After a little time, Madame Radovas asked, “How would you guarantee our lives?” They were the first words she had spoken, though she had listened intently throughout.
   “By my order, as an Imperial Auditor. Only Emperor Gregor himself could gainsay it.”
   “So… why won’t Emperor Gregor gainsay it?” asked Cappell skeptically.
   “He’s not going to be happy about any of this,” Miles answered frankly. And I’m going to have to give him the report, God help me. “But… if I lay my word on the line, I don’t think he’ll deny me.” He hesitated. “Or else I will have to resign.”
   Foscol snorted. “How nice for us, to know that after we are dead, you will resign. What a consolation.”
   Soudha rubbed his lips, watching Miles… watching his truncated image, Miles reminded himself. He was not the only one missing body cues. The engineer was silent, thinking… what?
   “Your word?” Cappell grimaced. “Do you know what a Vorkosigan’s word means to us?”
   “Yes,” said Miles levelly. “Do you know what it means to me?”
   Madame Radovas tilted her head, and her quiet stare became, if possible, more focused.
   Miles leaned forward into the vid pickup. “My word is all that stands between you and ImpSec’s aspiring heroes coming through your walls. They don’t need the corridors, you know. My word went down on my Auditor’s oath, which holds me at this moment unblinking to a duty I find more terrific than you can know. I only have one name’s oath. It cannot be true to Gregor if it is false to you. But if there’s one thing my father’s heartbreaking experience at Solstice taught, it’s that I’d better not put my word down on events I do not control. If you surrender quietly, I can control what happens. If ImpSec has to detain you by force, it will be up to chance, chaos, and the reflexes of some overexcited young men with guns and gallant visions of thwarting mad Komarran terrorists.”
   “We are not terrorists,” said Foscol hotly.
   “No? You’ve succeeded in terrifying me,” Miles said bleakly. Her lips thinned, but Soudha looked less certain.
   “If you unleash ImpSec, the consequences will be your doing,” said Cappell.
   “Almost correct,” Miles agreed. “If I unleash ImpSec, the consequences will be my responsibility. It’s that devil’s distinction between being in charge and being in control. I’m in charge; you’re in control. You can imagine how much this thrills me.”
   Soudha snorted. One corner of Miles’s mouth tilted up in unwilling response. Yeah, Soudha knows all about that one, too.
   Foscol leaned forward. “This is all a smoke screen. Captain Vorgier said they were sending for a jumpship. Where’s it?”
   “Vorgier was lying for time, which was his clear duty. There will not be a jumpship.” Shit, that did it. There were only two ways this could go now. There were only two ways it could go before.
   “We have a pair of hostages. Do we have to space one of them to prove we’re serious?”
   “I believe you are deathly serious. Which one gets to watch, the aunt or the niece?” Miles asked softly, settling back again. “You claim to not be mad terrorists, and I believe you. You’re not. Yet. You are also not murderers; I actually accept that all the deaths you’ve left in your wake were accidents. So far. But I also know that line gets easier to slip over with practice. Please observe that you have now gone as far as you can without turning yourselves into a perfect replica of the enemy you set out to oppose.”
   He let those last words hang in the air for a time, for emphasis.
   “Vorkosigan’s right, I think,” said Soudha unexpectedly. “We’ve come to the end of our choices. Or to the beginning of another set. One that isn’t the set I signed up for.”
   “We have to stick together, or it’s no good,” said Foscol urgently. “If we have to space one of them, I vote for that hell-cat Vorsoisson.”
   “Would you do it with your own hands?” said Soudha slowly. “Because I think I decline.”
   “Even after what she did to us?”
   What in God’s name did gentle Ekaterin do to you? Miles kept his expression as blank as he could, his body still.
   Soudha hesitated. “Seems it made no difference after all.”
   Cappell and Madame Radovas both began to speak at once, but Soudha held up a restraining hand. He blew out his breath like a man in pain. “No. Let us continue as we began. The choice is plain. Stop now-unconditional surrender-or call Vorkosigan’s bluff. Now, it’s no secret to you I thought the time to go into hiding for a later try was before we ever left Komarr.”
   “I’m sorry I voted against you the last time,” Cappell said to Soudha.
   Soudha shrugged. “Yeah, well… If we’re going to quit, the time’s come.”
   No, it hasn’t, Miles thought frantically. This was too abrupt. There was time for another ten hours of chit chat at the very least. He wanted to slide them to surrender, not stampede them to suicide. Or murder. If they believed him about the defects of their device, as they appeared to, it must soon occur to them that they could hold the whole station hostage, if they didn’t mind the self-immolating aspect. Well, if they weren’t going to think of that themselves, far be it from him to point it out. He leaned back in his station chair, and chewed on the side of his finger, and watched, and listened.
   “There’s no benefit in waiting, either way,” Soudha went on. “The risk increases every minute. Lena?”
   “No surrender,” said Foscol sturdily. “We go on.” And more bleakly, “Somehow.”
   The mathematician hesitated a long time. “I can’t stand that Marie died for nothing. Hold out.”
   “Myself…” Soudha let his big square hand fall open. “Stop. Now that we’ve lost surprise, this goes nowhere. The only question is how long it takes to arrive.” He turned to Madame Radovas.
   “Oh. My turn already? I didn’t want to go last.”
   “Yours would be the tie-breaking vote in any case,” said Soudha.
   Madame Radovas fell silent, staring out the control booth’s glass-at the airlock door, across the bay? Miles’s gaze could but help following hers; her turn back caught him at it, and he flinched.
   You’ve done it now, boy. Ekaterin’s life and your soul’s oath hang on a frigging Komarran shareholders’ debate. How did you let this happen? This wasn’t in the plans… His eye relocated, and ignored, the code on his comconsole that would launch Vorgier and his waiting troops.
   Madame Radovas’s gaze returned to window. She said, to no one in particular, “Our safety before always depended on secrecy. Now even if we get to Pol or Escobar, or further, ImpSec will follow us. There would not ever be a safe time give up our hostages. In exile or not, it will be prisons, always prisoners. I’m tired of being a prisoner, of hope, of fear.”
   “You were not a prisoner!” said Foscol. “You were one of us, I thought.”
   Madame Radovas looked across at her. “I supported my husband. If I hadn’t-he would still be alive. Lena, I’m tired.” Foscol said tentatively, “Maybe you should rest, before deciding.”
   The look she got from Madame Radovas in return for that line made her drop her eyes, and look away. Madame Radovas said to Soudha, “Do you believe him, about the device not working?”
   Soudha frowned deeply. “Yes. I’m afraid so. Or I would have acted differently.”
   “Poor Barto.” She stared at Miles for a long time in an almost detached wonder.
   Encouraged by her apparent dispassion, he asked curiously, why is your vote the tie-breaker?”
   “The scheme was my husband’s idea, originally. This obsession has dominated my life for seven years. His voting share is always considered the greatest.”
   How very Komarran. Then Soudha had actually been the second-in-command, forced into the dead man’s shoes… was all amazingly irrelevant now. Maybe they’ll name it after him. The Radovas Effect. Belike. “We are both heirs, of a sort, then.”
   “Indeed.” The widow’s lips twisted. “You know, I will never forget the look on your face when that fool Vorsoisson told you there was no place on his forms for an Imperial order. I almost laughed out loud, despite it all.”
   Miles smiled briefly, scarcely daring to breathe.
   Madame Radovas shook her head in disbelief, but not, he thought, of his promises. “Well, Lord Vorkosigan… I’ll take your word. And find out what it’s worth.” She searched the faces of each of her three colleagues, but when she spoke, she looked at him. “I vote to stop now.”
   Miles waited tensely for signs of dissension, protest, internal revolt. Cappell struck his fist on the booth’s glass wall, which reverberated, and turned away, his features working. Foscol buried her face in her hands. After that, silence.
   “That’s it, then,” said Soudha, bleakly exhausted. Miles wondered if the news of the device’s inherent defect had sapped his will more than any argument. “We surrender, on your word for our lives. Lord Auditor Vorkosigan.” He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again. “Now what?”
   “A lot of sensible slow moves. First I gently detach ImpSec from its vision of a heroic assault. They were getting pretty worked up, out here. Then you inform the rest of your group. Then disarm whatever booby-traps you’ve set, and pile any weapons you may possess well away from yourselves. Unlock the doors. Then sit down quietly on the loading bay floor with your hands behind your heads. At that point, I’ll let the boys in.” He added prudently, “Please avoid sudden movements, that sort of thing.”
   “So be it.” Soudha cut his comm; the Komarrans winked out. Miles shuddered in sudden disorientation, alone again in his little sealed room. The screaming man behind the glass wall in his mind was getting out a battering ram, it felt like.
   Miles opened the channel on his comconsole and ordered a medical squad to accompany the arresting officers from ImpSec and Station Security, who were to be armed with stunners and stunners only. He repeated that last command a couple of times, to be sure. He felt as if he’d spent a century in his station chair. When he tried to stand up, he nearly fell over. Then he ran.
   Miles’s only compromise with Vorgier’s anxiety for the Imperial Auditor’s personal safety was to march down the ramp into the Southport loading bay behind instead of in front of the security team. The ten or so Komarrans, sitting cross-legged on the floor, twisted around to watch as the Barrayarans entered. After Miles came the tech squad, which spread out looking for booby-traps, and behind them the medical team with a float pallet.
   The first thing which caught Miles’s eye after the live target inventory was the upside-down float cradle in the middle of the bay, atop a pile of tangled wreckage. He was able, barely, to recognize it from the diagrams he’d seen back on Komarr of the fifth novel device. His heart lifted at this inexplicable, welcome sight.
   He walked around it, staring, and came up to where Soudha was being frisked down and restrained. “My goodness. Your wormhole-collapser appears to have met with an accident. But it won’t do you any good. We have the plans.” Cappell and a man Miles recognized as the engineer who’d fled from Bollan Design stood nearby, glowering at him; Foscol struggled into earshot, barely controlled by her female arresting officer.
   “It wasn’t us,” sighed Soudha. “It was her.” A jerk of his thumb drew Miles’s attention to the inner door of the bay’s personnel airlock. A metal bar was placed crookedly across the airseal door’s jamb; the ends were melted onto floor and wall respectively.
   Miles’s eyes widened, and his lips parted in breathless anticipation. “Her?”
   “The bitch from hell. Or Barrayar, which is almost the same thing to hear her tell it. Madame Vorsoisson.”
   “Remarkable.” The source of several oddly tilted responses on the Komarrans’ part to his recent negotiations began at last to come clear to Miles. “Um… how?
   All three Komarrans tried to answer him at once, with a medley of blame-casting which included a lot of phrases like, if Madame Radovas hadn’t let her out, If you hadn’t let Radovas let her out, How was I supposed to know? The old lady looked sick to me. Still does. If you hadn’t put the remote down right front of her, If you hadn’t left the damned control booth, If you had just moved faster, If you had run for the float cradle and cut the power, So why didn’t you think of that, huh? by which Miles slowly pieced together the most glorious mental picture he’d had all day. All year. For quite a long time, actually.
   I’m in love. I’m in love. I just thought I was in love, before, now I really am. I must, I must, I must have this woman! Mine, mine, mine. Lady Ekaterin Nile Vorvayne Vorsoisson Vorkosigan, yes! She’d left nothing here for ImpSec and all the Emperor’s Auditors to do but sweep up the bits. He wanted to roll on the floor and howl with joy, which would be most undiplomatic of him, under the circumstances. He kept his face neutral, and very straight. Somehow, he didn’t think the Komarrans appreciated the exquisite delight of it all.
   “When we stuffed her in the airlock I welded it shut,” said Soudha morosely. “I wasn’t going to let her do us a third time.” “Third time?” Miles said. “If that was the second, what was the first?”
   “When that idiot Arozzi first brought her down here, she damn near blew the whole thing right then by hitting the emergency alarm.”
   Miles glanced aside at the alarm on the nearby wall. “And then what happened?”
   “We had a sudden influx of station accident control. I thought I’d never get rid of them.”
   “Ah. I see.” How curious. Vorgier never mentioned that part. Later. “You mean we’ve spent the last five hours scrambling to evacuate this station for nothing?”
   Soudha smiled sourly. “You coming to me for sympathy, Barrayaran?”
   “Heh. Never mind.”
   Most of the prisoners were formed up and marched out; with a gesture, Miles ordered Soudha to be held behind.
   “Moment of truth, Soudha. Have you booby-trapped this thing?”
   “There is a motion-sensitive charge attached to the outer door. Opening it from this side should not set it off.”
   With iron self-control, Miles watched as an ImpSec tech torched off the metal bar. It fell to the deck with a clang. He paused in one last moment of sick fear.
   “What are you waiting for?” asked Soudha curiously.
   “Just pondering the depth of your political ingenuity. Suppose this is set to go off and snatch our prize from us at the last.”
   “Now? Why? It’s over,” said Soudha.
   “Revenge. Manipulation. Maybe you figure to drive me berserk and trigger a repeat of the Solstice Massacre all over again, writ somewhat smaller. That could be a propaganda coup. Whether it would be worth spending your lives for is all in your point of view, of course. Properly massaged, the incident could help start a new Komarr Revolt, I suppose.”
   “You have a really twisted mind, Lord Vorkosigan,” said Soudha, shaking his head. “Was it your upbringing, or your genetics?”
   “Yes.” Miles sighed. After a brief moment of reflection, Miles waved the guards on, and Soudha was marched out after his colleagues.
   After a go-ahead nod from the Imperial Auditor, the tech tapped the control pad. The inner door whined, sticking halfway. Miles pressed it gently sideways with his boot, and it shuddered open.
   Ekaterin was on her feet, between the inner door and the Professora, who sat on the deck wearing her niece’s vest over her own bolero. Ekaterin’s face bore a red bruise, her hair was hanging every which way, her fists were clenched, and she looked perfectly demented and altogether gorgeous, in Miles’s personal opinion. Smiling broadly, he held out both his hands and leaned inside.
   She glared back at him. “About time.” She stalked past, muttering in a voice of loathing, “Men!”
   After the briefest lurch, Miles managed to convert his open arms into a smooth bow toward the Professora. “Madame Dr. Vorthys. Are you all right?”
   “Why, hello, Miles.” She blinked at him, gray faced and very chilled-looking. “I’ve been better, but I believe I’ll survive. ”
   “I have a float pallet for you. These sturdy young men will help you to it.”
   “Oh, thank you, dear.”
   Miles stood back and waved the medtechs forward. The Professora looked perfectly content to be whisked aboard the medical pallet and covered with warm wraps. A cursory examination and a few words of debate resulted in a half-dose of synergine for her, but no IV; then the pallet rose into the air.
   “The Professor will be here shortly,” Miles assured her. “In fact, he’ll likely be along before you both are done at the station infirmary. I’ll see he gets sent straight on to you.”
   “I’m so pleased.” The Professora motioned him nearer; when he bent over her, she grabbed him by the ear and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Ekaterin was wonderful,” she whispered.
   “I know,” he breathed. His eyes crinkled, and she smiled back.
   He stepped back from the pallet to Ekaterin’s side, hoping her aunt’s example might inspire her-he wouldn’t mind salvaging some little show of appreciation-“You didn’t seem surprised to see me,” he murmured. The pallet started off, under the guidance of a medtech, and he and Ekaterin followed in procession; the ImpSec technicians politely waited till they’d cleared the chamber to plunge in to the airlock to disarm the charge.
   Ekaterin shoved a strand of hair back over one ear with a hand that trembled only slightly. Red bruises glared on her arms, too, as her sleeve slid back. Miles frowned at them. “I knew it had to be our side,” she said simply. “Or else it would have been the other door.”
   “Eh. Quite.” Three hours, she’d had, to contemplate that possibility. “My fast courier was slow.”
   They turned up the next corridor in reflective silence. Gratifying as it might have been to have her fling herself into his arms and weep relief into-well, if not his shoulder, at least the top of his head-in front of that herd of ImpSec fellows, he had to admit he admired this style even more. So what is this thing you have about tall women and unrequited love? His cousin Ivan would doubtless have some cutting things to say-he growled in anticipation, in his mind. He would deal with Ivan and other hazards to his courtship later.
   “Do you know you saved about five thousand lives?” he asked her.
   Her dark brows drew down. “What?”
   “The novel device was defective. If the Komarrans had managed to get it started, the gravitational back-blow from the wormhole would have taken out this station just like the soletta array, possibly with as few survivors. And I shudder at the thought of the property damage bill. To think how Illyan used to complain about my equipment losses back when I was just covert ops…”
   “You mean… it didn’t work after all? I did all that for nothing?” She stopped short, her shoulders sagging.
   “What do you mean, nothing? I’ve met Imperial generals who completed their entire careers with less to show for them. You should get a bloody medal, I think. Except that this whole thing is going to end up so classified, they’re going to have to invent a whole new level of classification just to put it in. And then classify the classification.”
   Her lips puffed, not quite mirthfully. “What would I do with so useless an object as a medal?”
   He thought bemusedly of the contents of a certain drawer at home in Vorkosigan House. “Frame it? Use it as a paperweight? Dust it?”
   “Just what I always wanted. More clutter.”
   He grinned at her; she smiled back at last, clearly beginning to come off her adrenaline jag, and without breaking down, either. She drew breath and started forward again, and he kept pace. She had met the enemy, mastered her moment, hung three hours on death’s doorstep, all that, and she’d emerged still on her feet and snarling. Oversocialized, hah. Oh, yeah, Da, I want this one.
   He stopped at the door to the infirmary; the Professora vanished within, borne off by her medical minions like a lady on a palanquin. Ekaterin paused with him.
   “I have to leave you for a time and check on my prisoners. The stationers will take care of you.”
   Her brow wrinkled. “Prisoners? Oh. Yes. How did you get rid of the Komarrans?”
   Miles smiled grimly. “Persuasion.”
   She stared down at him, one side of her lovely mouth curving up. Her lower lip was split; he wanted to kiss it and make it well. Not yet. Timing, boy. And one other thing.
   “You must be very persuasive.”
   “I hope so.” He took a deep breath. “I bluffed them into believing that I wouldn’t let them go no matter what they did to you and the Professora. Except that I wasn’t bluffing. We could not have let them go.” There. Betrayal confessed. His empty hands clenched.
   She stared at him in disbelief; his heart shrank. “Well, of course not!”
   “Eh… what?”
   “Don’t you know what they wanted to do to Barrayar?” she demanded. “It was a horror show. Utterly vile, and they couldn’t even see it. They actually tried to tell me that collapsing the wormhole wouldn’t hurt anyone! Monstrous fools.”
   “That’s what I thought, actually.”
   “So, wouldn’t you put your life on the line to stop them?”
   “Yes, but I wasn’t putting my life-I was putting yours.”
   “But I’m Vor,” she said simply.
   His smile and his heart revived, dizzy with delight. “True Vor, milady,” he breathed.
   A female medtech was approaching, murmuring anxiously, “Madame Vorsoisson?” Miles yielded to her shepherding motions, gave Ekaterin an analyst’s salute, and turned away. He was humming, off-key, by the time he rounded the first corner.


   The station infirmary personnel insisted on keeping both Vor women overnight, a precaution with which neither argued. Despite her exhaustion Ekaterin did get dispensation to go pick up her valise from her never-used hostel room, under the watchful eye of a very young ImpSec guard who called her “Ma’am” in every sentence and was determined to carry her luggage.
   One message waited on her hostel room’s comconsole: an urgent order from Lord Vorkosigan for her to take her aunt and flee the station at once, delivered in a tone of such intense conviction as to almost send her scurrying off despite its obviously outdated content. Instructions only, she noted; no explanations whatsoever. He really must have once held military command. The contrast between this strained, forceful lord and the almost goofy geniality of the young man who’d bowed her out of the airlock bemused her; which was the real Lord Vorkosigan? For all his apparently self-revealing babble, the man remained as elusive as a handful of water. Water in the desert. The thought popped unbidden into her mind, and she shook her head to clear it.
   After she returned to the infirmary, Ekaterin sat up for a while with her aunt, waiting for the Professor. Uncle Vorthys arrived in the next hour. He was unusually breathless and subdued as he sat on the edge of his wife’s bed and embraced her. She hugged him back, tears starting in her eyes for almost the first time in this whole night’s ordeal.
   “You shouldn’t frighten me like that, woman,” he told her in mock severity. “Running around getting kidnapped, thwarting Komarran terrorists, putting ImpSec out of a job… Your premature demise would entirely disarrange my selfish plan to drop dead first and leave you to pick up after me. Kindly don’t do that!”
   She laughed shakily. “I’ll try not to, dear.” The patient gown she wore was not a very flattering fashion, but her color did look rather better, Ekaterin thought. Synergine, hot liquids, warmth, quiet, and safety were working to banish her more alarming symptoms without further medical intervention, so that even her anxious husband was fairly quickly reassured. Ekaterin let her aunt tell him most of the story of their harrowing hours with the Komarrans, only putting in a few murmurs of correction when she waxed too flattering of her niece’s part in it all.
   Ekaterin reflected with bleak envy on the nature of a marriage that its principals could regard as prematurely threatened after a mere forty-plus years. Not for me. I’ve lost that option. The Professor and the Professora were surely among the fortunate few. Whatever personal qualities it took to achieve this happy state, it was abundantly plain to Ekaterin that she did not possess them. So be it.
   The Professor’s booming voice and precise academic diction returned to usual as he proceeded to harry the medtechs, unnecessarily, on his wife’s behalf. Ekaterin intervened to suggest firmly that what Aunt Vorthys needed most now was rest; after one last disruptive pass through the private room, he took himself off to find Lord Vorkosigan and tour the late battlefield at the Southport locks. Ekaterin didn’t think she could ever sleep again, but after she cleaned up and crawled into her own infirmary bed, a medtech brought her a potion and invited her to drink it. Ekaterin was still complaining muzzily that such things didn’t work for her when the bed sheets seemed to suck her right down.
   Whether due to the potion, exhaustion, sheer nervous collapse, or the absence of a nine-year-old demanding services, she slept late. The restful residue of the morning, spent chatting desultorily with her aunt, had drifted toward noon when Lord Vorkosigan trooped into the infirmary room. He was clean as a cat and his fine gray suit was crisp and fresh, though his face was traced with fatigue. He carried an enormous and awkward flower arrangement under each arm. Ekaterin hurried to help relieve him of them, sliding them onto a table before he dropped them both.
   “Good day, Madame Dr. Vorthys, you’re looking much better. Excellent. Madame Vorsoisson.” He ducked his head at her, and his white grin winked.
   “Wherever did you find such gorgeous flowers on a space station?” Ekaterin asked, astonished.
   “In a shop. It’s a Komarran space station. They’ll sell you anything. Well, not anything-that would be Jackson’s Whole. But it stands to reason, with all the people meeting and greeting and parting through here, that there would be a market niche for this sort of thing. They grow them right here on the station, you know, along with all their truck garden vegetables. Why do they call them truck gardens, I wonder? I don’t think they ever grew trucks in them, even back on Old Earth.” He dragged over a chair and sat down near her, at the foot of the Professora’s bed. “I believe that dark red fuzzy thing is a Barrayaran plant, by the way. It made me break out in hives when I touched it.”
   “Yes, bloody puffwad,” she agreed.
   “Is that its name, or a value judgment?”
   She smiled. “I believe it refers to the color. It comes from South Continent, on the western slopes of the Black Escarpment.”
   “I was at the Black Escarpment for winter training once. Happily, these things must have been buried under several meters of snow at the time.”
   “How shall we ever get them home, Miles?” said the Professora, half laughing.
   “Don’t burden yourself,” he recommended. “You can always give them to the medtechs when you leave.”
   “But they must be very expensive,” said Ekaterin in worry. Ridiculously so, for something they could only enjoy for a few hours.
   “Expensive?” he said blankly. “Automated weapons-control systems are expensive. Combat drop missions which go wrong are very expensive. These are cheap. Really. Anyway, it supports a business, which is good for the Imperium. If you get a chance, you ought to ask for a tour of the station’s hydroponics section before you leave. I’d think you’d find it pretty interesting.”
   “We’ll see if there’s time,” said Ekaterin. “It’s been such a bizarre experience. It’s strange to realize I’m not even late getting back to pick up Nikki yet. Just a few more days to complete his treatment, and I’m done with Komarr.”
   “Do you have everything in hand for that? Everything you need? Your aunt,” he nodded at the Professora, “is with you now.”
   “I expect I’ll be able to handle anything that comes up this time,” Ekaterin assured him.
   “I expect you will.” That scimitar smile flickered over his face again.
   “We only missed the ship we were originally scheduled to take this morning because Uncle Vorthys insisted we wait and travel back to Komarr with him in his fast courier. Do you know when that will be? I should send a message to Madame Vortorren.”
   “He has a few chores here yet. ImpSec Komarr sent us out a special squad of boffins and techs to clean up and document that mess you made in the Southport loading bay— ”
   “Oh, dear. I’m sorry-” she began automatically.
   “No, no, it was a beautiful mess. Couldn’t have made a better one myself, and I’ve made a few. Anyway, he will be overseeing them, and then returning to Komarr to set up a secret scientific commission to study the device, explore its limits and all that. And HQ sent me some high-powered interrogators whom I wanted to personally brief before they took charge of my prisoners. Captain Vorgier wasn’t too happy that I wouldn’t let any of his local people question our conspirators, but I’ve already declared all details of this case need-to-know under my Auditor’s seal, so he’s out of luck.” He cleared his throat. “Your uncle and I have decided I get the job of going straight back to Vorbarr Sultana from here and making the preliminary report to Emperor Gregor in person. He’s only been getting ImpSec digests.”
   “Oh,” she said, startled. “Leaving so soon…? What about all your things-you shouldn’t go off without your seizure stimulator, should you?”
   Half self-consciously, he rubbed his temple; the white bandages were gone from his wrists, she noticed, leaving only pale red rings of new scars. To add to his collection, presumably. “I had Tuomonen pack up all my kit and send it out here with the crew from HQ. It arrived a couple of hours ago, so I’m all set. Good old ImpSec, they do piss me off sometimes. Tuomonen is going to get a major black mark, because the conspiracy in Serifosa Terraforming took place on his watch, and he never caught it, even though it was really the Imperial Accounting Office which should have been the first line of defense. And that idiot Vorgier is getting a commendation. There is no justice.”
   “Poor Tuomonen. I liked him. Isn’t there anything you can do about that?”
   “Mm, I turned down a chance to be in charge of ImpSec’s internal affairs, so no, I think I’d better not.”
   “Will he keep his post?”
   “It’s uncertain at this time. I told him if he finds his military career at a stand, to look me up. I think I’m going to be able to use a good trained assistant in this Auditor job. The work will be irregular, though. The trend of my life.”
   He sucked thoughtfully on his lower lip, and glanced across at her. “The reclassification of this case from a peculation scam to something far more serious also affects what you can tell Nikki, I’m afraid. It’s all headed into a security black hole as fast as we can stuff it in there, and it’s going to stay there for quite some time. There will, therefore, be no public prosecutions and no need for you to testify, though ImpSec may be around for another interview or two-not under fast-penta. In retrospect, I’m very relieved I played it as close to my chest as I did. But for Nikki, and all Tien’s relatives, and anyone else, the story is going to have to remain that he died in a simple breath mask accident from being caught outside with a low reservoir, and you don’t know any more details than that. Madame Dr. Vorthys, this is for you, too.”
   “I understand,” said the Professora.
   “I am both relieved, and disturbed,” said Ekaterin slowly.
   “In time, the security considerations will soften. You will have to rejudge the problem then, when, well, when many things may have changed.”
   “I did wonder if, for Nikki’s name’s honor, I ought to try to pay back the Imperium all the bribe money Tien received.”
   He looked startled. “Good God, no. If anyone owes anything, it’s Foscol. She stole it in the first place. And we certainly won’t be getting anything back from her.”
   “Something is owed,” she said gravely.
   “Tien settled his debt with his life. He’s quits with the Imperium, I assure you. In the Emperor’s Voice, if necessary.”
   She took this in. Death did wipe out debt. It just didn’t erase the memory of pain; time was still required for that healing. Your time is your own, now. That felt strange. She could take all the time she wanted, or needed. Riches beyond dreams. She nodded. “All right.”
   “The past is paid. Please notify me about Tien’s funeral, though. I wish to attend, if I can.” He frowned. “I too owe something there.”
   She shook her head mutely.
   “In any case, do call me when you and your aunt get back to Vorbarr Sultana.” He glanced again at the Professora. “She and Nikki will be staying with you for a time, yes?” Ekaterin was not quite sure if that was phrased as a question or a demand.
   “Yes, indeed.” Aunt Vorthys smiled.
   “So here are all my addresses.” He spoke again to Ekaterin, and handed her a plastic flimsy. “The numbers for the Vorkosigan residences in Vorbarr Sultana, Hassadar, and Vorkosigan Surleau, for Master Tsipis in Hassadar-my man of business, I believe I mentioned him to you-he usually knows where to get hold of me in a pinch, when I’m out in the District-and a drop-number through the Imperial Residence, which will always know how to reach me. Any time, day or night.”
   Aunt Vorthys leaned back, with her finger on her lips, and regarded him with growing bemusement. “Do you think those will be enough, Miles? Perhaps you can think of three or four more, just to be sure?”
   To Ekaterin’s surprise, he flushed a little. “I trust these will suffice,” he said. “And of course, I should be able to reach you through your aunt, right?”
   “Of course,” murmured Aunt Vorthys.
   “I’d like to show you over my District sometime,” he added to Ekaterin, avoiding the Professora’s eye. “There’s a great deal to see there you might find of interest. There’s a major forestry project going on in the Dendarii Mountains, and some radiation reclamation experiments. My family owns several maple syrup and winery operations. There’s botany all over the damn place, in fact; you can hardly move without tripping over a plant.”
   “Perhaps later on,” said Ekaterin uncertainly. “What will happen to the Terraforming Project, as a result of all this mess with the Komarrans?”
   “Mm, not too much, I now suspect. The security classification is going to limit the immediate public political repercussions.”
   “In the long run, too?”
   “Though the amount of money that was stolen from Serifosa Sector’s budget was huge from the viewpoint of a private individual, from the standpoint of the bureaucracy it wasn’t that big a bite. There are nineteen other Sectors, after all. The damage to the soletta array is actually going to be the biggest bill.”
   “Will the Imperium repair it properly? I’ve so hoped they would.”
   He brightened. “I had this great idea about that. I’m going to pitch it to Gregor that we should declare the soletta repair-and enlargement-as a wedding present, from Gregor to Laisa and from Barrayar to Komarr. I’m going to recommend its size be nearly doubled, adding the six new panels the Komarrans have been begging for since forever. I think this mischance can be turned into an absolute propaganda coup, with the right timing. We’ll shove the appropriation through the Council of Counts and Ministers quickly, before Midsummer, while everyone in Vorbarr Sultana is still sentimentally wound up for the Imperial Wedding.”
   She clapped her hands in enthusiasm, then paused in doubt. “Will that work? I didn’t think the crusty old Council of Counts was susceptible to what Tien used to call romantic drivel.”
   “Oh,” he said airily, “I’m sure they are. I’m a cadet member of the Counts myself-we’re only human, after all. Besides, we can point out that every time a Komarran looks up-well, half the time-they’ll see this Barrayaran gift hanging overhead, and know what it’s doing to create their future. The power of suggestion and all that. It could save us the expense of putting down the next Komarran conspiracy.”
   “I hope so,” she said. “I think it’s a lovely idea.”
   He grinned, clearly gratified. He looked over at the Professora, and away, shifted around, and drew a small packet from his trouser pocket. “I don’t know, Madame Vorsoisson, whether Gregor will give you a medal or not, for your quick thinking and cool response in the Southport bay-”
   She shook her head. “I don’t need-”
   “But I thought you should have something to remember it all by. This.” He stuck out his hand.
   She took the packet and laughed. “Do I recognize this?”
   She unfolded the familiar wrapping and opened the box to reveal the little model Barrayar from the jeweler’s shop in Serifosa, now on a slender chain of braided gold. She held it up; it spun in the light. “Look, Aunt Vorthys,” she said shyly, and handed it across for inspection and approval.
   The Professora examined it with interest, squinting a trifle. “Very fine, dear. Very fine indeed.”
   “Call it the Lord Auditor Vorkosigan Award for Making His Job Easier,” said Vorkosigan. “You really did, you know. If the Komarrans hadn’t already lost their infernal device, they would never have surrendered, even if I’d talked myself blue. In fact, Soudha said something to that effect during our preliminary interrogations last night, so you may consider it confirmed. If not for you, this station would be in a million hurtling pieces by now.”
   She hesitated. Should she accept-? She glanced at her aunt, who was smiling at her benignly and without apparent misgivings about the propriety of it. Not that Aunt Vorthys was particularly passionate about propriety-that indifference was, in fact, one of the qualities which made her Ekaterin’s favorite female relative. Think on that. “Thank you,” she said sincerely to Lord Vorkosigan. “I will remember. And I do remember,” she added.
   “Um, you’re supposed to forget the unfortunate part about the pond.”
   “Never.” Her lips curved up. “It was the highlight of the day. Was it some sort of psychic precognition that you laid this by?”
   “I don’t think so. Chance favors the prepared and all that. Fortunately for my credit, from the outside most people can’t tell the rapid exploitation of a belatedly recognized opportunity from deep-laid planning.” He positively smirked as she slid the chain over her head. “You know, you’re the first girlfr— female friend I’ve had I’ve ever succeeded in giving Barrayar to. Not for lack of trying.”
   Her eyes crinkled. “Have you had a great many girlfriends?” If he hadn’t, she’d have to dismiss her whole gender as congenital idiots. The man could charm snakes from their holes, nine-year-olds from locked bathrooms, and Komarran terrorists from their bunkers. Why weren’t females following him around in herds? Could no Barrayaran woman see past his surface, or their own cocked-up noses?
   “Mmm…”A rather long hesitation. “The usual progression, I suppose. Hopeless first love, this and that over the years, unrequited mad crushes.”
   “Who was the hopeless first love?” she asked, fascinated.
   “Elena. The daughter of one of my father’s Armsmen, who was my bodyguard when I was young.”
   “Is she still on Barrayar?”
   “No, she emigrated years ago. Had a galactic military career and retired with the rank of captain. She’s a commercial shipmaster now.”
   “Nikki would be so envious. Um… what exactly is this and that? If I may ask.” Would he answer?
   “Er. Well. Yes, I think you should, all things considered. Better sooner than later, belike.”
   He was growing terribly Barrayaran, she thought; that use of belike was pure Dendarii mountain dialect. This outburst of confidences was at least as entertaining as putting him on fast-penta might be. Better, given what he’d said about his weird reaction to the drug.
   “There was Elli. She was a free mercenary trainee when I first met her.”
   “What is she now?”
   “Fleet Admiral. Actually.”
   “So she was this. Who was that?”
   “There was Taura.”
   “What was she, when you first met her?”
   “A Jacksonian body-slave. Of House Ryoval-very bad news, House Ryoval used to be.”
   “I must ask more about those covert ops missions of yours sometime… So what is she now?”
   “Master Sergeant in a mercenary fleet.”
   “The same fleet as, um, the this?”
   Her brows rose, helplessly. Her Aunt Vorthys was leaning back with her finger over her lips again, her eyes alight with laughter; no, the Professora clearly wasn’t going to interfere with this. “And…?” she led him on, beginning to be immensely curious as to how long he’d keep going. Why in the world did he think all this romantic history was something she ought to know? Not that she would stop him… nor would Aunt Vorthys, apparently, not for a bribe of five kilos of chocolates. But her secret opinion of her gender began to rise.
   “Mm… there was Rowan. That was… that was brief.”
   “And she was…?”
   “A technical serf of House Fell. She’s a cryo-revival surgeon in an independent clinic on Escobar, now, though, I’m happy to say. Very pleased with her new citizenship.”
   Tien had protected her proudly, she reflected, in the little Vor-lady fortress of her household. Tien had spent a decade protecting her so hard, especially from anything that resembled growth, she’d felt scarcely larger at thirty than she’d been at twenty. Whatever it was Vorkosigan had offered to this extraordinary list of lovers, it hadn’t been protection.
   “Do you begin to notice a trend in all this, Lord Vorkosigan?”
   “Yes,” he replied glumly. “None of them would marry me and come live on Barrayar.”
   “So… what about the unrequited mad crush?”
   “Ah. That was Rian. I was young, just a new lieutenant on a diplomatic mission.”
   “And what does she do, now?”
   He cleared his throat. “Now? She’s an empress.” He added, under the pressure of Ekaterin’s wide stare, “Of Cetaganda. They have several, you see.”
   A silence fell, and stretched. He shifted uneasily in his chair, and his smile flicked on and off.
   She rested her chin in her hand, and regarded him; her brows quirked in quizzical delight. “Lord Vorkosigan. Can I take a number and get in line?”
   Whatever it was he’d been expecting her to say, it wasn’t that; he was so taken aback he nearly fell off his chair. Wait, she hadn’t meant it to come out sounding quite like— His smile stuck in the on position, but decidedly sideways.
   “The next number up,” he breathed, “is ‘one.’ ”
   It was her turn to be taken aback; her eyes fell, scorched by the blaze in his. He had lured her into levity. His fault, for being so… luring. She stared wildly around the room, groping for some suitably neutral remark with which to retrieve her reserve. It was a space station: there was no weather. My, the vacuum is hard out today… Not that, either. She gazed beseechingly at Aunt Vorthys. Vorkosigan observed her involuntary recoil, and his smile acquired a sort of stuffed apologetic quality; he too looked cautiously to the Professora.
   The Professora rubbed one finger thoughtfully over her chin. “And are you traveling back to Barrayar on a commercial liner, Lord Vorkosigan?” she asked him affably. The mutually alarmed parties blinked at her in suffused gratitude.
   “No,” said Vorkosigan. “Fast courier. In fact, it’s waiting for me right now.” He cleared his throat, jumped to his feet, and made a show of checking his chrono. “Yes, right now. Professora, Madame Vorsoisson, I trust I shall see you both back in Vorbarr Sultana?”
   “Yes, certainly,” said Ekaterin, barely avoiding breathlessness.
   “I will look forward to it with great fascination,” said the Professora piously.
   His smile went crooked in trenchant appreciation of her tone; he backed out with a flourishing, self-conscious bow, a courtly effect slightly spoiled by his caroming off the door-jamb. His quick steps faded down the corridor.
   “A nice young man,” observed Aunt Vorthys, into a room seeming suddenly much emptier. “A pity he’s so short.”
   “He’s not so short,” said Ekaterin defensively. “He’s just… concentrated.”
   Her aunt’s smile grew maddeningly bland. “I could see that, dear.”
   Ekaterin lifted her chin in what remained of her dignity. “I see you are feeling very much better. Shall we go ask about that hydroponics tour?”