In the image above the vid plate, the sperm writhed in elegant, sinuous curves. Its wriggling grew more energetic as the invisible grip of the medical micro-tractor grasped it and guided it to its target, the pearl-like egg: round, lustrous, rich with promise.

“Once more, dear boy, into the breach—for England, Harry, and Saint George!” Miles murmured encouragingly. “Or at least, for Barrayar, me, and maybe Grandfather Piotr. Ha!” With a last twitch, the sperm vanished within its destined paradise.

“Miles, are you looking at those baby pictures again ?” came Ekaterin's voice, amused, as she emerged from their cabin's sybaritic bathroom. She finished winding up her dark hair on the back of her head, secured it, and leaned over his shoulder as he sat in the station chair. “Is that Aral Alexander, or Helen Natalia?”

“Well, Aral Alexander in the making.”

“Ah, admiring your sperm again. I see.”

And your excellent egg, my lady.” He glanced up at his wife, glorious in a heavy red silk tunic that he'd bought her on Earth, and grinned. The warm clean scent of her skin tickled his nostrils, and he inhaled happily. “Were they not a handsome set of gametes? While they lasted, anyway.”

“Yes, and they made beautiful blastocysts. You know, it's a good thing we took this trip. I swear you'd be in there trying to lift the replicator lids to peek, or shaking the poor little things up like Winterfair presents to see how they rattled.”

“Well, it's all new to me .”

“Your mother told me last Winterfair that as soon as the embryos were safely implanted you'd be acting like you'd invented reproduction. And to think I imagined she was exaggerating!”

He captured her hand and breathed a kiss into its palm. “This, from the lady who sat in the nursery next to the replicator rack all spring to study? Whose assignments all suddenly seemed to take twice as long to complete?”

“Which, of course, had nothing to do with her lord popping in twice an hour to ask how she was going on?” The hand, released, traced his chin in a very flattering fashion. Miles considered proposing that they forgo the rather dull luncheon company in the ship's passenger lounge, order in room service, get undressed again, and go back to bed for the rest of the watch. Ekaterin didn't seem to regard anything about their journey as boring, though.

This galactic honeymoon was belated, but perhaps better so, Miles thought. Their marriage had had an awkward enough commencement; it was as well that their settling-in had included a quiet period of domestic routine. But in retrospect, the first anniversary of that memorable, difficult, mid-winter wedding had seemed to arrive in about fifteen subjective minutes.

They had long agreed they would celebrate the date by starting the children in their uterine replicators. The debate had never been about when , just how many . He still thought his suggestion of doing them all at once had an admirable efficiency. He'd never been serious about twelve; he'd just figured to start with that proposition, and fall back to six. His mother, his aunt, and what seemed every other female of his acquaintance had all mobilized to explain to him that he was insane, but Ekaterin had merely smiled. They'd settled on two, to begin with, Aral Alexander and Helen Natalia. A double portion of wonder, terror, and delight.

At the edge of the vid recording, Baby's First Cell Division was interrupted by a red blinking message light. Miles frowned faintly. They were three jumps out from Solar space, in the deep interstellar on a sub-light-speed run between wormholes expected to take four full days. En route to Tau Ceti, where they would make orbital transfer to a ship bound for Escobar, and there to yet another that would thread the jump route past Sergyar and Komarr to home. He wasn't exactly expecting any vid calls here. “Receive,” he intoned.

Aral Alexander in potentia vanished, to be replaced by the head and shoulders of the Tau Cetan passenger liner's captain. Miles and Ekaterin had dined at his table some two or three times on this leg of their tour. The man favored Miles with a tense smile and nod. “Lord Vorkosigan.”

“Yes, Captain? What can I do for you?”

“A ship identifying itself as a Barrayaran Imperial courier has hailed us and is requesting permission to match velocities and lock on. Apparently, they have an urgent message for you.”

Miles's brows rose, and his stomach sank. This was not, in his experience, the way the Imperium delivered good news. On his shoulder, Ekaterin's hand tightened. “Certainly, Captain. Put them through.”

The captain's dark Tau Cetan features vanished, to be replaced after a moment by a man in Barrayaran Imperial undress greens with lieutenant's tabs and Sector IV pins on his collar. Visions surged through Miles's mind of the Emperor assassinated, Vorkosigan House burned to the ground with the replicators inside, or, even more hideously likely, his father suffering a fatal stroke—he dreaded the day some stiff-faced messenger would begin by addressing him, Count Vorkosigan, sir?

The lieutenant saluted him. “Lord Auditor Vorkosigan? I'm Lieutenant Smolyani of the courier ship Kestrel . I have a message to hand-deliver to you, recorded under the Emperor's personal seal, after which I am ordered to take you aboard.”

“We're not at war, are we? Nobody's died?”

Lieutenant Smolyani ducked his head. “Not so far as I've heard, sir.” Miles's heart rate eased; behind him, Ekaterin let out her breath. The lieutenant went on, “But, apparently, a Komarran trade fleet has been impounded at some place called Graf Station, Union of Free Habitats. It's listed as an independent system, out near the edge of Sector V. My clear-code flight orders are to take you there with all safe speed, and to wait on your convenience thereafter.” He smiled a bit grimly. “I hope it's not a war, sir, because they only seem to be sending us.”

“Impounded? Not quarantined?”

“I gather it's some sort of legal entanglement, sir.”

I smell diplomacy . Miles grimaced. “Well, no doubt the sealed message will make it more plain. Bring it to me, and I'll take a look while we get packed up.”

“Yes, sir. The Kestrel will be locking on in just a few minutes.”

“Very good, Lieutenant.” Miles cut the com.

“We?” said Ekaterin in a quiet tone.

Miles hesitated. Not a quarantine, the lieutenant had said. Not, apparently, a shooting war either. Or not yet, anyway . On the other hand, he couldn't imagine Emperor Gregor interrupting his long-delayed honeymoon for something trivial. “I'd better see what Gregor has to say, first.”

She dropped a kiss on the top of his head, and said simply, “Right.”

Miles raised his personal wrist com to his lips and murmured, “Armsman Roic—on duty, to my cabin, now.”

* * *

The data disk with the Imperial Seal upon it that the lieutenant handed to Miles a short time later was marked Personal , not Secret . Miles sent Roic, his bodyguard- cum-batman, and Smolyani off to sort and stow luggage, but motioned Ekaterin to stay. He slipped the disk into the secured player that the lieutenant had also brought, set it on the cabin's bedside table, and keyed it to life. He sat back on the edge of the bed beside her, conscious of the warmth and solidity of her body. For the sake of her worried eyes, he took her hand in a reassuring grip.

Emperor Gregor Vorbarra's familiar features appeared, lean, dark, reserved. Miles read profound irritation in the subtle tightening of his lips.

“I'm sorry to interrupt your honeymoon, Miles,” Gregor began. “But if this has caught up with you, you haven't changed your itinerary. So you're on your way home now in any case.”

Not too sorry, then.

“It's my good luck and your bad that you happen to be the man physically closest to this mess. Briefly, one

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