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Lois McMaster Bujold

The Mountains of Mourning

( Barrayar )

 

Miles heard the woman weeping as he was climbing the hill from the long lake. He hadn't dried himself after his swim, as the morning already promised shimmering heat. Lake water trickled cool from his hair onto his naked chest and back, more annoyingly down his legs from his ragged shorts. His leg braces chafed on his damp skin as he pistoned up the faint trail through the scrub, military double-time. His feet squished in his old wet shoes. He slowed in curiosity as he became conscious of the voices.

The woman's voice grated with grief and exhaustion. 'Please, lord, please. All I want is m'justice…'

The front gate guard's voice was irritated and embarrassed. 'I'm no lord. C'mon, get up, woman. Go back to the village and report it at the district magistrate's office.'

'I tell you, I just came from there!' The woman did not move from her knees as Miles emerged from the bushes and paused to take in the tableau across the paved road. 'The magistrate's not to return for weeks, weeks. I walked four days to get here. I only have a little money…' A desperate hope rose in her voice, and her spine bent and straightened as she scrabbled in her skirt pocket and held out her cupped hands to the guard. 'A mark and twenty pence, it's all I have, but -'

The exasperated guard's eye fell on Miles, and he straightened abruptly, as if afraid Miles might suspect him of being tempted by so pitiful a bribe. 'Be off, woman!' he snapped.

Miles quirked an eyebrow and limped across the road to the main gate. 'What's all this about, Corporal?' he inquired easily.

The guard corporal was on loan from Imperial Security, and wore the high-necked dress greens of the Barrayaran Service. He was sweating and uncomfortable in the bright morning light of this southern district, but Miles fancied he'd be boiled before he'd undo his collar on this post. His accent was not local; he was a city man from the capital, where a more-or-less efficient bureaucracy absorbed such problems as the one on her knees before him.

The woman, now, was local and more than local — she had backcountry written all over her. She was younger than her strained voice had at first suggested. Tall, fever-red from her weeping, with stringy blonde hair hanging down across a ferret-thin face and protuberant gray eyes. If she were cleaned up, fed, rested, happy and confident, she might achieve a near-prettiness, but she was far from that now, despite her remarkable figure. Lean but full-breasted — no, Miles revised himself as he crossed the road and came up to the gate. Her bodice was all blotched with dried milk leaks, though there was no baby in sight. Only temporarily full-breasted. Her worn dress was factory-woven cloth, but hand-sewn, crude and simple. Her feet were bare, thickly callused, cracked and sore.

'No problem,' the guard assured Miles. 'Go away,' he hissed to the woman.

She lurched off her knees and sat stonily.

'I'll call my sergeant' — the guard eyed her warily — 'and have her removed.'

'Wait a moment,' said Miles.

She stared up at Miles from her cross-legged position, clearly not knowing whether to identify him as hope or not. His clothing, what there was of it, offered her no clue as to what he might be. The rest of him was all too plainly displayed. He jerked up his chin and smiled thinly. Too-large head, too-short neck, back thickened with its crooked spine, crooked legs with their brittle bones too-often broken, drawing the eye in their gleaming chromium braces. Were the hill woman standing, the top of his head would barely be even with the top of her shoulder. He waited in boredom for her hand to make the backcountry hex sign against evil mutations, but it only jerked and clenched into a fist.

'I must see my lord Count,' she said to an uncertain point halfway between Miles and the guard. 'It's my right. My daddy, he died in the Service. It's my right.'

'Prime Minister Count Vorkosigan,' said the guard stiffly, 'is on his country estate to rest. If he were working, he'd be back in Vorbarr Sultana.' The guard looked as though he wished he were back in Vorbarr Sultana.

The woman seized the pause. 'You're only a city man. He's my count. My right.'

'What do you want to see Count Vorkosigan for?' asked Miles patiently.

'Murder,' growled the girl/woman. The security guard spasmed slightly. 'I want to report a murder.'

'Shouldn't you report to your village speaker first?' inquired Miles, with a hand-down gesture to calm the twitching guard.

'I did. He'll do nothing.' Rage and frustration cracked her voice. 'He says it's over and done. He won't write down my accusation, says it's nonsense. It would only make trouble for everybody, he says. I don't care! I want my justice!'

Miles frowned thoughtfully, looking the woman over. The details checked, corroborated her claimed identity, added up to a solid if subliminal sense of the authentic that perhaps escaped the professionally paranoid security man. 'It's true, Corporal,' Miles said. 'She has a right to appeal, first to the district magistrate, then to the count's court. And the district magistrate won't be back for two weeks.'

This sector of Count Vorkosigan's native district had only one overworked district magistrate, who rode a circuit that included the lakeside village of Vorkosigan Surleau but one day a month. Since the region of the Prime Minister's country estate was crawling with Imperial Security when the great lord was in residence, and closely monitored even when he was not, prudent troublemakers took their troubles elsewhere.

'Scan her, and let her in,' said Miles. 'On my authority.'

The guard was one of Imperial Security's best, trained to watch for assassins in his own shadow. He now looked scandalized, and lowered his voice to Miles. 'Sir, if I let every country lunatic wander the estate at will -'

'I'll take her up. I'm going that way.'

The guard shrugged helplessly, but stopped short of saluting; Miles was decidedly not in uniform. The gate guard pulled a scanner from his belt and made a great show of going over the woman. Miles wondered if he'd have been inspired to harass her with a strip-search without Miles's inhibiting presence. When the guard finished demonstrating how alert, conscientious, and loyal he was, he palmed open the gate's lock, entered the transaction, including the woman's retina scan, into the computer monitor, and stood aside in a pose of rather pointed parade rest. Miles grinned at the silent editorial and steered the bedraggled woman by the elbow through the gates and up the winding drive.

She twitched away from his touch at the earliest opportunity, yet still refrained from superstitious gestures, eyeing him with a strange and hungry curiosity. Time was, such openly repelled fascination with the peculiarities of his body had driven Miles to grind his teeth; now he could take it with a serene amusement only slightly tinged with acid. They would learn, all of them. They would learn.

'Do you serve Count Vorkosigan, little man?' she asked cautiously.

Miles thought about that one a moment. 'Yes,' he answered finally. The answer was, after all, true on every level of meaning but the one she'd asked it. He quelled the temptation to tell her he was the court jester. From the look of her, this one's troubles were much worse than his own.

She had apparently not quite believed in her own rightful destiny, despite her mulish determination at the gate, for as they climbed unimpeded toward her goal a nascent panic made her face even more drawn and pale,

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