Chapter 4 - Time Shall Not Mend by A.J. Hall
The smooth dark head in front of him was bent in concentration over the controls.
“Ha! Got rid of the screwy little git at last,” the pilot breathed aloud with an air of satisfaction as he saw the other aircraft bank and curve sharply away. He started his spiraling descent down towards the city centre. Below them Draco could see the elegant loops of the river, outlined with lights on each bank, lying across Vorbarr Sultana like a necklace on jeweller’s velvet. He tensed. Voices sounded in his head.
He’s sure that she’s waiting for him now, down on the bridge below the rapids - all dressed up (but not too dressed, he’s hoping) -
I’ve got a hot date who doesn’t come with a free bonus civil war included -
Draco coughed. “Sorry to wreck your evening,” he said politely, “But on your Emperor’s behalf I - ah - request and require that you stand her up.”
The back of the neck in front of him tensed visibly. There was a suppressed sound of swearing. With reluctant admiration - this compulsive militarism does have some uses - Draco noted that the pilot had conquered the urge he must have to turn and look behind him. Furthermore, his voice was dead level as he responded.
“I suppose you’re armed, whoever you may be?”
“Well,” Draco drawled, “I’ve got a parchment signed in the Emperor’s blood, and a magic wand. That heavy enough ammunition for you?”
There was a snort from the seat in front. “Ah. A humorist. Probably an armed humorist. Worst sort, in my experience. So, whoever you are, where are you planning we should set down?”
“Anywhere you choose, so long as it’s a very long way from the bridge below the rapids.”
There was a rapid exhalation. “A well-informed humorist, to boot. So I take it you do know exactly how you’re wrecking my evening?”
“In outline, yes. And, by the way, apropos the word ‘boot’. If you are planning to jump me as soon as we land, I’d think again. Your Emperor wouldn’t like it. Ekaterin wouldn’t like it. Your mother wouldn’t like it (I really believe she regards me as quite a nicely brought-up boy apart from my unfortunate sense of timing). I think even your cousin Miles would consider the short-term enjoyment of the experience not worth the long-term strategic downside. And, last but not least, I’d be seriously pissed off about it.”
The light-flyer grounded, gently, in the middle of a dark expanse. The nearest lights were some considerable distance away, and the subdued glow of the urban sky was truncated in three directions by dark arcs of nothingness. Sports stadium, Draco guessed.
The pilot switched off the engine and turned round to face him, his arms crossed and a pugnacious expression on his face.
Good heavens, Draco thought irrelevantly, that’s a jaw-line to have on one’s side when fighting off two-metre tall alien ants. And Madam Bonn wasn’t wrong about his ability to look good in the - er - wait on a minute here -
He couldn’t help it. It might be his blood-sealed duty to save the planet against overwhelming odds, but he had a question that needed answering before he was prepared to do it.
“You were actually planning to go out on a hot date wearing your uniform?”
His voice dripped with horror. Ivan’s expression relaxed marginally, with a suspicion of smugness about it.
“Well,” he said, “it’s obvious you aren’t from round here.”
Draco tried not to let his total bafflement show in his expression. For one panicked moment he wondered if the other was, somehow, managing to cast a Confundus charm over him, but Madam Bonn had insisted that Ivan had no magical talent, and surely she ought to know -
“You know, By Vorrutyer said almost exactly the same thing.”
Ivan’s face assumed an unreadable but, Draco thought, none too charitable expression.
“Well, I can assure you that’s probably the only thing the two of us have in common.” He paused. “Apart from the odd relative, that is.” He snorted. “And I can assure you, when they come from that side of the family, odd is the operative word.” He nodded out through the canopy. “One of them built this monstrosity, fr’instance. You’re lucky it’s dark. Anyway, explain yourself. I suppose you must have climbed into the light-flyer in the garage back at the flats.”
Draco, self-consciously, made himself sound bored. “Use your brains,” he said. “Even you don’t actually believe that. You’re only saying it because you can’t bring yourself to face the alternative.”
There was, he noted with secret relief, the faintest edge of a tremor in the other’s voice.
“Oh? How do you figure that?”
“Because I’m sitting on a dozen red roses. You must have dropped them on the back seat just before you left the flats. And you know, and I know, that if I’d been here then, you’d have seen me.”
Ivan acknowledged this point with a chopped nod
“So? I take it that means the Betan boffins have got round Hei-whatsisname’s uncertainty principle at last, and we’ve now got personal matter transporter beams to deal with? All I can say is, I’m glad I’m out of the Academy so I won’t have to wrestle with the theory: I’ll just have to learn up on the practical dangers.”
His voice, on the last word, had a sharp edge. Draco’s hand went to the breast pocket of his robes: he could see Ivan’s eyes widen with apprehension and then narrow as he brought out the Emperor’s flimsy. He handed it over with a brusque, businesslike air.
“No. Nothing - scientific - at all. I suggest you read that.”
Ivan read the document in silence. He paused, read it again, and looked Draco straight in the eyes.
“Gregor,” he observed conversationally, “has much more of a sense of humour than he appears to have. But none at all when it comes to his official duties. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I’ve seen him even mildly lit up, and I imagine stoned out of the Imperial skull has not, and never will happen in any of our lifetimes. And he’s been dealing with tricksters, con-artists and galactic diplomats on his own for the best part of two decades, and I can’t remember the last time he fell for any sort of scam. Nor, despite having much too much Mad Emperor Yuri in his bloodlines, has he ever shown any signs of mental instability. Which leaves me only one conclusion.” He exhaled. “So, tell me. What did you do to convince him that you actually are -” Ivan boggled momentarily at the word, but carried on gamely “- A wizard?”
Draco felt faintly hesitant. “Well - there was this woman - Elli - being rather obnoxious. So, I’m afraid, she ended up burping dragonflies for a bit. No - er - actual harm done, you understand. But it made my point.”
There was a moment’s pause, and then a profound snort of laughter from Ivan.
“Elli -? Admiral Tintits? You made Admiral Tintits burp dragonflies? In front of the Emperor?”
Draco nodded. “Well. Yes. In front of a few other people as well, actually. Your mother. Your cousin. The Vicereine. Ekaterin. Those sort of people.” He paused. “Hm. ‘Admiral Tintits’. I take it that would make you what By calls a heretic.”
The other looked confused, Draco thought, and somehow profoundly disturbed.
“About Elli’s looks, I mean,” he prompted. Ivan’s expression became suddenly relieved.
“Ah, those? Well, you know how it goes. I first came across her on a day when she - wasn’t looking quite her best. And I wasn’t as tactful as I might have been. And I don’t think she’s ever quite forgiven me. So that’s how that happened. Anyway, that’s history. So, tell me why you’ve messed up my evening’s plans?”
At this moment, a loud alarm woke from the panel in front of the light-flyer. Ivan swung round with an automatic exclamation, and slapped his palm across a prominent button. The whine of the alarm transmuted abruptly into words:
“-cers of the Imperial forces, general alert, general alert. Report into your base immediately. Priority, repeat, priority. Sécurité, sécurité, sécurité, to all serving officers of the Imperial forces, general alert, general alert. Report into your base immediately. Priority, repeat, priority. Sécurité, sécurité, sécurité, to all serving officers of the Imperial forces, general alert, general alert. Report -“
Ivan hit the button again. The urgent voice suddenly fell silent. Draco smiled.
“I take it that someone has just spotted that you people seem to be missing an Emperor. Now you know it wasn’t me who ruined your evening. It was doomed from the start. And this - ” he waved the Emperor’s flimsy “- I imagine would take priority over that.” He nodded at the panel. “So,” he added reasonably,” Why don’t we sit down comfortably and I’ll tell you what’s really going on?”
Grudgingly, Ivan nodded, although he muttered sotto voce something which sounded like: “Bloody Miles. More ways of manipulating you than a bleeding Orb trained masseuse, f’crying out loud, delegating it to sodding magicians now, I ask you is this fair -?”
Nevertheless, after looking at Draco speculatively for a few more moments, he grudgingly popped the catch on a concealed locker in the light-flyer’s side, and pulled out a hip-flask. He uncorked it, took an obviously ceremonial sip and passed it over. Unexpectedly, it contained a decent brandy. He took a swig and passed it back to Ivan, who swallowed deeply.
“I am not,” Draco said, surprised that it seemed so important to set the record straight, “anything to do with your cousin Miles. I was dragged here from my own time and planet because I owe Lady Ekaterin a blood debt. So far as I can tell, paying that debt is my only chance of a ticket home. And this is the second time I’ve had my plans for the evening rearranged without my having a say in it as it is. So if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather redeem my obligations as fast as possible, with minimum exertion and in a way that maximizes my chances of keeping a whole skin while doing it.”
And with Ivan’s amused, accepting grin at that opening, he felt able to explain everything, from arriving at Vorkosigan Surleau to interrogating the Bonns, right through up to the present moment.
Ivan was a surprisingly good listener, passing the flask across silently from time to time when Draco’s narrative seemed to flag, and interposing short, snarky interventions. He could not, however, be persuaded to take seriously the risk of being forced into becoming a puppet Emperor. He gestured expansively.
“Look, this is m’father’s mad cousin Genie we’re talking about here. I mean, if you had some daft old bat of an aunt whom practically no-one in the family’s spoken to since she eloped from your father’s wedding with a non-com at the age of 17, would you be likely to believe it if some total stranger turfed up and told you that she was the mastermind behind a sinister plot to cast you as the sacrificial front man for an Enchanted Evil Empire?”
In my family? Quite probably. More likely than not, in fact.
Er - apart from the eloping with a non-com bit, that is.
Annoyingly, Draco found himself having to be extremely careful to avoid slurring his words as he spoke: part of his mind mused idly whether the time for a Sobrifacio charm might not be close at hand.
“You - won’t get the choice. They can make you. Unspeakable Curse. Takes all your free will away.”
Ivan set his space-hero jaw determinedly. “I’d like to see them try it!”
Abruptly, Draco lost patience. “You stupid Muggle. Don’t believe it? Then watch this!”
He pulled his wand from his belt.
He put, consciously, everything he had been taught into the curse, feeling for the other’s will in order to bend it subtly to his own, letting the power flow out down the wand, trying to captivate, ensnare, beguile - time later to unleash the whip -
He suspected, from Ivan’s faintly self-satisfied smirk, that he had not quite been able to prevent his howl of anguish from becoming audible, and the thought stung him. Resentfully, he retrieved his wand from the floor of the light-flyer where he had dropped it, and resisted the temptation to put the tips of his tingling fingers into his mouth to soothe them.
He had never actually run full-tilt into a plate-glass window that he thought was open air, but he fancied he now knew what it would feel like. The shock still reverberated the whole way up from his wand hand into his shoulder.
And I’ve only had this nervous system a bit under three months, too.
He supposed, in theory, he should have set up inner blocks against the risk of meeting settled resistance, but those who had taught him had never warned him that any response which could turn his own power so unequivocally back on himself was possible. Certainly not from a Muggle.
Self-defence against the Dark Arts, that’s what I should have studied.
On the thought he recovered his composure.
Well, it least it seems to have done away with the need for a Sobrifacio charm, at any rate.
He looked pointedly at Ivan. “Impressive. Unfortunately, if you do that to either your mad aunt Evgenia, or to her kid brother the Magus-Emperor - “
Ivan looked disgusted.
“Cousin Sergei. And to think he proposed me to the Officers’ Club when I graduated from the Imperial Academy, too.”
Draco’s voice was cool.
“Obviously he had his eye on your long-term prospects for social advancement, even then. Anyway, I was saying. The minute you show them you aren’t - controllable - all they’re going to do is use the Killing Curse instead. And I can assure you, without a demonstration this time, that to date no-one’s succeeded in blocking that one by sheer bloody-mindedness. Then they’ll strike your name off the list without a second thought, and move on to whoever’s next in line.”
“Young Court Vordrozdha, I think, or Vortaine. I stopped calculating the odds once Gregor and Miles had both managed to produce sprogs. I reckoned I was out, free and clear. And I’m not planning on anyone changing that for me, either.”
He glared pugnaciously at Draco. Draco sighed. “Well, your cousin Miles did have a few suggestions as to what I was supposed to do to retrieve the situation.”
Ivan snorted. “Large explosions and innumerable fatalities among innocent by-standers a speciality, I imagine.” He gave him a disgusted look. “Mind you, every now and then he does come up with something half-way workable - against the odds, I admit, but still - “
He thought for a moment.
“It’s a long shot, but it might just work. Go on. Spill. What did the Control Freak From Hell suggest you do about this mess, anyway?”
“So - do you in fact have any bright ideas at all for overcoming a hidden enemy who outnumber us twenty to one, at least seven of whom have magical powers at least equal to yours?”
Draco shrugged. “Well, I’d say surrounding them was right out.”
“Well, thanks for that insight. Takes you right up there as one of the great strategic military thinkers of all time. Sun Tzu, Uncle Aral, and Draco Malfoy.”
The comment stung, undeniably. Try as he might, Draco was unable to keep the resentment out of his voice.
“Well, what do you expect? After all, I’m not the one who was brought up on a planet where, far as I can tell, your first romper suit’s a uniform. With rank insignia.”
Ivan’s lips quirked. “And you should just see the ceremonial Vorpatril naming robes. Anyway, that’s tradition. We haven’t had any real wars in the Imperium in decades - well, leaving aside that strictly localised cloud of mass conflict m’cousin seems to generate wherever he goes, of course. You’re the one who’s actually had experience of magical warfare.”
“Look, I think you should get one thing straight,” Draco said firmly. “We didn’t even know there was going to be a war until I was about 15. And even after that you don’t think I was sitting at my father’s feet absorbing tactical gems from a master of the art, do you?”
“In fact, I think about the only real strategic thinking my father ever shared with me was a plan which went something like: become the rebel leader’s indispensable right hand man; stand by him and learn all his vulnerable spots as he brutally hacks his way to power; once he’s succeeded, bump him off; frame his number three for it, and step smoothly into his shoes.”
He could see Ivan looking at him, with a somewhat startled expression. He continued relentlessly on. “Well, what else do you expect? After all, in my experience, one wizard’s lonely, two’s an argument, and three adds up to two bitterly opposed alliances and a splinter group rapidly gaining in popular support.”
Ivan had opened his mouth to say something. Draco impatiently waved him to silence.
“And before you say anything,” he added rapidly, “that’s not simply because of being brought up as one of the bad guys. There’s been just as much friction, back-stabbing, and downright pig-headed obstinacy from the Allies, so far as I can tell.”
He paused, before adding slightly grudgingly,
“Though the Allies might have relied a bit more on killer committee sessions and the ruthless use of standing orders, and less on mass poisonings than the Death Eaters.”
Ivan looked at him again. “Now I’m finally allowed to get a word in edgeways,” he said, “can I congratulate you on your brilliant tactical insight?”
“Two bitterly opposed alliances and a splinter group rapidly gaining in popular support,” Ivan quoted. “You and me are on an Imperial mission to spread dissension, factionalism, and outright civil war.”
He gave Draco a quick, appraising look.
“But not before we’ve stopped off at Dr Weddell’s lab and you’ve left him a nice tissue sample to play with.”
Draco was beginning a protesting “Ack” when Ivan took him ruthlessly by the arm.
“After all,” he added reasonably, “if m’cousin the Lord Auditor thought it was a good idea, that makes it practically an Imperial order.”
The grip expertly paralysed a small but vital set of nerve groups in the region of the elbow. It also - and with exquisite precision - obstructed Draco’s access to his wand. Ivan’s other hand, to complete the threat, was curled around the hand-grip of a - stunner - he seemed to have acquired from somewhere or other in the vehicle, presumably while Draco was absorbed in his narrative.
“Trust me,” Ivan said, “this isn’t going to hurt a bit.”
Dr Weddell looked at the complex patterns swirling almost more quickly than the eye could see over the vid-plate, and coughed accusingly.
“I don’t know what the Lord Auditor was expecting me to do with your tissue sample on no prior notice whatsoever,” he said, “But beyond the blindingly obvious fact that you’ve got a significant percentage of DNA in there that isn’t even human, I think you should tell him next time you see him that I might conceivably be able to isolate the gene-complex for a particular talent with a statistically significant spread of samples, a dedicated team of research assistants, an unlimited budget and about 25 man-years dedicated lab effort, but doing it with the material he’s given to me isn’t even a starter.”
He sniffed. “The impossible, tell him, I endeavour to do at once, but he should expect miracles to take a little longer.”
Ivan was edging noticeably down the laboratory, away from Draco. “What do you mean - not even human? Don’t tell me this is another escapee from Miles Vorkosigan’s Galactic Travelling Circus and Freak Show - like that eight-foot tall ex-girlfriend with the fangs who showed up at his wedding and he foisted off on m’mother as a fashion design project, for heaven’s sake? I can tell you, I got enough stick from the boys in Ops over that one to last me for several lifetimes.”
Draco exhaled, through clenched teeth.
“In the first place, I have nothing to do with your bloody cousin Miles, got that? I don’t even think he likes me. As I said, I’m Ekaterin’s guest. And if he made her put up with that at her own wedding then I think she’s an even more long-suffering woman than I thought half an hour ago.” He paused for breath. “Secondly, I don’t know what you mean by freak. And certainly not fangs. Whatever they say, we’ve never had vampires in the family.”
Draco had made his speech before noticing that Dr Weddell was - oddly - looking almost equally insulted.
“Taura was a very carefully designed construct. As a prototype, naturally there were one or two - ah -“
Weddell paused, visibly boggled, and just managed to avoid the phrase teething problems by an overwhelming feat of verbal gymnastics.
”- Design infelicities that we would have had to eliminate in production models - and, as I told Miles at the time, I did have some reservations at the time about the - the - dental modifications - but on the molecular level she was as elegant as possible, given the time and budget constraints. Whereas this - well, whoever put you together wasn’t merely slapdash - there seems to have been no scientific method in it whatsoever.”
“Put me together?” Draco endeavoured to load the phrase with all the appalled hauteur at his command. Plainly it was not a vintage which travelled well. Weddell chuntered blithely on.
“Indeed. Though I must say they’ve managed the accelerated growth exceptionally smoothly. The gap between your apparent and actual age - well, it can’t be as great as the cell-level analysis indicates, since you’re actually able to walk and talk, but it must be considerable. Considerably better than the Jacksonians were managing for clones when I left. The potential margins - House Bharaputra would pay a fortune for that trick, alone - I wonder if your designers have filed for galactic patent protection yet?”
“What are you talking about?” Draco looked suspiciously around the lab. Mad Muggle scientists were, of course, favourite villains in the books he had read as a child, but he had not expected the stereotype to be quite so amply fulfilled quite so quickly.
Dr Weddell shrugged. “Well, if I were to gauge my impressions simply on cellular age it’d put you at less than one.”
Ivan’s face was running through a range of expressions, of which the least complex equated, Draco thought, to “Someone give me a Portkey out of here now.”
He was not entirely without sympathy.
“Look,” he said firmly, “stop that nonsense at once. I’m the age I look.”
Well, with the benefit of the doubt as to a year or two, hopefully. The gate guard’s automatic “sonny” had rankled more than he had originally thought. He could see Weddell looking sceptical, but continued relentlessly on, trying to construct some explanation that might just possibly strike a chord in his alien consciousness.
“If there’s anything funny about my muscles it’s because they had to be mostly - re-grown - a few months ago.”
A cautious sidelong glance provided encouraging intelligence - clearly this was an explanation which the other two regarded as quite within their cultural grasp.
And culturally, from what I’ve seen so far, I bet they won’t have too many difficulties with the next bit, either.
“Following - er - a murder attempt on me, by - ah - poison which - while unsuccessful - still lead to - er - quite extensive soft tissue destruction.”
He decided, on balance, not to explain the nature of the damage; he sensed he was pretty close to the limits of Ivan’s “Euch!” tolerance threshold as it was, and explaining that less than three months ago he had been a barely animate - and comprehensively decomposed - near-corpse would, he sensed, be counter-productive. Come to think of it, it was a recollection that came pretty close to his own “Euch!” threshold.
“If you were to take a sample from my bones - which you aren’t, you vulture -” he added hurriedly, as he saw Weddell look interested, “you’d find it all looked perfectly normal for my apparent age.” Probably. I hope. How the hell would I know?
“Hm -” Weddell looked almost convinced. Ivan, however, did not.
“Yes, well - how is that supposed to explain that dirty great dollop of “not even human” in your gene scan, then?”
He shrugged, helplessly. “Great-grandmamma, I expect.”
That was an obvious mistake. He could see them focussing on him intently. Nothing else for it.
He shrugged again.
“Well, she was a Veela, actually.”
He nodded. Why ask?
“Well, of course. I mean, my father wouldn’t have married my mother if she hadn’t come from a pure-blood family.”
Dr Weddell looked at the swirling, dancing patterns across the vid-plate, and gave an exaggerated sigh.
“Mr Malfoy - I’ve no idea in what sense your father used the term “pure-blood”, but I can tell he was most certainly no geneticist.”
Ivan, by now, had sidled to form the apex of an isosceles triangle, with Draco and the vid-plate forming the other corners. At the far end of two very long sides. He stabbed a suspicious finger towards the display. “So - what kind of not-human is that?”
Dr Weddell pursed his lips. “Lord Vorpatril, you and your cousin are a great deal more alike than superficial appearances would suggest. At this preliminary stage of analysis, how do you expect me to tell? I could, of course, say that it seems to have certain elements in common with avian DNA. I might, with equal truth, say it had as much in common with reptilian. I might conclude, however, that in several more years, with a good deal of effort and a few lucky research breaks, I might be able to give you something approaching an answer. Though not, I regret, an especially scholarly one in that time frame.”
Draco decided to be helpful.
‘Well, that bird/reptile cross sounds pretty close to the mark, for Veela, actually,” he said, and then caught sight of Ivan’s face.
Oops. That, I think, just broke the “Euch!” barrier.
Ivan gulped. He appeared to be choosing his words with considerable care.
“You - are telling me - that your great-grandfather screwed some lizard with feathers, and that you’re the result?”
He made his voice stony. “Well, in the first place, I’ll have you know they were married.” He caught sight of Ivan’s look, and added hastily,
“And, anyway, that isn’t what a Veela looks like. Not that looks are actually the first thing on the mind of a man who manages to get that close. Or that the mind’s even going to get a look in at that range, I should think. Great-grandmamma had an extremely successful career on the London stage. Champagne out of slippers, thousand Galleon bribes to her dresser to be allowed into her dressing room, younger sons committing suicide at the stage door - the whole bit. I don’t, honestly, think, for example, that you’d have had any complaints if you’d encountered Great-grandmamma even forty years on the wrong side of her prime.”
Ivan, cautiously, looked slightly more interested. Dr Weddell, on the other hand, looked distinctly superior.
“It never ceases to amaze me, the wilful blindness about genetic truths and gene tinkering that can be traced to some cultural obsession with pure-blood and an equally idiotic fairy story of the master race. All explicable, I daresay, in sociological terms.”
Sociological was evidently one of the stronger obscenities in Dr Weddell’s vocabulary. After he had delivered himself of it, he regarded Draco and Ivan owlishly, and relapsed into silence. Ivan rolled up his sleeves with an air of determination.
“So what you’re actually saying, Dr Weddell, is that Draco’s got Cetagandan haut thinking; he just can’t manage the genome. Well, I can live with that. Just. So, if you can’t whip us up a diagnostic kit to test for this skill on transients through the orbital stations, what about a set of face paints that only become visible when exposed to UV light on a pre-determined frequency?”
The expression on Dr Weddell’s face flickered through baffled into disdain. “Child’s play. I hope, Lord Vorpatril, I’m not being expected to participate in providing the wherewithal for some Vor-class party tricks?”
Ivan looked grim. “This particular party is called The Decline and Fall of the Barrayaran Empire. Come as you are. Black, white and red, please: a full set of the bleeding-zebra Imperial colours. Should do the trick. Oh, and a couple of hand-held UV scanners tuned to the right frequency, please. And hurry - we need to be getting back to Vorkosigan House before the kids panic.”
Muttering, Dr Weddell wandered over to a lab bench, and started up a machine. Ivan drifted over into a little alcove and returned a few minutes later bearing two mugs, one of which he pushed across to Draco. Draco sniffed, cautiously, but much to his surprise it was coffee. He started to drink it.
“So,” Ivan said, with the air of one determined to uphold the banner of polite conversation at all costs, “what else did your deeply weird great grandmother do when she was an actress?”
They had been back at Vorkosigan House over an hour, and preparations for the next stage of Ivan’s plan were in full swing.
“What are you doing?”
Arthur had been looking on with increasing fascination and bafflement to Draco’s delicate operation on Evgenia Bonn’s wand on the Vorkosigan kitchen table with a sharp knife and some very fine wire. Draco delayed answering until he had rubbed wax - thank goodness candlelight is still the lighting of choice for elegant dinner parties. I suppose until either science or magic cracks the secret of eternal youth it always will be - into the tiny hole near the base of the grip, and used spit and grime to render it virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the wood.
“Removing the core.”
He looked dubiously at what he had extracted, and passed his wand over it, muttering thoughtfully. It vanished, and he raised his head. Arthur continued doggedly.
“But, that’s going to make it - “
“Useless. Of course. But where she’s going it would look a bit odd if she weren’t carrying a wand at all, and I can’t afford to take the risk of her having a working one, so - ” He bit his lip, wondering if he ought to say anything more.
Yes. It’s educational. And, come to think of it, if we don’t succeed now, it might make the difference between life and death to him, some time in the future. Or to his children.
“I - used to know some people who specialised in doing it. Stun someone - tamper with their wand core - modify their memory so they didn’t remember being stunned - transport them to somewhere like a troll cave or the middle of a dragon sanctuary - wake them up, and then take bets on how long it took for them to work out their wand didn’t work - or to survive without it -“
Arthur looked as though he was going to be sick. Draco pressed on brutally.
“So, be honest: did you feel all warm about your Uncle Vladimir’s idea of a galactic alliance of wizardry? Power like you’d never dreamed of: the common people there to do as you say, when you say it? Respect, at last? Even from the Emperor?”
Arthur gulped, but met his eyes steadily. “I think I might’ve,” he said flatly. Then his hand drifted up towards his neck. The marks there were gradually beginning to turn black. “If he hadn’t gone for my throat, earlier,” he added sombrely.
By their fruits shall you know them.
“Well, yes.” Draco nodded. “I can think of worse tests. But watch it.”
His eyes, he knew, had gone bleak; their chill reflected back from the kid’s startled face.
“Don’t - ever be tempted to follow that sort of warmth. Believe me.”
His voice seemed to be outside his conscious will, drawing its power and - strange word - sincerity - from something very deep within him: something, he thought, that in his own time and place was still too raw and new-born to put in words.
Well, not words for general hearing, at least.
He made his voice deliberately harsh.
“The fire is not worth the ash. Remember that.”
He might, perhaps, have said more - though Arthur’s mouth was open and his eyes stretched wide, in a way which suggested that he had already said more than enough to give him nightmares for a week or so. However, a voice sounded from behind his ear.
“Finished? Because I’m afraid it’s make-up time.”
He wrinkled his nose, but turned round to Ivan, who was holding a paintbrush with an air of unholy glee.
“Nikki - you hold the UV light so I can see what I’m doing. This is going to be difficult enough to put on as it is. Now, you just hold your face still. I’m sorry if it tickles.”
He didn’t think Ivan was, actually. And it did. And was cold. And made him want to sneeze. And made the skin of his face pull unpleasantly as it dried.
“Ivan?” he enquired plaintively, as he contemplated the effect in the shaving mirror Ivan had scrounged from one of the bathrooms. Ivan smiled at him with a certain light in his eyes that he had learned meant no good things.
“Yes? And don’t grimace. It splits it.”
“People actually wander around looking like this? In your universe? And people don’t just think they’re really, really silly?”
The only adjective to describe Ivan’s expression was blissful.
“Trust me,” he purred. “People are going to think you look really, really, scary. When they see the light, that is.”
With that he nodded to Nikki. He switched off the UV. Draco’s face suddenly lost its black and white swirls with blood-red highlights, and looked normal again. He could, however, still feel the subtle, dry pull of the face paint on his skin, even though the markings themselves were now invisible.
A thought suddenly struck him.
Thank god this is only paint, and will wash off in time.
Some mistakes are irrevocable, and have permanent consequences.
The fire is not worth the ash. Honestly.
His right hand surreptitiously stole out to touch reassuringly smooth skin on the inside of his left forearm. Fortunately, none of his companions noticed his gesture. He swallowed, suddenly dry-mouthed.
“OK,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”
The two light-flyers touched down in a clearing in the woodland at the foot of the path leading up to the dacha. Silently, Draco signalled at the canopy of the other light-flyer, and saw its outlines waver and become indistinct, fading into the background of the dark woodland as though it had grown there.
A remarkable talent for concealment charms, indeed.
He turned to his own vehicle. Ivan had the door open and was struggling to remove their unconscious passenger.
“Keep her covered with your stunner,” Draco said.
No mistakes, this time.
He set the mental barriers with precision. His nerves tingled; not merely apprehension at the risks, but a sense of being about to cross a boundary which he had always previously drawn back from. A bit like curling one’s toes over the smooth sun-warmed wood of a high diving board, in fact, and wondering how cold the water could be down there, and how badly it was likely to hurt if you hit it clumsily. He saw Ivan looking at him with concern - the delay must have become long enough to be noticeable then -
Nothing else for it.
He plunged forward into the unknown.
“Enervate!” and then, pressing on fast before he could stop to think about it, “Imperio!”
Draco could feel the desperate swirling of Madame Bonn’s mind, trying to find a way out, like a hamster running endlessly on a little wheel. He had never held another’s defiant mind at bay like this in earnest before. The exercises he had been brought up on, even where he had known that the mind to conquer had been instructed to fight as hard as it could against him, had still been nothing more than that. Exercises. Games. This was - in no sense of the word - a game.
Unless one is accustomed to staking the future of planets upon the fall of one card, that is.
Gradually he took control, saw her eyes hood, her muscles begin to relax, even a faint smile begin to touch the corners of her mouth. He had, of course, been there too.
Oh yes. The seduction of not having to think for oneself. The luxury of always having someone else to blame for one’s actions.
“Madam Bonn,” he said politely, “take us to your - brother. Until I tell you different, in look, and deed, in belief and thought, you will act as though your plot to snatch Ivan Vorpatril this evening had succeeded beyond your wildest dreams. You are bringing him to the Magus-Emperor in person to tell him of your success. The Magus-Emperor is to leave with us. If anyone asks, I am holding Lord Vorpatril under Imperius on your request to prevent him posing the slightest threat to you or the Magus-Emperor. For these purposes, I am your appointed Cetagandan bodyguard. You place utter faith in me, and will tell anyone who asks as much.”
“One final point. When we get to the house, I expect you to secure the three of us a - very private - audience with the Magus-Emperor. Just the four of us, in fact. A nice cosy family party. Understood?”
She nodded. The little party formed up into a pattern intended to emphasis the supposed pattern of domination and dependence between the three of them, and made its way up the path. The small white guard kiosk - it bore all the signs of being a hastily converted gazebo- was on the edge of the broad lawns that ringed the dacha.
“The patriot fights for his countryside,” Draco responded automatically. Madame Bonn, however, raised her head haughtily.
“Asking me for a password, Pattas?”
The young bespectacled wizard looked at the trio, and bobbed a hesitant acknowledgement at her.
She smiled, graciously. “No matter. I suppose proper protocol has to be maintained. At least for now. But take us through to the Magus-Emperor without delay. I think he will be - pleased - with our success.”
She looked speakingly at Ivan, who smiled sunnily at the guard, apparently oblivious of Draco’s wand-tip, which appeared to be digging sharply into his kidneys. Pattas swallowed.
“Oh, indeed Milady.”
As they passed under the shadows of the portico he saw Ivan’s hand move surreptitiously towards one sleeve. The brief flicker of the UV beam must have caught his face just as it passed into shadow: Draco could see the guard’s expression suddenly change. Was that real or was it a trick of the light?
Madam Bonn looked round, according to script, and smiled cheerily at the young man.
“Well, Pattas,” she said,” keep up the good work.”
He gave an uneasy salute in their general direction and turned back towards the guard-kiosk.
There were three or four people in attendance in the antechamber, all of whom scrambled to their feet to acknowledge Madame Bonn’s entrance. Draco could not tell whether or not any of them were Cetagandans: presumably Ivan could. A scatter of polite greetings were addressed to Madame Bonn, which she acknowledged with a regal nod, and there was some whispering, evidently ribald, at the sight of Ivan. For all of their notice, Draco might as well have been invisible.
Someone flung wide the door at the end of the room.
“Madam your sister, Sire,” he announced, and bowed very low. The figure at the far end of the room rose graciously to his feet and came out from behind a solid wood desk. Ivan, abruptly, went down on one knee: Draco opted for the very low bow.
The Magus-Emperor Sergei was a bluff-faced, hearty looking man of about fifty or so wearing a lurid, opulently-medalled red and blue uniform that Draco felt, privately, was quite the most ridiculous take on military gear he had encountered to date. The smile which the Magus-Emperor directed at his sister seemed somehow forced, as if he was trying to look natural but could not quite suppress a sort of anxious hunger, which haunted his eyes when he let his concentration slip.
Oh. Not just her husband she talked into this idiocy, I suspect.
“Thank you, Dmitri. That will be all for the moment.”
The attendant bowed his way out, shutting the door as he went.
‘Well done, Genie. Tell me, was it difficult?”
Madam Bonn smiled. “Not for me. Tell me, are you finding it so?”
Her gracious smile at Draco was disorienting, as was the sudden knowledge that the Magus-Emperor had not in fact seen him until Evgenia chose to address a remark to him.
“Ma’am. He has a stronger will than I had been led to expect. He is harder to control under Imperius than some of the others.”
The Magus-Emperor threw back his head and laughed. “Ivan? Hard to control? I’d have taken bets that you could have got him to do anything you wanted by bribing him with a couple of bottles of wine and a bit of skirt, and not bothering with Imperius at all. “
The ability to deliver a deeply insolent message cloaked in unchallengeable surface politeness was a skill which Draco had been honing for years. He paused, gave the Magus-Emperor the benefit of a precisely timed, studied glance, and then,
“Sire,” he said with infinite blandness. The Magus-Emperor, as he had hoped, rose to the implied challenge.
“Perhaps he will respond better to his own family. And, come to think of it, perhaps it is - disrespectful - to allow our new Emperor’s will to be controlled by a commoner. Allow me.”
With a flourish he drew his wand. Draco bowed again, stepping backwards out of the Magus-Emperor’s line of sight. The Magus-Emperor’s hand movements, he thought critically, were over-flashy. Ivan smiled amiably at his cousin.
Not one, but two voices spoke at once. The Magus-Emperor reeled; partly, Draco guessed, under the pain of meeting the brick wall that was Ivan’s will, and partly with the belated shock of realizing - too late - how he had laid his own mind open to domination. With perhaps the last act of free will of which he was capable as the curse bit deeper he let out a low, despairing moan. His wand fell to the carpet and Ivan pounced to retrieve it.
Draco broke out in a cold sweat. He had never even practised controlling two people at once, and the effort staggered him. He had barely made certain of the Magus-Emperor’s will when there was a sudden upsurge of resistance from his other captive: Evgenia Bonn exploiting his divided attention in an effort to break her mind free of his. The sense of having bound himself to two other minds careering away in opposite directions was so deeply disorienting as to be nauseating.
“Do - exactly what Ivan tells you. Both of you,” he muttered. “You’re all one happy family here, remember. Act like it.”
It was almost all he was capable of saying for the moment. Fortunately, Ivan had taken his cue. He perched himself on the edge of the desk and smiled at his cousin.
“Sergei, first you’re going to write a little missive to take to your commander down at Vorkosigan Surleau. Now, tell me, is he a Barrayaran or a Cetagandan?”
“Answer him,” Draco breathed, nodding at the Magus-Emperor. Sergei licked a tongue over dry lips; his voice was dreamy but without the fast-penta disassociation about it.
“Barrayaran. Taki Theotopulous. I thought it - impolitic - to have our special advisors too visible at the taking of Gregor Vorbarra. Too easy for our enemies to misinterpret.”
“Indeed.” Ivan’s voice was deeply ironic. “Too easy for them to spot it for the betrayal of Barrayar it is. Right.” He cocked an eyebrow at Draco, who forced himself to speak.
“Write - exactly what Ivan tells you to write.”
“Well, Sergei, I’d like you to cut this Theotopulous a set of highly confidential orders - on parchment, signed with your personal seal and any other ID you usually use, so he’s got no doubt they’re from your own hand. Tell him you’ve discovered that the Cetagandan special advisors have been infiltrated by the ghem lords: their claims that the ghem are unaware of Cetagandan wizardry are therefore false. Order him to detain all Cetagandan advisors immediately for examination. If, in his judgment as the officer on the ground, the risk presented by this information renders his current operation too risky, authorize him to abort, on his personal authority and without giving any explanation.”
He paused. “Then, a second set of orders. Addressed to Theotopulous for general promulgation this time. ‘The Magus-Emperor does not make war on children. Nor do we countenance the killing of civilians or of prisoners. Our cause is a just one: our means must be equally humane. We promise our personal vengeance on anyone who disregards Our word in this’. Feel free to expand on the bit about the vengeance. Anything you like if you think it sounds more impressive. Just make sure they’re in no doubt that if anyone harms Miles’s kid - or the Crown Prince, for that matter - you’ll personally crucify them. I’m sure, Sergei, that if you hadn’t issued those orders before, it was purely by oversight.”
The Magus-Emperor moved like a sleepwalker to sit behind the desk. The pause while he scribbled was one of the longest Draco had known. When the orders were finished, and Ivan had secreted them in one of his pockets, Draco forced himself to speak again.
“Ivan - tell him what he has to write next. And then, you - write it.”
Ivan’s smile grew broader.
“Yes, Sergei, we’d now like you to write a set of orders to your senior Cetagandan - ah - special advisor, authorizing him to depose Taki Theotopolous immediately from his command position, by the use of lethal force if necessary, and, if alive, to bring him back to your headquarters for questioning, on suspicion of being involved in a plot to usurp your position. But - ah - don’t seal those particular orders. And leave them locked inside your desk, so they don’t get found too soon.”
That done, Ivan got to his feet.
“Nearly over, Sergei. You’re doing very well. And the last bit is easy. You’re going to escort me, Aunt Genie and our friend to the perimeter guard-point. A mark of respect because your sister has succeeded so well in the first phase of the plan. You intend to see her on her way back to the capital with me, so I can be ready to receive Gregor’s abdication in the main Throne Room of the Residence, where these things should be done.”
“And,” Draco added, “you are going to do all that with neither of you doing anything other than looking completely happy and relaxed about it. And no attempts to escape or attract attention, either. After all, your plans are going stunningly well. What could stop you now?”
At that moment, Evgenia and Sergei simultaneously made a determined effort to break free of the curse. Keeping his dominance was the hardest thing he had ever managed. The room became unsubstantial about him; the only real shapes were those of those rebellious minds on the spun-silk leash of his will.
He dug deep and found an extra edge of power. Abruptly, their resistance ebbed back: it became possible to think and see again. Draco exhaled.
“Let’s get on with this,” he muttered grimly.
He could afterwards remember little of the walk to the guard-post. Ivan told him that it had gone well; that apart from one sticky moment when a couple of the attendant wizards had tried to persuade the Magus-Emperor that he needed an extra bodyguard the charade had passed off with almost unnatural smoothness. His only memories were of the constant battle to keep the other two under control, and the immense physical effort it took to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The blurred white shape of the guard-kiosk came as the greatest possible relief.
The Magus-Emperor smiled cheerily at Pattas, who saluted with profound respect.
At which precise moment Ivan palmed the UV scanner from his sleeve and played the beam full across Draco’s face where he stood respectfully to the rear of the Magus-Emperor. Pattas went white with shock.
“Sire - !”
Ivan’s stunner, concealed in his other hand, took Pattas full in the face. He fell to the ground instantly.
“Right,” Draco gasped. “Down the path. Fast.”
He gritted his teeth and drove the captives on down the track, stabs of pain shooting up into his brain at every step. Thankfully, there were no sounds of pursuit from behind. As the spot where they had parked the light-flyers came into view round a bend in the track, Draco heard a brief, mechanical “zizz”. The Magus-Emperor and his sister collapsed in an unconscious heap on the path so suddenly that he almost tripped over them. The relief of not having to fight to keep control of their minds was breathtaking. He sank down onto a convenient tree trunk, and shut his eyes.
“Didn’t think you were going to be able to keep that up much longer without chucking,” Ivan said, explanatorily, as he holstered his stunner.
“God,” Draco moaned. “To think I once thought I’d actually get a kick out of doing that sort of thing.”
“Are you all right?”
Ivan’s voice actually sounded genuine in its concern. Draco had his hands pressed hard against his eye-sockets, but the nausea, fortunately, was passing. He knew his voice must sound ragged and muffled, but, for once, he didn’t care.
“Um. Well. Yes. No. Ish. Actually, if you want to get the slightest idea of how I’m feeling at the moment I suggest you wait until you’re suffering from a violent migraine, and then try playing chess against yourself, with serious money being gambled on the outcome.”
Ivan patted him on the shoulder. “Well, cheer up. That bit’s over, for now. Now you two, help us get the prisoners into your flyer.”
Nikki and Arthur had appeared, their eyes wide and impressed.
“We need to get them somewhere well out of sight,” Draco said. “When that guard wakes up and tells his story about their being kidnapped by evil Cetagandan ghem lords, and the Cetagandans find those orders which suggest that the Barrayarans did it, we don’t want to complicate things by someone finding your cousins before the fun’s really started.”
“ImpSec,” Ivan said decisively. “Past time we got some bloody experts in on this one. I’m not the member of this family who puts in hours of unpaid overtime doing Allegre’s boys’ work for them. We’re turning them over to ImpSec now. I’m alerting Duv Galeni on a secure frequency to say you’re on your way. I can flatly guarantee whoever else on this planet turns out to be harbouring a secret past as an evil magician, Duv’s in the clear.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“Because Duv’s already got a secret past as a teenage Komarran terrorist. Another one would be more than even Miles could’ve brought off. Well, not and get top grades all through school at the same time. Miles’s flyer’s got a secured circuit, by the way. Don’t send until you receive, and surrender them only to Duv or to General Allegre himself. And then, Draco, get yourself down to join me at Vorkosigan Surleau before my prisoner wakes up.”
Arthur swallowed. “What - what are you planning?”
Ivan jerked a thumb in the direction of the unconscious bundle in the back of his own light flyer.
“Sergeant Bonn’s got some urgent orders to deliver to his friends. And I’m giving him a lift down to Vorkosigan Surleau to help out. See you there, Draco, in - say an hour and a half?”
Draco nodded. He slid into the front passenger seat of the light-flyer: somewhat reluctantly Arthur perched himself on top of the two unconscious bodies in the rear. As the two light-flyers swung off into the night there was a sudden explosion of lights, sparks and ragged, confused sounds of conflict from the dacha behind them.
“Ah,” Draco breathed, “the traditional signs of a magical conspiracy going through a crisis of confidence.”
They sped onwards into the night.
He caught up with Ivan again at the point recommended by Galeni on the shore of the long lake; the scatter of lights up on the hillside across the lake must, he thought, be the Vorkosigan Residence. Ivan jerked a thumb towards the light-flyer, which he had parked on the beach.
“Still snoozing sweetly,” he explained.
“In that case, we’d better get him launched on his mission before the other orders get themselves found, or ImpSec tries that raid on the dacha it seemed to be planning when I left.”
The Sergeant appeared profoundly disorientated even after he had recovered consciousness. The combination of fast-penta with stunning spells in a man of mature years and visibly elevated blood-pressure was clearly not a healthy one. With what was now becoming settled reluctance Draco muttered, “Imperio.”
He was instantly struck by the contrast between the Sergeant’s mind and those of his sister and brother-in-law. This will submitted to the authority of the curse with an alacrity that was almost startling. The very absence of resistance touched him for the first time with guilt for his own actions, and a vicarious sense of shame on the other’s behalf. He gritted his teeth.
Military intelligence in operation, I suppose.
“Right, Sergeant,” he muttered, “orders from the Magus-Emperor. Get them to Commander Taki Theotopulous, as a priority. The top one has to be delivered into his own hand. After that - you’re on your own. Do what the hell you like. Try thinking for yourself for once in your bloody life. And that’s an order.”
The Sergeant’s eyes - the humanity in them smoothed into a disconcertingly dog-like devotion - focussed on him, briefly, without curiosity. Then, automatically, he saluted, allowed himself one brief, orienting look around, and then walked off into the night.
Ivan looked after him.
“That’s - you know - seriously creepy.”
“You’re telling me.” Draco wanted to do nothing more than curl up on a corner of the beach and sleep. “Which is probably why, back where I come from, it’s also seriously illegal. And why that is the last, positively the last, time I’m ever going to do it.”
“Mm, well, I suggest you recommend to Gregor, next time you see him, that he makes it illegal to use it round here, as well.” A thought evidently struck him. “Especially anywhere in the vicinity of m’cousin. God, you wouldn’t want Miles to spot that one in action. He’d be on to old Weddell in a shot, trying to get him to synthesise it in a test-tube.”
Draco managed a flicker of a smile. Ivan looked at him, obviously decided he was going to survive, and continued chattering.
“Anyway - how did you get on delivering the prisoners?”
Draco exhaled. “Well, apart from the major turf war you seem to have sparked off - you might have bothered to tell me that local treason comes under Domestic Affairs, and Cetagandan invasions come under Galactic Business, and the head of Komarran Matters isn’t supposed to stick his beak into either of them - anyway, apart from that things are going swimmingly. They had your cousin Sergei singing like a lark before I left - mind you, I hope they’ve got enough reliable magical members of ImpSec to arrest the treasonous ones he seemed to be mentioning -“
“And the kids?”
Ivan’s voice had an urgency which Draco decoded as If anything’s happened to Nikki, Ekaterin’s going to slice me into carpaccio first because she’s known me longer. OK, that means you’ll get the blunt knife and the suspense of waiting, but I get her first reserves of energy. Care to swap? No, I thought not.
“Relax.” Draco’s mouth quirked unstoppably into a grin. “Well, I don’t think Nikki’s ever going to forgive you for involving ImpSec. They grounded him as soon as they’d cleared your cousins out of the light-flyer. And I gather I’m on a special mission to retrieve the Emperor intact, because he suspects only an Imperial pardon will avert punishment for all the traffic offences we seem to have committed between us this evening. But they’re quite ok. Last I saw, they were being driven off by an ImpSec driver to some people called Koudelka who Duv seemed to think would be the right ones to feed them, give them baths, put them to bed, and generally make sure they’re properly looked after.”
Ivan breathed a profound sigh of relief.
“Kou and Drou? Thank god for that. Nothing much will get past Drou. She was standing at Aunt Cordelia’s shoulder when old Bothari whopped off Vordarian’s head. And she took out the man who killed m’father while I was being born, come to think of it.”
Draco blinked. Ivan, however, had been staring across the lake steadily while he was talking, and was now looking increasingly worried.
“Draco,” he said, “I think we really are going to have to do something fast. I mean, I know this beach. Miles and I used to sneak down here to camp out, and have barbecues and scare each other witless telling ghost stories and such. And I know how the house is supposed to look from here. Hey, they used to put on special searchlights on the terrace for us, and such. And one thing I do know, is that those terrace lights that we can see from the back of the house shouldn’t be there. They should be - a bit further up. I reckon they’re trying to drop them into the lake!”
“Ex tenebris,” Draco muttered. With the benefit of the darkness-piercing charm Ivan’s assessment was revealed as hideously accurate. Even at this distance - he guessed the lake must be about a kilometre wide at this point - the back of the house looked wrong: bulging out from the rest of the building like a dislocated limb. The terrace behind it already hung crazily down the hillside, detached from the house proper.
“Um. I see what you mean. What do you suggest?”
“Getting a lot closer to assess the situation.” Ivan looked back at the light-flyer, and evidently rejected it as a possibility. His gaze turned speculatively to the lake. Draco followed him and his voice rose in outrage.
“No! Definitely not! No way! I’m not swimming across that. It’s bloody freezing, and I’ve got no idea what else is swimming around in there, either.”
“I never,” Ivan said with dignity, “said anything about swimming. If you’d waited for a moment, I’d’ve explained that there’s a handy little emergency kit packed into the back of m’flyer. Including a nice little inflatable raft in case of ditching into water.”
Draco thought up a lot of principled, lucid, elegant arguments against paddling an inflatable raft clearly labelled for emergency use only across a wind-swept lake in the middle of the night.
Ivan was rummaging briskly in the back of the light-flyer. Now he turned round. He was holding two paddles.
“Bow or stroke?” he enquired politely.
Draco sighed, and yielded to the inevitable.
“Naturally, Ensign Larochefoucauld awaited the verdict of his court-martial with considerable apprehension. He had, of course, had leisure during the time of his imprisonment to research all the relevant precedents, and so far as he was able to determine there was no precedent for what might become of an Imperial Officer who dropped stark naked out of an almond tree onto the neck of his Commanding Officer’s horse, still less one who was thereafter carried (equally scantily dressed) at the head of a cheering crowd into Bonsanklar, where he was (without benefit of uniform) required to accept in his own name the surrender in due form of a Cetagandan ghem-colonel and all his regiment.” Lady Alys paused, and swept the entranced table with her eye. Her voice deepened slightly.
“Much to the Ensign’s relief, on his return under escort to the court-room, the hilt of his sword was on the table pointing towards his hand, signifying acquittal. As he was brought into the room the President of the Court, General Vorkraft, got to his feet.
“We congratulate you, Sir, on the satisfactory outcome of your ordeal,” the General said. Larochefoucauld blushed, and muttered something about luck having favoured him on the day. The General fixed him with those blue eyes he was famous for, and went bright red.
“Luck? Luck?” he spluttered. “I can tell you, young man, luck had nothing to do with it. Luck was what caused you to defeat the Cetagandans. But, I can tell you, you could have defeated ten times that number of the enemy and still nothing would have saved you from the Imperial wrath for your disgraceful exhibition while doing so - and on the Emperor’s birthday, too.” He drew a breath and looked at the prisoner at the bar. “No,” he said, “You don’t owe anything to luck. You owe it all to your unexpectedly intelligent choice as Prisoner’s Friend.” With that he cast a glance at the corner of the improvised courtroom, where Lady Charis Vorrutyer was sitting, sobbing quietly to herself, the marks where the false beard and moustache had been torn off still showing as red weals on her lovely face.
“After all,” General Vorkraft said, and here his voice became remarkably hard, “while I’ve no understanding why a lady like that might exert herself for you - in the light, especially, of all the evidence we’ve heard in this case - she did put forward a precedent with which this Court could not - in all the circumstances - disagree.” The General looked at the Ensign, and then at Lady Charis, and the Ensign suddenly, in the cold blue blaze of that regard, understood the full meaning of the phrase snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
General Vorkraft continued pitilessly on.
“After all,” he said, ” that remarkably intelligent and generous young lady drew this Honourable Court’s attention to the incontrovertible fact that, according to Imperial Regulations,
An officer who is not in uniform is still properly dressed if appropriately attired for the sport or recreation in which he is called upon to participate.” Lady Alys paused; smiled, and nodded. “That’s all.”
The party round the dinner table drew a deep breath. The Emperor smiled. “Thank you, Lady Alys. And that, I believe, concludes the round on: True Love Discovered In The Most Unpropitious Circumstances. Perhaps we - “
The room was suddenly brilliantly lit from outside by a blaze of red and green. The noise of the explosion could have burst ear-drums.
Pym peered nervously out past the force screen.
“Sire - lords and ladies,” he reported back, “I don’t know what that was. But whatever it was, either they wasn’t aiming at us, or thems rotten bad shots.” Ekaterin caught her mother-in-law’s eye. The Countess nodded, significantly.
If Pym is mislaying his pronouns, then things are bad indeed.
Ekaterin coughed gently.
“Would it be inappropriate, perhaps, to ask for a round of stories on ‘The Triumph of Hope beyond Hope, when even Hope Deferred Seems Vain?’ “
The Emperor looked at her, and then out beyond the force screen at the clashing lights in the autumn sky.
“No,” Gregor said gently, ” I think Hope is the best theme for the next round of stories. Simon?”
They were half-way across the lake when there was a massive shower of green and red sparks in the sky behind Vorksosigan House.
“Ah,” Draco commented. “Looks like at least one set of the Magus-Emperor’s orders got through, then.”
They paddled a few more strokes; the waves, here in the middle of the long lake, were becoming more of a real hazard than they had been while they were still in the shelter of the shore. The imperfectly inflated raft could easily, Draco realised, become swamped, and so sink. And then, in order to keep his native guide here, he would have to rescue this irritating, self-satisfied, uniformed Muggle. And get horribly wet doing so. Life, he concluded, was remarkably complicated sometimes.
There was another explosion, this time in orange and silver.
“Both,” Ivan grunted, and then yelped protestingly, as yet another dollop of icy-cold water from Draco’s carelessly-wielded paddle landed in his lap.
It had not been either a swift or a harmonious voyage. The inflatable craft had - as Draco had suspected it would - proved to be a pig to steer, and Draco had been forced to check Ivan’s suggestions for how minor magical adjustments might make both their lives easier by a pointed comment to the effect that he had, by some oversight, omitted to take the Marine Engineering option in his Transfiguration classes. The rescue party was damp and in a filthy mood by the time it arrived on the dock below the house, and had clambered laboriously ashore.
“Do you suppose anyone’s still in there?” he muttered. Ivan nodded.
“Oh yes,” he said grimly. “My betting is that they’re all in there. Otherwise we’d have heard about it by now.”
Ivan’s eyes were assuming the evangelical light of enthusiasm that Draco had come profoundly to mistrust.
“Go on,” he muttered, “what act of ludicrous self sacrifice against overwhelming odds are you trying to con me into now?”
Ivan put his head on one side. “Now, that’s not the attitude to take. It’s not as though I were Miles now. He’s the arch-manipulator in this family. I’m only making a few sensible suggestions about how we can get this whole business over quicker, in both our best interests.”
“And? Why do your sensible suggestions always seem to require me to perform some insanely complicated, wildly illegal bit of magic in pursuit of a strategy more twisted than a python’s intestines?”
Ivan put his head on one side.
“Bad influences from an early age?” He did not wait for a reply, but gestured towards the unstable back part of the Vorkosigan Residence.
“I was thinking about what a relief it would be if we could somehow manage to take the Hostages out of the Crisis.”
Draco looked at the teetering wreck. It did not look safe, he had to admit. From beyond it the sizzling bright bolts of magical energy were flying recklessly. It had to be a matter of time before one of those combatants managed the brains and the leisure to work out that the currently neglected Vorkosigan summer residence contained pieces that needed to be brought onto the field of play.
To protect you and yours.
He shifted his gaze to the dark waters of the lake. Well, I am doing my bloody best, he muttered into the infinite.
The water reflected coldly back at him.
Oh, I see.
You aren’t here to try. You’re here to succeed.
He sighed. “Well,” he said, “I’ll give it some thought.”
“And what are you proposing to do with that?”
Ivan sounded fascinated. The silvery weathered wood of the dinghy’s tiller, polished smooth at the end by the hands of generations of Vorkosigan helms, lay on the rough bench at the back of the darkened boathouse. Draco paused, passed his wand over it, and muttered thoughtfully. Then he looked across at Ivan.
“Portkey.” Ivan was looking baffled. He amplified it.
“Enchanted travel artifact. Once they touch it, it should bring them back to where the object was taken from. Well, in the simpler sorts of Portkey it does. You can do wildly complicated things with them, but, frankly, I don’t have time, and without the books I couldn’t reckon on getting it right first go anyway. And I take it you’d rather I retrieved your nearest and dearest a short distance safely, rather than spreading them lavishly about the planet’s surface?”
Ivan indicated feebly that he thought - on the whole - that would be the way he’d prefer it, yes. Then he grinned.
“Though I daresay next time Miles comes the little Admiral at me I’ll regret having passed up the opportunity. But there’s another thing. How’re you going to stop your weight shifting the balance and tipping the whole lot off the cliff when you arrive in there?”
Draco smiled enigmatically. “Ah. I’ve been thinking about that one. It might come as a bit of a shock to them, though. I do hope none of them are actually eating or drinking anything when I arrive.”
“So, what’s happening out there?” the Lord Auditor demanded. “Is that the loyalists fighting the rebels? And did you manage to contact the Ariel? And were we right about it’s being the Cetagandans - I did have a thought after you’d gone about whether it could be the Nuevo Brazilians instead - you do hear all sorts of stories about their warrior rituals, and I wondered - “
Draco felt rather irritated. Balancing on three feet of thin air was not especially difficult - levitation was, after all, the commonest early manifestation of talent in magical children - but doing it for a prolonged period did require concentration, and having to answer a barrage of questions while doing so was hardly conducive to maintaining that level of concentration. And even a second’s lapse - he slid a look at the long and widening crack which ran across the whole of one wall, and shuddered.
Lady Alys gave Miles a Look.
“I’m sure if we’ve got an escape route out of here we should take it, before the shock from one of those explosions tips us all into the lake. Plenty of time for questions afterwards.”
Draco looked gratefully at her.
He laid the dinghy tiller gently on the centre of the table. Their eyes followed it with fascination.
“You all need to touch it simultaneously,” he explained. “Just as soon as it’s - ah - activated.”
He pulled out his wand, paused, and murmured. Pym and Anna, moving with infinite delicacy, joined the party seated around the table. Draco caught the eye of the Emperor, who nodded.
“On the count of three,” Gregor said. “One - two - three -“
As the dinner party winked out of sight the largest explosion he had yet heard went off just outside the window. Draco was conscious of a shivering, groaning sound, rising in pitch and intensity. The crack began to widen - the chandelier crashed into the table - the walls began to lean inwards - he Apparated out only just in time.
The disorienting whirling sensation passed. Ekaterin was acutely aware of the smells of mildew and stale lake water, and of the cold wind cutting through the narrow gap between the big, open double doors that gave onto the dock. Before she could move or speak, however, the floor beneath her suddenly seemed to buck and heave. A huge roar and thunder filled her ears. She grabbed, onto the gunwale of the dinghy in front of her, for steadiness, and held on with all the strength in her fingers. She was dimly aware of the others close by, but only those few bare inches of wood, the varnish peeling with age and weather, on the side of the boat seemed real. She clung to it as if to let go would be to drown in truth.
If the boathouse had been built fifty metres east of its current position it could not have escaped being caught up in the overall ruin. As it was, a few stray rocks bounced off the roof, but the main bulk of the landslip - mercifully - passed them by. The same was not, alas, true of the lighter detritus released by the falling of the rear of the summer residence. That pattered relentlessly down on the boathouse for a very long time. Eventually the sound of falling earth and pebbles slowed to a trickle, and then stopped.
“On second thoughts, Draco, perhaps this wasn’t the safest place we could have thought of to bring them back to,” a cheerful voice said out of the shadows. There was a sudden babble among the rescued dinner party. Gregor’s voice won out.
“Ivan, you idiot. What are you doing here?”
There was a somewhat hurt sniff from the dimness. Then another voice cut in.
“Doing his level best to avoid being promoted to your job, actually. Your Imperial Majesty.”
Ekaterin lifted her forehead from where it was resting on the dinghy. She peered into the darkness towards the direction of the voice. “Draco?”
“You did get to Vorkosigan House? Is - is Nikki all right?”
Her heart almost stopped as she heard a sudden indrawn breath - Ivan? - from the shadows, but the cool, confident tones betrayed no hesitation or uncertainty as Draco answered her.
“Absolutely. The rebels did search your house - but Arthur Pym concealed them both in the attics - real talent for concealment charms there, actually - off-planet training would be a good idea for that one when this lot is over, you know. So, I found them there, and once we’d got on to ImpSec, Duv Galeni arranged to have them driven round to - Ivan, remind me, who is it they’re being looked after by now?”
Ivan’s voice sounded - odd - as he responded. If the situation had not been so desperate she would almost have suspected him of concealing an urge to giggle.
“They’re with the Koudelkas, Ekaterin.”
Her sigh of relief was profound. A warm hand caught hers in the darkness and squeezed it.
“I told you there was no need to worry about Nikki,” Miles whispered in her ear.
“Anyway,” Ivan continued briskly, “We’ve got to get you back to the capital, Gregor.”
There was a slight murmur. Ivan’s voice continued, coolly reasonable. “Well, look at it from the bad guys’ point of view. From their point of view they’ve just buried you under a few tonnes of earth and Aunt Cordelia’s dining room furniture. Not an entirely satisfactory outcome to a hostage standoff, from their point of view - especially now they’ve lost their Magus-Emperor themselves and are presumably in the middle of a power struggle to decide who takes over from him, but equally, if I remember anything at all from Tactics classes at the Academy, not the sort of rumour we want to have spreading among the enemy, either. They might actually leave off beating the crap out of each other for long enough to put together some sort of effective response. And it might convince any waverers to throw in their lot with the rebels. The sooner you make contact with ImpSec and tell them you’re on your way back to Vorbarra Sultana the better. There’s only one problem.”
Ivan was suddenly sounding hesitant. “M’flyer’s on the other side of the lake. And I’m not sure the raft is actually up to bringing off the return trip. And it’d be a shame to drown you after everything.”
“Indeed.” Even in the dark, the Emperor was managing to sound coolly ironic. “Do you have an alternative suggestion?”
“How about this?”
It was Draco who had spoken. He spoke again. “Accio flyer!” Momentarily, his sharp features were illuminated in a blaze of light from the end of his wand. Then, there was a pause, followed by a rush of air, and a soft crunch on the dock outside. Ivan cautiously pushed one of the doors open, and exhaled. The lightflyer was sitting on the dock, rather like an obedient dog which had responded to its master’s whistle and now thought itself morally entitled to a biscuit. Ivan’s voice was deeply irritated.
“Why didn’t you tell me you could do that sort of thing before?”
“You - ah - weren’t in the need-to-know loop?”
“Um. You’d better watch that, you know. Any longer here, and you could find yourself going native.”
“What, and start going out on dates wearing a uniform? Never in a thousand years.”
There was a short cough.
“I think,” Simon Illyan said dryly, “That this is neither the time nor the place. Ivan, I presume you have a secured voice circuit in that thing?”
“In that case, I suggest you call up whoever you’ve been speaking to in ImpSec and ask them to scramble an escort and to secure a landing point in the capital. Sire - they’re right that you need to leave now. Admiral?”
Elli Quinn moved out of the shadows in the boathouse into the opened doorway.
“As the senior active-duty officer present, you ought to escort his Imperial Majesty. Also, Miles is right. We do need to know how this got onto the planet, and who’s really behind it. I - can’t order it, but you might mention to Guy that I commend to his notice the Dendarii intelligence facility for that side of the problem.”
She gave him a single chopped nod.
“Simon’s right. Unfortunately. Ah - good luck, Elli. Au revoir.”
Her voice was flat.
“I’ll be preparing the flyer.” She went out through the doors onto the dock. Ekaterin could feel no sense of triumph; the self-consciously stiffened lines of the back outlined against the sky were too hopeless.
I’m just going outside to work on the flyer. I may be some time.
Gregor cleared his throat. “I’m afraid, Cordelia, I’m going to have to commandeer Armsman Pym as an escort as well. I’ll need his specialized knowledge of the people I’ll be dealing with.”
Pym stepped forward. “Sire.”
“Well, be careful,” Draco muttered. “You weren’t to know, but that Sergeant Bonn you sent me to was in the plot up to his neck. And his wife was in it up to her eyebrows. And as for her little brother - “
There was a deeply indrawn breath. From the depths of the boathouse there was the swish of stiff skirts, as one of the members of the party who had not yet spoken stepped forwards into the uncertain light from the opened doors.
“Sergei?” Lady Alys’ tone was acid enough to etch copper. “My late husband’s own cousin is somehow involved in this nonsense?”
“Involved?” Her son looked at her. “Cousin Sergei is in over his head, and has probably just gone under for the third time. He and mad Aunt Genie have been in ImpSec’s clutches for the best part of two hours now. You see, mother, Sergei was the Magus-Emperor.”
“That settles it.” Metaphorically, at least, Lady Alys rolled up her elegant sleeves. “Gregor, I need to go back to the capital at once. If family members are involved, my clear duty is there, so I can demonstrate to anyone who might be inclined to cavil that at least the principal part of the family is loyal.”
There was a pause. “I should be most grateful if you would do me the honour of accompanying me,” Gregor murmured. Ekaterin felt it was not what he had originally intended to say. Then his voice changed. “Ivan - can you get three in the back of your light-flyer?”
“Ye-es. If they don’t mind being a bit cramped.”
“Good. Professora Vorthys, may I also ask you to accompany me? I fancy the next few hours may be of the deepest interest - to a historian.”
The Professora, helped by her husband, picked her way past Ekaterin towards the door. Ekaterin stretched out a hand and put it on her arm. “Are you going to be all right?”
Her aunt smiled, wearily. “Safest place, I should think. At least, if Ivan’s light-flyer doesn’t break down. ImpSec aren’t going to risk losing the Emperor twice in an evening. Now you - look after yourself, understand? And if you end up being dragged by any of these hot-heads into any battlefields, dear, keep an eye on which direction that good-looking blond friend of yours takes. He seems to have an instinct for self-preservation which, speaking as a historian, I find truly fascinating.”
There was an audible snort of laughter from some unseen person in the vicinity. Ekaterin was sure it was Draco. She felt herself blushing, relieved that the darkness was covering her confusion. She gave her aunt a quick peck on the cheek.
“I’ll try to remember, Aunt Helen. You look after yourself too. Get going - they must be almost ready.”
Indeed, at that moment a curly head was outlined in the doorway. A determinedly self-possessed voice said:
“The flyer’s ready to take off. Oh, and Ivan?”
Elli was holding something out towards him.
“Yes?” Ivan’s voice sounded definitely panicked.
“I found these. How sweet of you to think of me. And so original. I’ve never been given a bouquet of flowers already pressed before.”
There was a pause.
“You’re welcome,” Ivan muttered, a semi-hysterical note in his voice. There was time for nothing more. The Imperial party made a rapid departure from the boathouse, and the light-flyer soared into the night.
“Now, would anyone mind telling us who is fighting whom up there?” Miles demanded.
Ekaterin’s eyes were getting more used to the dimness now. She could see Ivan, stretched comfortably out on the tarpaulin covering the cockpit of one of the power-boats. Draco was perched on the bench towards the back. Draco made a polite after-you gesture with one hand towards Ivan.
“We hope it’s the Barrayaran rebels knocking the stuffing out of their Cetagandan special advisors. But it could easily be the other way round. So far as we can tell, there are more of the Barrayarans, but the Cetagandans have got better powers.”
“Of course, by now, along with the two fake conspiracies we started they may always have discovered one or two real ones,” Draco observed coolly. “There could be about four bitterly opposed groups fighting each other by now.”
Ekaterin gritted her teeth.
“Well? Don’t you think you ought to get up there and get Alexander out? So far as they’re concerned, Miles and Gregor are under that -“
She gestured with a thumb through the boathouse window, at the raw wound of collapsed earth, boulders, masonry and ripped up trees that she suspected would look considerably worse in daylight.
“-And I’ve vanished into the clutches of a renegade and probably homicidal Cetagandan wizard,” Ivan added helpfully. Ekaterin glared in his general direction.
“Exactly. And Count Aral and the Crown Prince are both off planet. Sooner or later, one of those factions is going to work out that my son is in the undamaged part of the house, and is also the closest heir to the Imperium they can get their hands on in a hurry.”
Miles looked frantic with worry. He looked at Draco.
“So? Why don’t you simply Apparate into the nursery and bring him out with one of those things you used for us?”
“Tell me who’s guarding it, and I’ll think about it.”
It was Anna who answered, very hesitant, it seemed, to raise her voice among all the High Vor present.
“Milady. Our orders were to make sure your grandson had the best protection we could devise. And after that incident at Vorkosigan House a few years ago, that gave us good grounds for - using our influence to make sure both your chil- both the nurses had magical powers. And he’s right to worry, of course.”
“About what?” Ekaterin held herself rigid, kept talking rather than force action by choking out of someone around her. Draco looked rueful.
“If I Apparate in, any witch guarding the place will take it as proof I’m one of the enemy - as far as they’re concerned, that is. No loyal wizard on the planet can Apparate, after all. Most likely, one of them will manage to take me out from cover. If they got me early enough, I expect it’d splinch me. And even if it didn’t - I’ve noticed your guards seem to prefer using lethal force where possible - “
” I see, ” Cordelia breathed. “It isn’t what you don’t know that can be fatal: it’s what you do know that isn’t so. Right - then there’s only one thing that can be done. The panic-shielding on the nursery wing is coded to three sets of palm-prints: mine, Miles’ and Ekaterin’s. One of us has to get through, so the nurses know it’s a real rescue.”
Miles’ eyes were glittering with concentration, even in the darkness. “That’s right. And to maximize our chances of one of us getting through, we need to split up. And someone needs to cause a diversion.”
“Oh, god,” Ivan moaned. “Bring on the large explosions and the innocent bystanders.”
Miles was pacing up and down the floor of the boathouse. He spun at one end and looked straight at Draco. “You - go with Ekaterin and guard her. Anna can guard my mother. Ivan - you’re coming with me.”
“And what delights have you planned for us?” By’s drawl came from a forgotten corner of the boat house. Miles’ voice had a genuine warm edge of berserker enthusiasm about it as he responded.
“Well, I presume neither you - nor Professor Vorthys - nor Simon are actually armed.”
“You presumed right. Emperor’s presence, remember. And I don’t, actually, usually. Not being a militaristic type, by training or inclination. Though I might make a note to myself to bring a brace of heavily armed bodyguards next time I get invited to a quiet little soiree chez Vorkosigan.”
Draco was heard to mutter something which sounded rather like: “Good thinking, that Muggle.”
Miles ignored him, and swept an arm around.
“But in here there are power packs for outboard engines, paint, varnish, inflammables of various sorts, auto-inflate life-jackets with compressed gas canisters, distress flares - oh, endless possibilities. Professor Vorthys is an engineer after all. And Simon - you practically wrote the book on ImpSec covert ops. Or edited it, anyway. And By - you’re just naturally a devious bastard. I’m sure the three of you will be able to devise something. The effect I’m aiming for is to attract the attention of the attackers round the house - bring them down here - confuse the hell out of them. Le them think someone did survive that wreck and is escaping up the lake. Give us a window to get in and out. Got that?”
They were, Ekaterin could see, being swept up in his irresistible energy. She gulped, and steeled herself for what was to come.
“You’ll have to let me do something about that dress,” Draco muttered as they were heading up the hillside. Ekaterin felt her eyes widen.
“Even without the benefit of an Ex Tenebris charm, it’s going to pick up every stray beam of light that falls on it. And you must be in agony in those idiotic shoes. Stand still.”He waved his wand, and muttered. The soft fabric of the dress flowed, coalesced, and changed. She could feel close-fitting trousers and sleeves, velvety stuff clinging to the back of her neck. She reached up to her head, which was now hooded. Her feet disappeared now into sensible boots. His voice sounded amused as he surveyed her - she somehow knew, from the dimly glimpsed angle of his head, that he must be able to see her much better than she could see him.
“Golly. I should think that’s probably the most respectable garment that charm’s produced in living memory.”She made her voice resolutely calm.
“What does it normally get used for?”
“Teenaged witches making their robes sexier than the ones their mothers let them out in, primarily. Or teenage wizards dropping unsubtle hints to their girlfriends. The effect doesn’t, actually, last very long. And the clothes look sort of tacky in daylight. But it should help get you up to the house ok.”
She was, suddenly, struck with the terror that they might, after all, come too late. It became intensely difficult to keep driving herself forward. Her feet seemed weighted down with the fear about what they might find. She could tell that her companion had noticed the fear on her face.
“There’s no reason they should have harmed him,” Draco said tentatively. “They shouldn’t know yet that we hold the Magus-Emperor. And his last order was that the children should be left alone.”
She clung on to that thought. It was almost all she had left to cling to, now. Her breath was tearing at her lungs as they pounded up the hillside.
The undamaged part of the house was oddly dark. They moved silently through the dripping shrubbery towards the far end of the house. Ekaterin paused at an outer door, and put her palm besides it. It swung inwards silently.
She nodded. “That way.”
They headed down a narrow passageway.
The next door they came to was flung wide. Her hand went to her lips. “That’s one of the two doors into the nursery wing - either one of the others got here first or - “
Draco slid soundlessly over towards it. It occurred to her, for the first time, that he must be doing something to dull the sounds of their footsteps. His face gave no good news.
“Opened violently - and from the outside. Not by someone who knows a lot of magic, either. One of the Barrayarans, at a guess. Let’s go in.”
Upstairs, there was a scene of wild confusion in the nursery. Draco tripped, and swore as he regained his balance with an effort. The body he had stumbled over was lying across the threshold, eyes open. Ekaterin followed him more cautiously into the room. The other two bodies were flung in a confused heap. One, like that on the threshold, was unmarked: the other-
She turned away and shuddered.
So that’s what it must have looked like when Miles -
The needler had blown his chest out. Draco, obviously, was looking equally shocked, but still somehow contriving to examine the bodies.
“Anyone you know?”
She shook her head, face still tightly averted. “No - none of them. I don’t understand - “Draco’s face was grim. “I think I do. Two killed by Avada Kedavra - one by a weapon. I reckon the two Barrayarans got here first - forced the door, somehow - but found no-one. Probably the nurses had gone to ground in here. One of these special advisors followed the Barrayarans in. There was a fight - he managed to take both of them, and, then probably one of the nurses got him from cover. Good news, on the whole. One out of six advisors accounted for.”He looked around, and walked over to the cot. He positioned his wand directly over it.
”Invenio”. He looked up at her.
“We need to get out of here,” he said. “They aren’t in this wing at all. But they are still in the building.”
“Try the old nursery,” Ekaterin muttered. “The one that used to be Miles’. In the older part of the house. The security’s nearly as tough on that part, and the invaders wouldn’t think of it as quickly.”
She pointed the way, urgently.
Their booted feet moved soundlessly down the corridors. Just before they reached an elegant flight of stairs Ekaterin suddenly skidded, and fell in a heap. “Ow,” she muttered, trying to rise. As she put her weight on her right foot her scream of agony was barely suppressed.
The pain of a thousand red hot needles shooting up from the ground.
Oh god, not now!
It was easy to see what had brought her down. There was a thin film of gradually drying - but not yet dry enough - blood over the marble floor of the passage. Its owner was lying in a crumpled heap in the corner. It was obvious he would not be taking any further part in the proceedings.
“Milady?” a voice gasped from the shadows.
A figure dragged itself out from behind a tall closet. “Milady!”
The girl was soaked in blood, trembling and shocky. Ekaterin reached out. “Irina? Where’s my son?”
Irina’s teeth were chattering. “Not sure. But Tatya still had him - I couldn’t keep up, when the Cetagandan tried to take us, he wounded me, before I could - I got his wand, Milady, but he had a knife too, and he - so I said, I’d stay here, cover their backs. Let them get to the old nursery.”
She gestured vaguely, with one hand. Her eyes widened in surprise, and then in pain: clearly the gesture had reopened a wound in her back.
Not the only one, it appears.
“Sanguinem supprimeo,” Draco muttered. Irina looked at him in terror, her eyes huge, like a wounded animal’s in the light.
“You - you’re one of us, aren’t you? But - not - milady, he’s not one of ours -“
“Calm down, Irina,” Ekaterin said firmly, reaching for her hand. “He’s a friend. From Earth. You’ve done very well. Now, tell me properly, where was Tatya taking Alexander?”
Irina gestured vaguely up the stairs, and then fainted.
Ekaterin tried to rise to her feet and sat hastily back, sweating coldly and gasping. “Can you do anything for my ankle? I seem to have twisted it.”
Draco gave it a hasty once over.
“You mean: you’ve broken it, you idiot. I can do something about the pain, but I’m no Healer. And for anything I can do: well, you wouldn’t be able to run on it long if you had to, and you’d risk not being able to walk on it again, after, if you did. Here.” He felt for the unconscious girl’s weapons belt.
“Get yourself back into those shadows with her. Try to revive her. She’s lost a lot of blood, but she’s not losing any more, at present. And anything that comes up those stairs, one of you has to stun it before it sees you. And if it has a wand, take it and break it before it wakes up. Understood?”
“Go on. Good luck!”
Draco pelted on up the first flight of stairs, and along the landing towards the next.
He was alert, of course, but also in haste. Which is why he was wholly unprepared when a booted foot hooked out at him from a dark corner and sent him sprawling across the floor. He grabbed despairingly for his wand, but it skittered out of his reach across the parquet floor.
“I’ve taken one Cetagandan scalp tonight, and I’ll take yours before I’ve done, ghem boy. What have you done with my wife?” Sergeant Bonn hissed violently.
“Er - I - what?” Draco spluttered.
Suddenly the long, delicate, fragile fingers of one hand were being brought impossibly back towards his wrists by Sergeant Bonn’s thick red hands. Sickeningly, audibly, one by one they reached the point of no return and - snapped.
Draco jerked forwards uncontrollably in Bonn’s grip.
He doesn’t know Cruciatus.
Pity about the unbearable agony, then, isn’t it?
Sergeant Bonn reached his little finger, grinned and bent, adding a corkscrew twist at the last moment.
Draco screamed. Then he gasped.
“She’s with ImpSec.”
He drew a breath, and added quickly before his tormentor could add anything,”It was Ivan’s idea.”The Sergeant looked down at him with a glance which made his insides liquefy.
“You were there.”
Draco gave himself up for dead. It was at that moment when a voice with a strange, somehow metallic accent said,
“I think, Sergeant, you need to forgo your pleasures. Help me now with the hostage. We may buy ourselves a ticket out of this bungled mess, even yet.”
The - Cetagandan? - was descending from the upper storey with a heavy burden in his arms. The boy had made himself rigid, a dead weight, hard as possible for the aggressor to hold. It was obvious why the Cetagandan had called for backup. His left arm was a blood-stained wreck from the shoulder.
The Cetagandan continued, sotto voce, his voice breathy and resentful, a muttered commentary delivered primarily to himself. “That hell-cat up there killed my brother. Went for him with a knife and teeth, when he took her wand. No proper wizarding pride. If we’d had any idea, we’d never have come anywhere near this bloody planet. I’ll never call anything old soldier’s tales again, I won’t, not if I get out of here - “
That’s Ekaterin’s child. To protect you and yours.
Draco whimpered, rolled over, the fingers of the maimed hand grasping vainly out for his lost wand which was an unreachable metre and a half away, lying on the parquet floor.
Sergeant Bonn’s boot accurately slammed in, just below the solar plexus.
“You - lie still. Bastard.” Draco rolled, trying not to vomit.
Bonn looked up at the man carrying the child. and suddenly seemed to focus. “But that’s-“
At which moment a solid outline moved in the shadows on the bend in the staircase. One black-sleeved middle-aged arm was round the Cetagandan’s throat, choking off his breath.
“I swore,” an infinitely civilized voice observed, in the accents of conversation, “I would protect my grandson, and that no-one should ever call me on that word.”The other arm went up high in the air - something flashed - -
There was a warm red rain all around them.
“Thank you, Sergeant Bothari, for your example,” the voice continued. “You fight for us yet. In spirit.”
Draco and Bonn, in their own ways, were each too overwhelmed to speak. However, the child, it seemed, had heard something infinitely to its mind. “Gramma Cordy,” he said, “You here!”
Cordelia, Countess Vorkosigan, Vicereine of Sergyar, her elegant black evening dress barely acknowledging the stains on its dark propriety, came out of the shadows. The child had bounced to the floor as his attacker died. Now he reached up to her.
Cordelia opened her arms to her grandson, sweeping him up in them and snatching at him hungrily. He hugged her round her neck. Mechanical noises began to make themselves heard from outside, at last.
ImpSec, I presume.
She looked over the child’s head. “We came straight here,” she said, explanatorily. “I knew the nurses had orders to head for this wing if the new nursery became unsafe. We came up the back staircase.”
Cordelia’s face was unreadable. “Guarding my back, down on the floor below. Together with the remains of a Cetagandan who - underestimated her. That’s where I acquired the vibra-knife.”
She looked closely at him. “And where’s Ekaterin?”
Outside the window the hum of aircars was beginning to become oppressive. Both of them half turned, to take it in better.
He shrugged. “Guarding my back. On the other staircase. With - Irina? And another dead Cetagandan. Which makes five out of the original six advisors accounted for. And with any luck at all either the Barrayaran wizards or Miles and Ivan between them will have managed to take out the last one. Which is everyone who knows how to Apparate or to use Avada Kedavra accounted for. Except for me, of course. And if the local loyalists can’t handle the rest without help, the planet doesn’t deserve saving.”
The Countess drew in her breath. She hugged her grandchild more tightly to her.
“Maybe that’s true.”
“Maybe it would be,” a voice said from behind them. “If - you hadn’t guessed wrong about how many Cetagandans were left. Bad luck.”
They turned. Behind them, a lithe young man was crouched looking at them.
“Oh, and by the way,” he said pityingly, “the ghem do know about this - unauthorised excursion.”
His hand went up, towards his cheekbone, on which appeared under his touch an infinitely small decal, a brief breath of those bleeding zebra colours which Draco knew were apparent on his own face. If one had a UV beam, that was.
“If not,” he added, ” For very long. Necessarily.”
Er what? Oh. I see. Obliviate. He promises, it seems, to doctor his reports to back home if it’s made worth his while. Was that a subtle appeal to Bonn, to allow him to sell himself twice over? And can he really be stupid enough to think any of us would assume he’d stay bought?
“I don’t think,” the Countess commented coolly, “that is something you are, in fact, able to deliver. And I think your paymasters would feel that your actually making that offer materially diminishes your value to them.”
“My paymasters? I don’t see anyone here who will be able to tell them what I offered or not. Or even find whom I really serve. Do you really believe you can do me harm?”
His voice sounded as though that were unthinkable. I expect to get my promised reward, come what may. Twice, if I can. Cordelia, on the other hand, looked as though she could contemplate his unfortunate fate all too easily. He continued on, regardless, looking down at Draco who crouched around his injuries protectively.
“But for now - I can take you out - my masters will find out where you’re really coming from - once I’ve killed you I can take a tissue sample they can read like an open book - and as for the Betan whore -“
“How - curiously old-fashioned your standards of insult are,” Cordelia said. The young Cetagandan ignored her.
“Unfortunately, however misguided my compatriots may have been, I reckon on behalf of the ghem-comrades I need to finish what was begun here. Give me the child, whore.”
His hand went to his belt. “Really?” He reached for his wand. “Eat that defiance. Chew on it, bitch. We are stronger than you.”
He stared arrogantly at her. Sergeant Bonn lifted his head.
“Cetagandan,” he said warningly, “watch it. You are talking to General Piotr’s daughter-in-law. You are talking to the Conqueror of Komarr’s wife. You are talking to the woman who took Count Vordarian’s head - “
“-Who I’m sure must grateful for getting a mention in her own right at last after that lot,” Draco murmured faintly. The young Cetagandan turned, evidently solely so as to look down his nose at him. Draco managed the ghost of an annoying smirk in his general direction. On the edge of his peripheral vision he could see the Vicereine begin to move, unobtrusively, the moment the enemy took his eyes off her. He could not but notice that she was placing herself so that not only would any blast aimed by the Cetagandan have to go through her, but would also have to pass through him before it touched her grandson.
And also so as to let the full skirts of her elaborate robes drop unobtrusively over his wand, where it lay abandoned on the floor.
The Cetagandan continued unstoppably and unnoticing.
“Anyway, why should I hold out any brief for her? Or the brat. Even though we failed to take Gregor Vorbarra, the news that there will be tonight one less of the Vorkosigan bloodline will make many people happy in the Empire. Av -“His wand was up. On the sound, Sergeant Bonn threw himself forward, in between Cordelia and the Cetagandan. Green fire flashed around them. In that instant she swirled her skirts, flicking the wand to Draco across the polished floor with her hemline as she did so. Draco grabbed it in his undamaged hand, and yelled: “Expelliarmus!”
The Cetagandan’s wand fell from his hand, too late. Draco’s precautionary follow-up of a stunning spell laid the Cetagandan beside his last victim, looking all too healthy for the comparison. Sergeant Bonn was lifeless on the floor. Cordelia hugged her grandson, who seemed to be fussing, somewhat, closely to her, and looked towards the body.
“What was that?”
“I think - it might have been the exercise of free will. At last.” He looked up. Cordelia’s cool grey gaze was upon him. He shrugged. “Poor bugger. He’d have been better to keep on obeying orders. It was what he knew best, after all.”
Cordelia looked sardonic. “A nice theological question, that. To which I am afraid I have no answer. Except that - at least, I believe it may help his son to know that his father redeemed his oath, and died true to his name’s word’s allegiance at the last.”
Draco had nothing to say to that. In fact, he was rapidly becoming aware that he had nothing to say to anything. With the ebbing of the adrenaline from his system he was becoming acutely conscious of the waves of pain coursing through him. The Vicereine was looking down at him, he vaguely noticed, with an air of concern.
“Are you all right?” she enquired.
Are you all right? What sort of question is that to address to someone who’s just been tortured by having half his hand twisted off, and has god knows what internal injuries? What sort of planet is it where that’s even on the range of possible questions in such a situation?
He paused to draw a deep breath. It steadied him, briefly.
Well, perhaps that’s a bit of an over-reaction. I’m sure she means well.
Insensitive murderous harpy.
Effective, though. And bright for god’s sake.
Really - very like ma all things considered. God, I don’t care how fucking uncool this sounds, I just wish ma was here.
I wish ma was here instead of this - scary, homicidal, alien woman. However much she may claim to have my best interests at heart.
I’m sure she means well.
Possibly. Provided you don’t pose a threat to her family, her planet or her Emperor I’m sure she’s the soul of kindness.
I just wish she could deploy a bit of that kindness to leave me alone to get on with this really urgent moaning in agony project I’ve just scheduled for myself.
He whimpered, uncontrollably. “I just want to go home,” he muttered.
He was aware of the changed feel of the surface underneath him: cool smooth parquet changing abruptly to rough, deep carpet. He opened his eyes. Even so close, the pattern under his head was reassuringly familiar. It was, in fact, the revolting swirling egg-yolk design he had been happy to rechristen the horrors of war when they had been first billeted on this roughly converted, randomly expropriated-and-don’t-ask-us-how Muggle hotel.
My own bedroom.
I’ll never call this décor hideous again.
He looked at it from a distance of approximately three centimetres for several minutes. Then, he gritted his teeth, and pulled himself to his feet. There was, he knew, a nearly full bottle of Analgesia Potion in the bathroom cabinet.
Provided he could get that far, that was.
It took three goes. The potion, when he finally grasped the bottle in one trembling hand, bore a prim white label, sanctimoniously inscribed in neat black ink:
One teaspoonful every four hours. Do not use for more than three days. If symptoms persist, see a Healer.
He looked resentfully at it.
Sod that for a game of bleeding toy soldiers.
His good hand and his teeth were, together, an alliance that the - insanely, sadistically - complicated cap on the bottle could not, in the last analysis, withstand. Once he had it at his mercy he eyed it, once, and then took a hefty swig. Then another.
Sod it. One more for luck.
Nice temperature, this bathroom. Warm, but not too hot. Welcoming.
It had never occurred to him before just how preternaturally comfortable that precise angle between the bath and the wall must be. Exactly shaped to rest one’s weary shoulders against, in fact. Muggle bathroom designers obviously had more about them than he’d ever been taught.
He slumped into it.
“Thank god! You’re back! Draco, what the hell has been happening?”
It took some moments for his dulled senses to realize that he was actually being addressed, and that this was not a mere figment of his imagination.
Sympathy. Indeed. I always knew what sympathy ought to feel like.
Thank god at least one person agrees with me.
He opened his eyes with considerable caution. Neville was gazing down at him with a deeply comforting mixture of overwhelming relief and shocked concern.
“What the hell happened to you?”
Where do you want me to begin?
“Ack?” he murmured.
“We were just having a conversation and then you - vanished. Mid sentence. Mid word. And then you turn up three hours later -“
Some bastard’s done me out of at least seven hours peaceful existence I should have had. I’ll have him, I will. Bastard.
Um - might I have overdone that potion a bit, do you think?
“Believe you, three’s more than enough. Especially as you vanished out of a base with every anti-Apparation charm known to man on it. Anyway, your mother turned up about half an hour later, and did her nut - totally on the warpath and off to find a peasant she could rend tooth and nail, in fact - “
“I can imagine - “
Neville grimaced. “Yes. Well. Unfortunately, I was that peasant. She was in the middle of ordering the command to carry out a full blown hostile interrogation on me - as the last person to see you alive, you understand, and, she assumed, given my family history, I was someone whom might actually want to kill you - and obviously I wasn’t actually panting to explain why that assumption wasn’t entirely accurate - “
“Oh, god. I’m so sorry - “
An arm reached out to encompass his shoulders and hold him. Tight. Safe.
Oh. That’s so nice. So worth waiting a thousand years for.
“Don’t be. Not your fault. Anyway, command were doing their hardest to convince her that I couldn’t possibly have done it - amazing how a well-earned reputation for magical incompetence established over a number of years comes in handy when you don’t expect it - “
He made a small, wordless noise. Apparently it conveyed something, because the arm tightened.
“At that moment, anyway, the Brazilian Minister arrived with his entourage. God, I can see why your mother was after an escort - if that one doesn’t have anaconda in his ancestry I’ll be very surprised - he was slithering all over her before he’d got his outer robes off - “
” It usually is something like that, when she asks for help - “
“So she had to go off to that dinner. And if he’s still the same species by the time they get as far as the speeches I’ll be gob-smacked. And I reckon she must have been sending owls between every course, if not a bit more often, demanding have we found you yet? That’s the latest.”
Neville nodded towards the window-ledge. Draco dimly noticed that a baleful-looking barn owl was sitting on it.
“Ah,” he murmured. “That’s Wallenstein. Don’t get within range of his beak: he’s been in a filthy temper since my father died. Look, can you write something for me?”
In answer, he raised his hand. His eyes watered at the effort of doing that. “Can’t write. And I need to calm her down.”
Neville looked at the rapidly blackening, misshapen limb, blinked and nodded. “OK. But hurry up. A Healer needs to see that soon, you know.”
Not unless they’re coming here. I, personally, don’t plan to move anywhere.
Neville had retrieved parchment and quill from the bedroom.
“Won’t be long. Look, how about this:
“Ma: sorry to miss your dinner. Was kidnapped by space aliens. Apologies for dictating: hand too badly injured to hold a quill.”
Neville bit the end of the quill, and looked up
“Ah,” he said, ” You’re pitching this as deeply reassuring, I can tell.”
“Shut up. Where was I? Ah, yes:
‘If in doubt about reality of space aliens, ask Prof. Snape. Tell him: they send love and say restorers have dealt with chair and joins can no longer be seen. Kidnapping no-one’s fault. Sorry again about the evening. I had an unavoidable future engagement. Love - D.’”
Neville looked at him.
“Well, I hope I’m going to get a better explanation than that about it.”
Draco sighed. He settled himself back against the bath.
Nice bath. Soothing bath. You and me are best buddies, oh, yes. Never going to be parted, ever.
His voice seemed to be coming from someone else as he began.
“Well, a thousand years from now, and half a million light years away -“