Tuomonen shot him a flat-lipped glower. “If my guard could think of it, and I could think of it, so could someone else. Best to knock the notion in the head as soon as possible. It’s not as though I could fast-penta you. My lord.”
   No, not even if Miles volunteered. His known idiosyncratic reaction to the drug, so historically useful in evading hostile interrogation, also made it impossible for him to use it to clear himself of any accusation. Tuomonen was just doing his job, and doing it well. Miles leaned back, and growled, “Yeah, yeah, all right. But you’re optimistic, if you think even fast-penta is fast enough to compete with titillating rumor. As a courtesy to his Imperial Majesty’s Auditors’ reputations, do have a word with that guard of yours after this.”
   Tuomonen didn’t argue, or pretend to misunderstand. “Yes, my lord.”
   Temporarily undirected, Ekaterin was burbling along on her free-association tangent. “I wonder if the scars below his belt are as interesting as the ones above. I could hardly have got him out of his trousers in that bubble-car, I suppose. I had a chance last night, and I didn’t even think of it. Mutie Vor. How does he do it…? I wonder what it would be like to sleep with someone you actually liked…?”
   “Stop,” said Tuomonen belatedly. She fell silent and blinked at him.
   Just when it was getting really interesting… Miles quelled a narcissistic, or perhaps masochistic, impulse to encourage her to go on in this strain. He’d invited himself along on this interrogation to keep ImpSec from abusing its opportunities.
   “I’m finished, my lord,” Tuomonen said aside to him in a low voice. He did not quite meet Miles’s eyes. “Is there anything else you think I should ask, or that you wish to ask?”
   Could you ever love me, Ekaterin? Alas, questions of future probability were unanswerable, even under fast-penta.
   “No. I would ask you to note, nothing she’s said under fast-penta substantially contradicts anything she’s told us straight out. The two versions are in fact unusually congruent, compared to other interrogations in my experience.”
   “Mine as well,” Tuomonen allowed. “Very good.” He motioned to the silently waiting medtech. “Go ahead and administer the antagonist.”
   The woman stepped forward, adjusted the new hypospray, and pressed it against the inside of Ekaterin’s arm. The lizard-hiss of the anti-drug going in licked Miles’s ears. He counted Ekaterin’s heartbeats again, one, two, three…
   It was a horribly vampiric thing to watch, as if life itself were being sucked out of her. Her shoulders drew in, her whole body hunched in renewed tension, and she buried her face in her hands. When she raised it again, it was flushed and damp and strained, but she was not weeping, merely utterly exhausted, and closed again. He had thought she would weep. Fast-penta doesn’t hurt, eh? Couldn’t prove it now.
   Oh, Milady. Can I ever make you look that happy without drugs? Of more immediate importance, would she forgive him for being a party to her ordeal?
   “What a very odd experience,” Madame Vorsoisson said neutrally. Her voice was hoarse.
   “It was a well-conducted interview,” Miles assured the room at random. “All things considered. I’ve… seen much worse.”
   Tuomonen gave him a dry look, and turned to Ekaterin. “Thank you, Madame Vorsoisson, for your cooperation. This has been extremely useful to the investigation.”
   “Tell the investigation it is welcome.”
   Miles was not just sure how to interpret that one. Instead he said to Tuomonen, “That will be all for her, won’t it?”
   Tuomonen hesitated, obviously trying to sort out whether that was a question or an order. “I hope so, my lord.”
   Ekaterin looked across at Miles. “I’m sorry about the suitcases, Lord Vorkosigan. I never thought how it might look.”
   “No, why should you have?” He hoped his voice didn’t sound as hollow as it felt.
   Tuomonen said to Ekaterin, “I both suggest and request you rest for a while, Madame Vorsoisson. My medtech will stay with you for about half an hour, to be sure you’re fully recovered and don’t have any further drug reactions.”
   “Yes, I… that would probably be wise, Captain.” Rubbery-legged, she rose; the medtech went to her side and escorted her off toward her bedroom.
   Tuomonen shut down his vid recorder. He said gruffly, “Sorry about that last round of questions, my Lord Auditor. It was not my intention to offer an insult to either you or Madame Vorsoisson.”
   “Yeah, well… don’t worry about it. What’s next, from ImpSec’s point of view?”
   Tuomonen’s weary brow wrinkled. “I’m not sure. I wanted to make certain I conducted this interrogation myself. Colonel Gibbs has everything in hand at the Terraforming offices, and Major D’Emorie hasn’t called to complain yet about anything at the experiment station. What we need next, preferably, is for the field agents to catch up with Soudha and his friends.”
   “I can’t be in all three places,” Miles said reluctantly. “Barring an arrest coming through… the Professor is en route, and has had the advantage of a full night’s sleep. You, I believe, have had none. My field instincts say this is the time to knock off for a while. Do I need to make that an order?”
   “No,” Tuomonen assured him earnestly. “You have your wrist-comm, I have mine… Field has our numbers and orders to report the news. I’ll be glad to get home for a meal, even if it is last night’s dinner. And a shower.” He rubbed his stubbled chin.
   He finished packing the recorder, exchanged farewells with Miles, and went off to consult with his guards, hopefully to apprise them of Madame Vorsoisson’s change of status from suspect/witness to free woman.
   Miles considered the couch, rejected it, and wandered into Ekaterin’s-Madame Vorsoisson’s… Ekaterin’s, dammit, in his mind if not on his lips-Ekaterin’s workroom. Automatic lighting still sustained the assortment of young plantings on the trellised shelves in the corners. The grav-bed was gone; oh yes, he’d forgotten she’d had it removed. The floor looked remarkably inviting, though.
   A flash of scarlet in the trash bin caught his eye. Investigating, he found the remains of the bonsai’d skellytum bundled up in a square of plastic sheeting, mixed with pieces of its pot and damp loose dirt. Curiously, he dug it out and cleared a place on Ekaterin’s work table, and unrolled the plastic… botanical body bag, he supposed.
   The fragments put him in mind of the soletta array and the ore ship, and also of a couple of the more distressing autopsies he’d recently reviewed. Methodically, he began to sort them out. Broken tendrils in one pile, root threads in another, shards of the poor burst barrel of the thing in another. The five-floor plunge had had something of the same effect on the liquid-conserving central structure of the skellytum as a sledgehammer applied to a watermelon. Or a needle-grenade exploding inside someone’s chest. He picked out sharp potsherds, and made tentative tries at piecing the bits of plant into place, like a jigsaw puzzle. Was there a botanical equivalent of surgical glue, which could hold it all together again and allow it to heal? Or was it too late? A brownish tinge to the pale interior lumps suggested rot already in progress.
   He brushed the damp soil from his fingers, and realized suddenly that he was touching Barrayar. This bit of dirt had come from South Continent, dug up, perhaps, from a tart old Vor lady’s backyard. He dragged over the station chair from the comconsole, climbed precariously up onto it, and retrieved what proved to be an empty pan from an upper shelf. Safely on his feet again, he carefully gathered up as much of the soil as he could, and dumped it in the pan.
   He stood back, hands on his hips, and studied his work so far. It made a sad pile. “Compost, my Barrayaran friend, you’re destined to be compost, for all of me. A decent burial may be all I can do for you. Though in your case, that might actually be the answer to your prayers…”
   A faint rustle and an indrawn breath made him suddenly aware that he was not alone. He turned his head to find Ekaterin, on her feet again and pausing in the doorway. Her color looked better now than it had immediately after the interrogation, her skin not so puffy and lined, though she still looked very tired. Her brows were drawn down in puzzlement. “What are you doing, Lord Vorkosigan?”
   “Um… visiting a sick friend?” Reddening, he gestured to his efforts laid out on her work bench. “Has the medtech released you?”
   “Yes, she’s just left. She was very conscientious.”
   Miles cleared his throat. “I was wondering if there was any way to put your skellytum back together. Seemed a shame not to try, seventy years old and all that.” He drew back respectfully as she came up to the bench and turned over a fragment. “I know you can’t sew it up like a person, but I can’t help thinking there ought to be something. I’m afraid I’m not much of a gardener. My parents let me try, once, when I was a little kid, back behind Vorkosigan House. I was going to grow flowers for my Betan mother. Sergeant Bothari ended up doing the spade work, as I recall. I dug the seeds up twice a day to see if they’d sprouted yet. My plants did not thrive, for some reason. After that we gave up and turned it into a fort.”
   She smiled, a real smile, not a fast-penta grin. We did not break her after all.
   “No, you can’t put it back together,” she said. “The only way is to start over. What I could do is take the strongest root fragments-several of them, to make sure,” her long hands sorted through his pile, “and set them to soak in a hormone solution. And then when it starts to put out new growth, repot it.”
   “I saved the dirt,” Miles pointed out hopefully. Idiot. Do you know what an idiot you sound like?
   But she merely said, “Thank you.” Following up on her words, she rummaged in her shelves and found a shallow basin, and filled it with water from the work bench’s little sink. Another cupboard yielded a box of white powder; she sprinkled a tiny amount into the water and stirred it with her fingers. Taking a knife from her tool drawer, she trimmed the most promising root fragments and pushed them into the solution. “There. Maybe something will come of that.” She stretched to set the basin carefully out of the way on the shelf Miles had had to reach by standing on the chair, and shook the pan of dirt into a plastic bag, which she sealed and put next to the basin. She then rolled up the decaying remains in their tarp again, to take over and shake into another bin; the plastic went back into the trash. “By the time I’d thought of this poor skellytum again, it would have gone out with the organic recycle, and been too late. I’d abandoned hope for it last night, when I thought I had to leave with just what I could carry.”
   “I didn’t mean to burden you. Will it be awkward, to carry home on the jumpship?”
   “I’ll put it in a sealed container. By the time I reach my destination, it should be just about ready to replant.” She washed and dried her hands; Miles followed suit.
   Damn Tuomonen anyway, for forcing to Miles’s consciousness a desire his back-brain had known very well was too unripe and out of season for any fruitful result. Time is out of joint, she’d said. Now he was going to have to deal with it. Now he was going to have to wait. How long? How about until after Tien is buried, for starters? His intentions were honorable enough, at least some of them were, but his timing was lousy. He shoved his hands deep into his pockets and rocked on his heels.
   Ekaterin folded her arms, leaned against the counter, and stared at the floor. “I wish to apologize, Lord Vorkosigan, for anything I might have said under fast-penta that was not appropriate.”
   Miles shrugged. “I invited myself along. But I thought you could use a spotter. You did as much for me, after all.”
   “A spotter.” She looked up, her expression lightening. “I had not thought of it like that.”
   He opened his hand and smiled hopefully.
   She smiled briefly in return, but then sighed. “I’d been so frantic, all day, for ImpSec to be done so I could go get Nikki. Now I think they were doing me a favor. I dread this part. I don’t know what to tell him. I don’t know how much I should tell him about Tien’s mess. As little as possible? The whole truth? Neither feels right.”
   Miles said slowly, “We’re still in the middle of a classified case, here. You can’t burden a nine-year-old boy with government secrets, or that kind of judgment call. I don’t even know yet how much of this will eventually become public knowledge.”
   “Things not done right away get harder.” She sighed. “As I’m finding now.”
   Miles drew up the comconsole chair for her, and motioned her into it, and pulled out the stool from under the work bench. He perched on it, and asked, “Had you told him you were leaving Tien?”
   “Not even that, yet.”
   “I think… that for today, you should only tell him that his father suffered an accident with his breath mask. Leave the Komarrans out of it. If he asks for more details than you know how to deal with, send him to me, and I’ll take the job of telling him he can’t know, or can’t know yet.”
   Her level look asked, Can I trust you? “Take care you don’t stir up more curiosity than you quell.”
   “I understand. The problem of the whole truth is as much a question of when as what. But after we both get back to Vorbarr Sultana, I would like, with your permission, to take you to talk with Gr-with a close friend of mine. He’s Vor, too. He had the experience of being in something like Nikki’s position. His father died under, ah, grievous circumstances, when he was much too young to be told the details. When he stumbled across some of the uglier facts, in his early twenties, it was pretty traumatic. I’ll bet he’ll have a better feel than either of us for what to tell Nikki and when. He has a fine judgment.”
   She gave him a provisional nod. “That sounds right. I would like that very much. Thank you.”
   He returned her a half-bow, from his perch. “Glad to be of service, Madame.” He’d wanted to introduce her to Gregor the man, his foster-brother, not Emperor Gregor the Imperial Icon, anyway. This might serve more than one purpose.
   “I also have to tell Nikki about his Vorzohn’s Dystrophy, and I can’t put that off. I made an appointment for him at a clinic in Solstice for the day after tomorrow.”
   “He does not know he carries it?”
   She shook her head. “Tien would never let me tell him.” She studied him gravely. “I think you were in something like Nikki’s position, too, when you were a child. Did you have to undergo a great many medical procedures then?”
   “God, yes, years of ’em. What can I say that’s useful? Don’t lie about whether it’s going to hurt. Don’t leave him alone for long periods.” Or you, either… There was finally something he could do for her. “Events permitting, may I ride along with you to Solstice and render what assistance I can? I can’t spare your uncle to you-he’s going to be buried in technical problems by day after tomorrow, if my parts list takes shape.”
   “I can’t take you away from your duties!”
   “My experience suggests to me that if Soudha hasn’t been arrested by then, what I will be doing by day after tomorrow is spinning my mental wheels. A day away from the problems may be just what I will need to give me a fresh approach. You would be doing me a service, I assure you.”
   She pursed her lips doubtfully. “I admit… I would be grateful for the company.”
   Did she mean any company, generally, or his company particularly? Down, boy. Don’t even think about it. “Good.”
   Voices drifted in from the vestibule: one of the guards, and a familiar rumble. Ekaterin jumped up. “My uncle is here!”
   “He made very good time.” Miles followed her into the hallway.
   Professor Vorthys, his broad face wrinkled with concern, gave his valise over to the guard and folded his niece in his arms, murmuring condolences. Miles watched in exquisite envy. Her uncle’s warm sympathy almost broke her down, as all of ImpSec’s cool professionalism had not; Miles made a mental note. Cool and practical, that was the ticket. She dashed tears from her eyes, dispatched the guard with his case to Tien’s old office as before, and led her uncle to the living room.
   After a very brief conference, it was decided the Professor would accompany her to go collect Nikolai. Miles seconded this despite what he ironically recognized as his present lovesick mania for volunteerism. Vorthys had a family right, and Miles himself was too close to Tien’s death. He was also swaying on his feet as the set of painkillers and stimulants he’d taken before lunch wore off. Taking a third dose today would be a bad mistake. Instead he saw the Professor and Ekaterin out, then checked in with ImpSec HQ in Solstice on the secured comconsole.
   No new news. He wandered back toward the living room. Ekaterin’s uncle was here; Miles should go, now. Collect his things and decamp to that mythical hotel he’d been gassing about for the last week. There was no room for him in this little apartment, with Vorthys reinstalled in the guest room. Nikki would need his own bed back, and he was damned if he was going to trouble Ekaterin to rustle up another grav-bed, or worse, for his Vor lordly use. What had she been expecting, when she’d ordered in that thing? He should definitely go. He was obviously not being as civilly neutral toward his hostess as he’d imagined, if that blasted guard could make whatever comment it had been that had set off Tuomonen on that list of embarrassing questions about the suitcases.
   “Do you need anything, my lord?” The door guard’s voice at Miles’s elbow startled him awake.
   “Um… yeah. Next time one of your boys comes over from Solstice HQ, have him bring me a standard military-issue bedroll.”
   In the meanwhile, Miles staggered over and curled up on the couch after all. He was asleep in minutes.
   Miles awoke when the little party returned with Nikki. He sat up and managed to be reasonably composed by the time he had to face the boy. Nikki looked subdued and scared, but was not weeping or hysterical; he evidently turned his reactions inward rather than outward. Like his mother.
   In the absence of female friends of Ekaterin’s bearing casseroles and cakes in the Barrayaran manner, Miles caused ImpSec to supply dinner. The three adults kept the conversation neutral in front of Nikki, after which he went off to play by himself in his room, and Miles and the Professor retired to the study for a data-exchange. The new equipment found topside was indeed peculiar, including some power-transfer equipment heavy-duty enough for a small jumpship, parts of which had ripped apart, melted, and apparently exploded in a shower of plasma. The Professor called it, “Truly interesting,” an engineering code-phrase that caught Miles’s full attention.
   In the middle of this, Colonel Gibbs reported in via comconsole. He smiled dryly at both Imperial Auditors, an expression which Miles was beginning to recognize as Gibbs’s version of ecstasy.
   “My Lord Vorkosigan. I have the first documented connection you were looking for. We’ve traced the serial numbers of a pair of hastings converters my Lord Vorthys’s people found topside back through the chain to a Waste Heat purchase eight months ago. The converters were originally delivered to their experiment station.”
   “Right,” breathed Miles. “Finally, more of a link than just Radovas’s body. We have hold of the real string, all right, thank you, Colonel. Carry on.”


   Ekaterin slept better than she’d expected to, but woke to the realization that she’d got through most of yesterday on adrenaline. Today, with its enforced wait for action, was going to be harder. I’ve been waiting nine years. I can manage nineteen more hours. Lying in bed allowed a kind of numb, foggy grief to descend, despite her release from the late chaos of Tien’s life. So she rose, dressed carefully, ducked around the guard in her living room, made breakfast, and waited.
   The Auditors stirred soon thereafter and came out gratefully for food, but carried off their coffee to the secured comconsole. She ran out of things to clean up, and went out to her balcony, but found the presence of another guard on post inhibited her from resting there. So she gave the guards coffee, and retreated to her kitchen, and waited some more.
   Lord Vorkosigan emerged again. He fended off her offers of more coffee, and instead seated himself at her table. “ImpSec sent me the autopsy report on Tien this morning. How much do you want to know about it?”
   The vision of Tien’s congealed body, hanging in the frost, flashed in her memory. “Was there anything unexpected?”
   “Not with respect to cause of death. They found his Vorzohn’s Dystrophy, of course.”
   “Yes. Poor Tien. To spend all those years in a suppressed panic over his disease, only to die of another cause altogether.” She shook her head. “So much effort, so misplaced. How far advanced was it, could they tell?”
   “The nervous lesions were very distinct, according to the examiner. Though how they can tell one microscopic blob from another… The outward symptoms, if I interpret the medical jargon correctly, would have been impossible to conceal very soon.”
   “Yes. I think I knew that. It was the inward progress I wondered about. When did it start. How much of Tien’s, oh, bad judgment and other behavior was his disease.” Should she have somehow held on longer? Could she have? Until what other desperate denouement had played itself out?
   “The damage builds slowly for a long time. Which parts of the brain are affected varies from person to person. For what it’s worth, his seemed concentrated in the motor regions and peripheral nervous system. Though it may be possible to blame some of his actions on the disease, later, if a face-saving gesture is needed.”
   “How… politic. Face-saving for whom? I don’t wish it.”
   He smiled a bit grimly. “I didn’t think you did. But I have the unpleasant conviction that this case is going to shift from its nice clean engineering parameters into some very messy politics sooner or later. I never discard a possible reserve.” He looked down at his hands, clasped loosely before him on the table. His gray sleeves imperfectly concealed the white bandages ringing his wrists. “How did Nikki take the news, last night?”
   “That was hard. He started out-before I told him-trying to argue me into letting him stay and play another night. Getting passionate and sulking, you know how kids are. I so much wished I could simply let him go on, not having to know. I wasn’t able to prepare him as much as I would have liked. I finally had to sit him down and tell him straight out, Nikki, you have to come home now. Your Da was killed in a breath mask accident last night. It just… wiped him blank. I almost wished for the whining back.” Ekaterin looked away. She wondered what oblique forms Nikki’s reactions might eventually take, and whether she would recognize them. Or handle them well. Or not… “I don’t know how it’s going to go in the long run. When I lost my mother… I was older, and we knew it was coming, but it was still a shock, that day, that hour. I always thought there would be more time.”
   “I’ve not yet lost a parent,” said Vorkosigan. “Grandparents are different, I think. They are old, it’s their destiny, somehow. I was shaken when my grandfather died, but my world was not. I think my father’s was, though.”
   “Yes,” she looked up gratefully, “that’s the difference exactly. It’s like an earthquake. Something that isn’t supposed to move suddenly dumps you over. I think the world is going to be a scarier place for Nikki this morning.”
   “Have you hit him with his Vorzohn’s Dystrophy news yet?”
   “I’m letting him sleep. I’ll tell him after breakfast. I know better than to stress a kid who has low blood sugar.”
   “Odd, I feel the same way about troops. Is there anything… can I help? Or would you prefer to be private?”
   “I’m not sure. He doesn’t have school today anyway. Weren’t you taking my uncle out to the experiment station this morning?”
   “Directly. It can wait an extra hour for this.”
   “I think… I would like it if you can stay. It’s not good to make of the disease something all secret that’s too awful to even talk about. That was Tien’s mistake.”
   “Yes,” he said encouragingly. “It’s just a thing. You deal with it.”
   Her brows rose. “As in, one damn thing after another?”
   “Yes, very like.” He smiled at her, his gray eyes crinkling. Through whatever combination of luck and clever surgery, no scars marred his face, she realized. “It works, as tactics if not strategy.”
   True to his offer, Lord Vorkosigan drifted back into her kitchen as Nikki was finishing his breakfast. He lingered suggestively, stirring the coffee he took black and leaning against the far counter. Ekaterin took a deep breath and settled beside Nikki at the table, her own half-empty and cold cup a mere prop. Nikki eyed her warily.
   “You won’t be going to school tomorrow,” she began, hoping to strike a positive note.
   “Is that when Da’s funeral is? Will I have to burn the offering?”
   “Not yet. Your Grandmadame has asked that we bring his body back to Barrayar, to bury beside your uncle who died when you were little.” Tien’s mother’s return message had come in by comconsole this morning, beamed and jumped through the wormhole-relays. In writing, as Ekaterin’s had been, and perhaps for similar reasons; writing allowed one to leave so much out. “We’ll do all the ceremonies and burn the offering then, when everyone can be there.”
   “Will we have to take him on the jumpship with us?” asked Nikki, looking disturbed.
   From the side of the room Lord Vorkosigan said, “In fact, ImpS-the Imperial Civil Service will take care of all those arrangements, with your permission, Madame Vorsoisson. He will probably be back home before you are, Nikki.”
   “Oh,” said Nikki.
   “Oh,” Ekaterin echoed. “I… I was wondering. I thank you.”
   He sketched a bow. “Allow me to pass on your mother-in-law’s address and instructions. You have enough other things to do.”
   She nodded, and turned back to her son. “Anyway, Nikki… you and I are going to Solstice tomorrow, to visit a clinic there. We never mentioned this to you before, but you have a condition called Vorzohn’s Dystrophy.”
   Nikki made an uncertain face. “What’s that?”
   “It’s a disorder where, with age, your body stops making certain proteins in quite the right shape to do their job. Nowadays the doctors can give you some retrogenes that produce the proteins correctly, to make up for it. You’re too young to have any symptoms, and with this fix, you never will.” At Nikki’s age, and on the first pass, it was probably not yet necessary to go into the complications it would entail for his future reproduction. She noticed dryly how she had managed to get through the long-anticipated spiel without once using the word mutation. “I’ve collected a lot of articles about Vorzohn’s Dystrophy, which you can read when you want to. Some of them are too technical, but there are a couple I think you could get through with a little help.” There. If she could avoid setting off his homework alarms, that ought to set up a reasonably neutral way to give him the information to which he had a right, and he could pursue it at his own pace thereafter.
   Nikki looked worried. “Will it hurt?”
   “Well, they will certainly have to draw blood, and take some tissue samples.”
   Vorkosigan put in, “I’ve had both done to me, what seems like a thousand times over the years, for various medical reasons. The blood draw hurts for a moment, but not later. The tissue sampling doesn’t hurt because they use a medical micro-stun, but when the stun wears off, it aches for a while. They only need a tiny sample from you, so it won’t be much.”
   Nikki appeared to digest this. “Do you have Vorzohn’s thing, Lord Vorkosigan?”
   “No. My mother was poisoned with a chemical called soltoxin, before I was born. It damaged my bones, mainly, which is why I’m so short.” He wandered over to the table and sat down with them.
   Ekaterin was expecting Nikki’s next to be something along the lines of, Will I be short? but instead, his brown eyes widened in extreme worry. “Did she die?”
   “No, she recovered completely. Fortunately. For us all. She’s fine now.”
   He took this in. “Was she scared?”
   Nikki, Ekaterin realized, had not yet sorted out just who Lord Vorkosigan’s mother was, in relation to the people he’d heard about in his history lessons. Vorkosigan’s brows rose in some bemusement. “I don’t know. You can ask her yourself, someday, when-if you meet her. I’d be fascinated to hear the answer.” He caught Ekaterin’s unsettled gaze, but his eyebrows remained unrepentant.
   Nikki regarded Lord Vorkosigan dubiously. “Did they fix your bones with retrogenes?”
   “No, more’s the pity. It would have been much easier on me, if it had been possible. They waited till they thought I was done growing, and then they replaced them with synthetics.”
   Nikki was diverted. “How d’you replace bones? How do you get them out?”
   “Cut me open,” Vorkosigan made a slicing motion with his right hand along his left arm from elbow to wrist, “chop the old bone out, pop the new one in, reconnect the joints, transplant the marrow to the new matrix, glue it up and wait for it to heal. Very messy and tedious.”
   “Did it hurt?”
   “I was asleep-anesthetized. You’re lucky you can have retrogenes. All you have to have are a few fiddling injections.”
   Nikki looked vastly impressed. “Can I see?”
   After an infinitesimal hesitation, Vorkosigan unfastened his shirt cuff and pushed back his left sleeve. “That pale little line there, see?” Nikki stared with interest, both at Vorkosigan’s arm and, speculatively, at his own. He wriggled his fingers, and watched his arm flex as the muscles and bones moved beneath his skin.
   “I have a scab,” he offered in return. “Want to see?” Awkwardly, he pushed up his pant leg to display the latest playground souvenir on his knee. Gravely, Vorkosigan inspected it, and agreed it was a good scab, and would doubtless fall off very soon now, and yes, perhaps there would be a scar, but his mother was very right to tell him not to pick it. To Ekaterin’s relief, everyone then refastened their clothes and the contest went no further.
   The conversation lagging after that high point, Nikki pushed a few last smears of groats and syrup artistically around the bottom of his dish, and asked, “Can I be excused?”
   “Of course,” said Ekaterin. “Wash the syrup off your hands,” she called after his retreating form. She watched him-run, not walk-out, and said uncertainly, “That went better than I expected.”
   Vorkosigan smiled reassurance. “You were matter-of-fact, so you gave him no reason to be otherwise.”
   After a little silence Ekaterin said, “Was she scared? Your mother.”
   His smile twisted. “Spitless, I believe.” His eyes warmed, and glinted. “But not, I understand, witless.”
   The two Auditors left for an on-site inspection of the Waste Heat experiment station shortly thereafter. Waiting carefully for a natural break in Nikki’s quiet play in his room, Ekaterin called him in to her workroom to read the simplest and most straightforward article she had found on the subject of Vorzohn’s Dystrophy. She sat him in her lap in her comconsole station chair, something she seldom did any more now he had become so leggy. It was a measure of his hidden unease this morning, she thought, that he did not resist the cuddle, nor her direction. He read through the article with fair understanding, stopping now and then to demand pronunciations and meanings of unfamiliar terms, or for her to rephrase or interpret some baffling sentence. If he had not been on her lap, she would not have detected the slight stiffening of his body as he read the line:… later investigations concluded this natural mutation first appeared in Vorinnis’s District near the end of the Time of Isolation. Only with the arrival of galactic molecular biology was it determined that it was unrelated to several old Earth genetic diseases which its symptoms sometimes mimic.
   “Any questions?” Ekaterin asked, when they’d finally wended to the end of the thing.
   “Naw.” Nikki elbowed off her lap and slid to his feet.
   “You can read more whenever you want.”
   With difficulty, Ekaterin restrained herself from pursuing some more definite response from him, realizing she wanted it more for her sake than his own. Are you all right, is it all right, do you forgive me? He would not, could not, work through it all in an hour, or a day, or even a year; each day must have the challenge and response appropriate to it. One damn thing after another, Vorkosigan had said. But not, thank heavens, all things simultaneously.
   The addition of Lord Vorkosigan to the expedition to Solstice made startling alterations in Ekaterin’s carefully calculated travel plans. Instead of rising in the middle of the night to catch economy-class seats on the monorail, they awoke at a leisurely hour to take passage on an ImpSec suborbital courier shuttle which waited their pleasure, and would cover the intervening time zones with an hour to spare for lunch before Nikki’s appointment.
   “I love the monorail,” Vorkosigan had confided apologetically at her first startled protest at the news of this change, sprung on her late in the evening when the two Auditors returned from their day’s investigations. “In fact, I’m thinking of urging my brother Mark to invest in some of the companies trying to build more of them on Barrayar. But with this case heating up, ImpSec’s made it pretty clear they would rather I did not travel by public transportation just now thank you very much my lord.”
   They also had two bodyguards. They wore discreet Komarran-style civilian clothes, which made them look exactly like a pair of Barrayaran military bodyguards in civvies. Vorkosigan seemed equally able to deal easily with them, or ignore them as though they were invisible, at will. He brought reports to read on the flight, but only glanced over them, seeming a little distracted. Ekaterin wondered if Nikki’s restlessness broke his concentration, and if she ought to try and suppress the boy. But a quiet word from Vorkosigan at apogee won an excited Nikki an invitation to come forward and spend ten minutes in the pilot’s compartment.
   “How is the case going this morning?” Ekaterin asked him during this private interlude.
   “Exactly as I predicted, unfortunately,” he said. “ImpSec’s failure to catch up with Soudha is growing more disturbing by the hour. I really thought they’d have nailed him by now. Between Colonel Gibbs’s group, and that team of earnest ImpSec boys we have counting widgets out at the experiment station, my parts list is starting to take shape, but it will be at least another day before it’s complete.”
   “Did my uncle like the idea?”
   “Heh. He said it was tedious, which I already knew. And then he appropriated it from me, which I take to indicate approval.” He rubbed his lips, introspectively. “Thanks to your uncle, we did get one spot of encouragement last night. He’d thought to confiscate Radovas’s personal library, when we visited Madame Radovas, and we sent it off to ImpSec HQ for analysis. Their analyst confirmed Radovas’s primary interest in jumpship technology and wormhole physics, which does not surprise me much, but then we got a bonus.
   “Soudha or his techs did a superb job of erasing everyone’s comconsoles before ImpSec got to them, but evidently no one thought of the library. Some of the technical volumes had notes entered in the margin boxes. The Professor was quite excited about the mathematical fragments, but more obviously, there were reminders to confide this or that thought or calculation to some names jotted next to them. Mostly members of the Waste Heat group, but also a couple of others, including one who appears to be one of the late members of the station-keeping crew at the soletta array. We’re now positing that Radovas and his equipment, with inside help, had been smuggled up to the soletta for whatever it was they were trying to do, rather than being aboard the ore freighter. So was the soletta essential to what they were doing, or were they only using it for a test platform? ImpSec has agents out all over the planet today, questioning and requestioning colleagues, relatives, and friends of everyone on the soletta or having anything to do with their resupply shuttle. Tomorrow, I will get to read all those reports.”
   Nikki’s return dried up this amiable flow of information, and they soon landed at one of ImpSec’s own private shuttle-ports on the edge of the vast sealed city of Solstice. Instead of taking a public bubble-car, they were provided with a floater and driver, who took them down into the restricted tunnels by some dizzying back route that brought them to their destination in about two-thirds the time of the bubble-car system.
   The first stop was a restaurant atop one of Solstice’s highest towers, providing diners a spectacular view of the capital glittering halfway to the horizon; though the place was crowded, no one was seated near them while they ate, Ekaterin observed. The bodyguards did not join in the meal.
   The menu had no prices, triggering a moment of panic in Ekaterin’s heart. She had no way to direct Nikki, or herself, for that matter, to the cheaper selections. If you have to ask, you can’t afford it. Her initial determination to argue possession of her portion of the bill with Vorkosigan sagged.
   Vorkosigan’s height and appearance drew the usual covert double-takes. For the first time in his company, she became aware of being mistaken for a couple or even a family. Her chin rose defensively. What, did they think him too odd to attach a woman? It was none of their business anyway.
   The next stop-and Ekaterin was very grateful she did not have to navigate to it herself-was the clinic, a comfortable quarter hour early. Vorkosigan did not appear to notice anything in the least remarkable about the whole magic carpet ride, though Nikki had been enthusiastically diverted throughout. Had Vorkosigan planned that? The boy grew suddenly very much quieter as they took the lift-tubes up to the clinic lobby.
   When they were ushered to the booth of an admissions clerk, Vorkosigan pulled up a chair for himself just behind Ekaterin and Nikki, and the bodyguards faded discreetly out of range. Ekaterin presented identification and civil service payment documentation, and all seemed to go smoothly, until they came to the information that Nikki’s father was lately deceased, and the clinic comconsole demanded formal permissions from Nikki’s legal guardian.
   That thing is much too well programmed, Ekaterin thought, and embarked on an explanation of the distance to Tien’s third cousin back on Barrayar, and the time-constrained need for Nikki’s treatment to be completed before their return. The Komarran clerk listened with understanding and sympathy, but the comconsole program did not agree, and after a couple of attempts to override it, the clerk went off to fetch her supervisor. Ekaterin bit her lip and rubbed her palms on her trouser knees. To come so far, to be so close, to get hung up on some legal technicality now…
   The supervisor, a pleasant young Komarran man, returned with the clerk, and Ekaterin gave her explanation again. He listened, and rechecked all the documentation, and turned to her with an air of earnest regret.
   “I’m sorry, Madame Vorsoisson. If you were a Komarran planetary shareholder, instead of a Barrayaran subject, the rules would be very different.”
   “All Komarran planetary shareholders are Barrayaran subjects,” Vorkosigan pointed out from behind her, in a bland tone.
   The supervisor managed a pained smile. “I’m afraid that’s not quite what I meant. The thing is, a similar problem came up for us just a few months ago, regarding treatment under quasi-emergency conditions of a Vor child of Komarr-resident Barrayarans. We went with what seemed to us to be the common-sense approach. The child’s legal guardian later disagreed, and the judicial, er, negotiations are still going on. It proved to be a very costly error of judgment for the clinic. Given that Vorzohn’s Dystrophy is a chronic and not an immediately life-threatening condition, and that you should in theory be able to obtain your legal permissions in a week or two, I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to reschedule.”
   Ekaterin took a deep breath, whether to argue or scream she was not sure. But Lord Vorkosigan leaned past her shoulder and smiled at the supervisor. “Hand me that read-pad, will you?”
   The puzzled supervisor did so; Vorkosigan rummaged in his pocket and pulled out his gold Auditor’s seal, which he uncapped and pressed to the pad, along with his right palm. He spoke into the vocorder. “By my order, and for the good the Imperium, I request and require all assistance, to wit, suitable medical treatment for Nikolai Vorsoisson. Vorkosigan, Imperial Auditor.” He handed it back. “See if that doesn’t make your machine happier.” He murmured aside to Ekaterin, “Just like swatting flies with a laser cannon. The aim’s a bit tricky, but it sure takes care of the flies.”
   “Lord Vorkosigan, I can’t…” Her tongue stumbled to a halt. Can’t what? This wasn’t like waffling over the lunch bill; Tien’s benefits would be paying for Nikki’s treatment, if only the Komarrans could be persuaded to disgorge it. Vorkosigan’s offered contribution was entirely intangible. “Nothing your esteemed uncle would not have done for you, if I could have spared him to you today.” He gave her one his ghost-bows, seated.
   The supervisor’s expression changed from suspicious to stunned as his comconsole digested this new data. “You are Lord Auditor Vorkosigan?”
   “At your service.”
   “I… er… uh… in what capacity are you here, my Lord?”
   “Friend of the family.” Vorkosigan’s smile twisted just slightly, “Red tape cutter and general expediter.” To his credit, the supervisor managed not to gibber. He dismissed the clerk and sped them through processing, and himself escorted them upstairs and into the hands of the medtechs in the genetics department. He then vanished, but things ran blazingly quickly thereafter.
   “It almost seems unfair,” Ekaterin murmured, when Nikki was whisked away briefly by a tech to pee into a sampler, “to think Nikki just jumped the queue, there.”
   “Yes, well… I found last winter that an Auditor’s seal had the same enlivening effect on ImpMil’s veteran’s treatment division, whose hallways are much draftier and drab than these, and whose queue times are legendary. Quite ridiculous. I was charmed.” Vorkosigan’s face grew more introspective, and sober. “I’m afraid I’ve not quite found my balance with this Imperial Auditor thing yet. What is the just use of power, what is its abuse? I could have ordered Madame Radovas to be fast-penta’d, or ordered Tien to land us at the experiment station that first evening, and events would now be… well, I don’t quite know what they would now be, except different than this. But I did not wish to…” He trailed off, and for just a flash, Ekaterin caught an impression of a much younger man beneath his habitual mask of irony and authority. He is no older than me, after all.