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Chapter 16 - Can’t Trace Time by A.J. Hall

“I don’t care,” Petrova said doggedly. “Whether or not Bel was technically treating you rather than you treating it at the relevant time, it’s the patient. And you’re the doctor. And there are rules.”

The herm’s blue eyes sparkled with amusement and with something else. Owen thought that it might, improbably, be respect. “Sure there are rules. And there are definitions in the rules. And by those definitions I’m no longer a patient, so the rules don’t apply. To either of us. Valid concern; invalid application. End of story.”

Petrova whirled to face Bel. “Not a patient? Why? Are you claiming you’ve discharged yourself?”

The herm’s lips quirked. “Well, no. Though given another few minutes as hot as that, and -“

It paused, its expression provocative. Petrova gave an exasperated “huff” of disapproval. Bel’s face changed, became more serious. It stretched out a hand and rested it on her arm. “Look; it’s now 17:10. There’s a complete set of paperwork on file showing I stopped being the hospital’s problem over an hour and a half ago.”

Her mouth opened in protest, but Bel put its finger lightly on her lips before she could speak.

“Do everyone a favour. Let it go. You helped nail one cannibal today - for which you have my eternal gratitude. But he was just a small cannibal. There are whole tribes and chiefs for you to tackle next. You need to keep your powder dry for the battles that matter. And - trust me on this - Owen and I are big enough and ugly enough to look after ourselves.”

She turned away; ungracious, muttering something uncomplimentary, but - Owen gathered from her body-language - apparently prepared to accept the argument. He was surprised at the degree of relief he felt about that.

He cleared his throat. “The only problem is - how do we make sure our cannibal stays nailed? It’s clear he’s owed favours all over the place, right to the heart of the system. Hell, if he was acting as -” no point in pussyfooting, and Bel was tough enough to stand it “- procurer for someone who was bezzy mates with the Royal Family, who knows who else he’s got in his pocket? And this - Vorgeraint - too. Who can we trust?”

There was a pause. And then, with an indefinable air - part reluctance, part embarrassment, part something other - Bel said, “There’s only one person we can go to. Countess Vorkosigan.”

Something about the name jogged a fugitive memory. Something about Vorhartung Castle, and a scalp, and a glass case, and some teenager who’d participated in a mass family dismemberment -

“She any relation to - whatsisname - Aral Vorkosigan?”

“She’s married to him.” Bel looked straight across at him. “Oh yes. He’s still alive. Though I gather it got a bit touch and go a few months back, according to Mark -” It broke off. “Anyway, she’s the hospital patron.”

Owen raised his eyebrows. “The one whose surprise inspections scared Vorgeraint into faking his death?”

Bel nodded.

Petrova’s face was suddenly vivid with interest; Owen was surprised at the difference it made. She snapped her fingers. “Of course. The perfect person. Get the information to her, and -“

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Bel said. “The Countess does happen to be the most powerful woman on the planet.”

Owen suppressed an urge to comment that from what he’d seen of Barrayar that probably gave her approximately the authority of a Cardiff traffic-warden. Petrova snorted, so she was presumably thinking the same thing. Bel waved its hand. “No, in her case it’s real power. From where she stands she only has to put a little pressure on the fulcrum and Barrayar moves.” It bit its lips. “I can’t just show up on her doorstep and say, ‘Hi, I’m Bel. You don’t know me, but I once had a fantasy that you might become my mother-in-law’.”

Petrova gave an outraged little squeak. A brief flash of hurt showed in Bel’s face before it became closed and non-committal once more. “It’s complicated, OK.”

Owen snorted. “Complicated? I’d call fantasising about acquiring in-laws bleeding sick. Can’t you just stick to tarts doing weird things with pythons like everyone else?”

With a determined swing of her shoulders Petrova turned her back on them both and attacked the comconsole. “You wouldn’t find her at home, anyway,” she jerked out between gritted teeth. “She’s hosting a charity ball in aid of the Hospital Trust at the Count’s Residence in Hassadar this evening. Didn’t that idiot Vorsoisson even give you your itinerary? Or your tickets? And I suppose he hasn’t even booked a light-flyer for you, either.”

Owen’s jaw dropped. But I haven’t got a thing to wear was the first imbecile thought which crossed his mind, followed by light-flyer? Light-flyer? Fortunately, before he was actually reduced to gibbering panic the salient part of Petrova’s comment sank in.

“Tickets? You mean I’m bleeding well invited?”

Petrova nodded at the vid-plate, and hit a download command. “Invited? You’re on show. Explaining galactic medicine to every Vor-bore in the District. Tapping them up for funds. Explaining what wonderful work we do here.”

Bel’s eyes had the glitter of a hunting cat. “Ah? Would that be the rounding up of the City’s indigents and shipping them off to be used as lab rats, or the thriving sex-slave sideline?”

“Stop that.” Owen was surprised to find how much authority he could get into his voice when he tried. “It’s not Petrova’s fault. Take it out on Vorgeriant and Hasek if you want to. I certainly shan’t stop you.” He looked down at the printout. “Hey. It says here: “And guest.”

Petrova sniffed, pointedly. “I’m on duty.”

Owen smiled. “Wasn’t thinking of asking you, darlin’. Didn’t think you were the dancing type. But if you fancied making yourself useful, you could call up whichever of your friends has any dress sense, and find out where a bloke can buy a bird a ballgown in this city.”

Her mouth dropped open. “What? Who? I mean, you can’t -“

Owen swung round to face Bel. “Unless, of course, you’re washing your hair this evening?”