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Chapter One

Ivan’s door buzzer sounded at close to Komarran midnight, just when he was unwinding enough from lingering jump lag, his screwed-up diurnal rhythm, and the day’s labors to consider sleep. He growled under his breath and trod unwillingly to answer it.

His instincts proved correct when he saw who waited in the aperture.

“Oh, God. Byerly Vorrutyer. Go away.”

“Hi, Ivan,” said Byerly smoothly, ignoring Ivan’s anti-greeting. “May I come in?”

Ivan took about a second to consider the, at best, complicated possibilities Byerly usually trailed in his wake, and said simply, “No.” But he’d hesitated too long. Byerly slipped inside. Ivan sighed, letting the door slide closed and seal. So far from home, it was good to see a familiar face—just not By’s. Next time, use the security screen, and pretend not to be here, eh?

Byerly padded swiftly across the small but choice living quarters of Ivan’s downtown Solstice luxury flat, rentals by the week. Ivan had picked it out for its potential proximity to Solstice nightlife, which, alas, he had so far not had a chance to sample. Pausing at the broad glass doors to the balcony, Byerly dimmed the polarization on the seductive view of the glittering lights of the capital city. Dome, Ivan corrected his thought to Komarran nomenclature, as the arcology existed under a hodgepodge of seals to keep the toxic planetary atmosphere out and the breathable one in. Byerly pulled the drapes as well, and turned back to the room.

Yielding to a curiosity he knew he would regret, Ivan asked, “What the hell are you doing on Komarr, By? Isn’t this off your usual beat?”

Byerly grimaced. “Working.”

Indeed, an experienced observer, which Ivan unfortunately was, could detect a distinct strain around By’s eyes, along with the redness from drink and perhaps recreational chemicals. Byerly cultivated the authentic look of a Barrayaran high Vor town clown given over to a life of dissolution and idle vice by actually living it, ninety percent of the time. The other ten percent, and most of his hidden income, came from his work as an informer for Imperial Security. And ninety percent of that was just more dissolution and vice, except for having to turn in reports at the end. The residue, Ivan had to concede, could get dicey.

Ratting out your friends to ImpSec for money, Ivan had once heckled By, to which By had shrugged and replied, And the greater glory of the Imperium. Don’t forget that.

Ivan wondered which it was tonight.

In reflexive response to the manners drilled into him in his youth, Ivan offered, “Something to drink? Beer, wine? Something stronger?” He contemplated By’s boneless flop onto his living room couch. “Coffee?”

“Just water. Please. I need to clear my head, and then I need to sleep.”

Ivan went to his tidy kitchenette and filled a tumbler. As he handed it to his unwelcome guest, By said, “And what are you doing in Solstice, Ivan?”


By’s open hand invited him to expand.

Ivan sat across from him and said, “Trailing my boss, who is here for an Ops conference with his assorted counterparts and underlings. Efficiently combined with the annual Komarr Fleet inspections. All the excitement of a tax inventory, except in dress uniform.” Belatedly, Ivan realized By had to already know all this. He’d found Ivan, hadn’t he? Because By’s random social calls, weren’t.

“Still working for Admiral Desplains?”

“Yep. Aide-de-camp, secretary, personal assistant, general dogsbody, whatever he needs. I aim to make myself indispensable.”

“And still ducking promotion, are you, Captain Vorpatril?”

“Yes. And succeeding, no thanks to you.”

By smirked. “They say that at Imperial Service Headquarters, the captains bring the coffee.”

“That’s right. And I like it that way.” Ivan only wished it were true. It seemed barely months ago, though it was over a year, that the latest flare-up of tensions with Barrayar’s most traditional enemy, the Cetagandan Empire, had pinned Ivan to military headquarters 26.7 hours a Barrayaran day for weeks on end, sweating out all the most horrific possibilities. Designing death in detail. War had been averted through non-traditional diplomacy, mostly on the part of Barrayaran emperor Gregor’s weaseliest Imperial Auditor and, to give credit where it was due, his wife.

That time. There was always a next time.

Ivan studied Byerly, who was only a few years older than himself. They shared the same brown eyes, dark hair, and olive skin common to Barrayar’s somewhat inbred military caste, or aristocracy, whatever one wanted to call it, and, indeed, common to most Barrayarans. By was shorter and slighter than Ivan’s six-foot-one, broad-shouldered fitness, but then, he didn’t have a Desplains riding him to keep up the recruiting-poster appearance expected of an officer serving at Imperial Headquarters. Granted, when they weren’t squinting from the dissolution, By’s eyes had the startling beauty that distinguished his famous, or infamous, clan, to which Ivan was connected by a few twigs in his own family tree. That was the problem with being Vor. You ended up related to all sorts of people you’d rather not be. And they all felt free to call on you for favors.

“What do you want, Byerly?”

“So direct! You’ll never become a diplomat that way, Ivan.”

“I once spent a year as assistant military attaché to the Barrayaran Embassy on Earth. It was as much diplomacy as I cared for. Get to the point, By. I want to go to bed. And by the looks of you, so do you.”

By let his eyes widen. “Why Ivan! Was that an invitation? I’m so thrilled!”

“Someday,” Ivan growled, “I might say yes to that old line, just to watch you have a coronary.”

By spread his hand over his heart, and intoned wistfully, “And so I might.” He drained his water and gave over the vamping, the face so often arranged in a vague smarminess firming intently in a way Ivan always found a touch disturbing. “Actually, I have a little task to ask of you.”


“It’s quite in your line. I may even be said to be doing you a good turn, who knows. I’d like you to pick up a girl.”

“No,” said Ivan, only in part to see what By would say next.

“Come, come. You pick up girls all the time.”

“Not on your recommendations. What’s the catch?”

Byerly made a face. “So suspicious, Ivan!”


By shrugged, conceding the point. “Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure. And my duties with, if I may say it, the unusually unpleasant people I am presently accompanying—”

Spying on, Ivan translated this without difficulty. And the company By kept was usually unpleasant, in Ivan’s opinion. Unusually unpleasant implied…what?

“—leave me little opportunity to check her out. But they have an inexplicable interest in her. Which I suspect is not friendly. It worries me, Ivan, I must say.” He added after a moment, “She’s quite well-looking, I assure you. You need have no fear on that score.”

Ivan frowned, stung. “Are you implying I’d refuse to supply assistance to a homely girl?”

Byerly sat back, eyebrows flicking up. “To your credit, I actually don’t believe that’s the case. But it will add a certain convincing verisimilitude for the outside observer.” He pulled a small plastic flimsy from his jacket and handed it across.

The background was too fuzzed to make out, but the picture showed a striking young woman striding down a sidewalk. Apparent age could be anything between twenty and thirty standard-years, though that was no certain clue as to real age. Tumbling black hair, bright eyes, skin glowing an interesting cinnamon brown against a cream tank top. Decided nose, determined chin; either the natural face she was born with, or the work of a real artist, because it certainly didn’t bear the stamped-from-the-same-mold blandness of the usual body sculpture, a biological ideal that lost its appeal with repetition. Long legs in tan trousers that hugged in all the right places. A nicely full figure. Nicely full. If the face was natural, might the other prominent features be, too? With weakening reluctance, Ivan said, “Who is she?”

“Supposedly, a Komarran citizen named Nanja Brindis, lately moved to Solstice from Olbia Dome.”


“I have reason to suspect that might be a recent cover identity. She did move here about two months ago, it does seem.”

“So who is she really?”

“It would be a fine thing if you could find that out.”

“If she’s hiding her identity for a good reason, she’s hardly going to tell me.” Ivan hesitated. “Is it a good reason?”

“I suspect it’s a very good reason. And I also suspect she is not a professional at the game.”

“This is all pretty vague, Byerly. May I remind you, my security clearance is higher than yours.”

“Probably.” Byerly blinked in doubt. “But then there is that pesky need-to-know rule.”

“I’m not sticking my head into one of your dodgy meat grinders—again—unless I know as much as you know. At least.”

Byerly flung up his well-manicured hands in faux-surrender. “The people I’m with seem to have got themselves involved in a complex smuggling operation. Rather over their heads.”

“Komarr local space is a major trade nexus. The place is lousy with smugglers. As long as the transients don’t try to offload their goods within the Imperium, in which case Imperial Customs deals sharply with ’em, they get ignored. And the Komarran trade fleets police their own.”

“That’s two out of three.”

Ivan’s head came up. “The only thing left is the Imperial fleet.”

“Just so.”

“Crap, Byerly, if there was even a hint of that sort of thing going on, Service Security would swoop in. Damned hard.”

“But even Service Security needs to know where and when to swoop. I am doing, as it were, a preliminary pre-swoop survey. Not only because mistakes are embarrassing, especially if they involve accusations of Vor scions with arrogant and powerful relatives, but because they tip off the real crims, who then promptly escape one’s tediously set net. And you’ve no idea how tedious that can get.”

“Mm,” said Ivan. “And once military personnel get involved with, they think, simple civilian crime, they become vulnerable to more treasonous blackmail.”

By bared his teeth. “I’m so pleased you keep up. One of your saving graces.”

“I’ve had practice.” Ivan hissed alarm. “Desplains should know about this.”

“Desplains will know about it, in due course. In the meanwhile, try to remember you don’t know.” Byerly paused. “That caution is cancelled, of course, should my dead body turn up in a lewd and compromising position in some ditch outside the dome in the next few days.”

“Think it might?”

“The stakes are very high. And not just the money.”

“So how’s this girl connected, again?”

Byerly sighed. “She’s not with my crew. She’s definitely not with the non-Barrayarans they’re dealing with, though it’s not outside the realm of reason that she could be a defector. And she’s not what she pretends to be. What’s left, I am forced to leave to you to find out, because I can’t risk coming here again, and I’m not going to have time in the next few days for side-issues.”

Ivan said slowly, “You think she’s in danger of her life?” Because why else would By bother to set even a side-friend on this side-issue? By didn’t make his living through charity.

But he did make his living through a weird sort of loyalty. And, somewhere underneath the persiflage, camouflage, and just plain flage, he was high Vor of the highest…

“Let’s just say, you would gratify me by staying alert. I should not care to explain any accidents that might befall you to your lady mother.”

Ivan allowed the concern with a rueful nod. “So where am I to find this so-called girl?”

“I am fairly certain she’s a real girl, Ivan.”

“You think? With you, one never knows.” He eyed By dryly, and By had the grace to squirm just a bit, in acknowledgement of his cousin Dono née Donna of lamented memory. Donna, that is. Count Dono Vorrutyer was all too vivid a presence, on the Vorbarr Sultana political scene.

By dodged the diversion and, so to speak, soldiered on, though the idea of By in any branch of the Service made Ivan wince in imagination. “She works as a packing clerk at a place called Swift Shipping. Here’s her home address, too—which was unlisted, by the way, so unless you can devise a convincing reason for turning up there, probably better to run into her coming into or out of work. I don’t gather she does much partying. Make friends, Ivan. Before tomorrow night, by preference.” He rubbed his face, pressing his hands to his eyes. “Actually—by tomorrow night without fail.”

Ivan accepted the contact data with misgivings. By stretched, rose a bit creakily to his feet, and made his way to the door. “Adieu, dear friend, adieu. Sweet dreams, and may angels guard your repose. Possibly angels with clouds of dark curls, sun-kissed skin, and bosoms like heavenly pillows.”

“Dry up.”

By grinned over his shoulder, waved without turning around, and blew out.

Ivan returned to his couch, sat with a thump, and picked up the flimsy, studying it cautiously. At least By was right about the heavenly pillows. What else was he right about? Ivan had an unsettling premonition that he was going to find out.

*   *   *

Tej was conscious of the customer from the moment he walked in the door, ten minutes before closing. When she’d started this job a month ago, in the hopes of stretching her and Rish’s dwindling resources, she’d been hyperaware of all customers who entered the shop. A job that exposed her directly and continuously to the public was not a good choice, she’d realized almost at once, but it had been the entry-level position she could get with the limited fake references she commanded. A promotion to the back office was mentioned, so she’d hung grimly on. It was being slow in opening up, though, and she’d wondered if her boss was stringing her along. In the meanwhile, her jagged nerves had slowly grown habituated. Till now.

He was tall for a local. Quite good looking, too, but in a way that fell short of sculpted or gengineered perfections. His skin was Komarran-pale, set off by a long-sleeved, dark blue knit shirt. Gray multi-pocketed sleeveless jacket worn open over it, indeterminate blue trousers. Shoes very shiny yet not new, in a conservative, masculine style that seemed familiar but, annoyingly, eluded recognition. He carried a large bag, and despite the time noodled around looking at the displays. Her co-clerk Dotte took the next customer, she finished with her own, and the fellow glanced up and stepped to the counter, smiling.

“Hi, there”—with difficulty, he dragged his gaze from her chest to her face—“Nanja.”

It didn’t take that long to scan her nametag. Slow reader, are you? Why, yes, I get a lot of those. Tej returned the smile with the minimum professional courtesy due a customer who hadn’t, actually, done anything really obnoxious yet.

He hoisted his bag to the counter and withdrew a large, asymmetrical, and astonishingly ugly ceramic vase. She guessed the design was supposed to be abstract, but it was more as if a party of eye-searing polka dots had all gotten falling-down drunk.

“I would like this packed and shipped to Miles Vorkosigan, Vorkosigan House, Vorbarr Sultana.”

She almost asked, What dome? but the unfamiliar accent clicked in before she could make that mistake. The man was not Komarran at all, but a Barrayaran. They didn’t get many Barrayarans in this quiet, low-rent neighborhood. Even a generation after the conquest, the conquerors tended to cluster in their own enclaves, or in the central areas devoted to the planetary government and off-world businesses, or out near the civilian or military shuttleports.

“Is there a street address? Scanner code?”

“No, just use the scanner code for the planet and city. Once it gets that far, it’ll find him.”

Surely it would cost this man far more to ship this…object to a planet five wormhole jumps away than it was worth. She wondered if she was obliged to point this out. “Regular or premium service? There’s a stiff price difference, but I have to tell you, express won’t really get there much faster.” It all went on the same jumpship, after all.

“Is it more likely to arrive intact with premium?”

“No, sir, it will be packed just the same. There are regulations for anything that goes by jumpship.”

“Right-oh, regular it is.”

“Extra insurance?” she said doubtfully. “There’s a base coverage that comes with the service.” She named the amount, and he allowed as it would do. It was in truth considerably less than the shipping charges.

“You pack it yourself? Can I watch?”

She glanced at the digital hour display over the door. The task would run her past closing time, but customers were fussy about breakables. She sighed and turned to the foamer. He stood on tiptoe and watched over the counter as she carefully positioned the vase—a glimpse of its underside revealed a sale tag with four markdowns—closed the door, and turned on the machine. A brief hiss, a moment of watching the indicator lights wink hypnotically, and the door popped back open, releasing a pungent whiff that stunned her sense of smell and masked every other scent in the shop. She bent and removed the neat block of flexifoam. It was an aesthetic improvement.

Ivan Vorpatril, read the name on his credit chit. Also with a Vorbarr Sultana home address. Not just a Barrayaran, then, but one of those Vor-people, the conquerors’ arrogant privileged class. Even her father had been wary of—she cut the thought short.

“Do you wish to include a note?”

“Naw, I think it’ll be self-explanatory. His wife’s a gardener, see. She’s always looking for something to stuff her poisonous plants into.” He watched her slide the foam block into its outer container and affix the label, adding after a moment, “I’m new in town. Yourself?”

“I’ve been here a while,” she said neutrally.

“Really? I could do with a native guide.”

Dotte closed out the scanners and turned off the lights as a broad hint to the laggard customer. And, bless her, lingered by the door to see Tej safely free of the shop and him. Tej gestured him out ahead of her, and the door locked behind them all.

The oldest human habitation on the surface of Komarr, Solstice Dome had a peculiar layout, to Tej’s eye. The aging initial installations resembled the space stations she’d grown up in, with their labyrinths of corridors. The very latest sections were laid out with separate, street-linked buildings, but under vast, soaring, transparent domes that mimicked the open sky the residents hoped to have someday, when the atmospheric terraforming was complete. Middling areas, like this one, fell between, with much less technologically ambitious domes that still gave glimpses of an outside where no one ventured without a breath mask. The passage that Swift Shipping fronted was more street than corridor, anyway, too broad for the persistent customer to easily obstruct her.

“Off work now, huh?” he inquired ingenuously, with a boyish smile. He was a bit old for boyish smiles.

“Yes, I’m going home.” Tej wished she could go home, really home. Yet how much of what she’d known as home still existed, even if she could be magically transported there in a blink? No, don’t think those thoughts. The tension headache, and heartache, were too exhausting to bear.

“I wish I could go home,” said the man, Vorpatril, in unconscious echo of her thought. “But I’m stuck here for a while. Say, can I buy you a drink?”

“No, thank you.”



He waggled his eyebrows, cheerfully. “Ice cream? All women like ice cream, in my experience.”


“Walk you home? Or in the park. Or somewhere. I think they have rowboats to rent in that lake park I passed. That’d make a nice place to talk.”

“Certainly not!” Ought she to invent a waiting spouse or lover? She linked arms with Dotte, pinching her in silent warning. “Let’s go to the bubble car stop now, Dotte.”

Dotte gave her a surprised look, knowing perfectly well that Tej—Nanja, as she knew her—always walked home to her nearby flat. But she obediently turned away and led off. Vorpatril followed, not giving up. He slipped around in front, grinned some more, and tried, “What about a puppy?”

Dotte snorted a laugh, which didn’t help.

“A kitten?”

They were far enough from Swift Shipping now that customer politeness rules no longer applied, Tej decided. She snarled at him, “Go away. Or I’ll find a street patroller.”

He opened his hands in apparent surrender, watching with a doleful expression as they marched past. “A pony…?” he called after them, as if in one last spasm of hope.

Dotte looked back over her shoulder as they approached the bubble-car station. Tej looked straight ahead.

“I think you’re crazy, Nanja,” said Dotte, trudging with her up the pedestrian ramp. “I’d have taken him up on that drink in a heartbeat. Or any of the rest of the menu, though I supposed I’d have to draw the line at the pony. It wouldn’t fit in my flat.”

“I thought you were married.”

“Yes, but I’m not blind.”

“Dotte, customers try to pick me up at least twice a week.”

“But they aren’t usually that incredibly cute. Or taller than you.”

“What’s that have to do with anything?” said Tej, irritated. “My mother was a head taller than my father, and they did fine.” She clamped her jaw shut. Not so fine now.

She parted company with Dotte at the platform, but did board a bubble car. She rode to a random destination about ten minutes away, then disembarked and took another car back to a different stop on the other side of her neighborhood, just in case the man was still lingering out there, stalker-like, at the first one. She strode off briskly.

Almost home, she started to relax, until she look up and spotted Vorpatril lounging on the steps to her building entrance.

She slowed her steps to a dawdle, pretending not to have noticed him yet, raised her wristcom to her lips, and spoke a keyword. Rish’s voice answered at once.

“Tej? You’re late. I was getting worried.”

“I’m fine, I’m right outside, but I’m being followed.”

The voice went sharp. “Can you go roundabout and shake him off?”

“Already tried that. He got ahead of me somehow.”

“Oh. Not good.”

“Especially as I never gave him my address.”

A brief silence. “Very not good. Can you stall him a minute, then get him to follow you into the foyer?”


“I’ll take care of him there. Don’t panic, sweetling.”

“I’m not.” She left the channel open on send-only, so that Rish could follow the play. She took her time closing the last few dozen meters, and came to a wary halt at the bottom of her steps.

“Hi, Nanja!” Vorpatril waved amiably, without getting up, looming, or lunging for her.

“How did you find this place?” she asked, not amiably.

“Would you believe dumb luck?”


“Ah. Pity.” He scratched his chin in apparent thought. “We could go somewhere and talk about it. You can pick where, if you like.”

She simulated a long hesitation, while calculating the time needed for Rish to get downstairs. Just about…now. “All right. Let’s go inside.”

His brows shot up, but then his smile widened. “Sounds great. Sure!”

He rose and politely waited while she fished her remote out of her pocket and coded open the front entrance. As the seal-door hissed aside, he followed her into the small lift-tube foyer. A female figure sat on the bench opposite the tubes, hands hidden in her vest as if chilly, voluminous patterned shawl hiding her bent head.

A slender gloved hand flashed out, aiming a very businesslike stunner.

“Look out!” Vorpatril cried, and, to Tej’s bewilderment, lurched to try to shove her behind him. Uselessly, as it only cleared the target for Rish. The stun beam kneecapped him neatly, and he fell, Tej supposed, the way a tree was said to, not that she’d ever witnessed a tree do such a thing. Most of the trees she’d seen before she’d fetched up on Komarr had lived in tubs, and did not engage in such vigorous behavior. In any case, he crashed to the tiles with a vague thrashing of upper branches and a loud plonk as his head hit. “Owww…” he moaned piteously.

The quiet buzz of the stunner had not carried far; no one popped out of their first floor flat door to investigate either that or the thump, alarming as the latter had seemed to Tej.

“Search him,” Rish instructed tersely. “I’ll cover you.” She stood just out of reach of his long but no doubt tingling arms, aiming the stunner at his head. He eyed it woozily.

Tej knelt and began going through his pockets. His athletic appearance was not a façade; his body felt quite fit, beneath her probing fingers.

“Oh,” he mumbled after a moment. “You two are t’gether. Thass all right, then…”

The first thing Tej’s patting hand found was a small flimsy, tucked into his breast pocket. Featuring a still scan of her. A chill washed through her.

She seized his well-shaved jaw, stared into his eyes, demanded tightly: “Are you a hired killer?”

Still weirdly dilated from the stun nimbus, his eyes were not tracking quite in unison. He appeared to have to think this question over. “Well…in a sense…”

Abandoning interrogation in favor of physical evidence, Tej extracted the wallet he’d flashed earlier, a door remote much like her own, and a slender stunner hidden in an inner pocket. No more lethal weaponry surfaced.

“Let me see that,” said Rish, and Tej obediently handed up the stunner. “Who is this meat really?”

“Hey, I c’n answer that,” their victim mumbled, but fell prudently silent again as she jerked her aim back at him.

The top item in the wallet was the credit chit. Beneath it was a disquietingly official-looking security card with a heavy coding strip identifying the man further as one Captain Ivan X. Vorpatril, Barrayaran Imperial Service, Operations, Vorbarr Sultana. Another mentioned such titles as Aide-de-Camp to Admiral Desplains, Chief of Operations, with a complicated building address featuring lots of alphanumeric strings. There was also a strange little stack of tiny rectangles of heavy paper, reading only Lord Ivan Xav Vorpatril, nothing else. The fine, black, raised lettering bumped under her curious fingertips. She passed them all up for Rish’s inspection.

On sudden impulse, she drew off one of his polished shoes, which made him twitch in a scrambled reflex, and looked inside. Military issue shoes, aha, that explained their unusual style. 12 Ds, though she couldn’t think of a reason for that to be important, except that they fit the rest of his proportions.

“Barrayaran military stunner, personally coded grip,” Rish reported. She frowned at the handful of IDs. “These all look quite authentic.”

“Assure you, they are,” their prisoner put in earnestly from the floor. “Damn. By never mentioned any lethal blue-faced ladies, t’ ratfink. Izzat…makeup?”

Tej murmured in uncertainty, “I suppose the best cappers would look authentic. Nice to know they’re taking me seriously enough not to send cut-rate rental meat.”

“Capper,” wheezed Vorpatril—was that his real name? “Thass Jacksonian slang, innit? For a contract killer. You expectin’ one? That ’splains a lot…”

“Rish,” Tej said, a sinking feeling beginning in her stomach, “do you think he could really be a Barrayaran officer? Oh, no, what do we do with him if he is?”

Rish glanced uneasily at the outside door. “We can’t stay here. Someone else could come in or out at any moment. Better get him upstairs.”

Their prisoner did not cry out or try to struggle as they womanhandled his limp, heavy body into the lift tube, up three flights, and down the corridor to the corner flat. As they dragged him inside, he remarked to the air, “Hey, made it inside her door on t’ first date! Are things lookin’ up for Ma Vorpatril’s boy, or what?”

“This is not a date, you idiot,” Tej snapped at him.

To her annoyance, his smile inexplicably broadened.

Unnerved by the warm glance, she dumped him down hard in the middle of the living room floor.

“But it could be,” he went on. “…To a fellow of certain special tastes, that is. Bit of a waste that I’m not one of ’em, but hey, I can be flexible. Was never quite sure about m’cousin Miles, though. Amazons all the way for him. Compensating, I always thought…”

“Do you ever give up?” Tej demanded.

“Not until you laugh,” he answered gravely. “First rule of picking up girls, y’know; she laughs, you live.” He added after a moment, “Sorry I triggered your, um, triggers back there. I’m not attacking you.”

“Dead right you’re not,” said Rish, scowling. She tossed shawl, vest, and gloves onto the couch, and dug out her stunner again.

Vorpatril’s mouth gaped as he stared up at her.

A black tank top and loose trousers did not hide lapis lazuli-blue skin shot with metallic gold veins, platinum blond pelt of hair, pointed blue ears framing the fine skull and jaw—to Tej, who had known her companion and odd-sister for her whole life, she was just Rish, but there were good reasons she’d kept to the flat, out of sight, ever since they’d come to Komarr.

“Thass no makeup! Izzat…body mod, or genetic construct?” their prisoner asked, still wide-eyed.

Tej stiffened. Barrayarans were reputed to be unpleasantly prejudiced against genetic variance, whether accidental or designed. Perhaps dangerously so.

“’Cause if you did it to yourself, thass one thing, but if somebody did it to you, thass…thass just wrong.”

“I am grateful for my existence and pleased with my appearance,” Rish told him, her sharp tone underscored by a jab of her stunner. “Your ignorant opinion is entirely irrelevant.”

“Very boorish, too,” Tej put in, offended on Rish’s behalf. Was she not one of the Baronne’s own Jewels?

He managed a little apologetic flip of his hands—stun wearing off already? “No, no, ’s gorgeous, ma’am, really. Took me by surprise, is all.”

He seemed sincere. He hadn’t been expecting Rish. Wouldn’t a capper or even hired meat have been better briefed? That, and his bizarre attempt to protect her in the foyer, and all the rest, were adding to her queasy fear that she’d just made a serious mistake, one with consequences as lethal, if more roundabout, as if he’d been a real capper.

Tej knelt to strip off his wristcom, which was clunky and unfashionable.

“Right, but please don’t fool with that,” he sighed. He sounded more resigned than resistant. “Tends to melt down if other people try to access it. And they make issuing a replacement the most unbelievable pain in the ass. On purpose, I think.”

Rish examined it. “Also military.” She set it gingerly aside on the nearby lamp table beside the rest of his possessions.

How many details had to point in the same direction before one decided they pointed true? Depends on how costly it is to be mistaken, maybe? “Do we have any fast-penta left?” Tej asked Rish.

The blue woman shook her head, her gold ear-bangles flashing. “Not since that stop on Pol Station.”

“I could go out and try to get some…” Here, the truth drug was illegal in private hands, being reserved to the authorities. Tej was fairly sure that worked about as well as it did anywhere.

“Not by yourself, at this hour,” said Rish, in her and no backtalk voice. Her gaze down at the man grew more thoughtful. “There’s always good old-fashioned torture…”

“Hey!” Vorpatril objected, still working his jaw against the stun numbness. “There’s always good old-fashioned asking politely, didja ever think of that?”

“It would be bound,” said Tej to Rish, primly overriding his interjection, “to make too much noise. Especially at this time of night. You know how we can hear Ser and Sera Palmi carrying on, next door.”

“Houseless grubbers,” muttered Rish. Which was rude, but then, she’d also had her sleep impeded by the amorous neighbors. Anyway, Tej wasn’t sure but that she and Rish qualified as Houseless, too, now. And grubbers as well.

And that was another weird thing. The man wasn’t yelling for help, either. She tried to decide if a capper, even one who’d had the tables so turned upon him, would have the nerve to bluff his way out past an influx of local police. Vorpatril did not seem to be lacking in nerve. Or else, against all the evidence, he didn’t think he had reason to fear them. Mystifying.

“We’d better tie him up before the stun wears off,” said Tej, watching his tremors ease. “Or else stun him again.”

He did not even try to resist this process. Tej, a little concerned for that pale skin, vetoed the harsh plastic rope from the kitchen stores that Rish unearthed, and pulled out her soft scarves, at least for his wrists. She still let Rish tug them plenty tight.

“This is all very well for tonight,” said Vorpatril, observing closely, “especially if you break out t’ feathers—do you have any feathers? because I don’t like that ice cube thing—but I have to tell you, there’s going to be a problem come morning. See, back home, if I didn’t show up for work on time after a night on the town, nobody would panic right off. But this is Komarr. After forty years, assimilation into the Imperium’s going pretty well, they say, but there’s no denying it got off to a bad start. Still folks out there with grudges. Any Barrayaran soldier disappears in the domes, Service Security takes it up seriously, and quick, too. Which, um…I’m thinking might not be too welcome to you, if they track me to your door.”

His comment was uncomfortably shrewd. “Does anyone know where you are?”

Rish answered for him: “Whoever gave him your picture and address does.”

“Oh. Yes.” Tej winced. “Who did give you my picture?”

“Mm, mutual acquaintance? Well, maybe not too mutual—he didn’t seem to know much about you. But he did seem to think you were in some kind of danger.” Vorpatril looked down rather ironically at the bindings now securing him to a kitchen chair, dragged out to the living room for the purpose. “It seems you think so, too.”

Tej stared at him in disbelief. “Are you saying someone sent you to me as a bodyguard?

He appeared affronted by her rising tones. “Why not?”

“Aside from the fact that the two of us took you down without even getting winded?” said Rish.

“You did too get winded. Dragging me up here. Anyway, I don’t hit girls. Generally. Well, there was that time with Delia Koudelka when I was twelve, but she hit me first, and it really hurt, too. Her mama and mine were inclined to be merciful, but Uncle Aral wasn’t—gave me a permanent twitch on the subject, let me tell you.”

“Shut. Up,” said Rish, driven to twitch a bit herself. “Nothing about him makes sense!”

“Unless he’s telling the truth,” said Tej slowly.

“Even if he’s telling the truth, he’s blithering,” said Rish. “Our dinner is getting cold. Come on, eat, then we’ll figure out what to do with him.”

With reluctance, Tej allowed herself to be drawn into the kitchen. A glance over her shoulder elicited a look of hope from the man, which faded disconsolately as she didn’t turn back. She heard his trailing mutter: “Hell, maybe I should’ve started with ponies…”


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