Lois McMaster Bujold

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance

Chapter One

Ivan’s door buzzer sounded at close to Komarran midnight, just when he was unwinding enough from lingering jump lag, his screwed-up diurnal rhythm, and the day’s labors to consider sleep. He growled under his breath and trod unwillingly to answer it.

His instincts proved correct when he saw who waited in the aperture.

“Oh, God. Byerly Vorrutyer. Go away.”

“Hi, Ivan,” said Byerly smoothly, ignoring Ivan’s anti-greeting. “May I come in?”

Ivan took about a second to consider the, at best, complicated possibilities Byerly usually trailed in his wake, and said simply, “No.” But he’d hesitated too long. Byerly slipped inside. Ivan sighed, letting the door slide closed and seal. So far from home, it was good to see a familiar face-just not By’s. Next time, use the security screen, and pretend not to be here, eh?

Byerly padded swiftly across the small but choice living quarters of Ivan’s downtown Solstice luxury flat, rentals by the week. Ivan had picked it out for its potential proximity to Solstice nightlife, which, alas, he had so far not had a chance to sample. Pausing at the broad glass doors to the balcony, Byerly dimmed the polarization on the seductive view of the glittering lights of the capital city. Dome, Ivan corrected his thought to Komarran nomenclature, as the arcology existed under a hodgepodge of seals to keep the toxic planetary atmosphere out and the breathable one in. Byerly pulled the drapes as well, and turned back to the room.

Yielding to a curiosity he knew he would regret, Ivan asked, “What the hell are you doing on Komarr, By? Isn’t this off your usual beat?”

Byerly grimaced. “Working.”

Indeed, an experienced observer, which Ivan unfortunately was, could detect a distinct strain around By’s eyes, along with the redness from drink and perhaps recreational chemicals. Byerly cultivated the authentic look of a Barrayaran high Vor town clown given over to a life of dissolution and idle vice by actually living it, ninety percent of the time. The other ten percent, and most of his hidden income, came from his work as an informer for Imperial Security. And ninety percent of that was just more dissolution and vice, except for having to turn in reports at the end. The residue, Ivan had to concede, could get dicey.

Ratting out your friends to ImpSec for money, Ivan had once heckled By, to which By had shrugged and replied, And the greater glory of the Imperium. Don’t forget that.

Ivan wondered which it was tonight.

In reflexive response to the manners drilled into him in his youth, Ivan offered, “Something to drink? Beer, wine? Something stronger?” He contemplated By’s boneless flop onto his living room couch. “Coffee?”

“Just water. Please. I need to clear my head, and then I need to sleep.”

Ivan went to his tidy kitchenette and filled a tumbler. As he handed it to his unwelcome guest, By said, “And what are you doing in Solstice, Ivan?”


By’s open hand invited him to expand.

Ivan sat across from him and said, “Trailing my boss, who is here for an Ops conference with his assorted counterparts and underlings. Efficiently combined with the annual Komarr Fleet inspections. All the excitement of a tax inventory, except in dress uniform.” Belatedly, Ivan realized By had to already know all this. He’d found Ivan, hadn’t he? Because By’s random social calls, weren’t.

“Still working for Admiral Desplains?”

“Yep. Aide-de-camp, secretary, personal assistant, general dogsbody, whatever he needs. I aim to make myself indispensable.”

“And still ducking promotion, are you, Captain Vorpatril?”

“Yes. And succeeding, no thanks to you.”

By smirked. “They say that at Imperial Service Headquarters, the captains bring the coffee.”

“That’s right. And I like it that way.” Ivan only wished it were true. It seemed barely months ago, though it was over a year, that the latest flare-up of tensions with Barrayar’s most traditional enemy, the Cetagandan Empire, had pinned Ivan to military headquarters 26.7 hours a Barrayaran day for weeks on end, sweating out all the most horrific possibilities. Designing death in detail. War had been averted through non-traditional diplomacy, mostly on the part of Barrayaran emperor Gregor’s weaseliest Imperial Auditor and, to give credit where it was due, his wife.

That time. There was always a next time.

Ivan studied Byerly, who was only a few years older than himself. They shared the same brown eyes, dark hair, and olive skin common to Barrayar’s somewhat inbred military caste, or aristocracy, whatever one wanted to call it, and, indeed, common to most Barrayarans. By was shorter and slighter than Ivan’s six-foot-one, broad- shouldered fitness, but then, he didn’t have a Desplains riding him to keep up the recruiting-poster appearance expected of an officer serving at Imperial Headquarters. Granted, when they weren’t squinting from the dissolution, By’s eyes had the startling beauty that distinguished his famous, or infamous, clan, to which Ivan was connected by a few twigs in his own family tree. That was the problem with being Vor. You ended up related to all sorts of people you’d rather not be. And they all felt free to call on you for favors.

“What do you want, Byerly?”

“So direct! You’ll never become a diplomat that way, Ivan.”

“I once spent a year as assistant military attache to the Barrayaran Embassy on Earth. It was as much diplomacy as I cared for. Get to the point, By. I want to go to bed. And by the looks of you, so do you.”

By let his eyes widen. “Why Ivan! Was that an invitation? I’m so thrilled!”

“Someday,” Ivan growled, “I might say yes to that old line, just to watch you have a coronary.”

By spread his hand over his heart, and intoned wistfully, “And so I might.” He drained his water and gave over the vamping, the face so often arranged in a vague smarminess firming intently in a way Ivan always found a touch disturbing. “Actually, I have a little task to ask of you.”


“It’s quite in your line. I may even be said to be doing you a good turn, who knows. I’d like you to pick up a girl.”

“No,” said Ivan, only in part to see what By would say next.

“Come, come. You pick up girls all the time.”

“Not on your recommendations. What’s the catch?”

Byerly made a face. “So suspicious, Ivan!”


By shrugged, conceding the point. “Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure. And my duties with, if I may say it, the unusually unpleasant people I am presently accompanying-”

Spying on, Ivan translated this without difficulty. And the company By kept was usually unpleasant, in Ivan’s opinion. Unusually unpleasant implied…what?

“-leave me little opportunity to check her out. But they have an inexplicable interest in her. Which I suspect is not friendly. It worries me, Ivan, I must say.” He added after a moment, “She’s quite well-looking, I assure you. You need have no fear on that score.”

Ivan frowned, stung. “Are you implying I’d refuse to supply assistance to a homely girl?”

Byerly sat back, eyebrows flicking up. “To your credit, I actually don’t believe that’s the case. But it will add a certain convincing verisimilitude for the outside observer.” He pulled a small plastic flimsy from his jacket and handed it across.

The background was too fuzzed to make out, but the picture showed a striking young woman striding down a sidewalk. Apparent age could be anything between twenty and thirty standard-years, though that was no certain

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