Copyright © 1999
Mark gently banked the lightflyer, to give the rear-seat passengers, Kareen and Madame Vorsoisson, a better view of the Vorkosigan's District capital of Hassadar glittering on the horizon. The weather was cooperating, a beautiful sunny day that breathed promise of imminent summer. Miles's lightflyer was a delight: sleek, fast, and maneuverable, knifing through the soft warm air, and best of all with the controls precisely aligned to be ergonomically perfect for a man just Mark's height. So what if the seat was a little on the narrow side. You couldn't have everything. For example, Miles can't have this anymore. Mark grimaced at the thought, and shunted it aside.
"It's lovely land," Madame Vorsoisson remarked, pressing her face to the canopy to take it all in.
"Miles would be flattered to hear you say so," Mark carefully encouraged this trend of thought. "He's pretty stuck on this place."
They were certainly viewing it in the best possible light, literally, this morning. A patchwork of spring verdure in the farms and woods -- the woods no less a product of back-breaking human cultivation than the fields -- rippled across the landscape. The green was broken up and set off by irregular slashes of Barrayaran native red-brown, in the ravines and creek bottoms and along uncultivable slopes.
Enrique, his nose also pressed to the canopy, said, "It's not at all what I was expecting, from Barrayar."
"What were you expecting?" asked Madame Vorsoisson curiously.
"Kilometers of flat gray concrete, I suppose. Military barracks and people in uniform marching around in lockstep."
"Economically unlikely for an entire planetary surface. Though uniforms, we do have," Mark admitted.
"But once it gets up to several hundred different kinds, the effect isn't so uniform any more. And some of the colors are a little… unexpected."
"Yes, I feel sorry for those Counts who ended up having to pick their House colors last," Mark agreed. "I think the Vorkosigans must have fallen somewhere in the middle. I mean, brown and silver isn't bad, but I can't help feeling that the fellows with the blue and gold -- or the black and silver -- do have a sartorial edge." He could fancy himself in black and silver, with Kareen all blonde and tall on his arm.
"It could be worse," Kareen put in cheerfully. "How do you think you'd look in a House cadet's uniform of chartreuse and scarlet, like poor Vorharopulos, Mark?"
"Like a traffic signal in boots." Mark made a wry face. "The lockstep is lacking too, I've gradually come to realize. More like, milling around in a confused herd. It was… almost disappointing, at first, I mean even disregarding enemy propaganda it's not the image Barrayar itself tries to project now, is it? Though I've learned to kind of like it this way."
They banked again. "Where is the infamous radioactive area?" Madame Vorsoisson asked, scanning the changing scene.
The Cetagandan destruction of the old capital of Vorkosigan Vashnoi had torn the heart out of the Vorkosigan's District, three generations ago. "Southeast of Hassadar. Downwind and downstream," Mark replied. "We won't pass it today. You'll have to get Miles to show it to you sometime." He suppressed a slightly snarky grin. Betan dollars to sand the blighted lands hadn't been on Miles's projected itinerary.
"Barrayar doesn't all look like this," Madame Vorsoisson told Enrique. "The part of South Continent where I grew up was flat as a griddlecake, even though the highest mountain range on the planet -- the Black Escarpment -- was just over the horizon."
"Was it dull, being so flat?" asked Enrique.
"No, because the horizon was boundless. Stepping outdoors was like stepping into the sky. The clouds, the light, the storms -- we had the best sunrises and sunsets ever."
They passed the invisible barrier of Hassadar's air traffic control system, and Mark gave over navigation to the city computers. After a few more minutes and some brief coded transmissions, they were brought gently down on a very private and highly restricted landing pad atop the Count's Residence. The Residence was a large modern building faced with polished Dendarii mountain stone. With its connections to the municipal and District offices, it occupied most of one side of the city's central square.
Tsipis stood waiting by the landing ring, neat and gray and spare as ever, to receive them. He shook hands with Madame Vorsoisson as though they were old friends, and greeted off-worlder Enrique with the grace and ease of a natural diplomat. Kareen gave, and got, a familial hug.
They switched vehicles to a waiting aircar, and Tsipis shepherded them off for a quick tour of three possible sites for their future facility, whatever it was to be named, including an under-utilized city warehouse, and two nearby farms. Both farm sites were untenanted because their former inhabitants had followed the Count to his new post on Sergyar, and no one else had wanted to take on the challenge of wrestling profit from their decidedly marginal land, one being swampy and the other rocky and dry. Mark checked the radioactivity plats carefully. They were all Vorkosigan properties already, so there was nothing to negotiate with respect to their use.
"You might even persuade your brother to forgo the rent, if you ask," Tsipis pointed out with enthusiastic frugality about the two rural sites. "He can; your father assigned him full legal powers in the District when he left for Sergyar. After all, the family's not getting any income from the properties now. It would conserve more of your capital for your other start-up costs."
Tsipis knew precisely what budget Mark had to work with; they'd gone over his plans via comconsole earlier in the week. The thought of asking Miles for a favor made Mark twitch a little, but… was he not a Vorkosigan too? He stared around the dilapidated farm, trying to feel entitled.
He put his head together with Kareen, and they ran over the choices. Enrique was permitted to wander about with Madame Vorsoisson, being introduced to various native Barrayaran weeds. The condition of the buildings, plumbing, and power-grid connections won over condition of the land, and they settled at last on the site with the newer -- relatively -- and more spacious outbuildings. After one more thoughtful tour around the premises, Tsipis whisked them back to Hassadar.
For lunch, Tsipis led them to Hassadar's most exclusive locale -- the official dining room of the Count's Residence, overlooking the Square. The remarkable spread which the staff laid on hinted that Miles had sent down a few urgent behind-the-scenes instructions for the care and feeding of his… gardener. Mark confirmed this after dessert when Kareen led Enrique and the widow off to see the garden and fountain in the Residence's inner courtyard, and he and Tsipis lingered over the exquisite vintage of Vorkosigan estate-bottled wine usually reserved for visits from Emperor Gregor.
"So, Lord Mark," said Tsipis, after a reverent sip. "What do you think of this Madame Vorsoisson of your brother's?"
"I think… she is not my brother's yet."
"Mm, yes, I'd understood that part. Or should I say, it has been explained to me."
"What all has he been telling you about her?"
"It is not so much what he says, as how he says it. And how often he repeats himself."
"Well, that too. If it were anyone but Miles, it would be hilarious. Actually, it's still hilarious. But it's also… hm."
Tsipis blinked and smiled in perfect understanding. "Heart-stopping… I think… is the word I should choose." And Tsipis's vocabulary was always as precise as his haircut. He stared out over the square through the room's tall windows. "I used to see him as a youngster rather often, when I was in company with your parents. He was constantly overmatching his physical powers. But he never cried much, when he broke a bone. He was almost frighteningly self-controlled, for a child that age. But once, at the Hassadar District Fair it was, I chanced to see him rather brutally rejected by a group of other children whom he'd attempted to join." Tsipis took another sip of wine.
"Did he cry then?" asked Mark.
"No. Though his face looked very odd when he turned away. Bothari was watching with me -- there was nothing the Sergeant could do either, there wasn't any physical threat about it all. But the next day Miles had a riding accident, one of his worst ever. Jumping, which he had been forbidden to do, on a green horse he'd been told not to ride… Count Piotr was so infuriated -- and frightened -- I though he was going to have a stroke on the spot. I came later to wonder how much of an accident that accident was." Tsipis hesitated. "I always imagined Miles would choose a galactic wife, like his father before him. Not a Barrayaran woman. I'm not at all sure what Miles thinks he's doing with this young lady. Is he setting himself up to go smash again?"
"He claims he has a Strategy."
Mark shrugged helplessly. "To tell the truth, I've barely met the woman myself. You've been working with her -- what do you think?"
Tsipis tilted his head shrewdly. "She's a quick study, and meticulously honest."
That sounded like faint praise, unless one happened to know those were Tsipis's two highest encomiums.
"Quite well-looking, in person," he added as an afterthought. "Not, ah, nearly as over-tall as I was expecting."
"I think she could do the job of a future Countess."
"Miles thinks so too," Mark noted. "And picking personnel was supposed to have been one of his major military talents." And the better he got to know Tsipis, the more Mark thought that might be a talent Miles had inherited from his -- their -- father.
"It's not before time, that's certain," Tsipis sighed. "One does wish for Count Aral to have grandchildren while he's still alive to see them."
Was that remark addressed to me?
"You will keep an eye on things, won't you?" Tsipis added.
"I don't know what you think I could do. It's not like I could make her fall in love with him. If I had that kind of power over women, I'd use it for myself!"
Tsipis smiled vaguely at the place Kareen had vacated, and back, speculatively, to Mark. "What, and here I was under the impression you had."
Mark twitched. His new-won Betan rationality had been losing ground on the subject of Kareen, this past week, his sub-personas growing restive with his rising tension. But Tsipis was his financial advisor, not his therapist. Nor even -- this was Barrayar, after all -- his Baba.
"So have you seen any sign at all that Madame Vorsoisson returns your brother's regard?" Tsipis went on rather plaintively.
"No," Mark confessed. "But she's very reserved." And was this lack of feeling, or just frightening self-control? Who could tell from this angle? "Wait, ha, I know! I'll set Kareen onto it. Women gossip to each other about that sort of thing. That's why they go off so long to the ladies' room together, to dissect their dates. Or so Kareen once told me, when I'd complained about being left bereft too long…"
"I do like that girl's sense of humor. I've always liked all the Koudelkas." Tsipis's eye grew glinty for a moment. "You will treat her properly, I trust?"
Basil alert, basil alert! "Oh, yes," Mark said fervently. Grunt, in fact, was aching to treat her properly to the limit of his Betan-trained skills and powers right now, if only she'd let him. Gorge, who made a hobby of feeding her gourmet meals, had had a good day today. Killer lurked ready to assassinate any enemy she cared to name, except that Kareen didn't make enemies, she just made friends. Even Howl was strangely satisfied, this week, everyone else's pain being his gain. On this subject, the Black Gang voted as one man.
That lovely, warm, open woman… In her presence he felt like some sluggish cold-blooded creature crawling from under a rock where it had crept to die, meeting the unexpected miracle of the sun. He might trail around after her all day, meeping piteously, hoping she would light him again for just one more glorious moment. His therapist had had a few stern words to him on the subject of this addiction -- It's not fair to Kareen to lay such a burden on her, now is it? You must learn to give, from sufficiency, not only take, from neediness. Quite right, quite right. But dammit, even his therapist liked Kareen, and was trying to recruit her for the profession. Everyone liked Kareen, because Kareen liked everyone. They wanted to be around her; she made them feel good inside. They would do anything for her. She had in abundance everything Mark most lacked, and most longed for: good cheer, infectious enthusiasm, empathy, sanity. The woman had the most tremendous future in sales -- what a team the two of them might make, Mark for analysis, Kareen for the interface with the rest of humanity… The mere thought of losing her, for any reason, made Mark frantic.
His incipient panic attack vanished and his breathing steadied as she reappeared safely, with Enrique and Madame Vorsoisson still in tow. Despite the loss of ambition on everyone's part due to lunch, Kareen got them all up and moving again for the second of the day's tasks, collecting the rocks for Miles's garden. Tsipis had rustled them up a holo-map, directions, and two large, amiable young men with hand tractors and a lift van; the lift van followed the lightflyer as Mark headed them south toward the looming gray spine of the Dendarii mountains.
Mark brought them down in a mountain vale bordered by a rocky ravine. The area was still more Vorkosigan family property, entirely undeveloped. Mark could see why. The virgin patch of native Barrayaran -- well, you couldn't call it forest, quite, though scrub summed it up fairly well -- extended for kilometers along the forbidding slopes.
Madame Vorsoisson exited the lightflyer, and turned to take in the view to the north, out over the peopled lowlands of the Vorkosigan's District. The warm air softened the farthest horizon into a magical blue haze, but the eye could still see for a hundred kilometers. Cumulous clouds puffed white and, in three widely separated arcs, towered up over silver-gray bases like rival castles.
"Oh," she said, her mouth melting in a smile. "Now that's a proper sky. That's the way it should be. I can see why you said Lord Vorkosigan likes it up here, Kareen." Her arms stretched out, half-unconsciously, to their fullest extent, her fingers reaching into free space. "Usually hills feel like walls around me, but this -- this is very fine."
The ox-like beings with the lift-van landed beside the lightflyer. Madame Vorsoisson led them and their equipment scrambling down into the ravine, there to pick out her supply of aesthetically-pleasing genuine Dendarii rocks and stones for the minions to haul away to Vorbarr Sultana. Enrique followed after like a lanky and particularly clumsy puppy. Since what went down would have to puff and wheeze back up, Mark limited himself to a peek over the edge, and then a stroll around the less daunting grade of the vale, holding hands with Kareen.
When he slipped his arm around her waist and cuddled in close, she melted around him, but when he tried to slip in a subliminal sexual suggestion by nuzzling her breast, she stiffened unhappily and pulled away. Damn.
"Kareen…" he protested plaintively.
She shook her head. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
"Don't… apologize to me. It makes me feel very weird. I want you to want me too, or it's no damn good. I thought you did."
"I did. I do. I'm --" she bit off her words, and tried again. "I thought I was a real adult, a real person, back on Beta Colony. Then I came back here… I realize I'm dependent for every bite of food I put in my mouth, for every stitch of clothing, for everything, on my family, and this place. And I always was, even when I was on Beta. Maybe it was all… fake."
He clutched her hand; that at least he might not let go of. "You want to be good. All right, I can understand that. But you have to be careful who you let define your good. My terrorist creators taught me that one, for damn sure."
She clutched him back, at that feared memory, and managed a sympathetic grimace. She hesitated, and went on, "It's the mutually exclusive definitions that are driving me crazy. I can't be good for both places at the same time. I learned how to be a good girl on Beta Colony, and in its own way, it was just as hard as being a good girl here. And a lot scarier, sometimes. But… I felt like I was getting bigger inside, if you can see what I mean."
"I think so." He hoped he hadn't provided any of that scary, but suspected he had. All right, he knew he had. There had been some dark times, last year. Yet she had stuck with him. "But you have to choose Kareen's good, not Barrayar's..." he took a deep breath, for honesty, "Not even Beta's." Not even mine?
"Since I got back, it's like I can't even find myself to ask."
For her, this was a metaphor, he reminded himself. Though maybe he was a metaphor too, inside his head with the Black Gang. A metaphor gone metastatic. Metaphors could do that, under enough pressure.
"I want to go back to Beta Colony," she said in a low, passionate voice, staring out unseeing into the breath-taking space below. "I want to stay there till I'm a real grown-up, and can be myself wherever I am. Like Countess Vorkosigan."
Mark's brows rose at this idea of a role model for gentle Kareen. But you had to say this for his mother, she didn't take any shit from any one for any reason. It would be preferable, though, if one could catch a bit of that quality without having to walk through war and fire barefoot to get it.
Kareen in distress was like the sun going dark. Apprehensively, he hugged her around the waist again. Fortunately, she read it as support, as intended, and not importunity again, and leaned into him in return.
The Black Gang had their place as emergency shock troops, but they made piss-poor commanders. Grunt would just have to wait some more. He could damn well set up a date with Mark's right hand or something. This one was too important to screw up, oh yeah.
But what if she finally became herself in a way that left no room for him…?
There was nothing to eat, here. Change the subject, quick. "Tsipis seems to like Madame Vorsoisson."
Her face lightened with instant gratitude at this release. Therefore, I must have been pressuring her. Howl whimpered, from deep inside; Mark stifled him.
"Ekaterin? I do too."
So she was Ekaterin now, first names, good. He would have to send them off to the ladies' room some more. "Can you tell if she likes Miles?"
Kareen shrugged. "She seems to. She's working really hard on his garden and all."
"I mean, is she in love at all? I've never even heard her call him by his first name. How can you be in love with someone you're not on a first-name basis with?"
"Oh, that's a Vor thing."
"Huh." Mark took in this reassurance dubiously. "It's true Miles is being very Vor. I think this Imperial Auditor thing has gone to his head. But do you suppose you could kind of hang around her, and try to pick up some clues?"
"Spy on her?" Kareen frowned disapproval. "Did Miles set you on me for this?"
"Actually, no. It was Tsipis. He's a bit worried for Miles. And -- I am too."
"I would like to be friends with her…"
"She doesn't seem to have very many. She's had to move a lot. And I think whatever happened to her husband on Komarr was more ghastly than she lets on. The woman is so full of silences, they spill over."
"But will she do for Miles? Will she be good for him?"
Kareen cocked an eyebrow down at him. "Is anyone bothering to ask if Miles will be good for her?"
"Um… um… why not? Count's heir. Well-to-do. An Imperial Auditor, for God's sake. What more could a Vor desire?"
"I don't know, Mark. It likely depends on the Vor. I do know I'd take you and every one of the Black Gang at their most obstreperous for a hundred years before I'd let myself get locked up for a week with Miles. He… takes you over."
"Only if you let him." But he warmed inside with the thought that she could really, truly prefer him to the glorious Miles, and suddenly felt less hungry.
"Do you have any idea what it takes to stop him? I still remember being kids, me and my sisters, visiting Lady Cordelia with Mama, and Miles told off to keep us occupied. Which was a really cruel thing to do to a fourteen-year-old boy, but what did I know? He decided the four of us should be an all-girl precision drill team, and made us march around in the back garden of Vorkosigan House, or in the ballroom when it was raining. I think I was four." She frowned into the past. "What Miles needs is a woman who will tell him to go soak his head, or it'll be a disaster. For her, not him." After a moment, she added sapiently, "Though if for her, for him too, sooner or later."
The amiable young men came panting back up out of the ravine then, and took the lift van back down into it. With clanks and thumps, they finished loading, and their van lumbered into the air and headed north. Some time later, Enrique and Madame Vorsoisson appeared, breathless. Enrique, who clutched a huge bundle of native Barrayaran plants, looked quite cheerful. In fact, he actually looked as if he had blood circulation. The scientist probably hadn't been outdoors for years; it was doubtless good for him, despite the fact that he was dripping wet from having fallen in the creek.
They managed to get the plants stuffed in the back, and Enrique half-dried, and everyone loaded up again as the sun slanted west. Mark took pleasure in trying the lightflyer's speed, as they circled the vale one last time and banked northward, back toward the capital. The machine hummed like an arrow, sweet beneath his feet and fingertips, and they reached the outskirts of Vorbarr Sultana again before dusk.
They dropped off Madame Vorsoisson first, at her aunt and uncle's home near the University, with many promises that she would stop in at Vorkosigan House on the morrow and help Enrique look up the scientific names of all his new botanical samples. Kareen hopped out at the corner in front of her family's townhouse, and gave Mark a little farewell kiss on the cheek. Down, Grunt. That wasn't to your address.
Mark slipped the lightflyer back into its corner in the sub-basement garage of Vorkosigan House, and followed Enrique into the lab to help him give the butter bugs their evening feed and check-up. Enrique did stop short of singing lullabies to the little creepy-crawlies, though he was in the habit of talking, half to them and half to himself, under his breath as he puttered around the lab. The man had worked all alone for too damned long, in Mark's view. Tonight, though, Enrique hummed as he separated his new supply of plants according to a hierarchy known only to himself and Madame Vorsoisson, some into beakers of water and some spread to dry on paper on the lab bench.
Mark turned from weighing, recording, and scattering a few generous scoops of tree bits into the butter bug hutches to find Enrique settling at his comconsole and firing it up. Ah, good. Perhaps the Escobaran was about to commit some more futurely-profitable science. Mark wandered over, preparing to kibitz approvingly. Enrique was busying himself not with a vertigo-inducing molecular display, but with an array of closely-written text.
"What's that?" Mark asked.
"I promised to send Ekaterin a copy of my doctoral thesis. She asked," Enrique explained proudly, and in a tone of some wonder. "Toward Bacterial and Fungal Suite-Synthesis of Extra-cellular Energy Storage Compounds. It was the basis of all my later work with the butter bugs, when I finally hit upon them as the perfect vehicle for the microbial suite."
"Ah." Mark hesitated. It's Ekaterin for you too, now? Well, if Kareen had got on a first-name basis with the widow, Enrique, also present, couldn't very well have been excluded, could he? "Will she be able to read it?" Enrique wrote just the same way he talked, as far as Mark had seen.
"Oh, I don't expect her to follow the molecular energy-flow mathematics -- my faculty advisors had a struggle with those -- but she'll get the gist of it, I'm sure, from the animations. Still… perhaps I could do something about this abstract, to make it more attractive at first glance. I have to admit, it's a trifle dry." He bit his lip, and bent over his comconsole. After a minute he asked, "Can you think of a word to rhyme with glyoxylate?"
"Not… off-hand. Try orange. Or silver."
"Those don't rhyme with anything. If you can't be helpful, Mark, go away."
"What are you doing?"
"Isocitrate, of course, but that doesn't quite scan… I'm trying to see if I can produce a more striking effect by casting the abstract in sonnet form."
"That sounds downright… stunning."
"Do you think?" Enrique brightened, and started humming again. "Threonine, serine, polar, molar…"
"Dolor," Mark supplied at random. "Bowler." Enrique waved him off irritably. Dammit, Enrique wasn't supposed to be wasting his valuable brain-time writing poetry; he was supposed to be designing long-chain molecule interactions with favorable energy-flows or something. Mark stared at the Escobaran, bent like a pretzel in his comconsole station chair in his concentration, and his brows drew down in sudden worry.
Even Enrique couldn't imagine he might attract a woman with his dissertation, could he? Or was that, Only Enrique could imagine…? It was, after all, his sole signal success in his short life. Mark had to grant, any woman he could attract that way was the right sort for him, but… but not this one. Not the one Miles had fallen in love with. Madame Vorsoisson was excessively polite, though. She would doubtless say something kind no matter how appalled she was by the offering. And Enrique, who was as starved for kindness as… as someone else Mark knew all too well, would build upon it… Expediting the removal of the Bugworks to its new permanent site in the District seemed suddenly a much more urgent task. Lips pursed, Mark tiptoed quietly out of the lab.
Padding up the hall, he could still hear Enrique's happy murmur, "Mucopolysaccharide, hm, there's a good one, like the rhythm, mu-co-pol-ee-sacc-a-ride…"
* * *
The Vorbarr Sultana shuttleport was enjoying a mid-evening lull in traffic. Ivan stared impatiently around the concourse, and shifted his welcome-home bouquet of musky-scented orchids from his right hand to his left. He trusted Lady Donna would not arrive too jump-lagged and exhausted for a little socialization later. The flowers should strike just the right opening note in this renewal of their acquaintance; not so grand and gaudy as to suggest desperation on his part, but sufficiently elegant and expensive to indicate serious interest to anyone as cognizant of the nuances as Donna was.
Beside Ivan, Byerly Vorrutyer leaned comfortably against a pillar and crossed his arms. He glanced at the bouquet and smiled a little By smile, which Ivan noted but ignored. Byerly might be a source of witty, or half-witty, editorial comment, but he certainly wasn't competition for his cousin's amorous attentions.
A few elusive wisps of the erotic dream he'd had about Donna last night tantalized Ivan's memory. He would offer to carry her luggage, he decided, or rather, some of it, whatever she had in her hand for which he might trade the flowers. Lady Donna did not travel light, as he recalled.
Unless she came back lugging a uterine replicator with Pierre's clone in it. That, By could handle all by himself; Ivan wasn't touching it with a stick. By had remained maddeningly closed-mouthed about what Lady Donna had gone to obtain on Beta Colony that she thought would thwart her cousin Richars's inheritance, but really, somebody had to try the clone-ploy sooner or later. The political complications might land in his Vorkosigan cousins' laps, but as a Vorpatril of a mere junior line, he could steer clear. He didn't have a vote in the Council of Counts, thank God.
"Ah." By pushed off from the pillar and gazed up the concourse, and raised a hand in brief greeting. "Here we go."
Ivan followed his glance. Three men were approaching them. The white-haired, grim-looking fellow on the right, returning By's wave, he recognized even out of uniform as the late Count Pierre's tough senior Armsman, what was his name, Szabo. Good, Lady Donna had taken help and protection on her long journey. The tall fellow on the left, also in civvies, was one of Pierre's other guardsmen. His junior status was discernible both by his age and by the fact that he was the one towing the float pallet with the three valises aboard. He had an expression on his face with which Ivan could identify, a sort of covert crogglement common to Barrayarans just back from their first visit to Beta Colony, as if he weren't sure whether to fall to the ground and kiss the concrete or turn around and run back to the shuttle.
The man in the center Ivan had never seen before. He was an athletic-looking fellow of middle height, more lithe than muscular, though his shoulders filled his civilian tunic quite well. He was soberly dressed in black, with the barest pale gray piping making salute to the Barrayaran style of pseudo-military ornamentation in men's wear. The subtle clothes set off his lean good looks: pale skin, thick dark brows, close-cropped black hair, and trim, glossy black beard and mustache. His step was energetic. His eyes were an electric brown, and seemed to dart all around as if seeing the place for the first time, and liking what they saw.
Oh, hell, had Donna picked up a Betan paramour? This could be annoying. The fellow wasn't a mere boy, either, Ivan saw as they came up to him and By; he was at least in his mid-thirties. There was something oddly familiar about him. Damned if he didn't look a true Vorrutyer -- that hair, those eyes, that smirking swagger. An unknown son of Pierre's? The secret reason, revealed at last, why the Count had never married? Pierre would've had to have been about fifteen when he'd sired the fellow, but it was possible.
By exchanged a cordial nod with the smiling stranger, and turned to Ivan. "You two, I think, need no introduction."
"I think we do," Ivan protested.
The fellow's white grin broadened, and he stuck out a hand, which Ivan automatically took. His grip was firm and dry. "Lord Dono Vorrutyer, at your service, Lord Vorpatril." His voice was a pleasant tenor, his accent not Betan at all, but educated Barrayaran Vor-class.
It was the smiling eyes that did it at last, bright like embers.
"Aw, shit," hissed Ivan, recoiling, and snatching back his hand. "Donna, you didn't." Betan medicine, oh, yeah. And Betan surgery. They could, and would, do anything on Beta Colony, if you had the money and could convince them you were a freely consenting adult.
"If I have my way with the Council of Counts, soon to be Count Dono Vorrutyer," Donna -- Dono -- whoever -- went on smoothly.
"Or killed on sight." Ivan stared at… him, in draining disbelief. "You don't seriously think you can make this fly, do you?"
He -- she -- twitched a brow at Armsman Szabo, who raised his chin a centimeter. Donna/Dono said, "Oh, believe me, we went over the risks in detail before starting out." She/he, whatever, spotted the orchids clutched forgotten in Ivan's left hand. "Why, Ivan, are those for me? How sweet of you!" she cooed, wrested them from him, and raised them to her nose. Beard occluded, she blinked demure black eyelashes at him over the bouquet, suddenly and horribly Lady Donna again.
"Don't do that in public," said Armsman Szabo through his teeth.
"Sorry Szabo." The voice's pitch plunged again to its initial masculine depth. "Couldn't resist. I mean, it's Ivan."
Szabo's shrug conceded the point, but not the issue.
"I'll control myself from now on, I promise." Lord Dono reversed the flowers in his grip and swept them down to his side as though holding a spear, and came to a shoulders-back, feet-apart posture of quasi-military attention.
"Better," said Szabo judiciously.
Ivan stared in horrified fascination. "Did the Betan doctors make you taller, too?" He glanced down; Lord Dono's half-boot heels were not especially thick.
"I'm the same height I always was, Ivan. Other things have changed, but not my height."
"No, you are taller, dammit. At least ten centimeters."
"Only in your mind. One of the many fascinating psychological side effects of testosterone I am discovering, along with the amazing mood-swings. When we get home we can measure me, and I'll prove it to you."
"Yes," said By, glancing around, "I do suggest we continue this conversation in a more private place. Your groundcar is waiting as you instructed, Lord Dono, with your driver." He offered his cousin a little ironic bow.
"You… don't need me, to intrude on this family reunion," Ivan excused himself. He began to sidle away.
"Oh, yes we do," said By. With matching evil grins, the two Vorrutyers each took Ivan by an arm, and began to march him toward the exit. Dono's grip was convincingly muscular. The Armsmen followed.
They found the late Count Pierre's official ground-car where By had left it. The alert Armsman-driver in the Vorrutyers' famous blue-and-gray livery hurried to raise the rear canopy for Lord Dono and his party. The driver looked sidelong at the new lord, but appeared entirely unsurprised by the transformation. The younger Armsman finished stowing the limited luggage and slid into the front compartment with the driver, saying, "Damn, I'm glad to be home. Joris, you would not believe what I saw on Beta --"
The canopy lowered on Dono, By, Szabo, and Ivan in the rear compartment, cutting off his words. The car pulled smoothly away from the shuttleport. Ivan twisted his neck, and asked plaintively, "Was that all your luggage?" Lady Donna used to require a second car to carry it all. "Where is the rest of it?"
Lord Dono leaned back in his seat, raised his chin, and stretched his legs out before him. "I dumped it all back on Beta Colony. One case is all my Armsmen are expected to travel with, Ivan. Live and learn."
Ivan noted the possessive, my Armsmen. "Are they --" he nodded at Szabo, listening, "are you all in on this?"
"Of course," said Dono easily. "Had to be. We all met together the night after Pierre died, Szabo and I presented the plan, and they swore themselves to me then."
"Very, um… loyal of them."
Szabo said, "We've all had a number of years to watch Lady Donna help run the District. Even my men who were less than, mm, personally taken with the plan are District men bred and true. No one wanted to see it fall to Richars."
"I suppose you all have had opportunities to watch him, too, over time," allowed Ivan. He added after a moment, "How'd he manage to piss you all off?"
"He didn't do it overnight," said By. "Richars isn't that heroic. It's taken him years of persistent effort."
"I doubt," said Dono in a suddenly clinical tone, "that anyone would care, at this late date, that he tried to rape me when I was twelve, and when I fought him off, drowned my new puppy in retaliation. After all, no one cared at the time."
"Er," said Ivan.
"Give your family credit," By put in, "Richars convinced them all the puppy's death had been your fault. He's always been very good at that sort of thing."
"You believed my version," said Dono to By. "Almost the only person to do so."
"Ah, but I'd had my own experiences with Richars by then," said By. He did not volunteer further details.
"I was not yet in your father's service," Szabo pointed out, possibly in self-exculpation.
"Count yourself lucky," sighed Dono. "To describe that household as lax would be overly-kind. And no one else could impose order till the old man finally stroked out."
"Richars Vorrutyer," Armsman Szabo continued to Ivan, "observing Count Pierre's, er, nervous problems, has counted the Vorrutyer Countship and District as his property anytime these last twenty years. It was never in his interest to see poor Pierre get better, or form a family of his own. I know for a fact that he bribed the relatives of the first young lady to whom Pierre was engaged to break it off, and sell her elsewhere. Pierre's second effort at courtship, Richars thwarted by smuggling the girl's family certain of Pierre's private medical records. The third fiancée's death in that flyer wreck was never proved to be anything but an accident. But Pierre didn't believe it was an accident."
"Pierre… believed a lot of strange things," Ivan noted nervously.
"I didn't think it was an accident either," said Szabo dryly. "One of my best men was driving. He was killed too."
"Oh. Um. But Pierre's own death is not suspected…?"
"I tried, Szabo," said Dono -- Donna -- bleakly. "After that episode with the medical records, he was so incredibly paranoid about his doctors."
"Yes, I know." Szabo began to pat her hand, caught himself, and gave him a soft consoling punch in the shoulder instead. Dono's smile twisted in appreciation.
"In any case," Szabo went on, "it was abundantly plain that no Armsman who was loyal to Pierre -- and we all were, God help the poor man -- would last five minutes in Richars's service. His first step -- and we'd all heard him say so -- would be to make a clean sweep of everything and everyone loyal to Pierre, and install his own creatures. Pierre's sister being the first to go, of course."
"If Richars had a gram of self-preservation," murmured Dono fiercely.
"Could he do that?" asked Ivan doubtfully. "Evict you from your home? Have you no rights under Pierre's will?"
"Home, District, and all." Dono smiled grimly. "Pierre made no will, Ivan. He didn't want to name Richars as his successor, wasn't all that fond of Richars's brothers or sons either, and was still, I think, even to the last, hoping to cut him out with an heir of his own body. Hell, Pierre might have expected to live forty more years, with modern medicine. All I have would have had as Lady Donna was the pittance from my own dowries. The estate's in the most incredible mess."
"I'm not surprised," said Ivan. "But do you really think you can make this work? I mean, Richars is heir-presumptive. And whatever you are now, you weren't Pierre's younger brother at the moment Pierre died."
"That's the most important legal point in the plan. A Count's heir only inherits at the moment of his predecessor's death if he's already been sworn in before the Council. Otherwise, the District isn't inherited till the moment the Counts confirm it. And at that moment -- some time in the next couple of weeks -- I will be, demonstrably, Pierre's brother."
Ivan's mouth screwed up, as he tried to work this through. Judging by the smooth fit of the black tunic, the lovely great breasts in which he'd once... never mind -- anyway, they were clearly all gone now. "You've really had surgery for… what did you do with… you didn't do that hermaphrodite thing, did you? Or where is… everything?"
"If you mean my former female organs, I jettisoned ‘em with the rest of my luggage back on Beta. You can scarcely find the scars, the surgeon was so clever. They'd put in their time, God knows -- can't say as I miss ‘em."
Ivan missed them already. Desperately. "I wondered if you might have had them frozen. In case things don't work out, or you change your mind." Ivan tried to keep the hopeful tone out of his voice. "I know there are Betans who switch sexes back and forth three or four times in their lives."
"Yes, I met some of them at the clinic. They were most helpful and friendly, I must say."
Szabo rolled his eyes only slightly. Was Szabo acting as Lord Dono's personal valet now? It was customary, for a Count's senior Armsman to do so. Szabo must have witnessed it all, in detail. Two witnesses. She took two witnesses, I see.
"No," Dono went on, "if I ever change back -- which I have no plans to do, forty years were enough -- I'd start all over with fresh cloned organs, just as I've done for this. I could be a virgin again. What a dreadful thought."
Ivan hesitated. He finally asked, "Didn't you need to add a Y chromosome from somewhere? Where'd you get it? Did the Betans supply it?" He glanced helplessly at Dono's crotch, and quickly away. "Can Richars argue that the -- the inheriting bit is part-Betan?"
"I thought of that. So I got it from Pierre."
"You didn't have, um, your new male organs cloned from him?" Ivan boggled at this grotesque idea. It made his mind hurt. Was it some kind of techno-incest, or what?
"No, no! I admit, I did borrow a tiny tissue sample from my brother -- he didn't need it, by then -- and the Betan doctors did use part of a chromosome from it, just for my new cloned parts. My new testicles are a little less than two percent Pierre, I suppose, depending on how you calculate it. If I ever decide to give my prick a nick-name, the way some fellows do, I suppose I ought to call it after him. I don't feel much inclined to do so, though. It feels very all-me."
"But are the chromosomes of your body still double-X?"
"Well, yes." Dono frowned uneasily, and scratched his beard. "I expect Richars to try to make a point with that, if he thinks of it. I did look into the retro-genetic treatment for complete somatic transformation. I didn't have time for it, the complications can be strange, and for a gene splice this large the result is usually no better than a partial cellular mosaic, a chimera, hit-or-miss. Sufficient for treating some genetic diseases, but not the legal disease of being some-little-cell-female. But the portion of my tissues responsible for fathering the next little Vorrutyer heir is certifiably XY, and incidentally, made free of genetic disease, damage, and mutation while we were about it. The next Count Vorrutyer won't have a bad heart. Among other things. The prick's always been the most important qualification for a Countship anyway. History says so."
By chuckled. "Maybe they'll just let the prick vote." He made an X gesture down by his crotch, and intoned sonorously, "Dono, his mark."
Lord Dono grinned. "While it wouldn't be the first time a real prick has held a seat in the Council of Counts, I'm hoping for a more complete victory. That's where you come in, Ivan."
"Me? I don't have anything to do with this! I don't want anything to do with this." Ivan's startled protests were cut short by the car slowing in front of the Vorrutyers' townhouse, and turning in.
Vorrutyer House was a generation older than Vorkosigan House, and correspondingly notably more fortress-like. Its severe stone walls threw projections out to the sidewalk in a blunted star pattern, giving cross-fire onto what had been a mud street decorated with horse dung in the great house's heyday. It had no windows on the ground floor at all, just a few gun-slits. Thick iron-bound planks, scorning carving or any other decorative effect, formed the double doors into its inner courtyard; they now swung aside at an automated signal, and the groundcar squeezed through the passage. The walls were marked with smears of vehicle enamel from less careful drivers. Ivan wondered if the murder-holes in the dark arched roof, above, were still functional. Probably.
The place had been restored with an eye to defense by the great general Count Pierre "Le Sanguinaire" Vorrutyer himself, who was principally famous as Emperor Dorca's trusted right arm/head thug in the civil war that had broken the power of the independent Counts just before the end of the Time of Isolation. Pierre had made serious enemies, all of whom he had survived into a foul-tongued old age. It had taken the invading Cetagandans and all their techno-weaponry to finally put an end to him, with great difficulty, after an infamous and costly siege -- not of this place, of course. Old Pierre's eldest daughter had married an earlier Count Vorkosigan, which was where the Pierre of Mark's middle name had come down from. Ivan wondered what old Pierre would think of his offshoots now. Maybe he would like Richars best. Maybe his ghost still walked here. Ivan shuddered, stepping out onto the dark cobblestones.
The driver took the car off to its garage, and Lord Dono led the way, two steps at a time, up the green-black granite staircase out of the courtyard and into the house. He paused to sweep a glance back over the stony expanse. "First thing is, I'm going to get some more light out here," he remarked to Szabo.
"First thing is, get the title deed in your name," Szabo returned blandly.
"My new name." Dono gave him a short nod, and pushed onward.
The interior of the house was so ill-lit, one couldn't make out the mess, but apparently all had been left exactly as it had been dropped when Count Pierre had last gone down to his District some months ago. The echoing chambers had a derelict, musty odor. They fetched up finally, after laboring up two more gloomy staircases, in the late Count's abandoned bedroom.
"Guess I'll sleep here tonight," said Lord Dono, staring around dubiously. "I want clean sheets on the bed first, though."
"Yes, m'lord," said Szabo.
Byerly cleared a pile of plastic flimsies, dirty clothes, dried fruit rinds, and other detritus from an armchair, and settled himself comfortably, legs crossed. Dono prowled the room, staring rather sadly at his dead brother's few and forlorn personal effects, picking up and putting down a set of hairbrushes -- Pierre had been balding -- dried-up cologne bottles, small coins. "Starting tomorrow, I want this place cleaned up. I'm not waiting for the title deed for that, if I have to live here."
"I know a good commercial service," Ivan couldn't help volunteering. "They clean Vorkosigan House for Miles when the Count and Countess aren't in residence, I know."
"Ah? Good." Lord Dono made a gesture at Szabo. The Armsman nodded, and promptly collected the particulars from Ivan, noting them down on his pocket audiofiler.
"Richars made two attempts to take possession of the old pile while you were gone," Byerly reported. "The first time, your Armsmen stood firm and wouldn't let him in."
"Good men," muttered Szabo.
"Second time, he came round with a squad of municipal guardsmen and an order he'd conned out of Lord Vorbohn. Your officer of the watch called me, and I was able to get a counter-order from the Lord Guardian of the Speaker's Circle with which to conjure them away. It was quite exciting, for a little while. Pushing and shoving in the doorways… no one drew weapons, or was seriously injured, though, more's the pity. We might have been able to sue Richars."
"We've lawsuits enough." Dono sighed, sat on the edge of the bed, and crossed his legs. "But thanks for what you did, By."
By waved this away.
"Below the knees, if you must," said Szabo. "Knees apart is better."
Dono immediately re-arranged his pose, crossing his ankles instead, but noted, "By sits that way."
"By is not a good male model to copy."
By made a moue at Szabo, and flipped one wrist out limply. "Really, Szabo, how can you be so cruel? And after I saved your old homestead, too."
Everyone ignored him. "How about Ivan?" Dono asked Szabo, eyeing Ivan speculatively. Ivan was suddenly unsure of where to put his feet, or his hands.
"Mm, fair. The very best model, if you can remember exactly how he moved, would be Aral Vorkosigan. Now, that was power in motion. His son doesn't do too badly, either, projecting beyond his real space. Young Lord Vorkosigan is just a bit studied, though. Count Vorkosigan just is."
Lord Dono's thick black brows snapped up, and he rose to stalk across the room, flip a desk chair around, and straddle it, arms crossed along its back. He rested his chin on his arms and glowered.
"Huh! I recognize that one," said Szabo. "Not bad, keep working on it. Try to take up more space with your elbows."
Dono grinned, and leaned one hand on his thigh, elbow cocked out. After a moment, he jumped up again, and went to Pierre's closet, flung the doors wide, and began rooting within. A Vorrutyer House uniform tunic sailed out to land on the bed, followed by trousers and a shirt; then one tall boot after another thumped to the bed's end. Dono re-emerged, dusty and bright-eyed. "Pierre wasn't that much taller than me, and I always could wear his shoes, if I had thick socks. Get a seamstress in here tomorrow --"
"Tailor," Szabo corrected.
"Tailor, and we'll see how much of this I can use in a hurry."
"Very good, m'lord."
Dono began unfastening his black tunic.
"I think it's time for me to go now," said Ivan.
"Please sit down, Lord Vorpatril," said Armsman Szabo.
"Yes, come sit by me, Ivan." Byerly patted his upholstered chair arm invitingly.
"Sit down, Ivan," Lord Dono growled. His burning eyes suddenly crinkled, and he murmured, "For old time's sake, if nothing else. You used to run into my bedroom to watch me undress, not out of it. Must I lock the door and make you play hunt the key again?"
Ivan opened his mouth, raised a furious admonishing finger in protest, thought better of it, and sank to a seat on the edge of the bed. You wouldn't dare seemed suddenly a really unwise thing to say to the former Lady Donna Vorrutyer. He crossed his ankles, then hastily uncrossed them again and set his feet apart, then crossed them again, and twined his hands together in vast discomfort. "I don't see what you need me for," he said plaintively.
"So you can witness," said Szabo.
"So you can testify," said Dono. The tunic hit the bed beside Ivan, making him jump, followed by a black T-shirt.
Well, Dono had spoken truly about the Betan surgeon; there weren't any visible scars. His chest sprouted a faint nest of black hairs; his musculature tended to the wiry. The shoulders of the tunic hadn't been padded.
"So you can gossip, of course," said By, lips parted in either some bizarre purient interest, or keen enjoyment of Ivan's embarrassment, or more likely both at once.
"If you think I'm going to say one word about being here tonight to anyone --"
With a smooth motion, Dono kicked his black trousers onto the bed atop the tunic. His briefs followed.
"Well?" Dono stood before Ivan with an utterly cheerful leer on his face. "What do you think? Do they do good work on Beta, or what?"
Ivan glanced sidelong at him, and away. "You look… normal," he admitted reluctantly.
"Well, show me while you're at it," By said.
Dono turned before him.
"Not bad," said By judiciously, "but aren't you a trifle, ah, juvenile?"
Dono sighed. "It was a rush job. Quality, but rush. I went from the hospital straight to the jumpship for home. The organs are going to have to finish growing in situ, the doctors tell me. A few months yet to fully adult morphology. The incisions don't hurt anymore, though."
"Ooh," said By, "puberty. What fun for you."
"On fast-forward, at that. But the Betans have smoothed that out a lot for me. You have to give them credit, they're a people in control of their hormones."
Ivan conceded reluctantly, "My cousin Miles, when he had his heart and lungs and guts replaced, said it took almost a full year for his breathing and energy to be completely back to normal. They had to finish growing back to adult size after they were installed too. I'm sure… it will be all right." He added after a helpless moment, "So does it work?"
"I can piss standing up, yeah." Dono reached over and retrieved his briefs, and slid them back on. "As for the other, well, real soon now, I understand. I can hardly wait for my first wet-dream."
"But will any woman want to… it's not like you're going to be keeping it a secret, who and what you were before… how will you, um… That's one place Armsman Pygmalion over there," Ivan waved at Szabo, "won't be able to coach you."
Szabo smiled faintly, the most expression Ivan had seen on his face tonight.
"Ivan, Ivan, Ivan." Dono shook his head, and scooped up the House uniform trousers. "I taught you how, didn't I? Of all the problems I expect to have… puzzling how to lose my male virginity isn't one of them. Really."
"It… doesn't seem fair," said Ivan in a smaller voice. "I mean, we had to figure all this stuff out when we were thirteen."
"As opposed to, say, twelve?" Dono inquired tightly.
Dono buckled the trousers -- they were not too snug across the hips after all -- hitched into the tunic, and frowned at his reflection in the mirror. He bunched handfuls of extra fabric at the sides. "Yeah, that'll do. The tailor should have it ready by tomorrow night. I want to wear this when I go present my evidence of impediment at Vorhartung Castle."
The blue-and-gray Vorrutyer House uniform was going to look exceptionally good on Lord Dono, Ivan had to concede. Maybe that would be a good day to call in his Vor rights and get a ticket, and take a discreet back seat in the visitor's gallery at the Council of Counts. Just to see what happened, to use one of Gregor's favorite phrases.
"Does Gregor know about this?" Ivan asked suddenly. "Did you tell him your plan, before you left for Beta?"
"No, of course not," said Dono. He sat on the bed's edge, and began pulling on the boots.
Ivan could feel his teeth clench. "Are you out of your minds?"
"As somebody or another is fond of quoting -- I think it was your cousin Miles -- it is always easier to get forgiveness than permission." Dono rose, and went to the mirror to check the effect of the boots.
Ivan clutched his hair. "All right. You two -- you three -- dragged me up here because you claimed you wanted my help. I'm going to hand you a hint. Free." He took a deep breath. "You can blindside me, and laugh your heads off if you want to. It won't be the first time I've been the butt. You can blindside Richars with my good will. You can blindside the whole Council of Counts. Blindside my cousin Miles -- please. I want to watch. But do not, if you value your chances, if you mean this to be anything other than a big, short joke, do not blindside Gregor."
Byerly grimaced uncertainly; Dono, turning before the mirror, shot Ivan a penetrating look. "Go to him, you mean?"
"Yes. I can't make you," Ivan went on sternly, "but if you don't, I categorically refuse to have anything more to do with you."
"Gregor can kill it all with a word," said Dono warily. "Before it even launches."
"He can," said Ivan, "but he won't, without strong motivation. Don't give him that motivation. Gregor does not like political surprises."
"I thought Gregor was fairly easy-going," said By, "for an emperor."
"No," said Ivan firmly. "He is not. He is merely rather quiet. It's not the same thing at all. You don't want to see what he's like pissed."
"What does he look like, pissed?" asked By curiously.
"Identical to what he looks like the rest of the time. That's the scary part."
Dono held up a hand, as By opened his mouth again. "By, aside from the chance to amuse yourself, you pulled Ivan in on this tonight because of his connections, or so you claimed. In my experience, it's a bad idea to ignore your expert consultants."
By shrugged. "It's not like we're paying him anything."
"I am calling in some old favors. This costs me. And it's not from a fund I can replace." Dono's glance swept to Ivan. "So what exactly do you suggest we do?"
"Ask Gregor for a brief interview. Before you talk to or see anyone else at all, even over the comconsole. Chin up, look him in the eye --" an ungodly thought occurred to Ivan then. "Wait, you didn't ever sleep with him, did you?"
Dono's lips, and mustache, twitched up with amusement. "No, unfortunately. A missed opportunity I now regret deeply, I assure you."
"Ah." Ivan breathed relief. "All right. Then just tell him what you plan to do. Claim your rights. He'll either decide to let you run, or he'll impound you. If he cuts you off, well, the worst will be over, and quickly. If he decides to let you run… you'll have a silent backer even Richars at his most vicious can't top."
Dono leaned against Pierre's bureau, and drummed his fingers in the dust atop it. The orchids now lay there in a forlorn heap. Wilted, like Ivan's dreams. Dono's lips pursed. "Can you get us in?" he asked at last.
"I, uh… I, uh…"
His gaze became more urgent, piercing. "Tomorrow?"
"Not morning," By protested faintly.
"Early," insisted Dono.
"I'll… seewhatIcando," Ivan managed at last.
Dono's face lit. "Thank you!"
The extraction of this reluctant promise had one beneficial side-effect; the Vorrutyers proved willing to let their captive audience go, the better for Ivan to hurry home and call Emperor Gregor. Lord Dono insisted on detailing his car and a driver to take Ivan the short distance to his apartment, thwarting Ivan's faint hope of being mugged and murdered in a Vorbarr Sultana alleyway on the way home and thus avoiding the consequences of this evening's revelations.
Blessedly alone in the back of the groundcar, Ivan entertained a brief prayer that Gregor's schedule would be too packed to admit the proposed interview. But it was more likely he'd be so shocked at Ivan breaking his rule of a low profile, he'd make room at once. In Ivan's experience, the only thing more dangerous to such innocent bystanders as himself than arousing Gregor's wrath, was arousing his curiosity.
Once back safely in his little apartment, Ivan locked the door against all Vorrutyers past and present. He'd beguiled his time yesterday imagining entertaining the voluptuous Lady Donna here… what a waste. Not that Lord Dono didn't make a passable man, but Barrayar didn't need more men. Though Ivan supposed they might reverse Donna's ploy, and send the excess male population to Beta Colony to be altered into the more pleasing form… he shuddered at the vision.
With a reluctant sigh, he dug out the security card he'd managed to avoid using for the past several years, and ran it through his comconsole's read-slot.
Gregor's gatekeeper, a man in bland civilian dress who did not identify himself -- if you had this access, you were supposed to know -- answered at once. "Yes? Ah. Ivan."
"I would like to speak to Gregor, please."
"Excuse me, Lord Vorpatril, but did you mean to use this channel?"
The gatekeeper's brows rose in surprise, but his hand moved to one side, and his image blinked out. The comconsole chimed. Several times.
Gregor's image came up at last. He was still dressed for the day, relieving Ivan's alarmed visions of dragging him out of bed or the shower. The background showed one of the Imperial Residence's cozier sitting-rooms. Ivan could just make out a fuzzy view of Dr. Toscane, in the background. She seemed to be adjusting her blouse. Ulp. Keep it brief. Gregor clearly has better things to do tonight.
I wish I did.
Gregor's blank expression changed to one of annoyance as he recognized Ivan. "Oh. It's you." The irritated look faded slightly. "You never call me on this channel, Ivan. Thought it had to be Miles. What's up?"
Ivan took a deep breath. "I just came from meeting… Donna Vorrutyer at the shuttleport. Back from Beta. You two need to see each other."
Gregor's brows rose. "Why?"
"I'm sure she'd much rather explain it all herself. I have nothing to do with this."
"You do now. Lady Donna's calling in old favors, is she?" Gregor frowned, and added a bit dangerously, "I am not a coin to be bartered in your love affairs, Ivan."
"No, Sire," Ivan agreed fervently. "But you want to see her. Really and truly. As soon as possible. Sooner. Tomorrow. Morning. Early."
Gregor cocked his head. Curiously. "Just how important is this?"
"That's entirely for you to judge. Sire."
"If you want nothing to do with it…" Gregor trailed off, and stared unnervingly at Ivan. His hand at last tapped on his comconsole control, and he glanced aside at some display Ivan could not see. "I could move… hm. How about eleven sharp, in my office."
"Thank you, Sire." You won't regret this seemed a much too optimistic statement to add. In fact, adding anything at all had all the appeal of stepping over a cliff without a grav-suit. Ivan smiled instead, and ducked his head in a little half-bow.
Gregor's frown grew more thoughtful still, but after a moment of further contemplation, he returned Ivan's nod, and cut the com.