Back | Next


The old man was out of bed, shaved and crisply dressed for the day. He sat up in a chair, gazing pensively out the window overlooking his back garden. He glanced up with a frown at the interrupter of his meditations, saw that it was Miles, and smiled broadly.

"Ah, come, boy . . ." He gestured at the chair Miles guessed Elena had recently vacated. The old man's smile became tinged with puzzlement. "By God, have I lost a day somewhere? I thought this was the day you were out on that one-hundred-kilometer trot up and down Mt. Sencele."

"No, sir, you haven't lost a day." Miles eased into the chair. Bothari set another before him and pointed at his feet. Miles started to lift them, but the effort was sabotaged by a particularly savage twinge of pain. "Yeah, put 'em up, Sergeant," Miles acquiesced wearily. Bothari helped him place the offending feet at the medically correct angle and withdrew, strategically, Miles thought, to stand at attention by the door. The old Count watched this pantomime, understanding dawning painfully in his face.

"What have you done, boy?" he sighed.

Let's make it quick and painless, like a beheading . . . "Jumped off a wall in the obstacle course yesterday and broke both my legs. Washed myself out of the physical tests completely. The others—well, they don't matter now."

"So you came home."

"So I came home."

"Ah." The old man drummed his long gnarled fingers once on the arm of the chair. "Ah." He shifted uncomfortably in his seat and thinned his lips, staring out the window, not looking at Miles. His fingers drummed again. "It's all the fault of this damned creeping democratism," he burst out querulously. "A lot of imported off-planet nonsense. Your father did not do Barrayar a service to encourage it. He had a fine opportunity to stamp it out when he was Regent—which he wasted totally, as far as I can see . . ." he trailed off. "In love with off-planet notions, off-planet women," he echoed himself more faintly. "I blame your mother, you know. Always pushing that egalitarian tripe . . ."

"Oh, come on," Miles was stirred to object. "Mother's as apolitical as you can get and still be conscious and walking around."

"Thank God, or she'd be running Barrayar today. I've never seen your father cross her yet. Well, well, it could have been worse . . ." The old man shifted again, twisting in his pain of spirit as Miles had in his pain of body.

Miles lay in his chair, making no effort to defend the issue or himself. The Count could be trusted to argue himself down, taking both parts, in a little time.

"We must bend with the times, I suppose. We must all bend with the times. Shopkeepers' sons are great soldiers, now. God knows, I commanded a few in my day. Did I ever tell you about the fellow, when we were fighting the Cetagandans up in the Dendarii Mountains back behind Vorkosigan Surleau—best guerilla lieutenant I ever had. I wasn't much older than you, then. He killed more Cetagandans that year . . . His father had been a tailor. A tailor, back when it was all cut and stitched by hand, hunched over all the little detailing . . ." He sighed for the irretrievable past. "What was the fellow's name . . ."

"Tesslev," supplied Miles. He raised his eyebrows quizzically at his feet. Perhaps I shall be a tailor, then. I'm built for it. But they're as obsolete as Counts, now.

"Tesslev, yes, that was it. He died horribly when they caught his patrol. Brave man, brave man . . ." Silence fell between them for a time.

The old Count spotted a straw, and clutched at it. "Was the test fairly administered? You never know, these days—some plebeian with a personal ax to grind . . ."

Miles shook his head, and moved quickly to cut this fantasy down before it had a chance to grow and flower. "Quite fair. It was me. I let myself get rattled, didn't pay attention to what I was doing. I failed because I wasn't good enough. Period."

The old man twisted his lips in sour negation. His hand closed angrily, and opened hopelessly. "In the old days no one would have dared question your right . . ."

"In the old days the cost of my incompetence would have been paid in other men's lives. This is more efficient, I believe." Miles's voice was flat.

"Well . . ." The old man stared unseeingly out the window. "Well—times change. Barrayar has changed. It underwent a world of change between the time I was ten and the time I was twenty. And another between the time I was twenty and forty. Nothing was the same . . . And another between the time I was forty and eighty. This weak, degenerate generation—even their sins are watered down. The old pirates of my father's day could have eaten them all for breakfast and digested their bones before lunch . . . Do you know, I shall be the first Count Vorkosigan to die in bed in nine generations?" He paused, gaze still fixed, and whispered half to himself, "God, I've grown weary of change. The very thought of enduring another new world dismays me. Dismays me."

"Sir," said Miles gently.

The old man looked up quickly. "Not your fault, boy, not your fault. You were caught in the wheels of change and chance just like the rest of us. It was pure chance, that the assassin chose that particular poison to try and kill your father. He wasn't even aiming for your mother. You've done well despite it. We—we just expected too much of you, that's all. Let no one say you have not done well."

"Thank you, sir."

The silence lengthened unbearably. The room was growing warm. Miles's head ached from lack of sleep, and he felt nauseated from the combination of hunger and medications. He clambered awkwardly to his feet. "If you'll excuse me, sir . . ."

The old man waved a hand in dismissal. "Yes, you must have things to do . . ." He paused again, and looked at Miles quizzically. "What are you going to do now? It seems very strange to me. We have always been Vor, the warriors, even when war changed with the rest of it . . ."

He looked so shrunken, down in his chair. Miles pulled himself together into a semblance of cheerfulness. "Well, you know, there's always the other aristocratic line to fall back on. If I can't be a Service grunt, I'll be a town clown. I plan to be a famous epicure and lover of women. More fun than soldiering any day."

His grandfather fell in with his humor. "Yes, I always envied the breed—go to, boy . . ." He smiled, but Miles felt it was as forced as his own. It was a lie anyway—"drone" was a swear word in the old man's vocabulary. Miles collected Bothari and made his own escape.

* * *

Miles sat hunched in a battered armchair in a small private parlor overlooking the street side of the great old mansion, feet up, eyes closed. It was a seldom used room; there was a good chance of being left alone to brood in peace. He had never come to a more complete halt, a drained blankness numb even to pain. So much passion expended for nothing—a lifetime of nothing stretching endlessly into the future—because of a split second's stupid, angry self-consciousness. . . .

There was a throat-clearing noise behind him, and a diffident voice; "Hi, Miles."

His eyes flicked open, and he felt suddenly a little less like a wounded animal hiding in its hole. "Elena! I gather you came up from Vorkosigan Surleau with Mother last night. Come on in."

She perched near him on the arm of another chair. "Yes, she knows what a treat it is for me to come to the capital. I almost feel like she's my mother, sometimes."

"Tell her that. It would please her."

"Do you really think so?" she asked shyly.

"Absolutely." He shook himself into alertness. Perhaps not a totally empty future . . .

She chewed gently on her lower lip, large eyes drinking in his face. "You look absolutely smashed."

He would not bleed on Elena. He banished his blackness in self-mockery, leaning back expansively and grinning. "Literally. Too true. I'll get over it. You, ah—heard all about it, I suppose."

"Yes. Did, um, it go all right with my lord Count?"

"Oh, sure. I'm the only grandson he's got, after all. Puts me in an excellent position—I can get away with anything."

"Did he ask you about changing your name?"

He stared. "What?"

"To the usual patronymic. He'd been talking about, when you—oh." She cut herself off, but Miles caught the full import of her half revelation.

"Oh, ho—when I became an officer, was he finally planning to break down and allow me my heir's names? Sweet of him—seventeen years after the fact." He stifled a sick anger beneath an ironic grin.

"I never understood what that was all about."

"What, my name—Miles Naismith, after my mother's father, instead of Piotr Miles, after both? It all goes back to that uproar when I was born. Apparently, after my parents had recovered from the soltoxin gas and they found out what the fetal damage was going to be—I'm not supposed to know this, by the way—Grandfather was all for an abortion. Got in a big fight with my parents—well, with Mother, I suppose, and Father caught in the middle—and when my father backed her up and faced him down, he got huffy and asked his name not be given me. He calmed down later, when he found I wasn't a total disaster." He smirked, and drummed his fingers on the chair arm. "So he was thinking of swallowing his words, was he? Perhaps it's just as well I washed out. He might have choked." He closed his teeth on further bitterness, and wished he could call back his last speech. No point in being more ugly in front of Elena than he already was.

"I know how hard you studied for it. I—I'm sorry."

He feigned a surface humor. "Not half as sorry as I am. I wish you could have taken my physicals. Between us we'd make a hell of an officer."

Something of the old frankness they had shared as children escaped her lips suddenly. "Yes, but by Barrayaran standards I'm more handicapped than you—I'm female. I wouldn't even be permitted to petition to take the tests."

His eyebrows lifted in wry agreement. "I know. Absurd. With what your father's taught you, all you'd need is a course in heavy weapons and you could roll right over nine-tenths of the fellows I saw out there. Think of it—Sergeant Elena Bothari."

She chilled. "Now you're teasing."

"Just speaking as one civilian to another," he half-apologized.

She nodded dark agreement, then brightened with remembered purpose. "Oh. Your mother sent me to get you for lunch."

"Ah." He pushed himself to his feet with a sibilant grunt. "There's an officer no one disobeys. The Admiral's Captain."

Elena smiled at the image. "Yes. Now, she was an officer for the Betans, and no one thinks she's strange, or criticizes her for wanting to break the rules."

"On the contrary. She's so strange nobody even thinks of trying to include her in the rules. She just goes on doing things her own way."

"I wish I were Betan," said Elena glumly.

"Oh, make no mistake—she's strange by Betan standards, too. Although I think you would like Beta Colony, parts of it," he mused.

"I'll never get off planet."

He eyed her sapiently. "What's got you down?"

She shrugged. "Oh, well, you know my father. He's such a conservative. He ought to have been born two hundred years ago. You're the only person I know who doesn't think he's weird. He's so paranoid."

"I know—but it's a very useful quality in a bodyguard. His pathological suspiciousness has saved my life twice."

"You should have been born two hundred years ago, too."

"No, thanks. I'd have been slain at birth."

"Well, there is that," she admitted. "Anyway, just out of the blue this morning he started talking about arranging my marriage."

Miles stopped abruptly, and glanced up at her. "Really. What did he say?"

"Not much." She shrugged. "He just mentioned it. I wish—I don't know. I wish my mother were alive."

"Ah. Well . . . There's always my mother, if you want somebody to talk to. Or—or me. You can talk to me, can't you?"

She smiled gratefully. "Thanks." They came to the stairs. She paused; he waited.

"He never talks about my mother anymore, you know? Hasn't since I was about twelve. He used to tell me long stories—well, long for him—about her. I wonder if he's beginning to forget her."

"I shouldn't think so. I see him more than you do. He's never so much as looked at another woman," Miles offered reassuringly.

They started down the stairs. His aching legs did not move properly; he had to do a kind of penguin shuffle to achieve the steps. He glanced up at Elena self-consciously, and grasped the rail firmly.

"Shouldn't you be taking the lift tube?" she asked suddenly, watching his uncertain placement of his feet.

Don't you start treating me like a cripple, too . . . He glanced down the railing's gleaming helix. "They told me to stay off my legs. Didn't specify how . . ." He hopped up on the banister, and shot her a wicked grin over his shoulder.

Her face reflected mixed amusement and horror. "Miles, you lunatic! If you fall off that, you'll break every bone in your body—"

He slid away from her, picking up speed rapidly. She cantered down the stairs after him, laughing; he lost her around the curvature. His grin died as he saw what awaited him at the bottom. "Oh, hell . . ." He was going too fast to brake . . .

"What the—"

"Watch out!"

He tumbled off the railing at the bottom of the staircase into the frantic clutch of a stocky, grey-haired man in officer's dress greens. They both scrambled to their feet as Elena arrived, out of breath, on the tessellated pavement of the front hall. Miles could feel the anguished heat in his face, and knew it was scarlet. The stocky man looked bemused. A second officer, a tall man with captain's tabs on the collar of his uniform, leaned on a walking stick and gave a brief surprised laugh.

Miles collected himself, coming more-or-less to attention. "Good afternoon, Father," he said coolly. He gave a little aggressive lift to his chin, defying anyone to comment on his unorthodox entrance.

Admiral Lord Aral Vorkosigan, Prime Minister of Barrayar in the service of Emperor Gregor Vorbarra, formerly Lord Regent of same, straightened his uniform jacket and cleared his throat. "Good afternoon, son." Only his eyes laughed. "I'm, ah—glad to see your injuries were not too serious."

Miles shrugged, secretly relieved to be spared more sardonic comments in public. "The usual."

"Excuse me a moment. Ah, good afternoon, Elena. Koudelka—what did you think of those ship cost figures of Admiral Hessman's?"

"I thought they went by awfully fast," replied the Captain.

"You thought so too, eh?"

"Do you think he's hiding something in them?"

"Perhaps. But what? His party budget? Is the contractor his brother-in-law? Or sheer slop? Peculation, or merely inefficiency? I'll put Illyan on the first possibility—I want you on the second. Put the squeeze on those numbers."

"They'll scream. They were screaming today."

"Don't believe it. I used to do those proposals myself when I was on the General Staff. I know how much garbage goes into them. They're not really hurting until their voices go up at least two octaves."

Captain Koudelka grinned, and bowed himself out with a brief nod at Miles and Elena, and a very sketchy salute.

Miles and his father were left looking at each other, neither wishing to be the first to open the issue that lay between them. As if by mutual agreement, Lord Vorkosigan said only, "Well, am I late for lunch?"

"Just been called, I think, sir."

"Let us go in, then . . ." He made a little abortive lift of his arm, as if to offer his injured son assistance, but then clasped his hands tactfully behind his back. They walked on side by side, slowly.

* * *

Miles lay propped up in bed, still dressed for the day, with his legs stretched out correctly before him. He eyed them distastefully. Rebellious provinces—mutinous troops—quisling saboteurs . . . He should get up one more time, and wash and change to night clothes, but the effort required seemed heroic. No hero he. He was reminded of that fellow Grandfather told about, who accidentally shot his own horse out from under himself in the cavalry charge—called for another, and then did it again.

So his own words, it appeared, had set Sergeant Bothari thinking in just the channel Miles least desired. Elena's image turned before his inner eye—the delicate aquiline profile, great dark eyes—cool length of leg, warm flare of hip—she looked, he thought, like a Countess in a drama. If only he could cast her in the role in reality . . . But such a Count!

An aristocrat in a play, to be sure. The deformed were invariably cast as plotting villains in Barrayaran drama. If he couldn't be a soldier, perhaps he had a future as a villain. "I'll carry the wench off," he muttered, experimentally dropping his voice half an octave, "and lock her in my dungeon."

His voice returned to its normal pitch with a regretful sigh. "Except I haven't got a dungeon. It would have to be the closet. Grandfather's right, we are a reduced generation. Anyway, they'd just rent a hero to rescue her. Some tall piece of meat—Kostolitz, maybe. And you know how those fights always come out—"

He slid to his feet and pantomimed across the room, Kostolitz's swords against—say—Miles's morningstar. A morningstar was a proper villainous weapon. It gave the concept of one's personal space some real authority. Stabbed, he died in Elena's arms as she swooned in grief—no, she'd be in Kostolitz's arms, celebrating.

Miles's eye fell on an antique mirror, clasped in a carven stand. "Capering dwarf," he growled. He had a sudden urge to smash it with his naked fists, shattered glass and blood flying—but the sound would bring the hall guard, and packs of relatives, and demands for explanation. He jerked the mirror around to face the wall instead, and flopped onto the bed.

Lying back, he gave the problem more serious attention. He tried to imagine himself, rightly and properly, asking his father to be his go-between to Sergeant Bothari. Horrific. He sighed, and writhed vainly for a more comfortable position. Only seventeen, too young to marry even by Barrayaran standards, and quite unemployed, now—it would be years, probably, before he would be in a sufficiently independent position to offer for Elena against parental backing. Surely she would be snapped up long before then.

And Elena herself . . . What was in it for her? What pleasure, to be climbed all over by an ugly, twisted shrimp—to be stared at in public, in a world where native custom and imported medicine combined ruthlessly to eliminate even the mildest physical deformity—doubly stared at, because of their ludicrous contrast? Could the dubious privileges of an obsolete rank more drained of meaning with each passing year make up for that? A rank totally without meaning off Barrayar, he knew—in eighteen years of residence here, his own mother had never come to regard the Vor system as anything other than a planet-wide mass hallucination.

There came a double rap upon his door. Authoritatively firm; courteously brief. Miles smiled ironically, sighed, and sat up.

"Come in, Father."

Lord Vorkosigan poked his head around the carved door frame. "Still dressed? It's late. You should be getting some rest." Somewhat inconsistently, he let himself in and pulled up a desk chair, turning it around and sitting astride it, arms comfortably athwart its back. He was still dressed himself, Miles noted, in the dress greens he wore every working day. Now that he was but Prime Minister, and not Regent and therefore titular commander of the armed forces, Miles wondered if the old Admiral's uniform was still correct. Or had it simply grown to him?

"I, ah," his father began, and paused. He cleared his throat, delicately. "I was wondering what your thinking was now, for your next step. Your alternate plans."

Miles's lips tightened, and he shrugged. "There never were any alternate plans. I'd planned to succeed. More fool I."

Lord Vorkosigan tilted his head in negation. "If it's any consolation, you were very close. I talked to the selection board commander today. Do you—want to know your score on the writtens?"

"I thought they never released those. Just an alphabetical list: in or out."

Lord Vorkosigan spread his hand, offering. Miles shook his head. "Let it go. It doesn't matter. It was hopeless from the beginning. I was just too stiff-necked to admit it."

"Not so. We all knew it would be difficult. But I would never have let you put that much effort on something I thought impossible."

"I must have inherited the neck from you."

They exchanged a brief, ironic nod. "Well, you couldn't have had it from your mother," Lord Vorkosigan admitted.

"She's not—disappointed, is she?"

"Hardly. You know her lack of enthusiasm for the military. Hired killers, she called us once. Almost the first thing she ever said to me." He looked fondly reminiscent.

Miles grinned in spite of himself. "She really said that to you?"

Lord Vorkosigan grinned back. "Oh, yes. But she married me anyway, so perhaps it wasn't all that heartfelt." He grew more serious. "It's true, though. If I had any doubts about your potential as an officer—"

Miles stiffened inwardly.

"—it was perhaps in that area. To kill a man, it helps if you can first take away his face. A neat mental trick. Handy for a soldier. I'm not sure you have the narrowness of vision required. You can't help seeing all around. You're like your mother, you always have that clear view of the back of your own head."

"Never knew you for narrow, sir."

"Ah, but I lost the trick of it. That's why I went into politics." Lord Vorkosigan smiled, but the smile faded. "To your cost, I'm afraid."

The remark triggered a painful memory. "Sir," asked Miles hesitantly, "is that why you never made the bid for the Imperium that everyone was expecting? Because your heir was—" a vague gesture at his body silently implied the forbidden term, deformed. 

Lord Vorkosigan's brows drew together. His voice dropped suddenly to near a whisper, making Miles jump. "Who has said so?"

"Nobody," Miles replied nervously.

His father flung himself out of his chair and snapped back and forth across the room. "Never," he hissed, "let anyone say so. It is an insult to both our honors. I gave my oath to Ezar Vorbarra on his deathbed to serve his grandson—and I have done so. Period. End of argument."

Miles smiled placatingly. "I wasn't arguing."

Lord Vorkosigan looked around, and gave vent to a short chuckle. "Sorry. You just hit my jitter trigger. Not your fault, boy." He sat back down, controlled again. "You know how I feel about the Imperium. The witch's christening gift, accursed. Try telling them that, though. . . ." He shook his head.

"Surely Gregor can't suspect you of ambition. You've done more for him than anyone, right through Vordarian's Pretendership, the Third Cetagandan War, the Komarr Revolt—he wouldn't even be here today—"

Lord Vorkosigan grimaced. "Gregor is in a rather tender state of mind at the moment. Just come to full power—and by my oath, it is real power—and itching, after sixteen years of being governed by what he refers to privately as 'the old geezers,' to try its limits. I have no wish to set myself up as a target."

"Oh, come on. Gregor's not so faithless."

"No, indeed, but he is under a great many new pressures that I can no longer protect—" he cut himself off with a fist-closing gesture. "Just alternate plans. Which brings us, I hope, back to the original question."

Miles rubbed his face tiredly, pressing fingertips against his eyes. "I don't know, sir."

"You could," said Lord Vorkosigan neutrally, "ask Gregor for an Imperial order."

"What, shove me into the Service by force? By the sort of political favoritism you've stood against all your life?" Miles sighed. "If I were going to get in that way, I should have done it first, before failing the tests. Now—no. No."

"But," Lord Vorkosigan went on earnestly, "you have too much talent and energy to waste on idleness. There are other forms of service. I wanted to put an idea or two to you. Just to think on."

"Go ahead."

"Officer, or not, you will be Count Vorkosigan someday." He held up a hand as Miles opened his mouth to object. "Someday. You will inevitably have a place in the government, always barring revolution or some other social catastrophe. You will represent our ancestral district. A district which has, frankly, been shamefully neglected. Your grandfather's recent illness isn't the only reason. I've been taken up with the press of other work, and before that we both pursued military careers—"

Tell me about it, Miles thought wearily.

"The end result is, there is a lot of work to be done there. Now, with a bit of legal training—"

"A lawyer?" Miles said, aghast. "You want me to be a lawyer? That's as bad as being a tailor—"

"Beg pardon?" asked Lord Vorkosigan, missing the connection.

"Never mind. Something Grandfather said."

"Actually, I hadn't planned to mention the idea to your grandfather." Lord Vorkosigan cleared his throat. "But given some grounding in government principles, I thought you might, ah, deputize for your grandfather in the district. Government was never all warfare, even in the Time of Isolation, you know."

Sounds like you've been thinking about it for a while, Miles thought resentfully. Did you ever really believe I could make the grade, Father? He looked at Lord Vorkosigan more doubtfully. "There's not anything you're not telling me, is there, sir? About your—health, or anything?"

"Oh, no," Lord Vorkosigan reassured him. "Although in my line of work, you never know from one day to the next."

I wonder, thought Miles warily, what else is going on between Gregor and my father? I have a queasy feeling I'm getting about ten percent of the real story . . .

Lord Vorkosigan blew out his breath, and smiled. "Well. I'm keeping you from your rest, which you need at this point." He rose.

"I wasn't sleepy, sir."

"Do you want me to get you anything to help . . . ?" Lord Vorkosigan offered, cautiously tender.

"No, I have some painkillers they gave me at the infirmary. Two of those and I'll be swimming in slow motion." Miles made flippers of his hands, and rolled his eyes back.

Lord Vorkosigan nodded, and withdrew.

Miles lay back and tried to recapture Elena in his mind. But the cold breath of political reality blown in with his father withered his fantasies, like frost out of season. He swung to his feet and shuffled to his bathroom for a dose of his slow-motion medicine.

Two down, and a swallow of water. All of them, whispered something from the back of his brain, and you could come to a complete stop . . . He banged the nearly full container back onto the shelf.

His eyes gave back a muted spark from the bathroom mirror. "Grandfather is right. The only way to go down is fighting."

He returned to bed, to relive his moment of error on the wall in an endless loop until sleep relieved him of himself.


Back | Next