Now he bowed over her hand and called her “Milady” as if he meant it, or at least no more tinged with irony than any of his other statements. The alert blonde woman—girl?—wore an ordinary civilian dress. She was tall and heavily muscled, and she looked back at Cordelia with even greater interest.

Vorkosigan and Negri exchanged curt greetings in the telegraphic style of two men who had been communicating for so long all of the amenities had been compressed into some kind of tight-burst code. “And this is Miss Droushnakovi.” Negri did not so much introduce as label the woman for Cordelia’s benefit, with a wave of his hand.

“And what’s a Droushnakovi?” asked Cordelia lightly and somewhat desperately. Everybody always seemed to get briefed around here but her, though Negri had also failed to introduce Lieutenant Koudelka; Koudelka and Droushnakovi glanced covertly at each other.

“I’m a Servant of the Inner Chamber, Milady.” Droushnakovi gave her a ducking nod, half a curtsey. “And what do you serve? Besides the chamber.”

“Princess Kareen, Milady. That’s just my official title. I’m listed on Captain Negri’s staff budget as Bodyguard, Class One.” It was hard to tell which title gave her the more pride and pleasure, but Cordelia suspected it was the latter.

“I’m sure you must be good, to be so ranked by him.”

This won a smile, and a “Thank you, Milady. I try.” They all followed Negri through a nearby door to a long, sunny yellow room with lots of south-facing windows. Cordelia wondered if the eclectic mix of furnishings were priceless antiques, or merely shabby seconds. She couldn’t tell. A woman waited on a yellow silk settee at the far end, watching them gravely as they trooped toward her en masse.

Princess-dowager Kareen was a thin, strained-looking woman of thirty with elaborately dressed, beautiful dark hair, though her grey gown was of a simple cut. Simple but perfect. A dark-haired boy of four or so was sprawled on the floor on his stomach muttering to his cat-sized toy stegosaurus, which muttered back. She made him get up and turn off the robot toy, and sit beside her, though his hands still clutched the leathery stuffed beast in his lap. Cordelia was relieved to see the boy prince was sensibly dressed for his age in comfortable-looking play clothes.

In formal phrases, Negri introduced Cordelia to the princess and Prince Gregor. Cordelia wasn’t sure whether to bow, curtsey, or salute, and ended up ducking her head rather like Droushnakovi. Gregor, solemn, stared at her most doubtfully, and she tried to smile back in what she hoped was a reassuring way.

Vorkosigan went down on one knee in front of the boy—only Cordelia saw Aral swallow—and said, “Do you know who I am, Prince Gregor?”

Gregor shrank a little against his mother’s side, and glanced up at her. She nodded encouragement. “Lord Aral Vorkosigan,” Gregor said in a thin voice.

Vorkosigan gentled his tone, relaxed his hands, self-consciously trying to dampen his usual intensity. “Your grandfather has asked me to be your Regent. Has anybody explained to you what that means?”

Gregor shook his head mutely; Vorkosigan quirked a brow at Negri, a whiff of censure. Negri did not change expression.

“That means I will do your grandfathers job until you are old enough to do it yourself, when you turn twenty. The next sixteen years. I will look after you and your mother in your grandfather’s place, and see that you get the education and training to do a good job, like your grandfather did. Good government.”

Did the kid even know yet what a government was? Vorkosigan had been careful not to say, in your father’s place, Cordelia noted dryly. Careful not to mention Crown Prince Serg at all. Serg was well on his way to being disappeared from Barrayaran history, it seemed, as thoroughly as he had been vaporized in orbital battle.

“For now,” Vorkosigan continued, “your job is to study hard with your tutors and do what your mother tells you. Can you do that?”

Gregor swallowed, nodded.

“I think you can do well.” Vorkosigan gave him a firm nod, identical to the ones he gave his staff officers, and rose.

I think you can do well too, Aral, Cordelia thought.

“While you are here, sir,” Negri began after a short wait to be certain he wasn’t stepping on some further word, “I wish you would come down to Ops. There are two or three reports I’d like to present. The latest from Darkoi seems to indicate that Count Vorlakail was dead before his Residence was burned, which throws a new light—or shadow—on that matter. And then there is the problem of revamping the Ministry of Political Education —”

“Dismantling, surely,” Vorkosigan muttered.

“As may be. And, as ever, the latest sabotage from Komarr …”

“I get the picture. Let’s go. Cordelia, ah …”

“Perhaps Lady Vorkosigan would care to stay and visit a while,” Princess Kareen murmured on cue, with only a faint trace of irony.

Vorkosigan shot her a look of gratitude. “Thank you, Milady.”

She absently stroked her fine lips with one finger, as all the men trooped out, relaxing slightly as they exited. “Good. I’d hoped to have you all to myself.” Her expression grew more animated, as she regarded Cordelia. At a wordless touch, the boy slid off the bench and returned, with backward glances, to his play.

Droushnakovi frowned down the room. “What was the matter with that lieutenant?” she asked Cordelia.

“Lieutenant Koudelka was hit by nerve disruptor fire,” Cordelia said stiffly, uncertain if the girl’s odd tone concealed some land of disapproval. “A year ago, when he was serving Aral aboard the General Vorkraft. The neural repairs do not seem to be quite up to galactic standard.” She shut her mouth, afraid of seeming to criticize her hostess. Not that Princess Kareen was responsible for Barrayar’s dubious standards of medical practice.

“Oh. Not during the Escobar war?” said Droushnakovi.

“Actually, in a weird sense, it was the opening shot of the Escobar war. Though I suppose you would call it friendly fire.” Mind-boggling oxymoron, that phrase.

“Lady Vorkosigan—or should I say, Captain Naismith—was there,” remarked Princess Kareen. “She should know.”

Cordelia found her expression hard to read. How many of Negri’s famous reports was the princess privy to?

“How terrible for him! He looks as though he had been very athletic,” said the bodyguard.

“He was.” Cordelia smiled more favorably at the girl, relaxing her defensive hackles. “Nerve disruptors are filthy weapons, in my opinion.” She scrubbed absently at the sense-dead spot on her thigh, disruptor-burned by no more than the nimbus of a blast that had fortunately not penetrated subcutaneous fat to damage muscle function. Clearly, she should have had it fixed before she’d left home.

“Sit, Lady Vorkosigan.” Princess Kareen patted the settee beside her, just vacated by the emperor-to-be. “Drou, will you please take Gregor to his lunch?”

Droushnakovi nodded understandingly, as if she had received some coded underlayer to this simple request, gathered up the boy, and walked out hand in hand with him. His child-voice drifted back, “Droushie, can I have a cream cake? And one for Steggie?”

Cordelia sat gingerly, thinking about Negri’s reports, and Barrayaran disinformation about their recent aborted campaign to invade the planet Escobar. Escobar, Beta Colony’s good neighbor and ally … the weapons that had disintegrated Crown Prince Serg and his ship high above Escobar had been bravely convoyed through the Barrayaran blockade by one Captain Cordelia Naismith, Betan Expeditionary Force. That much truth was plain and public and not to be apologized for. It was the secret history, behind the scenes in the Barrayaran high command, that was so … treacherous, Cordelia decided, was the precise word. Dangerous, like ill-stored toxic waste.

To Cordelia’s astonishment, Princess Kareen leaned over, took her right hand, lifted it to her lips, and kissed it hard.

“I swore,” said Kareen thickly, “that I would kiss the hand that slew Ges Vorrutyer. Thank you. Thank you.” Her voice was breathy, earnest, tear-caught, grateful emotion naked in her face. She sat up, her face growing reserved again, and nodded. “Thank you. Bless you.”

“Uh …” Cordelia rubbed at the kissed spot. “Um … I … this honor belongs to another, Milady. I was present,

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