and name-days and funerals, greeting deputations from the Districts—public relations, in short. The sort of thing Princess-dowager Kareen does with such flair.” Vorkosigan paused, taking in her appalled look, and added hastily, “Or, if you choose, you can live a completely private life. You have the perfect excuse to do so right now—” his hand, around her waist, secretly caressed her still-flat belly, “—and in fact I’d rather you didn’t spend yourself too freely.”

“More importantly, on the political side … I’d like it very much if you could be my liaison with the Princess- dowager, and the … child emperor. Make friends with her, if you can; she’s an extremely reserved woman. The boy’s upbringing is vital. We must not repeat Ezar Vorbarra’s mistakes.”

“I can give it a try,” she sighed. “I can see it’s going to be quite a job, passing for a Barrayaran Vor.”

“Don’t bend yourself painfully. I shouldn’t like to see you so constricted. Besides, there’s another angle.”

“Why doesn’t that surprise me? Go ahead.”

He paused, choosing his words. “When the late Crown Prince Serg called Count Vortala a phoney progressive, it wasn’t altogether nonsense. Insults that sting always have some truth in them. Count Vortala has been trying to form his progressive party in the upper classes only. Among the people who matter, as he would say. You see the little discontinuity in his thinking?”

“About the size of Hogarth Canyon back home? Yes.”

“You are a Betan, a woman of galactic-wide reputation.”

“Oh, come on now.”

“You are seen so here. I don’t think you quite realize how you are perceived. Very flattering for me, as it happens.”

“I hoped I was invisible. But I shouldn’t think I’d be too popular, after what we did to your side at Escobar.”

“It’s our culture. My people will forgive a brave soldier almost anything. And you, in your person, unite two of the opposing factions—the aristocratic military, and the pro-galactic plebians. I really think I could pull the whole middle out of the People’s Defense League through you, if you’re willing to play my cards for me.”

“Good heavens. How long have you been thinking about this?”

“The problem, long. You as part of the solution, just today.”

“What, casting me as figurehead for some sort of constitutional party?”

“No, no. That is just the sort of thing I will be sworn, on my honor, to prevent. It would not fulfill the spirit of my oath to hand over to Prince Gregor an emperorship gutted of power. What I want … what I want is to find some way of pulling the best men, from every class and language group and party, into the Emperor’s service. The Vor have simply too small a pool of talent. Make the government more like the military at its best, with ability promoted regardless of background. Emperor Ezar tried to do something like that, by strengthening the Ministries at the expense of the Counts, but it swung too far.

The Counts are eviscerated and the Ministries are corrupt. There must be some way to strike a balance.”

Cordelia sighed. “I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree, about constitutions. Nobody appointed me Regent of Barrayar. I warn you, though—I’ll keep trying to change your mind.”

Illyan raised his brow at this. Cordelia sat back wanly, and watched the Barrayaran capital city of Vorbarr Sultana pass by through the thick canopy. She hadn’t married the Regent of Barrayar, four months back. She’d married a simple retired soldier. Yes, men were supposed to change after marriage, usually for the worse, but—this much? This fast? This isn’t the duty I signed up for, sir.

“That’s quite a gesture of trust Emperor Ezar placed in you yesterday, appointing you Regent. I don’t think he’s such a ruthless pragmatist as you’d have me believe,” she remarked.

“Well, it is a gesture of trust, but driven by necessity. You didn’t catch the significance of Captain Negri’s assignment to the Princess’s household, then.”

“No. Was there one?”

“Oh, yes, a very clear message. Negri is to continue right on in his old job as Chief of Imperial Security. He will not, of course, be making his reports to a four-year-old boy, but to me. Commander Illyan will in fact merely be his assistant.” Vorkosigan and Illyan exchanged mildly ironic nods. “But there is no question where Negri’s loyalties will lie, in case I should, um, run mad and make a bid for Imperial power in name as well as fact. He unquestionably has secret orders to dispose of me, in that event.”

“Oh. Well, I guarantee I have no desire whatsoever to be Empress of Barrayar. Just in case you were wondering.”

“I didn’t think so.”

The groundcar paused at a gate in a stone wall. Four guards inspected them thoroughly, checked Illyan’s passes, and waved them through. All those guards, here, at Vorkosigan House—what did they guard against? Other Barrayarans, presumably, in the faction-fractured political landscape. A very Barrayaran phrase the old Count had used that tickled her humor now ran, disquieting, through her memory. With all this manure around, there’s got to be a pony someplace. Horses were practically unknown on Beta Colony, except for a few specimens in zoos. With all these guards around … But if I’m not anyone’s enemy, how can anyone be my enemy?

Illyan, who had been shifting in his seat, now spoke up. “I would suggest, sir,” he said tentatively to Vorkosigan, “even beg, that you re-consider and take up quarters here at the Imperial Residence. Security problems—my problems,” he smiled slightly, bad for his image, with his snub features it made him look puppyish, “will be very much easier to control here.”

“What suite did you have in mind?” asked Vorkosigan.

“Well, when … Gregor succeeds, he and his mother will be moving into the Emperor’s suite. Kareen’s rooms will then be vacant.”

“Prince Serg’s, you mean.” Vorkosigan looked grim. “I … think I would prefer to take official residence at Vorkosigan House. My father spends more and more time in the country at Vorkosigan Surleau these days, I don’t think he’ll mind being shifted.”

“I can’t really endorse that idea, sir. Strictly from a security standpoint. It’s in the old part of town. The streets are warrens. There are at least three sets of old tunnels under the area, from old sewage and transport systems, and there are too many new tall buildings overlooking that have, er, commanding views. It will take at least six full-time patrols for the most cursory protection.”

“Do you have the men?”

“Well, yes.”

“Vorkosigan House, then.” Vorkosigan consoled Illyan’s disappointed look. “It may be bad security, but it’s very good public relations. It will give an excellent air of, ah, soldierly humility to the new Regency. Should help reduce palace coup paranoia.”

And here they were at the very palace in question. As an architectural pile, the Imperial Residence made Vorkosigan House look small. Sprawling wings rose two to four stories high, accented with sporadic towers. Additions of different ages crisscrossed each other to create both vast and intimate courts, some justly proportioned, some rather accidental-looking. The east facade was of the most uniform style, heavy with stone carving. The north side was more cut-up, interlocking with elaborate formal gardens. The west was the oldest, the south the newest construction.

The groundcar pulled up to a two-story porch on the south side, and Illyan led them past more guards and up wide stone stairs to an extensive second-floor suite. They climbed slowly, matching steps to Lieutenant Koudelka’s awkward pace. Koudelka glanced up with a self-conscious apologetic frown, then bent his head again in concentration—or shame? Doesn’t this place have a lift tube? Cordelia wondered irritably. On the other side of this stone labyrinth, in a room with a northern view of the gardens, a white old man lay drained and dying on his enormous ancestral bed …

In the spacious upper corridor, softly carpeted and decorated with paintings and side tables cluttered with knickknacks—objets d’art, Cordelia supposed—they found Captain Negri talking in low tones with a woman who stood with her arms folded. Cordelia had met the famous, or infamous, Chief of Barrayaran Imperial Security for the first time yesterday, after Vorkosigan’s historic job interview in the northern wing with the soon-to-be-late Ezar Vorbarra. Negri was a hard-faced, hard-bodied, bullet-headed man who had served his emperor, body and blood, for the better part of forty years, a sinister legend with unreadable eyes.

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