Lois McMaster Bujold, "The Warrior Apprentice"

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CHAPTER THREE

Miles was awakened in a dim grey light by a servant apprehensively touching his shoulder.

"Lord Vorkosigan? Lord Vorkosigan?" the man murmured.

Miles peered through slitted eyes, feeling thick with sleep, as though moving under water. What hour-and why was the idiot miscalling him by his father's title? New, was he? No ...

Cold consciousness washed over him, and his stomach knotted, as the full significance of the man's words penetrated. He sat up, head swimming, heart sinking. 'What?"

'The--your father requests you dress and join him downstairs immediately." The man's tumbling tongue confirmed his fear.

It was the hour before dawn. Yellow lamps made small warm pools within the library as Miles entered. The windows were blue-grey cold translucent rectangles, balanced on the cusp of night, neither transmitting light from without nor reflecting it from within. His father stood, half-dressed in uniform trousers, shirt, and slippers, talking in a grave undertone with two men. Their personal physician, and an aide in the uniform of the Imperial Residence. His father-Count Vorkosigan?- looked up to meet his eyes.

"Grandfather, sir?" asked Miles softly.

The new Count nodded. 'Very quietly, in his sleep, about two hours ago. He felt no pain, I think/' His father's voice was low and clear, without tremor, but his face seemed more lined than usual, almost furrowed. Set, expressionless; the determined commander. Situation under control. Only his eyes, and only now and then, through a passing trick of angle, held the look of some stricken and bewildered child. The eyes frightened Miles far more than the stem mouth.

Miles's own vision blurred, and he brushed the foolish water from his eyes with the back of his hand in a brusque, angry swipe. "God damn it," he choked numbly. He had never felt smaller.

His father focused on him uncertainly.'I -" he began. "He's been hanging by a thread for months, you know that ..."

And I cut that thread yesterday. Miles thought miserably. I'm sorry ... But he said only, "Yes, sir."

The funeral for the old hero was nearly a State occasion. Three days of panoply and pantomime, thought Miles wearily; what's it all for? Proper clothing was produced, hastily, in somber correct black. Vorkosigan House became a chaotic staging-area for forays into public set-pieces. The lying-in-state at Vorhartung Castle, where the Council of Counts met. The eulogies. The procession, which was nearly a parade, thanks to the loan from Gregor Vorbarra of a military band in dress uniform and a contingent of his purely decorative horse cavalry. The interment.

Miles had thought his grandfather was the last of his generation. Not quite, it seemed, for the damndest set of ancient creaking martinets and their crones, in black like flapping crows, came creeping from whatever wood work they'd been lurking in. Miles, grimly polite endured their shocked and pitying stares when introduced as Piotr Vorkosigan's grandson, and their interminable reminiscences about people he'd never heard of who'd died before he was born, and of whom-he sir cerely hoped-he would never hear again.

Even after the last spadeful of dirt had been packed down, it was not ended Vorkosigan House was invade< that afternoon and evening, by hordes of-you couldn't call them well-wishers, exactly, he reflected-but friends, acquaintances, military men, public men, their wives, the courteous, the curious, and more relatives than he cared to think about.

Count and Countess Vorkosigan were nailed downstairs. Social duty was always yoked, for his father, to political duty, and so was doubly inescapable. But when his cousin Ivan Voipatril arrived, in tow of his mother Lady Vorpatril, Miles determined to escape to the only bolt-hole left not occupied by enemy forces. Ivan had passed his candidacy exams. Miles had heard; he didn't think he could tolerate the details. He plucked a couple of gaudy blooms from a funeral floral display in passing, and fled by lift tube to the top floor, and refuge.

Miles knocked on the carved wood door. '"Who's there?" Elena's voice floated through faintly. He tried the enamel-patterned knob, found it unlocked, and snaked a hand waving the flowers around the door. Her voice added, "Oh, come in. Miles."

He bobbed around the door, lean in black, and grinned tentatively. She was sitting in an antique chair by her window. "How did you know it was me?" Miles asked.

"Well, it was either you or-nobody brings me flowers on their knees." Her eye lingered a moment on the doorknob, unconsciously revealing the height scale used for her deduction.

Miles promptly dropped to his knees and quick-marched across the rug, to present his offering with a flourish. "Voila!" he cried, surprising a laugh from her. His legs protested this abuse by going into painful cramping spasms. "Ah ..." He cleared his throat, and added in a much smaller voice, "Do you suppose you could help me up? These damn grav-crutches ..."

"Oh, dear." Elena assisted him on to her narrow bed, made him put his legs out straight, and returned to her chair.

Miles looked around the tiny bedroom. "Is this closet the best we can do for you?"

"I like it. I like the window on the street," she assured him. "It's bigger than my father's room here." She tested the flowers' scent, a musty green odor. Miles immediately regretted not sorting through to find some of the more perfumy kind. She looked up at him in sudden suspicion. "Miles, where did you get these?"

He flushed, faintly guilty. "Borrowed 'em from Grandfather. Believe me, they'll never be missed. It's a jungle down there."

She shook her head helplessly. "You're incorrigible." But she smiled.

"You don't mind?" he asked anxiously. "I thought you'd get more enjoyment from them than he would, at this point."

"Just so nobody thinks I filched them myself!"

"Refer them to me," he offered grandly. He jerked up his chin. She was gazing into the flowers' delicate structure more somberly. "Now what are you thinking? Sad thoughts?"

"Honestly, my face might as well be a window."

"Not at all. Your face is more like-like water. All reflections and shifting lights-I never know what's lurking in the depths." He dropped his voice at the end, to indicate the mystery of the depths.

Elena smiled derisively, then sighed seriously. "I was just thinking-I've never put flowers on my mother's grave."

He brightened at the prospect of a project. "Do you want to? We could slip out the back-load up a cart or two-nobody'd notice ..."

"Certainly not!" she said indignantly. "This is quite bad enough of you." She turned the flowers in the tight from the window, silvered from the chill autumn cloudiness. "Anyway, I don't know where it is."

"Oh? How strange. As fixated as the Sergeant is on your mother, I'd have thought he'd be just the pilgrimmage type. Maybe he doesn't like to think about her death, though."

"You're right about that. I asked him about it once, to go and see where she's buried and so on, and it was like talking to a wall. You know how he can be."

"Yes, very like a wall. Particularly when it falls or someone." A theorizing gleam lit Miles's eye. "Maybe it'; guilt. Maybe she was one of those rare women who die in childbirth-she did die about the time you were born didn't she?"

"He said it was a flyer accident."

"Oh."

"But another time he said she'd drowned."

"Hm?" The gleam deepened to a persistent smoulder, "If she'd ditched her flyer in a river or something, they could both be true. Or if he ditched it ..."

Elena shivered. Miles caught it, and castigated himself inwardly for being an insensitive clod. "Oh, sorry. Didn't mean to-I'm in a gruesome mood today, I'm afraid," he apologized. "It's all this blasted black." He flapped his elbows in imitation of a carrion bird.

He lapsed into introspective quiet for a time, meditating on the ceremonies of death. Elena fell in with his silence, gazing wistfully down on the darkly glittering throng of Barrayar's upper class, passing in and out four floors below her window.

"We could find out," he said suddenly, startling her from her reverie.

"What?"

"Where your mother's buried. And we wouldn't even have to ask anyone."

"How?"

He grinned, swinging to his feet. "I'm not going to say. You'd go all wobbly on me, like that time we went spelunking down at Vorkosigan Surleau and found the old guerrilla weapons cache. You'll never get another chance in your life to drive one of those old tanks, you know."

She made doubtful noises. Apparently her memory of the incident was vivid and awful, even though she had avoided being caught in the landslide. But she followed.

They entered the darkened downstairs library cautiously. Miles paused to brace the duty guard outside it with an off-color smirk, lowering his voice confidentially. "Suppose you could sort of rattle the door if anyone comes. Corporal? We'd, ah-rather not have any surprise interruptions."

The duty guard's return smirk was knowing. "Of course. Lord Mi-Lord Vorkosigan." He eyed Elena with fresh speculation, one eyebrow quirking.

"Miles," Elena whispered furiously as the door swung closed, cutting off the steady murmur of voices, clink of glass and silver, soft tread of feet from Piotr Vorkosigan's wake that penetrated from nearby rooms. "Do you realize what he's going to think?"

"Evil to him who evil thinks," he flung gaily over his shoulder. "Just so he doesn't think of this ..." He palmed the lock to the comconsole, with its double-scrambled links to military headquarters and the Imperial Residence, that sat incongruously before the carved marble fireplace. Elena's mouth fell open in astonishment as its force screen parted. A few passes of his hands brought the holovid plates to life.

"I thought that was top security!" she gasped.

" Tis. But Captain Koudelka was giving me a little tutoring on the side, before, when I was-" a bitter smile, a jerk of the wrist, "studying. He used to tap into the battle computers-the real ones, at headquarters- and run simulations for me. I thought he might not have remembered to unkey me ..." he was half-absorbed, entering a tattoo of complex directions.

"What are you doing?" she asked nervously.

"Entering Captain Koudelka's access code. To get military records."

'Ye gods. Miles!"

"Don't worry about it." He patted her hand. "We're in here necking, remember? Nobody's likely to come in here tonight but Captain Koudelka, and he won't mind that. We can't miss. Thought I'd start with your father's Service record. Ah, here ..." The holovid plate threw up a flat screen and began displaying written records 'There's bound to be something about your mother on it, that we can use to unravel," he paused, sitting bad puzzled, "the mystery ..." He flipped through severs screens "What?" Elena agitated.

"Thought I'd peek into near the time you were born- I thought he'd quit the Service just before, right?"

"Right."

"Did he ever say he was involuntarily medically discharged?"

"No ..." She peered over his shoulder. "That's funny. It doesn't say why."

'Tell you what's funnier. His entire record for most of the preceding year is sealed. Your time. And the code on it-very hot. I can't crack it without triggering a double-check, which would end-yes, that's Captain Illyan's personal mark. I definitely don't want to talk to him." He quailed at the thought of accidentally summoning the attention of Barrayar's Chief of Imperial Security.

"Definitely," croaked Elena, staring at him in fascination.

"Well, let's do some time-travelling," Miles pattered on. "Back, back ... Your father doesn't seem to have gotten along too well with this Commodore Vorrutyer fellow."

Elena perked with interest. "Was that the same as the Admiral Vorrutyer who was killed at Escobar?"

"Um ... Yes, Ges Vorrutyer. Hm." Bothari had been the commodore's batman, it appeared, for several years. Miles was surprised. He'd had the vague impression that Bothari had served under his father as a ground combat soldier since the beginning of time. Bothari's service with Vorrutyer ended in a constellation of reprimands, black marks, discipline parades, and sealed medical reports. Miles, conscious of Elena staring over his shoulder, whipped past these quickly. Oddly inconsistent. Some, bizarrely petty, were marked with ferocious punishments. Others, astonishingly serious-had Bothari really held an engineering tech at plasma-arc-point in a lavatory for sixteen hours? and for God's sake, why?-disappeared into the medical reports and resulted in no discipline at all.

Going farther into the past, the record steadied. A lot of combat in his twenties. Commendations, citations for being wounded, more commendations. Excellent marks in basic training. Recruiting records. "Recruiting was a lot simpler in those days," Miles said enviously.

"Oh! Are my grandparents on that?" asked Elena eagerly. "He never talks about them, either. I gather his mother died when he was rather young. He's never even told me her name."

"Marusia," Miles sounded out, peering. "fuzzy photostat."

"That's pretty," said Elena, sounding pleased. "And his father's"

Whoops, thought Miles. The recopied photostat was not so fuzzy that he couldn't make out the blunt, uncapitalized "unknown" printed in some forgotten clerk's hand. Miles swallowed, realizing at last why a certain insulting epithet seemed to get under Bothari's skin when all others were allowed to roll off, patiently disdained.

"Maybe I can make it out," Elena offered, misinterpreting his delay.

The screen went blank at a twitch of his hand. "Konstantine," Miles declared firmly, without hesitation. "Sam' as his. But both his parents were dead by the time h joined the Service."

"Konstantine Bothari junior," Elena mused. "Hm."

Miles stared into the blank screen, and suppressed a urge to scream with frustration. Another damned artificial social wedge driven between himself and Elena. A father who was a bastard was about as far from being "right and proper" for a young Barrayaran virgin as anything he could think of. And it was obviously no secret-his father must know, and God knew how many hundred of other people besides. Equally obviously, Elena did not. She was rightfully proud of her father, his elite se vice, his position of high trust. Miles knew how painful hard she struggled sometimes for some expression < approval from the old stone carving. How strange to realize that pain might cut both ways-did Bothari then dread the loss of mat scarcely-acknowledged admiration Well, the Sergeant's semi-secret was safe with him.

He flipped, fast-forward, through the years of Bothari life. "Stilt no sign of your mother," he said to Elena "She must be under that seal. Damn, and I thought d: was going to be easy." He stared thoughtfully into space

"Try hospital records. Deaths, births-you sure you were born here in Vorbarr Sultana?"

"As far as I know."

Several minutes of tedious search produced records on a fair number of Botharis, none related to the Sergeant or Elena in any way. "Ah ha!" Miles broke out suddenly. "I know what I haven't tried. Imp Mil!"

'They don't have an obstetrics department," Elena said doubtfully.

"But if an accident-soldier's wife and all that-maybe she was rushed to the nearest facility, and the Imperial Military Hospital was it ..." He crooned over the machine. "Searching, searching ... huh!"

"Did you find me?" she asked excitedly.

"No-I found me." He flipped over screen after screen of documentation. "What a scramble it must have been, making military research clean up after its own product. Lucky for me they'd imported those uterine replicators-yes, there they are-they could never have tried some of those treatments in vivo, they'd have killed Mother. There's good old Dr. Vaagen-ah ha! So he was in military research, before. Makes sense-I guess he was their poison expert. I wish I'd known more about this when I was a kid, I could have agitated for two birthdays, one when Mother had the cesarian, and one when they finally popped me out of the replicator."

"Which did they choose?"

"Cesarian day. I'm glad. Makes me only six months younger that you are. Otherwise you'd be nearly a year older-and I've been warned about older women ..." This babble won a smile at last, and he relaxed a little.

He paused, staring at the screen with slitted eyes, then entered another search query. "That's weird," he muttered.

"What?"

"A secret military medical research project-with my father as project director, no less."

"I never knew he was in research too," said Elena, sounding enormously impressed. "He sure got around."

"That's what's curious. He was a Staff tactician. Never had anything to do with research, as far as I know." A by-now-familiar code appeared at his next inquiry. "Blast! Another seal. Ask a simple question, get a simple brick wall . . . There's Dr. Vaagen, hand-in-rubber-glove with Father. Vaagen must have been doing the actual work, then. That explains that. I want under that seal, damn it . . /' He whistled a soundless tune, staring into space, fingers drumming.

Elena began to look dampened. "You're getting that mulish look," she observed nervously. "Maybe we should just let it go. It doesn't really matter by now."

"Illyan's mark's not on this one. It might be enough . . ."

Elena bit her lip. "Look, Miles, it's not really-" but he was already launched. "What are you doings"

"Trying one of Father's old access codes. I'm pretty sure of it, all but a few digits."

Elena gulped.

"Jackpot!" Miles cried softly, as the screen began disgorging data at last. He read avidly. "So that's where those uterine replicators came from! They brought them back from Escobar, after the invasion failed. The spoils of war, by God. Seventeen of them, loaded and working. They must have seemed like really high tech, in their day. I wonder if we looted them?"

Elena paled. "Miles-they weren't doing human experiments or, or anything like that, were they? Surely your father wouldn't have countenanced ..."

"I don't know. Dr. Vaagen can be pretty, um, one-track, about his research ..." Relief eased his voice. "Oh, I see what was going on. Look here ..." The holoscreen began scrolling yet another file in midair; he waved his fingers through it. "They were all sent to the Imperial Service Orphanage. They must have been some children of our men killed at Escobar."

Elena's voice tensed. "Children of men killed at Escobar? But where are their mothers?"

They stared at each other. "But we've never had any women in the Service, except for a few civilian medtechs," began Miles.

Elena's long fingers closed urgently on his shoulder "Look at the dates."

He scrolled the file again.

"Miles," she hissed.

"Yes, I see it." He stopped the screen. "Female infant released to the custody of Admiral Aral Vorkosigan. Not sent to the orphanage with the rest."

'The date-Miles, that's my birthday!"

He unpeeled her fingers. "Yes, I know. Don't crush my collarbone, please."

"Could it be me? Is it me?" Her face tightened with hope and dismay.

"I-ifs all numbers, you see," he said cautiously. "But there's plenty of medical identification-footprints, retinal, bloodtype-stick your foot over here."

Elena hopped about, removing shoes and hose. Miles helped her place her right foot over the holovid plate. He restrained himself with a twitching effort from running a hand up that incredible silken length of thigh, blooming from her rumpled skirts. Skin like an orchid petal. He bit his lips; pain, pain would help him to focus. Damn tight trousers anyway. He hoped she wouldn't notice ...

Setting up the optical laser check helped his focus rather better. A flickering red light played over her sole for a few seconds. He set the machine to comparing whorls and ridges. "Allowing for the change from infant to adult-my God, Elena, it is you!" He preened. If he couldn't be a soldier, perhaps he had a future as a detective ...

Elena's dark gaze transfixed him. "But what does it mean?" Her face congealed suddenly. "Don't I have- was I-am I some kind of clone, or manufactured?" She blinked suddenly liquid eyes, and her voice trembled. "I don't have a mother? No mother, and it was all just-"

The triumph of his successful identification seeped out of him at her distress. Clod! Now he'd fumed her dream mother into a nightmare-no, it was her own flying imagination that was doing that. "Uh, uh-no, certainly not! What an idea! You're obviously your father's daughter- no insult intended-it Just means your mother was killed at Escobar, instead of here. And furthermore," he sprang up to declaim dramatically, "this makes you my long-lost sister!"

"Huh?" said Elena, bewildered.

"Sure. Or-anyway, there's a 1/17th chance that we came out of the same replicator." He spun about her, conjuring farce against her terrors. "My 1/17th twin sister! It must be Act V! Take heart, this means you're bound to marry the Prince in the next scene!"

She laughed through her tears. The door rattled ominously. The corporal outside declaimed with unnecessary volume, "Good evening, sir!"

"Shoes! My shoes! Give me back my stockings!" hissed Elena.

Miles thrust them at her, killed the comconsole, and sealed it with one frantic, fluid motion. He catapulted onto the sofa, grabbed Elena about the waist and carried her down with him. She giggled and swore at him, struggling with her second shoe. One tear was still making a glistening track down her cheek.

He slipped a hand up into her shining hair, and bent her face toward his. "We better make this look good. I don't want to arouse Captain Koudelka's suspicions." He hesitated, his grin fading into seriousness. Her lips melted onto his.

The lights flicked on; they sprang apart. He peered up over her shoulder, and forgot for a moment how to exhale.

Captain Koudelka. Sergeant Bothari. And Count Vorkosigan.

Captain Koudelka looked suffused, a slight upward curl escaping from one comer of his mouth as if from enormous inward pressure. He glanced sideways at his companions, and tamped it out. The Sergeant's craggy face was icy. The Count was darkening rapidly.

Miles finally found something to do with all the air he'd taken in. "All right," he said in a firm didactic tone, "Now, after 'Grant me this boon,' on the next line you say, "With all my heart; and much it joys me too, to see you are become so penitent.'" He glanced up most impenitently at his father. "Good evening, sir. Are we taking up your space? We can go practice elsewhere . . ."

"Yes, let's," Elena squeaked, picking up her cue with alacrity. She produced a rather inane smile for the three adults as Miles towed her safely past. Captain Koudelka returned the smile with all his heart. The Count somehow managed to smile at her and frown menacingly at Miles at the same time. The Sergeant's frown was democratically universal. The duty guard's smirk broadened to a muffled snicker as they fled down the hall.

"Can't miss, eh?" Elena snarled out of the corner of her mouth at Miles as they rose up the lift tube.

He executed a pirouette in midair, shamelessly. "A strategic withdrawal in good order; what more can you ask for being out-gunned, out-numbered, and outranked? We were just practicing that old play. Very cultural. Who could possibly object? I think I'm a genius."

"I think you're an idiot!' she said fiercely. "My other stocking is hanging over the back of your shoulder."

"Oh." He twisted his neck for a look, and plucked off the filmy, clinging garment. He held it out to her with a sickly, apologetic smile. "I guess that didn't look too good."

She glared at him and snatched it back. "And now I'm going to get lectured at-he treats every male that comes near me like a potential rapist anyway-he'll probably forbid me to speak to you, too, now. Or send me back to the country forever . . ." Her eyes were swimming for their lives. They reached the door. "And on top of that, he's-he's lied to me about my mother-"

She fled into her bedroom, slamming the door so hard that she came close to taking off a few fingers from the hand Miles was raising in protest. He leaned against the door and called through the heavy carved wood anxiously. "You don't know that! There's undoubtedly some perfectly logical explanation-I'll get it figured out-"

"Go AWAY!" her muffled wail came back.

He shuffled uncertainly around the hall for a few more minutes, hoping for a second chance, but the door remained uncompromisingly blank and silent. After a time he became conscious of the stiff figure of the floor duty guard at the end of the corridor. The man was politely not looking at him. The Prime Minister's security detail was, after all, among the most discreet, as well as the most alert, available. Miles swore under his breath, and shuffled back to the lift tube.

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