1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10
They walked in silence for a time after breakfast. Vorkosigan broke it first. His fever seemed to be eating away at his original taciturnity.
"Converse with me. It will take my mind off my leg."
She considered, walking. "Do you find commanding a warship very different from ordinary vessels?"
He thought it over. "It's not the ship that's different. It's the men. Leadership is mostly a power over imagination, and never more so than in combat. The bravest man alone can only be an armed lunatic. The real strength lies in the ability to get others to do your work. Don't you find it so even in the fleets of Beta Colony?"
Cordelia smiled. "If anything, even more so. If it ever came down to exerting power by force, it would mean I'd already lost it. I prefer to maintain a light touch. Then I have the advantage, because I find I can always keep my temper, or whatever, just a little longer than the next man." She glanced around at the spring desert. "I think civilization must have been invented for the benefit of women, certainly of mothers. I can't imagine how my cavewoman ancestors cared for families under primitive conditions."
"I suspect they worked together in groups," said Vorkosigan.
"I'll wager you could have handled it, had you been born in those days. You have the competence one would look for in a mother of warriors."
Cordelia wondered if Vorkosigan was pulling her leg. He did seem to have a streak of dry humor. "Save me from that! To pour your life into sons for eighteen or twenty years, and then have the government take them away and waste them cleaning up after some failure of politics - no, thanks."
"I never really looked at it that way," allowed Vorkosigan. He was quiet for a time, stumping along with his stick. "Suppose they volunteered? Do your people have no ideal of service?"
"Noblesse oblige?" But it was her turn to be silent, a little embarrassed. "I suppose, if they volunteered, it would be different. However, I have no children, so fortunately I won't have to face those decisions."
"Are you glad, or sorry?"
"About children?" She glanced at his face. He seemed to have no awareness of having hit a sore point dead on. "They just haven't come my way, I guess."
The thread of their talk was broken as they negotiated a rocky stretch of badlands, full of sudden clefts opening at their feet. It involved some tricky climbing, and shoving Dubauer through safely took all her attention. On the far side they took a break by unspoken mutual agreement, sitting leaning against a rock in exhaustion. Vorkosigan rolled up his pants leg and loosened his boot top for a look at the festering wound that was threatening to slow him to a halt.
"You seem a fair nurse. Do you think it would help to open and drain it?" he asked Cordelia.
"I don't know. I'd be afraid messing around with it would just make it dirtier." She deduced the injury must be feeling very much worse for him to have mentioned it, confirmed when he took half a painkiller from his precious and limited store.
They pressed on, and Vorkosigan began to talk again. He told some sardonic anecdotes from his cadet days, and described his father, who had been a general commanding ground forces in his day, and a contemporary and friend of the wily old man who was now Emperor. Cordelia caught a faint, faraway impression of a cold father whom a young son could never quite please, even with his best efforts, yet who shared with him a bond of underlying loyalty. She described her mother, a tough-minded medical professional resisting retirement, and her brother, who had just purchased his second child permit.
"Do you remember your mother well?" Cordelia asked. "She died when you were quite young, I gather. An accident, like my father?"
"No accident. Politics." His face became sober, and distant.
"Had you not heard of Yuri Vorbarra's Massacre?"
"I-don't know much about Barrayar."
"Ah. Well, Emperor Yuri, in the later days of his madness, became extremely paranoid about his relations. It became a self- fulfilling prophecy, in the end. He sent his death squads out, all in one night. The squad sent for Prince Xav never got past his liveried men. And for some obscure reason, he didn't send one for my father, presumably because he wasn't a descendant of Emperor Dorca Vorbarra. I can't imagine what old Yuri thought he was about, to kill my mother and leave my father alive. That was when my father threw his corps behind Ezar Vorbarra, in the civil war that followed."
"Oh." Her throat seemed dry and thick in the dusty afternoon. She had evoked a coldness in him, so that the film of sweat on his forehead seemed suddenly like a condensation.
"It's been on my mind. . . . You were talking about the peculiar things people do in a panic, earlier, and I remembered it. Hadn't thought of it in years. When Yuri's men blew in the door-"
"My God, you weren't present?"
"Oh, yes. I was on the list too, of course. Each assassin was assigned a particular target. The one assigned to my mother-I grabbed this knife, a table knife, by my plate, and struck at him. But right in front of me on the table there had been a good carving knife. If only I had grabbed it instead ... I might as well have struck him with a spoon. He just picked me up, and threw me across the room-"
"How old were you?"
"Eleven. Small for my age. I was always small for my age. He cornered her against the far wall. He fired a ..." He sucked his lower lip between his teeth and chewed it, just short of breaking the skin to bleed. "Odd how many details come back when you talk about something. I thought I had forgotten more."
He glanced at her white face, and grew suddenly con- trite. "I've disturbed you, with this babble. I'm sorry. It was all very long ago. I don't know why I'm talking so much."
I do, thought Cordelia. He was pale and no longer sweating, in spite of the heat. Half-unconsciously, he fastened the top of his shirt. He feels cold, she thought; fever going up. How far up? Plus whatever effect those pills have. This could get very scary.
An obscure impulse made her say, "I know what you mean, though, about talking bringing it back. First there was the shuttle going up, like a bullet as usual, and my brother waving, which was silly, because he couldn't possibly see us-and then there was this smear of light across the sky, like a second sun, and a rain of fire. And this stupid feeling of total comprehension. You wait for the shock to set in, and relieve you-and it never does. Then the blank vision. Not blackness, but this silver- purple glow, for days after. I had almost forgotten about
being blinded, till just now."
He stared at her. "That's exactly-I was about to say, he fired a sonic grenade into her stomach. I couldn't hear anything after that for quite some time. As if all sound had gone off the scale of human reception. Total noise, emptier of meaning than silence."
"Yes ..." How strange, that he should know exactly what I felt-he says it better, though. . . .
"I suppose my determination to be a soldier stems from that date. I mean the real thing, not the parades and the uniforms and the glamour, but the logistics, the offensive advantage, the speed and surprise-the power. A better-prepared, stronger, tougher, faster, meaner son-of-a-bitch than any who came through that door. My first combat experience. Not very successful."
He was shivering, now. But then, so was she. They walked on, and she sought to turn the subject. "I've never been in combat. What's it like?" He paused thoughtfully. Measuring me again, thought Cordelia. And sweating; fever must be topping out, for the moment, thank heavens.
"At a distance, in space, there's the illusion of a clean and glorious fight. Almost abstract. It might be a simulation, or a game. Reality doesn't break in unless your ship is hit." He gazed at the ground in front of him, as if choosing his path, but the ground was very level there. "Murder-murder is different. That day at Komarr, when I killed my Political Officer-I was angrier that day than the day I-than another time. But close up, feeling the life pass out under your hands, seeing that blank unoccupied corpse, you see your own death in the face of your victim. Yet he had betrayed my honor." "I'm not sure I quite understand that." "Yes. Anger seems to make you stronger, not weaker like me. I wish I understood how you do that."
It was another one of his weird unmanageable compliments.
She fell silent, looking at her feet, the mountain ahead, the sky, anywhere but his unreadable face. So she was the first to notice the contrail glowing in the westering sun.
"Hey, does that look like a shuttle up there to you?" "Indeed it does. Let's watch from the shade of that big bush," directed Vorkosigan.
"Don't you want to try and attract their attention?" "No." He turned his hand palm up in response to her look of inquiry. "My best friends and my deadliest enemies all wear the same uniform. I prefer to make my presence known as selectively as possible."
They could hear the distant roar of the shuttles engines now as it vanished behind the grey-green wooded mountain to the west.
"They seem to be headed for the cache," commented Vorkosigan. "That complicates things." He compressed his lips.
"What are they doing back there, I wonder? Could Gottyan have found the sealed orders?"
"Surely he'd inherit all your orders."
"Yes, but I didn't have my files in the standard location, not wishing to share all my affairs with the Council of Ministers. I don't think Korabik Gottyan could find what eludes Radnov. Radnov's a clever spy."
"Is Radnov a tall, broad-shouldered man with a face like an axeblade?"
"No, that sounds like Sergeant Bothari. Where did you see him?"
"He was the man who shot Dubauer, in the woods by the ravine."
"Oh, really?" Vorkosigan's eyes lit, and he smiled wolfishly.
"Much becomes clear."
"Not to me," Cordelia prodded.
"Sergeant Bothari is a very strange man. I had to discipline him rather severely last month."
"Severely enough to make him a candidate for Radnov's conspiracy?"
"I'll wager Radnov thought so. I'm not sure I can make you understand about Bothari. Nobody else seems to. He's a superb ground combat soldier. He also hates my guts, as you Betans would phrase it. He enjoys hating my guts. It seems to be necessary for his ego, somehow."
"Would he shoot you in the back?"
"Never. Strike me in the face, yes. In fact, it was for decking me that he was disciplined last time." Vorkosigan rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. "But arming him to the teeth and leading him into battle at my back is perfectly safe."
"He sounds like an absolute looney."
"Odd, a number of people have said that. I like him."
"And you accuse us Betans of running a circus."
Vorkosigan shrugged, amused. "Well, it's useful for me to have someone to work out with who doesn't pull his punches. Surviving hand-to-hand combat practice with Bothari gives me a real edge. I prefer to keep that phase of our relationship confined to the practice ring, however. I can imagine how Radnov might be misled into including Bothari without examining his politics too closely. He acts like just the sort of fellow one might stick with the dirty work-by God, I'll bet that's just what Radnov did! Good old Bothari."
Cordelia glanced at Dubauer, standing blankly beside her. "I'm afraid I can't share your enthusiasm. He nearly killed me."
"I can't pretend he's a moral or intellectual giant. He's a very complex man with a very limited range of expression, who's had some very bad experiences. But in his own twisty way, he's honorable."
The ground rose almost imperceptibly as they approached the mountain's base. The change was marked by the gradual encroachment of vegetation, thin woods watered by a multitude of small springs from the mountain's secret sources. They struck south around the base of the dusty green cone that rose steeply some 1500 meters above the more gradually sloping shoulderland.
Pulling the stumbling Dubauer along, Cordelia mentally cursed, for what seemed the thousandth time, Vorkosigan's choice of weapons. When the ensign fell, cutting his forehead, her grief and irritation erupted into words.
"Why can't you people use civilized weapons, anyway? I'd as soon give a disruptor to a chimpanzee as a Barrayaran. Trigger- happy goons." Dubauer sat dizzily, and she mopped at the blood with her dirty handkerchief, then sat too.
Vorkosigan lowered himself awkwardly to the ground beside them, bad leg out straight, silently endorsing the break. He gazed at her tense unhappy face, and offered her a serious answer.
"I have an aversion to stunners, in that sort of situation," he said slowly. "Nobody hesitates to rush one, and if there are enough of them they can always get it away from you in the end. I've seen men killed, relying on stunners, who could have walked right through with a disruptor or plasma arc. A disruptor has real authority."
"On the other hand, nobody hesitates to fire a stunner," said Cordelia suggestively. "And it gives you a margin for error."
"What, would you hesitate to fire a disruptor?"
"Yes. I might as well not have it at all."
Curiosity prodded her, mulling on his words. "How in the world did they kill him with a stunner, the man you saw?"
"They didn't kill him with the stunner. After they took it away from him they kicked him to death."
"Oh." Cordelia's stomach tightened. "Not-not a friend of yours, I hope."
"As it happens, he was. He shared something of your attitude toward weaponry. Soft." He frowned into the distance.
They struggled up, and trudged on through the woods. The Barrayaran tried to help her more with Dubauer, for a time. But Dubauer recoiled from him, and between the ensign's resistance and his own bad leg, the awkward attempt failed.
Vorkosigan withdrew into himself, and became less talkative, after that. All his concentration seemed focused on pushing himself ahead just one more step, but he muttered to himself alarmingly. Cordelia had a nasty vision of collapse and fevered delirium, and no faith at all in her ability to take over his role of identifying and contacting a loyal member of his crew. It was plain that an error in judgment could be lethal, and while she could not say that all Barrayarans looked alike to her, she was forcibly reminded of the old conundrum that starts, "All Cretans are liars."
Near sunset, threading their way through a patch of denser woods, they came suddenly on a little glade of astonishing beauty. A waterfall foamed down over a bed of black rocks that glistened like obsidian, a cascade of lace alive with light. The grass that bordered the streambed was backlit by the sun in a translucent gold glow. The surrounding trees, tall, dark green, and shady, set it like a gem. Vorkosigan leaned on his stick and gazed at it a while. Cordelia thought she had never seen a tireder looking human being, but then, she had no mirror.
"We have about fifteen kilometers to go," he said. "I don't wish to approach the cache in the dark. We'll stop here tonight, rest, and take it in the morning."
They flopped down in the soft grass and watched the glorious flaming sunset in silence, like an old married couple too tired to get up and turn it off. At last the failing light forced them into action. They washed hands and faces in the stream, and Vorkosigan shared his Barrayaran field rations at last. Even after four days of oatmeal and blue cheese dressing, they were a disappointment.
"Are you sure this isn't instant boots?" asked Cordelia sadly, for in color, taste, and smell they closely resembled pulverized shoe leather pressed into wafers.
Vorkosigan grinned sardonically. "They're organic, nutritious, and they'll keep for years-in fact, they probably have." Cordelia smiled around a dry and chewy mouthful. She hand- fed Dubauer his-he was inclined to spit them out- then washed and settled him for the night. He had had no seizures this day, which she hoped might be a sign of partial improvement in his condition.
The earth still breathed a comfortable warmth from the heat of the day, and the stream purled softly in the stillness. She wished she could sleep for a hundred years, like an enchanted princess. Instead she rose and volunteered for the first watch.
"I think you'd better have the extra sleep tonight," she told Vorkosigan. "I've had the short watch two nights out of three. It's your turn."
"There's no need-" he began.
"If you don't make it, I don't make it," she pointed out bluntly.
"And neither does he." She jerked her thumb at the quiescent Dubauer. "I intend to see that you make it tomorrow."
Vorkosigan took another half painkiller and lay back where he sat, conceding the argument. Still he remained restless, sleep evading him, and he watched her through the dimness. His eyes seemed to gleam feverishly. He finally propped himself up on one elbow, as she finished a patrol around the edge of the glade and sat down cross-legged on the ground beside him.
"I ..." he began, and trailed off. "You're not what I expected a female officer to be."
"Oh? Well, you're not what I expected a Barrayaran officer to be, either, so I guess that makes two of us." She added curiously,
"What did you expect?"
"I'm--not sure. You're as professional as any officer I've ever served with, without once trying to be an, an imitation man. It's extraordinary."
"There's nothing extraordinary about me," she denied. "Beta Colony must be a very unusual place, then." I "Its just home. Nothing special. Lousy climate." I "So I've heard." He picked up a twig and dug little | furrows into the soil with it, until it snapped. "They don't have arranged marriages on Beta Colony, do they?"
She stared. "Certainly not! What a bizarre concept. 'Sounds almost like a civil rights violation. Heavens-you don't mean to say they do, on Barrayar?"
"In my caste, almost always."
"Doesn't anybody object?"
"They're not forced. Arranged, by the parents usually. It- seems to work. For many people."
"Well, I suppose it's possible."
"How, ah-how do you arrange yourselves? With no go-betweens it must be very awkward. I mean, to refuse someone, to their face."
"I don't know. It's something lovers work out after I they've known each other quite a time, usually, and wish to apply for a child permit. This contractual thing you describe must be like marrying a total stranger. Naturally it would be awkward."
"Hm." He found another twig. "In the Time of Isolation, on Barrayar, for a man to take a woman of the soldier caste for a lover was regarded as stealing her honor, and he was supposed to die a thief's death for it. A custom more honored in the breach, I'm sure, although it's a favorite subject for drama. Today we are betwixt and between. The old customs are dead, and we keep trying on new ones, like badly fitting clothes. It's hard to know what's right, anymore." After a moment he added, "What had you expected?"
"From a Barrayaran? I don't know. Something criminal, I suppose. I wasn't too crazy about being taken prisoner."
His eyes fell. "I've-seen what you're talking about, of course. I can't deny it exists. It's an infection of the imagination, that spreads from man to man. It's worst when it goes from the top down. Bad for discipline, bad for morale ... I hate most how it affects the younger officers, when they encounter it in the men they should be molding themselves on. They haven't the weight of experience, to fight it in their own minds, nor distinguish when a man is stealing the Emperor's authority to cloak his own appetites. And so they are corrupted almost before they know what's happening." His voice was intense in the darkness.
"I'd actually only thought about it from the prisoner's point of view, myself. I take it I am fortunate in my choice of captors."
"They're the scum of the service. But you must believe, a small minority. Although I've no use for those who pretend not to see, either, and they are not such a minority as ... Make no mistake. It's not an easy infection to fight off. But you have nothing to fear from me. I promise you."
"I'd-already figured that out."
They sat in silence for a time, until the night crept up out of the low places to drain the last turquoise from the sky, and the waterfall ran pearly in the starlight. She thought he had fallen asleep, but he stirred, and spoke again. She could barely see his face, but for a little glint from the whites of his eyes, and his teeth. "Your customs seem so free, and calm, to me. As innocent as sunlight. No grief, no pain, no irrevocable mistakes. No boys turned criminal by fear. No stupid jealousy. No honor ever lost."
"That's an illusion. You can still lose your honor.. It just doesn't happen in a night. It can take years, to drain away in bits and dribbles." She paused, in the friendly dark. "I knew this woman, once-a very good friend of mine. In Survey. She was rather- socially inept. Everyone around her seemed to be finding their soul- mates, and the older she grew, the more panicky she got about being left out. Quite pathetically anxious.
"She finally fell in with a man with the most astonishing talent for turning gold into lead. She couldn't use a word like love, or trust, or honor in his presence without eliciting clever mockery. Pornography was permitted; poetry, never.
"They were, as it happened, of equal rank when the captaincy of their ship fell open. She'd sweated blood for this command, worked her tail off-well, I'm sure you know what it's like. Commands are few, and everybody wants one. Her lover persuaded her, partly by promise that turned out to be lies, later-children, in fact-to stand down in his favor, and he got the command. Quite the strategist. It ended soon after. Thoroughly dry.
"She had no stomach for another lover, after that. So you see, I think your old Barrayarans may have been on to something, after all. The inept-need rules, for their own protection."
The waterfall whispered in the silence. "I-knew a man his voice came out of the darkness. "He was once, married, at twenty, to a girl of high rank of eighteen. Arranged, of course, but he was very happy with it.
"He was away most of the time, on duty. She found herself free, rich, alone in the capital in the society of people-not altogether vicious, but older than herself. Rich parasites, their parasites, users. She was courted, and it went to her head. Not her heart, I think. She took lovers, as those around her did. Looking back, I don't think she felt any more emotion for them than vanity and pride of conquest, but at the time . . . He had built up a false picture of her in his mind, and having it suddenly shattered . . . This boy had a very bad temper. It was his particular curse. He resolved on a duel with her lovers.
"She had two on her string, or her on theirs, I can't say which. He didn't care who survived, or if he were arrested. He imagined he was dishonored, you see. He arranged to have each meet him at a deserted place, about half an hour apart."
He paused for a long time. Cordelia waited, barely breathing, uncertain whether to encourage him to go on or not. He continued eventually, but his voice went flatter and he spoke in a rush.
"The first was another pigheaded young aristocrat like himself, and he played out the game by the rules. He knew the use of the two swords, fought with flair, and almost killed m-my friend. The last thing he said was that he'd always wanted to be killed by a jealous husband, only at age eighty."
By this time, the little slip was no surprise to Cordelia, and she wondered if her story had been as transparent to him. It certainly seemed so.
"The second was a high government minister, an older man. He wouldn't fight, although he knocked him down and stood him up several times. After-after the other, who had died with a joke in his mouth, he could hardly bear it. He finally slew him outright in the middle of his begging, and left them there.
"He stopped at his wife's apartment, to tell her what he'd done, and returned to his ship, to wait for arrest. This all happened in one afternoon. She was enraged, full of wounded pride-she would have dueled with him, if she could-and she killed herself. Shot herself in the head, with his service plasma arc. I wouldn't have thought it a woman's weapon. Poison, or cutting the wrists, or something. But she was true Vor. It burned her face entirely away. She'd had the most beautiful imaginable face. . . .
"Things worked out very strangely. It was assumed the two lovers had killed each other-I swear, he never planned it that way-and that she'd killed herself in despondency. No one ever asked him the first question about it." His voice slowed, and intensified. "He went through that whole afternoon like a sleepwalker, or an actor, saying the expected lines, going through the expected motions, and at the end his honor was no better for it. Nothing was served, no point was proved. It was all as false as her love affairs, except for the deaths. They were real." He paused. "So you see, you Betans have one advantage. You at least permit each other to learn from your mistakes."
"I'm-grieved, for your friend. Does it seem very long ago?"
"Sometimes. Over twenty years. They say that senile people remember things from their youth more clearly than those of last week. Maybe he's getting senile."
"I see." She took the story in like some strange, spiked gift, too
fragile to drop, too painful to hold. He lay back, silent again, and she
took another turn around the glade, listening at the wood's edge to a
silence so profound the roaring of the blood in her ears seemed to
drown it out. When she'd completed the round, Vorkosigan was
asleep, restless and shivering in his fever. She filched one of the
half-burned bedrolls from Dubauer, and covered him up.
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10