bodyguard?' she bit out. 'I know Illyan gave you the most explicit standing orders that you're not to travel alone without one. How much more career suicide do you think you need?'

'In this sector, a bodyguard is a formality, and a waste of resources.' He inhaled. 'I'll . . . take Sergeant Taura. That ought to be enough bodyguard to satisfy the most paranoid ImpSec boss. And she's certainly earned a vacation.'

'Oh! You!' It was seldom indeed that Quinn ran out of invective. She turned on her heel, and stalked to the door, where she turned back and snapped him a salute, forcing him to return it. The automatic door, alas, was impossible to slam, but it seemed to shut with a snake-like hiss.

He flung himself into his station chair, and brooded at his comconsole. He hesitated. Then he called up the short mission file, and ciphered it onto a security card. He punched up the long version—and hit the erase command. Done.

He stuffed the ciphered report into the code-locked pouch, tossed it onto his bed, and rose to begin packing for the journey home.


The only two adjoining cabins left aboard the first Tau Ceti-bound jump-ship heading out of Zoave Twilight happened to be premier-class luxury suites. Miles smiled at this misfortune, and made a mental note to document the security necessity for Illyan's accountants, preferably while pointing out what obscene profits the mission just completed had made. He pottered about, taking his time putting away his sparse luggage, and waiting for Sergeant Taura to finish her meticulous security sweep. The lighting and decor were serene, the beds were spacious and soft, the bathrooms individual and private, and they didn't even have to go out for food; unlimited room service was included in the stiff fare. Once the ship was space-borne, they would be in effect inhabiting their own private universe for the next seven days.

The rest of the trip home would be much less inviting. At the Tau Ceti transfer station he would change uniforms and identities, and step aboard the Barrayaran government vessel in the persona of Lieutenant Lord Miles Vorkosigan, ImpSec courier, a modest young officer with the same rank and duties as the unlucky Lieutenant Vorberg. He shook out his Imperial undress greens, and hung them up in a lockable cupboard along with the uniform boots, their shine protected in a sealed bag. Courier officer always made an excellent cover-identity for Miles s wide-ranging travels to and from the Dendarii Fleet; a courier never had to explain anything. On the debit side, the company aboard the next ship would be all-male, all-military, and, alas, all Barrayaran. No bodyguard required. Sergeant Taura could split off to return to the Dendarii, and Miles would be left alone with his fellow subjects of the Imperium.

From long experience, he anticipated their reaction to him, to his apparent undersized unfitness for his military duties. They'd say nothing overt—it would be obvious to them that he held this cushy courier's sinecure by virtue of some powerful nepotistic string-pulling on the part of his father the Viceroy Admiral Count Vor-etcetera. It was exactly the reaction he desired, to maintain his deep cover, and Lieutenant Vorkosigan the Dull would do nothing to correct their assumptions. His own slur-sensitive antennae would fill in the blanks. Well, maybe the crew would include men he'd traveled with before, used to him by now.

He locked the cupboard. Let Lieutenant Vorkosigan and all his troubles stay out of sight and out of mind, for the next week. He had more engaging concerns. His belly shivered in anticipation.

Sergeant Taura returned at last, and ducked her head through the open doorway between their two rooms. 'All clear,' she reported. 'No bugs found anywhere. In fact, no new passengers or cargo added at all since we booked passage. We've just left orbit.'

He smiled up, and up at her, his most unusual Dendarii trooper, and one of his best. No surprise that she should be good at her job; she'd been genetically engineered for the task.

Taura was the living prototype of a genetic design project of dubious morality conceived and carried out, where else, on Jackson's Whole. They'd wanted a super-soldier, and they'd assigned a research committee to carry out the project. A committee consisting entirely of biological engineers, and not one experienced soldier. They'd wanted something spectacular, to impress the client. They had certainly achieved that.

When Miles had first encountered her, the sixteen-year-old Taura had reached her full adult height of eight feet, all of it lean and muscular. Her fingers and toes were tipped with heavy claws, and her outslung mouth made fierce with fangs that locked over her lips. Her body seemed to glow with the radiant heat of a burning metabolism that lent her unnatural strength and speed. That, and her tawny golden eyes, gave her a wolfish air; when fully concentrated upon her work, her ferocious stare could cause armed men to drop their weapons and throw themselves flat on the floor, a psychological-warfare effect Miles had actually witnessed, on one delightful occasion.

Miles had long thought that she was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen, in her own way. You just had to be able to see her properly. And unlike his blurred-together Dendarii missions, Miles could enumerate every rare occasion they had ever made love, from their very first encounter, six, seven years ago now? From before he and Quinn had ever become a couple, in point of fact. Taura was some kind of very special first for him, as he had been for her, and that secret bond had never faded.

Oh, they'd tried to be good. Dendarii regs against cross-rank fraternization were for the benefit of all, to protect the rankers from exploitation and the officers from losing control of discipline, or worse. And Miles had been quite determined, as the young and earnest Admiral Naismith, to set a good example for his troops, a virtuous resolve that had slipped away . . . somewhere. After the umpteenth we've-lost-count-again time he had been almost killed, perhaps.

Well, if you couldn't be good, at least you could be discreet.

'Very good, Sergeant.' He held out a hand to her. 'You may as well take a break—for the next seven days, eh?'

Her face lit; her lips drew back in a smile that fully exposed her fangs. 'Really?' she said, her resonant voice thrilling.


She trod over to him, her muscled mass making the deck creak slightly beneath her Dendarii combat boots, and bent to exchange a promissory kiss. Her mouth, as always, was hot and exhilarating. The fangs might be a subliminal trigger to that adrenaline rush, but mostly it was just the sheer wonderful . . . Taura- ness of her. She was life-relishing, experience-devouring, living in an eternal Now, and for very good reasons. . . . He forced his mind away from a descending swoop on that future, or any other, and curled his hand around the back of her head to loosen the neatly pinned-up braid of her mahogany hair.

'I'll freshen up,' she grinned, breaking away after a time. She twitched at her loosened gray uniform jacket.

'Enjoy the hell out of the bathing facilities,' he advised cordially. 'Its the most sybaritic setup I've seen since Dyne Station's Ambassadorial Baths.'

He retreated to his own facility, to ditch uniform and rank insignia and to engage in a pleasant ritual of leisurely preparation, involving depilation, cleanliness, and cologne. Taura deserved the best. She also deserved all the time she wanted. Seldom could she shed the stern Sergeant, and reveal that feminine self shyly hidden on the inside. Seldom indeed could she trust anyone to guard that vulnerability. The Fairy Princess, he thought of her. We all have our secret identities, it seems.

He dressed himself sarong-fashion in a prewarmed fluffy towel, and went to perch on his bed, waiting alertly. Had she anticipated this private space together, and if so, what little garment would she bring out of her valise this time? She would insist on trying out these would-be sexy numbers on him, not seeming to realize how like a goddess she was already when dressed in nothing but her streaming hair. Well, all right, not streaming hair; left to its own devices it tended to go stiff and uncooperative and frizzy, tickling his nose, but it looked good on her. He hoped she had managed to lose the horrifying pink thing with the red feathers. It had taken all his tact, last time, to get across the idea that perhaps the color and design choice did not compliment her

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