“You’re not leaving your job, are you?” Her chest tightened in panic. Dear no, not another move so soon…
   “No, no. Hell, no. Relax.” He smiled with one side of his mouth.
   “Oh. Good.” She hesitated. “Tien… do you have any accumulation from your old jobs back on Barrayar?”
   “No, I always signed it out at the end. Why let them have the use of the money, when we could use it ourselves? It served to tide us over more than once, you know.” He smiled bitterly. “Under the circumstances, you have to admit, the idea of saving for my old age is not very compelling. And you wanted that vacation to South Continent, didn’t you?”
   “I thought you said that was a termination bonus.”
   “So it was, in a sense.”
   So… if anything horrible happened to Tien, she and Nikolai would have nothing. If he doesn’t get treatment soon, something horrible is going to happen to him. “Yes, but…” The realization struck her. Could it be…? “Are you getting it out for-we’re going for the galactic treatment, yes? You and me and Nikolai? Oh, Tien, good! Finally. Of course. I should have realized.” So that’s what he needed the money for, yes, at last! She rolled over and hugged him. But would it be enough? If it was less than a year’s worth… “Will it be enough?”
   “I… don’t know. I’m checking.”
   “I saved a little out of my household allowance, I could put that in,” she offered. “If it will get us underway sooner.”
   He licked his lips, and was silent for a moment. “I’m not sure. I don’t like to let you…”
   “This is exactly what I saved it for. I mean, I know I didn’t earn it in the first place, but I managed it-it can be my contribution.”
   “How much do you have?”
   “Almost four thousand Imperial marks!” She smiled, proud of her frugality.
   “Oh!” He looked as though he were making an inner calculation. “Yes, that would help significantly.”
   He dropped a kiss on her forehead, and she relaxed further. She said, “I never thought about raiding your pension for the medical quest. I didn’t realize we could. How soon can we get away?”
   “That’s… the next thing I’ll have to find out. I would have checked it out this week, but I was interrupted by my department suffering a severe outbreak of Imperial Auditors.”
   She smiled in brief appreciation of his wit. He’d used to make her laugh more. If he had grown more sour with age, it was understandable, but the blackness of his humor had gradually come to weary her more than amuse her. Cynicism did not seem nearly so impressively daring to her now as it had when she was twenty. Perhaps this decision had lightened his heart, too.
   Do you really think he’ll do what he says, this time? Or will you be a fool? Again. No… if suspicion was the deadliest possible insult, then trust was always right, even if it was mistaken. Provisionally relieved by his new promise, she snuggled into the crook of his body, and for once his heavy arm flung across her seemed more comfort than trap. Maybe this time, they would finally be able to put their lives on a rational basis.
   “Shopping?” Lord Vorkosigan echoed over the breakfast table the next morning. He had been the last of the household to arise; Uncle Vorthys was already busy on the comconsole in Tien’s study, Tien had left for work, and Nikki was off to school. Vorkosigan’s mouth stayed straight, but the laugh lines at the corners of his eyes crinkled. “That’s an offer seldom made to the son of my mother… I’m afraid I don’t need-no, wait, I do need something, at that. A wedding present.”
   “Who do you know who’s getting married?” Ekaterin asked, relieved her suggestion had taken root, primarily because she didn’t have a second one to offer. She prepared to be helpful.
   “Gregor and Laisa.”
   It took her a moment to realize he meant the Emperor and his new Komarran fiancee. The surprising betrothal had been announced at Winterfair; the wedding was to be at Midsummer. “Oh! Uh… I’m not sure you can find anything in the Serifosa Dome that would be appropriate-maybe in Solstice they would have the kind of shops… oh, dear.”
   “I have to come up with something, I’m supposed to be Gregor’s Second and Witness on their wedding circle. Maybe I could find something that would remind Laisa of home. Though possibly that’s not a good idea-I’m not sure. I don’t want to chance making her homesick on her honeymoon. What do you think?”
   “We could look, I suppose…” There were exclusive shops she’d never dared enter in certain parts of the dome. This could be an excuse to venture inside.
   “Duv and Delia, too, come to think of it. Yes, I’ve gotten way behind on my social duties.”
   “Delia Koudelka’s a childhood friend of mine. She’s marrying Commodore Duv Galeni, who is the new Chief of Komarran Affairs for Imperial Security. You may not have heard of him yet, but you will. He’s Komarran-born.”
   “Of Barrayaran parents?”
   “No, of Komarran resistance fighters. We seduced him to the service of the Imperium. We’ve agreed it was the shiny boots that turned the trick.”
   He was so utterly deadpan, he had to be joking. Hadn’t he? She smiled uncertainly.
   Uncle Vorthys lumbered into her kitchen then, murmuring, “More coffee?”
   “Certainly.” She poured for him. “How is it going?”
   “Variously, variously.” He sipped, and gave her a thank-you smile.
   “I take it the morning courier has been here,” said Vorkosigan. “How was last night’s haul? Anything for me?”
   “No, happily, if by that you mean more body parts. They brought back quite a bit of equipment of various sorts.”
   “Does it make any difference in your pet scenarios so far?”
   “No, but I keep hoping it will. I dislike the way the vector analysis is shaping up.”
   Vorkosigan’s eyes became notably more intent. “Oh? Why?”
   “Mm. Take Point A as all things a moment before the accident-intact ship on course, soletta passively sitting in its orbital slot. Take Point B to be some time after the accident, parts of all masses scattering off in all directions at all speeds. By good old classical physics, B must equal A plus X, X being whatever forces-or masses-were added during the accident.
   We know A, pretty much, and the more of B we collect, the more we narrow down the possibilities for X. We’re still missing some control systems, but the topside boys have by now retrieved most of the initial mass of the system of ship-plus-mirror. By the partial accounting done so far, X is… very large and has a very strange shape.”
   “Depending on when and how the engines blew, the explosion could have added a pretty damned big kick,” said Vorkosigan.
   “It’s not the magnitudes of the missing forces that are so puzzling, it’s their direction. Fragments of anything given a kick in free fall generally travel in a straight line, taking into account local gravities of course.”
   “And the ore ship pieces didn’t?” Vorkosigan’s brows rose. “So what do you have in mind for an outside force?”
   Uncle Vorthys pursed his lips. “I’m going to have to contemplate this for a while. Play around with the numbers and the visual projections. My brain is getting too old, I think.”
   “What’s the… the shape of the force, then, that makes it so strange?” asked Ekaterin, following all this with deep interest.
   Uncle Vorthys set his cup down and placed his hands side by side, half open. “It’s… a typical mass in space creates a gravitational well, a funnel if you will. This looks more like a trough.”
   “Running from the ore ship to the mirror?” asked Ekaterin, trying to picture this.
   “No,” said Uncle Vorthys. “Running from that nearby worm-hole jump point to the mirror. Or vice versa.”
   “And the ore ship, ah, fell in?” said Vorkosigan. He looked momentarily as baffled as Ekaterin felt.
   Uncle Vorthys did not look much better. “I should not like to say so in public, that’s certain.”
   Vorkosigan asked, “A gravitational force? Or maybe… a gravitic imploder lance?”
   “Eh,” said Uncle Vorthys neutrally. “It’s certainly not like the force map of any imploder lance I’ve ever seen. Ah, well.” He picked up his coffee, and prepared to depart for his comconsole again.
   “We were just planning an outing,” said Ekaterin. “Would you like to see some more of Serifosa? Pick up a present for the Professora?”
   “I would, but I think it’s my turn to stay in and read this morning,” said her uncle. “You two go and have a good time. Though if you do see anything you think would please your aunt, I’d be extremely grateful if you’d purchase it, and I’ll reimburse you.”
   “All right…” Go out with Vorkosigan alone? She’d assumed she would have her uncle along as chaperone. Still, if they stayed in public places, it should be enough to assuage any incipient suspicion on Tien’s part. Not that Tien seemed to see Vorkosigan as any sort of threat, oddly. “You didn’t need to see any more of Tien’s department, did you?” Oh, dear, she hadn’t phrased that well-what if he said yes?
   “I haven’t even reviewed their first stack of reports yet.” Her uncle sighed. “Perhaps you’d care to take those on, Miles…?”
   “Yeah, I’ll have a go at them.” His eyes flicked up to Ekaterin’s anxious face. “Later. When we get back.”
   Ekaterin led Lord Vorkosigan across the domed park that fronted her apartment building, heading for the nearest bubble-car station. His legs might be short, but his steps were quick, and she found she did not have to moderate her pace; if anything, she needed to lengthen her stride. That stiffness which she had seen impede his motion seemed to be something that came and went over the course of the day. His gaze, too, was quick, as he looked all around. At one point he even turned and walked backward a moment, studying something that had caught his eye.
   “Is there anyplace in particular you would like to go?” she asked him.
   “I don’t know a great deal about Serifosa. I throw myself on your mercy, Madame, as my native guide. The last time I went shopping in any major way, it was for military ordnance.”
   She laughed. “That’s very different.”
   “It’s not as different as you might think. For the really high-ticket items they send sales engineers halfway across the galaxy to wait upon you. It’s exactly the way my Aunt Vorpatril shops for clothes-in her case, come to think of it, also high-ticket items. The couturiers send their minions to her. I’ve become fond of minions, in my old age.”
   His old age was no more than thirty, she decided. A new-minted thirty much like her own, still worn uncomfortably. “And is that the way your mother the Countess shops, too?” How had his mother dealt with the fact of his mutations? Rather well, judging from the results.
   “Mother just buys whatever Aunt Vorpatril tells her to. I’ve always had the impression she’d be happier in her old Betan Astronomical Survey fatigues.”
   The famous Countess Cordelia Vorkosigan was a galactic expatriate, of the most galactic possible sort, a Betan from Beta Colony. Progressive, high-tech, glittering Beta Colony, or corrupt, dangerous, sinister Beta Colony, take your pick of political views. No wonder Lord Vorkosigan seemed tinged with a faint galactic air; he literally was half galactic. “Have you ever been to Beta Colony? Is it as sophisticated as they say?”
   “Yes. And no.”
   They arrived at the bubble-car platform, and she led them to the fourth car in line, partly because it was empty and partly to give herself an extra few seconds to select their destination. Quite automatically, Lord Vorkosigan hit the switch to close and seal the bubble canopy as soon as they’d settled into the front seat. He was either accustomed to his privacy, or just hadn’t yet encountered the “Share the Ride” campaign now going on in Serifosa Dome. In any case, she was glad not to be bottled up with any Komarran strangers this trip.
   Komarr had been a galactic trade crossroads for centuries, and the bazaar of the Barrayaran Empire for decades; even a relative backwater like Serifosa offered an abundance of wares at least equal to Vorbarr Sultana. She pursed her lips, then slotted in her credit chit and punched up the Shuttleport Locks District as their destination on the bubble-car’s control panel. After a moment, they bumped into the tube and began to accelerate. The acceleration was slow, not a good sign.
   “I believe I’ve seen your mother a few times on the holovid,” she offered after a moment. “Sitting next to your father on reviewing platforms and the like. Mostly some years ago, when he was still Regent. Does it seem strange… does it give you a very different view of your parents, to see them on vid?”
   “No,” he said. “It gives me a very different view of holovids.”
   The bubble-car swung into a walled darkness lit by side-strips, flickering past the eye, then broke abruptly into sunlight, arching toward the next air-sealed complex. Halfway up the arc, they slowed still further; ahead of them, in the tube, Ekaterin could see other bubble-cars bunching to a crawl, like pearls on a string. “Oh, dear, I was afraid of that. Looks like we’re caught in a blockage.”
   Vorkosigan craned his neck. “An accident?”
   “No, the system’s just overloaded. At certain times of day on certain routes, you can get held up from twenty to forty minutes. They’re having a local political argument over the bubble-car system funding right now. One group wants to shorten the safety margins between cars and increase speeds.
   Another one wants to build more routes. Another one wants to ration access.”
   His eyes lit with amusement. “Ah, yes, I understand. And how many years has this argument been ongoing without issue?”
   “At least five, I’m told.”
   “Isn’t local democracy wonderful,” he murmured. “And to think the Komarrans imagined we were doing them a favor to leave their downside affairs under their traditional sector control.”
   “I hope you don’t mind heights,” she said uncertainly, as the bubble-car moaned almost to a halt at the top of the arc. Through the faint distortions of the canopy and tube, half of Serifosa Dome’s chaotic patchwork of structures seemed spread out to their view. Two cars ahead of them, a couple seized this opportunity to indulge in some heavy necking. Ekaterin studiously ignored them. “Or… small enclosed spaces.”
   He smiled a little grimly. “As long as the small enclosed space is above freezing, I can manage.”
   Was that a reference to his cryo-death? She hardly dared ask. She tried to think of a way to work the conversation back to his mother, and thence to how she’d dealt with his mutations. “Astronomical Survey? I thought your mother served in the Betan Expeditionary Force, in the Escobar War.”
   “Before the war, she had an eleven-year career in their Survey.”
   “Administration, or… She didn’t go out on the blind worm-hole jumps, did she? I mean, all spacers are a little strange, but wormhole wildcatters are supposed to be the craziest of the crazy.”
   “That’s quite true.” He glanced out, as with a slight jerk the bubble-car began to move once more, descending toward the next city section. “I’ve met some of ’em. I confess, I never thought of the government Survey as in the same league with the entrepreneurs. The independents make blind jumps into possible death hoping for a staggering fortune. The Survey… makes blind jumps into possible death for a salary, benefits, and a pension. Hm.” He sat back, looking suddenly bemused. “She made ship captain, before the war. Maybe she had more practice for Barrayar than I’d realized. I wonder if she got tired of playing wall, too. I’ll have to ask her.”
   “Playing wall?”
   “Sorry, a personal metaphor. When you’ve taken chances a few too many times, you can get into an odd frame of mind. Adrenaline is a hard habit to kick. I’d always assumed that my, um, former taste for that kind of rush came from the Barrayaran side of my genetics. But near-death experiences tend to cause you to reevaluate your priorities. Running that much risk, that long… you’d end up either damn sure who you were and what you wanted, or you’d be, I don’t know, anesthetized.”
   “And your mother?”
   “Well, she’s certainly not anesthetized.”
   She grew more daring still. “And you?”
   “Hm.” He smiled a small, elusive smile. “You know, most people, when they get a chance to corner me, try to pump me about my father.”
   “Oh.” She flushed with embarrassment, and sat back. “I’m sorry. I was rude.”
   “Not at all.” Indeed, he did not look or sound annoyed, his posture open and inviting as he leaned back and watched her. “Not at all.”
   Thus encouraged, she decided to be daring again. When would she ever repeat such a chance, after all? “Perhaps… what happened to you was a different kind of wall for her.”
   “Yes, it makes sense that you would see it from her point of view, I guess.”
   “What… exactly did happen…?”
   “To me?” he finished. He did not grow stiff as he had in that prickly moment over dinner the other night, but instead regarded her thoughtfully, with a kind of attentive seriousness that was almost more alarming. “What do you know?”
   “Not a great deal. I’d heard that the Lord Regent’s son had been born crippled, in the Pretender’s War. The Lord Regent was noted for keeping his private life very private.” Actually, she’d heard his heir was a mutie, and kept out of sight.
   “That’s all!” He looked almost offended-that he wasn’t more famous? Or infamous?
   “My life didn’t much intersect that social set,” she hastened to explain. “Or any other. My father was just a minor provincial bureaucrat. Many of Barrayar’s rural Vor are a lot more rural than they are Vor, I’m afraid.”
   His smile grew. “Quite. You should have met my grandfather. Or… perhaps not. Well. Hm. There’s not a great deal to tell, at this late date. An assassin aiming for my father managed to graze both my parents with an obsolete military poison gas called soltoxin.”
   “During the Pretendership?”
   “Just prior, actually. My mother was five months pregnant with me. Hence this mess.” A wave of his hand down his body, and that nervous jerk of his head, both summed himself and defied the viewer. “The damage was actually teratogenic, not genetic.” He shot her an odd sidelong look. “It used to be very important to me for people to know that.”
   “Used to be? And not now?” Ingenuous of him-he’d managed to tell her quickly enough. She was almost disappointed. Was it true that only his body, and not his chromosomes, had been damaged?
   “Now… I think maybe it’s all right if they think I’m a mutie. If I can make it really not matter, maybe it will matter less for the next mutie who comes after me. A form of service that costs me no additional effort.”
   It cost him something, evidently. She thought of Nikolai, heading into his teens soon, and what a hard time of life that was even for normal children. “Were you made to feel it? Growing up?”
   “I was of course somewhat protected by Father’s rank and position.”
   She noted that somewhat. Somewhat was not the same as completely. Sometimes, somewhat was the same as not at all.
   “I moved a few mountains, to force myself into the Imperial Military Service. After, um, a few false starts, I finally found a place for myself in Imperial Security, among the irregulars. The rest of the irregulars. ImpSec was more interested in results than appearances, and I found I could deliver results. Except— a slight miscalculation-all the achievements upon which I’d hoped to be rejudged disappeared into ImpSec’s classified files. So I fell out at the end of a thirteen-year career, a medically discharged captain whom nobody knew, almost as anonymous as when I started.” He actually sighed.
   “Imperial Auditors aren’t anonymous!”
   “No, just discreet.” He brightened. “So there’s some hope yet.”
   Why did he make her want to laugh? She swallowed the impulse. “Do you wish to be famous?”
   His eyes narrowed in a moment of introspection. “I would have said so, once. Now I think… I just wanted to be someone in my own right. Make no mistake, I like being my father’s son. He is a great man. In every sense, and it’s been a privilege to know him. But there is, nevertheless, a secret fantasy of mine, where just once, in some history somewhere, Aral Vorkosigan gets introduced as being principally important because he was Miles Naismith Vorkosigan’s father.”
   She did laugh then, though she muffled it almost immediately with a hand over her mouth. But he did not seem to take offense, for his eyes merely crinkled at her. “It is pretty amusing,” he said ruefully.
   “No… no, not that,” she hastily denied. “It just seems like some kind of hubris, I guess.”
   “Oh, it’s all kinds of hubris.” Except that he did not look in the least daunted by the prospect, merely calculating.
   His thoughtful look fell on her then; he cleared his throat, and began, “When I was working on your comconsole yesterday morning-” The deceleration of the bubble-car interrupted him. The little man craned his neck as they slid to a halt in the station. “Damn,” he murmured.
   “Is something wrong?” she asked, concerned.
   “No, no.” He hit the pad to raise the canopy. “So, let’s see this Docks and Locks district…”
   Lord Vorkosigan seemed to enjoy their stroll through the organized chaos of the Shuttleport Locks district, though the route he chose was decidedly nonstandard; he zig-zagged by preference down to what Ekaterin thought of as the underside of the area, where people and machines loaded and unloaded cargo, and where the less well-off sorts of spacers had their hostels and bars. There were plenty of odd-looking people in the district, in all colors and sizes, wearing strange clothes; snatches of conversations in utterly strange languages teased her ear in passing. The looks they gave the two Barrayarans were noted but ignored by Vorkosigan. Ekaterin decided that his lack of offense wasn’t because the galactics stared less-or more-at him, it was that they stared equally at everybody.
   She also discovered that he was attracted by the dreadful, among the galactic wares cramming the narrow shops into which they ducked. He actually appeared to seriously consider for several minutes what was claimed to be a genuine twentieth-century reproduction lamp, of Jacksonian manufacture, consisting of a sealed glass vessel containing two immiscible liquids which slowly rose and fell in the convection currents. “It looks just like red blood corpuscles floating in plasma,” Vorkosigan opined, staring in fascination at the underlit blobs.
   “But as a wedding present?” she choked, half amused, half appalled. “What kind of message would people take it for?”
   “It would make Gregor laugh,” he replied. “Not a gift he gets much. But you’re right, the wedding present proper needs to be, er, proper. Public and political, not personal.” With a regretful sigh, he returned the lamp to its shelf. After another moment, he changed his mind again, bought it, and had it shipped. “I’ll get him another present for the wedding. This can be for his birthday.”
   After that, he let Ekaterin lead him into the more sophisticated end of the district, with shops displaying well-spread-out and well-lit jewelry and artwork and antiques, interspersed with discreet couturiers of the sort, she thought, who might send minions to his aunt. He seemed to find it much less interesting than the galactic rummage sale a few streets and levels away, the animation fading from his face, until his eye was caught by an unusual display in a jeweler’s kiosk.
   Tiny model planets, the size of the end of her thumb, turned in a grav-bubble against a black background. Several of the little spheres were displayed under various levels of magnification, where they proved to be perfectly-mapped replicas of the worlds they represented, right down to the one-meter scale. Not just rivers and mountains and seas, but cities and roads and dams, were represented in realistic colors. Furthermore, the terminator moved across their miniature landscapes in real-time for the planetary cycle in question; cities lit the night side like living jewels. They could be hung in pairs as earrings, or displayed in pendants or bracelets. Most of the planets in the wormhole nexus were available, including Beta Colony and an Earth that included as an option its famous moon circling a handspan away, though how this pairing was to be hung on someone’s body was not entirely clear. The prices, at which Vorkosigan did not even glance, were alarming.
   “That’s rather fine,” he murmured approvingly, staring in fascination at the little Barrayar. “I wonder how they do that? I know where I could have one reverse-engineered…”
   “They seem more like toys than jewels, but I have to admit, they’re striking.”
   “Oh, yes, a typical tech toy-high-end this year, everywhere next year, nowhere after that, till the antiquarians’ revival. Still… it would be fun to make up an Imperial set, Barrayar, Komarr, and Sergyar. I don’t know any women with three ears… two earrings and a pendant, perhaps, though then you’d have the socio-political problem of how to rank the worlds.”
   “You could put all three on a necklace.”
   “True, or… I think my mother would definitely like a Sergyar. Or Beta Colony… no, might make her homesick. Sergyar, yes, very apropos. And there’s Winterfair, and birthdays coming up-let’s see, there’s Mother, Laisa, Delia, Aunt Alys, Delia’s sisters, Drou-maybe I ought to order a dozen sets, and have a couple to spare.”
   “Uh,” said Ekaterin, contemplating this burst of efficiency, “do all these women know each other?” Were any of them his lovers? Surely he wouldn’t mention such in the same breath with his mother and aunt. Or might he be a suitor? But… to all of them?
   “Oh, sure.”
   “Do you really think you ought to get them all the same present?”
   “No?” he asked doubtfully. “But… they all know me…”
   In the end, he restrained himself, purchasing only two earring sets, one each of Barrayars and Komarrs, and swapping them out, for the brides of the two mixed marriages. He added a Sergyar on a fine chain for his mother. At the last moment, he bolted back for another Barrayar, for which woman on his lengthy list he did not say. The packets of tiny planets were made up and gift-wrapped.
   Feeling a little overwhelmed by the Komarran bazaar, Ekaterin led him off for a look at one of her favorite parks. It bounded the end of the Locks district, and featured one of the largest and most naturally landscaped lakes in Serifosa. Ekaterin mentally planned a stop for coffee and pastry, after they circumnavigated the lake along its walking trails.
   They paused at a railing above a modest bluff, where a view across the lake framed some of the higher towers of Serifosa. The crippled soletta array was in full view overhead now, through the park’s transparent dome, creating dim sparkles on the lake’s wavelets. Cheerful voices echoed distantly across the water, from families playing on an artificially-natural swimming beach.
   “It’s very pretty,” said Ekaterin, “but the maintenance cost is terrific. Urban forestry is a full-time specialty here. Everything’s consciously created, the woods, the rocks, the weeds, everything.”
   “World-in-a-box,” murmured Vorkosigan, gazing out over the reflecting sheet. “Some assembly required.”
   “Some Serifosans think of their park system as a promise for the future, ecology in the bank,” she went on, “but others, I suspect, don’t know the difference between their little parks and real forests. I sometimes wonder if, by the time the atmosphere is breathable, the Komarrans’ great-grandchildren will all be such agoraphobes, they won’t even venture out in it.”
   “A lot of Betans tend to think like that. When I was last there-” His sentence was shattered by a sudden crackling boom; Ekaterin started, till she identified the noise as a load dropped from a mag-crane working on some construction, or reconstruction, back over their shoulders beyond the trees. But Vorkosigan jumped and spun like a cat; the package in his right hand went flying, his left made to push her behind him, and he drew a stunner she hadn’t even known he was carrying half out of his trouser pocket before he, too, identified the source of the bang. He inhaled deeply, flushed, and cleared his throat. “Sorry,” he said to her wide-eyed look. “I overreacted a trifle there.” Though they both surreptitiously examined the dome overhead; it remained placidly intact. “Stunner’s a pretty useless weapon anyway, against things that go bump like that.” He shoved it back deep into his pocket.
   “You dropped your planets,” she said, looking around for the white packet. It was nowhere in sight.
   He leaned out over the railing. “Damn.”
   She followed his gaze. The packet had bounced off the boardwalk, and fetched up a meter down the bluff, caught on a bit of hanging foliage, a thorny bittersweet plant dangling over the water.
   “I think maybe I can reach it…” He swung over the railing past the sign admonishing caution: stay on the trail and flung himself flat on the ground over the edge before she could squeak, But your good suit— Vorkosigan was not, she suspected, a man who routinely did his own laundry. But his blunt fingers swung short of the prize they sought. She had a hideous vision of an Imperial Auditor under her guest-hold landing head-down in the pond. Could she be accused of treason? The bluff was barely four meters high; how deep was the water here?
   “My arms are longer,” she offered, climbing after him.
   Temporarily thwarted, he scrambled back to a sitting position. “We can fetch a stick. Or better yet, a minion with a stick.” He glanced dubiously at his wrist comm.
   “I think,” she said demurely, “calling ImpSec for this might be overkill.” She lay prone, and reached as he had. “It’s all right, I think I can…” Her fingers too swung short of the packet, but only just. She inched forward, feeling the precarious pull of the undercut slope. She stretched…
   The root-compacted soil of the edge sagged under her weight, and she began to slide precipitously forward. She yelped; pushing backward fragmented her support totally. One wildly back-grappling arm was caught suddenly in a viselike grip, but the rest of her body turned as the soil gave way beneath her, and she found herself dangling absurdly feet-down over the pond. Her other arm, swinging around, was caught, too, and she looked up into Vorkosigan’s face above her. He was lying prone on the slope, one hand locked around each of her wrists. His teeth were clenched and grinning, his gray eyes alight.
   “Let go, you idiot!” she cried.
   The look on his face was weirdly, wildly exultant. “Never,” he gasped, “again-”
   His half-boots were locked around… nothing, she realized, as he began to slide inexorably over the edge after her. But his death-grip never slackened. The exalted look on his face melted to sudden horrified realization. The laws of physics took precedence over heroic intent for the next couple of seconds; dirt, pebbles, vegetation, and two Barrayaran bodies all hit the chilly water more or less simultaneously.
   The water, it turned out, was a bit over a meter deep. The bottom was soft with muck. She wallowed upright onto her feet, one shoe gone who knew where, sputtering and dragging her hair from her eyes and looking around frantically for Vorkosigan. Lord Vorkosigan. The water came to her waist, it ought not to be over his head-no half-booted feet were sticking up like waving stumps anywhere-could he swim?
   He popped up beside her, and blew muddy water out of his mouth, and dashed it from his eyes to clear his vision. His beautiful suit was sodden, and a water-plant dangled over one ear. He clawed it away, and located her, his hand going toward her and then stopping.
   “Oh,” said Ekaterin faintly. “Drat.”
   There was a meditative pause before Lord Vorkosigan spoke. “Madame Vorsoisson,” he said mildly at last, “has it ever occurred to you that you may be just a touch oversocialized?”
   She couldn’t stop herself; she laughed out loud. She clapped her hand over her mouth, and waited fearfully for some masculine explosion of wrath.
   None came; he merely grinned back at her. He looked around till he spotted his packet, now dangling mockingly overhead. “Ha. Now gravity’s on our side, at least.” He waded underneath the remains of the overhang, disappeared into the water again, and came up holding a couple of rocks. He shied them at the thorn plant till he dislodged his package, and caught it one-handed as it fell, before it could hit the water. He grinned again, and splashed back to her, and offered her his other arm for all the world as though they were about to enter some ambassadorial reception. “Madame, will you wade with me?”
   His humor was irresistible; she found herself laying her hand upon his sleeve. “My pleasure, my lord.”
   She abandoned her surreptitious toe-prodding for her lost shoe. They sloshed off toward the nearest low place on shore, with the most serenely cockeyed dignity Ekaterin had ever experienced. Packet in his teeth, he scrambled ahead of her, grabbed a narrow out-leaning tree trunk for support, and handed her up through the mud with the air of an Armsman-driver helping his lady from the rear compartment of her groundcar. To Ekaterin’s intense relief, no one across the lake appeared to have noticed their show. Could Vorkosigan’s Imperial authority save them from arrest for swimming in a no-swimming zone?
   “You aren’t upset about the accident?” she inquired timorously as they regained the path, still hardly able to believe her good fortune in his admittedly odd reaction. A passing jogger stared at them, turning and bouncing backward a moment, but Vorkosigan waved him genially onward.
   He tucked his packet under his arm. “Madame Vorsoisson, trust me on this one. Needle grenades are accidents. That was just an amusing inconvenience.” But then his smile slipped, his face stiffened, and his breath drew in sharply. He added in a rush, “I should mention, I’ve lately become subject to occasional seizures. I pass out and have convulsions. They last about five minutes, and then go away, and I wake up, no harm done. If one should occur, don’t panic.”
   “Are you about to have one now?” she asked, panicked.
   “I feel a little strange all of a sudden,” he admitted.
   There was a bench nearby, along the trail. “Here, sit down-” She led him to it. He sat abruptly, and hunched over with his face in his hands. He was beginning to shiver with the wet cold, as was she, but his shudders were long and deep, traveling the length of his short body. Was a seizure starting now? She regarded him with terror.
   After a couple of minutes, his ragged breathing steadied. He rubbed his face, hard, and looked up. He was extremely pale, almost gray-faced. His pasted-on smile, as he turned toward her, was so plainly false that she almost would rather he’d have frowned. “I’m sorry. I haven’t done anything like that in quite a while, at least not in a waking state. Sorry.”
   “Was that a seizure?”
   “No, no. False alarm entirely. Actually, it was a, um, combat flashback, actually. Unusually vivid. Sorry, I don’t usually… I haven’t done… I don’t usually do things like this, really.” His speech was scrambled and hesitant, entirely unlike himself, and failed signally to reassure her.
   “Should I go for help?” She was sure she needed to get him somewhere warmer, as soon as possible. He looked like a man in shock.
   “Ha. No. Worlds too late. No, really, I’ll be all right in a couple of minutes. I just need to think about this for a minute.” He looked sideways at her. “I was just stunned by an insight, for which I thank you.”
   She clenched her hands in her lap. “Either stop talking gibberish, or stop talking at all,” she said sharply.
   His chin jerked up, and his smile grew a shade more genuine. “Yes, you deserve an explanation. If you want it. I warn you, it’s a bit ugly.”
   She was so rattled and exasperated by now, she’d have cheerfully choked explanations out of his cryptic little throat. She took refuge in the mockery of formality which had extracted them so nobly from the pond. “If you please, my lord!”
   “Ah, yes, well. Dagoola IV. I don’t know if you’ve heard much about it…?”
   “It was an evacuation under fire. It was an unholy mess. Shuttles lifting with people crammed aboard. The details don’t matter now, except for one. There was this woman, Sergeant Beatrice. Taller than you. We had trouble with our shuttle’s hatch ramp, it wouldn’t retract. We couldn’t dog the hatch and lift above the atmosphere till we’d jettisoned it. We were airborne, I don’t know how high, there was thick cloud cover. We got the damaged ramp loosened, but she fell after it. I grabbed for her. Touched her hand, even, but I missed.”
   “Did… was she killed?”
   “Oh, yes.” His smile now was utterly peculiar. “It was a long way down by then. But you see… something I didn’t see until about five minutes ago. I’ve spent five, six years walking around with this picture in my head. Not all the time, you understand, just when I chanced to be reminded. If only I’d been a little quicker, grabbed a little harder, hadn’t lost my grip, I might have pulled her in. Instant replay on an endless repeat. In all those years, I never once pictured what would really have happened if I’d made my grab good. She was almost twice my weight.”
   “She’d have pulled you out,” said Ekaterin. For all the simplicity of his words, the images they evoked were intense and immediate. She rubbed at the deep red marks aching now on her wrists. Because you would not have let go.
   He looked for the first time at the marks. “Oh. I’m sorry.”
   “It’s all right.” Self-conscious, she stopped massaging them.
   This didn’t help, because he took her hand, and rubbed gently at the blotches, as if he might erase them. “I think there must be something askew with my body image,” he said.
   “Do you think you’re six feet tall, inside your head?”
   “Apparently my dream-self thinks so.”
   “Does that-realizing the truth-make it any better?”
   “No, I don’t think so. Just… different. Stranger.”
   Both their hands were freezing cold. She sprang to her feet, eluding his arresting touch. “We have to go get dry and warm, or we’ll both… be in a state.” Catch your death, was her great-aunt’s old phrase for it, and a singularly inept phrase it would be to use just now. She dropped her useless remaining shoe in the first trash bin they passed.
   On their way to the bubble-car stop near the public beach, Ekaterin darted into a kiosk and bought a stack of colorful towels. In the bubble-car, she turned the heat up to its stingy maximum.
   “Here,” she said, shoving towels at Lord Vorkosigan as the car accelerated. “Get out of that sopping tunic, at least, and dry off a bit.”
   “Right.” Tunic, silk shirt, and thermal undershirt hit the floor with a wet splat, and he rubbed his hair and torso vigorously. His skin had a blotched purple-blue tinge; pink and white scars sprang out in high contrast to their darkened background. There were scars on scars on scars, mostly very fine and surgically straight, in criss-crossing layers running back through time, growing fainter and paler: on his arms, on his hands and fingers, on his neck and running up under his hair, circling his ribcage and paralleling his spine, and, most pinkly and recently, an unusually ragged and tangled mess centered on his chest.
   She stared in covert astonishment; his glance caught hers. By way of apology, she said, “You weren’t joking about needle grenades, were you?”
   His hand touched his chest. “No. But most of this is old surgery, from the brittle bones the soltoxin gifted me with. I’ve had practically every bone in my body replaced with synthetics, at one time or another. Very piecemeal, though I suppose it would not have been medically practical to just whip me off my skeleton, shake me out like a suit of clothes, and pop me back on over another one.”
   “Oh. My.”
   “Ironically enough, all this show represents the successful repairs. The injury that really took me out of the Service you can’t even see.” He touched his forehead and wrapped a couple of the towels around himself like a shawl. The towels had giant yellow daisies on them. His shivering was diminishing now, his skin growing less purple, though still blotchy. “I didn’t mean to alarm you, back there.”
   She thought it through. “You should have told me sooner.” Yes, what if one of his seizures had taken him by surprise, sometime along their route this morning? What in the world would she have done? She frowned at him.
   He shifted uncomfortably. “You’re quite right, of course. Um… quite right. Some secrets are unfair to keep from… people on your team.” He looked away from her, looked back, smiled tensely, and said, “I started to tell you, earlier, but I rather lost my nerve. When I was working on your comconsole yesterday morning, I accidentally ran across your file on Vorzohn’s Dystrophy.”
   Her breath seemed to freeze in her suddenly-paralyzed chest. “Didn’t I-how could you accidentally…” Had she somehow left it open last time? Not possible!
   “I could show you how,” he offered. “ImpSec basic training is pretty basic. I think you could pick up that trick in about ten minutes.”
   The words blurted out before she could stop and think. “You opened it deliberately!”
   “Well, yes.” His smile now was false and embarrassed. “I was curious. I was taking a break from looking at vids of autopsies. Your, um, gardens are lovely, too, by the way.”
   She stared at him in disbelief. A mixture of emotions churned in her chest: violation, outrage, fear… and relief? You had no right.
   “No, I had no right,” he agreed, watching her obviously too-open expression; she tried to school her face to blankness. “I apologize. I can only plead that ImpSec training inculcates some pretty bad habits.” He took a deep breath. “What can I do for you, Madame Vorsoisson? Anything you need to ask, or ask about… I am at your service.” The little man half-bowed, an absurdly archaic gesture, sitting wrapped in his towels like some wizened old Count from the Time of Isolation in his robes of office.
   “There’s nothing you can do for me,” Ekaterin said woodenly. She became aware that her legs and arms were tightly crossed, and she was starting to hunch over; she straightened with a conscious effort. Dear God, how would Tien react to her spilling, however inadvertently, his deadly-well, he acted as though it were deadly-secret? Now of all times, when he seemed on the verge of overcoming his denial, or whatever it was, and taking effective action at last?
   “I beg your pardon, Madame Vorsoisson, but I’m afraid I’m still uncertain exactly what your situation is. It’s obviously very private, if even your uncle doesn’t knot, and I’d give odds he doesn’t-”
   “Don’t tell him!”
   “Not without your permission, I assure you, Madame. But… if you are ill, or expect to become ill, there is a great deal that can be done for you.” He hesitated. “The contents of that file tell me you already know this. Is anyone helping you?”