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Lois McMaster Bujold

THE WARRIOR'S APPRENTICE

CHAPTER ONE

The tall and dour non-com wore Imperial dress greens and carried his communications panel like a field marshal's baton. He slapped it absently against his thigh and raked the group of young men before him with a gaze of dry contempt. Challenging.

All part of the game, Miles told himself. He stood in the crisp autumn breeze and tried not to shiver in his shorts and running shoes. Nothing to put you off balance like being nearly naked when all about you look ready for one of Emperor Gregor's reviews although, in all fairness, the majority here were dressed the same as himself. The non-com proctoring the tests merely seemed like a one-man crowd. Miles measured him, wondering what conscious or unconscious tricks of body language he used to achieve that air of icy competence. Something to be learned there …

'You will run in pairs,' the non-com instructed. He did not seem to raise his voice, but somehow it was pitched to carry to the ends of the lines. Another effective trick, Miles thought; it reminded him of that habit of his father's, of dropping his voice to a whisper when speaking in a rage. It locked attention.

'The timing of the five kilometer run begins immediately upon completion of the last phase of the obstacle course; remember it.' The non-com began counting off pairs.

The eliminations for officers candidacy in the Barrayaran Imperial Military Service took a gruelling week. Five days of written and oral examinations were behind Miles now. The hardest part was over, everybody said. There was almost an air of relaxation among the young men around him. There was more talking and joking in the group, exaggerated complaints about the difficulty of the exams, the withering wit of the examining officers, the poor food, interrupted sleep, surprise distractions during the testing. Self-congratulatory complaints, these, among the survivors. They looked forward to the physical tests as a game. Recess, perhaps. The hardest part was over— for everyone but Miles.

He stood to his full height, such as it was, and stretched, as if to pull his crooked spine out straight by force of will. He gave a little upward jerk of his chin, as if balancing his too-large head, a head meant for a man over six feet, on his just-under-five-foot frame, and narrowed his eyes at the obstacle course. It began with a concrete wall, five meters high, topped with iron spikes. Climbing it would be no problem, there was nothing wrong with his muscles, it was the coming down that worried him. The bones, always the damn bones …

'Kosigan, Kostolitz,' the non-com called, passing in front of him. Miles's brows snapped down and he gave the non-com a sharp upward glance, then controlled his gaze to a blank straightness. The omission of the honorific before his name was policy, not insult. All classes stood equal in the Emperor's service now. A good policy. His own father endorsed it.

Grandfather bitched, to be sure, but that unreconstructed old man had begun his Imperial service when its principle arm was horse cavalry and each officer trained his own military apprentices. To have addressed him in those days as Kosigan, without the Vor, might have resulted in a duel. Now his grandson sought entrance to a military academy, off planet style, and training in the tactics of energy weapons, wormhole exits, and planetary defense. And stood shoulder to shoulder with boys who would not have been permitted to polish his sword in the old days.

Not quite shoulder to shoulder, Miles reflected dryly, stealing a sidelong glance up at the candidates on either side of him. The one he had been paired with for the obstacle course, what's his name, Kostolitz, caught the glance and looked back down with ill-concealed curiosity. Miles's eye level gave him a fine opportunity to study the fellow's excellent biceps. The non-com signalled fall out for those not running the obstacle course immediately. Miles and his companion sat on the ground.

'I've been seeing you around all week,' offered Kostolitz. 'What the hell is that thing on your leg?'

Miles controlled his irritation with the ease of long practice. God knew he did stand out in a crowd, particularly this crowd. At least Kostolitz did not make hex signs at him, like a certain decrepit old countrywoman down at Vorkosigan Surleau. In some of the more remote and undeveloped regions on Barrayar, like deep in the Dendarii Mountains in the Vorkosigans' own district, infanticide was still practiced for defects as mild as a harelip, despite sporadic efforts from the more enlightened centers of authority to stamp it out. He glanced down at the pair of gleaming metal rods paralleling his left leg between knee and ankle that had remained secretly beneath his trouser leg until this day.

'Leg brace,' he replied, polite but unencouraging.

Kostolitz continued to stare. 'What for?'

'Temporary. I have a couple of brittle bones there. Keeps me from breaking them, until the surgeon's quite sure I'm done growing. Then I get them replaced with synthetics.'

'That's weird,' commented Kostolitz. 'Is it a disease, or what?' Under the guise of shifting his weight, he moved just slightly farther from Miles.

Unclean, unclean, thought Miles wildly; should I ring a bell? I ought to tell him it's contagious—I was six- footfour this time last year … He sighed away the temptation. 'My mother was exposed to a poison gas when she was pregnant with me. She pulled through all right, but it wrecked my bone growth.'

'Huh. Didn't they give you any medical treatment?'

'Oh, sure. I've had an Inquisition's worth. That's why I can walk around today, instead of being carried in a bucket.'

Kostolitz looked mildly revolted, but stopped trying to sidle subtly upwind. 'How did you ever get past the medicals? I thought there was a minimum height rule.'

'It was waived, pending my test results.'

'Oh.' Kostolitz digested this.

Miles returned his attention to the test ahead. He should be able to pick up some time on that belly-crawl under the laser fire; good, he would need it on the five kilometer run. Lack of height, and a permanent limp from a left leg shorter, after more fractures than he could remember, by a good four centimeters than his right, would slow him down. No help for it. Tomorrow would be better; tomorrow was the endurance phase. The herd of long-legged gangling boys around him could unquestionably beat him on the sprint. He fully expected to be anchor man on the first 25 kilometer leg tomorrow, probably the second as well, but after 75 kilometers most would be flagging as the real pain mounted. I am a professional of pain, Kostolitz, he thought to his rival. Tomorrow, after about kilometer 100, I'll ask you to repeat those questions of yours—if you have the breath to spare….

Bloody hell, let's pay attention to business, not this dink. A five meter drop—perhaps it would be better to go around, take a zero on that part. But his overall score was bound to be relatively poor. He hated to part with a single point unnecessarily, and at the very beginning, too. He was going to need every one of them. Skipping the wall would cut into his narrow safety margin—

'You really expect to pass the physicals?' asked Kostolitz, looking around. 'I mean, above the 50th percentile?'

'No.'

Kostolitz looked baffled. 'Then what the hell's the point?'

'I don't have to pass it; just make something near a decent score.'

Kostolitz's eyebrows rose. 'Whose ass do you have to kiss to get a deal like that? Gregor Vorbarra's?'

There was an undercurrent of incipient jealousy in his tone, class-conscious suspicion. Miles's jaw clamped. Let us not bring up the subject of fathers …

'How do you plan to get in without passing?' Kostolitz persisted, eyes narrowing. His nostrils flared at the scent of privilege, like an animal alert for blood.

Practice politics, Miles told himself. That too should be in your blood, like war. 'I petitioned,' Miles explained patiently, 'to have my scores averaged instead of taken separately. I expect my writtens to bring up my physicals.'

'That far up? You'd need a damn near perfect score!'

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