Miles found himself flat on his back, stripped naked, lying on what felt like rough wooden boards and manacled at the neck, wrists and ankles. Oddly enough, instead of being spread-eagled, his legs were bound together. Raising his head, he could just make out that he was on a circular table, with a large bulls-eye painted on the boards, under his knees.
Bulls-eye aside, he thought, I must look like that ancient symbol for nuclear disarmament.
Something drew his attention upwards. He was in a narrow circular chamber of rough stonework without an entrance of any kind. Probably the inside of a tower -- or a very deep dungeon -- it was lit by iron flambeaux holding pearly glowing globes, mounted high above. Somewhat lower, about three meters above his head, was a setback forming a circular gallery for eight spidery, seated figures in hooded robes. They were spaced evenly around him, their faces hidden in the shadows of their hoods.
Caught in their webs, he involuntarily thought to himself.
The figure at his feet addressed him:
"Foolish mortal, you have wasted your time in worrying over supposed plots against Our Empire." Immediately, the figure to its left added:
"You should be worrying about your crimes against Our Empire, and the punishment you richly deserve!"
The next figure continued the round-robin dialogue:
"Know, mortal, that your efforts to reason out which one of Us is acting against you is futile."
"All of Us have conspired together to bring you here to face Our judgment on your recent activities in the Vor-vain System."
"It is fitting that We are gathered here not to punish the Lord Vorkosigan, who has diplomatic immunity... "
The haut-Governors, at last! Miles mentally composed his first clever leading question, but the words died in his mouth as the figure above his left hand held up a battered, diminutive corpse, still partly clad in tan and brown rags, a few hanks of blonde hair clinging to its scalp. Commander Cavilo -- somewhat the worse for wear. While somehow working her half-fleshed jaws like a hand-puppet, the faceless haut quoted in falsetto:
"'The twisted dwarf who made me betray you has a double identity. Although the Barrayaran Emperor Gregor names him Lord Miles Vorkosigan, his sworn vassal, he also styles himself 'Admiral' Miles Naismith, leader of the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet.'"
That set them off round-robinning anew.
"... Rather, we shall punish instead the commander of the Dendarii, the self-named 'Admiral Naismith,' formerly of Beta Colony."
"His heinous crime is compelling Commander Cavilo to renege on her solemn promise to help My predecessor to take possession of the Vor-vain System!"
"And, rousing the Hegan Hub to a most unwelcome defensive posture."
"Foolish mortal, do not suppose that the significance of the name 'Dendarii' could escape the attention of Our Imperial Security analysts!"
"But fortunately for Our diplomatic relations, We find it most convenient to identify you, without question, as Naismith the Betan." He pronounced it beaten.
They paused. Just as well; Miles' neck was getting sore from trying to follow their voices around the room while chained to the table. But then they called out in unison, "Bring forth the Bodymaster," and sniggered, "Heh, heh, heh!"
Miles wondered if he should join in the sniggering, but doubted his would fit in.
The Bodymaster entered. Miles didn't notice how; he was too frightened to care. It could be no other being. He had no doubt. Its immense hairless body, crissed-crossed with leather straps and iron chains, glistened with oily sweat. "I am the Bodymaster!" it bellowed, unshipping an oversized morningstar from a holster on its massive belt.
Then he knew it wasn't a dream.
The first blow smashed both his kneecaps, yet the pain was curiously muted and distant. Probably a local anesthetic, Miles mused, watching the blood welling out of his ruined knees. Did they really think a Vor would pass out from the pain and hold up the show?
The next blow crushed his left femur. Plastic replacements for sure this
time... The realization came over him that this was really crude.
Where's all those famous Haut artistic refinements?
Where's all those famous Haut artistic refinements?
"Refinements... ?" the Bodymaster hissed, reading his mind. It twisted up the features of its too-narrow face into a vile grin, letting its eyes -- not quite of a line, Miles noted -- track up from his thighs, telegraphing its next target.
It swung. He screamed --
...and was jackknifing up in his bed, hands arching protectively downward, still safe in his Embassy bedchamber. Safe for now, anyway.
There was a diffident rap at the hall door, then the staffer who had brought the tea that afternoon stuck her head in.
"Are you quite all right, my lord?" she inquired. "I was passing by, thought I heard you calling... ?"
"Y-yeah, 'm all righ'." Try again. "Had a bad dream."
"Very well, then... " The door closed silently.
His heart wouldn't stop pounding. Cavilo, you are a walking, talking security breach of my covert ops identity while you live. Miles wished he'd asked Illyan to have a mole take out the little blonde psychopath. He'd just about managed to forget about his proletarian alter ego while trying to maneuver about in the higher levels of Cetaganda's ruling castes. Down, boy. The haut and the ghem must see only the Vor Lord, not the mercenary Admiral.
And Cetas at home weren't half as... straightforward as when they were elsewhere. Trying to take over a solar system, say. He'd assumed that if any ghems did manage to track down Cavilo and her surviving Rangers beyond lllyan's false trails and other obstructificatons, they would shoot first and ask questions later. They were so good at doing that, especially when they were on a formally sworn hunt for revenge. He hadn't guessed the ghem might want Cavilo for intelligence, too. Evidently his subconscious no longer counted on a "shoot-first" strategy.
Great. Another headache to dump on Illyan. Assuming he isn't already on
top of this angle. This whole mess is getting more complicated than I
© 1994 by Richard M. Boothe (MadMLS@aol.com)
Current version by Michael Bernardi, email@example.com
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Last updated: July 13th 2001