when Admiral Vorrutyer’s throat was cut, but it was not by my hand.”

Kareen’s hands clenched in her lap, and her eyes glowed. “Then it was Lord Vorkosigan!”

“No!” Cordelias lips compressed in exasperation. “Negri should have given you the true report. It was Sergeant Bothari. Saved my life, at the time.”

“Bothari?” Kareen sat bolt upright in astonishment. “Bothari the monster, Bothari, Vorrutyer’s mad batman?”

“I don’t mind getting blamed in his place, ma’am, because if it had become public they’d have been forced to execute him for murder and mutiny, and this gets him off and out. But I … but I should not steal his praise. I’ll pass it on to him if you wish, but I’m not sure he remembers the incident. He went through some draconian mind- therapy after the war, before they discharged him—what you Barrayarans call therapy”—on a par with their neurosurgery, Cordelia feared, “and I gather he wasn’t exactly, uh, normal before that, either.”

“No,” said Kareen. “He was not. I thought he was Vorrutyer’s creature.”

“He chose … he chose to be otherwise. I think it was the most heroic act I’ve ever witnessed. Out of the middle of that swamp of evil and insanity, to reach for …” Cordelia trailed off, embarrassed to say, reach for redemption. After a pause she asked, “Do you blame Admiral Vorrutyer for Prince Serg’s, uh, corruption?” As long as they were clearing the air … Nobody mentions Prince Serg. He thought to take a bloody shortcut to the Imperium, and now he’s just … disappeared.

“Ges Vorrutyer …” Kareen’s hands twisted, “found a like-minded friend in Serg. A fertile follower, in his vile amusements. Maybe not… all Vorrutyer’s fault. I don’t know.”

An honest answer, Cordelia sensed. Kareen added lowly, “Ezar protected me from Serg, after I became pregnant. I had not even seen my husband for over a year, when he was killed at Escobar.”

Perhaps I will not mention Prince Serg again either. “Ezar was a powerful protector. I hope Aral may do as well,” Cordelia offered. Ought she to refer to Emperor Ezar in the past tense already? Everybody else seemed to.

Kareen came back from some absence, and shook herself to focus. “Tea, Lady Vorkosigan?” She smiled. She touched a comm link, concealed in a jeweled pin on her shoulder, and gave domestic orders. Apparently the private interview was over. Captain Naismith must now try to figure out how Lady Vorkosigan should take tea with a princess.

Gregor and the bodyguard reappeared about the time the cream cakes were being served, and Gregor set about successfully charming the ladies for a second helping. Kareen drew the line firmly at thirds. Prince Serg’s son seemed an utterly normal boy, if quiet around strangers. Cordelia watched him with Kareen with deep personal interest. Motherhood. Everybody did it. How hard could it be?

“How do you like your new home so far, Lady Vorkosigan?” the princess inquired, making polite conversation. Tea-table stuff; no naked faces now. Not in front of the children.

Cordelia thought it over. “The country place, south at Vorkosigan Surleau, is just beautiful. That wonderful lake—it’s bigger than any open body of water on the whole of Beta Colony, yet Aral just takes it for granted. Your planet is beautiful beyond measure.” Your planet. Not my planet? In a free-association test, “home” still triggered “Beta Colony” in Cordelia’s mind. Yet she could have rested in Vorkosigan’s arms by the lake forever.

“The capital here—well, it’s certainly more varied than anything we have at ho—on Beta Colony. Although,” she laughed self-consciously, “there seem to be so many soldiers. Last time I was surrounded by that many green uniforms, I was in a POW camp.”

“Do we still look like the enemy to you?” asked the princess curiously.

“Oh—you all stopped looking like the enemy to me even before the war was over. Just assorted victims, variously blind.”

“You have penetrating eyes, Lady Vorkosigan.” The princess sipped tea, smiling into her cup. Cordelia blinked.

“Vorkosigan House does tend to a barracks atmosphere, when Count Piotr is in residence,” Cordelia commented. “All his liveried men. I think I’ve seen a couple of women servants so far, whisking around corners, but I haven’t caught one yet. A Barrayaran barracks, that is. My Betan service was a different sort of thing.”

“Mixed,” said Droushnakovi. Was that the light of envy in her eyes? “Women and men both serving.”

“Assignment by aptitude test,” Cordelia agreed. “Strictly. Of course the more physical jobs are skewed to the men, but there doesn’t seem to be that strange obsessive status-thing attached to them.”

“Respect,” sighed Droushnakovi.

“Well, if people are laying their lives on the line for their community, they ought certainly to get its respect,” Cordelia said equably. “I do miss my—my sister-officers, I guess. The bright women, the techs, like my pool of friends at home.” There was that tricky word again, home. “There have to be bright women around here somewhere, with all these bright men. Where are they hiding?” Cordelia shut her mouth, as it suddenly occurred to her that Kareen might mistakenly construe this remark as a slur on herself. Adding present company excepted would put her foot in it for sure, though.

But if Kareen so construed, she kept it to herself, and Cordelia was rescued from further potential social embarrassment by the return of Aral and Illyan. They all made polite farewells, and returned to Vorkosigan House.

That evening Commander Illyan popped in to Vorkosigan House with Droushnakovi in tow. She clutched a large valise, and gazed about her with starry-eyed interest.

“Captain Negri is assigning Miss Droushnakovi to the Regent-consort for her personal security,” Illyan explained briefly. Aral nodded approval.

Later, Droushnakovi handed Cordelia a sealed note on thick cream paper. Brows rising, Cordelia broke it open. The handwriting was small and neat, the signature legible and without flourishes.

With my compliments, it read. She will suit you well. Kareen.

Chapter Two

The next morning Cordelia awoke to find Vorkosigan already gone, and herself facing her first day on Barrayar without his supportive company. She decided to devote it to the shopping project that had occurred to her while watching Koudelka negotiate the spiral staircase last night. She suspected Droushnakovi would be the ideal native guide for what she had in mind.

She dressed and went hunting for her bodyguard. Finding her was not difficult; Droushnakovi was seated in the hall, just outside the bedroom door, and popped to attention at Cordelia’s appearance. The girl really ought to be wearing a uniform, Cordelia reflected. The dress she wore made her near-six-foot frame and excellent musculature look heavy. Cordelia wondered if, as Regent-consort, she might be permitted her own livery, and bemused herself through breakfast mentally designing one that would set off the girl’s Valkyrie good looks.

“Do you know, you’re the first female Barrayaran guard I’ve met,” Cordelia commented to her over her egg and coffee, and a kind of steamed native groats with butter, evidently a morning staple here. “How did you get into this line of work?”

“Well, I’m not a real guard, like the liveried men—”

Ah, the magic of uniforms again.

“—but my father and all three of my brothers are in the Service. It’s as close as I can come to being a real soldier, like you.”

Army-mad, like the rest of Barrayar. “Yes?”

“I used to study judo, for sport, when I was younger. But I was too big for the women’s classes. Nobody could give me any real practice, and besides, doing all katas was so dull. My brothers used to sneak me into the men’s classes with them. One thing led to another. I was all-Barrayar women’s champion two years running, when I was in school. Then three years ago a man from Captain Negri’s staff approached my father with a job offer for me. That’s when I had weapons training. It seemed the Princess had been asking for female guards for years, but they had a lot of trouble getting anyone who could pass all the tests. Although,” she smiled self-depreciatingly, “the lady who assassinated Admiral Vorrutyer could scarcely be supposed to need my poor services.”

Cordelia bit her tongue. “Um. I was lucky. Besides, I’d rather stay out of the physical end of things just

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