"Cetagandan ships?" Captain Vorleson confirmed.
"Yes, sir," Ensign Vorrash answered. "A pair of them."
Vorleson rubbed his chin. "What the..."
"Could be a response to our attacks on Komarran ships," Commander Vorkosigan spoke up. "Komarr cooperated with Cetaganda in allowing their ships free passage on the way to invade Barrayar. Perhaps this is how the Cetagandans are repaying that assistance."
"Could be," the captain answered. "Or a prelude to another invasion attempt on their part. Either way, we can't allow them to pass unchallenged."
Commander Gettyern, the executive officer, responded, "Orders, sir?"
"We have to avoid fire from the second ship while we attack the first. We know we can outmaneuver them. We have a bit of a speed advantage. Equal weaponry." He paused. "Bring us around the side of them. Quickly. Let's try to catch them by surprise, before they make the first move. Turn to starboard, full speed."
"Full speed, helm," Gettyern called. "Turn...five zero. Now!"
"General quarters," Vorleson announced and the order was passed by comm through the ship. Every crewmember should be at his duty station in about a minute or so...according to the last drill.
"Firing, sir," Ensign Cheshka announced.
Vorleson reached out for a handhold on the nearest chair as the ship began twisting away from the coming plasma bolt. The move was successful and the shot went wide.
"Back on course to target," Vorleson announced. "Weapons..."
"Activated and tracking, sir," Vorkosigan responded. "Not quite in range yet."
"Wait for my order."
Of course I will. My initiative doesn't extend to ignoring protocol or orders. New captain. Not used to his crew. Commander Vorkosigan put that out of his mind and concentrated on his tracking scope. This was not the time to think about that.
"Turn toward him, four five," the captain directed the helmsman and the ship tilted into its turn.
"Target acquired," Vorkosigan called out.
"Firing," Cheshka informed the captain.
Helm was waiting on the order to evade the shot; the ensign's hands were poised over the controls, ready to move. But the order didn't come.
Commander Vorkosigan pressed in and held the button for continuous fire of the plasma weapon. Bolts of bright energy escaped, one after the other, hitting squarely on the Cetagandan ship's center of mass.
However, in the meantime, the plasma bolt impacted the 'Vormoor' and the ship rocked, knocking most of the men out of their chairs. Vorkosigan had prepared, remembering the warning. Braced, feet pressed against the lower part of the instrument panel, to wedge himself into his seat, he held on, knowing that he had to breech the shield before the shots would impinge on the enemy ship's hull.
The ship went up in a bright flash. There was no celebration though. Vorrash called out, "Second ship came around behind us while we were attacking. Right on our tail, sir."
"Evasive maneuvers," Vorleson answered calmly. His voice sounded calm but his pacing of the command center betrayed his nerves.
All the crewmembers prepared for the unexpected and, at times, wild moves that would be necessary to try to shake the ship following so closely. And there was the distinct possibility at any second that...
"Firing, sir!" Cheshka called.
Vorleson stepped toward the helmsman, almost snarling in a terse voice, "Get us out of the line of fire! NOW, Ensign!" A clear order, with a lot of prerogative, not giving a specific course. The ensign could move any direction that he judged would be the best to get the 'Vormoor' out of danger.
Commander Vorkosigan watched the scope, seeing the bright flash coming. He held on, waiting for the impact. But the ship moved suddenly to the left and down and the bolt went right by them.
"Get behind him," Vorleson said to the ensign.
"I'll try, sir. He's still close behind us."
"You'll do more than try, Mister."
"Yes, sir," the man answered stiffly.
"Firing again," Cheshka announced.
"Evasive," the captain said.
But the helmsman steered right into the path. The Cetagandan commander had correctly predicted his reaction. The Vormoor shook wildly. Lights dimmed and came back up. Vorkosigan could feel himself lifting out of his seat. He held on.
Damn it! Why are all weapons installed to fire forward? Because they don't think we can fight and run. Run to save the ship and then worry about fighting. Trying to target an enemy while the helm is trying to get us away only interferes with operations. The helm may not know who is firing at whom. One shot and I could rattle them enough to let us get further away. Two shots and I could dent the shield.
"Damage control," Vorleson called. "I want that gravity back...soon." He hung on to a chair, legs flailing as he tried to pull himself down. Then the ship took a sudden turn, trying to prevent being hit again and the captain was torn from his precarious hold.
The bolt grazed the ship and the momentum knocked the floating crewmembers away from the ceiling. A few hit wall or floor hard. Thuds and groans sounded under the noise of the battle. Others managed to grab briefly to something or someone to slow their momentum. Some of the men had managed to stay in their chairs. The ones who didn't have to be very mobile, and needed to stay at their stations in the thick of fighting were strapped in...helm, for example. The floaters grabbed wildly for anything to hold onto before they could float back to the ceiling.
"Taking evasive, sir!" Vorrash replied. "They're damned good guessers."
"Then...do something unexpected...radical. Turn and fly at them!"
"Do it! They are going to keep shooting until they get us. Weapons."
"Prepared," Vorkosigan announced. "Ready to acquire target as we come around."
"Wait for my order. My complete order."
What does that mean? I followed orders before. What did he add? But that could wait until later too. The commander was staring hard at the scope, waiting for the ship to appear.
The 'Vormoor' completed the turn and Vorleson called out, "Accelerate to full speed!"
Ensign Vorrash didn't think much of that suicidal sounding order, but this was hardly the time or place to argue. He complied, hoping that Vorkosigan continued to be as good as shot as he had been since taking over the weapons station.
"Targeted," the commander said calmly.
"Fire...not continuous pulse."
Vorkosigan almost turned in his chair to question that, but he didn't. He fired.
Seconds later. "Direct hit again, sir."
"They are firing at us," Cheshka announced. "Off target."
"Same spot. We can break through the shields with continuing fire."
"Fire, Vorkosigan...and don't tell me how to do my job."
"The Cetagandan shot was wide," Cheshka said in relief.
"Hit, sir," Vorkosigan relayed.
"Fire. How many more shots until we break through?"
"Hit and I'm sure that one did it."
"They have fired," Cheshka called. "It's definite it's off target. They must be too busy to hit us."
"Definite that blast hit the hull."
The bolt was away and the ship exploded. A murmur of relief and congratulations went through the crew.
"Any other ships on scope?" Vorleson asked.
"Nothing showing, sir," Ensign Cheshka answered. "In the range of our sensors, space is clear."
"Stand down from general quarters. Good job, men. Destroyed both ships. Damage control reports to my cabin. Gettyern, you have the conn. Vorkosigan, I want to talk to you in my quarters." Captain Vorleson was gone.
Commander Vorkosigan could feel the eyes on him. Were they all wondering, as he was, what this was about? Or did they know already and were watching for his reaction? He stood and straightened his uniform.
"You wanted to see me, sir?" Vorkosigan saluted and stood at attention before his captain.
"Yes, I wanted to see you, sir," the man said mockingly. "I'd heard you had a good record on this ship."
"I do my duty to the Imperium, sir."
"Does your duty to the Imperium include ignoring your captain and following your own prerogative instead of following orders?"
"Excuse me, sir?" Vorkosigan responded in confusion.
"That first ship. You opted for continuous fire instead of waiting for my order."
"Oh. Yes, sir. However, a single plasma shot bounces off the ship's shield. The best way to broach it is to keep hitting away at the same spot. It weakens and then we can get through to the ship's hull."
"I am very aware of how all this works, Commander."
"So that is your excuse for taking on a command decision for yourself instead of waiting for me?"
"I wasn't trying to usurp your command, sir. I..."
Vorkosigan cleared his throat. He wished he had not started that last sentence now. His mind raced for an alternative answer.
"You what, Vorkosigan?"
He tried not to sigh aloud. "I...was used to Captain Vornant allowing me the freedom to continue firing after I had made sure of my target, sir."
"Oh, I see." The man sat forward and rested his hands on the shelf that served as desktop for him. "First, I am not Captain Vornant. I don't want to be compared to him or second-guessed, as you obviously second-guessed him. Second, before you make the assumption that you can continue as you did under Vornant, I advise you that I make all command decisions. If that means that you have to wait on my order to make each and every shot, then you will wait until I give you that order." He paused. "One other thing, Vorkosigan. No junior officer is going to score points off me with ImpMil, no matter what his father's name is," Vorleson snapped. He waited a long moment as he studied the commander and his reaction, or in this case, lack of it. Then controlled again he asked, "Do you read me?"
"Yes, sir," Commander Vorkosigan answered at once.
"Good. Vornant is gone. He was a disgrace to the service anyway. This ship will be run tighter and cleaner, from top to bottom. Do you more clearly understand your duties and responsibilities, Commander Vorkosigan?"
Vorkosigan executed a sharp turn and walked out of Vorleson's quarters. He walked further down the corridor before he stopped. Great. A sensitive type. Total control over everything. I didn't know that we would get such a creature. It's my own fault. I should have waited to see what he would do before I started responding the way I got used to with Captain Vornant.
Since there were no other enemy ships around and his presence was not required in command, Vorkosigan decided to take the opportunity to have a look around the ship. After the last mission of the 'Vormoor', he had become a bit paranoid. Saboteurs in the engine room and no one noticed, until Sergeant Bothari happened to see one of the men going into an area that was restricted while the engine was in operation. Vorkosigan had decided he would be more alert to things happening on the ship he served with.
"Commander Detha, everything all right?" Vorkosigan asked as he entered engineering.
"Quiet, now that you've quit shaking the ship around," the chief engineer grinned a bit.
"No, overtemps on the engines or blockages?"
"No," he replied emphatically. "And I've been watching, believe me!"
"Good. But don't get fooled. Keep your eyes open to every possibility. If another saboteur managed to get on the ship, he probably wouldn't do the same thing again."
"You can believe me when I tell you that I am not resting."
Vorkosigan nodded and glanced around. "Don't hesitate to tell me if you notice anything out of the ordinary. Anything at all." He paused, wondering if he should say more. "I think that Captain Vorleson is...not entirely familiar with all that happened before. He may be slow to respond."
"I wondered how well he had been briefed. I'll let you know if anything seems odd."
"Carry on." The commander left the engine room. He was walking along the corridor, hands clasped behind his back when he noticed a familiar figure coming toward him. "Sergeant Bothari."
"Sir," the big man answered, and kept walking.
Vorkosigan turned and caught up with him. "How is duty going for you?"
"The same," he answered flatly.
"You've had no problems with Captain Vorleson?"
"The same problems as with any Vor, sir."
"Just a minute." The commander stopped walking and snagged Bothari's sleeve to stop him. At once the sergeant pulled away. His dark eyes were filled with barely controlled anger. Vorkosigan explained at once, "I...sorry. I didn't mean anything by that. I just wanted you to stop for a moment to talk."
"What do you want, sir?"
Vorkosigan was not exactly afraid of Bothari. True, the man had beaten him soundly in a training fight. Bothari was powerful and significantly bigger than him. No, the commander was not afraid of him, but he did respect the man's ability. But he was also fascinated by Bothari for some reason. The sergeant was so very different. That was part of the reason. He seemed "not quite right in the head," as all the crew liked to say it...when they were polite. And Vorkosigan could see that for himself. Bothari was edgy often and seemed as if he were listening to something that only he could hear. And he answered it also. Many times whatever struggle the sergeant was engaged in was etched into his face, as it contorted and then relaxed while he tried to carry on a conversation with someone. The commander was not entirely sure why he was so interested in Bothari. Not sympathy, although he did feel sorry for what pained the man so. More, it was how Bothari was able to get along in the world, with the obvious struggles he had. And, even being an oddity, he still managed to maintain a certain honor that was uniquely his. Those were the reasons Vorkosigan continued to try to reach Bothari, to help, if he could, in the man's struggle.
"I know it takes time for all of us to adjust to a new captain, after being used to Vornant. I only wanted to make sure that you weren't having any problems, Sergeant."
The man's jaw clenched and unclenched. His lips moved, but no sound came out. Finally he seemed to come back to himself. "The same problems as with any Vor, sir."
"Why don't you like the Vor, Sergeant?"
"Because you are Vor."
"Yes, I know, but what about the Vor troubles you?"
Bothari's eyes narrowed. His forehead creased and his fists clenched and unclenched as if some inside battle were raging. "You know what the Vor are. You know why they are different from the common people." A pause. "That is what troubles me, sir." He turned and walked away.
Commander Vorkosigan watched him. Is it that he doesn't have the same position as Vor or the same privileges? Is it power or control? Is it that he had some larger problem with a Vor...something that is part of the struggle inside, and that is what makes him detest the Vor? I don't know what questions to ask because Bothari doesn't answer what I ask. He tells me what he wants me to know.
"Leesa? Leesa?" Vorkosigan closed the door of the apartment behind him. The call had come ahead to Barrayar that the 'Vormoor' was returning after the long mission. She had not come to meet his ship and now she was not home. Perhaps she was there and he had missed seeing her in the crowd and now she was on the way home.
"Excuse me, sir," a timid voice said. "What right do you have to come in?"
The commander turned to look at the young girl who stood with wide eyes staring at him. She shifted her weight from foot to foot and twisted the edge of her apron in her hands.
"I'm Commander Aral Vorkosigan. Leesa is my wife. I live here. Who are you?"
"I'm Julek. A maidservant to milady."
"Oh. Well, I suppose I should have expected that. But...you don't know of me? Leesa didn't tell you I was coming home today? You don't know what I look like?"
"I'm sorry, sir." She ducked her head. "There's so many guests all the time and I'm new. I'm sure she showed me a picture of you. I...I..."
"It's all right. Now we know each other. Where is Leesa?"
"She went out, sir. She didn't say when she'd be back."
"All right. Thank you. I'll just go in to rest while I wait for her."
"Do you require anything, sir?"
"No. Not right now. Thank you."
Julek ducked her head again and hurried away, looking over her shoulder once.
Commander Vorkosigan headed to the bedroom. He peeled off his uniform and stepped into the shower. It felt wonderful to have a real shower. Water over all his body. Not the waterless cleansing systems on the ship. Radiation that was not harmful to humans but deadly to germs and then the body was essentially vacuumed to remove the germ carcasses. Vorkosigan took his time, luxuriating in the warm water.
The man dried and wrapped a dry towel around his body. He made his way to the bed and stretched out. So good to relax in the privacy of his own bedroom. A real room. He was weary from the months away on mission. Soon Aral's eyelids began to get heavy.
"Aral! It's you! Really you!"
The commander was awakened suddenly and unexpectedly by someone crashing down on the bed next to him. Military training, instinctive, almost kicked in as he started to raise his hands in defense. But he woke up more and recognized the voice.
She kissed him long, passionately then laid her head on his chest. "Oh, I didn't think you'd ever get home! If I missed you before, now that we are married, it only seems worse. Months. I couldn't stand it. Did you miss me?"
"Of course I did, Leesa." He stroked her dark curls. "I ached to hold you, just like this."
"Oh! You're going to muss my hair."
"I hope so. I've been looking forward to it."
"No. It took me a long time to get ready. I can't let you muss me."
"Get ready? For what?"
"Well, I didn't know you were coming home today. I just can't turn down this invitation now. It would be so rude! If only you had let me know you were coming."
"There was a call put through, as soon as we made the jump." Aral leaned on an elbow, lying on his side. "You didn't find out?"
"Well...no, Aral. I didn't."
He was disappointed and a bit angry. He was so fatigued. Not only was Leesa going out, she probably expected him to go as well.
"Leesa, I'm too tired to..."
"Well, you needn't worry. You weren't invited. It's for ladies only."
"I'm doing it for you, Aral. You wanted me to learn to be a proper Vor wife, didn't you?"
"Then just remember that I am trying to be what you want me to be."
Vorkosigan pulled Leesa to him. He covered her mouth with his. She tried to pull away, but he wouldn't let her. Finally she gave in and met his kiss, with more passion than he expected.
"How long will it take you to repair your hair?" he whispered breathlessly.
She looked at him with real desire. "I'll think about it a little later."
Aral pulled her to him and gently began unfastening her dress.
Vorkosigan opened his eyes. He was alone in the bed. The sun was well up. He lounged longer, expecting that Leesa was busy giving her maidservant orders for the day. When she was finished, she would come to him. He remembered their time together, and again when she had come home from her social. Leesa was so different from when he left, not very long after their marriage. It must just be loneliness he thought.
I feel kind of lonely myself, come to think of it. I suppose it's the months away from Leesa and...I still don't know her well, after all this time. She contents me as a lover, but there is something missing from our relationship. She operates in a completely different world than I do. I don't fit into the high society atmosphere that she loves so. She tries to seem interested in my life on ship, but I can tell that she waits for me to hurry to finish talking. Still distant emotionally.
"Aral! Why are you still in bed? You must be up soon and ready."
"Ready for what?"
"Well, I do have my social obligations I have to fulfill. If you are going to go along..."
"Well, I promised Lady Vorvelt that I would help her plan for her wedding. I know you don't care about that, but you can visit with her brother while we talk. Then I was going for tea with..."
"You go ahead. I understand that you made all these arrangements before I got here. I won't be a burden on you. I should go visit my father while I am at home." He paused. "How long will you be detained?"
"Oh, until after lunch, I should say."
She smiled. "And then I could come home to be with you. If you want me, that is."
"Of course I want you. That's why I'm asking."
"Very well. Julek will get your breakfast for you. I'll see you after noon then. Please say hello to the Count for me. He has kindly looked in on me a few times in your absence. He's a fine father-in-law."
"It's good to see you, Aral." Piotr shook his son's hand. "Come in and sit down. Tell me how you've been."
"How it is working out with the new captain?"
"Captain Vorleson is different, of course. It will take a bit of time to adjust, but it is working out well."
"Good. You do your job as a soldier. It shouldn't matter to you who commands you. As long as he is loyal to the Emperor, that's all that matters."
"Yes, sir." I expected that from you. It does matter. Some men are very different. Some men don't want to command. They want to be a dictator and abuse the power that is entrusted to them. You won't see it that way though. To you people skills are an unnecessary evil and you ignore them.
"How is Leesa?"
"She is well. Thank you for looking in on her."
"My duty to you and her. I'm sure she doesn't need me to put my nose into her business. She's able to take care of herself. Seems to have a great deal of company at her apartment though."
"Yes, Leesa is a popular person in the capital."
"She certainly is. When I go to Vorbarr Sultana, I hear talk about her all the time."
"Oh?" You don't seek out gossip. If you hear talk about her, it's because it is circulating generously. I suppose Leesa is even more popular than I thought.
"Yes. That's good for you as well. Her name is connected with yours now. She is well thought of in society. It reflects on you. She is making the way for you here while you are away on service."
"Leesa thinks highly of you, sir."
Piotr smiled. "I'm sure she's just trying to make an old man happy."
"I don't agree. She truly does think a lot of you."
"She's a lovely girl. You've married well. Leesa is learning well how to be the proper Vor wife. It was the right thing for her to move up to the capital before you were married. I set a good match for you. Now, if you actually learn to love her, it would only make things sweeter, but if you don't... Well, marriages of convenience still can work too."
Leesa was snuggled against Aral, her head resting on his chest. She sighed a deep sigh of contentment. "Are you happy, Aral?"
"Yes," he answered lazily.
"Am I...good enough for you?"
"Um huh," he murmured.
A hesitation. "Is...that all?"
"I'm just good enough for you?"
"You're great, Leesa. I love you." I really do. I wasn't sure I could come to truly love a girl in an arranged marriage, but I do. I do.
She snuggled closer and toyed with the hair on his chest. "Aral, when you are away...do you...ever have the chance to...meet other girls?"
"Hmm? No. I don't. Why?"
"You don't go to planets on the other side of the jumps?"
"We usually don't."
Aral rolled onto his side to look at her. "Why are you asking this?"
"Well...I just...wanted to be sure that... Aral...you're away for months at a time and I've heard what the Vor ladies say about men and...their desires. Are you able to...wait for me? You wouldn't..."
"Leesa, I love you. I know that means not much to some men, but it means everything to me. When we went through the ceremony, I gave my vow, my word, to love you, only you. Do you know what my word means to me?"
"I've heard you say before..." she trailed off.
"I don't give my word lightly and when I do, it's because I mean what I say. Totally and completely. I gave myself freely to you and you only. I'm your husband now and you are the only lady for me. You have my word on it."
Leesa smiled. "I'm sorry for doubting you, Aral. I just..."
"It's all right. I suppose being alone for so long and having your husband away, your new husband...it must be hard. I understand because I miss you a great deal when I am gone."
"You miss me," she replied thoughtfully. "Those are lovely sounding words. For someone to be lonely because he isn't with me."
"And it is a very, very lonely feeling," he said quietly. Aral looked into Leesa's dark eyes then he leaned in to kiss her. She responded willingly and came closer to him, pressing her body against his.
Aral heard the soft sounds of Leesa's breathing, slow and even. She was a lovely girl, an honorable wife and a satisfying lover. Why had she questioned him about other women? Insecurity? Because he traveled so much and so far away? She didn't understand about the life of a soldier...and never would, no matter how much Aral tried to explain. He would have to learn to accept that about her. And accept her interests. And he would have to accept that there were parts of their relationship that would have big empty places, because they couldn't connect there. As wonderful as it was to be with Leesa, it was also very lonely.
"I...just can't go with you, Aral," Leesa said. "I can't." She turned her head away from him. "I hope you understand. I just... I don't want to have to see you...go away."
He sat on the edge of the bed. "I do understand. I don't like to have to say goodbye, Leesa. It's so hard. When we are apart, I miss you greatly. Now that we've had this time together and you made me feel so loved, it's even more difficult to go away. I don't want to have to go away. But I have to. I have my obligation to the service."
"I know. I'm proud of you. You're so brave. They talk about your exploits even at the socials I attend. The officers on your ship think highly of you."
That surprised Vorkosigan. He wasn't trying to make great show of himself. "I am doing my duty, Leesa. I'm not trying to...create exploits."
She turned back to look at him. "Oh, but you should. You create such a wonderful impression right now. You sound heroic in the tales that come from the Vormoor. You don't tell me much about what happens when you are away, but I hear it anyway. I knew that if you started trying to make a good impression on the political officer..."
"I'm not trying to make an impression on anyone. I'm doing what is expected of me. That's all. I do it to the best of my ability," he replied, a little annoyed.
"All right, Aral. I'm sorry." Leesa's tone became different. "I didn't mean to displease you."
The commander took her hand and gently kissed it. "You didn't. I'm sorry that I spoke harshly to you. I've told you this before. I can make my way fine without relying on any political connections."
"All right, Aral," Leesa said quietly. "I really don't feel well. I know it's because you are going away. I do get these sick headaches when I am upset..."
"It's all right. You stay here and rest. I don't want you to be upset. I'll go on to the ship by myself. I'll miss you, Leesa." He kissed her. She responded, but less willingly than she had during his stay. Just the headache he told himself. Quietly he rose and walked to the door. Aral turned and looked back. He pursed his lips and made a slight kissing sound before he walked out.
Vorkosigan had little to gather before he reported back to his ship. His mind had already made the shift and he was thinking about the mission to come, getting mentally prepared for leaving Barrayar and returning to space, returning to, not war, not yet, but the defense of the Imperium. He was unaware of much around him. The commander started to let Julek know he was leaving. When he walked out into the corridor, Vorkosigan almost ran headlong into someone.
"Oh! Ges. You startled me. I didn't know you were there."
"I'm sorry, Aral," he smiled that brilliant smile of his. "I didn't mean to alarm you. Leesa asked me to come and see you to your ship...since she wouldn't be able to. She didn't want you to have to go alone. Thoughtful girl. Leesa wanted someone to see you off."
"Well...that is thoughtful of her." He paused. "She sent for you?"
"Oh, just minutes ago. My apartment in town is not so far away. Poor Leesa. She gets so upset sometimes and it just goes to her head. She's always been that way."
"Oh? I guess I just didn't pay attention before. I don't remember her having this problem with headaches." Vorkosigan hesitated. "But that's just me, I'm sure."
"Well, we'll have the chance to talk. I'm sorry that I didn't have that opportunity while you were home this time."
"Well, when you're home, there's always so much to be done. I'm sure you are busy too. Just a moment and let me tell Julek that I am leaving and ask her to look in on Leesa."
Proud Piotr had sent his driver and groundcar to take his son to the ship. Vorkosigan and Vorrutyer sat in the rear talking.
"Your first visit home after the wedding," Ges said easily. "I'm sure that Leesa made you feel...very welcome."
"Yes. She was happy to see me," Vorkosigan replied, not looking.
Vorrutyer smiled a bit. "I trust you are...content with your match."
"Yes." The commander was uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation. He almost thought that Ges was going to demand details.
"Good. I know Leesa is content too."
How do you know? What does she tell you? "She told me that she was."
"It's so hard to leave a loved one behind. For me too," Ges sighed. He looked out the window. "Wouldn't it be lovely if you could have your lover with you as you traveled?"
"A woman on a ship? Not likely."
"Yes," Ges chuckled. "You're right. But one can dream, can't one?"
"This is a survey mission," Captain Vorleson announced. "Very different from what you are used to. Our primary duty is not to engage the enemy but to have a look around on the other side of the jump points. ImpMil is interested in what else is in the vicinity there besides the known planets. We are to investigate and make strategic reports on what we find."
"May I ask for what reason, sir?" Commander Gettyern asked.
"Because that is what our orders are, Commander," Vorleson replied flatly. "You are not at liberty to question the orders."
"I...I wasn't, sir. I didn't meant for it to sound that way," he sputtered out his response. "I was just curious..."
"Your duty is not to be curious." The captain walked away from the man.
"I believe it is the plan of the Imperium to begin to look for possible defensible points," Political Officer Commander Vorpasht spoke up. "With a view toward taking action against our enemies, or expanding our hold."
Captain Vorleson turned suddenly. "Commander, who gave you permission to expound on our orders? Or to speculate on them? I just said it is not your duty to be curious."
The political officer liked Vorleson less than he'd liked Vornant. Captain Vornant was difficult and argumentative, but he was that way because he personally disliked Vorpasht. Vorleson seemed to think he had ultimate control of the Vormoor and that the political officer was someone to be ignored and worked around, and Vorpasht was not going to allow either of those to happen.
"I believe that it helps the men perform better when they understand the reasons behind what we do." That was not true. Vorpasht had no such belief. He often had told Vornant that he over explained himself to his men sometimes. However, right now it served his purpose well to use that excuse. This made it sound as if he had morale in mind, which was one of his duties, but Vorpasht had his own interests in mind, and anyway he could provoke a response from Vorleson, he would...to be included in his report of this mission.
"The men will perform to the best of their ability whether they understand or not. They will, or they will answer to me." Captain Vorleson walked to Vorpasht. He stood still and quiet for a moment. "You will answer to me as well."
The political officer was measuring his response. How far did he want to go in this demonstration of power? Vorleson knew the place and function of a political officer. Was this show for his men? Did he really think he was putting Vorpasht in his place?
"I answer to the Political Ministry. You know my responsibilities," he replied coolly. "One of which is to report on the captain...and how well he performs."
The two men continued to stare at each other. The rest of the crew was watching intently. This showdown between captain and political officer was hotter than any between Vornant and Vorpasht. Vorkosigan tried to seem as is he were running the standard instrument checks after leaving orbit. He was listening to every word though. He remembered all that Vornant had told him. Political officers were trouble. Don't back down from one, he will know he owns you then. But don't unnecessarily antagonize one either. A political officer's report doesn't have to contain truth, and any angry political officer can ruin a perfectly capable captain. What was Vorleson's reason for this? Was he so well connected that he didn't think he had to worry?
"You report to the Political Ministry when you are on Barrayar. While on this ship, you report to me." Vorleson turned away before Vorpasht could respond. "We have our orders, men. We go forward...for Barrayar!"
"For Barrayar!" the crew echoed automatically. Learned response, instilled in all soldiers from the beginning of their training. They didn't have to think about it. They just said it.
"Fan out and have a look around," Vorkosigan ordered. "We are looking for defensible spots. Places that are hard to get into and big enough to contain men and supplies. Call in reports of possible spots to me so I can have a look. Report back in an hour...or get left behind. Pair up."
Vorkosigan watched the men troop off. He and an ensign remained at the landing spot. He to oversee the landing team and the ensign because Vorleson didn't believe that any man should be left alone. The boring part of being an officer. Someone should stay near the shuttle and keep an eye on it, be near it in an urgent situation. Captain Vorleson had chosen the commander to be that man. Vorleson was a great believer in delegating work to the lowest rank that he could and expected his officers to do the same.
Commander Vorkosigan would obey his orders, but that didn't mean he had to sit in one spot the entire time. He began to wander around the area, staying close to the shuttle. He took out a pair of binoculars to better see the surrounding area. Hills and valleys. Could contain a good place to set up a base, backed up to a hill, where it would be hard to come in over the hill to attack. If it was a steep incline or rugged.
Vorleson had ordered a preliminary, quick mapping from orbit and from that data he had chosen the spots that he wanted to be investigated further. The duty had fallen to Vorkosigan and the captain had even allowed him to form his own team.
"Experience, Vorkosigan," Vorleson had said. "I suppose one day you'll have a command of your own. This is one of the things you'll have to do regularly. Choose the men you want to take...and I'll approve your choices."
"So big of you, Captain," Commander Vorkosigan murmured to himself now as he looked around. "I think I am able to decide who is capable enough for a simple survey mission."
The commander had grown weary of walking in circles around the shuttle. The ensign had attempted small talk. When Commander Vorkosigan chose to begin walking around, the man opted to sit and relax instead of following. He stayed near the shuttle, resting against it and glancing around lazily.
If Vorkosigan were to stay near the shuttle, there was only so much territory he could cover. The plant life was different than what he was used to, but Vorkosigan was not a botanist. It meant little to him, except that it was different. And there was not a botanist with them. This was not a scientific mission.
Vorkosigan was about to turn back to the shuttle when his comm link sounded. "Vorkosigan here."
"Commander, we've found a spot that looks like it would be ideal," Lieutenant Barnokov informed him. "We are making the report on it."
"Tell me your coordinates. I'll be right there. Ensign, stay here with the shuttle."
The man nodded his agreement and said nothing. The commander turned and began walking.
Good. A possibility on their first foray on the planet. And something for Vorkosigan to do besides walk circles. He headed off into the lightly forested area, looking around as he went. It occurred to him that he hadn't seen much wildlife, but he had not gone out of the clear area where they had landed. A couple of small things had scurried across the edge of the clearing. But now, going into the forest, he knew he should be watchful. Couldn't afford to surprise anything, especially if it was big.
It was a pleasant enough place. Cool temperature and plenty of sun. If he weren't here for military reasons, Vorkosigan could really appreciate the place much more. He checked himself to be sure he was still on the right heading. No real need for him to look over the men's shoulders, except that Vorleson had ordered it.
"You're a commander. You've more experience than the junior officers with command decisions. You will recognize a good stronghold better than they will."
Commander Vorkosigan pushed his way through the underbrush, hardly noticing it while his eyes searched ahead of him. After a few minutes, the forest began to thin again. He could see two men in black fatigues just ahead. Lieutenant Barnokov and Sergeant Bothari.
Vorkosigan thought that Vorleson had agreed to Bothari being on the team simply because he didn't know what else to do with the big man. The commander had figured out one thing about the enigmatic Bothari. He was a good soldier. In that, Bothari knew well how to defend himself in many situations. The sergeant would know well how to find a place in the hills that could be easily defended and shut off from attack.
The lieutenant greeted Vorkosigan with a salute. "Sergeant Bothari saw it," he said as he pointed to the U-shaped vale. Surrounded by three steep sides. Yes, an ideal spot.
"Good work, Bothari."
The man merely grunted in response.
"I've marked the coordinates and recorded some images for Captain Vorleson...with a narrative of my observations. What else do we need, sir?"
"I think that's about it...for now. He wants to know all his options. We will present them to him and then...see what orders he gives us. Have you looked inside?"
"A bit. We walked into it and recorded some images. I didn't go all the way in. Sorry, sir."
"No need to be. Preliminary data. I was just curious." He walked in through the entrance to the natural fort. Barnokov and Bothari were behind him.
The commander stopped and glanced around. He nodded his head in approval. "Yes. This would be perfect. Large enough to contain a good contingent and supplies. Well...I don't know how many men Captain Vorleson has in mind. He never made that clear to us. But this would house a fair amount."
He walked further into it. A separate small forest had sprung up in the vale. "This would have to be cleared out, of course, but shouldn't be difficult. You did image that too, didn't you?"
"Yes, sir. I tried to get good coverage of the entire area."
"Why don't you see if you can find a place on one of these hills looking down into this? Maybe outside you can come up from behind...just to look down over it. Might give the captain a better idea of how difficult it would be to come into this."
"Yes, sir." The lieutenant walked out.
"This is a good choice," Vorkosigan said to Bothari. "A natural fortification. It would require little work to make it livable. Clear out the forest. Have to provide housing of some sort."
"Could tunnel into the hills," Bothari offered.
"Yes," Vorkosigan agreed as he began walking forward toward the trees. Then he froze and he heard a sound, a loud sound. The commander started to turn away when he heard a low growl and snort. "Bothari..."
Then a half-meter high creature with smooth skin and tusks came running out of the thicket. The commander started running away from it. Those tusks were impressive looking and he didn't want to find out first hand how damaging they could be.
Then a sound and a bright flash caught his attention. The odor of burnt flesh came to him. Vorkosigan saw Bothari, plasma arc in hand, standing with legs apart and knees bent. The commander looked behind him and saw a burnt lump lying on the ground.
"Stunning it would only allow it to come after us later," the sergeant said.
"Thank you, Sergeant. You saved me from a painful encounter."
The man re-holstered his plasma weapon. He looked at Vorkosigan with that same unreadable face...except the commander thought he could read it a bit this time. Was that regret on his face? Did Bothari regret saving the hated Vor officer?
"You did your duty in protecting an officer of the Imperium."
"Yes. I did my duty." He paused, jaw clenching and unclenching. "You should be more careful, sir."
"Yes. That was careless of me, wasn't it?"
"Good work, Vorkosigan," Captain Vorleson said. "Looks like we have some promising areas to work with."
"Away from the population."
"Population?" The man's brow furrowed. "We didn't detect anything that indicated civilization. No industrial output into the environment. No large cities."
"Not civilized, sir. Aboriginal people. Nomadic types. That's why no cities were spotted."
"Oh. Well, that is interesting. You encountered them?"
"Hardly a challenge, I would say, if they are primitive."
"They decided to stay away from us after we stunned a couple of them. Odd weapons and I think that they thought we'd killed their men."
"Well, you should have. It would have been a better lesson than stunning. You should have taught them not to toy with us, when we return."
Vorkosigan stood still and indifferent, but inside he had a different reaction. Killing them...for no reason? Just to show them we are stronger than them? Why? We showed them with stunners. When the stunned men wake up, those people will have a bigger mystery on their hands. They will wonder why those men aren't dead. They may think we have some kind of magical power. I think what we did was more effective. Why waste a life? You're probably the kind who approves of killing infants with defects too, aren't you?
"Captain, if a fortification may be built here, we might need to use the native population to do labor for us. Also they would be helpful in informing us about the environment...and possibly dangerous native animals on the planet. Wouldn't it be better to try to talk with them...impress on them that we are stronger so that we can compel them to cooperate with us, instead of just gunning them down?"
"Next time, shoot to kill, Vorkosigan."
The commander said nothing. He was trying to formulate a response that would maintain his honor and pacify his captain. There was none. Honorably he couldn't kill without reason. And his captain had just ordered him to. What could he say?
But Vorleson obviously was expecting no answer, no protest. He walked away.
That didn't solve Vorkosigan's problem though. What was he going to do next time? He wasn't going to kill needlessly, he knew that. How to deal with Vorleson was the real problem. He would have to think about that...
"What kind of ship?" Vorleson asked.
"Unidentified," Ensign Cheshka answered. "Markings don't match any known fleet."
"A single ship?"
"Keep the planet between us and them for the moment. We'll come up from behind when we are ready...and destroy them."
"Shouldn't we at least try to determine who they are before we fire on them?" Vorkosigan asked.
The captain walked over to him. "Why?"
"We don't know their intentions, sir. They may mean us no harm."
"Or they may be here to blow us from space. I'm not going to give them the chance. Right now they may not know we are here. They've made no move that indicates that they do know. We have surprise on our side. I intend not to give that up." He stood and stared for a moment. "Do you have any other questions, Commander?"
Vorleson walked away. "Weapons, on standby. Be ready to fire on my order. Helm, decrease orbit only enough to speed us a bit...five kilometers. How soon will we overtake them?"
"Estimation...half an hour, sir."
"That's plenty of time. We still have our mapping to do. Carry on with that. We'll close slowly on them as long as they are ignoring us. When we begin to loose the planet as shield, then we'll close faster."
"Fire!" Vorleson called.
Vorkosigan hesitated just enough to make the captain angry.
"Damn it! Vorkosigan, fire!"
Even now the ship had made no aggressive moves. When they were well out in the open and knew that the other ship had to have seen them, they had made no aggressive moves toward the Vormoor. It felt very wrong to the commander to do this. He had little choice though. Fire or most likely have Vorleson accuse him of treason.
He held his breath and pressed the button to fire the plasma weapon.
"A hit, sir," the commander said in a low voice.
"Fire again. Continuous fire, Vorkosigan."
Continuous fire? After he had been so adamant before about giving the order for each shot? Was it because there was little challenge to this murder? Or was it because Vorkosigan had hesitated? Vorleson was going to force him to fire on his own discretion now, forcing him to kill. The commander held down the firing button. Bolt after bolt struck the ship until it went up in a bright flash.
"Good aim, Vorkosigan," the captain said flatly. "But you were slow to respond to my order. That could have cost us, especially if that ship had returned fire. Suppose you think about that while you pull extra duty as a disciplinary measure." He turned his back on the commander. "Gettyern, you lead the exploration team for this planet."
Vorkosigan did think about it, a great deal, while he was working in the engine room. While the ship was in orbit about the planet, waiting for the survey team to complete its work, there was little to do in the engine room. All things were running smoothly and even the regular crew was in work slowdown. The commander walked along, watching the men checking readings, being sure of engine operation. His mind wouldn't stop going over what had happened.
"Vorkosigan, it's none of my business," Chief Engineer Commander Detha said. "But you've been decent to me and it opens a door between us. You must have done something to make Vorleson mad for you to be down here, especially when it's slow."
"You're right on both counts," the commander answered quietly. "It is none of your business." He paused. "But I did hesitate to respond to an order."
"Hmm. Should have figured that one. Vorleson seems too correct. Everything has to be perfect for him, and even then it's not right. Before we left Barrayar, he inspected engineering. Vorleson tells one of my ensigns to set up a self-destruct option for this ship. Well, I can imagine how I would react to such an order. I would hesitate too. Why would he want such a thing? Vorleson really blew up over the man's hesitation to answer. He's been pulling extra shifts since we left Barrayar." Detha crossed his arms over his chest. "What do you think is up with him?"
"I don't know what Captain Vorleson is doing. It's not my place to question it. We are here to follow his orders." He started to walk away.
"Just a minute. Then you agree that it's a good thing for us to blow ourselves up...at the captain's whim? Doesn't that sound just a little odd to you?"
"Did your men set up a self-destruct option?"
"Well...did he leave us an option?"
"Then if you find it odd or out of his command prerogative, then you are free to report it to ImpMil or ImpSec...as per regulations." Vorkosigan walked away this time.
Self-destruct? That doesn't make sense. Especially on this mission. We are not engaged in battles this time. Simple exploration. Perhaps if we risked capture by an enemy, Vorleson might not want them to have our ship so they would know our level of technology. But...on a survey mission? Is the captain just so power hungry? Is he testing his new crew? Does ImpMil expect us to do away with the ship at their discretion...or at Vorleson's? Vorleson is very different from Vornant. That is not a surprise. No two captains are the same. But how very different. He seems to have no hesitation to kill, no conscience about it. Does that extend to us? Very odd. Who can I talk to about this...without causing problems for myself?
"That's an interesting story, Aral," Ges said as he sat down on the sofa in the living room of his apartment. This was the first time Vorkosigan had visited Vorrutyer's place. He maintained a nice apartment in the capital for the times when he was home from his military missions. Ges crossed his legs and stared at the commander for a moment. "Very odd. Captain Vorleson never justified himself for this self-destruct option?"
"Ges, he never justified himself on anything. The man gave orders to the political officer...with no option for working around them. They had a showdown in front of the crew over that very thing. It was obvious to me that our political officer was not ready to carry it to a full confrontation, but he didn't completely back down either. I just know that Vorpasht was making a report on Vorleson. He kept a very, very close eye on him. Closer than he ever kept on Vornant. The captain seemed to give orders without even thinking sometimes. He snapped them out immediately in response to situations without taking time to think about it at all. I don't know if he is so confident...or self-serving. Or..."
Ges sat up and rested his elbows on his knees. "Go on."
"Or if he is acting for someone other than himself. I know that sounds so paranoid, but under the circumstances, I don't know what else to think. He's efficient, but he's...overly sensitive about so many things. It almost seems as if he is testing us, pushing us to our limits to see when we will buck at his strict control." Vorkosigan paused. He rubbed his hands together. "He ordered me to fire on a ship that we had not made contact with. Markings were unrecognizable. We didn't know their intentions, who they were. They never made a hostile move against us. And Captain Vorleson ordered me to destroy the ship."
"Well...that is odd. Even for a Barrayaran. If Captain Vorleson was trying to be the perfect military machine, it seems he would have at least tried to find out who these people were and what their mission was. Information that might be of use to ImpSec's intelligence people."
"Yes. I thought the same thing myself."
Vorrutyer looked away a moment. He was trying to watch Vorkosigan without seeming to. It was obvious that this troubled the man, but he was not fearful, just concerned. So cool. Always cool and controlled. What would make him afraid? That was an interesting question.
"Is there a particular reason why you are telling me about this, Aral?"
"No. No particular reason. I needed someone to talk to. Someone who wouldn't run to Vorleson with the information that I had my doubts about him. I couldn't talk to any of my shipmates. It's not that there aren't men I trust, but...I don't trust Vorleson. I think if he thought anyone questioned him in the way I do, he'd fast-penta the whole crew to find out who it was. I thought you'd understand, being in the military yourself."
"And indeed I do. I can say that I would be nervous myself serving with a man like the one you describe." He was silent a moment. "Well, I can do one other thing besides listen, Aral. I could talk to Prince Serg."
"That isn't why I came to you, Ges."
"I know that, but don't you think that if Vorleson is...self-serving, as you put one of the possibilities, that someone should be aware of his behavior?"
"Yes, actually. I had wanted to report it myself. But I was unsure. If this is some sort of test of our crew, then I didn't know how far I would get." He shook his head. "This is all so...surreal. After Vornant we get Vorleson and he seems intent on shaking us up to see who pops out as not willing to support him all the way, no matter how far out he goes. Vorleson does have a very low opinion of Vornant. He thinks he was a bad influence on the Vormoor crew. I've wondered if that's why he behaves as he does, trying to...I don't know." Vorkosigan stood. "Get Vornant out of our system." He walked away then turned to look at Ges. "Does that make sense?"
"Yes. I think I know what you mean. And it could be a possibility. This sabotage on your ship. The incident left a stink over not just the men involved, but over your captain and the crew. Now it's as if someone has sent in an over zealous captain to clean up the stink. He feels as if he wrings the ship and crew out enough, it will get rid of the smell."
"Yes. Something like that."
Ges put a hand to his mouth, rubbing his lips. His soft brown eyes seemed unfocused. "If you at least knew that was the situation, it would make it easier to follow Vorleson, wouldn't it? You would understand and you would know there was an end."
"I suppose. I haven't had time to think on that."
"Then there is the one thing I can do to help you then. I can find out from Serg what is going on. He's a friend. I'm sure he'd see the advantage of helping the ship's crew understand. The men would be better able to do their job if they didn't hesitate so much to try to reason out what Vorleson is up to."
"But if the crew knows what Vorleson is up to, doesn't that reduce the effectiveness of it?"
Vorrutyer stood and walked to Aral. "I'm sure it does. But if our postulation is correct, then we can see that this idea, whoever hatched it, isn't working well. Someone in command should know that...shouldn't he?"
Aral got that odd feeling that he often got under Ges' scrutiny. There was the stirring inside him, but there was also a definite discomfort too. Something about Vorrutyer disturbed him and he didn't know what it was or why it bothered him. Vorkosigan casually turned and walked to a window to look out.
"I suppose you're right."
"Then I should talk to Serg. If there is a problem, I'm sure he'd want to rectify it. If there is no problem, or if this is a case of ImpMil sending Vorleson for a reason, then Serg could set my mind at ease...and tell me to keep my nose out. But at least you would have a better idea what is going on."
How easily Vorrutyer referred to the Prince by his first name only. No title, no other enhancements. They must be good friends indeed.
"If you think that is for the best, Ges. I...don't know. I'll let you be the judge of what's the right thing to do. I didn't come here to ask you..."
"As before. You've never asked me for such favors. But I want to help you, Aral. You are my brother now. I should look out for you, as I am able to."
Vorkosigan hesitated. "Thank you, Ges. Thanks for listening." Vorrutyer made no reply. He only stared. "Well...I should get home to Leesa now."
"Yes. You should. Spend as much time with her as you can while you are home. I know she misses you greatly." Vorkosigan started to leave. "Oh. Aral. Did Leesa mention anything to you about...things that have happened while you were away?"
He turned. "No. Is something wrong?"
"Oh, well, I wouldn't know if anything was wrong or not. She seemed a bit preoccupied when I got home this time. I didn't know if she had indicated anything to you. But don't listen to me. I don't want to worry you. You know how moody Leesa can be at times. I'm sure that's all it is."
"Leesa? Is that you?" Vorkosigan rose from where he had been reading, on the sofa in the sitting room. He could hear her footsteps begin to hurry down the corridor. The commander followed. "Leesa?" He pushed open the bedroom door. Water running. Aral walked to the bathroom and slowly opened the door, just in time to see his wife disappear into the shower.
"Leesa. Is something wrong?"
"Oh, Aral. I didn't know you'd be home. I thought you'd gone to visit with Ges while I was out."
"I did. I finished my business with him." He looked at the pile of clothing dropped in the floor. "Are you in a hurry to get somewhere?"
"No. Aral. I'm not. I was just...trying to freshen myself up for you. I won't be long." Then her tone changed. "You don't mind waiting. Do you?"
"No," he smiled. "I don't mind waiting. Perhaps I could wash your back for you."
"That would be wonderful, Aral. A luxury I never get until you are home."
Vorkosigan lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. Actually staring into darkness. He was looking up but he couldn't see the ceiling. Aral was deep in thought. So much to think about. But then he chided himself. He and Leesa had such a wonderful evening together. That's where his mind should be while he was home. Let other things go. It was only keeping him awake. How long had he lain here in the dark awake?
Then Leesa stirred. She carefully turned and Vorkosigan thought that she was going to come to him, so he lay still to wait for her. However, she seemed to study him a moment and then slowly rose from the bed. The lady tiptoed out of the bedroom, quiet and careful.
Aral thought it odd. Was Leesa up to something? A little surprise? It was so very dark in the room. Had she been able to tell he was awake? He hadn't been able to see her eyes. Or was she going to waken him when she returned? His curiosity was getting the better of him and he rose to follow.
He saw her disappear into the sitting room. Aral went to the door and opened it a crack. Leesa went to the window and opened it. The apartment was on the second level. The only time the window was open was to air the room or when the breeze was pleasant. She hadn't turned the lights on either. What was she up to?
"Thomas," she hissed out. "Thomas."
Vorkosigan closed the door down some more, leaving the merest crack to peer through. Thomas? Leesa hadn't mentioned a Thomas to him. And why would she be calling to him now?
The lady leaned forward some more and brought up a hand. She tossed something out and quickly closed the window. Aral carefully closed the door and tried to hurry quietly back to the bedroom. He lay down in the same position, on his back...and waited.
A couple of minutes later Leesa crept back in. She carefully climbed into the bed and lay down. A soft sigh sounded from her.
Vorkosigan was eating breakfast, casually, trying to conduct himself as he always did.
"Leesa, have you seen Thomas recently?" he asked quietly.
The woman almost choked on her juice. "Excuse me," she coughed. "Silly me. Too big a gulp. Where are my manners? I get a little careless at home where I can relax, not worrying about anyone watching me."
"Good. I'm glad you feel relaxed at our home."
Leesa wiped her mouth and was considering. She decided to finish her meal.
"Well...you didn't answer my question."
"I'm sorry, Aral. I must have been distracted by the juice. What was it?"
"Have you seen Thomas recently?"
"Thomas who, Aral?"
"I was hoping you could tell me that."
Leesa looked at him with such puzzlement that he could have believed her if she said she had no idea what he meant.
"Aral...don't play games with me. Who do you mean? Don't tease me so. You make me feel like that simple country girl I used to be."
Either she doesn't know what I mean or she's good. "I had heard about a new friend of yours, named Thomas. Someone you've met recently?"
"Oh, Aral. There are so many men that I come into contact with every day with all the social events I attend. I could have met ten Thomases and I wouldn't necessarily recall their first names. I rarely call anyone by first name. It's more polite in public to use titles, you see. Something you should be aware of."
"Then you've met him privately too?"
"Aral! What are you talking about? Are you...accusing me of something?"
"What about last night? From the sitting room window. What were you doing in there in the middle of the night, calling to Thomas?"
Leesa put a hand to her chest. "Oh! Don't do this to me, Aral," she laughed. "I had no idea you were there." She glanced toward the kitchen as if looking to see if her maidservant were listening. "You must keep this quiet. I gave my word. Lord Vortessian asked my advice on a very special gift for his wife. Very special. You see their tenth anniversary is coming up...and just days before her birthday. Since it is a special anniversary, he wanted to get a special gift...and let it be her birthday gift as well. I have been helping him shop for something that would serve the purpose well. But society here has such gossips. He often goes out for walks at night. Insomnia, you know. I looked out to see if he were walking and there he was. So I..."
"Leesa, do you think I'm so simple that I can't see through that flimsy excuse?"
Her mouth fell open. Then it began moving, but no words came out. Leesa jumped up and ran to the bedroom, flinging herself on the bed, sobbing deeply.
Vorkosigan followed. He watched her a moment before he approached.
"Aral..." she sobbed out. "Aral...you are so mean." Leesa took a moment to cry. "I've tried so hard to do everything you wanted. You wanted me to learn how to behave in society." A long pause. "I've tried so hard!" She dabbed at her nose. "Everything I do, I'm doing to make you happy, to make our place in the capital and in Vor society. I have to go to all these functions." She waved a hand. "I'm so tired. Everyday I have something I have to attend to. I thought it's what you wanted. I'm trying to be the perfect wife. Trying so hard. Now...now...I have a gentleman do me the honor of asking me to help him. A very important lord. It was an honor that he asked me of all the ladies he could have asked. And you think that...that we..." Leesa started sobbing all over again.
Vorkosigan sat on the bed. He paused a moment then reached over and pulled Leesa to him. She buried her head into his shoulder.
"You must know I love you, Aral. I've tried to make you happy. Every time you come home, I spend as much time as I can with you...while keeping the social engagements too. I do it all for you. And when I am with you, don't I give all to you? I never complain. I give myself completely to you. I thought I was making you happy, Aral. I've tried to love you and make you feel like we had the best marriage. And this is how you treat me."
"Shh. I'm sorry, Leesa. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be jealous. It is an odd situation. I mean...this man walks by in the middle of the night and you just happen to see him."
Leesa didn't move. "Lord Vortessian is well known in this area. Everyone knows when he will be out walking. He always stays awake until well into the morning. You can ask anyone. They all know not to call on him until after noon. I just wanted to help. I was giving him the list I made. I didn't want to make an appointment to see him while you were home. We have such little time together and I didn't want to make it less by going to see him. What did it hurt for me to toss that to him? He's married, Aral. What you suggest dishonors he, his wife and me. What would happen with his wife if she heard you suggest such a thing? She would be ready to leave him for no reason."
"I'm sorry, Leesa. I really am. I didn't mean to hurt you. You're right. I have dishonored you. You are trying to fit in, even if it means...catering to the eccentricities of some Vor lords. You're right and I'm so very sorry. How can I undo what I've done?" Aral finished quietly.
Leesa sat up. Her lovely face was tear streaked; her eyes red. She dabbed at her face.
"How can I make this up to you?" Aral cupped her chin with his hand. "I'm so sorry, Leesa."
She leaned forward to kiss him. He was a little surprised. It was not what he expected after the accusation she'd made, but he returned it gently and passionately.
Leesa pulled away from him. She tugged at a large bow on the front of her dress.
"I thought you had things to take care of this morning," Aral said.
She smiled demurely, her eyes bright. "Other things can wait. I want you to know how much I really love you, Aral."
As Aral drove to his father's house, his mind wandered back to Leesa. Yes, the whole setup she had described was very odd, but the more he considered his own statement, the more he wondered about Lord Vortessian rather than Leesa. You are trying to fit in, even if it means catering to the eccentricities of some Vor lords. And one thing he had learned about some of his father's friends and acquaintances, Vor lords could be not just eccentric, but down right strange at times. Yes, Vortessian was the one to beware of, not Leesa. And she had been so good to forgive him and then to love him so sweetly; at the expense of her own already planned activities. Yes, she was so good to him, but there still was a longing inside him for a relationship in which he could share more of himself, what really made him the man he was. But he couldn't expect Leesa to be a perfect Vor wife and to understand the very masculine part of him that gloried in his service to the Imperium. No woman would ever understand that, he realized...and sighed.
"Sounds like a quiet mission," Piotr said. "A survey mission? Sending soldiers on a survey mission?"
"To look for fortifications on key planets. There was a reason to send soldiers."
"Hmph. Prelude to invasion?"
"I don't know, sir. The crew was not told everything. We only know what our mission was, not what the future plans are."
The Count nodded his head. He leaned back in his big armchair and clasped his hands over his belt. "You getting along with this new captain all right?"
"It's still too early to tell, sir." I know why you are asking. You want to know if I am getting in good with him, to use him and his influence for myself. The same political game.
Piotr pointed a finger. "Be certain. If you expect to make a career of the military, you can't afford to be uncertain. To move ahead, you have to forge favorable relationships with key people."
"Yes, sir." Aral had no intention of using people to get ahead, but it did little good to talk to his stubborn father about it. He knew he couldn't change the man's mind. It was easier to go along with him...and then do what he knew was right.
"How is Leesa?"
"She's well." A pause. "I thought you knew how she was. I thought you'd gone by to visit her, sir."
"I've been by there. She's out more than she's in. Hard even to make an appointment to see her. Busy girl."
"Oh. Well...she does have all of her society functions."
"Is that what it is?" Piotr said noncommittally.
Commander Vorkosigan narrowed his eyes. "What do you mean?"
"Nothing at all. I just wondered."
Aral was thinking about that and how the Count had phrased his last sentence. Because Piotr was so cool and distant, Vorkosigan had learned to read his body language and voice tone. It was, sometimes, the only way to know what the man was really thinking. He had meant something by what he'd said.
"Well, if you really want to know what's on my mind..." Piotr allowed his voice to trail off.
"If there is a problem, I'd like to know about it, sir."
"I was just wondering about...something. Leesa is trying hard to fit in well in society, but don't you think she should have other things on her mind too? How about a child? That would settle her down and it is part of her responsibility to you also. She should provide you with an heir. Haven't you thought about that?" He paused a long moment. "Aral, it has been over a year already. Is there any reason why you wouldn't be trying for an heir...frequently?" Do you have another lady on the side? You'd better not! I'm not claiming any bastard as my heir if you get her pregnant!
Vorkosigan froze for an instant. That last sentence grabbed him. Is there any reason that you wouldn't be trying for an heir...frequently? He can't know about...that stirring in me. I haven't told anyone! Haven't even hinted at it. How could he know? Have I been obvious in the way I have reacted to anyone? No, that can't be! Those feelings disgust me. I know I haven't been open in any way because I am trying to bury it, ignore it. There is only one person who gives me a problem with hiding it and Father has never seen me with Ges. He can't mean that...about my trying for an heir.
"Aral, you have your duty to the Emperor, in his service, but you also have a duty to your wife and a duty to me. You need to take that girl in hand. She needs something to keep her busy besides all these socials. They help her in ways, but there's a lot of frivolity there too. Now that she's making her way, it's time for the next step. Go home to Leesa and spend your time with her." Piotr stared hard at his son. Then he pointed a finger. "Stay with her as much as you can when you are on Barrayar. Get that girl impregnated. I know it sounds like I'm poking my nose into your personal business, but this affects me too. I have to think about the future Count Vorkosigan, you know. And I have to wonder what kind of man he will be if he has a flighty, frivolous mother. Settle her down soon before she becomes an embarrassment!"
"Aral, I've decided to stay home with you tonight."
"Really? This is the second night in a row. Won't your friends be upset with you for canceling your plans to attend their socials?"
"I don't care. I understand how important it is for me to spend time with you."
"Leesa, I'm sorry..."
She leaned down to put a finger to his lips. "Shh. That is forgotten. I've forgiven you. It's obvious you didn't understand and I suppose it did look very odd...in the middle of the night like that. But that is behind us. I know you won't have many more days home before you have to leave again...so I have decided that I can attend as many socials as I want when you are away. My place right now is here...with you."
Leesa took the viewer from Aral's hands and set it aside. She seated herself in his lap and began toying with his hair and running her fingers over the skin of his face.
"How does that feel, hmm?"
He closed his eyes and enjoyed the gentle touch. "Mmm..."
"Good. That is what I want to hear." Leesa began planting kisses softly on his neck and face.
She smiled. "Good. I must be doing it right. Am I?"
Aral wrapped his arms around his wife and stood. He carried her to the bedroom and kicked the door shut with his foot.
Vorkosigan stopped and looked back. Ges Vorrutyer was hurrying his way.
"Thank goodness I caught you before you got away. I didn't know you were leaving today."
"Sorry, Ges. I intended to let you know but...I've been a little busy the last few days."
"Oh? Interesting. I've heard that Leesa has been out of circulation the last few days," he grinned.
"What did you want?" Aral asked, deliberately ignoring the remark.
"I just wanted to tell you to not worry about Vorleson. I still don't know the entire story on him yet. Serg did look into his record and his orders. I think there is something hush-hush about him. Serg wouldn't tell me everything. But he said the man is trustworthy, just over zealous. He is being watched by his superiors so I wouldn't worry about him too much, if I were you."
"Oh...all right." Vorkosigan considered. "All right. I won't worry then. If the Prince vouches for him, then I suppose it would be very disloyal of me to question the captain."
"Well, I am still working on Serg to tell me more, but right now I think I feel confident to say that you shouldn't be overly concerned about him. Just try to follow his odd orders as best you can. And...if you do encounter some problems, I've extracted a promise from Serg to look after you."
"Humor me, Aral. I told you, you're my brother now. Serg is my friend. He's been a good and...useful friend. I don't mind asking him for favors. He is reasonable...and will let me know if I go too far. Besides that, Serg does have an interest in you."
"Because of me, I admit it. I have told him so much about you. So...don't worry about anything. We'll both take care of you...if anything should go wrong."
"Vorkosigan, I'm giving you another chance. I know that you and I didn't quite get along last mission. But I think you have potential. There can be some good to your resistance to blindly follow orders. It can be bad, but it can also indicate the strength of spirit you would need in command," Vorleson said. "So, I'm turning over all the survey activities to you. You can plan the orbital activities, choose the sites to investigate and carry out the exploration.
The commander was taken aback by the sudden turnaround. "Uh...thank you, sir."
"Your responsibility. I'll be here for you if you have any questions, but it's all yours."
"I appreciate your confidence, sir."
"Nonsense. You have a good record, even if you are a bit stubborn at times. Dismissed."
Commander Vorkosigan saluted and turned to leave the captain's quarters. He stopped outside to consider the turn of events. Was that just Vorleson's choice, or could Ges have had anything to do with it? Who could say? He put it out of his mind. Now he had something real to occupy his thoughts. A bit of a smile formed as he walked away from Vorleson's quarters. Now he could really show what he was capable of.
Aral lay on his bunk, thinking. He had some few hours before the first survey trip. He wondered what Leesa was doing right now. What boring thing was she having to endure to try to find her way in Vor society? How many other Lord Vortessians were out there that she tried to cater to, just to make her place...and for him as well. Obviously Piotr had indicated to her how important it was for the future Count Vorkosigan to be well represented in Vor society. She was becoming a master of working with people and forging her own paths through and around the more problematic ones.
That thought struck him. Strategy. She understood strategy now. Perhaps if he approached her in that way, he could show how strategy was important to him in his assignments, and then he might be able to win her interest in all of him. He still felt the void emotionally that Leesa only loved part of him. The Vor part and the physical part. They didn't share an emotionally deep bond. It was far enough into their marriage that he was beginning to expect that and looked for ways to try to make it happen. But this time, perhaps he had found a way. It was worth a try. Almost anything was. No one truly understood him on a deep emotional level and he so wanted that.
"Move out," Vorkosigan said to his team. "Look for natural fortifications. Complete survey of any likely place. Report in by comm link regularly. Go."
The men began fanning out away from the shuttle. The commander turned to face a lieutenant and ensign. "Stay here with the shuttle. Keep an eye on it and on the skies...and on the surroundings. Contact me at once if you see anyone, or if you see anything that appears threatening."
"Yes, sir," the lieutenant answered.
"Come on, Sergeant. Let's go."
Vorleson had allowed Vorkosigan free reign in conducting this survey, so the man opted to include himself in the exploration, instead of babysitting the shuttle. The lieutenant was easily capable of that. Captain Vorleson believed command officers were the least expendable of his men. Vorkosigan understood his reasoning, but he had to admit an itch to get involved instead of lounging about. Besides, it was not likely that much could happen to him here. If he was careful about the native wildlife, he recalled.
"Don't make sense," Bothari muttered.
"What's that, Sergeant?"
But the man didn't respond. He walked along, hand resting on his plasma arc, eyes searching as he walked and lips moving without making a sound.
"Is something wrong?" Vorkosigan prodded.
"You were sent to engineering before. Cap'n pulled you from this duty. Now you're back...and in charge of one of the survey teams. Don't make sense."
"You're right. It doesn't make sense."
"Cap'n Vorleson don't make sense. Not a good soldier. Cap'n Vornant was better. Sir," he remembered to add.
The commander was a little surprised at the frankness of Bothari, especially considering the fact that he didn't talk a great deal to any of the men, especially the Vor officers. Had Vorkosigan's efforts to try to break through to him begun to work?
Better not credit yourself too much. But keep him talking while he is talking. This chance may never come again.
"Captain Vorleson is very different from Captain Vornant." That's the only admission he would make aloud to any crewmember. "I'm sure that Captain Vorleson is maybe, not very experienced in commanding yet. When he gets more used to it, maybe you'll find his decisions make more sense."
Bothari didn't answer immediately. His face contorted a bit as if he were in pain. His eyes narrowed and he slowed his pace a bit for several steps. Vorkosigan slowed, trying to seem inconspicuous about it, and trying to watch the sergeant without seeming to watch him. Finally the inner battle resolved and Bothari was on the move again.
"Cap'n Vorleson. He's even more Vor than Vornant. I can see he doesn't care about his crew." He paused a moment. "Least you seem to care what happens to the men in your command."
"I do, Sergeant. It doesn't matter to me if they are Vor or not. I am concerned about all the men." Does that make any difference to you? Why do I care? Why does it make so very much difference to me what one man thinks of me? And not even a superior. I can't figure that out. Just as I can't figure out Bothari. I just know that he seems like he is in pain and he seems to need a friend. Most of the men just avoid him. Even the hardest, crustiest man needs a friend. Why do I find the person least likely to accept me to try to help? Bothari is never going to accept help from me, especially if it is obvious help. I can't figure me out either.
"But you're still Vor. If you had to make a choice, you'd save the Vor officers...every time."
Vorkosigan's eyes wandered over the surroundings as he walked. Occasionally he would have a look at the sergeant, but tried to keep his attention on his objective. "I hope I wouldn't have to make that kind of choice, Sergeant. If I had to save men, I hope I could save them all...as many as I can. I don't think I'd take the time to try to decide who was worthy. To me all lives are worthy of saving."
Bothari grunted in response and kept walking.
The commander nodded to himself. He had gotten nowhere. Why did he expect anything different? But he wasn't going to give up either.
Why? I don't know. Because I do care about the men...all of them.
Bothari froze in his tracks. His plasma arc was out instantly. He stood still and stiff as he listened. Also Vorkosigan could see the man's nostrils moving, as if he were testing the air for scent, just like the animal that everyone said Bothari was.
Vorkosigan didn't hear anything right away. However he didn't move, kept listening. He knew Bothari's instincts. The man may have problems, but he was more than capable of taking care of himself in all situations.
He's a survivor. If there's something there, I know he heard it.
Then the commander heard something in the brush, rustling noise and a small cracking sound.
"Not very big, sounds like," Bothari whispered. "Big animals make more noise moving through the bushes. They step on more sticks and dead limbs...bigger feet."
"Maybe we should just go around it."
"If it's hostile, it will come after us. Now or later."
"Yes, you're right and we should understand possible threats if we do decide to use this place."
"I'll go first," Bothari said at once. He walked on, with more silence than Vorkosigan would have guessed from such a big man. Carefully he pushed through the undergrowth and low limbs, plasma arc sweeping back and forth before him. The commander had his arc in hand, but pointed upward. He didn't want to accidentally shoot the sergeant in the back in a tense situation. He was behind Bothari, but to his right.
The sound was louder now. "Not moving. Eating," Bothari whispered.
How did he know that, Vorkosigan wondered. He made a mental note to ask him that later.
Suddenly the sergeant stopped. He gestured with his hand and Vorkosigan carefully moved up next to him. A small dark furry creature was sitting on its haunches, some sort of plant clutched in its paws, and staring wide-eyed at them. Then it dropped the meal and ran. Bothari fired after it, but the thing had disappeared into the greenery and he couldn't really see to aim.
Bothari stared where the creature had been. His jaw clenched and unclenched. He was still pointing his plasma weapon, eyes narrowed. Vorkosigan began to get uncomfortable now. It was odd enough to see these inner battles play out on the sergeant's face, but now he was armed with a deadly weapon while one of them seemed to be happening. He was about to try to talk Bothari out of his weapon when the man lowered it.
"Probably not hostile or it wouldn't have run. It would have attacked. Didn't defend its territory." He holstered the arc.
"Yes, I suppose that's a good estimate," the commander breathed in...in relief.
"You never been around wild animals much? Not even in the service?"
"Didn't think so. Vor don't do that kind of thing. If we had disturbed a territorial animal, it would have done some kind of posturing instead of just running away."
"Oh. All right. I'll remember that."
Bothari began walking again, complete attention ahead of him.
"What else can you teach me about animals, Sergeant?"
"Shoot first. With what you know about them, you'd be dead by the time you figured out if it was hostile or not."
The commander stopped. He was taken aback by the response. Then, in spite of himself, he grinned and hurried to catch back up.
"Good choice," Vorkosigan remarked. "It's not as enclosed as I'd like to see, but the sheer drop behind it makes it impossible for ground troops to come up behind or on the left. You'd know they were coming because they'd have to lower themselves in from those drops."
"Could make a semicircle of defense to cover the front and right," Bothari responded. "Would work better than trying to make two walls. Men could cover each other better that way too."
"Yes, I agree with you."
"Also." Bothari turned and pointed behind him. "That hill is a natural lookout point. You'd see anyone coming at you from the open side. And," he pointed off to his left. "That hill could be first defense of the right side."
"Why would the first make a better lookout point than the second?" Vorkosigan asked, curious about Bothari's reasoning.
"The hill to the right is steeper. Harder to get up, but harder for anyone to come over. They'd have to go around and it would force them to come between these two hills. The hill behind us is easier to get up and down. What you'd need for a lookout. He'd need speed to retreat as invaders came in. The defensible hill, you wouldn't want to give that up. You wouldn't have to. It's harder for invaders to come up on you."
The commander nodded his head. Very good reasoning. He had his own ideas about it, but had wanted to hear Bothari's. He knew he'd been right in assessing the sergeant's ability to defend himself. He had a keen eye for finding locations where he could hide and hole up.
"Good job. Let's have a look around this place and make our report."
Bothari only grunted in response. Compliments were accepted the same as any other statement. He never received anything positive with gladness. Only when someone angered him did Bothari show more than indifferent reaction. He moved closer in to the potential fortification to have a look.
Vorkosigan was making a verbal report into a recording device, beginning with the coordinates of the place. Then he began a description of the physical appearance and why it would be a good fortification. The commander walked in behind Bothari as he talked, glancing around, but using the big man as a shield while his attention was drawn away to his report.
The sergeant was deliberately making a lot of noise as he moved in, to scare out any animals that may have residence in the area. Several creatures scurried out, fussing and screeching at the big man as they ran.
It was only lightly treed close to the sheer drops. That would make it easier to clear, if this was chosen. There were some rock outcroppings from the hill, low, but still could be used as a storage area for supplies.
"Surrounding hills serve as lookout points and possible large weapon emplacements," Vorkosigan was saying into his small device. "Looks like low manpower needed to clear a barrack or supply area. Only animals spotted so far have been small and fearful." He stopped. "Do you hear that, Sergeant?"
Bothari stood for a moment. "Rushing water. There's a steam nearby."
"Yes. See if you can locate it." The man was gone at once. Returning to his report, the commander said, "Natural water source nearby. Will have distance to it shortly." He turned in place while he continued speaking. There were all sorts of noises around Vorkosigan...wind in the trees, birds chattering away, small creatures moving in the trees and brush. He thought that perhaps most of them had been frightened away by Bothari's display and the commander continued his oral report as he stood and turned in place to see all the advantages and disadvantages of the setting.
Then something dropped on him from a tree. Something small, but not docile. The thing began clawing at him, biting and tearing flesh on the sides of his face and neck. Vorkosigan dropped his recorder and reached behind him to get rid of the little monster. That only brought more bites to his hands, but he had to get it off him.
Vorkosigan was losing the battle as the nimble little thing scrambled on his back, evading his grasp. But finally he got a hand on it and flung the thing to the ground, drawing his plasma weapon at the same time. He fried the little creature.
Vorkosigan dropped to his knees as he gingerly passed a hand over his neck. The thing had done a hell of a job chewing him up. Very painful.
Then he heard boots crashing through the undergrowth. Sergeant Bothari dropped to his knees next to the commander.
"I heard you yelling and something screeching." He took a look at what Vorkosigan was unable to see. "This is bad. What did this?"
"Don't know. Couldn't see it...since it was on my back." He pointed to the burnt lump on the ground. "That. Dropped out of the tree onto me."
At once Bothari looked overhead. He pulled Vorkosigan to his feet and got him away from the trees then pressed him back to the ground.
"Let me put something over this. Then we need to get back."
The commander was hard pressed to argue with that. Duty or not, he was in pain.
"Here. Take this." The sergeant handed him an analgesic from the medkit. Vorkosigan downed it dry. He tried to sit as still as he could while the big man bandaged him. It was hard to do though. The injuries were very painful and any touch to them, no matter how gentle was very painful.
"Come on." Bothari helped him to his feet. "Let's get moving."
The sergeant looked around, retrieved it and handed it to the commander. He tried to support Vorkosigan as he walked, but he kept pulling away.
"I can make it," Vorkosigan insisted.
What did that mean? No matter. The commander pushed on, thinking, or trying to think, about where he was going instead of the ache.
By the time the two men had gotten back to the shuttle, Bothari was almost carrying Commander Vorkosigan. The lieutenant ran up to them.
"Some native animal got him. We need to get back to the ship right away."
"We'll have to wait on the other teams."
"Look at him. I've given him everything I could from the medkit. I think whatever got him was toxic. He can't wait much longer," Bothari insisted. "Call them and tell them that you're going to the Vormoor and you'll be back for them."
"I don't know. What if they need us? What if someone down here gets attacked too?"
"Warn them," the big man almost growled. "Commander Vorkosigan needs medical attention right away. You're going to kill him with your hesitation."
That stirred the young officer to action. He called immediately to the teams. They didn't seem concerned that they would be stranded for a short time. None of them had run into any serious problems and were well busy. In fact a couple of them seemed to resent the interruption.
"Let's go," the lieutenant said to Bothari.
"You did the best you could with what you had, Sergeant," the chief medical officer said. "It was better than doing nothing. Good hand with the bandaging. You know first aid?"
The big man nodded in response.
"I think he's going to be fine. You got him back in plenty of time. Whatever that thing was, it was toxic, but there's enough time to counteract that. Commander Vorkosigan is going to be sick a couple of days, but he'll be fine. Gonna need some careful repair work to some of these wounds. Nasty little bugger, whatever got him." He glanced at the sergeant. "Go along. I'll let you know later how he is."
Bothari left the sickbay and made his way to the captain's quarters, as ordered. He knocked and waited.
Bothari entered and saluted.
"What happened down there, Bothari?"
"Some creature dropped down out of the tree and attacked, sir."
"Yes, I know that. You told me that."
"Excuse me, sir. What is it that you want to know?"
"How this happened? Were you two being careless down there? Which of you is the more incompetent one that couldn't notice some little...thing hanging over your head?"
Bothari didn't answer immediately. Even with the struggles he had, there had been instilled in him through repetitious discipline and training that he had to perform a certain way before superiors. As much as he felt driven to take on any hostile target, Bothari knew that he shouldn't do that right now.
"Commander Vorkosigan is not incompetent."
"Oh, then it's you?"
"I wasn't with him, sir."
"Where were you?"
"Trying to locate a river, sir."
"Oh. Commander Vorkosigan can't look after himself."
"Sir, he was trying to make a report of the area. That took his mind off watching for threats." He paused, to be sure of himself. "I'm sure he would have seen something larger. This was small and it was above his head. He was doing the duty you gave him, sir, when he was attacked."
Vorleson stared at the man. "I see." He was unsure if Bothari was trying to state the facts or being insubordinate by seeming to shift blame to Vorleson. It was too hard to read the man. The sergeant's face was completely indifferent. He was exhibiting no body language that could help the evaluation either. Vorleson finally admitted to himself for the first time how very uncomfortable he was in Bothari's presence. "Thank you for your report, Sergeant. Dismissed." He looked back down at what he had been doing before the sergeant came it. But Bothari didn't move right away. Vorleson looked back up. "I said dismissed, Sergeant."
The big man saluted and left. The captain considered if he could continue to serve with a non-com who made him that tense.
"How are you feeling, Commander?" the doctor asked in a voice that sounded as if he didn't really care.
"Rotten," Vorkosigan grumbled out.
"I don't doubt it. That was quite a dose of toxin you received."
"Toxin," He repeated.
"Yes. Your little friend was more than generous. Good thing Bothari insisted on getting you back as soon as he did. We had enough time then, but if he'd waited longer...well..."
Vorkosigan closed his eyes. He remembered the attack well. He remembered Bothari helping him...or trying to. Then the memories became very blurry.
"I've administered an anti-toxin. Of course, we can't know what sorts of toxins we will encounter on other planets. This is a synthetically produced anti-toxin. Effective to differing degrees on various toxins. You're past the critical point. Enough has been neutralized in your system that you'll be fine in a couple more days. Just rest."
"What about the survey?" Vorkosigan felt obligated to ask, since he had been entrusted with it.
"It's been going on fine without you for a couple days now. Don't worry about it. I'm sure that Sergeant Bothari will keep his word to you."
"Yes. When you were out, he came in to see you one time. I heard him talking and knew it was probably too soon for you to be awake, but I came to see anyway. I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but I'm not sure if the sergeant minds or even knows I was there. But he promised to work hard on the rest of the survey for you. Now...get some rest."
"Sergeant." Vorkosigan hurried along the corridor.
Bothari turned to look. He stopped and waited for the commander to come up to him. He had that stormy look on his face. The internal war was raging. But Vorkosigan went on as if he didn't notice. Somehow he thought Bothari preferred that.
"I just wanted to thank you for helping me, for getting me back to the ship quickly. The doctor says if you had waited too long, it would have been too late."
"I did what first aid I could do. I knew you needed more than that," he replied flatly.
"I know and I'm grateful for all you did." A pause. "And for doing so well on the survey. Thanks for...for what you promised. I knew you'd do well even if you didn't promise that."
"That you would... Never mind. Good job, Sergeant. You've done your duty to the Imperium. Carry on."
"Yes, sir." Bothari saluted and went on.
And I shouldn't be as surprised as I feel. Of course he wouldn't admit such a thing...especially to me...a Vor and an officer. He probably would even have trouble admitting it to a friend. I wonder if he has a real friend.
"Aral! Oh, Aral!" Leesa hurried to the door and threw her arms around him. Aral dropped the small bag he'd been carrying and wrapped her in his arms.
"Oh, I'm so glad to see you," he said. Then he pulled away and kissed his wife with all the passion that flew through his body at the moment. She responded willingly and very readily.
When they finally parted, she put her head against his chest and sighed deeply. "Oh, I missed you so much."
"Do you require anything?" a quiet voice asked.
Leesa pulled away from Aral. "Do you, Aral? Something to eat?"
"No. I don't require anything...but you."
"That will be all, Julek," Leesa said very properly. "Come and sit down. Talk to me. I want to hear everything about what happened to you while you were gone."
Aral picked up his bag and followed along. Leesa led him into the sitting room, to the sofa. She curled up next to him, very close. He breathed in her fragrance. He was dizzy with desire, gladness, and fatigue. It would be more correct to offer her a proper greeting before he took her for himself, he reflected.
Aral reached into the bag. "Here. I've brought you something."
"What is it?" Leesa turned the odd looking material over and over in her hands. The surface looked polished and was iridescent.
"Well...it's only a rock, but it was such a pretty one. I thought of you at once. This was in a river...the reason it's worn down so smoothly. It looked nice in the sun."
"Oh, it's beautiful. Look at the colors in it." She held it in a beam of sunlight and turned it so the colors glinted.
"I wish I could have brought you more, but we didn't go to any civilized planets. I couldn't exactly go shopping."
"Silly. This is lovely and I like it. I suppose a Vor lady should be insulted by a rock, but my Aral brought it to me. I'm content. And...you brought you back to me. That's all I really need."
Leesa looked lovelier than he remembered. Was it just that he missed her so much or had she really changed? She did look different.
"So beautiful," he murmured.
"Do you like it? My new look. I got myself all fixed up just for your homecoming."
"So...you are different. I wasn't sure. I just knew you looked great."
"Well...I suppose I should be angry with you that you didn't notice that I was different, but you did say how beautiful I was, so...I forgive you."
Aral smiled. He leaned toward Leesa and she met him in a kiss. The lady wrapped her arms around his neck and at once knew something was different. She pulled away.
"Aral," she said as she rubbed a hand on the back of his neck.
"Don't worry about it. Nothing really. Just some tree creature dropped down on me, chewed on me a little."
"Aral! And you said it was nothing. Are you all right?"
"Yes. I'm fine. It's healed now. You're just feeling scars. It's all over with. Now...where were we?"
Leesa got a mischievous look in her dark eyes. She leaned forward again. Aral could hardly hold himself back. He wanted her and he wanted her now. But Leesa was gentile, a Vor lady. He had to conduct himself as a gentleman. Lost in the kiss, he hadn't immediately noticed that she was helping things along by opening the front of her dress.
Breathlessly, Aral said, "What about Julek?"
"Who cares? This is our apartment. We can do what we want where we want. Besides, I told her not to disturb us while we were together."
Aral grinned and leaned into Leesa's open bodice, quickly opening it the rest of the way.
I have what so many men speak of wanting, a beautiful wife who loves him and desires him. So why do I still feel so empty inside? There is so much more to love than lust and sex. I don't have the other part of it. The emotional bond. I can't share the innermost part of me with Leesa. I don't think she understands me, or wants to. I still feel as if she holds me away at some level. That makes me hesitate to be more open with her. I fear her rejection if she doesn't understand or seem interested if I open up. Is that what arranged marriages do? We are put together, whether we are suited or not. Do arranged marriages force people to tolerate each other and find a way to exist, together, but apart?
"Aral? Are you still in bed?" Leesa breezed into the room. "Come. Let me draw a bath for you. I'll wash your back for you."
"Are you sure you're all right, Aral?" Leesa was washing his back while he soaked in the tub. She examined the scars on his neck.
"Um hmm," he murmured, enjoying her touch as much as the warm water. "Fine."
"I don't like the look of this. I think you should have a doctor check you over."
"It's fine, Leesa. I told you it's healed."
"I guess I'm just a worrier, but what would I do without you?"
"You'd be lost," Aral said absently. He sat up straight and reached for Leesa's hands. He began pulling.
"No! Aral! NO!"
But she lost the battle and fell into the tub with him.
"I thought that Leesa was going to spend her free time with you when you were home," Ges Vorrutyer said.
"She doesn't have to spend every second with me," Aral answered. "I don't want her to feel like I'm a burden. I insisted she go out this morning for tea with her lady friends. It will be good for her to get out as well."
"You are a considerate man, indeed, to think so. Besides it did give us this time to talk. I was interested to hear about Captain Vorleson, after what you had said on your last visit home. It sounds as if he was more reasonable this time."
"Yes, he was, for the most part. Very different from before. But he is new to the 'Vormoor'. Perhaps he felt as if he had something to prove."
"Probably so. He has an important relative in ImpMil. Vorleson probably was showing off for him." Vorrutyer glanced at his nails with a lazy stare as he talked.
"Oh?" Aral sat forward in his chair.
"Oh," Aral said again. At once his mind returned to the interrogation of the ensign who had attempted to sabotage the 'Vormoor'. He'd said that General Vorderron was one of the names he'd heard as being behind the sabotage scheme. Aral had not mentioned that fact to Vorrutyer. Since it was only rumor and unfounded, the commander had not wanted to help spread something that could be damaging and embarrassing to the general, his family and their business. He found it very interesting that Captain Vornant had been removed from command of his ship and a relative of the alleged schemer was put in command.
"Is something wrong, Aral? You have such an odd look on your face."
"Oh, no, Ges. It's nothing. I was...only trying to identify the name. The general is from a well placed family."
"Indeed. That is why I suspected that Vorleson was trying to impress him."
"Well...I really need to go. I did promise to meet Leesa for lunch. I didn't mean to stay so long."
"Nonsense. I enjoyed the time. You're a fascinating person, Aral. I like our talks," he smiled, almost evilly.
Aral felt that same odd discomfort that Ges seemed to elicit in him almost at will. Why did he keep coming back here? Because he needed a male friend, who was in the service, who was not on his ship...someone to talk things over with and gain perspective. Ges was Leesa's brother and he had also tried to cultivate the friendship for that reason.
Vorkosigan stood suddenly. "I should go now." He walked to the door of the room and turned to say goodbye. Ges was just behind him. "Thank you for your time. I'm sure I'll see you again before I leave."
"I'm sure," Vorrutyer answered. "Say hello to Leesa and remind her that she needs to work me into her schedule also. Should I get you transportation?"
"No. It's not that far. I'd enjoy the walk. Goodbye, Ges."
Commander Vorkosigan stepped out into the bright sun. He blinked a few times and began walking.
"Aral! I'm so glad to see you. You bad boy. You've been avoiding me on your visits home."
"Oh, Madam Vorthal. I haven't been avoiding you. I've just found myself overwhelmingly busy when I am home," Vorkosigan said to his deceased mother's cousin.
"I'm sure you have been. On the other hand...I'll bet Leesa is not the one taking up your time."
"In fact, she has been much more attentive recently."
"Oh?" Madame Vorthal said flatly. "That must be her way of keeping you distracted."
"Where were you going, Aral?"
"To meet Leesa for lunch."
"Oh, may I walk with you then? I think there is something that the pair of you could talk about over lunch." She began walking. "Aral, you know, at your mother's funeral, I made a promise that I would help look after you. I knew you needed a female presence in your life, an authoritative presence, not a substitute for your dear mother."
"And I appreciate all that you have done for me, Madam. You have...filled a void."
"I'm glad you can see that my intentions have always been good toward you. That is important right now."
Aral was thoroughly confused. "I know you've only had my best interests at heart."
"And I do now. You must remember that because what I have to tell you now is going to be hard for you and if you know I mean it for you good, it will help you see that I only want the best for you."
"All right," he said blankly.
"I'm so sorry. I hoped that you might be able to see the truth for yourself about this situation. I thought that Leesa would give herself away, but I can tell that she is already working on you. In the two years since you have been married, Leesa has changed a great deal. You haven't been here to see it and now she is playing a role for you." She glanced around to see who was nearby on the street. "Leesa is playing you for a fool."
Aral stopped walking and stood in silence for a moment. "I...don't know what you mean."
"I think you do. She can't be so perfect in what she is trying to hide. I'm sure you've heard how very popular she is and how she's never home before early morning. Some nights she doesn't come home at all. I'm sorry, but as your mother's cousin, I have to tell you this. The gossip is all over and so are some of the signs."
Aral's mouth went dry. No, this couldn't be right. Not Leesa! No. She had been so wonderful to him last night and his previous visit. And then he remembered the incident with Leesa calling to a man from the sitting room in the middle of the night.
"I don't know just how foolish she is. I don't know if she would try to continue this under your nose, while you are home. I'm sure that her maidservant would confirm my words...if you could get her to speak up. She would know her lady's habits. But Leesa probably has her paid well to be quiet. Oh, Aral. I'm so sorry. I know I've upset you, but I just had to tell you. I had to...for your sake. I couldn't stand by and see her continue to do this to you. It was my responsibility, as a relative." She paused. "Aral...you look absolutely grey. Come and have some tea."
"No," he whispered. "No. I have to go...to think." There is no reason you have to lie to me, but...would you? Are you jealous because she is so young and popular? You were that in your day, but now you're one of the old matrons. Could it be jealousy? No. I know you, Madam Vorthal. You have looked after me. You've never lied to me. But...Leesa... "I have to go," he repeated numbly and then turned to hurry away, almost knocking down a lord walking his lady. Vorkosigan muttered some apology and pushed on.
"Oh, poor Aral," Madam Vorthal said to herself. "I have to get him to believe I'm not exaggerating about Leesa...for his sake."
Leesa...having an affair? No. It can't be. It can't. Leesa, I love you. I thought you loved me. Have you strayed from me because...I wasn't man enough for you? Have you sensed something about me? Could it show in how I love you? Or is it that you sense a lack of complete devotion from me? Do you see that my military career is so important and you think you are second to it? And just when you have begun to be so much more attentive... Oh...is this why? Could it be guilt that makes you do that? Or are you trying to get me to be blinded by your affections? Am I so dull? Gossip everywhere Madam Vorthal said. But...I'm not here to hear it. And I don't get out into the society circles much when I am home. I like to rest. Come to think of it, Leesa has not insisted on my accompanying her when I am home, as much as she did before. Is she trying to keep me from finding out? How can I be more sure? I don't mean to mistrust Madam Vorthal, but...I have to be sure. I have to have another source of information. Who can I talk to?
Vorkosigan had taken a different path than he intended. It took him far from his intended rendezvous with Leesa, but right now he couldn't face her. He had too many conflicting thoughts and he had to think them through, get it straight in his head if he believed this or not. What would he say to her? That was another thing he had to decide on. No, he couldn't face her right now.
Then his attention was ripped from the dilemma by a loud crash. Vorkosigan whirled around to see a lightflyer smashed into the ground, a couple hundred meters from where he stood. It was smoking. Could whoever was in there still be alive? He didn't know because he didn't see how far it had come down. The commander knew he couldn't take a chance. He had to be sure and he had to act fast, before the possible fire spread.
All thoughts of Leesa gone for the moment, the commander hurried to the accident. People gathered and were pointing and talking, but it didn't seem as if anyone was taking action to help. Vorkosigan pushed his way through and ran to the hulk. The thing wouldn't open even when he planted a foot against the hull to help try to force it open. Too deformed to open. The windscreen was already cracked, so he kicked at the crack with his booted foot.
Vorkosigan cleared the opening of glass with his boot. The man who was flying the vehicle was slumped over the controls. Smoke was pouring out more thickly now. No time to think. The commander lifted the man out and pulled him well away from the lightflyer.
The man was dressed in some drab brown unisuit, ripped and smeared with blood. He grabbed at Vorkosigan's uniform jacket and pulled. The commander leaned down to hear the whispers.
"Someone needs...to know," the man said in hoarse whisper. "This can't die with me. I have to...trust you, Commander." He stopped to cough.
"What is it?" Aral found himself immediately curious.
"He did this to me. He knew that...I found out. You have to do something." The man paused again.
Vorkosigan was trying to be patient. He didn't know if this was important or not. He didn't know this man. His urgency could be of his own making. But the man said that someone caused this crash.
"He is going to sabotage...Count Voryost's groundcar. He knows the Count is close to Ezar...a confidant. He wants him out of the way. Says too many things go..." The man coughed again. "Too many things get passed from Ezar to the Council of Counts...without anyone knowing. The only way to stop it is...to kill Count Voryost."
"Who is going to do this?"
"Captain Rhist. ImpSec. Important in ImpSec. Be careful of him. Can't let him know that you know. But you have to warn the Count," the man said a bit louder, more urgently. "You have to do something. Let someone know about Captain Rhist"
Using all his energy to get out the information, the man relaxed suddenly, let go of Vorkosigan's uniform and closed his eyes. The commander thought the man dead, but he still had a pulse.
A plot against a close associate of the Emperor...and set up by someone important in ImpSec? Vorkosigan was thinking of the consequences of even knowing that. Look what had happened to this man. It could be rumor...or not. Who was this man anyway? Vorkosigan suspected that he might be ImpSec himself, since he knew so much about this, but Aral had no way to confirm it. But there were politically motivated plots all the time in Barrayaran politics. It was not hard to believe the story.
The sirens that had been getting closer had hardly made an impression on Vorkosigan. His attention had been totally on this man and his story. He still hadn't really noticed the gathering vehicles around the scene.
"You need to move back, sir, so I can work."
The commander finally looked up to see an emergency medical tech.
"Oh. Sorry." He moved away at once, wondering if the man would survive or not.
"Excuse me. I'd like to ask you some questions." A police officer had tapped Commander Vorkosigan on the shoulder. "You were a witness to this?"
"Um, no. Actually, I didn't see the crash. I just pulled the man from the wreck."
"Okay. Let's step over here out of the way to talk." The man tried to guide the commander by the elbow, but Vorkosigan pulled away discretely. They walked well away from the scene that was now filled with rescue workers and other police.
"You didn't see what caused the crash?" the officer asked.
"No. I didn't. I only heard the noise when the flyer crashed. That's what drew my attention to this."
"All right." The officer began making notations of the answers. "You did pull him from the vehicle."
"Yes...because of the smoke. I didn't know how active the fire was or if it would spread."
"Did he say anything to you? Admit any fault? Blame anyone for the crash?"
Of course the man had, but Vorkosigan remembered the warning and had seen the results of having the knowledge. Someone in ImpSec was behind it. Highly placed. He couldn't admit what he knew, not yet. He had to think about it, decide what to do. If he told this officer, it would be a matter of record...and anyone in ImpSec could come after him.
"No. He was unconscious when I pulled him out."
"Yes. He didn't say anything. He was out."
"All right." The man looked at Vorkosigan's uniform. "Vorkosigan?"
"Commander Aral Vorkosigan."
The officer made note of it. "Is there anything else you can tell me about this?"
He considered and then shook his head. "No. I heard the crash, came to help, pulled him out and stayed with him until the med tech came. That's all."
"All right. That's all for now. I might need to talk to you again later."
The commander nodded and turned to walk away without looking back.
"Aral...where were you? I waited for a long time," Leesa said in a hurt tone. "You...you didn't come. I thought you wanted to have lunch with me."
"I did." He hesitated a moment. Was he ready to confront her yet? "I...saw an accident. I had to help pull a man from a crashed lightflyer."
"Oh," she said quietly. Then Leesa smiled brightly. "My Aral. So brave. I should have known something like that was occupying you." She came to him where he stood just inside the door. Leesa started to hug him, but he held her away and looked into her dark eyes.
"Leesa. I have to ask you something. You told me before about Lord Vortessian and how you were helping him pick a present for his wife."
"Yes," she answered. "I'm a little surprised you remembered."
"I'm not. Do you remember what I thought about you and him?"
"Oh," she said dismissively. "Don't worry about it. I told you before that I forgave you for that."
He felt anger flash through him. She forgave him for it? When his suspicions seemed to be true? He forced himself to be calm though. He would not give in to the temper that he was working so hard to learn to control.
Aral closed his eyes and drew in a breath. He forced himself to speak quietly, not loudly, to be sure of his control. "Leesa, you lied to me."
"Aral..." she said in surprise. "Why would you say that? It's a mean thing to say. If this is some sort of joke, it is sick." She tried to pull away but he held to her.
"Leesa, I heard that many nights you never even come home."
"Where did you hear such a thing? I know. You heard it from one of those sluts who are jealous of my standing in society. That's it. I knew there had to be a good explanation for this. I knew that you wouldn't hurt me of your own volition."
"I heard it from Madame Vorthal. She told me. One of those jealous sluts."
"Aral...I don't know why she would say such a thing! I told you before that I didn't think she liked me. I know she is a relative of yours, but she really can't stand me and I don't know why. Can't you see she is just trying to drive a wedge between us? Your father. Ask him. Don't you think if this were true that he would know about it? Ask the Count what he has heard."
"My father doesn't usually pay attention to things going on in Vor society, unless they directly affect him. If you've hidden this, I'm sure he may not know of it yet. I don't think Madam Vorthal would tell him. She is protecting me, not him."
Leesa started crying. She pressed against him. "Aral," she sobbed. "How can you believe such lies? Haven't I been giving up some of my activities so I can be with you? I've given in to everything you've wanted, without hesitation. Aral, I do love you so."
He stood unmoving while she sobbed. He had believed her tears before. Now he would not be moved by them until he was more sure of this situation.
"Julek. You can ask Julek. If I didn't come home, she would know." Leesa walked away quickly to find the maidservant. Aral waited. In a couple of minutes, Leesa was almost dragging the poor girl down the corridor.
"Here. Ask her yourself."
The maidservant was obviously afraid. The uproar was upsetting her. In a calm and quiet voice, Aral said, "Julek, look at me." Slowly she raised her head. "Is it true that your lady stays out some nights?"
Leesa was standing directly behind the girl. Julek cut her eyes, as if trying to see Leesa. She looked at Aral, but not at him, through him. "No," she whispered. "My lady comes home every night."
Afraid. Aral didn't move. He still stood with hands clasped behind his back. "Thank you. You may go."
"See? I told you," Leesa said in triumph.
Aral was about to respond when there was a knock at the door. He had not made it far into the apartment. The commander turned and opened the door. A man with ImpSec insignia stood there, along with two other men in Imperial greens.
"Commander Vorkosigan, I am Lieutenant Commander Kreschnokova from ImpSec. I require for you to come with me."
"May I ask what this is about, Commander?"
The man's eyes shifted to Leesa. "I'll be glad to tell you once we are in my vehicle. Not here."
The commander knew he had little choice but to comply. To resist would only cause problems and make him look bad, as if he had something to hide. And he didn't know what it was about yet. Still the thought of an ImpSec interrogation didn't make him happy.
Aral turned to Leesa. "We are not finished," he whispered. Then he walked out.
"My commander indicated that we had some questions about the lightflyer crash that you saw," Captain Negri said to Vorkosigan, after he had seated him in a bare room. "The police officer was kind enough to provide us with your name."
Vorkosigan didn't know where he was. The commander had insisted on that. It was a little overly dramatic, it seemed to Vorkosigan, but Kreschnokova had been unrelenting. He didn't know if this was an ImpSec building or not, or where the room was even located in the building. The walls were stone, dark and stained stone. There were no windows and only a small lamp as the single light source. The room was dark as well as damp, and probably intended to be that way. Vorkosigan had heard of ImpSec's methods. This was part of their manipulation to try to induce uncertainty and to intimidate.
"I didn't observe the crash," Vorkosigan said. "I only heard it. I went to render assistance because it seemed as if others were slow to."
"I see." The man paced before the chair where the commander sat. He went in and out of the small pool of light cast by the lamp. And the low height of the lamp made the man's features highly shadowed. Vorkosigan didn't know if he would recognize this man in bright light. "So you...just happened, by coincidence, to be there."
"That's right." He turned his head to follow the man's pass.
"You were the only man who helped get our man out of the flyer," Negri asked as he changed direction.
That's right too."
"And he was an ImpSec man?"
"I don't know."
Negri stopped. "You don't?"
"No. He didn't have on a uniform. I don't know anything about him."
"What was he wearing?"
"A brown jumpsuit."
Negri started walking again. "And it didn't occur to you that could be some kind of uniform?"
That startled Vorkosigan. He hadn't thought of that. "No, it didn't."
"All right. And what did he say to you?"
"Nothing. He was unconscious." If this plot originated at ImpSec, I have no idea who is trustworthy. This man could be trying to find out what I know so that he can take care of me too. I have to stick with the same story.
"Unconscious. Completely? He didn't even murmur anything? Groan even?"
"Nothing. He was not semi-conscious. He was completely out."
"And there is no one to collaborate this...since you acted on your own."
And why are you so keen on having it collaborated? Why do you not trust me? "That's right, Captain. I acted on my own. No one assisted me, but I have nothing to hide either." He almost winced at the blatant lie. Careful. Don't be so bold. Be cautious and answer carefully. But after all, I already have lied...
"I hope you don't, Commander. This is an important matter. The death of an ImpSec man, by purpose, is important."
"He died?" So you knew he was ImpSec already.
"Yes. His injuries were too severe. Nothing could be done."
"I'm very sorry to hear that," Vorkosigan said quietly.
"My man didn't...pass any kind of information to you? A note or anything at all...before he lost consciousness."
"Captain Negri, I told you he was already unconscious. He was not able to give me anything."
"Then you wouldn't mind submitting to fast-penta for the rest of this interrogation since you have nothing to hide?"
Vorkosigan swallowed hard. "I am being cooperative, Captain. I don't know why you think it necessary to resort to that. I haven't resisted your men or you. I am answering to the best of my ability." Under the circumstances...
Negri paced again. He was looking at his boots as he walked. "I appreciate that you haven't resisted attempts to bring you here, but that alone proves nothing. It is my job to question everything. I have to be sure of my information. I am protecting the Emperor. I have to assume the worst about everything until I can prove everything. Do you understand that?"
"Yes, I do."
"I don't think you do. If you truly did, you wouldn't question my methods. Unless...you have reason to. Perhaps you think I shouldn't work so hard to protect the Emperor. Perhaps you are not so loyal to him."
"I am completely loyal to Emperor Ezar," Vorkosigan said at once in a low voice. "I wouldn't give my life in service to the Imperium if I were not loyal to the Emperor."
"There have been many men who served in the Barrayaran military services who were not loyal, so don't throw that in my face, Vorkosigan." Negri stopped his pacing and looked at the commander. "Vorkosigan. You're the son of General Count Piotr Vorkosigan." It was not a question.
But the commander answered anyway. "Yes, I am."
"Don't think that can save you. You can't hide behind any name if you are hiding information from me. I am the chief of all imperial security. I answer directly to the Emperor. I don't have to respect names."
"I'm not trying to use my name to protect me, Captain," Vorkosigan said calmly.
"You don't seem bothered by any of this. Are you always so calm?"
"As a soldier, I always try to maintain self-control as best I can."
"So, you're not uneasy with this situation?"
"I am uncertain of it. I don't know why this is happening in this way. I have answered all your questions. I don't see that I have a reason to be upset."
"And you stand by all you've said here?"
"Yes, sir." I hope I can. I'd rather confess it under fast-penta though than be made to give in easily. I still don't know whom I can trust.
"All right. I'll be back in a moment. Don't try to leave. There are guards posted outside this door."
"I wasn't going to try to leave, sir."
"Hmm." Negri left.
Vorkosigan sat completely still. He wanted to look around for the cameras that he knew must be recording this, but he wouldn't. He was trying to stay calm.
So now is it fast-penta time? Is that what he's gone after? Now he will find out I've lied to him. I've heard a lot about ImpSec and their interrogation methods. After fast-penta then what? Will I be "interrogated" more...to punish me for lying? That's what I've heard. And will I meet the same fate as the man in the lightflyer? Captain Negri can't afford to openly kill me if he is part of the plot. Too much attention. I'll be another body to dispose of for him. I wonder if the ImpSec man in the lightflyer really did die...or if he was helped to die. I never thought my life would come to this. I've always been loyal and served well, or tried to serve to the best of my ability. Now, I will be taken down in a way that will not even dishonor my father, at least not publicly. No one outside ImpSec will know the real reason I died. My father will probably never find out either. At least he will have the satisfaction, to himself, that I didn't disgrace him. What will be said of him behind his back though...for having a son who lied to ImpSec...because that is the thing they will use against me the most, in a ploy to cover all this up.
Aral stood and walked back and forth slowly along the length of the room. He wasn't exactly afraid, but he wasn't at ease either. He had known that in the Emperor's service, he could be called on to give his life, and had prepared himself for the possibility. But. This is not how it was supposed to happen. In some important battle, against maybe the Cetagandans, making critical decisions each second. That's how he had always pictured it. Not caught in such a political situation and waiting to be found in his lie, initially told to protect himself. He laughed harshly. He tried to protect himself and now, ironically, the protection might lead to his death. Still Vorkosigan believed he was protecting the Emperor by staying quiet. So if this convolution did lead to his death, alongside the man in the lightflyer, so be it. It was still in the Emperor's service.
He took another look around the very dark and dank room. Old stone walls that sweated so much that water dripped down the stained stones. It was chilly in here; helped, no doubt, by the humid atmosphere. It would be easy to get cold in here. The commander had on his uniform jacket, thankfully. Was it concession to allow him to keep it or oversight? Vorkosigan chided himself for overreacting. However, all the tales he'd heard about ImpSec were coming easily to memory now. Negri didn't appear to trust him; that much was certain.
How long he waited, Vorkosigan couldn't say. He tired of pacing however and sat back down on the only piece of furniture in the room. The place was unadorned in any way. There was nothing to occupy his mind, to distract it from the thoughts that kept pressing in on him. Yes, they were good. Left alone like this, with nothing to do but wonder. ImpSec knew how to unnerve their "patients" well.
Finally, the door opened. An upper middle-aged man entered, followed by a man not far from Vorkosigan's age. Vorkosigan stared as the man entered the pool of light. Then he knew him at once. The commander's mouth fell open and he slid out of the chair and went down on one knee, bowing his head.
Emperor Ezar and Prince Serg stood and considered the man a moment. Captain Negri carefully maneuvered his way behind the two men and into the room. He stood back, hands resting in the small of his back, waiting.
The Emperor spoke first. "Rise, Commander Vorkosigan. Please take your seat again."
Vorkosigan stood, but seemed hesitant to sit before his Emperor, who had no seat.
"Please, seat yourself," Ezar repeated. "All the empire knows I sit in meetings all day long. I look forward for the chance to stand for a few moments," he smiled a little. Serg chuckled appreciatively at the joke.
Vorkosigan hesitantly sat, but on the edge of the chair, and stiff backed.
"Your father was one of my finest fighters and most loyal servants. I haven't soon forgotten him and his service. I am pleased to see that he is raising up a son to serve as well."
"I hope I can serve as well as my father," Vorkosigan responded quietly.
"Oh, I'm sure you will. Your father's influence is a good one, I am certain. Serg tells me that he is familiar with your service record. Citations and commendations for excellence on many occasions. You will be more than your father, I predict."
"Thank you, sir," the commander replied, humbled and warmed by the compliment.
"Now to the business at hand. About this crash of the lightflyer and the unfortunate death of one of our servants. Captain Negri has reason, so he tells me, to think it was not an accident. He is preparing a report on it. Captain Negri is fond of reports." The small smile again. "He has convinced me that there is some secret information that we need to know about this man who died. The captain feels the man knew something significant, based on his observations of this man's interactions. Negri seems convinced you know it. Yet you are slow to divulge it."
"I'm sorry, sir. I..."
"Just a moment. Let me give you all my assurances that you are in the protective custody of Captain Negri, who reports directly to me. You are in my protective custody. If there is something more that you can tell us, it will not count against you. I vow that. I only want to know the truth about what may be going on. I have it to believe that you are not involved in any way, except only to have received anything from the fellow in the lightflyer. Commander, you may divulge anything, here and now, and I extend the protection of the Imperium to you."
"First, sir, I apologize for withholding anything. I was...confused and uncertain about what I heard. I didn't know who to trust and I believed I was acting in your best interests to keep this to myself until I could find out more."
Ezar studied him. "I believe you. And I commend you for your loyalty to me, Commander."
It was hard for Vorkosigan not to see Serg, who was standing just behind and to the left of Ezar. The man had a bit of a smirk on his face. Vorkosigan was at a loss to understand that, but he pulled his attention back to the Emperor.
"It's true that the man did tell me something. He said there was a plot against Count Voryost. Someone in ImpSec was going to sabotage his groundcar, to keep him from being your confidant and conduit of information to and from the Council of Counts. He said the same person sabotaged his lightflyer." The commander stopped at that, to see what the reaction would be.
Ezar turned from him. He stared at the wall for a long moment. "Negri, does this ring true to you?"
"My lord, I knew there was some sort of plot. I was still investigating it, as I told you just yesterday. I know the plot was an inside job."
"Someone in ImpSec. Right under your nose."
"Yes, sir. I did find out something was going on right under my nose. I've put as much manpower that I still trust on it as I could. It seems to be well concealed."
Suddenly the Emperor looked at Vorkosigan again. "Is this all?"
"He said that Captain Rhist was the man responsible for the plan."
Negri swore. "Rhist! The man has been loyal to me since he's been in my service." He stepped closer to the commander. "Are you certain of the name?"
"Yes, Captain. The man said the name more than once. He told me to be careful of Rhist because he was important in ImpSec, that he was dangerous and that I had to let someone know about Rhist."
"When were you going to let someone know?" he demanded.
"Excuse me, Captain." Vorkosigan felt defensive. "I don't have a lot of direct dealing with ImpSec. I know almost no one there. After hearing a story like this, what was I supposed to do? I was warned the plot was inside ImpSec. I had no idea who I could tell. I might have told one of Rhist's men. I had to wait until I could know who to talk to."
"Even if it meant you waited too long?" he snapped.
"Captain," Ezar broke in. "Relax. I understand your concern, but I see the commander's position. He could have died, the same as your man. He did need the time to think about what was to be done. He would not have known who was trustworthy. I believe he was acting in good faith. Even if he had waited too long, he still might have learned something important if...Count Voryost was killed. Something that might have helped him know whom to trust. Then the plot could have been diffused before it reached higher."
Negri was only slightly placated by this. He moved back, clasped his hands behind him again and waited.
"I believe him too, Father," Serg finally spoke up. "He is an honorable man. I've met him once before. A friend introduced me to Aral. A friend who encouraged me to look into Vorkosigan's service record. I think it's obvious that he is committed to your service." He smiled, but it didn't look entirely friendly.
Ezar was not impressed by Serg's words. Or at least it appeared that way. His face changed not at all and he never looked at his son.
"Commander Vorkosigan...Aral, I must impress upon you how sensitive all of this obviously is. I have to insist that you discuss this with no one...other than Captain Negri and myself, of course. I trust your loyalty to me. When you were uncertain whom to trust, you would not betray information that could be damaging to me, even when Negri applied great pressure. And there is your service to us in the military that speaks of your loyalty."
"I renew my oath of fealty to you," Vorkosigan responded at once. "I will tell no one outside this room of what I heard."
Ezar smiled again. "Good. I knew I could trust you. You are your father's son. Another Vorkosigan to serve me. Honorable and trustworthy."
"I was doing my duty to you, sir. My duty as a loyal servant and an officer."
"And not prideful about it. Good. You are one to be watched, Aral. I will be most interested in how your career develops." Then he turned to Negri. "You will show our servant all courtesy as you return him to his home. Oh...unless there is more to say." He turned back to the commander.
"No, sir. I have told you everything I heard."
He nodded and then walked out. Serg was still smiling. He nodded to Vorkosigan, hesitated a moment and then left. Negri was staring at him.
"Nothing more, you are certain?"
"Nothing more, Captain. On my oath to the Emperor, I have told all I know."
When Lieutenant Commander Kreschnokova and his men took Vorkosigan back to his apartment, the commander asked to be let out before the destination was reached.
"I had planned to visit my father," Vorkosigan offered as the lieutenant commander studied him.
"We will take you there," Kreschnokova replied.
"Thank you, but it's not necessary."
"Why? Because that isn't your true destination?"
Still suspicious? "Thank you for your kind offer. If you would let me out at Vorkosigan House, I would appreciate it."
In a small and not well-lit room high in the palace, Ezar and Negri were meeting. The room was far removed from the well-traveled parts of the palace and the thick walls of the old room made it hard for eavesdroppers to listen in.
"Negri, what are you doing at ImpSec?"
"I am doing my best, sir. It is a large organization and I can't oversee every activity of every man. It is almost inevitable that someone would get through. I do have men watched. That is how I began to find out about this plan. I did begin to find out about it even before Commander Vorkosigan told us what he did."
"Hmm," was the short response. Ezar was quiet for a moment. "This Commander Vorkosigan seems an honest and honorable man. He kept quiet only because he didn't know whom to approach. Even when you threatened him, he wouldn't give up important information. As far as he knew, you could have been the perpetrator, and ready to kill him as soon as you found out he knew." He nodded his head. "I think he is loyal subject. I would like to know more about him."
"I had already planned to write a report on him," Negri answered.
Ezar smiled. "I thought so. I would like to see it when it is complete. I would like to know what kind of man he truly is. He could be useful to me, if he is so honorable."
"Of course. Now...as to Captain Rhist."
The Emperor stood. "I leave that to your discretion. I'm sure you know how important it is that he be...contained. I'm sure that's all I need say." Then he quietly left the room.
Negri activated his encoded comm link. He spoke to his most trusted man at ImpSec. "I want you to find Captain Rhist. Tell him that I need to speak to him on a very important matter. Take a couple of men with you to be sure he comes with you, but do not alert him. I don't want him to think anything is unusual."
"Well, I'm glad to see you, Aral. Always glad, but why aren't you with Leesa?"
Because I can't be sure of her right now and I've just endured something that was unnerving. I don't need her protestations and complaints at the moment. "Don't be concerned, Father. I am trying for that heir, but there are only so many times in a day that I can try."
Piotr chuckled. "But you are young, Aral. I'm sure it's not a problem for you."
"No, sir. It is not, but like any activity repeated too often, even that can become a bit...stilted."
The man chuckled again. "I suppose so. I guess I never...um, performed often enough for that to be a problem for me."
Now that I've assured you I'm doing what you expect me to do...and without telling my suspicions about Leesa, can we move on to our usual bland conversation? Perhaps you will find it bland enough to walk out on me and I will have some time to think and try to put things into perspective.
"What kind of district business keeps you busy these days?"
"Good! I'm glad you are beginning to show an interest in that. You do need to always plan for the future, while still performing well in the present."
The Count settled himself more deeply into his chair. He looked at the ceiling and began recalling recent developments.
"Aral, where have you been?" Leesa said in a quiet voice. "I've been worried sick about you. Where did those men take you?"
He walked past Leesa and into the sitting room where he flopped into a chair. "It was not important. Just military matters. There were some questions...about a mission." It was my own personal mission. "Nothing to worry about."
"Then why were you gone so very long?" She knelt before the chair since he wouldn't look at her. "Is there more?"
"I had to think."
He nodded wordlessly.
"Aral...I don't know what I can say or do to make you believe me. I love you and I don't want to hurt you. I don't know why Madam Vorthal would want to hurt me...or our relationship. Please. Believe me. I love you, Aral." Her voice was tremulous and tears streamed down her face.
Somehow her more controlled release seemed more sincere than her earlier outburst. Aral did find it so hard to believe. Leesa had begun to be so much more loving and romantic. Why would she do that if the allegations were true? He had gone over it again and again before he came home. Women who had affairs became distant from their husbands, not wanting to be even touched by them, having found their satisfaction in the arms of another man. Or that's what he had heard among his male acquaintances about women in affairs. He was torn. Why would Madam Vorthal lie to him? But could it be that she was mistaken? She did say that the rumors were thick. Rumors. Rumors weren't always true and were often exaggerated. Was that the only thing she had to base her conclusions on? If so, then Aral's confidence in them went down.
Leesa moved up toward him. "I truly love you, Aral. We were just beginning to be actually happy. I could tell how much you were beginning to love me...really love me. Why would I turn away from you now? In the last couple of days we have had such a wonderful time, so much fun. Hasn't the lovemaking been just wonderful? It has for me. You make me feel...so...adored, worshipped. How can I make you feel that way? I tried to. I...I guess I failed..." her already quiet voice trailed off.
And weary Aral was shot through to the heart by her entreaties and sad look. Leesa was sincere. She was truly hurt and concerned. He could see that now. Now that the rage of the moment of disclosure by Madam Vorthal was over. Now that he'd had time to think.
He reached for her. "Leesa, I'm sorry. Once again I have unfairly accused you of something that is...very wrong. You forgave me before..."
"I can forgive you again," she whispered.
She nodded as she wiped away her tears, a bit of a smile forming.
"What can I do to make it up to you?"
"You don't have to do anything, except love me."
Aral slid from the chair onto his knees, before Leesa who was still kneeling by the chair. He gently pulled her to him and began to kiss her. The lovely lady responded willingly, hungrily. Yes, she did love him. This was not the reaction of a woman pulled away from her husband by an affair. She pulled at Aral and they tumbled to the floor, as she giggled. He kissed her again and then knelt next to her, gently unfastening her dress. Leesa's dark eyes glimmered with happiness and desire. Her breath was already increasing in rate as she anticipated him.
Aral woke, slowly. He had been so very tired last night and after their love play, he fell quickly into sleep. At once he was aware of a warm presence next to him.
"Good morning," Leesa murmured. She rested her chin on his bare chest. "I didn't think you'd ever wake up."
"Tired. How long have you been awake?"
"Long enough to get impatient waiting on you to wake."
"Have you been here waiting on me?" he asked in surprise.
"I wanted to be with you. It was fun to watch you sleep though. When you lie on your back, your mouth opens a bit and you begin to snore."
"Did I keep you awake?"
"Silly. I was already awake. You don't snore loudly. Besides when I tickled your nose, you turned over." She was smiling brilliantly.
Aral rolled onto his side and leaned on an elbow. "You were trying to wake me...or just be a pest?"
She giggled. "I'll let you decide." She leaned to him to kiss him. As he met her, she wrapped her arms around him and the kiss became demanding. Aral was surprised. Leesa was always patient and allowed him to take the lead. Now she seemed to be reversing the role. He allowed it and she pressed him down on his back, climbing atop him.
Aral stood under the warm water of the shower. It felt good to just stand and let the water wash over him. That's all he wanted to do. He didn't want to wash himself. Maybe he should have taken a bath instead so he could soak.
"Are you still in there?" Leesa called. "Your breakfast is going to get cold."
"Hmm," was his only response.
"Aral...come and eat," she stuck her head in and was playfully pouting.
"Okay. Just a couple of minutes."
Leesa was sitting on the bed waiting for him when he came out in a robe. She had a tray waiting for him.
"What's this about?" he asked.
"It's about you enjoying your time at home. Now come and sit down." He complied and she placed the tray. "And...your morning news. While you enjoy yourself, I'll have time for a long leisurely shower," she smiled.
Aral began eating and didn't realize how hungry he was until the food entered his mouth. He had not eaten last night, after all that had happened. After several big bites were crammed in his mouth, he turned to the viewer to look at the morning news. He almost dropped the viewer.
Imperial Security Captain Poul R. Rhist was killed late yesterday in an accident in his groundcar. Preliminary reports are that he lost control of the vehicle while driving at a high rate of speed just outside the capital. An unnamed source at ImpSec reports that Rhist was on a vital errand and that is most likely why he was exceeding posted speed limits. "He was a man dedicated to his duty," the source said. "It will be a great loss for the men who served under him and enjoyed his strong leadership."
"No kidding," Aral mumbled. Carefully worded. He was dedicated to his duty, not to the Emperor. And the men who served under him probably were a part of his plot too. So that's how it works with ImpSec. They say the truth and very openly, but couched in a way that hides the truth from everyone. But I had heard such things about ImpSec already. And ImpSec is not in the habit of being so cozy and accommodating with the media, to provide statements, explanations, and quotes, even from unnamed sources. This is a clear message to whoever may have been in league with Rhist. Perhaps it extends beyond ImpSec since they wanted the story to get this much coverage. A message to anyone who might conspire against the Emperor or any of his colleagues. Don't be so critical, Aral. It could easily have been an article about your death if Rhist had gotten to you before Negri. Besides, this protects the Emperor.
"I'm going to miss you so much, Aral," Leesa said quietly.
It was the first time she had come to see him off on a mission. He had been surprised, but then realized that his allegations against her probably fueled her decision. That only made him feel worse, because he knew how very much she hated to see him go and how it usually caused her a sick headache on the day he had to leave.
He gently wiped away the tear that rolled down her cheek. "I'm going to miss you too, Leesa. My lovely Leesa." He bent to kiss her.
"Come on, Vorkosigan," a voice called. "You've had all your leave time for that."
Aral pulled away slowly. Captain Vorleson and his usual sensitive manner. The man must not be married.
"I have to go," he whispered.
"I hope that...our activity while you were home will bring us a child." Her eyes gleamed. "Wouldn't that be so wonderful?"
His heart melted at the look and the thought of a son, his heir. How could he have doubted her? She did love him, enough to want to bear his child.
She kissed him before he could say more.
"I have to go."
Leesa nodded wordlessly.
One more quick kiss and then he turned to go.
Leesa watched as the ship lifted, waving even though she had no idea if Aral could see her or not. Someone was waving from one of the viewports, but she couldn't make out who it was. Still she stood and watched until the ship was a point in the sky. The crowd of family and friends who had come to see the men off had already broken up. Most of them gone as soon as the ship lifted off the ground. There was almost no one left. But Leesa waited.
And her waiting was rewarded.
"My lady," a voice behind her said.
"Antony," she responded as she turned.
"May I?" He bowed and extended an arm. Leesa put her hand on it and the pair began to walk, looking like a Vor lord properly escorting a Vor lady back to her home after seeing her husband off. Plenty of separation between them, as they walked well apart. Nothing odd in their appearance. Nothing to cause others to think they were more than friends.
Then Antony glanced around and pulled Leesa between some crates stacked, waiting for shipment off planet. He pulled her close and began kissing her with great desire, which she matched. As they separated, he said, "I didn't think he would ever leave."
Leesa wants a baby now. She brought it up. I didn't have to impress the idea on her like Father wanted. Maybe that is another part of why she has been so attentive to me. To regain my trust, but also, she is beginning to mature and settle down. She is settling into marriage finally. Now maybe we can form that emotional link that lacks so much in our marriage. We now have the physical intimacy easily. We need to form the emotional intimacy just as easily. This may help. If she is not pregnant, as active as we were, I'll just have to try even harder! Somehow I don't think she'll mind, if our last few days were any indication. It would be great to be able to share my deep...deepest thoughts, feelings, dreams, worries, fears. Fears. No one wants to hear of a man's fears. Everyone expects him to be strong and indestructible. Everyone except a wife who truly understands her husband. That is what I want for us. That is what I hope Leesa wants for us.
Vorkosigan and Bothari were running as fast as they could. They broke out of the brush into the clearing where the shuttle had landed.
"Recall all the teams," the commander instructed the lieutenant who had come to his feet at once. "We have to get out of here...NOW!"
"A Cetagandan base? You're certain," Vorleson said.
"Yes, sir. It was easy to be certain. Everything there was marked with their military emblems. And it was hard to miss the face paint."
"It looked to be abandoned at first glance. A lot of things in storage. Thick dust, weathering. But when we looked more closely, that was staged. Only part of the base was that way. Other parts of it were cleaner and showed signs of recent occupancy. I think that they were counting on us having a cursory look only."
"Hmm. I wonder what this game is."
"Sir, it's my opinion that they are coming back but don't want anyone to know they are. Also, it could be a trap. If whoever found the base was content that it was abandoned, they might stay around, to ransack the base. Then the Cetagandans could come in for a surprise attack."
Vorleson only stared for a moment. He was about to put the presumptuous officer in his place, reminding Vorkosigan that he didn't need the opinions of his junior officers, but that could wait. He had thought of the trap concept too. First they should become defensive. Later he could take this back up with the commander.
Vorleson pressed a button on his desk. "Helm, be prepared to leave orbit at short notice. Vorrash, scan the area for ships. Report to me immediately. Shields on." Then he turned to Vorkosigan. "To your weapons, Commander."
"Yes, sir." He snapped a salute and trotted out.
"Evaluation, Vorkosigan," Vorleson said. "Fight or run?"
Commander Gettyern was miffed. He was executive officer, and used to Vorleson asking his opinion. He answered...or tried to. "Sir, I think..."
"Shut up, Commander. I didn't ask you. Vorkosigan."
This was baffling to Vorkosigan. What was it about? Why would Vorleson want his opinion in any case, but especially over his second in command? However, he didn't have time to ponder that now. The captain was waiting...and delaying his response to the impending threat.
"Fight, sir. The Cetagandans will know we found their base here if this ship reports. And we reduce their presence in this area if we destroy the ship."
"I agree. Helm, change course to intercept, maximum speed. Vorkosigan, acquire target."
The ship changed course as it accelerated and all the men leaned in their seats from the g-forces. Commander Vorkosigan held himself in place, to keep an eye on his targeting computer's screen. Not yet in range, but he kept his eyes on the screen, waiting.
"They've seen us, sir," Ensign Vorrash reported. "Firing."
"Evasive," Vorleson calmly announced.
The ship began flying an erratic, random path to try to avoid the shot and it slid by them without touching the "Vormoor'. Good. No drain on the shields yet. Helm began to come back to the intercept course.
Just a little bit more. Come on. Just a little more.
"Target acquired," Vorkosigan announced.
"They are firing," Vorrash countered.
Vorleson closed his eyes as he calmly announced, "Fire." A pause. "Helm, evasive." Then he opened his eyes again to see what would happen.
Vorkosigan squeezed off a single shot. The 'Vormoor' was already turning away, off the intercept course.
"A hit, sir," the commander informed, just as the opposing ship's plasma shot grazed the 'Vormoor'. Everyone rocked in their seats but kept their places.
"Maybe that will shake them up for a moment anyway," Vorleson replied. "Bring us around for another shot, helm."
The ship came back around to the intercept course.
"Suggest a new intercept course, sir," Vorkosigan said. "That would shake them up too. They wouldn't expect it."
"Man your weapons and be ready to fire," was the captain's answer.
You always use the same tactics when you fight. Always. If the Cetagandans figure out the Vormoor's pattern and make it known through their fleet, we are dead...eventually. But the commander kept his own counsel, and his eyes on the targeting scope.
"Firing," Vorrash announced.
"Can you fire back, Vorkosigan?"
"I don't yet have them on my scope, sir," he answered.
But the delay in giving the order helped the other ship target the Vormoor. The plasma bolt found its mark. Men tumbled from their seats. Worse, another shot came hard on the heels of the first. Then another. The ship went hard up on a side and the power went off. It had caught everyone off guard and they floated up, as gravity was lost.
Vorkosigan fought for something to hold onto in the dark. He was waiting for Vorleson to give orders, but there was nothing. Men were yelping in pain, swearing, complaining about someone bumping them in the dark, but no yelled orders.
Finally the emergency lights kicked on. The first thing that came to Vorkosigan's mind was to wonder why the Cetagandans had not fired again. The ship was dead in space for the moment, an easy target. He glanced around and saw crewmembers floating, clamoring for something to hold to and a way to pull themselves back to their stations.
One man floated in the half fetal position that a body assumed in zero-g. It was Vorleson! Vorkosigan put his feet against the wall, near the ceiling, and propelled himself over. He had to grab onto the captain, and they both kept going. Luckily, crewmen near the wall they were heading for stopped the combined pair from crashing into the wall.
There was an ugly red gash across Vorleson's head. It was bleeding freely. Vorkosigan had no way of knowing how bad it was, but the captain was unconscious. He looked around. Gettyern was nowhere in sight. Still the Cetagandans hadn't fired again. What was their game?
"Gettyern," Vorkosigan called out.
"He left," an ensign answered. "I think he went to engineering."
"Damn it!" He couldn't have known that Vorleson was injured, but he still shouldn't have just run off like that. He's second in command. "Where are the Cetagandans?"
"Hovering out there, sir. Just waiting, right outside our weapons range. Making no aggressive moves," Vorrash answered. He had managed to regain his station.
What were they up to? The commander looked around for a non-essential person. "Ensign, get the captain to sickbay."
"Commander," the comm officer called out, "Communication from the Cetagandans."
"Don't acknowledge! Don't respond in any way." Vorkosigan paused to think. "Don't do anything to correct the position or drift of the ship. Everyone maintain current status. Use backup power only. Get that to engineering too."
"What?" Vorrash said in disbelief. "We should get our shields operational at once, before they fire again."
"No! Especially don't do that. Don't change anything that they can sense about us. Comm...find Commander Gettyern for me."
Vorkosigan propelled himself down to the captain's position and held onto the seat. He looked over the scopes and other readouts.
"Sir," Vorrash asked quietly. "What are you doing?"
"Are they still just hanging out there?"
"Good. They are watching us. Let them watch all they want to. We won't respond in any way. Not even to look defensive. They aren't sure what to make of us at the moment. They are waiting for the smallest move on our part and then they are going to blast us."
"That's why we need our shields, sir."
"No. No, we don't. Right now we look dead to them. If we don't respond, they may think we are a very dead ship. That's what I want them to think. I want them to begin to wonder about us." He planted his feet against the captain's chair and aimed himself at his weapons station.
"May I ask why, sir?" Ensign Cheshka asked.
"A risk. A gamble. I hope that they will come in a little closer. Just to look us over. If they think we are severely crippled, I hope they will drop their guard. And then...I'm going to blast them out of space." He hoped that he could target the ship from the position the 'Vormoor' was in. He couldn't afford to have to reposition the ship. Just barely. It was just barely in the target area. He would have to be very careful with his shot. Very careful. Now, if they would just come in. "Did you find Commander Gettyern?"
"In engineering, sir. He's trying to help get the gravity restored," the comm officer reported.
"Did you inform him of our status?"
"Yes, sir. He said he would be right up."
Right up. Great. I'll just have to go with my own ideas until he gets here. No choice. If I get the shot, I have to take it. I'm not the one who left my post.
"Sir," Vorrash said. "They're moving. Slowly, but the Cetagandan ship is coming toward us."
"Looking us over," Vorkosigan said. "Trying to figure out our status."
"They are still signaling," comm informed him.
"I'm not responding, sir, but they now are sending out a message to surrender."
"Surrender?" Cheshka said in surprise. "Surrender? Why would they want to take us instead of destroy us?"
"Information," Vorkosigan answered. "They want to know what we are doing here and if there are other ships. Then they would probably kill us. Are they in our firing range yet?" he asked through clenched teeth as he studied his targeting scope, willing the ship closer and willing the 'Vormoor' not to drift too much.
"Almost," Vorrash answered. "Still moving this way."
"Comm, no response, no matter what they say. Vorrash, let me know just as soon as they break the limit."
"Still coming at us," he answered. "Just a little closer."
Vorkosigan forced himself to be patient. This was not a time to do anything dumb. He had to get it right and he couldn't afford to be premature, to tip his hand. Wait. Wait. And please don't let Gettyern show up at the last second and screw this up!
"Now, sir. In firing range."
Vorkosigan held in the firing button. Plasma bolts began making an almost continuous line to the Cetagandan ship. Obviously they were caught off guard, just as he'd expected. The ship was slow to respond to the attack and when it did try to turn, it had already been damaged. Still he fired, tracking as much as he could, without having the ability to turn the ship with him. The Cetagandan ship went up in a bright flash. A cheer broke throughout the crew.
But Vorkosigan didn't have time to celebrate. "Status! What about our primary power? Do we have it available yet? Engines? Gravity?"
Several crewmen began checking their own stations or putting through the calls needed to gather the requested information. Vorkosigan passed the sleeve of his uniform over his wet forehead.
"Cheshka, any other ships on your scopes?"
At that moment, Commander Gettyern came floating in to the command center. He looked thoroughly bewildered. "Status. What's going on? Where are the Cetagandans?"
"Destroyed," Vorrash reported.
"Destroyed? But how..."
Vorkosigan didn't bother to explain. "Status of..."
At that moment the gravity came on along with the main power. The men who'd been holding on at their stations came down with a bit more grace, but the ones who'd been in transit from point A to point B crashed down hard to the floor, including Gettyern.
"Shields up," Vorkosigan said at once. Now he could answer all of the executive officer's questions.
But Gettyern's eyes widened. "We didn't have the shields up? What were you doing up here, Vorkosigan?"
"Playing poker," he answered flatly.
"How is the captain?" Vorkosigan asked the chief medical officer.
"He's all right. Hell of a headache. Concussion. I can only speculate, but I'd guess when the gravity went off, he must have gotten knocked onto a path that took him headfirst into...something. Collisions between crew in zero-g, especially in the dark, are often...not nice."
"Glad it's not worse. I wish I could help you out, but since it was dark... I don't even know if I remember what happened to me at that moment and I didn't hit my head."
"Would you like to see him?"
"Um, no. I'll wait. I think he might be...happier to see me later, when his head isn't hurting so much." The commander started to leave. "Other injuries?"
The doctor shrugged. "No major ones to speak of. The usual things I see when we lose gravity in a battle. Men are tossed around. Bruises, cuts, some fractures."
Vorkosigan nodded and then walked out in the corridor. He thought back over his conversation with Gettyern, after the Cetagandan ship was destroyed. The man had not been happy at all with Commander Vorkosigan's decisions. He called Vorkosigan reckless and stupid and ranted for much longer than Vorleson ever had. And at the end of it, Vorkosigan had only offered one sentence in his defense.
"We are still alive and they are destroyed."
Gettyern was completely flustered. He had no answer. Instead he had tasked Vorkosigan with collecting damage reports and seeing to the repairs or whatever other action might be required.
So the commander was doing just that. Next stop was engineering. He had his head down, thinking as he walked. Vorkosigan almost ran into someone, brushing past the man.
"Sorry." He looked up.
Bothari passed him and kept going.
"Sergeant. What happened to you?"
The big man stopped and held up his bandaged hand. "Cut, sir."
"During the attack?"
"Yes, sir. I was in the middle of a repair when that plasma bolt hit us. Threw me against what I was working on."
That sounded painful, especially depending on what he had been working on. "Is it bad?"
The big man shrugged. "I've had worse." His face darkened and he began that maddening habit of clenching and unclenching his jaw. The inner battle was on again. "I'd like to get my hands on them," he said through clenched teeth.
"The Cetagandans?" Vorkosigan asked.
Bothari nodded his head without speaking. His face twitched. The commander wondered if this "attack" was set off by the conflict with the Cetagandan ship or if the struggle inside Bothari was being directed at the Cetagandans. The man that most crewmembers simply wanted to avoid was a very complex man. Vorkosigan not only felt sorry for him, but also found him a fascinating study.
"Have you ever faced them in hand-to-hand combat, Sergeant?"
He didn't answer right away. His face contorted and relaxed, but not completely. "No," he almost snarled out. "I'd like to."
Commander Vorkosigan could see the man's hands begin to ball up into fists now. That can't be good for the injured hand. He should try to get Bothari to relax before he left him. But how? That's something he had never explored before.
"Sergeant, do you have a stash of liquor?"
The big man stiffened visibly. He turned his head a bit. "Why?" he asked suspiciously.
"A toast to the Emperor and the Imperium. For the victory over the enemy ship."
"I'm on duty, sir."
"I am too. Just a toast, not a party."
Bothari relaxed a bit. "No, sir. I don't have any liquor. Against regulations." He turned and walked away.
Vorkosigan watched. A very complex man indeed. Even if he had not been able to get him to relax, at least Bothari seemed now to be distracted from the Cetagandans. Maybe he wouldn't take that anger out on anyone now. Maybe.
"Commander Gettyern has given me a report on what happened after I was rendered unconscious," Vorleson said. "It sounds...outrageous. I don't know whether to commend you for saving the ship, or to have you checked out mentally and reduced in command chain."
Vorkosigan stood silently before the captain. Vorleson sat at the desktop in his cabin, large white bandage covering his forehead. The man's dark eyes were unreadable, his voice calm. The commander didn't know if the man were only a little upset with him, or a great deal. And he had asked no questions. Vorkosigan stood and waited, not knowing what was expected of him.
"What do you have to say for yourself?"
"My idea was very unconventional..."
"To say the least," Vorleson cut in.
"My idea was unconventional, but it did work. We had few options available to us, sir. We were damaged and without our main power. The Cetagandans could have finished us off with a couple more shots. I bought us time to think and plan by not reacting to them and making them think that we were so disabled that we couldn't respond in any way, sir."
"That was your plan?" the captain sat forward and clasped his hands on the desktop. "You intended to draw the Cetagandans closer to us? While we were momentarily disabled?"
"The only thing I could do to keep them from firing on us was to play dead. It seemed to confuse them. They didn't fire on us."
"But they could have, easily. Why did you think they would have hesitation to fire on a disabled enemy ship?"
"I didn't know if they would, sir. It was a hunch. A gamble."
"With my ship and crew."
"Excuse me, sir. What tactic would you have tried?"
The man's face didn't change, but Vorkosigan thought he saw Vorleson's shoulders relax a bit. He was quiet for a moment.
"That is irrelevant. We are talking about your performance, not second-guessing me, which you seem to like to do."
"Not at all, sir. I was genuinely curious about what else could be done in that situation. I hoped you'd teach me, sir."
Vorleson's face creased more. "Are you being clever, Vorkosigan? You hoped I'd teach you."
"No, sir. I'm not trying to be flippant. You are the more experienced officer. Where else should I learn, sir?"
You are trying to be clever. What you are trying to say, Vorkosigan, is that you came up with a cunning idea that just happened to work and that you don't think I could have done the same. "You are dismissed, Commander...while I further consider this report."
"Yes, sir." He saluted and left.
Vorkosigan expected to see Leesa. She had seen him off, for the first time. He thought she would be so glad to see him that she would be here. He was disappointed, but decided that she might be at home, trying to prepare a nice welcome for him. Then he considered. Maybe, just maybe she had a big surprise for him. Could it be that she was pregnant, as they both hoped? Maybe that was the surprise and she was waiting for him to get home to show off her new shape to him. That encouraged him and he let go of his disappointment.
He looked up to see who called to him. Madam Vorthal waved to him. He changed course to meet her. The pair embraced briefly.
"You always look so pale after returning. I do hope you'll get some sun. But other than that you look well," she said.
"Thank you, Madam. You look well also. Thank you for meeting my ship."
"I wanted to offer you my groundcar and driver to take you to your apartment."
He was surprised and didn't answer right away. "Thank you, Madam, but it's not necessary and what will you do?"
"I have other transportation. I have many errands to run with a friend. Please, Aral. I know you must be tired. My driver will see you home at once." Then she hurried away.
"Sir," a man was at his elbow instantly.
Vorkosigan got into the car and was again surprised. Madam Vorthal's son was in the car.
"Alexi! So good to see you! How have you been?"
"Very well, thank you. It has been...years now."
"Your mother told me that you had moved from ImpMil to politics."
"Yes. I'm not sure I did myself a favor. As cutthroat as the military can be, Barrayaran politics are much worse."
"You knew that before you made the move."
Alexi was about five years older than Aral, but he looked ten years older. Already his hair was sprinkled with a bit of grey. His eyes looked weary. He settled himself into the seat and tried to relax.
"I did know, but...I guess I was idealistic enough to think things would be different for me."
"The enthusiasm of youth."
"I'm not so young."
"Compared to most in politics, you are," Aral pointed out.
"I suppose. It is relative, isn't it? How did your mission go?"
"Well enough. We were mostly successful."
"Good. Glad to hear it."
Alexi, I know you well. I get the feeling there is something you need to tell me, but don't want to. You are not at all relaxed."
"Ah. Well... You are observant, Aral."
"You seem as if you are waiting for ImpSec to pick you up."
"If that's all it was..." he trailed off.
"What's wrong?" Aral asked quietly.
"I have to inform you of this because you are a cousin, one I am actually fond of. I wish more than anything that I didn't have to do this. I don't want to see you hurt, Aral."
The commander stiffened. Long preludes to bad news always made things worse. Why did people feel the need to do that?
"Aral...a Vor lord, who is well placed in government service, highly placed...through his family..."
"Just say it, Alexi. I don't care how hard this is. The waiting is worse. Just say it."
"He is...seeing Leesa."
The commander was still and silent for a long moment. He didn't want to believe it and was about to deny it. Everything in him rejected it. Some small voice inside reminded him of how many times Leesa had appeared guilty. More than coincidence. But he tried to push that away.
"No. You're wrong. Your mother put you up to this. She tried to say this about Leesa before and she was wrong. I know she was wrong. Leesa loves me. She wouldn't do this." He paused to try another angle of attack, not realizing he was trying just as hard to convince himself. "She told me before I left that... She said she was ready for a family now. She wanted us to have a child now. You're wrong, Alexi."
The man looked pained. He looked away a moment. "I'm very sorry, Aral. I'd rather tear my own heart out than have to do this. But...you are the one who is wrong. It's very obvious by now. This lord is not so subtle in his...comments about the situation. It has become common knowledge in certain groups here in the capital, in some political circles...his friends. I'm not exaggerating." A long pause. "Aral...it's true."
"No, Alexi. No. I thought that about Leesa myself, but I was wrong. She's..."
"Aral. Please. You are only making it harder on us both. You know me. I wouldn't do this to you if I didn't have good enough reason to believe the veracity of it. I'm sure of it."
Vorkosigan didn't try to defend Leesa again. He was quiet, mind racing, trying to decide whether to believe. How could she do this? What about how attentive and loving she had been? What about all she'd said about having his child? She had been so believable and sincere when she'd begged his understanding before. And he had given in to it. Not once, but twice. Twice. Now someone he had trusted a great deal in the past was telling him yet again. Aral had believed Madam Vorthal. Well, partially believed. He denied it, but when he confronted Leesa, he had begun to believe. And Leesa had begged and pled and tried to prove her innocence. Why would she go to such lengths unless she was not guilty? Why? What would it gain her? But to be found out and most likely divorced would have been scandalous. And that would have robbed Leesa of the thing she coveted most...her place in Vor society here in the capital.
"I don't believe you. If it were true, Leesa would try to keep it quiet. She wouldn't want the scandal. It would cost her too much, publicly. You said it was common knowledge."
"In certain circles. Not everyone knows. I'm sure Leesa is trying to keep it quiet." Alexi paused. "But her lover isn't."
Aral winced. He closed his eyes and lowered his head. Inside the war between denial and belief still raged.
"Her lover has hinted that he thinks Leesa is...handling another man against him also."
Another dagger in his heart. Not enough for it to be another man. Two men. He satisfied her so little that she took two lovers.
"Aral...I didn't want to believe it either. I think I purposely blinded myself to it when I first heard, because I didn't want to believe it. I still don't want to. But...I've heard too much to believe otherwise. The fellow that I know of...knows too many...intimate details. He knows of things between you and Leesa. I don't think she even knows what he says about her when he...brags about what he has done to...Count Vorkosigan's heir."
"Stop the car. Let me out."
"I can't let you go like this, Aral."
"Let me out." He made to move for the door.
"Wait. All right. Just wait until the car stops. Please." Alexi signaled the driver. "Aral, wait, don't go off like this."
But he was gone, hurrying away, head down.
"Damn," Alexi whispered to himself. "I only wish I could believe I did the right thing. But...he had to know..."
"Where can a man buy information around here?" Aral demanded.
The middle aged man stared at him. He sniffed, "This is a high-quality establishment, sir. One does not buy information here. If I can serve you a drink, or something else, I will. Otherwise...I don't want riff-raff here."
Arrogant Vor. Just like all of them. Because you serve Vor, you think you are high class. This place is a dump.
"Give me the drink then. Scotch."
As Vorkosigan waited, he glanced around the dark wood room. Several patrons were staring openly at him. He returned that with a glare and they began to look away. The bartender set the glass before him.
Aral took the glass and downed a big swallow. He refused to react to the strong burn in his throat. He wouldn't acknowledge any pain.
He turned to see Ges Vorrutyer approaching. Vorkosigan turned away from him.
"You seem upset."
"What's wrong? I couldn't help but overhear. What are you trying to find out?"
"That's the problem with not having more friends. I can't find out what is going on here when I leave. Now I have to try to find a stranger who might be in a position to tell me the truth. I have to find someone who knows and who is willing to tell. I'm not a detective. I don't know how to find out." He took another swallow. "Alexi. I should have gotten a name from him. That's what I should have done. I was too stupid to even know what I should do next. Comes from being so blind and gullible, I guess."
"Come on. You obviously need someone to talk to, but not here. Let's go to my place."
"No. You'd never tell me, even if it was true."
Ges studied him a moment. "I think we should step out of here."
But Aral downed the last of the scotch. "Never mind. Go back to what you were doing. I can take care of myself. At least I can after I find out some more information." He slapped some money on the counter and hurried out.
But Vorrutyer followed. Once outside he waited for Vorkosigan to get away from the pub, then he came up behind him.
"Aral, please. I'm concerned about you. You're obviously upset. I can't let you go like this. Wait."
"I don't have time to wait. I have something to take care of." He kept walking.
"What is it that you are trying to find out?"
"A rumor I heard. It has to be a rumor. It can't be true. I won't believe it."
Ges grabbed Aral's arm and stopped him. "Come with me. We should talk. I think I can help you. And I will be as frank with you as I can." He paused and studied Aral's taut face. "Please. I think it's important for us to talk. I think it's important that I talk to you. Hear me out."
Vorkosigan stared back for a moment. Ges' soft brown eyes seemed sympathetic. Aral looked away to think. "All right. I'll hear you out."
"Have a seat. I'll get you a drink. Scotch?" Ges asked.
Aral nodded but didn't say anything. He sat in the chair that he had claimed as his own in Ges' living room, staring at the wall.
Vorrutyer poured the drinks and walked over. He handed a glass to Vorkosigan and then seated himself. The man didn't wait for Aral to begin.
"Aral, there is something I have to tell you. It's not what I want to do, but what I should do. What I have to do. I can no longer just sit by and watch." He paused for a sip.
Vorkosigan sat up. "What is it?"
"I wish I could do this painlessly, but there is no way to do it. I must be blunt, but remember that I do this because, believe it or not, I'm concerned for you. You and I have become good friends. I have to remember how kind you've been to me. And I can't sit by and watch what Leesa is doing to you anymore."
Aral's gut tightened. "What is she doing?" he asked quietly.
"I tried to talk to her. I told her that she was being unfair to you. You've been a wonderful husband to her. Leesa has...told me how you content her in bed. I'm sorry if that disturbs you. Personal information, but she and I are that close that we easily talk of such things and she only wanted me to know how happy she is. And if she is so happy, I asked her why do you do this to Aral?"
"Do what?" Vorkosigan asked impatiently. "Ges, what is it?"
"I'm sorry. Yes, I should get to the point." He paused for a moment and drew in a breath. "Aral, Leesa is cheating on you. Twice over."
Even though he had been told that his wife was having an affair, this was still a shock. Ges was certainly in a better position to know than anyone who had told him yet. It had to be true. Aral's denial was thrust away with Leesa's brother's confession. And it was made worse by the addition to it.
"Twice over?" he whispered blankly.
"Yes. I'm so very sorry. She is seeing two men, Aral."
He set his glass down, stood and walked away from Ges. He didn't want to accept it, but his gut told him that her own brother wouldn't lie. Why would he? Why would Ges deliberately mislead him? He could think of no reason that made any logical sense.
Ges stood and walked over to him. "Are you all right?"
"Who?" he spat out more forcefully. "I have to know." Aral turned to face him squarely. "I have to know."
Vorrutyer looked down for a long moment. "Isn't it enough to know what Leesa has done? Don't make me hurt you more."
"Ges, do you know?"
He nodded once, saying nothing.
Aral grabbed his upper arms. "Tell me," he said through clenched teeth. "I have to know."
"Lord Thomas Vortessian. And Antony Vorgith."
Vorkosigan released him and turned away. Leesa, how could you? It's enough that you've done this. You also deceived me that we were beginning to get along better. You used me.
"I wish more than anything else that I didn't have to tell you, Aral. I tried to talk to her, to get her to stop. You have a wonderful husband, Leesa, I told her. Don't do this to him. But...I thought it would be best for you to hear it from me. From someone who cares. The gossip is beginning to get thick and I couldn't stand you hearing it on the street. Or in a pub. Don't do that again, Aral. Don't go looking for something like this in a place like that. You can always come to me. I'll do all I can to help you."
"I know that you didn't want to have to tell me," Aral said in a barely audible voice. "But I'm glad that you did. It is better to hear it from a friend." Then he walked out.
Ges watched him go. His mouth curled up in a crooked grin. Oh, Aral. You're so trusting. That is why Leesa took advantage of you so easily. Yes, I am a friend, though not as you think. Yes, I am concerned, but not as you think. Now, the seeds have been scattered and the root must find its way, once it has sprouted. And it will begin to grow. I'll not give up until it does. He tossed back his drink and drew in a breath at the burn. Then Ges Vorrutyer began chuckling to himself.
The man had waited patiently. It was his job to be patient, even if he couldn't be. He was paid for his ability to wait, and to report. He had been paid to report on Commander Aral Vorkosigan. Since the 'Vormoor' had landed, the man had followed Vorkosigan's winding and unpredictable, unknowable path. He was also paid for any eventuality. Ready transportation...plain, unobtrusive transportation was the only thing that had allowed him to follow from the spaceport, along with Vorthal's groundcar, to the pub, to Ges Vorrutyer's apartment. And now he waited, taking the moment to mark down some notes of what he had observed so far. Then he began to walk slowly along the street, slowly as if taking a casual stroll. He had to be unnoticed, but not get far away so he could see Vorkosigan when he left.
The man had been prepared to wait for a while. When Vorkosigan visited with Vorrutyer, he often stayed for hours at times, and merely talking, as the man had verified a couple of times. He smiled to himself on his way of verifying that and with no one knowing except him and the man who paid him.
But he was surprised when Vorkosigan appeared on the street in only minutes. And the commander was walking quickly, head down. The man sprang for his small vehicle and allowed Vorkosigan to get further away before he attempted to follow.
Vorkosigan stood in the entry hall of a large townhouse. It was richly decorated in bright colors and plenty of gold...as befitted a well placed Vor lord. Aral couldn't stand still. He paced, swinging his arms, hands tightly balled into fists. He trembled with barely contained rage.
"This way, sir," a servant said and led Aral down a corridor to a large elaborately carved door, which he swung open.
Vorkosigan walked in a quick, stiff gait. A middle-aged man sat in a well-padded armchair, legs crossed and sipping a drink.
"Ah. Commander Vorkosigan." He stood. "I am..."
"I know who you are, Thomas," Aral said through clenched teeth. He was trying very hard to control himself. He was afraid to give in to his feelings right now. He had to be sure before he could allow anything to happen. "I should have realized it before. You're the man who is sleeping with my wife."
The man's face remained just as impassive. He slowly sat down and sipped his drink. "Oh? Where did you hear such a thing?"
No denial, Aral noticed. "Do you refute it, sir?" he said quietly, still trying to hold his temper.
"It seems you have your mind made up. If I did try to refute it, would you believe me?"
Aral took one step toward him. "Will you give me your word that it's not true? Your word, on your name, as a Vor lord?"
The man chuckled lightly. "I had heard that about you Vorkosigans, that your word holds some...magical meaning for you. To give it is some honorable vow."
"Obviously you have no honor then, if you think so little of your word."
The man stared at him. "I think you should leave now."
"You won't deny it."
The man set his glass down and stood slowly. He looked at Vorkosigan for a long moment before he responded. "I will not deny it. If this is the way you prefer to find out. Yes, I have been sleeping with your Leesa. You trap her in arranged marriage and then leave her alone for months. What do you expect? She has needs and desires and I'm sure that I have fulfilled them more than you could ever hope to."
In that second, Vorkosigan almost sprang for the man. Only with the greatest effort was he able to contain himself. He clenched his fists behind his back to hide their trembling.
"I challenge you, sir. I challenge you to a duel. You have dishonored me and I demand the right to defend my honor."
The man's lips went up on one side in a half smile. "Honor? That was lost to you the first time your lovely lady warmed my bed...willingly. And...several know the truth about Leesa. I'm not the only one, you know. There is another. Antony Vorgith. It takes two of us to keep her happy. You could never hope to hold her Vorkosigan. Not with her appetite. Even if you were home more, she's more woman than you could hold."
Aral knew he had to leave or he would kill the man with his bare hands.
"Will you meet me, sir?"
He smiled again. "Yes. I will."
"Tomorrow. Early. Rosemont Park, behind the gardens."
"A traditional dueling place. Hidden from public view. But the time..." He shook his head. "Not too early. Breakfast you know. Shortly after, I should say." He smiled.
Vorkosigan turned and hurried out. He stepped out the door and saw nothing. His rage blinded him to everything. He walked quickly, turning his energy into the long, fast strides.
It's true then. She is having the affair. Alexi didn't lie. Madam Vorthal wasn't lying. Her Thomas just admitted it. If he will agree to meet me in duel, it must be true. And I believed her! I listened to her pled and beg to be forgiven, to be believed. I let her do that to me. But it was what I wanted to believe too. I didn't want to think she would really do such a thing. But she has. Twice. Or...could it even be more than that! How long has this been going on? Since we were married? Since she moved to Vorbarr Sultana? How many men has she tumbled into bed with? Are they all steady affairs or does she like to toy with the occasional opportunity of chance that comes along...at a social. A chance encounter and she meets a man upstairs, just for that night? Is this what her Vor lady friends are teaching her? I though they were proper because they are Vor. I thought Leesa was honorable. I always believed that. She was honorable...at one time. I thought it was right to bring her to the capital and look what it did to her. She has betrayed her honor. She has betrayed my honor. I didn't want to believe it, but she has betrayed me. I have the confession from his own mouth.
What was the other name? Antony Vorgith. I must find out where he lives. I will meet him tomorrow too. But first, I want to hear from his own mouth what the truth is. I will rely on no one else to provide the information. Not Alexi, or Madam Vorthal...or even Leesa. She did play me for a fool. And for how long? How long has the inner circle of Vorbarr Sultana been laughing behind my back? While I was off serving the Emperor, risking my life, trying to establish my military career, she has been making me the joke of the very society that would pay tribute to military heroes.
I must find this Antony Vorgith. And then I must find the right blades. Tomorrow screams for honor to be repaid.
What was the other name? Antony Vorgith. I must find out where he lives. I will meet him tomorrow too. But first, I want to hear from his own mouth what the truth is. I will rely on no one else to provide the information. Not Alexi, or Madam Vorthal...or even Leesa. She did play me for a fool. And for how long? How long has the inner circle of Vorbarr Sultana been laughing behind my back? While I was off serving the Emperor, risking my life, trying to establish my military career, she has been making me the joke of the very society that would pay tribute to military heroes.
I must find this Antony Vorgith. And then I must find the right blades. Tomorrow screams for honor to be repaid.
This was getting only more interesting to the man. To a high government official's house. That was very interesting. At least his employer would no doubt find it so. From there to the home of a well known aristocrat. Of course he knew of this man too. It was his job to know many things, as much as he could know or find out. Antony Vorgith was highly visible, by his own desire. And now Vorkosigan was visiting him. He jotted down the name...and waited.
The young man, about Aral's age, stood leaning against a doorframe, not trying to hide the business he was conducting from anyone in his house. He had a malicious smirk on his face. A typical young Vor aristocrat who imagined he owned the world.
"So, you finally found out? I was wondering how long it would take. I thought you were supposed to be clever, Vorkosigan. That's what they say about you, that you're smart. Not very, I'd say. But Leesa did tell me how she cried so hard and acted the perfect wife after that. She said she kept you satisfied in bed well enough to distract you. Ruled by your feelings instead of your mind, eh?"
Aral's teeth were clenched so tightly that his head was beginning to hurt. He was trembling again with rage, but tried to hide it. Not very successfully.
"I challenge you, sir. I demand the right to defend my honor."
Now the man stood straight and his eyes brightened. Clearly the idea of a duel excited him.
"Ah. You are a man after all! A duel. And a real one. Not one of these practice fights. Yes, yes. I will meet you. You have made the challenge, I demand the right to choose the place." Aral stood saying nothing. "Very well. Let's see...hmm." He snapped his fingers. "I know the perfect place. My own father killed a man outside the fountains, at Rosemont Park. So be it for me."
"Is sunrise sufficient?"
"Oh, as soon as it can be. I relish the idea."
"Be there early then. I relish the idea myself." Aral turned and walked away.
Young hothead. So be it for you. I will defend my honor or I will die trying. So be it. If death is what fate holds for me, I embrace it. I have lost what is so important to me. I no longer care if I live or die. If I am lucky, one of them will kill me and so kill the pain that devours me even now.
"This is the best you have?" Aral asked as he held the saber in his hand, judging the weight. He brought it up in a quick motion and then swung it through the air. Vorkosigan studied the blade. Its fine edge gleamed in the light.
"It is the finest, sir," the salesman said. "The finest. The best that a warrior Vor could take into battle with him. Made by the finest craftsman in Vorbarr Sultana. He guarantees that none of his blades will shatter, even in the harshest fight."
Aral went through several moves against an imaginary foe, seeing in his mind's eye just how he would attack the young hothead. It would be over quickly with him. The other fellow, he was unsure of, but the young one was too eager, too sure of himself.
Then Aral slammed the blade down on the countertop, startling the salesman. Little vibration in it. Yes, it was a strong blade, a sturdy one.
"I'll take it." He glanced around. "What about the short blades? Do you have one by the same craftsman?"
The salesman looked quite uncomfortable. He coughed and cleared his throat. "Sir, we do not sell sabers for dueling."
Vorkosigan smiled a little. "You jump to conclusions easily."
"A saber and a short blade. The traditional weapons of dueling. That is against the Emperor's explicit command. I cannot..."
"No, you are mistaken. These are not for a duel. I am a soldier, in the Emperor's service. I know that dueling is outlawed and I would never, as a soldier, break the law. Decoration. I only wished to add my own touch to my apartment. I'm gone so often that my wife has given our home her own decorative touch. But I am a warrior and I would like my own little corner of our home to reflect my interests," he finished lightly, being sure to smile.
The man studied him for a long moment. Aral knew that he had overplayed his hand by being so adept with the saber before the man.
"As long as I am going to invest the money, I thought I'd get something that was worthy," Vorkosigan said. "A warrior would not want cheap weapons gracing his wall."
The salesman nodded but said nothing. He disappeared into the back of the store to get a sample dagger for his customer to examine.
It was a problem to know where to go after that. There was no way that Vorkosigan could go home to Leesa. He had plenty he'd like to say to her, but his rage had not died down and he truly feared what he might do. Aral had come so close to losing all control more than once today. Soon he would give in, because he had not been able to vent the feelings. It was probably better this way. No doubt Leesa would only protest her innocence yet again and he was not going to listen to another tearful plea. And he didn't think he could take it if she tried to manipulate him in bed again.
He certainly didn't want to go to Vorkosigan House. How could he face his father right now? Piotr would probably begin to count off his son's faults in this, point by point. Again he would be told how inadequate he was...the leftover son. Count Vorkosigan would inform his son once more about how he had failed his duty because he was not able to control his wife, or tame her. No, he couldn't endure that either.
Relatives. There were precious few left and no doubt Madam Vorthal had mentioned this to some of them. Friends. He had very few of them and he couldn't stand the thought of having to explain why he needed a place to sleep for the night. There was the ship, the Vormoor, but he knew he'd never be able to smuggle the weapons in and out. There was only one choice, to take a room for the night.
That presented a problem too. He left the better part of town, not wanting to happen up on anyone who knew him or his father...or Leesa. Above a broken down pub, Vorkosigan rented a room.
Aral finished the drink before him. He would not drink too much. He did not want to get drunk, but he knew that he would never sleep this night without help. Just enough liquor in his system to untie the knot in his stomach and help him relax from the angry tension. Maybe he could sleep then. Maybe.
Vorkosigan stood from the table in the dark corner and walked to the stairs to go up to his bed. Across the room, in the opposite corner, Sergeant Bothari had been staring at the commander the entire time that Vorkosigan had been sitting there. Vorkosigan had never noticed him though. Bothari grunted as he wondered why a Vor lord was drinking in this dive, and apparently spending the night in a flop.
At the bar, the man sipped at a drink. He glanced around. The other men were too involved in their booze, women and other avocations to pay any attention to him. He looked at his notes. Vorkosigan had visited the weapons store, showing great interest in sabers and daggers. Under that he noted that the commander chose to rent a room for the night at a low class establishment, retiring after a couple of drinks in the dark, dirty pub.
Over the pub, Vorkosigan settled on a bed of questionable cleanliness.
It's what I deserve. It represents my life. Questionable. That's my life. Mother killed before me at a young age. A father who regrets that I survived. And a wife who has given away her honor. Tomorrow I will give away my own by these duels. If I die, then I deserve death. If I live, then I am subject to beheading for breaking the edict against dueling. Either way, I win, because it will all be over. And so giving up my honor by breaking my oath of fealty to the Emperor, which is really what I do by disobeying his laws, will not matter any more.
Aral had slept fitfully for only a short time. The rest of his night he spent thinking over and over about Leesa and her teary pleas and how she tried to keep him blinded by being such a desiring and desirable woman in bed. He also considered his two opponents and their reactions to his challenge. He estimated the young, confident man to be easy to take care of. The older man was calmer and controlled and who knew if he had had duels in his youth? Eventually he tired his feelings. The rage wore down, his body and soul unable to support the intense feeling any longer.
That was to his advantage, Vorkosigan realized now as he stood waiting for Vorgith. The rage would not control him and cause him to make foolish, ill considering moves. He had more control and would be better able to see moves, openings and strategies.
"So, you did dare to come after all," Vorgith's voice rang out in the emptiness.
Vorkosigan turned slowly to see the young man dressed in his bright finery, standing with fists resting on his hips, saber slung from his hip and the short blade in a sheath on the other side.
He acts like this is a game, Aral thought in wonder. Young fool.
"You brought no second, no witnesses?" Vorgith strode forward haughtily.
"Witnesses only endanger themselves by being involved," Vorkosigan answered. "Seconds are unnecessary. I need no one to back me up. I will fight by the rules, by my word."
Vorgith laughed. "By your word. Good. I have none to give you. At least in your estimation, since you consider that I have dishonored myself. No matter. We fight to the death, what matters rules?"
"My exact thoughts."
Vorgith slipped his jacket off and cast it aside. He unfastened the saber sheath, withdrew the sword and cast the sheath and belt aside, making grand show of it all. Then he drew his short blade and struck a pose.
"Why do you stand and gawk? I thought you were ready."
Vorkosigan had already disposed of all unnecessary things and held his blades in hand. He spread his feet and brought the saber and dagger up before him.
At once Vorgith moved in swinging his saber. Vorkosigan moved to parry the blow and the young aristocrat moved in with his dagger, slashing. Only barely did Aral turn that blow aside. The blade slashed his shirt, and nicked the skin of his belly. He moved around to the side, repositioning his blades.
You underestimated him, Aral. He may be young and impetuous, but he obviously can handle the blades.
Vorgith lunged, holding his dagger so as to protect the opening that his extension left. Vorkosigan parried the thrust and struck with his dagger, even though he knew he was already blocked. He had to show Vorgith that he knew a few things about dueling too.
Antony recovered from the extension, swinging his dagger as he came up. Vorkosigan blocked that with his saber, hoping to confuse Vorgith. He used his own dagger to come to Antony's side, hoping for a cut, but Vorgith had already turned to meet that with his dagger, taking advantage of Aral's distraction from the saber, which he thrust toward Vorkosigan.
Only just in time did Aral sidestep the thrust. He had been caught off guard and didn't have time to parry the blow. He was also beginning to understand just how severely he had underestimated Antony. Now it was time to be offensive, or try to be. He had to gain some advantage in this fight.
Vorkosigan made sure of Vorgith's stance first as the man came back to his position, being sure of the placement of the blades. Then he lunged, opening the move with the dagger and following with saber. The sword found flesh and Antony leapt backwards.
"Oh, well done. And I thought you were going to be a boring fight," Vorgith taunted before he moved back in. Vorgith feinted with his dagger to the left and as Vorkosigan reacted to block the strike, he let his hand fall and pushed saber forward, straight out from his body.
Aral yelped as the blade penetrated flesh. He pulled back to keep the penetration shallow and then brought his own saber up to deflect Vorgith's. In that moment of pain and distraction, Antony slashed up with his dagger and scratched Vorkosigan's right arm.
He cursed that it was such a superficial wound. Aral was grateful that it was only a scratch. He had to do something to gain ground and quickly. Vorgith knew well how to fight and he was doing it by the rules. He was good; he didn't have to cheat.
Moving backward, Vorkosigan brought both blades up, protecting himself until he could compose himself, but Vorgith was not about to grant his opponent quarter. He moved forward at once, slashing with his dagger to force an opening then thrusting with the saber as he protected himself with the dagger. Aral had no choice but to defend, ready or not. He parried the saber, correctly interpreting the dagger blow as a feint and allowing it to go by him. Then he rammed forward with his own dagger as Vorgith's saber was pushed aside. He struck flesh, inflicting a wound to his opponent's abdomen. Antony was not able to hide his pain and backed away a couple of steps.
Aral took advantage of the moment. Finally he had forced Antony to give ground and obviously his wound distracted him. Aral came forward, both blades extended, then he swept the dagger diagonally down as he thrusted with his saber, over his dagger hand. It would have been a fine cut. But Vorgith sidestepped, almost in panic as he realized how open he had left himself.
And Vorkosigan stepped just past Vorgith, because of his momentum. Antony slashed at Aral's left side with his dagger.
"More than just a scratch this time, eh?" he grinned as Aral spun away from him.
Vorkosigan backed away, saber held up. He really needed quarter now. The pain was drawing his attention from the match. He drew in a breath, considering his next move. Vorgith stood grinning, blades held low, in a taunt. Almost as if he were saying that he was unprotected and daring Vorkosigan to come at him.
And he did. Hurrying forward as fast as he could, Aral moved both blades as he came forward, trying to confuse Antony, not revealing his attack until he closed the distance. Closer, Aral swung low at the man with the dagger and thrusted forward with the saber, almost blindly, in desperation. Vorgith yelped in pain as the saber sunk into his left shoulder. In triumph, Vorkosigan took the distracted moment to cut across Antony's belly with the dagger.
Vorgith backed away quickly. His eyes blazed. He bent over a bit, knees bent and feet well apart. He rushed Aral and a flurry of blows sounded with the ringing of sabers against each other. Until Vorkosigan felt the sting in his hand of a particularly hard hit against his saber. The blade went flying from his hand. At once Antony had his saber point at Vorkosigan's heart, pressing hard enough for Aral to feel the point, but not enough to penetrate, not yet.
He was smiling, maliciously. "You thought you could best me. You don't know me, Vorkosigan. I am one of the best with both blades or either. I've been waiting for this moment...to best you, as I have bested you in bed. Just ask Leesa. She knows a superior man when she enjoys him. And now you know the superior man when you feel the point of my saber cut your heart to pieces. Ironic, isn't it? Leesa cut the emotional part of it to pieces and now I will finish by destroying the physical part."
Aral could feel the pressure increasing on his chest. He very quickly reached his left foot back as far as he could extend it and stepped back. Vorgith's pressure caused him to lean forward as Vorkosigan stepped back. Aral grabbed his right arm, the saber arm and pulled the man past him, ramming home his dagger into Vorgith's gut, twisting the blade to be sure of the damage.
Vorkosigan let go and stepped away. Vorgith's hand was at the blade, covered with blood. He smiled a bit and said, "My final wish...in life was to...die at the hands...of a jealous husband." Then he drew in a breath and let out a sound that was supposed to be a laugh. "But...I always thought I'd be...eighty years old..." Another odd sound and then the man fell to his knees. He looked up at Vorkosigan, sucked in more breath. His mouth moved but no words came out. He pitched forward...and died.
Vorkosigan bent and rested his hands on his knees, panting from the exertion. He looked at his victim, and felt no remorse. Momentarily, he nudged the body over with his boot and withdrew the dagger, wiping the blade on the young man's fine clothes. Then he retrieved his saber. Aral sat down on a low wall on one side of the open area to wait for his next appointment.
Aral had bound his wounds as best he could with strips of cloth from Antony's discarded jacket. Only one was really deep enough to be of much concern and he packed plenty of material onto it, binding it in place with enough pressure that he hoped would staunch the blood.
Do I regret it? No. I'm glad it's done. I'd do it again. Except I hope that another time, I'd be less confident of myself. He almost killed me. Ha! I thought that's what you wanted, Aral. Not yet. If it had happened, then so be it, but I have Lord Thomas Vortessian to take care of also. I won't underestimate him. I learned that lesson from Vorgith. I'll be more prepared for Vortessian. At least I have the chance to rest. I hope my bandaging will take care of my bleeding...or I may not have to worry about Vortessian at all.
But by the time Vorkosigan heard the footsteps he was rested and ready. He stood, facing the sound, blades at the ready, anger beginning to re-ignite in him. Vortessian stopped as soon as he came into view of the old dueling area. He saw Vorgith stretched out, blood soaking the front of his shirt. The man looked startled. He continued to stare, putting a hand to his face and licking his lips.
"You're not armed," Aral noted.
"No. I'm not," the man agreed quietly.
"What's this about? You agreed to meet me."
"Yes, I did. But..." He took another glance at Antony's body. "I thought about it. I thought perhaps we could talk, come to a settlement instead. You feel dishonored. I could..."
"No talk!" Vorkosigan snapped. He slowly walked toward the man. "I didn't invite you here to talk. I invited you here to fight. Why did you come if you weren't going to fight? Are you now a coward? Stop staring at him! Look at me. I'm the reason you are here, not him." Thinking back over the first duel, Aral's mind began to remember more details, the things Vorgith had said during the fight, his taunts. And...the cocky young man had died; he had lost. But he had died with a joke in his mouth, no regret, no fear of death. That annoyed Aral enormously. He'd wanted to see fear on the man's face, but there was none. This time he would be satisfied. His anger was stoked. He was ready to fight.
"I can see what an efficient swordsman you are," Vortessian said. He paused. "Dueling is really rather pointless. And it is against the Emperor's edict. We shouldn't be here at all."
Vorkosigan walked closer. "Are you saying you won't fight me?"
"I don't see the need for it. Look, I'll quit seeing Leesa. I'll even tell her she's not good enough for me, if you want her to feel some sting from all this. I could be quite insulting. She has an inflated ego."
Aral threw down his weapons. He wouldn't use them on an unarmed man. He still had that much honor in him...for now. He drew his fist back and hit Vortessian's face, knocking the man to the ground. He sat and rubbed his jaw. Vorkosigan grasped the man's lapels and pulled him to his feet.
"Vorkosigan, I'll not fight you. We can work out an understanding. There is no point to this."
Aral connected with his jaw again, letting go of his jacket so the man went down again.
"Please, Vorkosigan! I don't want to..."
Before he finished, the commander was dragging him to his feet again.
"Money. I can give you plenty. Position, power. I can use my governmental authority to put you where you want to be. You'd be on Barrayar all the time. You'd have Leesa and she'd have no reason to wander from you."
That only inflamed Vorkosigan. He knocked the man down again, harder. But Lord Vortessian didn't make a move. He lay on his back looking up.
"I can help you in many ways, Vorkosigan. Please. This is..."
Aral was pulling him up again. "Will you fight me?"
"No. I won't. I beg of you! There is no point to this. If it's over a woman, why can't we just come to some arrangement? If you don't want Leesa now, I can get you any woman you desire. Leesa was unworthy of you. She was a common slut. You deserve better than that. Let me present you with a woman worthy of your name, your reputation." Vortessian now thought that if he tried to take Aral's side instead of continuing to oppose him that it might help him get past the man's anger.
But that only incited more rage in Vorkosigan. He hit the man even harder, letting go as he connected.
Vortessian rubbed his mottled face, groaning from the pain. "Please," he moaned. "I don't want to fight."
"You should have thought of that before you agreed to come here," Aral said in a low hoarse voice. "You should have thought of that before you ever put your hands on another man's wife."
"No man ever wanted to kill me. They always accepted my offers of settlement. Please, Vorkosigan. I know you have your price. All men do. Tell me what you want and I'll get it for you. This is not worthy of you. Just a woman. A slut...a whore. Is it worth your life? Is she worth that? The woman who cheated on you, more than once...is she worth your life? That's the price, of course. You know you'll be killed for dueling. Do you really want to throw your life away when you are still so young? So full of promise? I can help you, as I said. Any position you want. And I could help you cover up the death of Vorgith. I could use my position to..."
"Shut up!" Aral snarled as he kicked the man. Commander Aral Vorkosigan stood over the man. "You were so calm about this all yesterday. You accepted my challenge. You even set the time. Delayed this so you could have your breakfast. I hope it was a good one, because it will be your last."
"No. Please. Vorkosigan, listen to me. Can you do this to your father? You are his only heir now. What will become of his heritage if you throw your life away? Think of him if you won't think of yourself. You're better than this. You're better than those Vorrutyers. Leesa is a whore and her brother is no better. It is said that he..."
But Aral wouldn't let him finish. He reached for the man's jacket and yanked hard to shut him up, then began pulling him to his feet again. It was getting harder because Vortessian was helping less and less, knowing he would only be knocked down again. Still Vorkosigan managed. Obviously Vortessian couldn't figure out that his words were intensifying Vorkosigan's anger, not helping his case, as he imagined.
"I don't want to die."
Vorkosigan let out a bitter laugh. "You don't?" He pointed to Vorgith. "He did. A bit later, but he did. That's what he told me," he said calmly. Then suddenly he yelled out, "That's what he told me!" He paused, trying to regain himself. "He died with a joke in his mouth. He was a man about it. You are a coward, as I should have guessed. Not only did you dare to take another man's wife, you try to bargain your way out of it, selling your soul to live. You have no honor left. You've bargained it all away." He pushed the man hard and he fell backward.
Vorkosigan turned and walked to where he had dropped his weapons. He picked them both up and turned.
"No, Vorkosigan!" Vortessian didn't move to get up. He began scooting himself away, pausing to hold a hand up now and again. "You don't understand what you are doing. I know you're angry...furious. You should stop and think about this. Realize what you are basing your future on...a woman who ran around on you, throwing herself at any man who gave her a second look. She was worse than a whore. At least they ask for something of value in return for their service. Leesa gave herself away. It was a joke among us...at the government building. Who did she sleep with last night? Who has she been eyeing today? That is what you are throwing your life away for. She's not worth that kind of sacrifice, Vorkosigan. It's a waste. You have more honor than that!"
Aral stopped walking. "I used to have more honor than that. I used to think so," he said in a low whisper. He paused, lifting the saber. It trembled with his hand. Vortessian had almost pushed him to his limit in his attempts to run down Leesa and build up Vorkosigan.
But the man still didn't realize that. Vorkosigan had stopped. He must have said the right thing. "I know how important that is to you...your honor. You mentioned that yesterday."
"And you told me I couldn't regain what was thrown away the first time Leesa willingly took your bed," the commander whispered in a hoarse voice.
"I...I...misspoke. It was my own arrogance that prodded me to say that. I was wrong. You can regain your honor...by sparing me. Can't you see that's the more honorable way out instead of killing me? Because I won't fight you!"
But Aral said nothing. He continued to walk slowly toward the man, rage building, weapons raised.
"Vorkosigan, you know this is against the law," the man said in a tremulous voice. "You'll be killed for it! Why throw your life away?"
"Then we both will die and we both deserve it," Aral answered in a fierce whisper.
"Why do I deserve it when Leesa threw herself at me? You don't deserve it because you are an honorable man. If anyone deserves punishment, she does! Drag her before the public and expose her deeds. Make Leesa suffer. Make her pay!"
"You would do that, wouldn't you? You would bring her out to humiliate and suffer, only so you could go free," Vorkosigan's voice was barely audible, his eyes dangerous. "Only so you could go free. Go freely to the next bed, the next woman you could seduce."
"No. That's not the way it was. I told you that Leesa..."
Now Vortessian gave up all ploys. "You took out your feelings on Vorgith. Please, spare me. I don't want to die!"
Vorkosigan turned to take one more look at Vorgith. He remembered the last words of the man, and it only made him angrier, if that were possible. It was wrong of Vortessian to keep reminding him of Vorgith. That was not placating him.
"Please! Don't kill me. I am unarmed. You would kill an unarmed man? I thought you wanted your honor restored. What kind of honor is it if you kill an unarmed man?"
Now Vorkosigan stood over the man, looking down on him with blazing eyes. He dropped the dagger next to Lord Vortessian.
"Now you have a weapon," he said quietly.
"No! I won't fight. I won't pick it up. Please!"
The begging annoyed Vorkosigan almost as much as Vorgith's jokes had. He drew back his saber and plunged it into Vortessian's abdomen, driving it upward and twisting the blade.
The man screamed in pain, eyes wide, almost as if in disbelief. He muttered some unintelligible sounds. Vortessian's head fell back...and he died.
Vorkosigan withdrew the saber and threw it to the ground. He stood for a moment, still trembling from his rage, looking from body to body. Somehow he expected to feel better when this was over. But he did not. He didn't feel that he had satisfied his honor. One man almost killed him and laughed in his face. The other had refused to fight and had to be dealt with in a cold way. No, there was no relief, no satisfaction. Only emptiness and the seemingly unbounded rage. Vorkosigan turned and walked away from the area. There was yet one thing more to be done.
"Aral!" Leesa cried in surprise. "Where have you been? I've been worried about you. Your ship arrived yesterday. Why have you only now come home?"
The commander pushed into the apartment and stood silently for a moment.
"What has happened to you? Aral! You're hurt." She sounded concerned and reached out a hand toward one of the bandages, but he grabbed her wrist to stop her. "You're hurting me! Aral...what is wrong with you?"
"You are what is wrong with me," he whispered. On the journey to this apartment to confront Leesa, he'd had time to try to put the rage away, to think about what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. And he wanted to be as calm and controlled as he could. He wouldn't let Leesa know how angry he really was. He wanted to seem indifferent. Control. He had to control his tone, his words.
"You are the problem, the mistake, the reason for these wounds. I know about Vortessian and Vorgith."
"Aral," she said in exasperation. "I thought we'd settled your accusations. I've forgiven you twice. If you expect me to do it a third time..."
"No. I don't expect it. Because I'm not wrong. I wasn't wrong before. You were having affairs. I let you deceive me. It would be easy to blame you entirely, and you are guilty of the affairs, but I am guilty of being a fool, of falling for your manipulations," he said quietly. "I allowed you to move me with your tears and false explanations and with...." He paused. "And with your bedroom manipulations too. Of those things, I am just as guilty as you. But you carry all the guilt of giving yourself away, like a common whore. I thought you were honorable. I thought you were Vor. You acted the part, but you were not either. Oh, you looked so much on the outside like a high Vor lady. You had all the responses down well. But inside, it was all a lie. You're nothing, except a whore, giving away freely the valued gift that is special between a married man and woman. That is what you truly are, Leesa. And that is what your lovers were...play actors, as well. They wore the Vor mask, but when it was torn away, there was no honor, no pride. So I took the only thing of value that they still had. Their lives. I have killed both your lovers, Leesa," he said in a whisper. "Both. Dead. Vorgith at least dueled me well. Vortessian." He laughed harshly. "Begged for his life. He offered to make me a deal for you, Leesa. That is how much value you held for him. You gave yourself to him and he was ready to toss you aside at once. I killed him while he was pleading for life, offering me whatever I wanted to let him live, including any other woman I wanted. I could have traded you for another woman. After today, you would have been nothing, Vortessian's playmate that he would toss aside as soon as he tired of you. But I couldn't stand the thought of another woman who would probably be the same thing as you. Cheap, dishonorable, pretender. Any woman Vortessian knows would be the same. They are dead, Leesa. No amount of tears or sex will toy with my heart again or bring them back to you. They are dead. And so are you in my heart and mind. My heart is dead. It can't feel anything for you anymore."
Her dark eyes blazed, but she had stood still for the speech. Now she stepped close to him, no fear of him in her face. "You bastard! How dare you? You think you are so...holy, with your high ideas of honor and principle. So much honor, you imagine, that you would run off and leave me alone for months on end. And what was I supposed to do? Did you really imagine that I would sit about with a bunch of ladies, drink tea, and gossip? Did you think I was only preparing things for you for when you became Count? Is that your sense of honor? Is that what Vor means to you? I am a woman, Aral! A woman. A beautiful and desirable one. You know it, because you've told me. You know it because of how you have made love to me again and again...while I pretended to love you back. You know what I am and what I am capable of, when I choose to give of myself. I have needs and desires. Ones that will not wait months until you decide to gift me with your presence. I can't turn them off until you get back and then turn them on. They are always there and always active. I needed to be loved. I needed to be appreciated, not tolerated. Not treated like I was supposed to be your ideal companion, listen to your war stories and placate you in bed, then leave you alone. I was not really a part of your life. I was as much a whore to you as I was to them! At least they treated me as something important in their lives, not an armpiece that was to be used when convenient and then put away until next leave. You are so self-righteous with your old, puritanical ideas. You are not perfect either, Aral. Far from it. Your honor is not so perfect as you think. You've proven that by what you did. You killed a man in cold blood, not in a duel. Is that the holy Vorkosigan honor? Is that what it is? Then I want no part of it! I'm glad to be away from you. If I could, I'd challenge you myself. I'd make you taste my blade. It is what you deserve for how you have treated me." All of her more cogent arguments done, Leesa reached for an insult to end her rant. "And you could have learned so much from them both. They were more man in bed on one night than you'll ever hope to be in your entire life!"
Aral stood, forcing himself to stillness. He would not react. He could not. If he gave in to a little of his anger, he feared it would all come boiling out in a flood of release. And he could see that she wanted to hurt him. Nothing she said was reason enough to defend her actions; only in her mind, but not in reality. He had said all he wanted. To go on would be to come down to a low level and begin to trade insults. He wouldn't do that. It was not his reason for coming here. Emptied of rational statements and fighting his feelings, Vorkosigan turned and walked out.
"Don't think this is over!" Leesa yelled at him as he walked away. Then she slammed the door.
With purpose and measured steps, Vorkosigan walked to his ship. He rebuffed transportation and walked all the way, putting his angry energy into his long hurried strides. By the time he was most of the way there, he had tired himself out and he was unable to hold the great anger. Reason began to return.
And now I must face the penalty for what I have done. But I am ready to. I know it is certain death, beheading, to violate the ban on dueling. I no longer care. I am tired of it all, tired of life. I have given up the last part of myself, my honor. It was not restored in this. What remained was stripped away. I deserve to die for what I have done. And it will be easy enough to decide who has done this thing. As angry as Leesa was, she'll be more than happy to provide my name to the authorities. My last refuge is the only part of my life that seemed to bring me happiness and achievement, the military. I will go back to the ship. I have nowhere else to go. I won't pull my father into this by going to his home. The only semblance of family I have is my shipmates. And so I will spend my last hours there with them. And when the authorities come to arrest me, I will go willingly, to face what I know I must. I will face it honorably...without fear. I will die not as Vorgith, with a joke, or as Vortessian, as a coward. I will die with the honor that seemed to have begun to elude me in my life.
Vorkosigan was lying on his bunk, staring at the ceiling, thinking, wondering. Many hours had passed since the duels. Most of a day. Where were the officers who would come to take him away? Surely by now the bodies had been found. By now Leesa had time to report him. But no one had come for him. Why?
Then there was a knock at the door to his quarters. Aral stood and walked to the door, opening it. An ensign stood there.
"Excuse me, Commander. A man wants to speak to you. An officer."
So, it had taken longer, but they were here.
"Thank you, Ensign." Vorkosigan stepped out and closed the door. He walked unhurriedly along the corridors to the ship entrance. He was not afraid and he was not angry. He was resigned.
Vorkosigan walked down some stairs, out of the ship. A tall man in dark police uniform waited.
"Commander Aral Vorkosigan?" he asked.
"Yes," Aral answered clearly.
"I'm Officer Kostas. I'm afraid I have some bad news for you."
"Yes," the commander agreed.
But the officer thought it was a prod to go on. "Your wife has killed herself."
Vorkosigan was stunned. He said nothing for seconds. Then he stammered out. "Leesa...killed..."
"I'm sorry. I know how hard this must be. Her maidservant found the body and called us."
"What happened?" Vorkosigan demanded.
"She used...a plasma arc. To the head. I...I'm afraid that...there's not much left of..."
"A plasma arc?" he repeated numbly. "Where did she get that?"
"We have it and it will be released to you." The man shifted on his feet, obviously not enjoying this duty. "The number matched when we checked it out. Your service arc."
"My..." He felt so strange to hear this. It was a shock, certainly, but other feelings hit him too...anger, disappointment, frustration. It wasn't supposed to end this way. His last wish before he would be beheaded for dueling was to talk to Leesa once more, with his anger gone, the worst of it anyway. He wanted to understand why. There had to be more than her desires, as she said. There were other Vor women who patiently tolerated their husband's absences, waited chastely for them. And he still had other things he wanted to say to her.
"Are you all right, sir?"
The words brought his attention back to the moment. "Huh? Oh. I suppose," he said blankly.
"I...ah...don't know... I mean, since you are on active service, I don't know how much you may know of your wife's state of mind...her reason for doing this."
Aral stood for a moment. He wasn't sure what to say. What kind of question was that? But this must be the moment of arrest for him. As much time as had passed, certainly the bodies had been found and now Leesa... Too easy to tie it all together. And he had left the weapons at the spot of the duel.
"Earlier, before we found out about your wife, two bodies were found outside a park, in a very out of the way place."
This was it. The man had come to arrest him. Very well. He was resigned to it. Let it happen now. There was nothing to hold back for. Everything was taken from him now.
"Lord Thomas Vortessian and Antony Vorgith. Apparently the two had fought each other. We found two sets of dueling blades. The two killed each other. As other officers investigated to find the reason for the duel..." He coughed and cleared his throat. "Some...disturbing facts came to light as friends and family were questioned. Reasons for duels are often just written off, but Lord Vortessian was a high government official and we had to wonder if there was some connection to his service, if he had compromised his position in any way."
"What...what did you find out?" Aral stammered.
"I'm sorry to have to bring you more bad news, but...apparently this duel was over a lady that both men were in love with. It seemed to be well known to some of their friends. I'm sorry, Commander, but...it was your wife. She was...seeing them both. And that is the only tie we could make between these men. The only reason we could find for the duel." He paused. "I'm sorry, sir. I..." he trailed off. "The body is at the morgue and your weapon will be returned to you. That is what I was to inform you of. Is there anything you'd like to ask about the case?"
Vorkosigan stood numbly. He couldn't believe it. The police thought that Vortessian and Vorgith killed each other? He never thought it would be that way. It was not how he planned it. On the other hand, two bodies in the same locale, the weapons still there. But I didn't mean for it to look...
"I must return to duty, sir. If there is anything else you'd like to know, just call my department."
"You...you don't want to...talk to me?"
"No, sir. I mean...this is awkward. My department found out about these affairs. I'm sure that...well...you are gone for months and friends have told us of...of how Vortessian and Vorgith maintained things properly when you were home. You probably couldn't have known about that. And you certainly couldn't know that these men would meet in jealous rage...or that your wife would... It was an obvious duel, the blades still in the hands of each man. So...there is no reason to question you, Commander." He nodded his head. "Good day, sir." Then he was gone.
Vorkosigan stood in mute shock for a long moment. Then he began to walk away from the ship. He had to think and he had to be alone.
Leesa...suicide? It doesn't seem right. Not just because it is such a shock. She never exhibited anything that would make me believe that she was the suicidal type. She loved life too much, even though she was living it only for herself. It was because she was living it completely for herself that she wouldn't do such a thing. She was on top of Vor society, adored by everyone...apparently very much adored by some in particular. Why would she kill herself? And...even though she hurt me so deeply, I did love her. I still love her. Yes, I am a fool. She used me, but I still love her. I do. She made me believe that she loved me too. I believe she truly did. No matter what words she said, I believe she really had some love for me. She only wanted to hurt me when she said she pretended. Oh, Leesa. Leesa... My love, all that I could give, wasn't enough. I wasn't enough. I'm sorry. What more could I have done? I wish I had known. I could have prevented this all. I could have.
Barrayaran tradition called for the youngest in a family to light the funeral pyre. Leesa was the youngest in her family. She had no children. As husband, the duty fell to Aral. He stepped forward and touched the burning splint to the pyre and then stepped back. He watched the flames grow, consuming wood and working toward the draped body. He was numb. Shock had given way to accepting the reality of the death. It had sickened him to see the once beautiful face burned away, but Aral found the only way he could accept her death was to see the lifeless body himself. He regretted it at once, but the unreal feeling fled him and he knew he had done the right thing. The thing he had to do in order to begin to move forward. But...forward toward what? He felt empty now. He felt nothing. What was he supposed to feel, to do with himself? The thought came to him to throw himself into the flames and for seconds he considered it. Why he didn't carry through with it, he couldn't say. Aral felt he deserved to die. Leesa had done the wrong thing and had hurt him, but did she deserve to give up her life for it? He didn't think so. But he...he had dueled, killed two men. He had lost his honor in all of this. Wife, honor...gone. Things dearest to him gone. What was there left for him? Didn't he deserve death? If for no other reason, he had broken the edict on dueling and that should have guaranteed his death. Aral still couldn't figure out why he had not been suspected, but then his thoughts had not been very clear since learning of Leesa's death.
Ges was next to Aral. A tear slipped down his face. Yes, it was true that he and Leesa had clashed hard in life, but she was his sister. He truly did care about her, more than he had realized actually. It had taken this to make him see how much he did care. Vorrutyer put a hand on Aral's shoulder. He had been afraid for Aral in the couple of days since Leesa had killed herself. Vorkosigan had slipped into a very dark, dark depression. He would talk to no one, speaking only when he found it truly necessary to respond to a question. Aral wouldn't eat. He sat and stared at the wall when Ges almost forcibly brought Aral to his apartment to talk.
And Ges also knew of the additional pain piled on Aral because his father, Count Vorkosigan, refused to attend the funeral. Piotr was outraged that the match he had arranged had resulted in this scandal to his family, his name. Aral was not entirely surprised, he had told Ges. Aral said he expected that, but Ges had to think it hurt anyway, even if he did expect it. Now Aral was forced to face this on his own. That was why Ges was sure to be there next to Aral, in sympathetic support.
Vorkosigan turned to look at Ges. He still had that blank look on his face, the empty look in his eyes. Then he turned away, looking back at the flames. They stood in silence until the pyre had burned down to ashes.
"Come on," Ges whispered and pulled at Aral's arm. Vorkosigan allowed himself to be led away, like a marionette, responding to the actions on him by another. He never looked back, but just walked alongside Ges Vorrutyer, away from Leesa Vorrutyer Vorkosigan's ashes.
© 2002 by B. L. Lindley-Anderson (anderson_at_hiwaay.net)
Current version by Michael Bernardi, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Last updated: December 6th 2002