Lois McMaster Bujold



'You have a visitor, Lieutenant Vorkosigan.' A little glassy panic twitched in the normally matter-of-fact corpsman's face. He stepped aside to let the man he escorted enter Miles's hospital room. Miles caught a glimpse of the corpsman retreating hastily even before the door hissed shut behind the visitor.

Snub nose, bright eyes, and an open, mild expression gave the man a false air of youth, though his brown hair was greying at the temples. He was slight of body, wore civilian clothes, and radiated no aura of menace, despite the corpsman's reaction. In fact, he had scarcely an aura at all. Work as a covert agent in his early days had given Simon Illyan, Chief of Barrayar's Imperial Security, a life-long habit of being inconspicuous.

'Hi, boss,' said Miles.

'You look like hell,' Illyan noted agreeably. 'Don't bother saluting.'

Miles snorted a laugh, which hurt. Everything seemed to hurt except his arms, bandaged and immobilized from shoulderblades to fingertips; they were still numb from the surgical stunners. He wriggled his hospital-gowned body further into his bedclothes, futilely seeking comfort.

'How was your bone-replacement surgery?' asked Illyan.

'About what I expected, from having my legs done before. The ugliest part was opening my right arm and hand up to pick out all the bone fragments. Tedious. The left went a lot faster, the pieces were bigger. Now I get to sit around for a while to see if the marrow transplants are going to take in their synthetic matrix. I'll be a bit anemic for a while.'

'I hope you are not going to make a habit of returning from your mission assignments on a stretcher.'

'Now, now, this is only the second time that's happened. Besides, eventually I'll run out of unreplaced bones. By the time I'm thirty I could be entirely plastic.' Glumly, Miles considered this possibility. If more than half of him became spare parts, could he be declared legally dead? Would he ever walk into a prosthetics manufacturing plant and cry, 'Mother!'? Were the medical sedatives making him just a little spacey . . . ?

'About your missions,' said Illyan firmly.

Ah. So this visit wasn't just an expression of personal concern, if Illyan had ever owned any personal concern. It was sometimes hard to tell. 'You have my reports,' said Miles warily.

'Your reports, as usual, are masterpieces of understatement and misdirection,' said Illyan. He sounded perfectly serene about it.

'Well . . . anybody might read 'em. You can't tell.'

'Hardly 'anyone,' ' said Illyan. 'But just so.'

'So what's the problem?'

'Money. Specifically, accountability for same.'

Maybe it was the drugs he was stuffed with, but Miles could make no sense of this. 'Don't you like my work?' he said rather plaintively.

'Apart from your injuries, the results of your latest mission are highly satisfactory,' began Illyan.

'They'd by-God better be,' Miles muttered grimly.

'—and your late, er, adventures on Earth, just prior to it, are still fully classified. We will discuss them later.'

'I've got to report to a couple of higher authorities first,' Miles put in urgently.

Illyan waved this aside. 'So I understand. No. These charges date to the Dagoola affair, and before.'

'Charges?' Miles muttered in bewilderment.

Illyan studied him thoughtfully. 'I consider what the emperor spends to keep up your connection to the Dendarii Free Mercenaries to be worth it purely from an internal security standpoint. Were you to be permanently posted at, say, Imperial HQ here at the capital, you'd be a damned plot-magnet all the time. Not just for favor– and office-seekers, but for anyone who wants to touch your father through you. As now.'

Miles squinted, as though focusing his eyes could focus his thoughts. 'Ah?'

'In brief, certain parties in Imperial Accounting are going over your reports from your mercenary fleet's covert ops with a microscope. They would like to know in more detail where certain large packets of cash have gone. Some of your equipment-replacement chits have been outrageous. More than once. Even from my point of view. They would very much like to prove an on-going pattern of peculation. A court-martial charging you with lining your own pockets at the emperor's expense would be gloriously embarrassing just now, for your father and his whole Centrist coalition.'

Miles exhaled, stunned. 'Has it gone so far—?'

'Not yet. I fully intend to quash it before it gets off the ground. But to do so I need more details. So as not to get blindsided, as I have sometimes been in your more tangled affairs—still remember, if you do not, spending a month in my own prison because of you . . .' Illyan glowered into the past.

'That was part of a plot against Dad,' Miles protested.

'So is this, if I'm picking up the early signals correctly. But Count Vorvolk in Accounting is their front-man, and he is depressingly loyal, in addition to having the emperor's personal, er, support. Untouchable. But manipulatable, I fear. He's been primed. He thinks he's being a watch-dog. The more he's given a run-around the more tenacious he'll become. He must be handled with utmost care, whether he's mistaken or not.'

'Not . . . ?' breathed Miles. The full import of the timing of Illyan's visit now dawned on him. Not anxiety for an injured subordinate after all. But to put his questions to Miles just post-surgery, when Miles was weak, hurting, drugged, maybe confused. . . . 'Why don't you just fast-penta me and get it over with?' Miles snarled.

'Because I have the report about your idiosyncratic reaction to truth drugs,' said Illyan equably. 'Unfortunate, that.'

'You could twist my arm.' There was a bitter taste in Miles's mouth.

Illyan's expression was dry and grim. 'I thought about it. Then I decided to let the surgeons do it for me.'

'You can be a real sonofabitch some days, Simon, do you know?'

'Yes.' Illyan sat unmoved and unmoving. Waiting. Watching. 'Your father cannot afford a scandal in his government this month. Not during this appropriations fight. This plot must be quashed regardless of its truth. What is said in this room will remain—must remain—between you and me alone. But I must know.'

'Are you offering me an amnesty?' Miles's voice was low, dangerous. He could feel his heart begin to pound.

'If necessary.' Illyan's voice was perfectly flat.

Miles couldn't clench or even feel his fists, but his toes curled. He found himself gulping for air in the pulsing waves of his rage; the room seemed to waver. 'You . . . vile . . . bastard! You dare call me a thief. . . .' He rocked in the bed, kicking off tangling strangling covers. His medical monitor began to bleep alarms. His arms were useless weights hanging from his shoulders, flopping nervelessly. 'As if I would steal from Barrayar. As if I would steal from my own dead …' He swung his feet out, pulled himself upright with a mighty wrench of abdominal muscles. Dizzied, half-blacking-out, he toppled forward precipitously with no hands to catch himself.

Illyan leapt to grab him before he smashed face-first on the matting. 'What the hell do you think you're doing, boy?' Miles wasn't sure himself.

'What are you doing to my patient?' the white-faced military doctor cried, plunging through the door. 'This man just had major surgery!'

The doctor was frightened and furious; the corpsman, in his wake, merely frightened. He tried to impede his superior, plucking at his arm and hissing, 'Sir, that's Security Chief Illyan!'

'I know who he is. I don't care if he's Emperor Dorca's ghost. I will not have him carrying on his …

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