Chapter 1 2 3 4 5

Baen Home Page Komarr

Copyright 1998-1999
ISBN: 0671-87877-8 ORDER
Publication Date: 6/98  HardCover
ISBN: 0-671-57808-1 ORDER
Publication Date: 4/99 Paperback

by Lois McMaster Bujold

0671-87877-8.jpg (19080 bytes)CHAPTER ONE

The last gleaming sliver of Komarr's true-sun melted out of sight beyond the low hills on the western horizon. Lagging behind it in the vault of the heavens, the reflected fire of the solar mirror sprang out in brilliant contrast to the darkening, purple-tinged blue. When Ekaterin had first viewed the hexagonal soletta-array from downside on Komarr's surface, she'd immediately imagined it as a grand Winterfair ornament, hung in the sky like a snowflake made of stars, benign and consoling. She leaned now on her balcony overlooking Serifosa Dome's central city park, and gravely studied the lopsided spray of light through the glassy arc overhead. It sparkled deceptively in contrast to the too-dark sky. Three of the six disks of the star-flake shone not at all, and the central seventh was occluded and dull.

Ancient Earthmen, she had read, had taken alterations in the clockwork procession of their heavens-comets, novae, shooting stars-for disturbing omens, premonitions of disasters natural or political; the very word, disaster, embedded the astrological source of the concept. The collision two weeks ago of an out-of-control inner-system ore freighter with the insolation mirror that supplemented Komarr's solar energy was surely most literally a disaster, instantly so for the half-dozen Komarran members of the soletta's station-keeping crew who had been killed. But it seemed to be playing out in slow motion thereafter; it had so far barely affected the sealed arcologies that housed the planet's population. Below her, in the park, a crew of workers was arranging supplemental lighting on high girders. Similar stopgap measures in the city's food-producing greenhouses must be nearly complete, to spare them and this equipment to such an ornamental task. No, she reminded herself; no vegetation in the dome was merely ornamental. Each added its bit to the biological reservoir that ultimately supported life here. The gardens in the domes would live, cared for by their human symbiotes.

Outside the arcologies, in the fragile plantations that labored to bio-transform a world, it was another question altogether. She knew the math, discussed nightly at her dinner table for two weeks, of the percentage loss of insolation at the equator. Days gone winter-cloudy-except that they were planetwide, and going on and on, until when? When would repairs be complete? When would they start, for that matter? As sabotage, if it had been sabotage, the destruction was inexplicable; as half-sabotage, doubly inexplicable. Will they try again? If it was a they at all, ghastly malice and not mere ghastly accident.

She sighed, and turned away from the view, and switched on the spotlights she'd put up to supplement her own tiny balcony garden. Some of the Barrayaran plants she'd started were particularly touchy about their illumination. She checked the light with a meter, and shifted two boxes of deerslayer vine closer to the source, and set the timers. She moved about, checking soil temperature and moisture with sensitive and practiced fingers, watering sparingly where needed. Briefly, she considered moving her old bonsai'd skellytum indoors, to provide it with more controlled conditions, but it was all indoors here on Komarr, really. She hadn't felt wind in her hair for nearly a year. She felt an odd twinge of identification with the transplanted ecology outside, slowly starving for light and heat, suffocating in a toxic atmosphere . . . Stupid. Stop it. We're lucky to be here.

"Ekaterin!" Her husband's inquiring bellow echoed, muffled, inside the residence tower.

She poked her head through the door to the kitchen. "I'm on the balcony."

"Well, come down here!"

She set her gardening tools in the box seat, closed the lid, sealed the transparent doors behind her, and hurried across the room into the hall and down the circular staircase. Tien was standing impatiently beside the double doors from their apartment to the building's corridor, a comm link in his hand.

"Your uncle just called. He's landed at the shuttleport. I'll get him."

"I'll get Nikolai, and go with you."

"Don't bother, I'm just going to meet him at the West Station locks. He said to tell you, he's bringing a guest. Another Auditor, some sort of assistant to him, it sounded like. But he said not to worry, they'll both take pot luck. He seemed to imagine we'd feed them in the kitchen or something. Eh! Two Imperial Auditors. Why ever did you have to invite him, anyway?"

She stared at him in dismay. "How can my Uncle Vorthys come to Komarr and not see us? Besides, you can't say your department isn't affected by what he's investigating. Naturally he wants to see it. I thought you liked him."

He slapped his hand arhythmically on his thigh. "Back when he was just the old weird Professor, sure. Eccentric Uncle Vorthys, the Vor tech. This Imperial appointment of his took the whole family by surprise. I can't imagine what favors he called in to get it."

Is that your only idea of how men advance? But she did not speak the weary thought aloud. "Of all political appointments, surely Imperial Auditor is the least likely to be gained that way," she murmured.

"Nave Kat." He smiled shortly, and hugged her around the shoulders. "No one gets something for nothing in Vorbarr Sultana. Except, perhaps, your uncle's assistant, whom I gather is closely related to the Vorkosigan. He apparently got his appointment for breathing. Incredibly young for the job, if he's the one I heard about who was sworn in at Winterfair. A lightweight, I presume, although all your Uncle Vorthys said was that he was sensitive about his height and not to mention it. At least some part of this mess promises to be a show."

He tucked his comm link away in his tunic pocket. His hand was shaking slightly. Ekaterin grasped his wrist and turned it over. The tremula increased. She raised her eyes, dark with worry, in silent question to his.

"No, dammit!" He jerked his arm away. "It's not starting. I'm just a little tense. And tired. And hungry, so see if you can't pull together a decent meal by the time we're back. Your uncle may have prole tastes, but I can't imagine they're shared by a Vorbarr Sultana lordling." He thrust his hands into his trouser pockets and looked away from her unhappy frown.

"You're older now than your brother was then."

"Variable onset, remember? We'll go soon. I promise."

"Tien . . . I wish you'd give up this galactic treatment plan. They have medical facilities here on Komarr that are almost as good as, as Beta Colony or anywhere. I thought, when you won this post here, that you would. Forget the secrecy, just go openly for help. Or go discreetly, if you insist. But don't wait any longer!"

"They're not discreet enough. My career is finally on course, finally paying off. I have no desire to be publicly branded a mutant now."

If I don't care, what does it matter what anyone else thinks? She hesitated. "Is that why you don't want to see Uncle Vorthys? Tien, he's the least likely of my relatives-or yours, for that matter-to care if your disease is genetic or not. He will care about you, and about Nikolai."

"I have it under control," he insisted. "Don't you dare betray me to your uncle, this close to the real payoff. I have it under control. You'll see."

"Just don't . . . take your brother's way out. Promise me!" The lightflyer accident that hadn't been quite an accident: that had ushered in these years of chronic, subclinical nightmare waiting and watching. . . .

"I have no intention of doing anything like that. It's all planned. I'll finish out this year's appointment, then we'll take a long overdue galactic vacation, you and me and Nikolai. And it will all be fixed, and no one will ever know. If you don't lose your head and panic at the last minute!" He grasped her hand, and grimaced an unfelt smile, and strode out the doors.

Wait and I'll fix it. Trust me. That's what you said the last time. And the time before that, and the time before that. . . . Who is betrayed? Tien, you're running out of time, can't you see it?

She turned for her kitchen, mentally revising her planned family dinner to include a Vor lord from the Imperial capital. White wine? Her limited experience of the breed suggested that if you could get them sufficiently sloshed, it wouldn't matter what you fed them. She put another of her precious imported-from-home bottles in to chill. No . . . make that two more bottles.

She added another place to the table on the balcony off the kitchen that they routinely used for a dining room, sorry now she'd not engaged a servitor for the evening. But human servants on Komarr were so expensive. And she'd wanted this bubble of domestic privacy with Uncle Vorthys. Even the staid official newsvid reps were badgering everyone involved in the investigation; the arrival of not one but two Imperial Auditors on-site in Komarr orbit had not calmed the fever of speculation, but only redirected it. When she'd first spoken with him shortly after his arrival on-site, on a distance-delayed channel that defeated any attempt at long conversation, normally-patient Uncle Vorthys's description of the public briefings into which he'd been roped had been notably irritated. He'd hinted he would be glad to escape them. Since his years of teaching must have inured him to stupid questions, Ekaterin wondered if the true source of his irritation was that he couldn't answer them.

But mostly, she had to admit, she just wanted to recapture the flavor of a happier past, greedily for herself. She'd lived with Aunt and Uncle Vorthys for two years after her mother had died, attending the Imperial University under their casual supervision. Life with the Professor and the Professora had somehow been less constrained, and constraining, than in her father's conservative Vor household in the South Continent frontier town of her birth; perhaps because they'd treated her as the adult she aspired to be, rather than the child she had been. She'd felt, a bit guiltily, closer to them than to her real parent. For a while, any future had seemed possible.

Then she'd chosen Etienne Vorsoisson, or he had chosen her . . . You were pleased enough at the time. She'd said Yes to the marriage arrangements her father's Baba had offered, with all good will. You didn't know. Tien didn't know. Vorzohn's Dystrophy. Nobody's fault.

Nine-year-old Nikolai bounded into the kitchen. "I'm hungry, Mama. Can I have a piece of that cake?"

She intercepted fast-moving fingers attempting to sample frosting. "You can have a glass of fruit juice."

"Aw . . ." But he accepted the proffered substitute, cannily offered in one of the good wineglasses lined up waiting. He gulped it down, bobbing about as he drank. Excited, or was he picking up parental nerves? Stop projecting, she told herself. The boy had spent the last two hours in his room, tinkering intently with his models; he was due to shake out the knots.

"Do you remember Uncle Vorthys?" she asked him. "It's been three years since we visited him."

"Sure." He finished swallowing his snack. "He took me to his laboratory. I thought it would be beakers and bubbly things, but it was all big machines and concrete. Smelled funny, kind of dusty and sharp."

"From the welders and the ozone, that's right," she said, impressed with his recall. She rescued the glass. "Hold out your hand. I want to see how much you have left to grow. Puppies with big paws are supposed to grow up to be big dogs, you know." He held up his hand to hers, and they met, palm to palm. His fingers were within two centimeters of being as long as her own. "Oh, my."

He flashed her a self-conscious, satisfied grin, and stared briefly down at his feet, wriggling them in speculation. His right big toe poked through a new hole in his new sock.

His child-light hair was darkening; it might yet become as brown as hers. He was chest-high to her, though she could have sworn he had been only hip-high about fifteen minutes ago. His eyes were brown like his Da's. His grubby hand-where did he find so much dirt in this dome?-was as steady as his eyes were clear and guileless. No tremula.

The early symptoms of Vorzohn's Dystrophy were deceptive, mimicking half a dozen other diseases, and could strike any time from puberty to middle age. But not today, not Nikolai.

Not yet.

Sounds from the apartment's entryway, and low-pitched masculine voices, drew them out of her kitchen. Nikolai shot ahead of her. When she arrived behind him, he was already being half picked up by the stout, white-haired man who seemed to fill the space. "Oof!" He stopped short of swinging Nikolai around. "You've grown, Nikki!"

Uncle Vorthys hadn't changed, despite his awe-inspiring new title: same grand nose and big ears, same rumpled, oversized tunic and trousers that always looked slept-in, same deep laugh. He deposited his great-nephew on the flagstones, spared a hug for his niece, which was firmly returned, and bent and felt in his valise. "Something here for you, Nikki, I do believe . . ." Nikolai bounced around him; Ekaterin retreated temporarily to wait her turn.

Tien was shouldering through the door with baggage. Only then did she notice the man standing apart, smiling distantly, watching this homey scene.

She swallowed startlement. He was barely taller than nine-year-old Nikolai, but unmistakably not a child. He had a large head set on a short neck, and a faintly hunched stance; the rest of him looked lean but solid. He wore tunic and trousers in a subtle gray, the tunic open on a fine white shirt, and polished half-boots. His clothing was entirely without the pseudo-military ornamentation usually affected by the high Vor, but the perfection of the fit-it had to be hand-tailored, to fit that odd body-hinted a price Ekaterin didn't dare to estimate.

She was uncertain of his age; not much older than herself, perhaps? There was no gray in the dark hair, but laugh-lines around his eyes, and pain-lines around his mouth, scored his winter-pale skin. He moved stiffly, setting down his valise, wheeling to watch Nikolai monopolize his great-uncle, but did not otherwise appear very crippled. He was not a figure who blended in, but his air was notably unobtrusive. Socially uncomfortable? Ekaterin was recalled abruptly to her duties as a daughter of the Vor.

She advanced to him. "Welcome to my household . . ." ack, Tien hadn't mentioned his name " . . . my Lord Auditor."

He held out his hand and captured hers in a perfectly ordinary, businesslike grasp. "Miles Vorkosigan." His hand was dry and warm, smaller than her own, but bluntly masculine; clean nails. "And you, Madame?"

"Oh! Ekaterin Vorsoisson."

He released her hand without kissing it, to her relief. She stared briefly at the top of his head, level with her collarbone, realized he would be speaking to her cleavage, and stepped back a little. He looked up at her, still smiling slightly.

Nikolai was already dragging Uncle Vorthys's larger bag toward the guest room, proudly showing off his strength. Tien properly followed his senior guest. Ekaterin made a rapid recalculation. She couldn't possibly put this Vorkosigan fellow up in Nikolai's room; the child's bed would be such an embarrassingly good fit. Invite an Imperial Auditor to sleep on her living room couch? Hardly. She gestured him to follow her down the opposite hallway, into her planting-room-cum-office. One whole side was given over to a workbench and shelving, crammed with supplies; cascading lighting arrays climbing the corners nourished tender new plantings, in a riotous variety of Earth greens and Barrayaran red-browns. A large open area on the floor fronted a fine wide window.

"We haven't much space," she apologized. "I'm afraid even Barrayaran administrators here must accept what's assigned to them. I'll order in a grav-bed for you, I'm sure they'll have it delivered before dinner's over. But at least the room's private. My uncle snores so magnificently. . . . The bath's just down the hall to the right."

"It's fine," he assured her. He stepped to the window and stared out over the domed park. The lights in the encircling buildings gleaming warmly in the luminous twilight of the half-eclipsed mirror.

"I know it's not what you're used to."

One corner of his mouth twitched up. "I once slept for six weeks on bare dirt. With ten thousand extremely grubby Marilacans, many of whom snored. I assure you, it's just fine."

She smiled in return, not at all certain what to make of this joke, if it was a joke. She left him to arrange his things as he saw fit, and scurried to call the rental company and finish setting up dinner.

They all rendezvoused, despite her best intentions for a more formal service, in her kitchen, where the little Auditor foiled her expectations again by only allowing her to pour him half a glass of wine. "I started today with seven hours in a pressure suit. I'd be asleep with my face in my plate before dessert." His gray eyes glinted.

She herded them all out to the table on the balcony and presented the mildly spicy stew based on vat-protein that she'd correctly guessed her uncle would like. By the time she handed round the bread and wine, she'd at last caught up enough to finally have a word with her uncle herself.

"What's happening now with your investigation? How long can you stay?"

"Not much more than what you've heard on the news, I'm afraid," he replied. "We can only take this downside break while the probable-cause crews finish collecting the pieces. We're still missing some fairly important ones. The freighter's tow was fully loaded, and had a tremendous mass. When the engines blew, bits of all sizes vectored off in every possible direction and speed. We desperately want any parts of its control systems we can find. They should have most of it retrieved in three more days, if we're lucky."

"So was it deliberate sabotage?" Tien asked.

Uncle Vorthys shrugged. "With the pilot dead, it's going to be very hard to prove. It might have been a suicide mission. The crews have found no sign yet of military or chemical explosives."

"Explosives would have been redundant," murmured Vorkosigan.

"The spinning freighter hit the mirror array at the worst possible angle, edge-on," Uncle Vorthys continued. "Half the damage was done by parts of the mirror itself. With that much momentum imparted to it by the assorted collisions, it just ripped itself apart."

"If all that result was planned, it had to have been a truly amazing calculation," Vorkosigan said dryly. "It's the one thing which inclines me to the belief it might have been a true accident."

Ekaterin watched her husband, watching the little Auditor covertly, and read the silent disturbed judgment, Mutant! in his eyes. What was Tien going to make of the man, who openly bore, without apparent apology or even self-consciousness, such stigmata of abnormality?

Tien turned to Vorkosigan, his gaze curious. "I can see why Emperor Gregor dispatched the Professor, the Empire's foremost authority on failure analysis and all that. What's, um, your part in this, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan?"

Vorkosigan's smile twisted. "I have some experience with space installations." He leaned back, and jerked up his chin, and smoothed the odd flash of irony from his face. "In fact, as far as the probable-cause investigation goes, I'm merely along for the ride. This is the first really interesting problem to come along since I took oath as an Auditor three months ago. I wanted to watch how it was done. With his Komarran marriage coming up, Gregor is vitally interested in any possible political repercussions from this accident. Now would be a very awkward time for a serious downturn in Barrayar-Komarr relations. But whether accident or sabotage, the damage to the mirror impinges quite directly on the Terraforming Project. I understand your Serifosa Sector is fairly representative?"

"Indeed. I'll take you both on a tour tomorrow," Tien promised. "I'm having a full technical report prepared for you by my Komarran assistants, with all the numbers. But the most important number is still pure speculation. How fast is the mirror going to be repaired?"

Vorkosigan grimaced and held out a small hand, palm-up. "How fast depends in part on how much money the Imperium is willing to spend. And that's where things become very political indeed. With parts of Barrayar itself still undergoing active terraforming, and with the planet of Sergyar drawing off immigrants from both the worlds damned near as fast as they can board ship, some members of the government are wondering openly why we are spending so much Imperial treasure dinking with such a marginal world as Komarr."

Ekaterin could not tell from his measured tone whether he agreed with those members or not. Startled, she said, "The terraforming of Komarr was going on for three centuries before we conquered it. We can hardly stop now."

"So are we throwing good money after bad?" Vorkosigan shrugged, declining to answer his own question. "There's a second layer of thinking, a purely military one. Restricting the population to the domes makes Komarr more militarily vulnerable. Why give the citizenry of a conquered world extra territory in which to fall back and regroup? This line of thought makes the interesting assumption that three hundred or so years from now, when the terraforming is at last complete, the populations of Komarr and Barrayar will still not have assimilated each other. If they did, then they would be our domes, and we certainly wouldn't want them to be vulnerable, eh?"

He paused for a bite of bread and stew, washed down by wine, then went on, "Since assimilation is Gregor's avowed policy, and he's putting his Imperial person where his policy is . . . the question of motivation for sabotage becomes, er, complex. Could the saboteurs have been isolationist Barrayarans? Komarran extremists? Either, hoping to publicly throw the blame on the other? How emotionally attached is the average Komarran-in-the-dome to a goal whom none now living will ever survive to see realized, or would they rather save the money today? Sabotage versus accident makes no engineering difference, but does make a profound political one." He and Uncle Vorthys exchanged a wry look.

"So I watch, and listen, and wait," Vorkosigan concluded. He turned to Tien. "And how do you like Komarr, Administrator Vorsoisson?"

Tien grinned, and shrugged. "It's all right except for the Komarrans. I've found them a damned touchy bunch."

Vorkosigan's brows twitched up. "Have they no sense of humor?"

Ekaterin glanced up warily, wincing at that dry edge in his drawling voice, but apparently it slipped past Tien, who only snorted. "They're divided about equally between the greedy and the surly. Cheating Barrayarans is considered a patriotic duty."

Vorkosigan raised his empty wineglass to Ekaterin. "And you, Madame Vorsoisson?"

She refilled it to the top before he could stop her, cautious of her reply. If her uncle was the technical expert in this Auditorial duo, did that leave Vorkosigan as the . . . political one? Who was really the senior member of the team? Had Tien caught any of the subtle flashing implications in the little lord's speech? "It hasn't been easy to make Komarran friends. Nikolai goes to a Barrayaran school. And I have no work as such."

"A Vor lady hardly needs to work." Tien smiled.

"Nor a Vor lord," added Vorkosigan, almost under his breath, "yet here we are . . ."

"That depends on your ability to choose the right parents," said Tien, a touch sourly. He glanced across at Vorkosigan. "Relieve my curiosity. Are you related to the former Lord Regent?"

"My father," Vorkosigan replied, with quelling brevity. He did not smile.

"Then you are the Lord Vorkosigan, the Count's heir."

"That follows, yes."

Vorkosigan was getting unnervingly dry, now. Ekaterin blurted, "Your upbringing must have been terribly difficult."

"He managed," Vorkosigan murmured.

"I meant for you!"

"Ah." His brief smile returned, and flicked out again.

The conversation was going dreadfully awry, Ekaterin could feel it; she hardly dared open her mouth on an attempt to redirect it. Tien stepped in, or stepped in it: "Was your father the great Admiral reconciled that you couldn't have a military career?"

"My grandfather the great General was more set on it."

"I was a ten-years man myself, the usual. In Administration, very dull. Trust me, you didn't miss much." Tien waved a kindly, dismissive hand. "But not every Vor has to be a soldier these days, eh, Professor Vorthys? You're living proof."

"I believe Captain Vorkosigan served, um, thirteen years, was it, Miles? In Imperial Security. Galactic operations. Did you find it dull?"

Vorkosigan's smile upon the Professor grew genuine, for an instant of time. "Not nearly dull enough." He jerked up his chin, evidently a habitual nervous tic. For the first time Ekaterin noticed the fine white scars on either side of his short neck.

Ekaterin fled to the kitchen, to serve the dessert and give the blighted conversation time to recover. When she came out again, things had eased, or at least, Nikolai had stopped being so supernaturally good, i.e., quiet, and had struck up a negotiation with his great-uncle for after-dinner attention in the form of a round of his current favorite game. This carried them through till the rental company arrived at the front door with the grav-bed, and the great engineer went off with the whole male mob to oversee its installation. Ekaterin turned gratefully to the soothing routine of cleaning up.

Tien returned to report success and the Vor lord suitably settled.

"Tien, were you watching that fellow closely?" asked Ekaterin. "A mutie, a mutie Vor, yet he carried on as if nothing were the least out of the ordinary. If he can . . ." she trailed off hopefully, leaving the surely you can for Tien to conclude.

Tien frowned. "Don't start that again. It's obvious he doesn't think the rules apply to him. He's Aral Vorkosigan's son, for God's sake. Practically the Emperor's foster brother. No wonder he got this cushy Imperial appointment."

"I don't think so, Tien. Were you listening to him at all?" All those undercurrents . . . "I think . . . I think he's the Emperor's hatchet man, sent to judge the whole Terraforming Project. Powerful . . . maybe dangerous."

Tien shook his head. "His father was powerful and dangerous. He's just privileged. Damned high Vor twit. Don't worry about him. Your uncle will take him away soon enough."

"I'm not worried about him."

Tien's face darkened. "I'm getting so tired of this! You argue with everything I say, you practically insult my intelligence in front of your so-noble relative-"

"I didn't!" Did I? She began a confused mental review of her evening's remarks. What in the world had she said, to set him on edge like this-

"Just because you're the great Auditor's niece doesn't make you anybody, girl! This is disloyalty, that's what it is."

"No-no, I'm sorry-"

But he was already stalking out. There would be a cold silence between them tonight. She almost ran after him, to beg his forgiveness. He was under a lot of pressure at work, it was very ill-timed of her to push for a resolution to his medical dilemma now. . . . But she was abruptly too weary to try anymore. She finished putting away the last of the food, and took the leftover half bottle of wine and a glass out onto the balcony. She turned off the cheery colored plant lights and just sat in the dim reflected illumination from the sealed Komarran city. The crippled star-flake of the insolation mirror had almost reached the western horizon, following the true-sun into night as the planet turned.

A white shape moved silently in the kitchen, briefly startling her. But it was only the mutie lord, who had shed his elegant gray tunic and, apparently, his boots. He stuck his head through the unsealed doors. "Hello?"

"Hello, Lord Vorkosigan. I'm just out here watching the mirror set. Would you, um, care for some more wine . . . ? Here, I'll get you a glass-"

"No, don't get up, Madame Vorsoisson. I'll fetch it." His pale smile winked out of the shadows at her. A few muted clinks came from within, then he trod silently onto the balcony. She poured, good hostess, generously into the glass he set beside her own, then he took it up again and went to the railing to study what could be seen of the sky past the girders of the dome.

"It's the best aspect of this location," she said. "This bit of western view." The mirror-array was magnified by the atmosphere close to the horizon, but its normal evening color-effects in the wispy clouds were dimmed by its damage. "Mirror-set's usually much prettier than this." She sipped her wine, cool and sweet on her tongue, and felt herself finally starting to become a little furry in the brain. Furry was good. Soothing.

"I can see that it must be," he agreed, still staring out. He drank deeply. Had he switched, then, from resisting sleep through alcohol to pursuing it?

"This horizon is so crowded and cluttered, compared to home. I'm afraid I find these sealed arcologies a touch claustrophobic."

"And where is home, for you?" He turned to watch her.

"South Continent. Vandeville."

"So you grew up around terraforming."

"The Komarrans would say, that wasn't terraforming, that was just soil conditioning." He chuckled along with her, at her deadpan rendition of Komarran techno-snobbery. She continued, "They're right, of course. It wasn't as though we had to start by spending half a millennium altering an entire planet's atmosphere. The only thing that made it hard for us, back in the Time of Isolation, was trying to do it with practically no technology. Still . . . I loved the open spaces at home. I miss that wide sky, horizon to horizon."

"That's true in any city, domed or not. So you're a country girl?"

"In part. Though I liked Vorbarr Sultana when I was at university. It had other kinds of horizons."

"Did you study botany? I noticed the library rack on the wall of your plant room. Impressive."

"No. It's just a hobby."

"Oh? I could have mistaken it for a passion. Or a profession."

"No. I didn't know what I wanted, then."

"Do you know now?"

She laughed a little, uneasily. When she didn't answer, he merely smiled, and strolled along the balcony examining her plantings. He stopped before the skellytum, squatting in its pot like some bright red alien Buddha, tendrils raised in a pose of placid supplication. "I have to ask," he said plaintively, "what is this thing?"

"It's a bonsai'd skellytum."

"Really! That's a-I didn't know you could do that to a skellytum. They're usually five meters tall. And a really ugly brown."

"I had a great aunt, on my father's side, who loved gardening. I used to help her when I was a girl. She was very much a crusty old frontier woman, very Vor-she'd come to the South Continent right after the Cetagandan War. Survived a succession of husbands, survived . . . well, everything. I inherited the skellytum from her. It's the only plant I brought to Komarr from Barrayar. It's over seventy years old."

"Good God."

"It's the complete tree, fully functional."

"And-ha!-short."

She was afraid for a moment that she'd inadvertently offended him, but apparently not. He finished his inspection, and returned to the railing, and his wine. He stared out again at the western horizon, and the sinking mirror, his brows lowering.

He had a presence which, by ignoring his elusive physical peculiarities himself, defied the observer to dare comment. But the little lord had had all his life to adjust to his condition. Not like the hideous surprise Tien had found among his late brother's papers, and subsequently confirmed for himself and Nikolai through carefully secret testing. You can get tested anonymously, she had argued. But I can't get treated anonymously, he had countered.

Since coming to Komarr, she'd been so close to defying custom, law, and her lord-and-husband's orders, and unilaterally taking his son and heir for treatment. Would the Komarran doctors know a Vor mother was not her son's legal guardian? Maybe she could pretend the genetic defect had come from her, not from Tien? But the geneticists, if they were any good, would surely figure out the truth.

After a while, she said elliptically, "A Vor man's first loyalty is supposed to be to his Emperor, but a Vor woman's first loyalty is supposed to be to her husband."

"Historically and legally, that's so." His voice was amused, or bemused, as he turned again to watch her. "This was not always to her disadvantage. When he was executed for treason, she was presumed to be only following orders, and got off. Actually, I wonder if the underlying practical reason was that an underpopulated world just couldn't spare her labor."

"Haven't you ever found that oddly asymmetrical?"

"But simpler for her. Most women usually only had one husband at a time, but the Vor were all too frequently presented with a choice of emperors, and where was your loyalty then? Bad guesses could be lethal. Though when my grandfather General Piotr-and his army-abandoned Mad Emperor Yuri for Emperor Ezar, it was lethal for Yuri. Good for Barrayar, though."

She sipped again. From where she sat, he was silhouetted against the darkening dome, shadowed, enigmatic. "Indeed. Is your passion politics, then?"

"God, no! I don't think so."

"History?"

"Only in passing." He hesitated. "It used to be the military."

"Used to be?"

"Used to be," he repeated firmly.

"And now?"

It was his turn to not answer. He stared down at his glass, tilting it to make the last of the wine swirl about. He finally said, "In Barrayaran political theory, it all connects. The ordinary subjects are loyal to their Counts, the Counts are loyal to the Emperor, and the Emperor, presumably, is loyal to the whole Imperium, the body of the Empire in the form of all its, er, bodies. Here I find it grows a trifle abstract for my taste; how can he be answerable to all, yet not answerable to each? And so we arrive back at square one." He drained his glass. "How do we be true to one another?"

I don't know anymore. . . .

Silence fell, as they both watched the last glint of mirror slip behind the hills. A pale glow in the sky still haloed its passing for a minute or two longer.

"Well. I'm afraid I'm getting rather drunk." He did not seem that drunk to her, but he rolled his glass between his hands and pushed off from the balcony rail against which he'd been leaning. "Goodnight, Madame Vorsoisson."

"Goodnight, Lord Vorkosigan. Sleep well."

He carried his glass in with him and vanished into the darkened apartment.


Copyright 1998-1999 by Lois McMaster Bujold
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