Trials of Honor

by B. L. Lindley-Anderson

consultation and beta by Julie Mattison
Rating PG

Aral Vorkosigan stood staring out the viewport of his assigned ship. Home. Barrayar. He had mixed feelings about coming home. The crew needed a break, a rest. Their last mission had been hard. That was the way the men spoke of it...hard. It was exhausting and demanding, but as true Barrayaran soldiers, each kept up a stern outward appearance and none would admit just how tired he was. Many of the men would have a happy homecoming. They had family waiting to see them.

Vorkosigan had family too. At least he referred to the man who would greet him as family. Piotr Vorkosigan, Count of his district and grand war hero. He would be glad, outwardly, to see his son again. But Lieutenant Vorkosigan knew that the outward was carefully designed to show the Count as everyone expected him to be. Always the exemplary political man, Piotr would play the role that was cast on him.

Aral turned from the viewport. He knew how his father truly felt about him. Not that Piotr had ever said the words directly to his face. But he knew. Lieutenant Vorkosigan's older brother had been killed when they were both but children. His brother had been the favored one. He was tall and had been pronounced handsome, even at a young age. Aral was short for his age, stocky, average looking. Less than perfect. Perfect being his brother, the yardstick he was always measured by. Sometimes Vorkosigan wasn't sure if his father did that on purpose or not. Other times the intent seemed clear.

No matter how hard I try, I'll never be able to please him. Because he has already determined that I'll never be what he wanted or expected. I won't be like...him. I have to please me. I have to learn to accept me and do what I know I can do and say that is good enough. And at the same time, I have to play Father's game. I have to pretend that I don't see what he is doing to me. I have to pretend that there is no ghost between us, because he tries to pretend that is so. But it will always be there, blocking me from my father's approval, from his praise.

And there is Leesa waiting as well. I mustn't forget her. She will be glad to see me. Another chance to court her favor and try to learn to love her before we are married. The perfect Vor wife...according to Father. He made all the arrangements, after extensive research, of course. Nothing but the best for his son, even if it is his leftover son. Nothing to embarrass the name, Vorkosigan. Ah well, she is lovely and we have come to a kind of friendship, it not love. In time it will be so. After we are married, joined to one flesh, one life, then we will come to love. I hope...

Vorkosigan was not surprised that his father had not come to greet the landing of his son's ship. Count Vorkosigan was entirely too busy for such things. The lieutenant walked past all his shipmates who had someone to greet them. They weren't there because he chose to shut them out. Vorkosigan walked to the groundcar where one of his father's liveried men stood waiting.

"Hello, sir," the man said as he opened the door for the lieutenant.

Vorkosigan only grunted a response.

Vorkosigan didn't wait around to be acknowledged by his father. The Count was engaged in some district business. Instead he made arrangements to go see Leesa. She didn't live in Vorbarr Sultana, or even near the Vorkosigan house outside the capital, at Vorkosigan Surleau. Leesa lived away from any large city, out in the country. Aral realized that he looked forward to the trip as much to get away from everything as much as to see the lady that he would be wed to upon her eighteenth birthday.

He settled the lightflyer just inside the entrance to Leesa's uncle's land. She had been sent to the country by her father who believed that Leesa would be raised more properly Vor and less affected by the dirty world if she were removed from it. So Leesa's father's brother and his wife had taken over the task of rearing the girl.

The liveried men came more to check out the new arrival more than to greet him. But he was recognized and passed. Vortarkin was out walking, his daily constitutional, along the grounds.

"Lieutenant Vorkosigan, a pleasant surprise. Welcome." The lean man hurried to him. He brushed a hand through his just greying hair, extending the other.

"Thank you, sir," Vorkosigan answered pleasantly. "I should have called ahead. I was anxious away..."

"It's fine. You are welcome any time. I understand your...anxiousness." The man smiled.

No, you really don't. "Thank you. I appreciate your hospitality."

"Well, let's go up to the house then. I'm sure I know of a young lady who will be anxious also."

Vorkosigan clasped his hands behind his back and looked straight ahead. Vortarkin was always nice enough to him. Whether that was because the man liked him or was just glad that his niece would be marrying well, Aral was never sure. That's why he always kept his guard up around the man. In fact, the lieutenant realized, he kept his guard up around everyone. There was no one he felt comfortable enough around to show his true self to. He didn't know Leesa well enough yet. Piotr...well, he had already been through all that on the ship before landing. That only left the handful of friends he'd been able to make on his ship and he still was unsure of them too. There was a pang inside him at this realization and he hoped that his dream of coming to truly love Leesa happened. How much he longed to open up to someone, but someone who wouldn't hurt him. Like he had already been hurt.

"So, how was your assignment? Rough?" Vortarkin asked.

Vorkosigan started to shrug and stopped the motion. "No more nor no less than any other. We're soldiers...doing our service," he replied blandly.

"Of course. A good answer. A...soldierly answer. You will do well, Aral. You have the makings of a good officer."

"Thank you, sir. I do my best." That was true enough. Aral's best was more than other men's best though. He wanted to be a soldier. Not to play solider. It wasn't the medals and rituals and uniforms and parades that interested him. Strategy, logistics, offensive advantage...power. That's what drew him. And so Vorkosigan worked hard to hone his skills, to learn from not just his superiors, but also any man in the service that he could learn from, he would. He was beginning to see that rank didn't automatically guarantee ability or wisdom. Sometimes a mediocre soldier would have a moment of brilliance and outshine the best strategist on the ship. Each man was to be observed, studied for what Vorkosigan could wring out of his performance.

"Leesa may not understand that. I fear this life away from the city has sheltered her. Perhaps this has been unfair to her. Perhaps I should make arrangements to move her to the city these last few months before she marries so she can begin to see what life will be like."

"You would send her alone? With chaperone, of course, but alone?"

"Hmm. I should consider it more before I decide, eh? But a chaperone should be enough, right?"

"Yes, sir."

A guard at the entrance to the big old stone and wood house opened the door for his lord and the guest.

"Go along to the sitting room, Aral. I'll send Leesa in. I think I know where to find her."

The lieutenant nodded and walked a handful of steps down a corridor from the well-lit and cheery entry hall, entering a large, dark room. The room was filled with a few family heirlooms and some other objets d'art. Vorkosigan never understood why the room was intended to be so blasted dark. Dark wood, dark trim, dark upholstery fabric, dark drapes. The one liberty that he allowed himself while visiting was to open the drapes. He blinked against the bright light pouring in as the heavy curtains parted. Vorkosigan looked out as motes of dust floated between him and the window. He heard the door open, a sound so light that he might not have been aware if the room hadn't been so silent.

Vorkosigan turned. A young lady, still short of her eighteenth birthday, stood inside the door. She was slim and barely beneath his short height. Leesa had her medium length dark hair pulled into a loose curled mass on the back of her head. A few wisps were purposely left loose. She had on a simple, but lovely dress of small flowered print. Leesa was not exposed to the high fashion of the capital. It mattered not. She always dressed becomingly.

"Hello, Aral," she said quietly. "It's good to see you again."

She is a lovely girl, and so quiet. Father is correct in what he says about her. Leesa is a girl of honor. One that would understand why that is important to me. Still innocent, but that is part of what I can pay tribute to in her. Vor, but not like the Vor ladies in the capital who seek to honor only self.

He crossed to her. Their marriage had been agreed to by Count Vorkosigan and Leesa's father, through his brother, Leesa's uncle. Aral had never seen her until the arrangements had been finalized. Then they had begun the awkward process of trying to get to know each other. He knew her but he knew her not. That inelegant situation always compelled him to be extremely proper toward her. He bowed formally to her.

"You look lovely, Leesa. I'm pleased to see you again." The words were stiff and self-conscious.

However, Leesa saw a longing in his grey eyes. As much as Aral tried to be so formal and controlled, he had not learned how much his eyes betrayed him. Was that longing for her? Was it a longing to be accepted and loved? Or was it just a desire to be past this uneasy stage of their relationship? She chose to believe it was the first. Wasn't that the way it was between man and woman? The natural course of things. Leesa wasn't haughty, but she did have eyes. She saw herself in the mirror. A man would be attracted to her. And what of Aral? He was not the kind of man she would have chosen for herself. The same eyes that saw Leesa in the mirror had seen much more attractive men. However, he was not ugly. Aral was quite masculine, as she had noticed more than once. Even though he was shorter than she thought a man should be, his body was muscular and compact. Yes, she thought she could come to love long as he loved her also. But arranged marriages were the way of things on Barrayar and it worked amazingly well most of the time. Most of the time. But Leesa would not dwell on the negative. There hadn't been a bad marriage in her family in a few generations. Troubled ones, rocky ones, but they had all survived. Hers would too because she wanted it to. She would work for it to succeed. It was the Vor way.

Leesa swept from the door and sat gracefully on the large dark upholstered sofa. "Please, come, talk with me."

He walked over and sat, not too close, stiff and resting his hands in his lap. Vorkosigan glanced around the room first, noting the huge scale of the furnishings before looking at the lean and prim girl next to him. "How have you been?"

"I've missed you, Aral."

"I missed you also."

"You don't sound like it. You sound as if you are just repeating what I've said."

Relax. You have to begin to open up to her more if you expect to make this marriage. "I really did miss you. I missed hearing you talk...your laughter." I did miss it. Your words always so carefully chosen to reveal little, but so open. A girl of privilege, keeping your father's reputation as well as yours.

Leesa smiled. "Really? I suppose you don't hear much laughter on your ship. I mean, you're fighting in combat. There's nothing funny about that."

At least she tried to see interested in his military life. "No, there's nothing funny about it. We try to have good times though. When we're gone for long times, it's important to relax. We'd go mad if we didn't do anything but think of our conquests and what fight was coming up next."

"Oh? It's odd to hear a Barrayaran say that. I thought that soldiers liked to sit around and think military all the time."

" don't like to think about only one thing all the time, do you? It's boring, even if it's something that you like...right?" Or is it? You really do like to sit around and think about your life as a solider most of the time, don't you, Aral?

She laughed lightly, just a short laugh. "Yes. Of course. I just thought that you were different."

"Me? Because I am me or because I am a soldier?"

"Hmm...I'm not sure. Both, I think."

He studied Leesa for a moment. "You're laughing at me. You're not really interested at all in what happens on the ship." I thought you were different, but you're teasing me. Not just a friendly tease either.

"No! Aral, that's not true. I am. I'm trying hard to...learn more about you. That's all I'm doing. I'm not laughing at you. Maybe about some of the things you say, but not at you. Do you see the difference?"

He paused to think that over. "Yes. I suppose."

Vortarkin tried to close the door without being heard. He shook his head. Awkward. I can feel it from here. He's trying, but the boy is just not used to entertaining a lady. I would have thought differently, him being a Vorkosigan. Well...they still have some time to become acquainted yet.

"Your captain tells me that you perform in an exemplary manner," Count Vorkosigan said as he leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs.

"I do my duty, sir," Lieutenant Vorkosigan answered from where he sat, almost at attention, across a small table from his father. They were relaxing in Piotr's study. But it was hard to relax around the man. Aral felt as if he were always under the closest scrutiny and evaluation.

"Yes, as I expected. And do you do more? Do you only do what is expected of you?"

"I do what needs to be done, sir. When I see a task that should be completed, I will take it on." Yes, I do more, but not because you want it. I do it because I want to be the best soldier that I can learn to be. I learn any way I can find to learn.

"Good man. You're a Vorkosigan. You are expected to live up to that." Even though he spoke to Aral, his eyes seemed to roam around the room, not in admiration of his study, but almost as if he wanted to see anything but his son.

I'll never be able to live up to it. At least not to your ideal of what a Vorkosigan should be. Even if I succeed beyond what you could imagine for me, you will find a way to find fault. Because I am the leftover son. Not the son you wanted, the one you were forced to raise and endure.

"I won't let you down, sir."

"I know you won't, Aral." A pause. "So, did you have a good visit with Leesa?"

"Yes, sir."

"Not too much longer now. She's a fine choice, Aral. A good Vor family. Her guardians are working hard at her all areas. She'll be the right match for you. With your career so far and Leesa as a wife, you'll have a firm foundation to build your life on." Piotr suddenly sat forward and picked up a paperweight from the table, turning it over and over in his hand.

"Yes, sir." The life you have planned for me. But I am beginning to find myself, slowly, but I am doing it. The wedding will help that along too. Then I can live the life I want. "She is a girl of honor," he added quietly.

"Well, tell me about your mission. What happened...and what part did you play?"


The lieutenant stopped in the ship's corridor and turned. "Yes, sir?"

Captain Vornant was walking toward him. "Report to Central Command. I want you there when we encounter those mercenaries. I'm going to need sharp wits and quick reactions."

"Yes, sir. Should I find someone else to oversee the engine room check, sir?"

"Belay that order. I'll take care of it. Get up there now."

"Yes, sir." The lieutenant hurried down the corridor. He was quietly satisfied. His fast response and attention to detail must be making an impression. This time he would be closer to the heart of decision making instead of remanded to what seemed like housekeeping chores.

As Lieutenant Vorkosigan entered the command center, some eyes turned to look, but most continued their assigned tasks. He could feel the cold stares, but wouldn't allow his attention to be drawn. Still a young officer and not long on this ship, Vorkosigan yet knew who his enemies were. An odd thought that. Enemies among soldiers fighting on the same side, and yet there it was. The politics on this ship could be ugly at times. It was all conducted at a level that tried to stay beneath the captain's notice. Petty jealousies. Captain Vornant wouldn't endure those. Only when the situation was significant enough to justify the captain's attention would the men allow it to rise above the surface. And in that case, there was usually a clear division in the crew...those devoted to duty and those devoted to what they could get for themselves. Not treasure. Power, position, favor with the captain.

"The new trainee," another lieutenant said quietly as Vorkosigan passed him and a couple of ensigns chuckled.

Vorkosigan ignored the comment. He knew that it was meant as a commentary on his lack of presence and experience in the command center during battles. That bothered him none. All men had to begin somewhere. But Lieutenant Motlov hoped to instill lack of confidence in him with the crew on duty. Motlov was one of those who looked for power and position. It was a point of friction with him that he had to serve with Lieutenant Vorkosigan. Motlov imagined that Vorkosigan was where he was because of his father and his name. He had never bothered to consider how Vorkosigan performed, because he already had his mind made up.

"Position of the mercenary ships," Commander Gettyern demanded.

"Still hanging off our port side, sir," Ensign Vorrash answered. "They have not moved, sir."

Then Captain Vornant entered the center. "Then I suppose we'd better go after them, if they are going to play games with us. We have to keep the space around Barrayar clear. Clear."

"These mercenaries are trying to find any weakness to exploit," Gettyern said in barely concealed rage.

"Yes," the captain agreed. "They think Barrayar weak and still rebuilding this long after the Cetagandan conflict." He leered a grin. "Fools. They have no idea. Bad intelligence on their part."

"Orders, sir?" Gettyern, the executive officer, asked, anxious to be on the way and into the fight.

"Turn to port and accelerate to eighty percent attack speed. Bring weapons to bear and stand by for orders to fire."

"Helm, turn to port, eighty percent speed. Arms, activate weapons, stand by."

"Turning to port," Ensign Cheshka answered.

"Weapons, full power, standing by," Vorkosigan answered from his station. He was watching the view scope. Five ships. Smaller than this one, but similar armament. Being smaller, the mercenary ships couldn't afford the power that the Barrayaran ship could put into its plasma weapons. Outgunned. They, wisely, were spread wide enough so that it would not be easy to simply take them out one at a time down the line. Vorkosigan expected the captain to make a quick sweep of one end or the other, take out a couple of ships and then fall back to avoid getting hit himself. Then he would turn for another pass, forcing the remaining ships to try to protect each other, drawing them in closer.

That is how I would do it.

And assuming that the hits to the mercenary ships were accurate enough to take them out the first time.

They will be. I'll be certain of it.

"Captain," Lieutenant Motlov spoke up. "Don't you think it would be wiser to have a more experienced weapons officer on the board? Lieutenant Vorkosigan..."

Vornant cut him off. "Lieutenant Vorkosigan scores high on arms practice. It's time he got something other than practice," the man said without looking at Motlov. The captain glanced at Vorkosigan, eyes calm.

The vote of confidence assured the lieutenant and caused him to vow that he would be sure not to let down the captain.

"Spreading out now, sir," Ensign Vorrash called. "Mercenary ships separating."

"Steady as she goes," Vornant answered as he watched the ships' movement. "Hold course and speed."

"We are in firing range," Vorkosigan announced automatically as his readouts announced the fact.

"Turn hard to port," Vornant responded. "Maximum speed. Vorkosigan target portmost ship. Be ready to fire on my order."

"Incoming, sir!" Vorrash called.

"Evasive!" the captain responded.

Helm tried to evade the shot, but the response was slow and the plasma shot grazed the ship. It shuddered hard, but the shield held. Men in the command center fought to stay in their seats as the ship rocked.

"Ship targeted?" Vornant demanded.

Vorkosigan clenched his teeth as he fought against the inertia of the ship. He had to see his screen and be ready. The captain had to be ready to turn and run if necessary after this shot. He couldn't afford to waste precious time.

"Targeted, sir!" he called out.


Vorkosigan hit the button to release with wicked ball of energy that could easily overcome the smaller ship's shield...if it was a direct hit. A glancing blow, like they had received, would barely cripple the mercenaries, if the mercenaries were lucky. He watched his scope, willing the shot to be dead center. A flash of light was his answer.

"Direct hit, sir!" Vorkosigan flushed with satisfaction, but couldn't take time to congratulate himself. He was already bringing the plasma weapon to bear on the next closest ship. Presumptuous on his part but good defense. I'm ready to fire if I get the order. If not, easy enough to re-aim or stand down.

"Evasive," the captain called out before he received any information on possible threats. He was assuming. And it was a good assumption.

"Plasma from ship off our starboard. Clean miss," Vorrash informed Vornant.

"Target that ship," Captain Vornant instructed Vorkosigan.

"Targeted, ready to fire, sir."

The captain looked surprised but called out, "Fire!"

As soon as Vorkosigan again let loose the terrible energy, he knew that his aim was off. Without waiting to see the result or asking permission to fire again, he made a minor adjustment and fired again.

"Shot glanced off the side," Motlov announced, almost in glee.

"Second shot, direct hit," Vorrash announced before Vorkosigan could inform the captain.

"One ship confirmed escaped, sir," Gettyern announced to Captain Vornant. "He ran as we were targeting the fourth ship. We didn't recover from that attack in time to track him."

"Damage reports."

"Minor damage to ship, sir. Shields held, but stressed, sir. Shield generator is almost burned up. We can't take another attack, sir. Recommend return to Barrayar for repairs."

Vornant knew his duty. Protect the ship and crew, to protect Barrayar. She needed ships in space and holding off hostile actions. But if the ship was disabled, the better part of valor suggested retreat and allowing another available ship to take their place...instead of facing certain death under another attack. The decision was made. Still the captain stared at the view screen, as if weighing the decision carefully.

"Return to Barrayar. Alert home base to condition and that this sector requires other ship to replace us."

"Yes, sir," Commander Gettyern responded and moved to make that report.

"Begging the captain's pardon, sir," Lieutenant Motlov spoke up.

"What is it?"

"As I had suggested to the captain, a more experienced weasponsman would have served us evidenced by Lieutenant Vorkosigan's performance. And...he is reckless, sir. Firing without a direct order. That is in clear violation of procedure, sir."

Another officer moved forward at that moment. Commander Vorpasht had observed the battle, for the most part. As political officer, his job was more as observer than active participant. He was assigned to assess the loyalty of the crew and to help condition them in their off duty hours. He was spy and propaganda distributor for the Imperial military. Vorpasht was most interested, for his personnel records, how Captain Vornant would deal with this situation.

The captain regarded Motlov coolly. "You would have me discipline Vorkosigan for making that second shot, which probably saved us from getting fired on by our target."

"If he had not missed the first time, the second one would not have been necessary, sir."

"I see. You, on the other hand, would not have missed any of the shots. Is that it, Motlov?"

"I thought we were discussing Lieutenant Vorkosigan, sir."

"I don't understand why we are. For first time in battle, I think he did well."

Finally Vorpasht spoke up. "It is against procedure for a junior officer to take initiative to fire the weapons, sir. Command prerogative is the only recognized source of firing orders, Captain."

Vornant turned to look at the commander. Usually political officers were feared, because of what they were, spies essentially, and because of whom they reported to, directly to ImpSec. Ship captains usually chose not to tangle with them, fearing loss of command, even at the political officer's discretion to give a deliberately slanted report against a seemingly uncooperative captain.

Vornant, however, had been relieved of a ship before and had worked his way back into command. He had proven himself trustworthy enough to be given another ship. The man didn't feel as if he had anything else to prove. And he no longer feared political officers.

"Technically you are correct, Commander Vorpasht. However, I still say that Vorkosigan's action saved us from being fired upon."

"An assumption, sir. You don't know that our target would have fired. He may have decided to turn and run, after the glancing blow."

"I wouldn't and I'm not going to assume the mercenaries are that cowardly. I have encountered others in battle. I know them. They would have reacted as I while your attacker is trying to recover from a mistake. Vorkosigan didn't have to take the time to recover. He covered his error in judgment on aim of the plasma weapon. I don't consider his action improper."

"There will have to be a report made of this, sir."

"You are at liberty, of course, to do so." Then he turned to Vorkosigan. Very deliberately he said, "Good work, Vorkosigan." Then he added as an afterthought. "More weapons drills."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," Vorkosigan answered, keeping his pride in check. Dangerous that, pride. He wouldn't let it rule him.

Motlov glared at Lieutenant Vorkosigan then turned back to his duty station. If it had been me, what would the captain have done then? Not Vor and not the son of a famous general. I wouldn't have gotten off like that.

"All kinds of things happening since you've been gone, Aral," Piotr said by way of greeting the next time the lieutenant was home on leave. "Sit down and tell me what you've done." The Count lowered himself into his favorite armchair in his musky den and dropped his feet on the clashing ottoman, another favorite. They were comfortable, Piotr said. That excused that they didn't match. That and the fact that he never noticed.

What I didn't do to embarrass you? "I'm not at liberty to discuss the details of it, sir." Not entirely true, but I don't desire to discuss it with you. I don't wish to be second-guessed on every action I took. Even if I told you how I gained a commendation from Captain Vornant, you'd tell me what I could have done better or different. How you would have handled it.

"Er? I see. Well, I guess even I can't compel you to break confidence. No matter that I was entrusted with things of the highest secrecy in my days in the service."

Lieutenant Vorkosigan only stared back at his father, willing himself not to fidget under his scrutiny. He sat stiff in the newer chair that faced his father, not comfortable and not only because the chair wasn't broken in.

"Well...plenty going on here to keep me busy enough without having to dig into your business. District business. Things you should begin to learn about also. One day you'll be Count and you should begin to learn now what that will mean for you." Piotr clasped his hands together, resting his elbows on the chair arms and staring at Aral over his hands.

"You are my teacher, sir," Vorkosigan replied in sincerity. Even if there was that wall between his father and him, the lieutenant still recognized the man's intellect and insight, however stilted it may be, being affected by his party stance.

"Interesting case of a woman who euthanized her son. A mutie." He lowered his hands a bit so as to see his son better. "Her husband objected because it was a 'minor' he said. One hand was not completely developed. Useless it would have been. I think the husband was just afraid he wouldn't have another male heir and hoped to try to conceal the mutation in some if he could. They had trouble enough conceiving the first one. But she knew her duty. I know it's not sanctioned, officially that is, anymore." He paused to think. "They had it right in the Time of Isolation. Muties are a shame. They are a drain on our society. Why should we be expected to take care of them?" He separated his hands and held them out to his sides, as if releasing the problem as he released his grasp.

"Was his hand really going to be completely useless?" the younger Vorkosigan asked, curious.

But Piotr waved his hand dismissively. "Does it matter to what degree? He was a mutie. That's all that matters. A blight on Vor society. Our caste has risen to the top of Barrayaran society. It's our obligation to keep it at the top. That means getting rid of such genetic horrors."

Aral hesitated. He knew what he was about to embark on, but inside he felt revulsion at his father's attitude and something drove him to speak out.

"That was also a life, Father."

The Count's eyebrows went up. He stared for a moment then nodded slowly. "A life? What kind of life would it have been? The thing would never have been normal. It would have been passed over and driven out of day-to-day life, much less anything more than basic survival. Who would hire such a monstrosity? How could it make a living without use of a hand? Half of its resources. Doing everything with only one hand...and what? Its mouth?" He shook his head. "Bah! A life. Not a life. A curse."

"Would you have killed your own son, if he had been born with a mutation?"

"Of course," Piotr answered immediately. Then he realized how that sounded. "Because I wouldn't want to see a child have to endure a life of misery," he added quickly. "I would be sparing a child by killing it."

Would it have made a difference in your answer if I had specified it to be your first son? But if he'd had a mutation, then he would be the perfection that still lives in your mind even though he is dead. I'm not like he was. I'm short and stocky and plain. Are you sorry you didn't kill me? Does my being less than your idea of perfection equal being a mutie? What if you knew...even more about me? The thing I have never revealed to anyone. The stirrings in me that I hide, try to hide even from myself. If you knew the way I felt inside at times around a certain male friend, would that make you want to kill me too? It's less than perfection...a deviation. Something that even I hate about me. Is that a type of mutation too?

The Count sat forward in his chair, allowing his feet to fall to either side of the ottoman. He pointed a finger. "You are going to have to get over these romantic ideas you have of life, boy. I was hoping the military would do that to you. Maybe you just haven't been in long enough. Maybe you've had it too easy so far. You haven't known true combat yet. Skirmishes, yes, but not a true the Cetagandan War. You'll never be able to rule this district if you're soft...and this idea of a mutie being a life worth saving is a soft idea. Your district will be full of weaklings who won't be able to support you with their taxes. Think of it that way, if you can't get past your idealistic views."

Vorkosigan realized that if he didn't rebut, then his father would think he had prevailed, and possibly affected his son's point of view. However, he also knew that arguing would not change anything and would make an already problematic relationship worse. For now he would leave it alone. Still it bothered him greatly to think that his father encouraged such activity. Murder. There was no other way to see it. It was murder, not the public service that the elder Vorkosigan viewed it as.

"You seem so preoccupied, Aral," Leesa said.

"Hmm? Oh, I'm sorry." He forced himself to be more attentive. He and Leesa were sitting behind her house under the shade of some large trees. She sat next to him in a swing, sipping a glass of cool juice, waving a fan before her to hold off the heat of the day. Vorkosigan still held his glass, untouched.

Aral tried to relax. He took a drink and forced a smile.

"Such deep thoughts? You must be thinking of your ship...and not me," she pouted prettily.

"No, not the ship."

"Not this time? Then...what is so much more interesting that me?" she smiled and toyed with the sleeve of his uniform, trying to gain his attention.

"Oh...nothing really. Just...some district thing that Father told me about. I apologize. I didn't mean to neglect you. Tell me when you are going to be moving to the city."

"What did you and your father discuss?" Leesa was determined to play the Vor lady game and support her husband. Not her husband yet, but soon. And so she would begin to support him now. That support necessitated interest. She would compel the interest, if necessary.

"Oh, a Vor lady...murdered her son because he was born with a mutation."

"A mutie?" Leesa said almost in disgust. "How horrid! I can't imagine how she must have felt to bear...that."

Now Aral really began to understand how little he knew of his intended bride. This reaction surprised him.

"You agree then...that it was right to kill the child?"

"Of course! Need you even ask? A mutie. What a horror! How disgraced the family must feel! How humiliated. Just think how people will react to them now." Leesa put a hand to her cheek. "Oh, what a terrible shadow over a family. Everyone will be watching now to see what happens if they try to conceive again. This could ruin their reputation completely if it happens again. No one would want to marry into such a tainted bloodline. I don't know how they can stand to even try again. A mutie born to a Vor family." She shook her head. "Will we ever learn how to stop this from happening to us? Will our science ever become that good to remove such monsters before they can be born?"

" was a life, Leesa. He didn't have some hideous deformity. His hand wasn't completely developed."

"Isn't that bad enough, Aral? Not even something he could try to hide. Everyone would see it. No one would want anything to do with him. Believe me, his mother did him a favor. More, she did herself a favor...and her family. What Vor woman would want to even be known as the mother of a mutie, much less to have to be seen with it!"

"Then you would do the same to a child born to you in that circumstance?"

"Yes." Leesa jutted her chin up. "It's my duty. You are so compelled to do your duty as a soldier. I am just as compelled to do my duty as a Vor. I owe it to my family and to your family. We couldn't have that blot on us. I wouldn't even want it known that I had borne the thing! Do you disagree with me?"

"Well...yes, I do." Isn't it interesting that it took something like this to force us to begin to really open up. And now that it's too late, I find out you would murder our child, if you thought it necessary. And not for any reason other than a completely selfish one. There is no concern for the child at all. No care for the life. Only your fear that someone would find out about you.

"How does the Count feel about it?" she asked firmly, but curiously.

"He agreed that the child should have been murdered."

"At least he is sensible. And I hardly think you should call it murder. Murder is a crime, a horror. A mutie is a horror too. But the duty of murder covers the horror of a mutie, don't you see?"

"No, I don't see." Vorkosigan stood suddenly and walked away. "I don't see at all," he repeated quietly.

Leesa stood and walked up behind him. "You'd better come to see, Aral. Because after we are married, if...if I bear a monstrosity, I will not hesitate to do my duty." She walked away, to the house, leaving Vorkosigan to ponder the new thing he had just learned about the woman he was supposed to have a family with.

But Leesa is from a family that is very old Vor. She is so protected here away from everything...and being fed these ideas by her family. A family isolated. No wonder they have such old and cruel ideas...from the Time of Isolation. I can't hold all the blame to Leesa. Perhaps it will be best for her to move to the capital. Yes, she needs that exposure to newer ideas, to rid her of the old and of her naiveté. She is just being influenced by her parents and her uncle and aunt. I know Leesa is a girl of honor. That will show itself once she is removed from this influence. Yes, it is the right thing to do. I pray her uncle makes that move sooner rather than later.

"It's an entirely different mission this time," Lieutenant Motlov said to the couple of ensigns who had attached themselves to him. "That's what I heard before we left Barrayar. Not just another patrol this time."

"How did you find out?" Ensign Cheshka asked. "No one knows our assignments until they are announced to us after we leave orbit."

"I have my connections now," he smiled. "I spent my time on Barrayar doing things other than just relaxing."

"You are making enemies," Ensign Vorrash spoke up. "If you are going behind the backs of the captain and the political officer."

"Not if I go high enough," Motlov said vaguely with a self-satisfied grin. The men were huddled over Motlov's duty station, as they whispered, and kept an eye out for listeners that they considered unfriendly. "This time, I am the one with an advantage. This time, I am the one who will begin to make a move up."

"What are you planning?" Vorrash looked sidelong at the lieutenant.

"Shh!" he hissed. "Quiet. Unfriendlies approaching."

Casually Vorrash glanced up and saw Lieutenant Vorkosigan enter the compartment. He should have guessed that's whom Motlov would consider an unfriendly.

"Thank you for the advice, sir." Vorrash nodded to Lieutenant Motlov and walked away, trying to seem inconspicuous. He had to re-evaluate his position now. If Motlov were going to try something drastic, then he didn't want any part of it. Later. Later, after duty hours, he would talk to the officer and try to decide what he was up to.

"Have you spoken with the captain yet, Vorkosigan?" Motlov asked. "He was looking for you, not so long ago. He wondered why you weren't at your duty station."

"Did he now?" Vorkosigan said carefully. "Odd that he would wonder, when he is the one who ordered me to the engine room to supervise an activity."

"That is odd. Perhaps he doesn't trust you and was checking up on you. He's not here now to see you at your station. How is he going to know if you've reported back?"

But the young officer didn't answer. He turned back to the computer that he had been about to consult, information that Captain Vornant had asked him for, after he had dismissed him from engineering. Vorkosigan smiled to himself. Motlov was so smug in his assurance and half the time he had no idea what he was talking about, parroting whatever he heard without trying to determine the veracity of it.

Political Officer Commander Vorpasht entered the control room. He glanced around and those who were insecure made sure that they were busy, or at least looked it. He stood, hands clasped behind his back observing. Vorpasht was a thirty-something man, greying prematurely. He had a long narrow face that he fancied was regal looking. Most of the time that he was engaged in his observations of the crew, the man looked down his slim aquiline nose, as he did now.

Momentarily Captain Vornant entered. He was a contrast to the political officer, tall and lean, to Vorpasht's medium height and slight bulge at the waistline. The captain stood next to Vorpasht, almost at attention, because he knew the commander didn't like being looked down on. Trying to seem discrete, Vorpasht slid a foot out a bit and when the captain looked away, he stepped away from the man. Vornant tried not to smile and then walked further into the room, as his political officer made a notation.

Captain Vornant gestured to one of his ensigns. "Ship-wide comm." He waited.

"Ready, sir."

"Gentlemen, it is time to announce our new orders. We have a different assignment. No more patrolling for us. We are to advance to Komarr and survey their military situation. There is an important jump point there, as you probably know, and Barrayar wishes to control it."

"An invasion," Vorpasht said, being privy to the new orders before leaving the planet.

"No. A prelude to invasion. Know your enemy, Commander. We have no orders to invade."

"Unless fired upon. You have been authorized..."

"To take whatever action is necessary to protect my ship and our mission. A single ship is not an invasion force."

"You are authorized to try to penetrate as far as you are able to, Captain," Vorpasht spat out the last word, as if it were particularly distasteful for him to refer to Vornant by the title.

"Yes, as far as I am able. I can make an accurate prediction that we will not get as far as invasion."

"But you will try."

"I will take what action is prudent, not reckless."

"You defy your orders, sir."

"On the contrary. I am following them to the letter."

"Noted for the record...sir."

"Good. Dismissed." The commander looked surprised. His hesitation drew the captain's attention. "Dismissed."

"I am at my duty station, sir. You do not have the right to..."

"I have the right to dismiss unnecessary personnel from the control room when I deem it necessary."

Vorpasht was glaring at his captain, but Vornant wouldn't make eye contact with the man. Finally the commander left, nosily.

Vorkosigan had stopped what he was doing, the same as all the other duty crew, to watch the showdown. He wasn't aware that he was still staring. His mind was analyzing what had happened here.

"Back to work," Vornant said firmly. Every man turned away. The captain walked slowly around the room, making a deliberate, but not obvious path to Lieutenant Vorkosigan. "Do you have that information that I asked for?"

"Sorry, sir. One moment more."

"Distracted you, did I?" The man's green eyes were twinkling even though his face was bland.

"Yes, sir," he said quietly.

"Vorkosigan, political officers are just that...political. Don't ever turn your back on one. I know what I'm talking about."

"Yes, sir."

"Vorpasht comes from a very influential family, even among the Vor. Well known spies for the emperor, no matter if it was Mad Yuri or Ezar. Watch yourself around him."

The young lieutenant appreciated the advice, especially from a captain that he enjoyed serving with and respected, but he wondered about it. "If I may speak freely, sir. You don't seem to be concerned about him."

"I'm not. I've been down and back up. There's little he can do to me to hurt me anymore. It's liberating, Vorkosigan, to know that you don't have to answer to such toadies."

"Here is the data you wanted, sir. What we already know about Komarr's fleet." Vorkosigan passed a data disk to the man.

"Thank you, Lieutenant." He turned and walked away.

Vorkosigan watched. He makes a brave sound, and it's good to see someone stand up to the political officers. Not true soldiers. Only spies. He's right about that. Still, he has let go so easily of what made him...his rank and his honor. It no longer matters to him what he is or does. I can admire him, but only so far. Honor is too important to throw it out as Captain Vornant has.

"Get us the hell outta here!" Vornant called out. "Maximum power to shields and full thrust away! Head for the wormhole!"

"Closing, Captain," Ensign Vorrash said tersely.

"Damn it! Full thrust! We can still out run them!"

"Requested," Vorrash was trying hard not to yell back at his captain. His nerves were on edge. "No response from engine room."

The captain hit a button on the comm unit nearest him. "Engine room! Respond!" But there was nothing, not even the white noise of an open speaker.

"We don't have comm with them."

"Damn it!" Captain Vornant glanced around trying to decide which of his men he could spare. None really, if they were going to have to fight, but someone had to go see what was going on. His eyes fell on Vorkosigan, who was looking back at him...controlled uncertainty in his hard grey eyes. "Vorkosigan...go!"

At once Aral was away. He could hear the captain ordering Motlov to take over the weapons console. Almost instinctively, without conscious thought to it, Vorkosigan thought that he'd like to be there to see just how well Motlov could handle the weapons.

He charged into the engine room to see men rushing about, orders being yelled, confusion. The lieutenant grabbed the first man who ran close by and pulled him to a sudden halt.

"What's going on?" he demanded.

"Fire. From a short. We're trying to contain it."

"We need engine power...NOW! We're being pursued by ships. Several of them. We have to make a run for it."

"Unless you can help us, sir, then get out of the way. We can't do anything about the engines until we contain this fire!" The ensign wriggled free and ran.

Vorkosigan was still only for seconds as he evaluated the situation. There were enough men fighting the fire. Someone should be able to begin repairs. Then he was knocked flat as the ship was hit.

The lieutenant got up on all fours, trying to be sure of himself and the ship before he stood. He saw the chief engineer and got to his feet, just as another bolt hit the ship, but it was a glancing blow, so he was able, just barely, to keep his footing. Walking with wide strides to keep his balance, Vorkosigan hurried as quickly as he was able to the chief engineer. He grabbed the commander, a superior office, by the front of his shirt.

"You feel that? If you don't get power to the engines NOW we are going to die! We can't take many more hits like that before the shields give way!"

"I don't have the manpower. I can't do it by myself. And I can't pull them from this fire."

"I'll help you."

"You? What do you know about..."

But Vorkosigan didn't allow him to finish. He began pushing. "I'll learn on the job. Let's go!"

"Damage report," Captain Vornant asked in a weary voice.

"We took a hell of a beating, sir," Commander Gettyern answered in like tone. "Damage to all systems. Shields couldn't hold up to the constant plasma attacks. Significant damage to hull of the ship. We have enough of an engine to get home, but that's about it. Now that we're on this side of the wormhole, it should be a straight shot for home." He paused. "If we meet any unfriendlies...we may not be able to protect ourselves, sir. Our weapons are almost burned out. Significant number of men injured or killed."

The captain sat back in his chair. He was processing all this, but it really didn't take long to know how bad it was. There were no decisions to be made. They had gotten beat badly. The only thing to do was to go home and lick their wounds. Still Vornant burned a bit inside. He glanced at the political officer.

"Well, Vorpasht, we pushed our way in, like you wanted. You insisted, as per your orders to do so, that we continue to explore the space in the proximity of Komarr. Now do you see why you political officers are not given equal status as a true military officer? At least I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is on record that we proceeded under your authority, not mine. Take us home, Gettyern."

"At least I have the satisfaction of knowing that I did my job, Captain. I will retire to my quarters now to begin my report on this...horrific example of command incompetence." Commander Vorpasht turned and hurried out.

Gettyern had given the orders to proceed to Barrayar, as fast as the crippled ship could manage. "We could have died there, sir. There are individual acts of courage that saved us. I thought you should be made aware of them."

"Yes. I want to know who performed above their duty. And who didn't even do their duty," Vornant added as his eyes scanned the duty crew. He already knew some of those answers and the ones he knew didn't surprise him.

"Vorkosigan, come in." Vornant was seated at the computer console in his quarters writing reports of the battle, carefully logging command decisions and breaking down the line of events that led to the horror of near lethal failure. It was enough to have lived it. To have to relive it in recalled details again and again... The captain pushed back from the console and rubbed his bleary eyes, grateful for a break from this.

The lieutenant stood at attention, waiting and wondering why he had been called here. He had heard that Motlov had been at the captain's quarters too, but so had several other men. And he'd heard that Motlov had panicked during the battle.

"At ease," Vornant said. "I wanted to commend you on your quick actions in engineering. The chief engineer has given me a report. He said that he wondered at times if you weren't hindering him instead of helping." A very slight smile touched the man's lips. He rubbed his throbbing forehead. "But he said that you were enough help that you gained him some time until his men could finish with the fire and get to him. I know that's not your regular duty, what you have trained for. That makes it all the more impressive what you did."

"It may not have been my regular duty, sir," Vorkosigan replied. "But at that point, doing whatever was necessary to be sure we survived was my duty, sir."

"And it doesn't surprise me to hear you say that either. You don't thirst after honors, but honor follows you because of the way you conduct yourself. My commendation, Vorkosigan. Dismissed."

"Thank you, sir." He saluted, turned crisply and walked out. Once in the corridor, Aral allowed a smile. Honor follows you because of the way you conduct yourself. That gave him almost as much satisfaction as the captain's commendation.

The middle-aged woman showed Vorkosigan into the small but bright sitting room where Leesa was reading. She stood at once. Leesa looked even lovelier than Aral remembered. He decided that it was the happiness that made her so. He smiled as he walked over to her. How much nicer this bright room was to the very dark room where he often visited Leesa at her father's home.

"Leesa." He stood stiff before her and bowed formally. "You look so lovely." It was almost a whisper, but the lieutenant couldn't help it. He was still trying to decide why she looked so different. The lighter surroundings helped too, he concluded.

She blushed genuinely at the compliment, but didn't seem as shy to receive it as she had before. Leesa ruffled the full skirt on her dress. "Thank you, Aral." Then her face changed. "What happened to you?"

"Oh...nothing really. Just some cuts and bruises from the rough ride we had."

"Oh, you must tell me about it. Come and sit with me." She took his arm and walked him to a sofa near the window. Already Vorkosigan could tell that Leesa was different, more open. Moving to the capital must be the reason for it. And it had not escaped his notice that Leesa's chaperone had left the door to the room open...and that she was busying herself in the corridor just outside.

"Do you like living in Vorbarr Sultana? It must be very different from what you are used to," he said, trying the difficult, for him, task of making small talk.

"Oh yes! Very different," Leesa gushed. "It's...overwhelming, Aral. I have heard so much about it, but none of that was close to what it is really like! It's so exciting. So much to learn about. It was right for Uncle to send me here. If I am to be a proper wife to a lord and soldier, then I should learn more of the urbane ways of the city."

The sun was warm on his back, but he didn't want to move from her side. Leesa was so much more talkative than he remembered. Had he been away so very long or had her short time in Vorbarr Sultana really had that much effect on her? Either way he was glad to see it. She was such a lovely girl. She should have this opportunity to be exposed to a broader range of ideas and experiences. It would expand her knowledge and make her a more interesting companion. And it would rid her of some of the backward old Vor ideas she held to. One thing that has not changed. She is not spoiled by all this. Leesa still maintains her honor.

"I'm glad that you are finding it such an enlightening experience," Vorkosigan said to her.

Leesa laughed lightly. "You talk like your father. That doesn't sound like the way Aral Vorkosigan would say formal."

He was taken aback by the remark. But surely she was not really laughing at him, but jesting. "I'm glad you are...finding yourself here."

"I really am, Aral. But, I've gone on too much about me. Tell me what happened. How did you come about these cuts and bruises?" She gently rubbed a finger over the side of his forehead where he had bumped against a bulkhead while trying to help the chief engineer during the battle.

He cut short the shrug that he'd started. It was a habit he was trying to break. It seemed to indicate uncertainty he'd noticed when he'd seen other people do it. "We had to make a run for it, with several ships chasing us. We were fired on while trying to make repairs to the engine. It's impossible not to get knocked around in that situation. I don't think anyone got away without at least one bruise."

"Oh, that sounds so exciting," Leesa gushed.

She may have grown up in her ideas about life and society since moving to the capital, but Leesa was still very naïve about military issues. Fighting for one's life was not an adventure.

"It was harrowing," the lieutenant replied. "We were lucky to make it back."

"Oh." Her dark eyes widened. "You could have been killed?"

"I suppose that's a danger on any mission...but, yes, it was...close this time."

Now she looked troubled. But she had asked and she would have to get used to that sort of thing if she were going to be married to a solider.

"What have you been doing since you've moved?" Aral asked, pointedly changing the subject.

"I've been...everywhere! Father has put me in touch with some of his friends and their wives have taken me under their wings. They've advised me on fashion, on the latest gossip, on..." her voice trailed off. "You're not interested in this. I can see it on your face. It changed at once. You're just asking because you feel like you have to."

"That's not true, Leesa. I asked you because I wanted to hear." And it's the only thing I can think to ask you about. Still struggling with the relationship thing, eh Aral?

"You are so...articulate when you speak of your service, but when it comes to other things you...withdraw."

Aral shifted on the sofa. He knew that was true. On his ship is where he felt the most comfortable. It was his operating environment. He knew what was expected of him there, clear and straightforward.

"I am...just not used to some of the...more social things, Leesa. I spend so much time away..."

"Then I know what we should do!" She pressed her hands together under her chin. "There's a social tomorrow night. I was invited by one of Father's friends. Now that you are back, you must come with me! You should begin to get used to such things. There is more to being an officer than just fighting, isn't there? You're also Lord Vorkosigan. You should learn the duties for that too."

"Now you talk like my father," Vorkosigan replied, not quite sourly.

"And I have this wonderful dress that Lady Vorlana helped me pick out. I know all my new friends will want to see me. Oh, Aral, you must go with me. I've already accepted and I want to see you too now that you're home. We can be together."

"All right," he replied simply.

"See?" Leesa pouted. "You really don't want to go."

"No. It's not true. I do." She has changed more than I realized. But...maybe it's just that she has been exposed to so many new things so quickly. It can be overwhelming, I suppose. Perhaps I should see how she responds in such a situation. I still have much to learn of her. He took her by the hand. "I do want to go with you, Leesa."

She smiled. "Good. You'll wear your dress uniform, won't you?"

"Yes, of course."

"Now, tell me more about what happened. You said the ship was damaged. Is that why you're back before you expected to be?"

"Yes. We had little choice. We could no longer defend ourselves."

"You must have performed wonderfully." Her dark eyes sparkled as she tried to imagine it.

"I did my duty."

"Oh, but Aral, you must do more than that."

"What do you mean?"

"I've been talking to the ladies. The best way to advance in the military is to be on the right side of the politics. Are you in favor with your political officer?"

"I...don't think so."

"That will never do, Aral! You mustn't make him an enemy. can recover your position with him, can't you?"

Vorkosigan was trying to decide the point of this conversation and how Leesa got so interested in politics. She never seemed to be interested before.

"What... Leesa, I don't understand..." he trailed off. The new Leesa was confusing to him. Just when he was learning the old Leesa. But he knew he had to be encouraging. After all, he had helped a bit in convincing her uncle to send her here.

"You can be...polite and proper to the political officer. And...Aral, do you know who on your ship doesn't get along with him?"


"Then stay away from them. Don't be friendly with anyone who could offend him. That will affect his view of you too."

Aral repositioned himself on the sofa, as much to try to get out of the warm beam of sun on his back as to delay to respond.

"Leesa, I'm on the ship to do a job, politics."

"But you really must if you expect to advance. That's what all the Vor ladies have told me. And you have to think of the future too. I mean beyond your military service. When you are Count Vorkosigan how will it look to have a bad political stance on your record?"

"Leesa, I'll think about being Count later. Right now, I have my military career to focus on. I..."

"Oh, I understand," she said coolly. "You supported my move to Vorbarr Sultana. I wanted to try to learn how to be a proper Vor wife to you and I thought that's what you wanted, since you liked the idea of my coming here. But you only want me to be an armpiece for you. You want me to look good and make a pretty sound, but you don't want me to be a part of certain aspects of your life. I'm only trying to help you, but you'd rather I just stayed to the side of your life and career and play the society games. You're gone for months and months at a time and when you are home you won't make the effort to move into the proper circles...and you want me to do the same. Instead of moving into the middle of Vor society, I should stay at the fringes, just enough to be seen now and then, so everyone will remember me, and you, when you are home. Fine, Aral. If that is the way you prefer it..." she trailed off and stood up, walking away from the sofa.

Vorkosigan sighed. Before he had wanted her to take an interest in his career and service and she had been beginning to. Now she seemed to be telling him how to conduct it instead. More of her new thinking after moving to the capital? Perhaps when she settled here more, so would her ideas. Vorkosigan reminded himself that she hadn't been here so very long. Excitement, many new things to be exposed to and learn. He almost nodded as these thoughts worked through his mind. Patience. She is learning. You are still learning about her. So many things have changed. Allow time for growth and maturity. This is just the first step.

Aral felt like a liveried man instead of Leesa's escort. She was making the rounds of the guests, renewing acquaintances and being introduced to guests she didn't know. And she clearly enjoyed it. Vorkosigan had to admit she handled herself well in the situation. Still he felt almost an afterthought as Leesa drew most of the attention and conversation. Of course she was spending the majority of her time among the ladies who were educating her. The lieutenant stood quietly at her side as a group of ladies went on about Leesa's dress and hairstyle.

"You must be so pleased, Lieutenant Vorkosigan. She's such a lovely girl," one of the ladies gushed to him.

"Yes, ma'am. Leesa is very lovely. She's...worthy of respect."

"Yes, she is. Especially now. She has come so far even in the short time we've had her. By the time you two marry, she will be a very sophisticated Vor lady...if we can help it."

I like her the way she is. Don't change her too much. "Yes, ma'am."

"Aral, you will excuse me, won't you?" Leesa said suddenly to him. "Madam Vorcar wants to show me something. Something that I don't think you'd be invited to see." She giggled and hurried off in the company of a couple of ladies.

The lieutenant clasped his hands behind his back and began to walk slowly along, glancing around at the assembly. He knew some of the attendees, but not being an outgoing social type, Vorkosigan didn't go out of his way to chase them down. If his wanderings took him close enough to greet the ones he knew, then so be it.

"Aral! I've been looking for you. I thought you'd be in the company of your young lady."

The young officer turned to the familiar voice. He smiled. Madam Vorthal was a cousin to his deceased mother and she had tried at times to be mother to him, when she wasn't almost overwhelmed by her own brood. Vorkosigan had become very fond of the woman, in her efforts to exert a softer, loving mother figure to compliment Piotr's strict and cool father image. He gently embraced the lady. She had changed little since the last time he'd seen her. A bit more worn looking. Her hair was lightly tinted to try to hide the encroaching grey.

"I was, but I...think that...well... Lady talk," he said a bit abashedly.

"Oh, I quite understand. She has been very inquisitive of the society ladies, trying to learn all she can about Vor wives and how to conduct herself properly now that she has moved to the capital. Nothing wrong, really with how Leesa conducts herself. Just a little naïve, maybe, but nothing incorrect. She perceives herself very differently though. She has been showing you off, right?"

No, the other way around, actually. "I have been accompanying her as she...made her rounds."

"She's just wonderful, Aral. Your father made a good arrangement for you."

"Yes, he did. Leesa is wonderful. She's from a good family. Honorable. I hope that she doesn't become too spoiled by...her new life though."

"Don't worry. She's just excited by all the things she hasn't been exposed to all her life. She's a sensible girl. Besides, I'm here too. I can keep an eye on her for you."

"Thank you, Madam. I just don't want her to lose all her innocence."

"She won't. Just because we are making her more sophisticated doesn't mean we are going to ruin her. Don't you trust me?" Madam Vorthal pouted a bit.

"Of course I do."

The smile returned to her face. "Excuse me. I have to do my rounds too. My duty." She gave the lieutenant a quick peck on the cheek and she was gone.

"Lieutenant Vorkosigan."

The young officer turned. A man in uniform. At once his eyes went to the man's collar to check rank. Vorkosigan saluted the greying man. "Colonel."

"Vorstass," the man added. "Someone pointed you out to me. I had wanted to meet you."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, sir."

"I hear good things about you."

"I do my duty, sir."

"I've heard that about you too. That you are unassuming about your duty, but more than capable."

Vorkosigan had already used his standard response, that he did his duty. He was at a loss to know how to deflect another compliment.

Colonel Vorstass looked around. "Quite a gathering."

"Yes, sir."

"You seem...uncomfortable."

"Maybe that's because his lady keeps abandoning him," another voice added.

Vorkosigan turned to see who said that. A medium height man with sandy hair was grinning at him, one hand shoved in his pocket, a drink in the other hand.

"Vorkosigan, this is my nephew, Josef Vorstass. He is in government service."

Josef slowly pulled his hand from his pocket and extended it toward Vorkosigan.

"Glad to meet you, Vorkosigan."

"And you, sir," the lieutenant returned.

"Your Leesa has made quite an impression on many people since she has been here."

"I'm happy that she seems to be fitting in so well."

"Oh...she does that. Natural charm, that one. Looks of a classic beauty."

Vorkosigan didn't like the look on Josef's face when he said that. It seemed he meant more than he was saying with that almost leering grin. However, the lieutenant reminded himself that he didn't know this man and shouldn't try to read so much into his gestures. That might be a perfectly natural smile for him.

"Leesa is a worthy girl. She is a lady."

"Yeah. Sure is. Quite a lady."

Colonel Vorstass sensed the tension. "What have you been doing with yourself, Josef?"

"The usual, Uncle. A little of this, a little of that, a lot hobby."

"What is your hobby?" Vorkosigan asked.

The man laughed shortly but loudly. "Entertaining myself." The colonel chuckled at that. The lieutenant looked between them, wondering what the joke was.

Colonel Vorstass tried to explain. "Josef appetite for the finer things. Young, lovely...very friendly."

And the sandy haired man didn't seem the least embarrassed by his uncle's assessment. If fact he clarified his hobby.

"Seducing bored Vor ladies. You know, the ones who are bored with their stifling husbands. Makes me happy. Makes them happy. Even makes some of the husbands happy. Their wives can put up with them easier with a bit of a...refreshing break. They still have their wives and probably a more varied life in the bedroom after of their ladies. I consider it a public service," he leered.

"You consider dishonoring yourself and married ladies a public service?" Vorkosigan said in a low voice. He felt revulsion inside, especially that the man seemed so unrepentant, and so proud of himself.

"Come now, Vorkosigan. We all know that this sort of thing goes on all the time. Actually, I consider that I make it a bit...cleaner, because I do care enough about my ladies to be as quiet and discreet as I can." He smiled, not quiet evilly.

Aral was thinking how much he'd like to do the ladies a favor and rid society of this plague on it. Good thing he had begun learning to control his very hot temper, or he might have challenged the man on the spot.

"Perhaps we should be going, Josef," Colonel Vorstass said. He recognized fury when he saw it in those hard grey eyes. "Good to meet you, Vorkosigan."

The lieutenant saluted but said nothing as the colonel walked away, tugging at his nephew to follow.

"So, how was the social last night?" Count Vorkosigan asked his son over breakfast.

"Fine, sir." Vorkosigan didn't even look up. He knew his father asked out of a polite sense of duty, not because he truly cared.

"Leesa enjoy herself?"

"Very much."

"Learning to be more urbane? That will be useful. She's a fine girl, but she does need that sort of social training to be a proper wife for a future count."

"She seemed to be accepted well by the ones she has chosen as friends."

"I've asked around, curious about who she was choosing as friends. I don't think you have any worries there."

"Madam Vorthal said that she was keeping an eye on Leesa."

"Mmm," was the response as the count sipped at his coffee. "How about you? Did you fit in well too?"

"Well enough, sir."

"Well enough...for what?"

For what? What does that mean? " along fine with the guests...mostly."

"You need a bit of social training too, eh? You may be a fine soldier but that won't always serve you. You need to think of when you leave the service. Begin to plan now. It's not too soon. You'll be a Count and you need to think of that too."

"Yes, sir."

"Let Leesa teach you some things. I'm sure she has some suggestions that will be helpful to you."

Vorkosigan stopped eating. He couldn't help but think of Leesa's suggestion for him to begin to make better political connections. Had she only gotten that idea from the Vor ladies, as she said?

"Do you see much of Leesa, sir?"

"A couple of times. Don't really have time, you know, but I thought it proper to stop in and welcome her to the capital."

"Then I suppose you didn't really talk much with her?"

"No." He waved his hand dismissively. "Fine girl, but I don't have the interests she does. I did my social duty as a Count and her future father-in-law."

It had the ring of truth to it. Count Vorkosigan probably wouldn't see fit to try to influence his son through a wife, Aral realized. He was too direct for that. Coincidence that Leesa and his father had come up with similar ideas for his future plans.

"But I understand you were quite the hero of your last mission." Piotr sat back in his chair, dabbing his mouth with the napkin. "Why don't I hear these things from you?"

Because you've always seemed to take all my accomplishments with a great blandness. "I did my duty, sir. I wasn't trying to be a hero."

The senior Vorkosigan smiled just a bit. "Good attitude to have, son, but you can be open with me. I was in your position before, working my way up in the service. Bit of pride in accomplishing something that many men would shrink from even trying, eh?"

"Pride can be harmful in battle, sir. I try to keep my mind on my task."

"Hmm." The man began eating again.

Aral felt a little guilty for cutting his father off that way. A little. Even though the Count did seem to show some pride in him now and then, when Piotr was angry at Aral, he didn't hesitate to hit the most sensitive areas that he could in his attacks on his son. A confusing childhood for Aral, but as he matured he figured out a great many things, such as how his father truly felt about him versus how he said he felt. Yes, it was a painful awakening for him but the young man had come to terms with it, and looked elsewhere for the affirmation that he couldn't seem to get from his father. That made it easier for him to hold the Count at a distance instead of allowing him to play his I-liked-you-yesterday-but-not-today game. Piotr's acceptance and affection was that changeable. That's why it was easier to do without it.

Lieutenant Vorkosigan wiped his mouth. "Excuse me, sir. I have things to tend to." He stood and walked out.

A new ship. The one that had been attacked near Komarr was too damaged to easily repair. More cost effective to put the crew aboard a new one. This time they would be part of a fleet going to Komarr. Before they had approached non-aggressively and Komarr had launched an attack squadron without inquiring about intentions. This time there would be no chances taken.

"If attacked, we are to stand our ground and take out what we can of their fleet," Captain Vornant told his men. "There are ten of us and other ships will be on standby on this side of the jump point. Insurance...and concealed. If we need them, they will make the jump and back us up. This is the beginning of the invasion of Komarr." The captain looked sidelong at Political Officer Commander Vorpasht.

"We will make the jump," the man looked at his chrono. "Almost two hours. Everyone on standby until then. Vorkosigan, I want to see you in my quarters."

The political officer moved forward into the center of the compartment. He called for an open channel to the rest of the ship. "Soldiers of the grand Imperium of Barrayar. We go to Komarr to see the enemy strength. Why are they our sworn enemy? The Cetagandan war that was so devastating to our planet was helped along because Komarr allowed the Cetagandan fleet free, unharassed passage through their system...on the way to conquer Barrayar." He paced a bit, making eye contact with the duty crew. "Komarr betrayed our people, our government, our way of life, by cooperating. They must be punished for this!" He slammed a fist into his other hand. "They will be punished for this. The Komarrans will taste conquest too. And they will not have any friends to help them. The Cetagandans, whom they consider friends, by allowing passage, will be shut out of helping them. That is the first stroke of the new war." Vorpasht paused and nodded his head. "It is for the glory of Barrayar that we are here. It is for the protection of Barrayar that we are here. You will be the new heroes of the Imperium because of the role you will play in this conquest." He raised a fist in the air. "For Barrayar!"

Almost in unison the duty crew all raised a fist and repeated, "For Barrayar!" Some men were moved by the passion of the political officer. Others duplicated the salute from peer pressure. Not because they didn't believe in fighting for the Imperium, but they were wary of the political officer and his propaganda.

Vorkosigan lowered his hand, wondering if he had fallen so quickly into playing the political game by going along with this.

Aral Vorkosigan stood at attention before his captain. The man had an almost paternal smile.

"I wanted you to know that I had put you in for early promotion after our last mission. I had hoped that it would come through before we put back out, but...that's the way of it sometimes. I have every reason to think it will go through without problem, however."

"But...sir, my combat experience..."

"Is impressive. I know that until the last couple of missions, you've been below decks most of the time. It's the quality of the work you do that matters. Your decisiveness and timely responses. You only confirm for me what I had already begun to see in you when you began to handle weapons for me. I expect to see you only improve, Vorkosigan." He paused a moment. "Last mission, I realize that I sent you to engineering to see what was going on. I'm curious. You could have helped fight the fire so that a couple of engineer's men would have been freed up to help him make repairs." Vornant rested his elbows on the desktop and looked over his clasped hands at Vorkosigan. "Why didn't you?"

The lieutenant swallowed hard. He had thought of that too, but not at the time. Afterward, when the emergency was over. He had asked himself several times what arrogance led him to help the chief engineer rather than allowing his own men to do the work they knew how to do. But he didn't think it was truly arrogance that had led to his decision.

"I'm not sure I can answer your question, Captain."

"Nevertheless you will answer it." His reply indicated curiosity, not threat.

Vorkosigan was quiet for a long moment. "Intuition, sir. I only did that which I felt was right." He wondered if his answer was as inane as it sounded.

But the captain smiled a bit. "Intuition. You have the instinct for battle situations, Vorkosigan. Firing on your own initiative, because you knew your mistake at once. Offering to assist the engineer on work that is not your regular duty. I knew I was right to put you in for promotion. You are officer material. Command material." He began to toy with some odd object that was next to his computer console. "The only advice I have for you, Vorkosigan, and it is very important. Don't let the words just pass you by. Listen to what I have to say."

"Yes, sir," Aral responded, already intent.

"You need no advice on how to lead. I can see you'll be a natural at it. The only thing you need advice on is people. I'm sure you can see how the...politics of a crew can run. Nasty at times. Wise of you to stay out of it, but when you make captain, you won't be able to avoid it. Just be very aware of it. Try to keep from getting dragged down into it, but be very aware of how the politics of a crew run, who is out for himself, who really serves the Emperor. That sort of thing."

"Yes, sir." Vorkosigan added suddenly, "I won't forget, sir."

"Good. That's going to be the thing that will determine how successful your career will be. Not your natural abilities. Oh, they need refining and polishing, but you'll be fine there. It's your people skills that will betray you, if you're not careful."

"Thank you, sir." The lieutenant remembered that Vornant had lost command and worked his way back up. The voice of experience. "I appreciate you sharing your insight with me, sir."

"One more thing I want to share with you, Lieutenant. Your father is a very well known war hero from the Cetagandan war. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that, but you should consider that there will be those who think that your father is using his influence to pave the way for you."

Vorkosigan almost laughed. He doubted his father would do such a thing for his leftover son. Aral felt barely tolerated by the man. Count Vorkosigan would just as soon see him fail, the lieutenant thought, and then he would be more justified in his feelings of disappointment in his son.

"I can see that thought amuses you."

"No, sir. I..."

But the captain pressed on. "It amuses me too because I see how you handle yourself in tight situations. You are making it on your own those who look close enough to see. Some will not look. Their minds are made up. So it's up to you to be sure that you are standing on your own abilities and talents, not relying on your name or your father. Good luck, Vorkosigan. You will succeed and God help you when you do. You'll need all the help you can get, because success breeds jealousy." He suddenly looked weary. "Dismissed."

"The Komarran ships are changing course, sir," Vorrash called from his station. "Turning toward us now."

"They can no longer pretend as if they haven't seen us." Vornant said with a crooked grin. "We will wait for them to come to us. Coordinate with other ships."

"You have an open channel to them, sir."

"Vornant here. Recommend maintaining position. Make them go offensive. We have the advantage to prepare while we wait for them if we do not have to hold formation while running to meet them."

The other ship captains responded, mostly agreeing with Vornant's idea. He noted the younger less experienced captains were the couple who disagreed with him. Vornant shook his head to himself. Some get promoted too soon because someone in the service hopes for a favor from a Vor lord for pushing a son ahead. But the ones who pay the highest penalty are the crews who inevitably get wounded or killed because of their captain's rashness.

They were ten ships strong. The patrolling ships were only six. The Barrayarans had that advantage also.

"Receiving a communication from the Komarrans, sir," Ensign Cheshka said.

"Let's hear what they have to say, Ensign."

A voice crackled through the speakers. "You are in violation of this space. This is under the jurisdiction of Komarr. We are not at a formal state of war with Barrayar. You may leave the area. Failure to do so will be seen as a hostile act."

"Response, sir? Should I open a return frequency for you?"

"No. No response. This is a hostile act. But we're not going to advise them of it."

Vorkosigan heard it all. He didn't take his eyes off the scope that showed him the ships and their positions. The lieutenant already had the plasma weapon trained on the ship that he had estimated as the best target, given their relative positions. He was tense, but not uncontrolled. Vorkosigan used the strain to work for him, keeping him aware and alert, not allowing his attention to flag. But he was also ready to change his stance at a word from the captain. His hands hovered over the controls, ready to change the aiming of the weapons as soon as the order was spoken.

"Let them keep coming," Vornant said quietly. "See how close they get. Like sheep to the slaughter."

The open channel between ships, so that the captains could coordinate their attacks, was almost totally silent. What could be heard was not chatter between ships, but captains readying their crews.

"Slowing," Vorrash notified the captain. "All of them are coming to a halt. Trying to signal again."

"Bold," Commander Gettyern said from his position near the captain.

"Pick them off now," Political Officer Commander Vorpasht said impatiently. "What are you waiting for?"

But Vornant didn't answer him. Instead he spoke into the open channel. "Attack pattern Zed. Comments?"

"We'd better go with the first instinct before someone fires," another captain responded.

"What the hell are they waiting for?" a younger captain snapped. "What are we waiting for?"

"Zed," a fourth answered in support of Vornant's suggestion.

"The command is given," Vornant said.

"Sir," Vorkosigan suddenly said. "Just a moment. What are they waiting for? We have all the advantages and they have come to us. They are trying to delay a reaction by continuing to try to communicate with us."

"What are you getting at, Vorkosigan?"

"I think they are waiting for someone. They are the sacrifice, sent to meet us, while they have communicated our presence to other ships in the fleet, most likely. Now they are delaying to give them time to arrive."

The captain agreed at once with the evaluation. Calmly he gave the order. "Attack now. Attack now."

Then ten Barrayaran ships at once began fanning out of their tight formation. The ones at either end dove down while the middle ones began climbing out. Room to maneuver without having to keep up with where all the friendly ships were.

Vorkosigan had at once begun to track his planned target as his ship came up and intended to make a pass over the Komarran ship. However, the sudden break up of the small armada gave the Komarrans reason to know that they were about to be fired on and they began evasive action.

"Ship at 180 degrees, 45," Vornant called to Vorkosigan. "Fire!"

The lieutenant didn't have time to congratulate himself on having made the right choice. He fired and his aiming of the plasma weapon was very accurate. He fired again and then again. Hammering away at the same point on the shields drained them. The next shot penetrated and the ship broke open.

"Re-target," Vornant began, but didn't get to say more. The ship shuddered as it took a hit.

"Evasive!" the captain called out as he regained his seat. "Turn the ship so that they don't hit the same area again."

The helmsman began turning, but away from their attacker.

"Belay that!" Vornant called. "Reverse your turn."

"But...sir," Commander Gettyern sputtered. "That will take us into their weapons' range and scope."

"Continue reverse," the captain informed the helm. "I'm well aware of that, Commander. Vorkosigan..."

"Ship targeted, sir." With his primary responsibility tracking targets, the lieutenant had been able to turn all his attention to finding the attacking ship in the tracking computer's screen.

However, before Vornant could give the order to fire, another plasma jolt hit the ship. The lights went out and the artificial gravity turned off. Most of the combat experienced soldiers knew that was a possibility and had already either jammed themselves in place or managed a handhold just as they began to lift from their seats. Then the emergency generator kicked on. Vorkosigan fixed himself back into position, looking for that ship. It was his. He willed it to be so. He wanted it now. Give me the order, Captain. I'll take him out before he can hit us again. The thought completed before the young officer had even re-aimed the weapon.

But it was easy enough for Vorkosigan to lock onto the ship. It was coming in for another shot. Right into our arms.

"Ship targeted, sir."

Then yet another hit rattled their ship, but not from their target. The fire had come from another ship.

"Come about!" Vornant called. "Give us room to maneuver and see what's going on. Change course one eighty and head away from the Komarran ship."

It took discipline on Vorkosigan's part not to fire anyway. No. You'd be doing it out of anger. You don't have a good lock and would miss. Not only would you be in violation of firing permission, you'd look like a fool for missing wide. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was pleased that he had that much control of his temper and reason. But in the front of Aral's mind, he was only thinking about his targets. Which ship to target now? The original one or the new attacker? He searched the scopes as his ship maneuvered, deciding which was the better target.

"Get that ship off our tail," Vornant said tersely to the helmsman. "Evasive." He watched the scopes as his ensign made the moves to shake their pursuer. The Komarran ship was fast, but not faster. It didn't seem quite as maneuverable as the Barrayaran ships. Some advantage. "The wiser side will win this fight," Vornant said to himself.

"Pursing ship targeted, sir," Vorkosigan announced.

"Good man. Fire. As long as you have him in sights, keep firing."

And the lieutenant did just that. All his shots were not as well placed as they were on his first victim. His ship continued to move evasively and Vorkosigan had to track as each sudden movement changed the relative positions of the ships. Difficult even with a tracking computer. The computer couldn't outguess the random movements of the helmsman as he tried to shake the ship.

But Vorkosigan had learned patience and he patiently waited for the targeting computer to reacquire the ship, trying to pound away at the same section of shielding. And his tolerance and persistence paid off as the ship went up in a bright flash.

"Good job!" Vornant called out, in relief as much as exultation. But the moment was very short lived. "Status of remaining ships."

"Each is engaged fully with other Barrayaran ships," Ensign Cheshka responded.

"Good. Let's give them a bit of help." The captain looked at his scope. "Course nine three. Close on the ship." Then into the open ship-to-ship comm he called, "Vorlast, we are coming in over you. Can you maintain course and speed?"

"Six clean kills, sir," Gettyern reported to Vornant. "All the Komarran ships destroyed."

"Damage report."

"Minimal damage, sir. They hardly compromised our shields," he answered with a bit of pride. "All sections have begun clean up and repair."

"Status of other Barrayaran ships."

"Only one sustained major damage, sir. One side of the ship's shield collapsed under a major power failure."

"What about their back up system?" Vornant frowned.

"I don't have word on why that, apparently, didn't work, sir. They are trying to be sure of their space worthiness at this time."

"Keep me up to date on the situation. As a precaution, prepare to receive crew in case they have to abandon ship."

"Yes, sir." The commander moved away to give the word.

Vornant stood and looked over the duty personnel. He planted his fists on his hips. "Good work. Very responsive and quick. We were closely matched ship to ship. I knew it would come down to the better crew being the victor. I suppose we now know who the better crew is," he grinned. The humor was appropriate now. And a good captain knew when to drop a bit of humor into a tense situation. A cool captain gained the respect of his men. Light laughter ran through the crew. "Helm, stationkeeping while other ships assess themselves. Move closer to the damaged ship, to be ready of they need us. Defensive systems stand down. Shields on. Everyone not immediately needed here report below to help in clean up and repair. Essential personnel...on standby."

The captain watched as four men left to go help with repairs. Then he turned to Gettyern. "You have the conn. I'll be in my quarters."

"Yes, sir."

As Vornant started to leave, Commander Vorpasht reluctantly said, "Good work, sir."

"Thank you, Commander," the captain returned in sincerity to his political officer.

Vorkosigan hurried along the corridor, following Vornant's order to report to help with repairs. A door opened and a big man stepped into the corridor. However the lieutenant didn't have time to stop. He ran into the fellow. The man turned and shoved Vorkosigan backward.

The lieutenant got his first look at the big man. Must be one of the replacements after the large number of men killed on their last mission. The tall man had a narrow face, unnaturally narrow. He stared at Vorkosigan with smoldering blue eyes. A sergeant. By rights, Vorkosigan knew that he could do all manner of discipline to this junior officer for his conduct right now, but he also sensed that unless it were extreme, no punishment would make this man regret his actions...or change him.

"Vor," the man said quietly. "You look it."

"What is your name, Sergeant?" the lieutenant asked neutrally.


Vorkosigan stood up erect and pulled at his uniform to straighten it. Slowly he did so. He had not met Bothari yet, but the name resonated at once with memories of what he had heard from some of the enlisted men. They claimed that the man was wild and uncontrollable. His reputation was known through the service. Bothari enjoyed killing, slowly and painfully. There was even a rumor that the wild sergeant had cut out the liver of a killed enemy and eaten it. The lieutenant didn't doubt some of the rumors now that he was face to face with the man, but had to wonder how much was exaggeration, as most rumors became after repetition.

"Sergeant Bothari, you should be more aware of the traffic flow when you are coming out into the corridor like that."

"You should be more aware of who is coming out into the corridor when you are running along it...sir."

Vorkosigan was taken aback by the response. But he also saw the humor of the situation and almost laughed aloud at the very direct reply.

"Yes, I suppose you're right. Still, you shouldn't shove officers, Sergeant."

"You shouldn't run down non-coms, sir."

Now the lieutenant was flustered. Bothari was direct, too direct. And he was unsure at the moment how to put the man in his place. Vorkosigan was used to junior officers and enlisted men obeying him without question. He didn't have time to work it out either. He had to get to his assigned duty. If there were other ships coming, they had to be ready to face them. But if he allowed Bothari to feel as if he had won this face off, it would just inculcate further his defiant attitude.

"I'm very busy, Sergeant. We'll continue this discussion later."

"I'll be here," the big man answered.

"Why were we ordered back, Captain?" Commander Gettyern asked.

"I'm not at liberty to discuss that, Gettyern. Just carry out the order."

"Yes, sir."

"You were not ordered back," Political Officer Commander Vorpasht said to Captain Vornant. "I would have known if you were." He folded his arms over his chest.

"You are at liberty to verify the order," Vornant answered without looking.

"I will do just that...Captain." The man left.

Lieutenant Vorkosigan had been listening and trying not to watch. Some of the crew openly watched the constant conflicts between captain and political officer. Others almost seemed embarrassed by it and tried to act as if it weren't happening. The young officer felt he was merely extending a courtesy to a superior officer. Vorpasht really should have such discussions in private with the captain. Vorkosigan understood why he did not though. Control. It was about control. But he granted Vornant as much privacy as one could in the open command center, by not staring and by trying to seem as if he were paying little attention. It was a game. Everyone knew what was going on. But still he went through the motions.

It was a great lesson to him, the lieutenant realized. He remembered Vornant's words to him before about keeping an eye on political officers and that people problems would be the bigger challenge to a captain. Here was proof of that. And here was a very object lesson to Vorkosigan of what to do and what not to do in the handling of the delicate situation between political officer and captain. He would be sure to attend to all their discussions that he could. It was important to have a good handle on the political situation within a crew.

Captain Vornant may have given up his honor at one time, but he retains some of it. He does what is right, not always what is politically right. The captain knows how to handle a crew well. How much better could he do if Vorpasht didn't undermine his authority? What is the true function of a political officer? It has little to do with our task. Vorpasht contributes nothing to that, except second-guessing the captain. It must be true then what is said of them. They are spies for the Imperium, looking for those who are not loyal. much as Vorpasht interferes with our duty and undercuts the captain's position, it could be said that, in a way, he is being disloyal, because he is hurting us not helping us.

A fascinating insight Vorkosigan realized. And a useful one. Captain Vornant had given him some of the best advice that he could have. He would think more about this later.

The ship had been given orders to maintain a position just on the Barrayar side of the wormhole. No reason was given and Vorkosigan knew that must mean that strategy was being planned or questioned. Report of the fight between Komarran ships and Barrayaran ships had been made and the upper command was evaluating that against their plans for Komarr. All assumption, but it seemed very reasonable. Aral could think of no other reason for the sudden return through the jump point, but then being held away from Barrayar.

The crew was given liberty from their tasks while they waited. Essential systems were running and maintained by rotating shifts so that every man had some liberty. Captain Vornant still tried to keep the men busy with some sort of task, even so. Men idle on a ship too long had too much time to think. Either to think of things to entertain themselves, which could lead to fights and other disturbances among the crew, when the entertainment was at someone else's expense. Or time to think of how to gain favor with perhaps the political officer. No. Vornant had learned some hard lessons and he would not repeat old mistakes.

For himself, Vorkosigan took the down time to address the problem of Sergeant Bothari. Since the man seemed not to have much respect for officers, the lieutenant decided to meet him at his own level. One of the pass times on all ships was training fights among crewmembers. Training for hand-to-hand combat and a work out. It also allowed the side benefit of gambling on outcome as another entertainment. In the game, it was man against man, not rank against rank. Once the jacket or shirt, with rank insignia, came off, so did the rank. Vorkosigan would not be an officer to Bothari, but just another combatant.

There was risk involved; Vorkosigan had recognized that readily enough. Bothari was a tall man and he, himself, was shorter than average. However, Aral also knew his strength and his ability. He and Bothari were probably about the same age, give or take a year or two. Yes, it was a risk. If Bothari prevailed, then the sergeant would probably lose even more respect for him.

So you can't lose. You have to at least match him, even if you can't win. If he takes you down quickly then you have lost more than the game.

Vorkosigan thought about it. He decided that next game, he would enter to be paired with Bothari.

The two men stood staring intently at each other. The crewman who was chosen referee was reiterating the very few rules that were observed. Vorkosigan studied his opponent. Bothari was tense with anticipation. He had a wild look in his blue eyes. That almost intimidated Vorkosigan. Almost. He would not allow himself to continue to look at the man's eyes. Bothari was already in a fighting stance, knees bent, hands away from his body, poised as if holding back the energy waiting to be released from a taut spring.

The referee moved back and at once Bothari sprang forward. Vorkosigan hadn't expected quite so quick a response. He almost sidestepped the lunging man, but stood his ground and braced himself for impact.

And a hard impact it was. The lieutenant was almost knocked off his feet. Pain flashed through his abdomen and he bent forward. At once Bothari wrapped arms around him and took him down. Before Vorkosigan could respond in kind, he was pinned, with the sergeant's arm against his windpipe. Without needing to think about it, Aral tapped himself out and the referee called the point.

Yet Bothari didn't immediately release Vorkosigan. He had a leering grin and his eyes were almost glowing with the triumph. The lieutenant suddenly realized what a big mistake he had made in taking this on.

"Let him up, Bothari!" the referee jabbed the man hard in the back and the sergeant finally backed away.

Lieutenant Vorkosigan slowly got to his feet. He was in trouble. This man was not fighting only to work out. He was fighting because he liked to hurt people. And he seemed to have something against Vorkosigan specifically. Aral knew he couldn't back down either. He had to see this through now. Vornant's words came back to him...about how his greater problem would be dealing with people. He should have heeded the words beyond just a possible command some day. They were true now and here.

The referee backed away and Vorkosigan was in motion at once. He ran forward, head down, with all speed he could, knowing that if Bothari stepped aside, he could go barreling head first into the wall. But he had to gain some advantage early.

The sergeant was not a man to duck any blow. So he stood his ground, ready to receive the impact. At the last second, when Vorkosigan knew that Bothari was not going to try to avoid the blow, he put his head down further and rammed into the big man's stomach.

Bothari went down hard, a loud groan escaping along with his breath. The lieutenant took advantage of the mere seconds of advantage he gained. While Bothari was trying to gain his wind, Aral got the partially helpless man into a chokehold. The sergeant began trying to break it by sheer strength and very nearly succeeded.

Vorkosigan's biggest advantage was the leverage from his position and he used it for all it was worth. He could feel it slipping though. If Bothari didn't give in, Aral knew he would wear down...and out. He drew in a breath and applied the last bit of strength he had left, increasing the tension of his hold.

Reluctantly Bothari tapped out. The lieutenant released the hold as soon as the referee called the point and sprang out of the way. The sergeant rolled up onto his knees at once, hardly fazed by the hold that Vorkosigan had barely maintained on him. His blue eyes were now grey and smoldering.

Vorkosigan knew that unless he got creative or lucky, he would lose the last round, and might come away with more than his pride wounded. He drew in a slow deep breath to regain himself. Bothari was staring hard at him, waiting for the next round to start.

When the referee backed out of the way, the big man was on the move at once. Vorkosigan had it in mind to move just enough out of his path to keep from being knocked down. He was not going to completely sidestep Bothari, but try to get a hold on him. However the sergeant guessed the move correctly and adjusted.

Vorkosigan and Bothari came together almost head to head. They grappled for a couple of long, intense moments. No one watching could see exactly what was going on between the two combatants, but could hear the smack of flesh against flesh.

The lieutenant tried to push away from Bothari. They separated just long enough for the noisy observers to see that the young officer had a large, already swelling, knot just below his eye, on the cheekbone. Bothari's nose dripped blood. He swiped at it and moved in again.

Vorkosigan tried to get a hold on the big man, but his damp flesh was hard to hold to and Bothari used that time of distraction to sweep Aral's feet from under him. The lieutenant hit the floor hard and the big man was on him at once. The lieutenant brought a knee up and planted it in Bothari's mid-section, trying to lever him off, but the big man only grinned...until Vorkosigan felt something give. The sergeant's face showed what he felt, but instead of giving up, he released Aral only long enough to get a new hold. He flipped the lieutenant onto his stomach and had him pinned, with his arm behind his back.

Vorkosigan knew he was done for. He couldn't break the hold, not from this position. Still he knew he had to at least try, or look as if he had simply given up. The young officer strained to try to free himself...and yelped in pain. Something had happened to the arm that Bothari had pinned behind him. At once, Vorkosigan tapped out.

Slowly Bothari rose, hand to his abdomen, but no sign of pain on his narrow face. He was leering at Vorkosigan, who didn't see it. He was too busy trying to get up...with grace.

"Come with me," the chief medical officer said to both men. "I'd better look at you both. I could hear the crack from where I was."

Sergeant Bothari sat staring straight ahead. He was a most uncooperative patient during the exam. Now that it was over, he sat impassively waiting to be released to duty. He'd had plenty of cracked ribs and hardly considered it a reason to be sidelined from his duty. He knew he just had to be careful how he moved until healing began.

"Nothing broken, Lieutenant. Not even dislocated. More likely soft tissue injury. Only rest will help that. The more you ignore my advice, the more you prolong your recovery," the doctor finished with a shrug. "I'll bind your arm for you and give you some pain relievers. Then you can go."

"What about me?" Bothari asked.

"Did the medtech get analgesics for you yet?"

The big man nodded once, frowning. "I don't need them."

"You can go then."

Bothari was gone at once.

Aral watched him go. "Do you know much about him?" he asked the doctor.

"No. Just assigned to us. He seems a bit odd." He shrugged. "There are a lot of odd men in Imperial service. It's the place that a lot of men go if they can't find gainful employment or fit in anywhere else. Should have a better way of choosing who's allowed in or not."

"Hmm," Vorkosigan murmured. He was thinking about the sergeant and wondering what things in his life experience had made him so hard and cold.

"I'm just curious, Lieutenant. What caused you to want to take him on? He's a lot bigger than you." Smiling wryly he said, "Did you have something to prove?"

"I thought I did. But I found out that Bothari doesn't have to prove anything. He knows what he can do and he does it."

"Kind of an obvious statement. We all do what we know we can do."

"I didn't expect that you'd understand." But Bothari would. He knows what I mean. He is very strange, but in a way...he has his own type of honor that he stays loyal to. He does what he does to maintain that. If only I understood more about his type of honor, I'd understand him. That is the way to get through to him, not a show of strength. He doesn't respect me because I tried to outdo him in an area where I obviously could not. Remember that, Aral. That's part of his system of honor. Keep exploring. But carefully.

The ship was recalled to Barrayar. No one in the crew was asked or advised. They were expected to merely comply, silently. And the political officer made his rounds of the ship as they made their way back, to see who was speculating on what.

"It's madness. They can't expect us to not think. We have brains," Gettyern said quietly to Vorkosigan.

Of course the lieutenant agreed with that statement, and he had been making his own speculations. However he had kept them all to himself. At least he had learned that lesson. He was not going to give Political Officer Commander Vorpasht reason to look twice in his direction. He gave no answer.

"What do you think?" the commander pressed. "I know you, Vorkosigan. You're bright and intuitive. What do you think is going on with this confusing set of circumstances?"

"I wouldn't know, Commander Gettyern. I'm just trying to do my duty. It keeps me occupied. Enough so that I don't violate the order against repeating rumors and speculation."

The commander studied him closely. Vorkosigan continued looking over the instrument settings before him, trying not to see Gettyern, but he knew the man was staring hard at him.

"You're not so perfect as you try to seem," the man said casually. "None of us are. I know the captain seems to find you worthy of his teaching efforts. Is that why you try to be so well behaved?" He made a kissing sound with his lips.

The lieutenant felt the rush of anger at the implication. Is that what everyone thought, that the only way to move ahead in the military was to try to curry special favor with officers? Leesa had said that all her new Vor lady friends had told her that. How would they know what goes on in the military...unless their husbands or other kin in the service told them. Now Gettyern seemed to be confirming that idea.

No. I can't believe that. I'm sure there's some of that in the service, but it's the exception, not the rule. It's not honorable. It wouldn't be tolerated by an officer who was truly loyal to the Imperium. Only those who were out for themselves would endure such.

Vorkosigan's temper had been a source of trouble for him in the past. He was trying to learn to control it, not always successfully. Right now he had to control it. He couldn't afford to get in trouble with a superior officer on ship, while on duty. Part of his control was to try to keep his tone the same as in normal speaking. Aral tried not to raise his voice. So he responded in a slightly lower volume, to be sure he wasn't talking loud enough to be heard by everyone. No need in allowing this private conversation to become part of the crew's entertainment.

"I don't claim to be perfect, Commander. But I am doing my duty, my assigned duty. To the best of my ability. I do that because I serve the Emperor. Right now Captain Vornant is the agent of the Emperor who commands me. I obey the captain because I obey the Emperor. That is why I am, as you put it, well behaved. I'm doing the best that I can do. No less and more if I can. That is the only thing I am trying to achieve. Nothing more." Then he, at once, turned back to his instruments.

Gettyern was silent, and confounded by the reaction, or lack of it. He withdrew, with a quick glance over his shoulder. He didn't doubt that Vorkosigan was not playing the political game.

Lieutenant Vorkosigan walked along, Leesa on his arm. It was a sunny day but not too warm. She had a new outfit that she'd wanted to show him.

"It's intended for outdoors. Sort of a...dressy sportswear for ladies. So, as long as I have it on, let's go outdoors."

And so they were walking near the apartment where Leesa lived. She prattled on happily about who was the latest person of interest in the gossip news and whom had been arranged to marry whom, what social functions she had been to.

"And so I went along, even though Madam Vorthal didn't think I should. She means well. I think so anyway, but she can be quite annoying sometimes in her restrictive thinking. I..."

"You really think that about Madam Vorthal?"

Leesa seemed a bit put off that Aral had interrupted her. "Well, yes, I do. I am trying to find my way in society here and she seems to want to hold me back. How can I know if a group is one I should be involved with or not unless I find out about them?"

"Madame Vorthal is trying to help. She was raised here," Vorkosigan answered simply. "She knows society here in the capital pretty well."

"Well, I'm happy for her. I don't know it so well. I don't mind a bit of advice, but I don't need to be treated like a child either. Aral, I know she's family. I hope you don't think I dislike her so much. It's not that. It's just..." Leesa stopped walking. "I just want to do some things for myself. You see that, don't you? I mean...I was so restricted before I came to Vorbarr Sultana. I have to make my own way now. You understand that, don't you? It's not that I dislike Madam Vorthal." Not entirely.

The lieutenant listened carefully to his lady. And something that Captain Vornant had told him echoed in the back of his head. It's your people skills that will betray you. Vorkosigan had thought that the man only meant that for a command situation, but he learned that it was true in all areas of his life. This was one such situation. Aral decided to withdraw, not to argue. He was too unsure of this to continue to make one stand or another. Besides, he had no reason to think Leesa meant other than what she said. She was not the sort to be deceptive. Even moving to the urbane capital and being inundated with an entirely new set of acquaintances and expectations, Leesa kept herself, her honor.

"Yes, I understand," he responded. "Madame Vorthal told me before that she would try to help you. I know she means well, but if you are comfortable enough now here to make your own way, then I trust your judgment."

Leesa smiled. She walked on and Aral came along with her. "I've talked entirely too much. I'm sorry. It is rather exciting to be here in the capital where all the stimulating events are taking place. Tell me about your mission. What you can tell? Did you get another commendation?"

"I did my duty, Leesa. I can't discuss too much of the details. It was...a survey mission, of sorts. We brought back important information for ImpMil and ImpSec. That's really all I can say."

"Will you ever be able to trust me enough to tell me more? I am going to be your wife, after all. You finally begin to be more relaxed around me, but there is still a barrier between us. The barrier of your service."

"It's not trust, Leesa. If my trust was infinite, I still can't tell you."

She pouted. "The military owns you. You're gone for months at a time and when you come back you're so...closed about what happened. I...I don't know you, Aral."

"You know me. I am more than a soldier. There always will be a part of me that I can't share, as long as I am on active service. You must understand that."

She didn't respond. After a couple of silent minutes, Leesa changed the subject again. "Will you accompany me to a party in two nights? It was all arranged before you got back and I accepted."

"Yes," Vorkosigan answered automatically. That was part of his duty to Leesa now. He was, essentially, her husband. It only wanted time to be true. Part of a husband's duty to his wife was escort to social functions. She was learning to be a part of proper high Vor society, just as much for him as for her. He would endure.

"It's being given by Countess Vordent. She has been planning for just months. Or so they say. She wants it to be the biggest, most important social this season. I was honored that she invited me. Even some of my group of friends haven't been invited." She lifted her chin in satisfaction at that. "I have begun to find my place here, Aral."

The lieutenant didn't respond. He had seen her action and the tone of her words. Leesa had changed greatly since moving to Vorbarr Sultana. But he wasn't sure that all the change was for the better. Still he knew he had to allow Leesa to find her own way. He couldn't run her life for her. Not only because she wouldn't allow it, but also because he was gone for such long periods. He wasn't here to look over her shoulder.

She's wiser and maybe a bit too sure of herself, but Leesa has given me no reason to mistrust her. She keeps her dignity. She will find the right place for herself.

It was so much like the last social that Vorkosigan had attended with Leesa. She flitted from group to group, chatting, accepting compliments and then moving on. The lieutenant accompanied her around, patiently waiting while she was received, and he was more or less acknowledged.

Late in the night a loud disagreement broke out in the large room. Since Leesa was deeply occupied by her conversation, Vorkosigan slipped away to see what the disturbance was about. As typical in social gatherings, ladies had gathered at one side of the hall and men at the other side. Where the men who had left their ladies to themselves had gathered, is where the loud voices came from.

A young officer, in uniform, was arguing with a slightly older man, not in uniform, but dressed in a way that revealed his social standing. Obviously an aristocrat of some sort.

"You are not loyal to the Emperor if you would talk about him in that way," the younger man said hotly.

"Just because you're in military service, don't imagine you know so much. You're off about the planets, jumping from here to there. You have no idea what happens here on Barrayar while you are gone."

"It matters not. I serve the Emperor. I trust his stewardship of Barrayar. He knows how to rule this planet."

The man laughed at the officer. "Your political officer should be proud of himself. He has done an admirable job with you. You know all the right things to say and say them so automatically." He paused. "Which is appropriate. You show that you don't think, with this attitude."

The officer lunged toward the man, but several others held him back. That only encouraged the man to go on.

"That is how you settle everything, isn't it? A soldier. You fight your way out of everything. Ruffian. You don't know the civilized way to settle a disagreement."

Some one else suddenly spoke up. "No, Pavel. Don't do it."

The man smiled calmly. "It's not up to me. It's up to him. He seems to have the grudge. If he wants to challenge me, then I am at his pleasure."

The officer shook off the hands holding him. He straightened himself. "I challenge you, sir," he said very properly.

"I accept. Have you any swords, sir?"

Now the young man's face fell. His pride was gone at once. Quietly he answered, "No. I don't."

But Pavel was not put off by that. He smiled. "Luckily, I always have extras. It fits me." He turned to walk away...and out the door.

Most of the men started to follow. Vorkosigan thought he knew what was going to happen. He went along. Someone had to try to stop this, if it were going to be a duel.

Lieutenant Vorkosigan pushed his way along, but it was hard to get through all the people. Some of the women were now joining to see, after hearing the word "duel" whispered through the hall.

Countess Vordent was frantic. She sent some of the liveried men to try to stop this, but the large number of male guests held them back, quite physically. Obviously not many of them wanted to stop this.

Vorkosigan was appalled. Certainly not everyone could sanction this. He renewed his effort to push forward, trying to speak out as he went, but his words were drowned by the crowd noise.

Pavel very ceremoniously presented a long and short sword to his challenger. The officer took them, not quite hesitatingly. He had never used these before and it was obvious the aristocrat had, especially if he traveled with an extra set of blades for potential challengers.

The man took his own set and began to stretch his legs with some slow lunges, while twirling the swords around to loosen his arms. It was obvious this was a man who had seen many duels.

Pavel suddenly swiped at the officer and slit his uniform sleeve. That served to help re-ignited the young man's temper. He threw off his jacket.

"Do you fight for your Emperor?" Pavel taunted. "I hope you fight better than he rules, but I think not. You wield those blades like he wields his power. Inexperienced and dull."

The officer moved in swinging hard. Pavel easily pushed the blade away though and moved in with his short sword, slashing across the officer's chest. Not deep, but enough to draw blood.

The young man moved back at once, fear on his face as he realized what he had gotten himself into and could not easily get out of.

Pavel took advantage of the distraction as the officer stared at his chest wound. He slashed again and a long cut ran down the man's left arm. He was enjoying toying with this young hothead.

"You are as defenseless as the Emperor. You are as powerless as he is."

But the insult didn't have the immediate result that Pavel had hoped for. The reality of the cold metal and blood had calmed the officer's temper. He stood with blades raised, but uncertainty in his eyes. Clearly he was looking for a way out. There were only two choices...fight or give in. Obviously fighting meant death. Giving in would brand him a coward. But he would be a live coward.

The officer threw down the swords. He looked at Pavel for seconds, turned and hurried away.

"Coward! Just like your Emperor!" Pavel called after him.

At once most of the crowd began to wander back in to the party. Some of Pavel's friends came to him to both laugh with him, but also to rebuke him for enticing the officer into a duel, knowing that it was expressly forbidden to duel.

Vorkosigan held his place a moment as he evaluated all that had taken place before him...from argument to surrender.

"Oh Aral! Did you see it? It was exciting, wasn't it!"

He turned his head to see lovely Leesa standing next to him, cheeks flushed with the excitement she felt.

"Pavel was wonderful! He is a master with the swords. I've so wanted to see him in action. It's too bad it ended before the fight really started."

"He does this often." It was not a question.

"Well...he is challenged many times. Sometimes it ends just this way. Or at least that's what I've been told. Oh, to see a master at work would have been just wonderful."

"How does he keep from being punished for breaking the law against dueling?"

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe it's because he hasn't recently killed anyone. Too many surrenders." Leesa laughed.

Vorkosigan looked again at the man who was laughing as he mimicked the moves he'd made against the young, hot officer. He turned away to get back inside. Leesa took his arm.

"There you are. I've been looking all over for you. Somehow I knew I'd find you near this setup," a man in uniform said to Leesa just as she and Vorkosigan stepped in the door.

"Oh, Ges! I'm so glad to see you!" She hugged the man. "Now you can finally meet Aral. Both of you are always gone off on a ship. I didn't think I'd ever get you together. Aral, this is my brother, Ges Vorrutyer."

Vorkosigan looked at the other Imperial officer. He had the most interesting eyes, soft brown and very liquid looking. And his smile was very warm. Lieutenant Vorkosigan felt something inside at the man's stare...and he was at once uncomfortable, but unable to look away at the same time.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Aral." He held out a hand.

Vorkosigan's mind was racing with confused thoughts. He couldn't form a reply yet. Instead he took the outstretched hand. Too soft to be the hand of a man who had worked his way up in the military. Aral was aware that he was holding the grip too long. He released it quickly. His tongue was still tied.

"Are you all right, Aral?" Leesa asked.

"Yes," he said quietly. Then he was aware of the display he must be making. Vorkosigan shook himself out of his state. "I apologize. I..."

"I'm sure it's just the atmosphere," Ges Vorrutyer said with a smile and a wave his hand. "It has been confusing tonight, hasn't it?"

"Uh...yes, confusing."

"I am glad to meet the man who will be marrying my sister."

"I'm honored to meet you," Vorkosigan finally got the words out.

"What ship do you serve on, Aral?"

"The Vormoor."

"Ah. Captain Vornant. A shame that. He lost his command before. But I hear that he's learned his lesson and is on the way to recovery. At least with his rank. I hear that he doesn't have a good political stance."

"Yes," Leesa said suddenly. "Talk to him about that, Ges. I've tried to tell Aral about how important it is for an officer to be correctly placed politically. He won't listen to me," she pouted.

"It's true, Aral. It is the only way to move ahead."

"I don't believe that. I'm sure it happens, but that is not the way the service was intended to operate. A man should get ahead on his abilities, not his politics."

"I agree with you. Unfortunately not everyone in the military does. I'm afraid it has become more political than anyone intended. More political all the time. Leesa is right. Listen to her. It works for me." He smiled again. A smile that seemed to be more than just an expression of happiness.

"I...I'll think about it." He had no intention of thinking about it. Aral had his mind made up. He would be the best soldier he could be. He would get ahead that way. Still, he felt oddly uncomfortable in Leesa's brother's company and he wanted to be away from him. He had to think about something, but it wasn't politics.

Aral rose from his bed. He couldn't sleep. He stood by the window, looking out at the courtyard behind Vorkosigan House. The half full moon gave a slight glow to the grounds.

The face of Ges Vorrutyer came back to Vorkosigan. His soft brown eyes and bright smile. That feeling came back with the face and Aral turned from the window. He tried to push the thoughts and the feelings away.

"No," he said hoarsely. "It's not right. It's wrong. I...I can't..."

Vorkosigan walked back to the bed, but didn't lie down. He was restless. Yes, this stirring had visited him before, but not this strongly. Now Leesa's brother forced him to consider the thoughts that he had always tried so hard to ignore.

"What would you say, Father? You hate mutations so strongly. Perfection. That's what you want. Everything has to be perfect. I'm not. I don't live up to your expectations as it is. I know you are disappointed in me. What would you think if you knew this? You'd only dislike me more. Yet one more reason to be disappointed in your son. Your leftover son."

Vorkosigan walked to the door of his bedroom and pushed it open. He padded out into the corridor and kept walking. It had been a confusing night for him. The duel. The officer who fled instead of fighting, but that was probably for the best. No one died. The suggestion again that political correctness was the only way to get ahead in the military, this time from an officer. And that officer. The most disturbing thing of all.

Aral walked down the stairs. He wasn't sure where he was going. He was restless and just walking that off. So many things in his mind and he couldn't settle them. Perhaps if he read for a while. Something, anything to redirect all his confused thoughts.

"You were up late last night," Piotr said to his son the next morning as they sat down to breakfast.

Vorkosigan looked up in surprise. "I tried to be quiet. I'm sorry if I disturbed you."

"You didn't disturb me. I was up late myself. I saw you in the library. Something bothering you?"

"No, sir." The lieutenant looked back to his food. "Just...thinking."

"You need some one to talk to? I'm always available."

"Thank you, sir. I appreciate that, but I don't need to talk. Just...things I have to get straight in my own mind, sir."

Piotr nodded and began eating again. After a moment he spoke again. "Not much longer now until Leesa's eighteenth birthday. Have you been thinking about that too?"

"Yes, sir. I have another mission coming up. And I don't know how long I'll be gone. I have to tell her that today. I know she won't be happy. It will make problems for planning the wedding."

"Can't be helped. I'm sure she'll understand. She's had to deal with your military service since you two have been contracted. She knows how it can be at times."

In your ideal world it is that way. Leesa will not be understanding. I can guarantee that. She is not quite as sensible as you think, sir. She has grown and matured here in the capital, but in other ways she is still quite naïve. That reminds me. I wonder if she has changed her thinking on other subjects, such as the mutation issue. I was so sure that exposure to a more sophisticated environment would change her views. It has. I need to explore this with her again. Just one of the issues I need to find out her thinking on. Then he frowned. I hope her brother is not going to be around much while I am visiting.

"What's that about?" Piotr said.


"You frowned suddenly. Is something wrong?"

"No, sir. Nothing."

"Just some of those things that you need to get decided for yourself?"

"Yes, sir."

"Hmm." The Count put all his attention on finishing his breakfast. Stuffing the last couple of bites into his mouth he pressed the napkin to it. "I have to get busy." He rose. "Are you going to see Leesa again today?"

"Yes, sir."

He nodded. "Then I'll see you later, at supper." Piotr walked out.

"Aral! What do you mean? You're going to leave again...with our wedding not far away? Every time you leave you stay gone for months! I never know when you'll be back. The last time was the longest time. How can I plan a wedding when I don't know the date?"

"I'm sorry, Leesa. I know it's hard, but..." Vorkosigan shrugged. "I can't do anything about it. I have to go when my ship leaves. I don't even know how long I'll be gone."

"There must be something you can do! Or your father. He's a count. He must be able to do something to get you to be able to stay here...just this one mission." She folded her arms over her chest. "If you had listened to me. I told you that it would help you to have good political connections. If you had done that, there would be someone that you could turn to right now to help you."

"I don't think so. We are involved in the defense of Barrayar. That is something that even good political connections can't ignore. I have to do my duty, Leesa."

She turned away from him. "Go then. You have no duty to me."

He sighed. "Yes, I do have a duty to you. My first duty has to be to Barrayar. If we can't feel safe here then how can we expect to even begin a life here? Wouldn't it be better to marry a soldier who is keeping the peace than one who is in the middle of a war? Would you want to try to start a family on a planet that you didn't feel safe on?"

It was quiet for a moment. Then Leesa turned to face him again. "You're right," she said quietly. "I'm sorry, Aral. I was wrong. You are doing your duty and I should support you in that. That is my duty to a proper Vor wife."

He smiled a bit. "You will be a proper Vor wife. I know you will. You have prepared yourself well for it. You will make me proud. You are honorable, Leesa."

The Vormoor crew had expected to go back to Komarr. After all, the raid they had been last sent on had only destroyed six ships. Certainly a pittance compared to what the full strength of the Komarran fleet must be. However, once away from Barrayar, Captain Vornant informed the crew that the ship had been assigned patrol duty again, in the space near Barrayar.

Obviously those who made decisions about what planets to wage war against had learned something about Komarr that was making command change their mind or their plans. At least it seemed obvious to Vorkosigan. And he didn't know if other ships had been sent to Komarr after the Vormoor had last returned home. Other raids on the Komarran fleet might not have been so successful as the one they had been involved in. There was some piece of data that he did not have that would answer the puzzle. However, the high command of ImpMil often did not explain their reasoning to even the captains of the ships they sent out. Vornant may not even know why he was being returned to patrolling.

On the other hand, the raid on Komarr could have been such a surprise to the planet that they had sent an answering raid on Barrayar, Vorkosigan considered. This patrol could be to watch for invading craft from Komarr, not just mercenaries, as they had been on the lookout for previously.

Either way, it had been quiet so far. No ships of any kind had been spotted in the days they had been on station. That could change instantly, however. Vornant ran drills to keep the men ready, not letting them become complacent.

There was only a skeleton crew in the command center, since they were not on alert status. A full response crew could be in place in a minute. Captain Vornant wondered how much time they could shave off that.

"Commander Gettyern, I think things have been too quiet. I sense the men getting restless. Nothing worse than a crew stuck in space, away from their home planet, with little to keep them occupied." He stared at the view scope before him, as if the decision he was considering was written there. "General quarters. This is a drill."

The man turned to press a button, activating ship-wide communications. "General quarters. This is a drill. Unknown ships in the sector. Repeat, this is a drill. All crew to station."

A klaxon sounded and men began to move at once. Those engaged in recreational activities dropped what they were doing, without a thought. Men lounging in their bunks scrambled to get dressed.

Vornant sat calmly, waiting and watching. Political Officer Commander Vorpasht stood on the opposite side of the compartment, hands clasped behind his back and watching Vornant. Men trotted in and took up station, calling out name and "reporting for duty" as they came into the command center. The intercom reported sections below decks becoming ready for duty.

After everyone was in place, Vornant stood and walked around the command center. He didn't look at anyone. Finally he said, "That was a poor performance. It is taking the crew longer each time to ready for a drill. I would think that repetition would drive it home and each man would learn to prepare quicker. This is unacceptable. Just because this is a drill should not affect your decisions on how to respond." He continued walking, being silent for a long moment. "Secure from general quarters. The drill is ended. But. I think that the men should stay at their stations. A discipline for becoming complacent."

Vorpasht came forward from where he had been lurking in the background. "I recommend, sir, that you run the drill again. And again, if necessary. That is the way to get the point across and to give them the practice that they need to be quick about this."

"We've run the drill several times already, Vorpasht. The men know their duty. Running another drill will only make them less interested, not more."

"That should be their discipline, sir. Make them repeat the exercise until they understand that quick response is what will release them from discipline."

"Your recommendation is noted. Commander Gettyern, inform other sections to remain at duty stations until further notice."

"Yes, sir." The man moved to carry out the order.

Vorpasht was clearly not happy. "This has been noted, Captain. You are familiar with procedure, and..."

The captain cut him off. "I am familiar with procedure and I am at liberty to change procedure as I see fit, within my command guidelines. Report to your duty station, Commander."

The man stood and stared for a moment. Then he turned and went to his little work area in the command center. A token, since he had no real military duties on the ship. Vorpasht began making notes for his report on Captain Vornant.

Vorkosigan tried to watch Vorpasht without looking as if he were watching. The man was vile and hated by all. Even the crewmembers who were friendly with Vorpasht were only that way to try to look good to him, to get a favorable report. No one on the ship really liked the toady. At least Vorkosigan had never heard anyone speak favorably about the political officer. More often they cursed him behind his back and laughed at his show of power when he had no real power. His power lay in the reports he wrote on troublemakers, men who weren't loyal to the Imperium, men who shirked duty. Or at least men who the political officer viewed that way. Vorpasht was not above reporting unfavorably about a man who in truth was performing well, if the commander had his own reasons for disliking the individual.

Vorkosigan pulled his attention back to his view scope. It was not his primary duty to watch for possible invaders, but as long as he could see space around them and there was nothing else to do, he watched anyway. It kept him interested and kept his attention from wandering too far.

On the other hand, because there was little activity, it was hard to keep his entire attention on what he was looking at...empty space. He could look at the lack of ships and be completely aware of the lack of blips on the view screen, but still allow a part of his mind to wander off into thought.

I wonder what Leesa is doing. Trying to prepare for a wedding that she can't completely plan for. I suppose I understand why she is so upset about that. There's little I can do about it though. And I certainly wouldn't ask my father to intervene on my behalf. I have been mostly successful so far in avoiding living in his shadow. Mostly. I know there are those who think I am where I am only because of my name and whom my father is, but I think my performance on the ship has demonstrated what I can do. I have proven myself, for the most part. There will always be detractors. I won't always be able to win over all to see that I don't need the name to do the job. But that's all right. I know what I can do and I do my duty. That will always speak for me. If my ability cannot convince anyone, then nothing else I can say or do will convince them.

And so, when we return will the plans be ready? Will Leesa be ready to marry then? She will be of age, by the contract. I'm sure Father would want me to press for the terms to be followed exactly. If not married at once, at first return after Leesa's eighteenth birthday, then the contract is null and void. He did arrange a good marriage for me, but sometimes Father is so busy looking at advantages and standing and such that he forgets there are people and feelings involved. Now that I've begun to know Leesa better and my feelings have begun to awaken, I am more content to enter this marriage. Leesa is lovely and she is a kind-hearted girl. There are still things she needs to learn and ideas that she needs to purge. Her move to Vorbarr Sultana has not been all for good, but I'm sure as she continues to mature and become aware of her world and her place in it, she will shrug off some of her odd ideas. She's too bright and worthy to do otherwise.

And so, I do look forward to marrying her. She will be a good wife. A proper wife for a soldier...and future count. I admit that's true. I'm sure she will have a large and cumbersome wedding. But I can tolerate that to allow her to enjoy herself. I'm sure she will want to invite all the cream of Vorbarr Sultana society, now that she has fit in. And all of my family, what there is left. And Leesa's big family.

Vorkosigan sat up suddenly at that thought. Because thinking of Leesa's family made him remember...her brother, Ges. Unbidden the face came at once to his memory. The lieutenant was torn. Here, where it was quiet for the moment and no one was intruding on his time or thoughts or trying to converse, he could think through his feelings. But those feelings also repulsed him and he didn't want to follow them.

Then he was saved from further torture as Ensign Vorrash called out. "Ships entering our sector, Captain. Three ships. Small attack vessels. Unknown markings."

"Sound general quarters," Vornant responded. "Remind the men this is not a drill. What else, Ensign?"

"Readings indicate they have shields raised. Slowing approach. I think they just spotted us, sir."

"You can't identify them?"

"Not by markings, sir. Make of ships indicate Komarran design for two of them. The third..."

"Yes?" Vornant prompted.

"Not recognized design, sir. I believe it is a makeshift vessel...pieced together from other ships."

Vornant walked to look over the ensign's shoulder. "That would make me think that these are mercenaries. Using what they can recover from old or damaged ships to repair their own. But..."

"But what, sir?" Commander Gettyern came closer to hear.

"That could also be a decoy, meant to make us assume such a thing. If mercenaries could afford to buy Komarran ships, why would they bother to keep such a hulk?"

"Possibly they simply didn't have the funding to buy more ships. Perhaps they are replacing their old ships one at a time."

"A possibility," Vornant admitted.

"But," Vorkosigan spoke up, "our recent raid on Komarr should be kept in mind as well, sir. It would be prudent to assume these ships are from Komarr until it is proven otherwise."

"Yes, I was thinking the same thing."

"So you stand about talking while they are coming closer," Vorpasht finally burst out.

"Range of ships," Vornant demanded.

"Just inside the range of our tracking sensors, sir," Vorrash reported. "That is why we only just picked them up."

"So they are still thousands of kilometers away," Vornant said calmly to the political officer. "Plenty of time and distance for us to take action. A proper evaluation is required to plan a proper response."

The commander didn't respond, but neither did he return to his station.

"Helm, set course to bring us around on the starboard side. Increase speed to eighty percent max. Weapons..."

"Activated," Vorkosigan called out. "Tracking and waiting your command, sir."

The captain suppressed a smile. If only all my officers were so bright and responsive. "Stand by, Vorkosigan."

"Yes, sir," he answered without looking away from his scope.

"That provoked a response," Vorrash reported. "Ships have broken formation. I think they are going to try to surround us, extrapolating from their new courses, sir."

"Increase speed to maximum," Vornant commanded. "Target closest ship, weapons. We have to stop them from surrounding us. The only way is to get rid of..."

"Sir!" Vorrash called out. But before he could say more the ship rocked hard.

Men scrambled back to their stations after being knocked from their seats. Vornant had been walking around the command center and was thrown down hard. The captain rose slowly.

"Are you all right, sir?" Gettyern hurried to the man's side, concerned about the red line of blood that was now creeping down the captain's face.

Vornant wiped it away with the sleeve of his uniform. "Fine," he said quietly. But he was not completely fine. The man was a bit dazed after the impact.

"Sir," Vorkosigan called. "Ship targeted." He had his hand poised on the firing control, waiting for the order that he knew would come. But it didn't come right away. Vornant was still trying to dig through his momentary confusion. The lieutenant hazarded a glance at his captain, drawing his attention away from the targeting computer. He saw the puzzled look and the blood. There was precious little time. They may already be targeted themselves. Vorkosigan fired.

A hit. The interaction of shield and plasma arc made a fine display. The lieutenant fired again. And again. He had to compromise that shield in order to destroy the ship.

However, another hit rocked the Vormoor and the crew tried hard to hold on, to little avail. But every man was in motion at once, trying to regain his station. Gettyern had managed to get Vornant to his seat just in time to be thrown from it to the floor. The captain did not sustain further injury except for the bruising they all got from being thrown about by the hit to the ship.

Gettyern was helping the captain up. Vornant's mind was clearing now. The impact had not been severe, but enough to daze him shortly. Gettyern was trying to fill in for Vornant while helping him as well.

"Evasive," Gettyern called. "Weapons, target closest ship."

"Targeted," Vorkosigan called. It was the pieced together ship. If he could compromise that shield, the ship would come apart easily, he judged. Just give me the order.


Vorkosigan fired and fired and fired. As soon as each shot was away, he placed another behind it, not willing to wait to see how each connected. He had little time, he realized, especially after his last experience. He couldn't let this one get away.

But the ship rocked again. Without needing to look at his readouts, Ensign Cheshka called out what he knew to be true. "Shield in danger of collapse. We can't take another hit in the same area." He pulled himself up and looked to confirm what he had already reported.

Vornant scrambled to his feet. "Helm, take us out of here."

"You can't retreat!" Vorpasht objected at once.

The captain looked at him, but didn't answer the man. "Course one three zero. Away from Barrayar." Then he looked away. "We need distance from the ships to maneuver and try to get them spread out."

"One three zero," Cheshka confirmed.

"Vorkosigan, we need those ships gone. Do you read me?"

"Yes, sir." I'm doing all I can, sir. I know you know that. I know this is an urgent situation.

"We are out of firing range of the ships, sir," Vorrash reported.

"Now reverse course helm, as quick as you can. Run right at the closest ship, maximum speed. Weapons, target and fire as soon as you acquire. And keep firing until you destroy the bastard," Vornant growled. "We are not going to let them take us. We'll die first."

Lieutenant Vorkosigan watched his targeting scope. It was his world right now. There was nothing else but him and the ship that would soon appear. And it was his. He would not fail again. They had been lucky to sustain only three hits so far. All other shots had gone wide, thanks to slightly faster ships and a talented helmsman. However, they couldn't continue to count on the helmsman to keep that up. Even the best would tire out in an intense fight. Vorkosigan knew this would be important. He would not fail. He could not fail.

The blip came into the scope's field of view. Hurriedly, but carefully Vorkosigan lined up the target and the plasma weapon.

"Targeted," he called out.

"Fire!" Vornant snarled.

The lieutenant held in the button for continuous pulse. Burst after burst left the Vormoor and found the target. It was almost a solid line of energy connecting the two ships.

"We have been targeted," Vorrash reported.

Vornant knew he had to take evasive action or be hit. But he also needed one of those ships destroyed, to even the odds. "Vorkosigan." It was an inquiry.

But the lieutenant didn't answer. He refused to take his attention from the target. And he was rewarded with a bright flash as the vehicle finally broke up.

Immediately the captain called out, "Evasive!"

The helm responded at once, but not soon enough. The ship rocked again, but the plasma fire grazed along the surface. Not a direct hit.

"Get us out of the line of fire!" Vornant ordered.

The helmsman was already working to do that. He knew that the captain knew that too. It was automatic response that drove Vornant. Since the last shot was not a direct hit, most men stayed in their seats. That helped the helmsman in his quest to escape.

"Out of range of weapons...for now," Cheshka reported.

"Now we turn and fight," the captain reported. But before he could, he was thrown from his feet as the ship was hit. This time the power failed and the emergency backup had to take over.

"What the hell?" Vornant called as he got up on all fours.

"New ship on the scope," Vorrash reported.

"Evasive. Where did it come from?"

"Unknown, sir."

"That answer isn't good enough," the captain snapped.

"Two more ships, sir," Vorrash said tersely. "Just coming into sensing range."

"Five," Gettyern said, which drew a sour look from Vornant.

"Turn to nine five and get ready to attack," the captain announced.

"Sir...we can't hold off five ships. We are too far outnumbered. We were barely holding our own against three."

"Are you questioning my orders?" he snapped to the commander. But when his eyes met Gettyern's, the captain saw not fear, but cool reason. He knew the man was right. He knew it before the commander had pointed it out to him. But he was not supposed to retreat, especially back toward Barrayar. Vornant knew he had been entrusted with the protection of this area, a buffer before any invading ships could reach Barrayar.

"Course, sir," Cheshka said almost in desperation. He was flying wildly elusive loops and turns to try to stay away from the ships that were firing, but so far missing.

But then one of them finally connected. Before Vornant could even pull himself from the floor he called out, "Retreat toward Barrayar. Call for reinforcements. Let them know what is coming their way."

Gettyern moved to make the comm. He informed command on the planet and requested any ships that could get to the area fast be dispatched immediately.

"All we can do is stay alive and join up with what command sends us," Vornant said quietly as he sat down hard in his chair.

Vorkosigan felt his stomach tighten. Retreat. Not the first time he'd been on a ship that had to back off, but not this close to home. He had no orders right now, but he still targeted the ship that was closest to them, just to be ready. It was out of firing range, because the Vormoor was outrunning the invaders. But he wouldn't just sit back and give up. The lieutenant continued tracking his target, hand poised to fire. Just in case.

"That was too damned close. They shouldn't have been allowed to get that close to Barrayar."

"I know, sir," Vornant responded to the call from command after the invaders had been turned away by a small armada of Barrayaran ships.

"Report to me on secure channel. We need to talk about this." Then the communication was cut.

Vornant stood. "Commander Gettyern, you have the conn. I'll be in my quarters."

"Do you require a doctor, sir?"

The captain had completely forgotten about the hit to his head. Since he had gotten over the initial confusion, so much had happened that the pain had been pushed to the background. Survival had a way of allowing one to look past pain.

"Oh." He put a hand to his head. "No. I'm fine." He turned away to leave, but stopped. "On second thought, I could use something for this headache."

"I'll dispatch the medical officer to your quarters."

The captain nodded and walked out.

"Relief crews report to command center," Gettyern announced into the ship's intercom.

Vorkosigan lay on his bunk thinking. He was grateful for the break. That had been a very intense battle and he was worn from it. Barrayar had hit part of the Komarran fleet. Apparently Komarr was retaliating. He was sure of it now. The mercenary theory had been discarded. The ships that had joined the original invaders had been Komarran. The thought that the odd ship was a decoy was either true...or an anomaly. That was what the lieutenant was trying to figure out. If this was an attack from Komarr, why the odd ship? If they had wanted to confuse the Barrayarans why not make all three of the first ships oddities, to completely throw them off? There was reason to this strategy and Vorkosigan was bound to figure it out.


The lieutenant looked up. Lieutenant Motlov stood next to his bunk.

"What is it?"

The man sat on the adjacent bunk. "What's going on?"

"Excuse me?" Vorkosigan sat up.

"I thought you had the inside scoop. Thought you could tell us what's going on."

"Why me?"

"Your name, your standing with the captain."

"Well, Lieutenant Motlov, I don't have any more knowledge than you do about what's going on. No matter what my name is, or what you think that the captain thinks of me."

The man grinned. "Sensitive? That's not what I've heard about you. You're supposed to be stone cold."

Vorkosigan lay back down and turned his back to the man. This is how stone cold I am. I'm not going to let you get to me.

"Did I make you mad? Hurt your feelings?"

Ignore him, Aral. Don't listen.

Motlov reached out and grabbed his arm. "I'm talking to you."

At once Vorkosigan was in motion. He rolled over and up into a sitting position. The lieutenant had a grip on Motlov's arm before the man could retract it. Now that he had given in to his weariness and anger, Vorkosigan chastised himself and forced himself to think before he did anything else.

After a moment of looking into Motlov's surprised eyes, Lieutenant Vorkosigan said in a controlled, quiet voice, "Don't do that again. Don't put your hands on me. You don't have the right to. I don't like it either. Do you understand?"

Motlov tried to be unruffled about the situation, but the only thing he could really do was to acknowledge his fault and withdraw as gracefully as he could without losing too much face. Or he could be insulting.

"Touchy, aren't we?" He pulled his arm free. "Don't worry, Vorkosigan. If you think I have reason to touch you, you're dreaming. You're not worth it." He stood with a grin and walked away.

Vorkosigan sat staring. He hoped his face didn't betray what he felt. That was certainly coincidence what Motlov had said. He couldn't know about what was inside Vorkosigan, because Aral had admitted it to no one, hardly even to himself. Coincidence. Motlov was just trying to hit his anger threshold again. Coincidence.

The lieutenant stood and walked out into the corridor. He had to find someplace where he could be away from Motlov or anyone else who wanted to interfere in his thoughts. Where on a ship could he go though? No where he could really be alone in the relatively small, enclosed ship. It looked big from the outside, but fully manned, the vessel quickly became very small, as far as personal space went.

Vorkosigan looked up, aware that he probably should watch where he was going on such a crowded ship. That's when he saw him. Sergeant Bothari was coming along the corridor toward him. An opportunity to try to decipher some of the mystery, Vorkosigan told himself.

"Sergeant," he said with a nod.

"Sir," the big man answered.

"Any more good training bouts recently?" He smiled a little.

Bothari grinned. He had not forgotten his quick and decisive victory over the lieutenant. "A couple."

"Only a couple? Is that because you haven't had the chance? Or is it because everyone is afraid of you?"

The sergeant continued smiling. "Hard to say, sir. I haven't had many challenges recently. Are you interested?"

"I think I learned a few things last time. I learned not to be so sure of myself. I'm more interested in learning, Sergeant, than in getting another beating." He paused for a moment. "Will you be my teacher?"

Bothari's smile faded slowly. He stared at the lieutenant, obviously trying to decide if the man was serious or teasing him. His face was completely unreadable.

"Well, will you, Sergeant? We are on standby right now. Not being sent back out right away. We have time and you obviously have the knowledge."

"No, sir."

Vorkosigan was genuinely surprised. He thought Bothari would enjoy the chance to push him around some more, but Aral knew he could learn while Bothari pushed him around.

"No? Why not, Sergeant?"

"Because I don't like you...sir." Bothari's eyes were cold and hard. Then he walked away.

"I am pleased to present you with your new rank, Vorkosigan," Captain Vornant smiled. "On behalf of the Imperium, you are promoted to the level of commander." He came forward and removed the lieutenant's tabs from Aral's collar, replacing them with a new shiny set. "Commander Vorkosigan." The captain shook his hand. "Congratulations, Commander."

"Thank you, sir." The new commander was trying not to smile too big. Pride got in the way, he had told his father. He should accept this with humility and recognize his weaknesses and faults. It should be a sobering moment, a time of reckoning, not pride.

"That moves you up also as third in command of the ship, after Gettyern, my executive officer."

"Thank you for putting me in for the promotion, sir."

"I'm just sorry it took so long to clear all hurdles, but that's the way so many things are in the military. At least having to come back to Barrayar did have this advantage. And there's another advantage. A few days of leave while some repairs are made to the ship. The damage wasn't severe, but while we are here, the ship is going to be docked. As short a time as possible."

Leesa will be glad for that.

"Carry on, Commander."

Vorkosigan snapped a crisp salute and turned to leave the captain's quarters. The first thing he would do would be to get a message to Leesa. He didn't know when he'd be released from the ship, but she would know it was coming. Not the months she had dreaded. But that may still cause problems. If she had been planning on months, she may not be ready with her plans.

Everything will work out. She'll be happy to see me. We can get things in place quickly if we need to. Perhaps not the ceremony that she planned, but we can be married. This will give her a new status in her society circles. She will be pleased with that.

"We hadn't planned on being back to Barrayar this soon," Vorkosigan was explaining again. "As long as we had to retreat back and the ship had some damage from the battle, command decided to dock the ship for repair. Because it was an unexpected development and because we need to get back out on patrol quickly, since Komarr has sent ships here, the docking will be as short as possible. No more than a couple of weeks Captain Vornant said. The repairs are being expedited...round the clock work crews."

"Well, I'm pleased to have the time with you, Aral, but you can't expect me to be ready with a ceremony in that short a time. Two weeks? I can't change everything to be ready that soon. It would take at least a month." Leesa stood from the sofa where she sat next to Vorkosigan and walked away. "There are many people who wouldn't be able to come. You don't understand about the society functions. There are so many of them, and so many guests. It takes a long advance notice to get everyone together." She turned and held her hands out in a plea. "Aral! Two weeks isn't enough time."

He stood and walked to her. "It's all right, Leesa. If you can't, then you can't. We don't have to be married now. I just thought that if it could work out... But I understand. I want you to have the biggest, best wedding that ever was." Vorkosigan was still riding the high of his promotion. "You go ahead and set it up for...months from now, from when we have tried to estimate that the Vormoor might be back."

"I know that's hard too, Aral, but at least when you do come back from a very long mission, you have more time on Barrayar. More than a couple of weeks anyway. It would be a lot easier to move the plans around then."

"It's all right. I understand. I can wait. Besides, strictly according to our contract, it is a bit early. You haven't reached your eighteenth birthday yet."

Leesa smiled. It was like the warm, sweet smiles that Vorkosigan remembered from their early days of dating, before she had come to Vorbarr Sultana. He bent to kiss Leesa. She stiffened a bit in his arms, but yielded to the warmth of their united lips. The most passion he had dared to put into such a kiss to now. Yes, he was learning to love her.

"It's good to see you again, Aral." Ges extended his hand to the new commander.

"And you, Ges." Vorkosigan shook the soft hand and released it as soon as he politely could.

Vorrutyer sat down on the sofa in Leesa's sitting room. He was silhouetted against the window where the bright sun poured into the room. Vorkosigan was glad. He didn't have to see the man's face now.

"Sit down and let's visit," Ges said. "We're going to be brothers in the not so distant future. We should become better acquainted."

The commander settled himself into a chair instead of sitting on the sofa next to Vorrutyer. Still mostly silhouetted. Yes that was best. "Where is Leesa?"

"She'll be along shortly. She's involved with one of her lady friends. Plans for yet another party. Leesa is always at some social function," he lightly chuckled. "I think this is what Father feared. He sent her away for his brother to rear, hoping to help her keep her innocence and honor. Leesa was so sweet and unsullied in the country. She has changed so very much in the last months. That is what Father feared," he finished quietly.

But Vorkosigan was defensive. "Leesa has changed, but she is still sweet and unsullied. She has matured here. She has only lost her naiveté, but not her honor."

"I'm sorry, Aral. I didn't mean to offend you. And I didn't mean to suggest anything untoward either. It's just difficult for a brother to see his sister grow up as fast as Leesa has. It's so out of character for her, after being so long in the country. That's all I meant."

"I apologize, Ges. I didn't mean to..."

But Vorrutyer cut him off. "You needn't apologize. You are protective of Leesa and I appreciate that. I'm happy to know that she will be marrying a man who is so concerned about her."

There was an awkward moment of silence. Vorkosigan couldn't think of what to say. Also he was unable to see Vorrutyer's face and it made him uncomfortable to not know if the man were looking at him or elsewhere. He tried not to shift in his seat.

"Congratulations on your promotion, Aral. From the things I hear, the Vormoor has seen some hard action. You must have performed significantly well to reach commander so soon."

"Thank you. I do my duty."

A light chuckle. "Yes. That is what I hear about you. You don't chase the recognition that comes your way, but it seems to find you nevertheless. You must be a fine officer." The man stood and walked toward Vorkosigan. He stopped well away from him though. "Excuse me for seeming to covet things that aren't mine, but may I have a closer look? I hope to have commander's tabs myself one day...sooner rather than later, I hope."

"Yes. Of course."

Ges came closer and leaned down to see the collar tabs. Vorkosigan was very aware of his closeness. Vorrutyer had a musky scent. He clasped his hands behind his back, not making any gesture of touching the collar. Vorkosigan swallowed hard and wouldn't allow his thoughts to wander where they wanted to.

Vorrutyer straightened and walked back to the sofa. "I confess my jealousy, Aral, but I guarantee that I'll soon have those myself."

The commander licked his lips. He wanted to get away, but he knew that he would be forced to socialize with Leesa's brother and he had to come to terms with his feelings.

Things will be different after we are married. I am very attracted to Leesa. This other feeling aberration. It must be misplaced admiration or something similar. It will go away when I know Leesa as wife and lover.

"I'm sure you will, Ges. I've heard you are a good officer."

"I do my duty as well, Aral. I work hard on my ship. I'm not sure that I have a good political stance though. I did tell you that was important. Perhaps I can get a transfer to a ship where the politics are not so cutthroat." A pause. "Is it that way on the Vormoor?"

"There are politics, of course. I think it's impossible to get rid of that, as long as you have men working together. But I think that Captain Vornant tries to ignore it as much as he can. He is not a man to be swayed by an officer's politics if the officer is a good man."

"Odd that you should say that. I believe that is one of the things that led to Vornant losing his command before. He was too ignorant of what was going on there on his own ship. I've heard that the political officer's report on the captain was...very damaging."

Vorkosigan found himself relaxing. Vorrutyer was personable and charming. He really was easy to be around. And he hadn't done anything himself to make the commander uncomfortable. That was Aral's own struggle. Vorkosigan sat back in the chair.

"Well, I don't know a lot about those circumstances, I'll admit. I don't want to know more. I've gotten to know Captain Vornant experientially and I prefer that to relying on someone else's personal opinion."

"Of course. A good attitude."

Silence stretched on for a couple of minutes. Vorkosigan glanced around the cheery room. It had changed since the first time he had come here to visit with Leesa. He was sure of it, but he couldn't pick out the exact changes. No doubt Leesa had been making the apartment her own since living here.

"Leesa is here, isn't she?" Commander Vorkosigan asked.

Ges chuckled. "Yes, she is. She just revels in her new life. You must know that."

"Yes, I do."

"A bit of patience. I'm sure she'll be along."

The two officers fell into silence again. It was more companionable this time. Vorkosigan was more comfortable with it. Bad things didn't always happen when he was around Ges Vorrutyer.

"You said that your father wanted Leesa to be sent to live with her uncle in the country."

"Yes, that's right."

"Was he unable to...attend to Leesa enough to be sure of her, um, education?"

"Father was a busy man. Very busy. Mother was very sickly. She was unable to teach Leesa the way a proper Vor lady would prefer to teach her daughter. With that situation, Father feared that some ill meaning individuals might take advantage of Leesa's innocence time. He saw that closer supervision would be better. I...ah...admit that some of my own family here in the capital is not... Well...they are not as honorable as they should be. Father sought refuge for Leesa."

Vorkosigan nodded. "And you?"

"Well, women may be stronger than men. Not physically, you understand, but inside. At least that is what they say. However, men do have the advantage of being the more honored and respected gender on Barrayar. We have many advantages, Aral. It was easier for me to look after myself than it was for sweet Leesa."

"She is quite a lady. She has matured but kept her honor. Leesa has become a proper Vor lady. She will make a fine wife and companion."

"Yes. Father is pleased with how she has turned out. I'm rather proud of her myself." Ges paused a moment. A smile seemed to play at his lips, but didn't quite form. "I know that Leesa will make a fine wife for you, Aral. Don't mistake me. She is my sister, but I know she is very lovely as well. She would nicely warm any man's bed." Now the smile came. "You must be looking forward to awakening her passions after you two are joined. I know that I, myself, find it very exciting to stimulate passion and desire in my own lovers." A long moment in which Ges maintained a direct eye contact. "Don't you, Aral?"

Vorkosigan felt very uneasy under the stare. He shifted in his seat and adjusted his uniform as he struggled for control of himself. Then he cleared his throat. "Uh...yes. I...look forward Leesa happy..."

Vorrutyer's eyes seemed to be laughing. His mouth only held the same smile. Then he decided to break the unease. "I'm sure Leesa will be happy when she weds. I believe the married life will agree well with her. She so wants to be the proper wife for you, Aral. She has worked hard to learn since she moved to the capital. Leesa will not disappoint you. I'm sure of it."

"I'm sure too," Vorkosigan said absently. Then he cleared his throat again. "She seems very fond of you."

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder, the old cliché says. Being reared separately actually drew us together. A pause. "And your family, Aral. I've heard so many things about Count Vorkosigan and his family." He paused. "And Mad Yuri's persecution of them. What is legend and what is true? Do you mind if I ask?"

"" I suppose I should have come to terms with it by now, but I haven't. I've shut it out and swallowed it until now. He drew in a breath. "No, I don't mind your asking. What is truth? The truth is that...Yuri sent out death squads all in one night. He ignored my father because...presumably because he wasn't a descendant of Emperor Dorca Vorbarra. But...they came for my mother and for my brother and for me."

Vorrutyer sat forward and rested his elbows on his knees. Quietly he said, "Were you there? Did you see...this?"

After a long moment, Vorkosigan said hoarsely, "Yes." A pause. "I'll never forget it."

"What happened?" It was a whisper.

The commander fixed his eyes on the wall across from him. He could almost see the images there; they were still vivid in his mind.

"They broke in on us. Each man was assigned a specific target to kill. I was eleven. There was a knife there on the table where I sat. I grabbed it." He paused and let out a harsh sound that was supposed to be a bitter laugh. "I thought I could do some good with that. It was all I had though. But it was the same as having nothing, compared to how they were armed. The man who came at me... He laughed at me. And...he threw me across the room, against the wall. When I got my wits enough to look around to see what was going on..." he trailed off.

"Aral, you don't have to do this. I'm sorry I asked. I didn't realize..."

Vorkosigan was still staring at the wall. He never looked at Ges. After a couple of minutes he went on, barely audible.

"I saw my mother. I saw what...what they did." A hesitation. "He fired...a sonic grenade. It hit her in the stomach."

Another long silence. Vorrutyer was lost in his fascination of watching Vorkosigan recount what obviously was very traumatic. The commander was reliving it, as he had not done in a long time.

"It's odd. I remember that moment so well. Then...nothing. The shock...the emotional shock and the blast from the grenade. It's all that blew my world apart. It just...stopped. And...and I couldn't hear anything either. The sonic grenade. I was deaf for days after that. Complete silence. There was silence in my soul too. Complete silence. My soul was deafened by the horror of what...of what...happened to my mother."

"Aral, please. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to force you to relive this."

"Complete silence and complete lack of feeling." Vorkosigan went on as if he had heard nothing. "It was like...being anesthetized. I couldn't feel anything. I was too shocked to feel sad at the time. It was almost as long as my deafness before I came out of that so that I could grieve." He shook his head. "It was like...being shut away in a world away from the world that everyone else lives in. No one else knows the pain...or lack of it, still being in shock. No one else knows how profound the silence..."

Aral said no more. Ges said no more. They sat in intense silence. Vorkosigan had not shared the story with anyone since well meaning adults had tried to get him to talk out his feelings all those years ago. At least not to this depth had he shared it with anyone. He was numb all over again.

Vorrutyer felt badly for pressing the question. He also felt great sympathy for Vorkosigan. But he didn't know what to say. He only sat in the silence, watching the strong commander, broken down easier than he would have imagined. Ges longed for words, for an apology that was more than empty words. He could think of nothing so he kept quiet.

Leesa breezed in. "Aral! I'm so glad you were able to come today. And Ges. Glad you had time to talk with Aral. I hope I didn't keep you waiting too long." That's when she noticed how very quiet it was and how very somber the two men were.

"Excuse me," Vorkosigan whispered as he stood and walked out.

"Ges?" Leesa said in confusion.

He stood and put an arm around his sister's shoulders. "It's all right. We were only talking, but I think I asked the wrong question."


"Sit with me. I'll tell you while he gathers himself."

It was good to be back in space, Vorkosigan considered. He was so much more comfortable on the ship than he was on Barrayar.

I know why I am uncomfortable around my own father. Why so much discomfort around others though? Why does Ges Vorrutyer make me feel so odd? Not just...those feelings, but also just his presence is disturbing for some reason. He is personable and pleasant enough, but I don't feel relaxed around him. Is it because I shared something so deep with him? He has seen a part of me that no one else has. Is that what bothers me? Something I'd rather keep hidden, I told him. I don't know. But even Leesa. I'm not entirely relaxed around her either. It's odd. I've gotten to know her so much since we've been contracted, but there still is so much to know. I know her...but I don't. That's an odd feeling also.

Am I to be doomed to a life of uneasy relationships? Is this the curse that has come forward with me, from the day I was cursed to death? Or supposed to be cursed to death. Maybe it would have been better for me and all those who have become entangled with me if they had killed me. Perhaps Mother was the lucky one. A moment of horror, but then she was at peace forever. No more of this world and the horrors of that night. No uncomfortable relationships. No trying to decide how to finish the uneasy dance of getting along with another person.


"Yes, sir," he answered automatically.

Captain Vornant walked up to him. "I'd like you to oversee engineering for me as we go into this next battle."

"Battle. Have ships been spotted?"

"No." The man smiled. "I'm just preparing. I know there will be one. Soon I think. And I'd like you to be in engineering."

"Oh...yes, sir."

"Don't think of it as what it sounds like. I know that it sounds as if I am putting you out of action by asking you to be there instead of the command center, but I have a good reason for this." He casually glanced around to see where Political Officer Commander Vorpasht was. Across the room from them. "Vorpasht thinks I don't know how he is trying to subvert part of my crew. You know how he and I clash. I believe he is trying to get enough support and evidence, real or invented, to relieve me of my command. I had a few words passed along to me from a man in engineering. I'd like you to be my eyes down there. Not for each time we come up against enemy ships. I'll need your expertise up here as well. These Komarrans are surprising at times. I'll need all my officers to advise me. However, just once I'd like to know exactly what is going on down there...where I can't see."

"Yes, sir. I understand, but won't they be suspicious with me down there? Won't they be expecting for me to look for anything wrong?"

"I have deliberately reassigned crew to leave open the engineer's mate position on the duty crew. I've informed the chief engineer that you'll be assigned that position until the situation can be rectified. You won't look as much out of place. And if you are attentive to your duty...mostly, then the men will go about their regular routines. An assumption, but I don't have a better idea. Do you?"

Vorkosigan considered. "No, sir. I don't."

"Very well. Dismissed to engineering, Commander."

Okay...what am I supposed to be looking for? Just those who may be speaking out against Captain Vornant? Or is there something Is someone trying to actively turn the crew against him in engineering? Or could there even be sabotage? Would Vorpasht go that far to try to make the captain look incompetent? I must be alert to everything, but not obvious.

"Reporting for duty, sir." Vorkosigan saluted the chief engineer, a commander also.

The man looked him over carefully, as if sizing up not just the man, but also his knowledge, as if it were written on him.

"You did well enough helping me with the engine repairs before, under fire," the engineer said. "I suppose you can do this job."

"As you may remember, I was a quick learner," Vorkosigan replied.

The man's face split in a grin. "That is debatable. You did learn quickly, but what did you learn? I think you were in my way as much as you weren't. Come with me, Vorkosigan."

"Watch those panels," Vorkosigan advised. "They are calling for full power to the engines up there. Make sure we are getting enough coolant flow."

"Yes, sir," Ensign Boraka answered stiffly. He knew his job and didn't like someone not from engineering telling him how to do to it.

"The engines are running fine," the chief engineer said to Vorkosigan as he trotted by. "Keep it up, Commander."

Commander Vorkosigan was trying to reconstruct the battle in his mind from all he had heard, and his past experience. It was maddening to him to be where he couldn't see what was going on. But he had to learn to overcome that. He would not always be in the position to see the details of a fight. Instead he should concentrate on his assigned job.

"Sir, engines are increasing in temperature," Boraka informed him.

"You told me not a minute ago they were well below redline." The commander moved to look over the ensign's shoulder.

"They were, sir."

"How did they heat up so fast?"

"I don't know, sir. Something may be impeding the coolant loop. Begging the commander's pardon, but I suggest sending someone to check on that."

"Yes, that seems the prudent thing to do." He walked away, looking around. "Ensign Cimlar, come with me."

The man trotted over to him. "What's up, sir?"

Vorkosigan kept walking. "We're going to check the coolant loop. Engine's are heating up."

"Sir, I can do that, if you need to stay at your post."

"I trust that you can, Ensign. This job is new to me. I'd like to see how you do it."

"Yes, sir," Cimlar answered easily.

"It checks out, sir. No impediments. Flow is good. The temperature is elevated. But...I don't know why." The man rubbed his chin. "I'd like to look at a couple other things."

"Let's go. Tell me what you are doing while you do it."

But before they could go anywhere, the ship was hit and both men fell to the floor. The artificial gravity cut out and they floated up to the ceiling. Aral was reaching for a handhold when the backup system took over and both men were unceremoniously dropped.

"Here we go again," Cimlar said in a strained voice.

"Rough ride down here?" Vorkosigan asked as he got up on all fours...and waited to see if there would be another hit.

"Usually is, sir. We have to be mobile. Try walking around down here with that going on."

Commander Vorkosigan gained his feet. Then the ship rocked again. He cursed as he was slammed into a bulkhead and slid to the floor. Again they floated upward. Before either of them could find a place of support and refuge, they were in motion again, toward the rear of the ship. The ship was obviously changing course and accelerating, as they could tell by the g-forces pressing on them. Then they hit the rear wall of the compartment and had to stay pressed against the wall until the acceleration was complete and the speed leveled off. As Vorkosigan felt the release from the acceleration, he expected to float upward again, but he slid down the wall. Gravity must be back on. The two men quickly took stock of themselves and carefully gained their feet.

The commander groaned as he pressed against the floor to push himself up. Something had happened to his arm when he was thrown against the bulkhead.

"You all right, sir?"

"Fine. Let's go."

The ensign looked at the instrumentation at the beginning of the coolant loop before he turned to go.

"I'll be..."

"What is it?" Commander Vorkosigan asked.

"Look at this. Engine temp has dropped."

The commander came closer, not daring to believe it. "Explain."

The ensign shrugged. "I can't, sir. At least not right now. I'll have to look further into it."

Then the floor rocked beneath their feet again, but not as much as before. Ensign Cimlar grabbed for the edge of the instrument panel and Vorkosigan, seeing that the man was going to hold his footing, grabbed for the ensign's arm. The precarious balancing act worked.

"A glancing hit," Ensign Cimlar said as they stood still a moment, still trying to recover.

Convinced that they weren't about to be hit again immediately, the commander returned to the problem. "Are you free enough right now to begin to look into this?"

"Yes, sir. As long as everything else is operating all right."

"Get to it. I'll inform the chief engineer."

Vorkosigan trotted back to where Commander Detha was looking over the shoulder of Ensign Boraka.

"Chief, Cimlar is with me, looking at the coolant loop. Temp keeps going up and down."

"I know." The man stood straight. "It's up right now. We were just discussing that."

"Up? I just came from the instrument panel at the coolant loop itself. It was reading well below redline."

Detha pointed. "See for yourself."

Vorkosigan leaned over to look. "What the... How did it go up so fast?"

"Sounds like a blockage."

"Cimlar said the flow and pressure didn't indicate a blockage."

"He's gonna take a closer look?"

"Yes. That's what he's just begun."

"Okay. Stay with him and let me know what is going on. Stay in communication. If the temp keeps spiking..." The man passed his uniform sleeve over his face. "We might have to drop power on the engine to keep from burning it out."

"But if we do that..." Vorkosigan's voice trailed off.

"I know. We are being chased. That's why we need to understand this."

"I'll be in touch." The commander turned and hurried back to Cimlar. As he made the last turn to come back to where he had left the ensign near the control panel, the young man wasn't there. "Cimlar!" Vorkosigan looked around. "Where are you!"

"Up here, sir."

Aral looked up. The ensign was perched on a narrow walkway overhead.

"Instrumentation checks, sir. I want to know if we can believe what we are reading, since it is changing so much."

"Go to it." The commander pressed a button near the instrumentation panel. "Chief, Vorkosigan here."

"What's going on?"

"Ensign Cimlar is doing instrumentation checks. The temp must have just dropped. It's reading fine here."

"Are you sure, Vorkosigan?"

Yes he was, but the commander looked again. "Yes. Below redline. Didn't it just drop?"

Before an answer came, the ship heeled up and seemed to hang for long seconds before it was righted. Vorkosigan managed to get a handhold. Even though he was knocked from his feet, he didn't slide away as the ship stayed tilted. He was pulling himself to his feet when he noticed Cimlar hauling himself up from where he hung from the walkway.


"Here, Chief."

"I never saw the temp drop from the time you left. It's still reading near redline on this instrumentation. What do you read?"

"Below redline." The commander stood up straight and called to the ensign, "What are you finding out? The main instruments are reading a higher temp than what we have down here."

"Huh! Good data point. Thanks," the man answered as he looked down. Then his head disappeared.

"What's going on!"

"One moment, sir."

"I'm not sure we have a moment."

But the ensign was not going to be rushed. All Vorkosigan could do was wait. And under the circumstances, he wasn't doing a good job of that. He continued to watch the instrument panel.

"Are you still reading elevated temp?" the commander asked Chief Detha.

"Affirmative. What are you finding out?"

"I'm waiting on Ensign Cimlar to complete his instrumentation check."

"We may not have much more time. Once this hits the redline...I have to take action. The engine could burn out."

"I know," Commander Vorkosigan said tersely. "But...I don't know what to do. I have to wait on Cimlar." He tilted his head back. "Cimlar!"

"It's all right, Commander," the man called back. "I've found the problem. Or problems. We do have a minor blockage in the coolant loop. I can't do anything about that until we can shut the engine down, but it's not bad enough to be causing such a big temp spike. The instrumentation is reading screwy."

"Stand by, Chief Detha," Vorkosigan called into the comm link. "Don't shut the engine down yet! What's the true reading, Cimlar?" No immediate response. "Cimlar!"

"We're not near the redline. The direct reading up here is low and I checked the continuity of the sensing instruments. Good reading. I need to come down and check the sensors that are reading high. I'll bet they are shorted or something. Coming down."

"Detha, Cimlar says the engine temp is in the green. I repeat, in the green. He's coming to check the main instrument panel."

"I read you, but you can all calm down now. The attack is over. We can power down the engine soon. As soon as we put some distance between us and this space, in case other ships are sent. At least we don't have to push the engine to the max."

Vorkosigan only now became aware of how tense he had been. As he felt relief flood him, his taunt muscles almost gave completely. He put a hand on the edge of the board and rested against it a moment. That close to maybe shutting down a perfectly operating engine. And what would have become of us then? We would have been destroyed certainly...for no good reason. Is this what Captain Vornant was afraid of? I can't report to him until I have the full story though.

"After we reached a position where we were able to shut down the engine, Ensign Cimlar was able to get into the coolant loop. There was a blockage in the coolant flow. It was deliberate."

"Deliberate?" Vornant sat forward suddenly. He stared hard at Vorkosigan, forehead creased in puzzlement and concern. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that the material blocking coolant flow was something that would not normally be found in that circuit. It was foreign material. Material that would be found elsewhere in the engine circuit, but there is no natural path that would have brought it into the coolant loop, sir."

"Unless someone provided that path."

"The engineering techs are doing a complete check of the engine, sir. Either it has been compromised by tampering or merely the coolant system was meddled with. That is what they will be answering for us."

"What about the engine temp?"

"It was somewhat elevated, because of the reduced coolant flow. However the actual temperature was still in normal operating limits, near the top of the box, but not close to redline. Some of the temp sensors are faulty. Shorted, sir."

"Deliberate or normal wear?"

"Another thing the techs are looking into, sir. Ensign Cimlar said he would need to pull the sensors and examine them."

"So, what is our status then?"

"The instrumentation can be replaced. Extra instrumentation is available, a standard item carried on the ship. The coolant system is currently out of operation while it is being checked. Sir, we can't operate the engine..."

"Without coolant flow or it will burn out. Yes, I am aware of that, Vorkosigan."

"We are without propulsion at the moment, sir. The estimate is between one and two hours down time, depending on what the techs find." He paused and licked his dry lips. "And whether it can be repaired with what we have available to us."

"You mean..."

"If this is sabotage, sir, whoever did it may have made sure that we'd get stuck here, unable to get away and unable to repair the problem."

Vornant stood slowly. He moved from his desk and paced as much as he could in his small quarters. Vorkosigan watched and said nothing for the moment. Just as quickly as the captain had begun pacing, he stopped and spoke into the comm link at his desk.

"Security, I want as many available men as you have on duty right now to report to engineering. Only engineering personnel allowed in, by my order. You will be certain of every man in or out of engineering."

"Yes, sir. At once."

Commander Vorkosigan took a step forward. "Sir, it's likely that it was the work of someone familiar with the engine. That means someone who is already in engineering."

"I know that. But still my first step is to control the traffic in the area. I need you to be there, Vorkosigan. I can trust you. I need for you to find out whom I can trust in engineering. Mostly I need to know if I can trust the chief engineer." He paused. "Do you feel that Ensign Cimlar is to be trusted?"

The commander stood still and quiet for a moment while he considered. At first thought, Vorkosigan didn't feel he had reason to mistrust the man. But what was he doing all that time he was on the overhead walkway? Vorkosigan didn't know what he was about; he couldn't see the man and he wasn't in constant communications with him either.

"I...I'm not sure, sir."

"What does your gut tell you?"

Instinct. Yes, Vornant was a big believer in it. "My gut tells me the man is sharp and knows his job. He is the reason that Detha didn't shut down the engine while the attack was still going on. If it hadn't been for him..." he trailed off.

"Okay. Get down there and look over his shoulder. Ask questions, lots of them. If he is trying to mislead you, trip him up. First I have to know the true condition of my ship, and then I need to know who to get away from that engine. Get down there at once, Vorkosigan. Don't leave them alone as long as they are working."

"Yes, sir." He saluted and hurried out.

"What are you doing now?"

Ensign Cimlar didn't look up. He kept working while he talked. "I'm just..." He repositioned himself. "Installing new... Damn it! Sir, could you hold this right here. Just like this. Wait, move your hand over here."

"I can't hold this if I move my hand over there. It's small to hold onto."

"Look. Hold it by the lip on this edge. Like this. Now rest your hand here. That's it, sir. Now I can work around you and we'll soon... Soon..." He moved the small portable light that snaked over his head, twisting the flexible neck until he was content with the amount of light on his work. "Soon have this baby replaced."

"Are you sure of these new temp sensors?"

"Sure as I can be, sir. I ran checks on all of them. Good readings. Did a little demo on them with my lighter, to see if they were reading about right."

"You know how hot your lighter runs?"

Cimlar grinned. "Yes, sir. Something we used to do in our spare time in engineering school. I know how hot a cigarette burns. How hot a work light like this one runs. Of course those sorts of things vary a bit in their operating temp, but you know the range and you know if your sensor is in the right scope." He looked back to his work. "Knowing... Ugh...knowing something like that is..." He shifted position again and moved Vorkosigan's hand. "It's useful to have something common that you know... That you know the operating temp of." He looked up just a second. "You always have a ready heat source. Of...of a known temp." Cimlar stood up straight. "Okay. You can let go of it. Comes in handy to know if your sensors are working before you install them. Of course if you have continuity on them, then they should work. They aren't shorted. But I like to put them to the test by hitting them with some heat to see if they might fail at once. If the sensor is on the edge of failing, that first hit of heat will make it burn out. Just a little extra test."

The engineer certainly sounded as if he knew what he was doing. That was good and bad. If Ensign Cimlar were trustworthy, then he was a good man to listen to on the analysis of this problem. However, he knew enough to cause the problem, Vorkosigan reflected.

"One more, sir. If you'll help me again. Just hold it... That's it. Right there. Just a minute and we'll have it in."

Someone passed nearby and the commander looked up to see whom it was. As part of the security detachment, Sergeant Bothari walked slowly along, hands clasped behind his back, looking back and forth as he went along. His gaze passed over Vorkosigan and he stopped a moment to stare. His face seemed to be unreadable, but the commander thought that he saw a bit of a surprised look. Not that he suspected Bothari. The man didn't have the training for something like this. However Vorkosigan wondered if that meant that he was surprised to see the commander down here, away from the command center, or if Bothari was being alerted because he knew something about what was going on. It would do for Vorkosigan to talk with him. He had to keep him quiet, if the sergeant were about to raise the question of why the commander was down here. However, he couldn't let go of what he was doing.

"We've run a check of the entire circuit," Cimlar said. "I can't find any way for that material to have collected in the coolant loop because of a failure in the engine."

"Then if it couldn't precipitate there on its own, someone had to put it there," Vorkosigan responded.

"Yes, sir. That's it."

Vorkosigan looked over at Chief Engineer Commander Detha. The man's face was creased and darkened with concern. "Tell me that again, Cimlar. How the hell could someone have done it when engineering is constantly manned? It would have taken an entire crew to turn their heads or help."

The man shrugged. "I know that, sir, but there's no other possible answer. I've looked and looked again. There is nothing wrong with this engine, except for that blockage."

"All faulty sensors have been replaced and the blockage removed?"

"Yes, sir."

"All right. Let's restart the engine. We'll let it run and monitor the readings. If we have a stable engine, then we'll go back into service...and inform the captain of a possible saboteur."

"The engine has been operating for over half an hour, sir," Commander Vorkosigan said into the comm link. "Everything looks good so far."

"Let it run an hour then and see how it holds up over a longer period of time. Then I'll be content to begin to rely on it. Anything else we can discuss in private, not over the comm link."

"Yes, sir."

The commander stood up from where he was talking into the comm link by the instrument panel. Chief Detha and a couple of his ensigns were watching the panel closely. Many of the duty crew stood out of the way, along the back wall, not allowed to leave the area. Only essential positions were filled. Until they could be more sure of what was going on. Vorkosigan looked over the men, wondering about the situation. Who and why? Was it personal or had the political officer really been able to subvert the crew? Whoever did this must be devoted to his cause, because he would have certainly died also, if the engine had failed or needed to be shut down in the heat of the battle.

The chief engineer, Ensign Cimlar and Ensign Boraka seemed to be either a good check on each other, or they were all in the plot together, if there was a plot. The men all were watching everything going on. If one of them tried something, the other two were bound to see it. Of course the other duty personnel could still try something. Security was in the area, but the security guards would not know if an engineer was performing his job or sabotage. Vorkosigan had a false sense of security that the guards would at least be in the area to stop a man from proceeding, once a problem had been identified.

The commander stepped back from the instrument panel. He was thinking over all he knew of this situation and trying to decide what conclusions he could draw, if any. Vorkosigan looked up.

"Sergeant Bothari."

"Sir," he responded neutrally.

"Do you like your new duty? On this ship, I mean?"

The big man shrugged. "It's the same as before. I do my job." His face twitched and he seemed to be fighting against that.

Not much for small talk. Vorkosigan watched in fascination, as the sergeant seemed to be fighting for some sort of control. "Did you like the ship you served on before?"

"No, sir."

"Why is that, Sergeant?"

"Because some people asked too many questions, sir." His face went completely blank, as if he might pass out, but he didn't move at all. Then after a moment he seemed to recover.

Vorkosigan was careful not to show a reaction to that. "Do you like serving on this ship?" What is going on inside him? Something is happening in there. Only an extended conversation shows that.

"No, sir."

"For the same reason?"

"Yes, sir." Bothari looked over him now instead of at him.

"I see."

"Some officers on this ship are all right, but others are Vor." That twitching in the face again. Now he shifted his weight from foot to foot. The first time he'd moved since they'd started talking.

"And you don't like Vor?" Vorkosigan was interested in what the sergeant was battling as much as he was interested in the conversation. Part of the reason he kept it up.

"No. Sir."

Vorkosigan was formulating his next question when Bothari beat him to it.

"Why are you down here in engineering, sir? I thought you were promoted."

The very question I can't answer, but need to address with him. "The engineer's mate isn't able to do his job right now. I was the only one who could be spared."

"You are...lying...sir." It seemed to have taken effort to say the sentence.

Now the commander was unable to keep from reacting. His face showed his obvious surprise. "Excuse me, Sergeant?" he said firmly.

"Any of the engineers could assist the chief engineer. Your training isn't in engineering. Why are you down here?"

If he can figure it out, then everyone in engineering must have figured it out long ago. Can I trust him? He doesn't trust me that is certain. Still the man does seem to do his duty loyally. As I thought before, he has his own type of honor.

Vorkosigan lowered his voice and glanced around to see who was nearby. "Sergeant, you are as aware as I am that something is wrong down here."

"Yes, sir. Someone has been tampering with the engine."

"That's why I'm down here. I'm trying to find out who...and why. But...I'm not supposed to be obvious."

"You've failed in that, sir." Now Bothari seemed in complete control. The twitching, fidgeting and other battle had ended.

"Apparently so. But still, I need to keep trying. And I need to keep my secret as much as I can. No one needs to know why I am here. I know I stand out, but maybe everyone hasn't made the connection between my presence and this problem. And I need to make sure they don't, if they haven't already. In fact, if someone could help me out... By maybe letting it get around that I had perhaps been disciplined and that's why I am down here..." He studied the big man's impassive face. "It would help not just me out, but also help us do our duty to the Imperium."

Bothari was staring over his head. Vorkosigan wondered if he had gone to wherever in his head that he seemed to go sometimes when he shut out the world. Or was he thinking of how to tell the saboteurs about Vorkosigan's assignment down here? The commander was beginning to wonder if he had even connected with Bothari. Had he even been listening? Had he compromised himself by admitting certain things to the sergeant?

"I serve the Emperor," Bothari said quietly. "I serve the Imperium."

"Then you'll help me out?" Vorkosigan said cautiously.

"I serve the Imperium, not the Vor."

What the hell is that supposed to mean to me? What kind of answer did he give me?

"I will do what is necessary to see that our mission succeeds, sir," Bothari said.

The commander stood in silence, still not certain. Finally he spoke. "All right, Sergeant. Carry on." Then he walked back to the instrument panel.

"The engine is repaired, sir," Vorkosigan reported to Captain Vornant. "It has been run to maximum and the overheating has not recurred. All operating parameters are in the green."

"Good job, Vorkosigan. Ahead of projected time. What about the person responsible for the blockage?"

"Still unknown at this time, sir. After watching Chief Detha and his men, I have to conclude that it's someone in engineering. Or someone with engineering knowledge. It occurred to me that it could be someone who has the training, but not the position. That would be even better. Someone we wouldn't suspect."

"Hmm. That would require looking at the background of every crew member to see what kind of training he'd had."

"Yes, sir, but it's also possible that the man could have received unofficial training...just for this job."

"Yes. That would make it harder to decide who it is. There would be no record of his training." Vornant rubbed his chin and pursed his lips. "Do you have any hints at all? Any direction in which to look?"

"Right now, everyone is suspect, sir. Well...I have a good feeling about some of the men, but I don't want to blind myself. Everyone is suspect."

The man sat forward and clasped his hands on the desktop. "I can't go into battle with that situation, Vorkosigan."

"I know that, sir, but to be completely honest with you, that's the way I see it right now. The only way I can guarantee our safety is to be suspicious of every man on the ship."

"Two enemy ships spotted off our port side." The announcement rang through engineering. "We are going to need maximum power for this fight," Captain Vornant said. "Will we have it?"

"You will have it, sir," Chief Detha responded. Then as he closed the comm he added, "I hope."

"That's not encouraging," Vorkosigan said.

"I know," Detha answered. "It's hard to be encouraging under the circumstances though." He turned away and began setting controls.


Commander Vorkosigan turned to see Sergeant Bothari behind him. He stood straight and faced him. "What is it, Sergeant?"

"Sir, one of the duty techs has entered a part of engineering that is clearly marked not to be entered while the engine is operating."

The commander's heart sped up. "The saboteur," he whispered.

"Do you want me to get him, sir?

"It could be dangerous going in there."

"To him too. It could be dangerous if we don't catch him."

Vorkosigan studied the expressionless face. "I can't order you to go in there."

"I volunteer." Bothari turned and walked away.

"What were you doing in there?" Vornant asked Engineering Technician Ensign Vorgot.

The man stood perfectly still and stared straight ahead at the wall of his cell.

"We can do this the easy way."

Still no response.

"I can make him talk, sir," Bothari said, his blue eyes intense, his muscles taut.

"I can too. Fast-penta."

Vorkosigan watched the ensign's face. The threat had no effect on him at all. He was as emotionless as a statue. He pulled on Vornant's arm, moving away from the ensign. Quietly he whispered, "Give Bothari a shot at him."

"Why?" he answered in disbelief. "There's no point..."

"Vorgot is completely calm about all this. The mention of fast-penta did nothing. He never even blinked." The commander paused. "He might be able to beat it. If someone has set him up to sabotage the ship, they may have covered all their tracks. Including keeping Vorgot quiet."

Captain Vornant stared at Vorkosigan for a moment. He turned to look at the ensign. The man hadn't moved at all, hadn't changed expression. The captain walked over to him so he could look directly into Vorgot's face. "This could mean death for you, once we get back to Barrayar. Sabotaging an Imperial ship is treason." It was as if the officer had said nothing. He nodded once. "Bothari, don't kill him."

The big man's lips twitched in a bit of a smile and he moved toward the ensign. Now Vorgot finally reacted. He stepped back a couple of paces and his eyes widened as he mouth opened a bit. Clearly he was trying to regain his control, but it was too late. He'd let his fear show.

Vorgot was trying to decide what would be the least of his sufferings as he backed away from Bothari's approach. Talking would mean death by the Empire, or the man who had hired him, if he could get to him first. Being made to talk by fast-penta would be death also. The only death that he imagined would be slow and the most painful was the one that the man who hired him would give. However, Vorgot also imagined he could do a lot of suffering under this big man's abuse.

"I'll talk. I'll talk." He was against the cell wall now.

But Captain Vornant didn't call off Bothari. "I'm listening."

"The Political Office was never happy about your being reinstalled as captain of a ship." Now Bothari took the man's lapels in his hands. Vorgot started talking faster. "They wanted to try to discredit you. All they could get on you was Vorpasht's words about how you were not doing your job." Sergeant Bothari pressed him back against the wall and lifted the man just enough to make him stand on his toes. "But even when you came back with a damaged ship, at least ImpMil could see that you were doing something besides just rolling over. You were fighting against the enemy ships."

"Bothari," Vornant finally said. "Let him talk." The sergeant let the ensign down, but didn't let go of him. "Vorpasht hired you for this?"

"No, sir. He doesn't know about it. It was decided it would be better if he didn't know." He paused before he went on. Vorgot dropped his head, looking at the floor. "My father works in the Political Ministry."

"I think there's more to it than that," Vorkosigan said as he walked across the small cell. "It doesn't make sense for anyone in the Imperium to want to destroy a ship that is needed to defend Barrayar. What are you hiding from us?"

Bothari tightened his grip on the man's uniform, enough to make it pull against his throat.

Vorgot started talking again, but in a strained, hoarse voice. "All right, all right. There is more. This is part of it, does go higher. Someone in ImpSec is out for his own gain in this too. He's after someone in ImpMil. He wants to discredit him."

The captain and the commander exchanged a look.

"Who in ImpSec is behind this?" Vornant asked.

"I don't know."

Bothari put an arm against the man's throat and began to compress his windpipe.

Croaking out a response, Vorgot said, "I don't...know. I don't. Someone else...hired me. I...swear it."

"Bothari," Vornant said and the sergeant backed off the compression...just a bit.

"Who hired you?"

"I don't know and that is the truth. Our meetings were secret and always in a dark place at night. I never saw the man's face. It's the truth. I swear it." The man's wide eyes were on Bothari, who looked as if he might kill the ensign at the least provocation. Vorgot knew real fear for the first time in his life. He decided he'd better tell all he knew, while he could. "I did hear...some rumors. I heard that General Vorderron is the man in ImpMil who is to be discredited. I've told you all I know. I swear it. By my oath to the Empire, I swear it!"

Bothari laughed harshly. "What good is your oath now?"

Vorkosigan turned to Captain Vornant. He was rubbing his chin as he thought. "Captain, that name, Vorderron. I know it. His family owns an engine manufacturing company. Not so long ago they won a couple of important military contracts. They provide engines for Imperial ships. Obviously this piecemeal story that Vorgot has adds up to someone out to use our ship to ruin the reputation of the Vorderron family company. Perhaps taking you down is just a...distraction. Something to try to draw attention away from the main plot. It's the only way it makes sense."

"Damn it!" Vornant blurted out. "Politics. I get so damned sick of it! It's amazing that the military can function at all because of all the political intrigue that is always going on. The reason I lost my first command."

"Are you working alone on the ship?" Vorkosigan asked.

"Yes," the ensign answered.

But the commander nodded to Sergeant Bothari who renewed his grip on Vorgot and was drawing a fist back, leering an evil grin.

"No! I'm not. There are two others who know about the plot. Devnav and Ivanova."

Captain Vornant said in a flat tone, "Sergeant, go and find those two. Put them in separate cells. Quickly and quietly. Vorkosigan, come with me." The man walked out.

Vornant had said nothing yet. Commander Vorkosigan stood, hands clasped behind his back, waiting. He could almost see the man's mind in motion as he considered the information and all the implications.

"I never trusted Vorpasht," he finally said. "I never trusted any political officer. They seem to try to undercut any captain. In my time before I got a command, I never saw any political officer who was supportive of any captain. Never. It's almost like they have a license to freely condemn and belittle a captain before his crew. Is it any wonder that crew morale is often low? Vorgot says that Vorpasht didn't know about this. Even if that is true, I believe he knows how his superiors feel about me. He must know they'd like to break me again. If he found out what Vorgot and the others were up to, he'd do all he could to help them." Vornant finally looked at the commander. "I don't know what to do about him. I don't like allowing him free run of the ship, under the circumstances. I'm not sure that I believe he is innocent of all knowledge of this, but...I can't arrest him either. If he really doesn't know about the plot..."

"Couldn't you assign someone to keep an eye on him, sir? If he truly doesn't know what is going on, then he would have no reason to expect such a thing. And it would be the best compromise. You'd still know what he was doing...when he was in his cabin, where he was if he wasn't on deck, who he might be meeting with."

"Put a guard on him? Well, I suppose. It would have to be someone who would be discrete. If Vorpasht is up to something, obviously watching him would keep me from finding out." He paused. "I need someone who I can trust too."

"Bothari," Vorkosigan said at once.

"Sergeant Bothari is...efficient, but he's...not exactly...there, if you know what I mean."

"I know that, sir, but I think I am finally beginning to understand him. He is a good soldier, does his job well. There's something about that, about doing his job well, that helps him be more...there. He only needs a challenge. One other thing. He doesn't like the Vor. You need to make him understand that he's doing it for the Emperor. Sergeant Bothari may be...odd, but he is very loyal to the Emperor."

Vornant was intrigued. He hadn't even tried to understand the sergeant. It was easier to just allow him to go about his duty, as long as he was doing as expected. He was surprised to find out there was so much reason and pattern to the often erratic man.

"You seem to understand him better than I do."

"I don't really understand him, sir. I don't know what drives him, how he reasons. I'm just beginning to think I see a bit of a pattern to some of the things he does. I've learned not to assume I understand him."

"Nevertheless, you have that much over me. You talk to him about this."

"Yes, sir."

An entire platoon of troops greeted the return of the Vormoor to Barrayar. Vornant had asked for escorts for the saboteurs. Vorpasht had taken a long time to figure it out, but he finally did decide that someone on the ship was watching him. The political officer charged Captain Vornant with arranging it, which was true, of course. So he had alerted the Political Ministry and ordered the arrest of Vornant. All the uproar, demands for guards and countercharges alarmed ImpMil and ImpSec, the reason for the huge turnout.

The engineering techs were taken into custody. Vorpasht was rushed away for debriefing, as was Captain Vornant. As the captain walked away from Vorkosigan, he said that this was a clean way of arresting them both, to claim debriefing, and the military didn't have to acknowledge that it was an arrest.

Commander Vorkosigan watched in bewilderment as the men were escorted away. Captain Vornant had not exaggerated when he spoke of the politics of a ship. Nasty. Aral wondered how this would turn out and if he would be dragged into it...for debriefing.

No one had been permitted to leave the ship until all the appropriate people were taken into custody. Now the men walked slowly away, still in a buzz over these developments. Vorkosigan was about to walk away when he saw the obvious form of Bothari leaving the ship.

"You did your duty well, Sergeant. Your duty to the Imperium."

Bothari's stained face twitched, his eye almost closing a couple of times. The man said nothing but turned to go.

"What happened?" Count Vorkosigan demanded.

Commander Vorkosigan dropped onto the sofa in the sitting room. That was the way his father had greeted him after their difficult mission. It had stretched out for three more months after the onboard arrests. Three tense months as the crew speculated and wondered about their comrades. There had even been a couple of whispers of forcing Vornant to release the engineering techs. Their crewmates thought they knew the men well enough to know they wouldn't sabotage a Barrayaran ship, especially not for the Political Ministry. It had been very wearing to try to keep an eye on all the crewmembers, for other possible saboteurs as well as making sure none of them tried to raid the brig. And the first words of greeting from crusty, cool Piotr Vorkosigan were not of any concern for his son, but a demand to know what had gone on.

"It's a long story," Vorkosigan said wearily.

Piotr sat down. "I have time. You're not going anywhere."

"My word!" Piotr exclaimed. "I can't believe it. Even the Political Ministry wouldn't sacrifice one of our own ships when we need it so badly."

"Actually, I don't think they intended to destroy it, sir. It would have been easy enough to do that by plugging the coolant loop completely. That was not done. Rather, my speculation is that the engineering techs were meant to cause problems at key points in our mission, to try to show how unable Captain Vornant was to command again." For now he would not mention the other plot, since it was further reaching, being planned at higher levels and he didn't know the names to put with it. It was possible that his father may know some of the men involved.

"Aral, that makes no sense."

Commander Vorkosigan rubbed his tired eyes. "None of it makes sense, sir. That's why I've tried to think about it in an unconventional way. It seems to be well known enough that the Political Ministry has kept a close eye on Captain Vornant since he began to move up again, sir. They seem to have something against him."

"You overestimate that. They watch everyone. It's their job and a good one. It's the only way to find those who would work against the Imperium, against the Emperor."

"That is your opinion, sir." Vorkosigan stood to leave.

"Opinion?" Piotr almost snapped. "That's what you think of it? Opinion? You'd better get these...unconventional ideas out of your head, boy. They will be your undoing. You have to stay with the party stance, get in the right politics to get ahead. You'll never get anywhere if you keep fighting the system. Or if you keep making unpopular stands. I hope that if they question you about what happened that you won't feel like you have to show some kind of loyalty to Vornant."

"I will tell the truth, sir."

"No matter what it may do to you...or your name? Our name."

"It's the honorable thing to do, sir. Excuse me." Vorkosigan inclined his head to his father and walked out.

"I was advised by Captain Vornant's superior that by seeming to take the captain's side, it might cause me harm. The Political Ministry seems intent on bringing down Vornant...and anyone who supports him could be taken down too, in order to hold up their attempt to make Vornant look like a liar and incompetent."

"So, what did you do?" Ges Vorrutyer asked quietly as he sat back in his chair.

"I did the right thing, Ges. I told what I knew to be the truth. Things that were unsupportable as absolute truth, such as a rumor, I pointed out as being unsupportable, but," Vorkosigan looked at the man, "I didn't back down from the truth. As for the other part of the story...all I could do was repeat what I had heard Vorgot, himself, say. He could have been lying for all I know. It wasn't up to me to determine that. ImpSec will do that. I told what I could. I did my duty."

The man sat and stared at Vorkosigan for a moment. His dark eyes seemed soft and seemed to look into Aral. It made Aral uncomfortable, but he tried not to allow it to show.

"I did the honorable thing, Ges. I thought that was the right thing too. I thought that the military would want to know the truth, not what would make this go away. How can they run the military efficiently if they rely on half truths, hearsay and the outright lies of the political officer?"

In a calm and even tone, Vorrutyer answered. "I told you before that it was important to be in the right politics to succeed. Even if you didn't like to hear that, you should have considered that you'd heard it from more than one source. That means there must be something to it, Aral. The military is just as much about politics as it is about serving."

The commander stood and began walking around the sitting room, toying with the knickknacks that Leesa had collected. He was weary still from the tiring mission. He was restless because of how the aftermath was turning out and he was not comfortable hearing these words, and from this man. But you told him when you arrived that you were glad he was here for you to talk to. Or was it that you just wanted to talk to him...about anything?

"I have to do what feels right to me, Ges. I can't live with myself otherwise. I couldn't sleep at night if I felt like I'd betrayed what I see as right and morale and... Well, I keep saying the word so much that I think many people quit hearing it, but I have to do what is honorable."

"Well, you do have to do what you feel is right. I understand that, but you also have to see that is not always the popular stand."

Vorkosigan kept walking around the room, not looking at Vorrutyer. "I didn't join to be popular. I joined to serve the Emperor."

"Ah, the Emperor. Since you mention him, I will mention a related name. Prince Serg."

Finally Vorkosigan stopped and looked at Ges. "Yes?"

"The Prince and I are...well acquainted. I to him about this whole thing, try to get it put to bed."

"I'm not asking for any special favors..."

Ges interrupted him. "I know that." He stood and walked over to the commander, looking at him with those soft brown eyes. "I know that, Aral. You haven't asked me for anything. But I can see that you could end up in a bad situation, especially if things go poorly for your captain and if this other story puts you in a bad light with ImpSec. You are only trying to help the truth be known. Unfortunately, sometimes the truth doesn't rise to the top, as we hope it will. In that case, you could go down with Vornant, instead of being an innocent bystander, an observer. Or you could go down with Vorgot. He could decide to drag you and Vornant down with him, now that he is being investigated. It won't be true, but if he were given a change to exchange names for protection from death, Vorgot might say anything. I couldn't see that happen to you. I've become fond of you, as we have become acquainted. I can see that you are a man of honor. And there is Leesa. I have to think of how all this will affect her. I don't propose to do anything...improper. I'd just like for Prince Serg to know the truth. That's what you want, isn't it? For the truth to be known."

"Yes, of course."

"Then just allow me to take care of this." He patted Vorkosigan on the shoulder, allowing his hand to linger a couple of seconds. "Oh. If it became necessary, you wouldn't mind repeating your story to the Prince, would you?"

" Of course not."

"Good. Leave it to me then. Now...let's go find Leesa. I know you two have some plans to finalize." He put a hand on Aral's back, to pull him along. Vorkosigan was just as uncomfortable with that as he'd been with the hand on his shoulder. It was welcome, but it was not. He discretely pulled away.

"Well, Commander Vorkosigan. I've heard so much about you from Ges."

Vorkosigan saluted the Prince, acting commander-in-chief of the military forces, because of his father's age. "It's an honor to meet you, sir."

"Come in my private rooms, both of you. We can talk undisturbed there." He walked away from them. Vorrutyer followed easily. Vorkosigan was stiff and uncomfortable, uncertain of himself. He had not actually expected to talk to Serg Vorbarra. Why was he here?

They came to a room that was richly decorated, as richly as all the Imperial palace. Brocaded chairs formed a cozy little conversation circle at once side of the room, decorated in red and gold. Sunlight poured in a window, past tied back, thick red drapes. Heirlooms of the long history of Vorbarra Emperors were scatted through the room. One wall had an impressive library, and an almost life sized portrait of Serg hung by the window.

The Prince seated himself in a chair. Vorrutyer took a chair without waiting for invitation.

"Please, Commander," Serg said.

Vorkosigan sat on the other side of Vorrutyer, stiff in the chair.

"Ges has told me about the unfortunate situation on your ship. He is most concerned with how this may affect you."

The commander cleared his throat. "I'm more concerned that justice be done, sir."

"Oh," Serg said lazily. "You didn't tell me he was so gallant, Ges."

"Oh, Aral is that." Ges smiled at him and Vorkosigan was uncomfortable. The smile was so different.

"It sounds like nasty business," Serg responded.

"Tampering with the engine on an Imperial ship on a mission against our foes is serious, no matter who is responsible for engineering the plot," Vorkosigan answered carefully.

"Yes, quite. What about this captain, Vornant? He doesn't have the best record."

"Nevertheless, sir, if you look at the logs and records from the missions since he has returned to command, I believe they would show his true abilities and loyalty."

Serg was quiet a moment, studying the commander. Ges looked away to the Prince. Vorkosigan had the distinct sense that he was on display, more than being brought here to tell his side of the story to Prince Serg.

"I do know that your record speaks for you, Vorkosigan. You've shown yourself good officer material. And certainly the fact that you are trying to protect the Imperium in this current business speaks well of you too."

He was taken aback by that. "Um, you've looked into my record, sir?"

"Oh, well, Ges is the one responsible for that. He seems interested in making sure you have a good political stance. He says that you seem not as interested in that, so he must do it for you. For the sake of his sister."

"Leesa is going to be a fine Vor wife for Aral," Vorrutyer said. "Now we make sure that Aral is going to be a fine Imperial officer."

"You see?" Serg said. "You're Ges' special project. To make sure Leesa is happy."

Vorkosigan said nothing. He didn't know what to say. He just knew how uncomfortable he was and wondered why Ges was so very interested. Oh yes, there was Leesa, but still the interest didn't seem to match the situation. But Ges did say that he and his father had been concerned about how she would turn out. They wanted to be sure that she was not influenced badly by her environment or...less savory family still here in the capital. Overprotective. That's all it is.

"So, will you look into this, Prince Serg?" Vorrutyer asked.

He sat back in his chair, studying Vorkosigan again. "Yes. I'll personally see what is going on with the debriefings and what is in store for all parties involved. And then..." He smiled. "We'll see what is in store for Commander Vorkosigan."

"I'm so happy that Ges was able to help you," Leesa gushed. "I was afraid of what might happen when I heard you'd gotten involved in this plot on the Vormoor."

Commander Vorkosigan sat up straight on the sofa. He turned more so he could see Leesa better. The sun highlighted her dark curls and her smile highlighted her face.

"I didn't get involved in a plot, Leesa. I helped defuse the plot."

"Well, that brought you into it, didn't it? Doing anything, either way, involved you."

"I was trying to help save an Imperial ship, not help destroy it."

"Oh, of course, but it no longer matters. It's all settled now."

"Not for the best though."

"I know you are disappointed that you won't be serving with Captain Vornant any longer, but don't you think it's best for him if he has a job here on Barrayar? That way everyone will know what he is doing and there will no longer be any question of his loyalty."

"There never was a question of his loyalty."

"Aral! How can you say that? You know the man's record and..."

He cut her off. "I did know it and there was nothing in it that showed him disloyal to the Imperium...even before he lost his first command. Only the Political Ministry has reason to distrust him."

"Captain Vornant will still have his rank and he will have a job supporting the military command here. There is no mark against him in this settlement."

"Not an obvious one. The fact that they took away his command of the Vormoor is a mark against him. It was a compromise, not a settlement."

Leesa's frustration with Aral finally boiled over. "Aral! Ges stuck his neck out to help Vornant...and you. The only thing you can do is find fault...with Ges, with Prince Serg and with ImpMil. One might think that you were the disloyal one."

"Leesa!" he responded in disbelief. Then quieter. "Do you really think that of me?"

She stood and walked away, folding her arms over her chest. "I don't know what to think of you any more, Aral," she said coolly. "You've changed so much. Every time you come back you're different. I don't know you any more."

Vorkosigan stood and went to her. Leesa had her back to him. He put his hands on her upper arms and felt her stiffen under his hands. He sighed. She had changed so much and it wasn't all for the better.

"Do you wish to be released from our contract? I know it would be a problem for all of us and our fathers would object strongly, but if it's what you want, I'll take it up with them."

Leesa turned to look at him, disbelief etched in every detail of her face. "Aral! Of course I don't want that. I never wanted that. I do care for you. That's why I'm trying to help you. Can't you see that this is help? Ges helped you and I'm trying to get you to see that it was help. You act as if we all have conspired to hurt you."

Vorkosigan was quiet as he considered everything. He supposed it could have been worse. If the investigation of Vornant had continued, the captain could have been harmed by it. Not that he had done enough wrong to be in trouble, but the longer it went on, the harder the Political Ministry would work to discredit him. Perhaps it was best for him to take the better part of valor and accept the easier out, the job here. As for the plot against General Vorderron...that was indeterminate right now. He really knew so little about it. Oh, it could be debated all day. And he was so weary.

The commander sighed. "I'm sorry, Leesa. I guess I have only looked at this from one point of view. Maybe I should try to see it differently...just to see what it looks like from another side."

She smiled a little. "I knew if you'd just think about it you'd see. I hope you'll let Ges keep educating you. He says that he can convince you to try to bend a bit with the politics...without giving up your honor, of course. You just have to give him the chance. At least listen to him. It can't hurt anything to hear him, can it?"

"No. It won't." I don't have to agree or do what he suggests, but if it will make Leesa happy for me to listen, then I can listen. A bit.

Her smile got bigger. "Good! Now that all that nasty business is settled, we can finally be married." She paused and frowned a little. "You are going to be home for more than a couple of weeks, aren't you?"

"Yes, several, now that the Vormoor will need a new captain."

"Wonderful! I'll begin to make the arrangements at once!"

Piotr stood at one point outside the circle. Madam Vorthal and her husband stood at two others, as Aral's principal witnesses. Leesa, on the other hand, had to pare down her list in order to leave room for Aral's father and witnesses, her own parents and her brother, Ges. She certainly had become popular in the capital since moving there and had a large number of friends. But she was a very personable young lady and never had trouble making friends.

The coach led them through their vows and they were husband and wife. A lot of the uncertainty that Aral had felt had begun to bleed away. At this moment he believed that he could come to truly love Leesa. It would take effort on his part to move past his insecurities and reach out more to her, but he was ready to try. Was it idealism or a real feeling that it could work? He wasn't sure and pushed the thought away for now. This was no time to be preoccupied. Today Leesa was not going to be able to accuse him of not being attentive. Today was the beginning of a new chapter in Aral's life. He was very happy. Now things could only get better.


© 2002 by B. L. Lindley-Anderson (

Current version by Michael Bernardi,

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Last updated: December 6th 2002