now. Pregnant, you know.”

“Yes, Milady. It was in one of Captain—”

“Negri’s reports,” Cordelia finished in unison with her. “I’m sure it was. He probably knew before I did.”

“Yes, Milady.”

“Were you much encouraged in your interests, as a child?”

“Not … really. Everyone thought I was just odd.” She frowned deeply, and Cordelia had the sense of stirring up a painful memory.

She regarded the girl thoughtfully. “Older brothers?”

Droushnakovi returned a wide blue gaze. “Why, yes.”

“Figured.” And I feared Barrayar for what it did to its sons. No wonder they have trouble getting anyone to pass the tests. “So, you’ve had weapons training. Excellent. You can guide me on my shopping trip today.”

A slightly glazed look crept over Droushnakovi’s face.

“Yes, Milady. What sort of clothing do you wish to look at?” she asked politely, not quite concealing a glum disappointment with the interests of her “real” lady soldier.

“Where in this town would you go to buy a really good swordstick?”

The glazed look vanished. “Oh, I know just the place, where the Vor officers go, and the counts, to supply their liveried men. That is—I’ve never been inside. My family’s not Vor, so of course we’re not permitted to own personal weapons. Just Service issue. But it’s supposed to be the best.”

One of Count Vorkosigan’s liveried guards chauffeured them to the shop. Cordelia relaxed and enjoyed the view of the passing city. Droushnakovi, on duty, kept alert, eyes constantly checking the crowds all around. Cordelia had the feeling she didn’t miss much. From time to time her hand wandered to check the stunner worn concealed on the inside of her embroidered bolero.

They turned into a clean narrow street of older buildings with cut stone fronts. The weapons shop was marked only by its name, Siegling’s, in discreet gold letters. Evidently if you didn’t know where you were you shouldn’t be there. The liveried man waited outside when Cordelia and Droushnakovi entered the shop, a thick- carpeted, wood-grained place with a little of the aroma of the armory Cordelia remembered from her Survey ship, an odd whiff of home in an alien place. She stared covertly at the wood paneling, and mentally translated its value into Betan dollars. A great many Betan dollars. Yet wood seemed almost as common as plastic, here, and as little regarded. Those personal weapons which were legal for the upper classes to own were elegantly displayed in cases and on the walls. Besides stunners and hunting weapons, there was an impressive array of swords and knives; evidently the Emperor’s ferocious edicts against dueling only forbade their use, not their possession.

The clerk, a narrow-eyed, soft-treading older man, came up to them. “What may I do for you ladies?” He was cordial enough. Cordelia supposed Vor-class women must sometimes enter here, to buy presents for their masculine relations. But he might have said, What may I do for you children? in the same tone of voice. Diminutization by body language? Let it go.

“I’m looking for a swordstick, for a man about six-foot-four. Should be about, oh, yea long,” she estimated, calling up Koudelka’s arm and leg length in her mind’s eye, and gesturing to the height of her hip. “Spring-sheathed, probably.”

“Yes, madam.” The clerk disappeared, and returned with a sample, in an elaborately carved light wood.

“Looks a bit … I don’t know.” Flashy. “How does it work?”

The clerk demonstrated the spring mechanism. The wooden sheathing dropped off, revealing a long thin blade. Cordelia held out her hand, and the clerk, rather relucluntly, handed it over for inspection.

She wriggled it a little, sighted down the blade, and handed it to her bodyguard. “What do you think?”

Droushnakovi smiled first, then frowned doubtfully. “It’s not very well balanced.” She glanced uncertainly at the clerk.

“Remember, you’re working for me, not him,” said Cordelia, correctly identifying class—consciousness in action.

“I don’t think it’s a very good blade.”

“That’s excellent Darkoi workmanship, madam,” the clerk defended coolly.

Smiling, Cordelia took it back. “Let us test your hypothesis.”

She raised the blade suddenly to the salute, and lunged at the wall in a neat extension. The tip penetrated and caught in the wood, and Cordelia leaned on it. The blade snapped. Blandly, she handed the pieces back to the clerk. “How do you stay in business if your customers don’t survive long enough for repeat sales? Siegling’s certainly didn’t acquire its reputation selling toys like that. Bring me something a decent soldier can carry, not a pimp’s plaything.”

“Madam,” said the clerk stiffly, “I must insist the damaged merchandise be paid for.”

Cordelia, thoroughly irritated, said, “Very well. Send the bill to my husband. Admiral Aral Vorkosigan, Vorkosigan House. While you’re about it you can explain why you tried to pass off sleaze on his wife—Yeoman.” This last was a guess, based on his age and walk, but she could tell from his eyes she’d struck home.

The clerk bowed profoundly. “I beg pardon, Milady. I believe I have something more suitable, if Milady will be pleased to wait.”

He vanished again, and Cordelia sighed. “Buying from machines is so much easier. But at least the Appeal to the Irrelevant Authorities at Headquarters works just as well here as at home.”

The next sample was a plain dark wood, with a finish like satin. The clerk handed it to her unopened, with another little bow. “You press the handle there, Milady.” It was much heavier than the first swordstick. The sheathing sprang away at velocity, landing against the wall on the other side of the room with a satisfying thunk, almost a weapon in itself. Cordelia sighted down the blade again. A strange watermark pattern down its length shifted in the light. She saluted the wall once more, and caught the clerk’s eye. “Do these come out of your salary?”

“Go ahead, Milady.” There was a little gleam of satisfaction in his eye. “You can’t break that one.”

She gave it the same test as she had the other. The tip went much further into the wood, and leaning against it with all her strength, she could barely bend it. Even so, there was more bend left in it; she could feel she was nowhere near the limit of its tensile strength. She handed it to Droushnakovi, who examined it lovingly. “That’s fine, Milady. That’s worthy.”

“I’m sure it will be used more as a stick than as a sword. Nevertheless … it should indeed be worthy. We’ll take this one.”

As the clerk wrapped it, Cordelia lingered over a case of enamel-decorated stunners.

“Thinking of buying one for yourself, Milady?” asked Droushnakovi.

“I … don’t think so. Barrayar has enough soldiers, without importing them from Beta Colony. Whatever I’m here for, it isn’t soldiering. See anything you want?”

Droushnakovi looked wistful, but shook her head, her hand going to her bolero. “Captain Negri’s equipment is the best. Even Siegling’s doesn’t have anything better, just prettier.”

They sat down three to dinner that night, late, Vorkosigan, Cordelia, and Lieutenant Koudelka. Vorkosigan’s new personal secretary looked a little tired.

“What did you two do all day?” asked Cordelia.

“Herded men, mostly,” answered Vorkosigan. “Prime Minister Vortala had a few votes that weren’t as much in the bag as he claimed, and we worked them over, one or two at a time, behind closed doors. What you’ll see tomorrow in the Council chambers isn’t Barrayaran politics at work, just their result. Were you all right today?”

“Fine. Went shopping. Wait’ll you see.” She produced the swordstick, and stripped off the wrapping. “Just to help keep you from running Kou completely into the ground.”

Koudelka looked politely grateful, over a more fundamental irritation. His look changed to one of surprise as he took the stick and nearly dropped it from the unexpected weight. “Hey! This isn’t—”

“You press the handle there. Don’t point it—!”


“—at the window.” Fortunately, the sheath struck the frame, and bounced back with a clatter. Kou and Aral both jumped.

Koudelka’s eyes lit up as he examined the blade, while Cordelia retrieved the sheath. “Oh, Milady!” Then

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