Lois Bujold


For Anne and Paul

Chapter One

I am afraid. Cordelia’s hand pushed aside the drape in the third-floor parlor window of Vorkosigan House. She stared down into the sunlit street below. A long silver groundcar was pulling into the half-circular drive that serviced the front portico, braking past the spiked iron fence and the Earth-imported shrubbery. A government car. The door of the rear passenger compartment swung up, and a man in a green uniform emerged. Despite her foreshortened view Cordelia recognized Commander Illyan, brown-haired and hatless as usual. He strode out of sight under the portico. Guess I don’t really need to worry till Imperial Security comes for us in the middle of the night. But a residue of dread remained, burrowed in her belly. Why did I ever come here to Barrayar? What have I done to myself, to my life?

Booted footsteps sounded in the corridor, and the door of the parlor creaked inward. Sergeant Bothari stuck his head in, and grunted with satisfaction at finding her. “Milady. Time to go.”

“Thank you, Sergeant.” She let the drape fall, and turned to inspect herself one last time in a wall-mounted mirror above the archaic fireplace. Hard to believe people here still burned vegetable matter just for the release of its chemically-bound heat.

She lifted her chin, above the stiff white lace collar of her blouse, adjusted the sleeves of her tan jacket, and kicked her knee absently against the long swirling skirt of a Vor-class woman, tan to match the jacket. The color comforted her, almost the same tan as her old Betan Astronomical Survey fatigues. She ran her hands over her red hair, parted in the middle and held away from her face by two enameled combs, and flopped it over her shoulders to curl loosely halfway down her back. Her grey eyes stared back at her from the pale face in the mirror. Nose a little too bony, chin a shade too long, but certainly a servicable face, good for all practical purposes.

Well, if she wanted to look dainty, all she had to do was stand next to Sergeant Bothari. He loomed mournfully beside her, all two meters of him. Cordelia considered herself a tall woman, but the top of her head was only level with his shoulder. He had a gargoyle’s face, closed, wary, beak-nosed, its lumpiness exaggerated to criminality by his military-burr haircut. Even Count Vorkosigan’s elegant livery, dark brown with the symbols of the house embroidered in silver, failed to save Bothari from his astonishing ugliness. But a very good face indeed, for practical purposes.

A liveried retainer. What a concept. What did he retain? Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honors, for starters. She nodded cordially to him, in the mirror, and about-faced to follow him through the warren of Vorkosigan House.

She must learn her way around this great pile of a residence as soon as possible. Embarrassing, to be lost in one’s own home, and have to ask some passing guard or servant to detangle one. In the middle of the night, wearing only a towel. I used to be a jumpship navigator. Really. If she could handle five dimensions upside, surely she ought to be able to manage a mere three downside.

They came to the head of a large circular staircase, curving gracefully down three flights to a black-and- white stone-paved foyer. Her light steps followed Bothari’s measured tread. Her skirts made her feel she was floating, parachuting inexorably down the spiral.

A tall young man, leaning on a cane at the foot of the stairs, looked up at the echo of their feet. Lieutenant Koudelka’s face was as regular and pleasant as Bothari’s was narrow and strange, and he smiled openly at Cordelia. Even the pain lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth failed to age that face. He wore Imperial undress greens, identical but for the insignia to Security Commander Illyan’s. The long sleeves and high neck of his jacket concealed the tracery of thin red scars that netted half his body, but Cordelia mapped them in her mind’s eye. Nude, Koudelka could pose as a visual aid for a lecture on the structure of the human nervous system, each scar representing a dead nerve excised and replaced with artificial silver threads. Lieutenant Koudelka was not quite used to his new nervous system yet. Speak truth. The surgeons here are ignorant clumsy butchers. The work was certainly not up to Betan standards. Cordelia permitted no hint of this private judgment to escape onto her face.

Koudelka turned jerkily, and nodded to Bothari. “Hello, Sergeant. Good morning, Lady Vorkosigan.”

Her new name still seemed strange in her ear, ill-fitting. She smiled back. “Good morning, Kou. Where’s Aral?”

“He and Commander Illyan went into the library, to check out where the new secured comconsole will be installed. They should be right along. Ah.” He nodded, as footsteps sounded through an archway. Cordelia followed his gaze. Illyan, slight and bland and polite, flanked—was eclipsed by—a man in his mid-forties resplendent in Imperial dress greens. The reason she’d come to Barrayar.

Admiral Lord Aral Vorkosigan, retired. Formerly retired, till yesterday. Their lives had surely been turned upside down, yesterday. We’ll land on our feet somehow, you bet. Vorkosigan’s body was stocky and powerful, his dark hair salted with grey. His heavy jaw was marred by an old L-shaped scar. He moved with compressed energy, his grey eyes intense and inward, until they lighted on Cordelia.

“I give you good morrow, my lady,” he sang out to her, reaching for her hand. The syntax was self- conscious but the sentiment naked-sincere in his mirror-bright eyes. In those mirrors, I am altogether beautiful, Cordelia realized warmly. Much more flattering than that one on the wall upstairs. I shall use them to see myself from now on. His thick hand was dry and hot, welcome heat, live heat, closing around her cool tapering fingers. My husband. That fit, as smoothly and tightly as her hand fit in his, even though her new name, Lady Vorkosigan, still seemed to slither off her shoulders.

She watched Bothari, Koudelka, and Vorkosigan standing together for that brief moment. The walking wounded, one, two, three. And me, the lady auxiliary. The survivors. Kou in body, Bothari in mind, Vorkosigan in spirit, all had taken near-mortal wounds in the late war at Escobar. Life goes on. March or die. Do we all begin to recover at last? She hoped so.

“Ready to go, dear Captain?” Vorkosigan asked her. His voice was a baritone, his Barrayaran accent guttural-warm.

“Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.”

Illyan and Lieutenant Koudelka led the way out. Koudelka’s walk was a loose-kneed shamble beside Illyan’s brisk march, and Cordelia frowned doubtfully. She took Vorkosigan’s arm, and they followed, leaving Bothari to his Household duties.

“What’s the timetable for the next few days?” she asked.

“Well, this audience first, of course,” Vorkosigan replied. “After which I see men. Count Vortala will be choreographing that. In a few days comes the vote of consent from the full Councils Assembled, and my swearing- in. We haven’t had a Regent in a hundred and twenty years, God knows what protocol they’ll dig out and dust off.”

Koudelka sat in the front compartment of the groundcar with the uniformed driver. Commander Illyan slid in opposite Cordelia and Vorkosigan, facing rearward, in the back compartment. This car is armored, Cordelia realized from the thickness of the transparent canopy as it closed over them. At a signal from Illyan to the driver, they pulled away smoothly into the street. Almost no sound penetrated from the outside.

“Regent-consort,” Cordelia tasted the phrase. “Is that my official title?”

“Yes, Milady,” said Illyan.

“Does it have any official duties to go with it?”

Illyan looked to Vorkosigan, who said, “Hm. Yes and no. There will be a lot of ceremonies to attend—grace, in your case. Beginning with the emperors funeral, which will be grueling for all concerned—except, perhaps, for Emperor Ezar. All that waits on his last breath. I don’t know if he has a timetable for that, but I wouldn’t put it past him.

“The social side of your duties can be as much as you wish. Speeches and ceremonies, important weddings

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