressed in the gray and white of Xanadu's service staff. Her head was bald as an egg, her face devoid of hair. Not even eyebrows. "Yes . . . ma'am?"
"Ba," she said in the tone of one offering a polite correction. "A lady wishes to speak with you. Would you accompany me, please?"
"Uh . . . sure." She turned and paced soundlessly away, and he followed in alert anticipation. A lady? With luck, it might be Mia Maz of the Vervani delegation, who ought to be around somewhere in this mob of a thousand people. He was developing some urgent questions for her. No eyebrows? I was expecting a contact sometime, but . . . here?
They exited the hall. Passing out of sight of Vorob'yev and Ivan stretched Miles's nerves still further. He followed the gliding servant down a couple of corridors, and across a little open garden thick with moss and tiny flowers misted with dew. The noises from the reception hall still carried faintly through the damp air. They entered a small building, open to the garden on two sides and floored with dark wood that made his black boots echo unevenly in time with his limping stride. In a dim recess of the pavilion, a woman-sized pearlescent sphere floated a few centimeters above the polished floor, which reflected an inverted halo from its light.
"Leave us," a voice from the sphere directed the servant, who bowed and withdrew, eyes downcast. The transmission through the force screen gave the voice a low, flat timbre.
The silence lengthened. Maybe she'd never seen a physically imperfect man before. Miles bowed and waited, trying to look cool and suave, and not stunned and wildly curious.
"So, Lord Vorkosigan," came the voice again at last. "Here I am."
"Er . . . quite." Miles hesitated. "And just who are you, milady, besides a very pretty soap-bubble?"
There was a longer pause, then, "I am the haut Rian Degtiar. Servant of the Celestial Lady, and Handmaiden of the Star Crèche."
Another flowery haut-title that gave no clue to its function. He could name every ghem-lord on the Cetagandan General Staff, all the satrap governors and their ghem-officers, but this female haut-babble was new to him. But the Celestial Lady was the polite name for the late Empress haut Lisbet Degtiar, and that name at least he knew
"You are a relative of the late Dowager Empress, milady?"
"I am of her genomic constellation, yes. Three generations removed. I have served her half my life."
A lady-in-waiting, all right. One of the old Empress's personal retinue, then, the most inward of insiders. Very high rank, probably very aged as well. "Uh . . . you're not related to a ghem-lord named Yenaro, by chance, are you?"
"Who?" Even through the force-screen the voice conveyed utter bafflement.
"Never mind. Clearly not important." His legs were beginning to throb. Getting the damn boots back off when he returned to the embassy was going to be an even better trick than getting them on had been. "I could not help noticing your serving woman. Are there many folk around here with no hair?"
"It is not a woman. It is ba."
"The neuter ones, the Emperor's high-slaves. In his Celestial Father's time it was the fashion to make them smooth like that."
Ah. Genetically-engineered, genderless servants. He'd heard rumors about them, mostly connected, illogically enough, with sexual scenarios that had more to do with the teller's hopeful fantasies than with any likely reality. But they were reputed to be a race utterly loyal to the lord who had, after all, literally created them. "So . . . not all ba are hairless, but all the hairless ones are ba?" he worked it out.
"Yes . . ." More silence, then, "Why have you come to the Celestial Garden, Lord Vorkosigan?"
His brow wrinkled. "To hold up Barrayar's honor in this circuum, solemn procession, and to present your late Empress's bier-gift. I'm an envoy. By appointment of Emperor Gregor Vorbarra, whom I serve. In my own small way."
Another, longer pause. "You mock me in my misery."
"What do you want, Lord Vorkosigan?"
"What do I want? You called me here, Lady, isn't it the other way around?" He rubbed his neck, tried again. "Er . . . can I help you, by chance?"
Her astonished tone stung him. "Yeah, me! I'm not as . . ." incompetent as I look. "I've been known to accomplish a thing or two, in my time. But if you won't give me a clue as to what this is all about, I can't. I will if I do know but I can't if I don't. Don't you see?" Now he had confused himself, tongue-tangled. "Look, can we start this conversation over?" He bowed low. "Good day, I am Lord Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar. How may I assist you, milady?"
The light dawned at last. "Oh. Oh, no. I am a Vorkosigan, and no thief, milady. Though as possibly a recipient of stolen property, I may be a fence," he allowed judiciously.
More baffled silence; perhaps she was not familiar with criminal jargon. Miles went on a little desperately, "Have you, uh, by chance lost an object? Rod-shaped electronic device with a bird-crest seal on the cap?"
"You have it!" Her voice was a wail of dismay.
"Well, not on me."
Her voice went low, throaty, desperate. "You still have it. You must return it to me."
"Gladly, if you can prove it belongs to you. I certainly don't pretend it belongs to me," he added pointedly.
"You would do this . . . for nothing?"
"For the honor of my name, and, er . . . I am ImpSec. I'd do almost anything for information. Satisfy my curiosity, and the deed is done."
Her voice came back in a shocked whisper, "You mean you don't even know what it is?"
The silence stretched for so long after that, he was beginning to be afraid the old lady had fainted dead away in there. Processional music wafted faintly through the air from the great pavilion.
"Oh, shier, oh. That damn parade is starting, and I'm supposed to be near the front. Milady, how can I reach you?"
"You can't." Her voice was suddenly breathless. "I have to go too. I'll send for you." The white bubble rose, and began to float away.
"Where? When?" The music was building toward the start-cue.
"Say nothing of this!"
He managed a sketchy bow at her retreating maybe-back, and began hobbling hastily across the garden. He had a horrible feeling he was about to be very publicly late.
When he'd wended his way back into the reception area, he found the scene was every bit as bad as he'd feared. A line of people was advancing to the main exit, toward the tower buildings, and Vorob'yev in the Barrayaran delegation's place was dragging his feet, creating an obvious gap, and staring around urgently. He spotted Miles and mouthed silently, Hurry up, dammit! Miles hobbled faster, feeling as if every eye in the room was on him.
Ivan, with an exasperated look on his face, handed over the box to him as he arrived. "Where the hell were you all this time, in the lav? I looked there"
"Sh. Tell you later. I've just had the most bizarre . . ." Miles struggled with the heavy maplewood box, straightening it around into an appropriate presentational position. He marched forward across a courtyard paved with more carved jade, catching up at last with the delegation in front of them just as they reached the door to one of the high-towered buildings. They all filed into an echoing rotunda. Miles spied a few white bubbles in the line ahead, but there was no telling if one was his old haut-lady. The game plan called for everyone to slowly circle the bier, genuflect, and lay their gifts in a spiral pattern in order of seniority/status/clout, then file out the opposite doors to the Northern Pavilion (for the haut-lords and ghem-lords), or the Eastern Pavilion (for the galactic ambassadors) where a funereal luncheon would be served.
But the steady procession stopped, and began to pile up in the wide arched doorways. From the rotunda ahead, instead of quiet music and hushed, shuffling footsteps, a startled babble poured. Voices were raised in sharp astonishment, then other voices in even sharper command.
"What's gone wrong?" Ivan wondered, craning his neck. "Did somebody faint or something?"
Since Miles's eye-level view was of the shoulders of the man ahead of him, he could scarcely answer this. With a lurch, the line began to proceed again. It reached the rotunda, but then was shunted out a door immediately to the left. A ghem-commander stood at the intersection, directing traffic with low-voiced instructions, repeated over and over, "Please retain your gifts and proceed directly around the outside walkway to the Eastern Pavilion, please retain your gifts and proceed directly to the Eastern Pavilion, all will be re-ordered presently, please retain"
At the center of the rotunda, above everyone's heads on a great catafalque, lay the Dowager Empress in state. Even in death outlander eyes were not invited to look upon her. Her bier was surrounded by a force-bubble, made translucent; only a shadow of her form was visible through it, as if through gauze, a white-clad, slight, sleeping ghost. A line of mixed ghem-guards apparently just drafted from the passing satrap governors stood in a row from catafalque to wall on either side of the bier, shielding something else from the passing eyes.
Miles couldn't stand it. After all, they can't massacre me here in front of everybody, can they? He jammed the maplewood box at Ivan, and ducked under the elbow of the ghem-officer trying to shoo everyone out the other door. Smiling pleasantly, his hands held open and empty, he slipped between two startled ghem-guards, who were clearly not expecting such a rude and impudent move.
On the other side of the catafalque, in the position reserved for the first gift of the haut-lord of highest status, lay a dead body. Its throat was cut. Quantities of fresh red blood pooled on the shimmering green malachite floor all around, soaking into the gray-and-white palace servitor's uniform. A thin jeweled knife was clutched rigorously in its outflung right hand. It was exactly the term for the corpse, too. A bald, eyebrowless, man-shaped creature, elderly but not frail . . . Miles recognized their intruder from the personnel pod even without the false hair. His own heart seemed to stop in astonishment.
Somebody's just raised the stakes in this little game.
The highest-ranking ghem-officer in the room swooped down upon him. Even through the swirl of face paint his smile was fixed, the look of a man constrained to be polite to someone he would more naturally have preferred to bludgeon to the pavement. "Lord Vorkosigan, would you rejoin your delegation, please?"
"Of course. Who was that poor fellow?"
The ghem-commander made little herding motions at himthe Cetagandan was not fool enough to actually touch him, of courseand Miles allowed himself to be moved off. Grateful, irate, and flustered, the man was actually surprised into an unguarded reply. "It is Ba Lura, the Celestial Lady's most senior servitor. The Ba has served her for sixty years and moreit seems to have wished to follow on and serve her in death as well. A most tasteless gesture, to do it here . . ." The ghem-commander buffeted Miles near enough to the again-stopped line of delegates for Ivan's long arm to reach out, grab him, and pull him in, and march him doorward with a firm fist in the middle of his back.
"What the hell is going on?" Ivan bent his head to hiss in Miles's ear from behind.
And where were you when the murder took place, Lord Vorkosigan? Except that it didn't look like a murder, it really did look like a suicide. Done in a most archaic manner. Less than thirty minutes ago. While he had been off talking with the mysterious white bubble, who might or might not have been haut Rian Degtiar, how the hell was he to tell? The corridor seemed to be spinning, but Miles supposed it was only his brain.
"You should not have gotten out of line, my lord," said Vorob'yev severely. "Ah . . . what was it you saw?"
Miles's lip curled, but he tamped it back down. "One of the late Dowager Empress's oldest ba servants has just cut its throat at the foot of her bier. I didn't know the Cetagandans made a fashion of human sacrifice. Not officially, anyway."
Vorob'yev's lips pursed in a soundless whistle, then flashed a brief, instantly stifled grin. "How awkward for them," he purred. "They are going to have an interesting scramble, trying to retrieve this ceremony."
Yes. So if the creature was so loyal, why did it arrange what it must have known would be a major embarrassment for its masters? Posthumous revenge? Admittedly, with Cetagandans that's the safest kind. . . .
By the time they completed an interminable hike around the outside of the central towers to the pavilion on the eastern side, Miles's legs were killing him. In a huge hall, the several hundred galactic delegates were being seated at tables by an army of servitors, all moving just a little faster than strict dignity would have preferred. Since some of the bier-gifts the other delegates carried were even bulkier than the Barrayarans' maplewood box, the seating was going slowly and more awkwardly than planned, with a lot of people jumping up and down and re-arranging themselves, to the servitors' evident dismay. Somewhere deep in the bowels of the building Miles pictured a squadron of harried Cetagandan cooks swearing many colorful and obscene Cetagandan oaths.
Miles spotted the Vervani delegation being seated about a third of the way across the room. He took advantage of the confusion to slip out of his assigned chair, weave around several tables, and try to seize a word with Mia Maz.
He stood by her elbow, and smiled tensely. "Good afternoon, m'lady Maz. I have to talk"
"Lord Vorkosigan! I tried to talk with you" they cut across each other's greetings.
"You first." He ducked his head at her.
"I tried to call you at your embassy earlier, but you'd already left. What in the world happened in the rotunda, do you have any idea? For the Cetagandans to alter a ceremony of this magnitude in the middleit's unheard of."
"They didn't exactly have a choice. Well, I suppose they could have ignored the body and just carried on around itI think that would have been much more impressive, personallybut evidently they decided to clean it up first." Again Miles repeated what he was beginning to think of as "the official version" of Ba Lura's suicide. He had the total attention of everyone within earshot. To hell with it, the rumors would be flying soon enough no matter what he said or didn't say.
"Did you have any luck with that little research question I posed to you last night?" Miles continued. "I, uh . . . don't think this is the time or place to discuss it, but . . ."
"Yes, and yes," Maz said.
And not over any holovid transmission channel on this planet, either, Miles thought, supposedly secured or not. "Can you stop by the Barrayaran Embassy, directly after this? We'll . . . take tea, or something."
"I think that would be very appropriate," Maz said. She watched him with newly intensified curiosity in her dark eyes.
"I need a lesson in etiquette," Miles added, for the benefit of their interested nearby listeners.
Maz's eyes twinkled in something that might have been suppressed amusement. "So I have heard it said, my lord," she murmured.
"By" whom? he choked off. Vorob'yev, I fear. "'Bye," he finished instead, rapped the table cheerily, and retreated back to his proper place. Vorob'yev watched Miles seat himself with a slightly dangerous look in his eyes that suggested he was thinking of putting a leash on the peripatetic young envoy soon, but he made no comment aloud.
By the time they had eaten their way through about twenty courses of tiny delicacies, which more than made up in numbers what they lacked in volume, the Cetagandans had reorganized themselves. The haut-lord majordomo was apparently one of those commanders who was never more masterly than when in retreat, for he managed to get everyone marshaled in the correct order of seniority again even though the line was now being cycled through the rotunda in reverse. One sensed the majordomo would be cutting his throat later, in the proper place and with the proper ceremony, and not in this dreadful harum-scarum fashion.
Miles laid down the maplewood box on the malachite floor in the second turning of the growing spiral of gifts, about a meter from where Ba Lura had poured out its life. The unmarked, perfectly polished floor wasn't even damp. And had the Cetagandan security people had time to do a forensics scan before the cleanup? Or had someone been counting on the hasty destruction of the subtler evidence? Damn, I wish I could have been in charge of this, just now.
The white float-cars were waiting on the other side of the Eastern Pavilion, to carry the emissaries back to the gates of the Celestial Garden. The entire ceremony had run only about an hour late, but Miles's sense of time was inverted from his first whimsical vision of Xanadu as Faerie. He felt as if a hundred years had gone by inside the dome, while only a morning had passed in the outside world. He winced painfully in the bright afternoon light, as Vorob'yev's sergeant-driver brought the embassy aircar to their pickup point. Miles fell gratefully into his seat.
I think they're going to have to cut these bloody boots off, when we get back home.
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