'—we wish to resign.' Her smile, confusingly, crept wider, as if she'd just said something delightful.

Miles almost fell off his chair. 'What? Why?'

Elena glanced at Baz, and he took up the thread. 'I've received a job offer for an engineering position from an orbital shipyard at Escobar. It would pay enough for us both to retire.'

'I, I … didn't realize you were dissatisfied with your pay grades. If this is about money, something can be arranged.'

'It has nothing to do with money,' said Baz.

He'd been afraid of that. No, that would be too easy—

'We want to retire to start a family,' Elena finished.

What was it about that simple, rational statement that put Miles so forcibly in mind of the moment when the snipers needle grenade had blown his chest out all over the pavement? 'Uh . . .'

'As Dendarii officers,' Elena went on, 'we can simply give appropriate notice and resign, of course. But as your liege-sworn vassals, we must petition you for release as an Extraordinary Favor.'

'Um . . , I'm . . . not sure the Fleet's prepared to lose my two top officers at one blow. Especially Baz. I rely on him, when I'm away, as I have to be about half the time, not just for engineering and logistics, but to keep things under control. To make sure the private contracts don't step on the toes of any of Barrayar's interests. To know … all the secrets. I don't see how I can replace him.'

'We thought you could divide Baz's current job in half,' said Elena helpfully.

'Yes. My engineering second's quite ready to move up,' Baz assured him. 'Technically, he's better than I am. Younger, you know.'

'And everyone knows you've been grooming Elli Quinn for years for command position,' Elena went on. 'She's itching for promotion. And ready, too. I think she more than proved that last year.'

'She's not . . . Barrayaran. Illyan might get twitchy about that,' Miles temporized. 'In such a critical position.'

'He never has so far. He knows her well enough by now, surely. And ImpSec employs plenty of non- Barrayaran agents,' said Elena.

'Are you sure you want to formally retire? I mean, is that really necessary? Wouldn't an extended leave or a sabbatical be enough?'

Elena shook her head. 'Becoming parents . . . changes people. I don't know that I'd want to come back.'

'I thought you wanted to become a soldier. With all your heart, more than anything. Like me.' Do you have any idea how much of all this was for you, just for you?

'I did. I have. I'm . . . done. I knowenough is not a concept you particularly relate to. I don't know if the wildest successes would ever be enough to fill you up.'

That's because I am so very empty. . . .

'But … all my childhood, all my youth, Barrayar pounded into me that being a soldier was the only job that counted. The most important thing there was, or ever could be. And that I could never be important, because I could never be a soldier. Well, I've proved Barrayar wrong. I've been a soldier, and a damned good one.'

'True . . .'

'And now I've come to wonder what else Barrayar was wrong about. Like, what's really important, and who is really important. When you were in cryo-stasis last year, I spent a lot of time with your mother.'

'Oh.' On a journey to a homeworld she'd once sworn passionately never to set foot upon again, yes . . .

'We talked a lot, she and I. I'd always thought I admired her because she was a soldier in her youth, for Beta Colony in the Escobar War, before she immigrated and married your father. But once, reminiscing, she went into this sort of litany about all the things she'd ever been. Like astrocartographer, and explorer, and ship's captain, and POW, and wife, and mother, and politician . . . the list went on and on. There was no telling, she said, what she would be next. And I thought… I want to be like that. I want to be like her. Not just one thing, but a world of possibilities. I want to find out who else I can be.'

Miles glanced covertly at Baz, who was smiling proudly at his wife. No question, her will was driving this decision. But Baz was, quite properly, Elena's abject slave. Everything she said would go for him too. Rats.

'Don't you think . . . you might want to come back, after?'

'In ten, fifteen, twenty years?' said Elena. 'Do you even think the Dendarii Mercenaries will still exist? No. I don't think I'll want to go back. I'll want to go on. I already know that much.'

'Surely you'll want some kind of work. Something that uses your skills.'

'I've thought of becoming a commercial shipmaster. It would use most of my training, except for the killing-people parts. I'm tired of death. I want to switch to life.'

'I'm . . . sure you'll be superb at whatever you choose to do.' For a mad moment, Miles considered the possibility of denying their release. No, you can't go, you have to stay with me. . . . 'Technically, you realize, I can only release you from this duty. I can't release you from your liege relationship, any more than Emperor Gregor can release me from being Vor. Not that we can't . . . agree to ignore each others' existences for extended periods of time.'

Elena gave him a kindly smile that reminded him quite horribly for a moment of his mother, as if she were seeing the whole Vor system as a hallucination, a legal fiction to be edited at will. A look of centered power, not checking outside of herself for … for anything. *

It wasn't fair, for people to go and change on him, while his back was turned being dead. To change without giving notice, or even asking permission. He would howl with loss, except . . . you lost her years ago. This change has been coming since forever. 'You're just pathologically incapable of admitting defeat. That was a useful quality, sometimes, in a military leader. It was a pain in the neck in a lover, or would-be lover.

But, wondering why he was bothering, Miles went through the proper Vor forms with them, each kneeling before him to place his or her hands between Miles's. He turned his palms out and watched Elena's long slim hands fly up like birds, freed from some cage. I did not know I had imprisoned you, my first love. I'm sorry. . . .

'Well, I wish you every joy,' Miles went on, as Elena rose and took Baz's hand. He managed a wink. 'Name the first one after me, eh?'

Elena grinned. 'I'm not sure she'd appreciate that. Milesanna? Milesia?'

'Milesia sounds like a disease,' Miles admitted, taken aback. 'In that case, don't. I wouldn't want her to grow up hating me in absentia.'

'How soon can we go?' asked Elena. 'We are between contracts. The Fleet's scheduled for some downtime anyway.'

'Everything's in order in Engineering and Logistics,' Baz added. 'For a change, no postmission damage repairs.'

Delay? No. Let it be done swiftly. 'Quite soon, I expect. I'll have to notify Captain Quinn, of course.'

'Commodore Quinn,' Elena nodded. 'She'll like the sound of that.' She gave Miles an unmilitary parting hug. He stood still, trying to breathe in the last lingering scent of her, as the door whispered closed behind them.

Quinn was attending to duties downside on Zoave Twilight; Miles left orders for her to report to him upon her return to the Peregrine. He called up Dendarii Fleet personnel rosters upon his comconsole while he waited, and studied Baz's proposed replacements. There was no reason they shouldn't work out. Promote this man here, move that one and that one to cover the holes. . . . He was not, he assured himself, in shock about this. There were limits even to his capacity for self-dramatization, after all. He was a little unbalanced, perhaps, like a man accustomed to leaning on a decorative cane having it suddenly snatched away. Or a swordstick, like old Commodore Koudelka's. If it weren't for his private little medical problem, he would have to say the couple had chosen their timing well, from the Fleet's point of view.

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