Chapter 1 - Vorbarran Honeymoon by A.J. Hall
Laisa sat up abruptly, grabbing the bedclothes and pulling them up to her chin as she remembered – a trifle belatedly – where she’d last seen her night-dress. The strange man leaning against the door to her dressing room smiled; an expression which somehow managed to combine pure aesthetic appreciation and naked lust with an admirable economy of muscular effort.
Admittedly she’d only been Empress of Barrayar for a day and a half, but Lady Alys’ briefings had been thorough; Laisa was pretty sure that Empress’s Confidential Bedroom Attendant and Personal Eye-Candy wasn’t an official position on the Imperial Staff.
“And who might you be, then?” the intruder drawled in a flat, vaguely Betan accent.
Bastard. You just stole my opening line.
Lady Alys had been pretty thorough about that sort of thing, too.
You must never allow yourself to appear non-plussed, my dear. Not for one second. Croggled is right out. And don’t even think about discombobulated.
She tossed back her head with hauteur. “Dr Laisa Toscane. Countess Vorbarra. Empress of Barrayar. And of Komarr. Also of Sergyar,”
The intruder raised an eloquent eyebrow. “Ah, multi-tasking. I like that in a woman.”
She heard a faint ‘click’. Without turning her head Laisa knew that the discreetly concealed door which linked her suite to Gregor’s had just opened. And there were only two sets of palm-prints that code-lock answered to, and one set was currently fully occupied in keeping the eiderdown at a decent height above her nipples.
There came a dry cough. “Actually, protocol does rather demand that you inform Us of your identity rather than vice versa.”
The stranger turned. “Captain Jack Harkness.” His teeth flashed in a wide grin. “Feel free to call me Jack. I’m an informal kinda guy.”
“Feel free to call me Sire. I’m not.” Gregor stepped fully into the room. “I suppose you realise the lightest pressure of my finger on any one of a dozen concealed panic buttons, and a hand-picked platoon of ImpSec’s most highly trained commando troops will be in here before you can blink?”
Jack shrugged. “Known you were planning a party, I’d have brought beer and pretzels.”
Gregor’s tone sounded almost conversational. “You’re a stranger to the Imperium, I gather. Our galactic liasion officers do a fine job in apprising visitors of our more arcane and – perhaps – old-fashioned customs. However – inevitably, I suppose – one or two do slip through.” The edge of steel in his voice sharpened. “Had you seen the holovid on Imperial protocol, for example, you would have seen a remarkably graphic reconstruction of what happened to the last man who was unwise enough to offer insult to an Empress of Barrayar in her personal quarters.” He paused, thoughtfully. “If I recall correctly, quarters, in fact, came into it. As did eighths.”
“Insult? Who said anything about insult?” Jack’s grin got even broader. “All I was proposing to do was blow her to the end of the Universe and back, and show her all the wonders of the galaxy along the way.”
That - even if Lady Alys had not managed to get around to mentioning it specifically – was emphatically the sort of thing up with which Her Imperial Dignity was not proposing to put.
Laisa swung her feet to the ground, swept the eiderdown around her, and crossed the room in three strides, to fetch up against Gregor’s chest, his heart thudding against her left ear. She turned her gaze upwards, catching and holding her husband’ eyes. Reassuringly his face started to melt into the foggy, besotted lines the last two days had made so intimately familiar.
“As a matter of fact,” Laisa purred, “been there. Four times – no, five, wasn’t it, darling? Not, of course, that I was in any state of mind to keep score.” She stretched up onto her points – thank goodness for Mother’s insistence on those ballet lessons – and her lips met Gregor’s. It was some minutes before they chose to disentangle themselves and by that time Jack was sitting on the edge of her dressing table, his legs extended in front of him in a relaxed posture, and a rueful grin on his lips.
“Ah, I see. I suppose it’s kinda Imperial roulette. You get five grateful empresses and then, by the law of averages, the sixth emperor turns out to be serious competition; instead of mad, dead, impotent, eighty, imprisoned, outta his head on booze every night of the week, only interested in boys, abroad, preoccupied with dreams of world domination, a kid, suffering from leprosy -“
Despite herself Laisa laughed out loud. “That’s more than five reasons right there -“
Jack shrugged. “No-one says emperors have to stick to one. Alexander – now he accounted for at least three.”
“Alexander? The Great?”
He winked at her. “Not according to Roxana, no. Though I’d say, myself, that she must have been spoilt, somewhat.” He looked around the archaically furnished, elaborate bedroom, seemingly drinking in every detail of the antique wood panelling. “Say, you did say Barrayar, didn’t you? Thought I’d been here before. Talking of mad – have you guys come across a guy called Yuri, yet?”
Laisa tensed. Gregor’s voice was coolly urbane. “My great-uncle, as a matter of fact.”
“That’s what you think.” Jack’s smile had almost a life of its own; Laisa watched, hypnotised. “Still; glad to know you guys survived him. Serious bad news, Yuri was. But his sister – she was amazing. Went like a – say, I suppose you guys wouldn’t be that familiar with late nineteenth century steam technology? No; thought not. A few decades – coupla centuries at most - before piston engines went obsolete, and the most useful sexual metaphor the Universe has ever known went right down the can with them. Pity.”
Gregor, formally, extended his hand. “Ah. I see. This rather changes matters. Any – ah - friend of my late grandmother’s is, of course, a friend of mine. My house is your house – well, the rather more public parts of it, in any event.”
Laisa was perhaps the only person who knew Gregor well enough to hear the amusement bubbling beneath the surface. His entire demeanour had changed; become open, accepting. Even yesterday, when he’d been fogged with happiness but still tense with apprehension that, after all, the Universe might burst in and spoil things at the last minute, Laisa had never seen him so relaxed. Except, perhaps – and, yes, there was a connection here, if she could only dig it out – since the day when Miles had shown up at the Residence, a couple of days growth of beard on his chin, wearing a lurid shirt four or five sizes too big for him, that she could have sworn was twenty or thirty years old at least and insisted on presenting them both with a truly appalling artefact, Komarran-bought and Jacksonian-built, which he declared was a lava lamp.
Abruptly she realised why, in the courts of old Earth, the King’s Jester had been such an important – no, almost untouchable – personage.
Jack, too, seemed to have relaxed. “Still, there are some things even I’ve yet to experience. Like being the ham in an Imperial sandwich.”
Gregor raised his eyebrows. “You’re interested in that? Even given Grandmamma? Aren’t you – excuse me, I only know the theory, rather than the practice – but aren’t you aware of the risks of becoming your very own time paradox?”
The stranger thought for a moment, then nodded, apparently taking his point. “Time Agency briefing, day one; time travel is contra-indicated if you’ve got a poor memory for names, an incest squick, and an above average sex-drive.”
“What about you, then?”
“Hey, two out of three ain’t bad.”
Laisa wasn’t quite sure what Gregor would have said to that, but before he could respond there came the sound of voices from the corridor.
“He’ll be round here somewhere, making cheesily obvious sexual innuendos – and that’s a word I wouldn’t use lightly in Jack’s general vicinity, either -“
Jack raised his voice. “Through here, Doctor. And if you find it sticks, push harder. Or use more lube.”
The door – the hinges could do with oiling, Laisa noted – swung open. Miles Vorkosigan, his expression anxious, trotted in, a stride or so behind another complete stranger whose rumpled dark hair and sharply attractive features reminded her, rather endearingly, of the Nuevan Brazilian neo-ferret she and a girl-friend had kept as an illicit pet during the whole of a term and a half at boarding school.
Gregor sighed. “Miles; does the concept of ‘quiet honeymoon at a private dacha in a remote District’ mean nothing to you? What are you doing in my wife’s bedroom, anyway?”
Laisa snorted. “Make that: what are you doing in my wife’s unofficial Vorbarr Sultana Shuttleport Extension, why don’t you?”
Miles ignored her interruption. His expression was tense, urgent, more vividly alive than Laisa had ever seen it. “Rescuing you.”
Gregor’s voice was infused with scepticism. “Rescuing us? What from? Ivan Vorpatril’s evil over-sexed inter-galactic time-travelling twin here?”
Laisa fancied Jack looked faintly flattered at the description. Obviously never met Ivan Vorpatril, then part of her mind chimed in cynically. The ferrety man sighed. “Jack, you mean you’ve been in here all this time and still not completed the briefing?”
Gregor coughed. “I think you picked the wrong man for that. If he were ImpSec I’d recommend deploying him in a debriefing role. From each according to his abilities, after all.”
Neither Jack nor the man addressed as the Doctor paid him the slightest attention; each was focussed entirely on the other. It seemed that everyone else in the room – even Gregor – were mere over-looked bystanders on the latest round in an eternal argument.
“Doctor, you know how my role in these things always pans out. A tantalisingly brief hint of flirtation – the chance to tell one or two vaguely salacious anecdotes - and then it’s fast forward onto the jaws of certain death at the alien invaders’ hands – teeth - paws – claws – tentacles – electrodes – things that look vaguely like egg-whisks lightly dipped in polyurethane -“
The Doctor gestured impatiently with a blue-tipped gadget that looked rather like an Auditor’s seal. “Your point?”
There was a raw edge beneath Jack’s voice, like sharks’ fins cutting through a sea of melted chocolate. “So; some point in the not too distant future I’m looking at multiple slow-motion martyrdoms in progressive stages of artistically shot semi-nudity. Can you blame me for wanting to shuffle the percentages around in my favour for once?”
Gregor coughed; Laisa had heard him do it at the Residence table; at formal sessions of the Council of Counts. It was not a sound anyone, ever, ignored. The two strangers sprang apart like dogs on whom icy water has just been sprayed.
“Thank you,” he said, once he was sure of having their complete attention. “Now. Did I understand you to say “alien invaders”? Notwithstanding that no sentient alien life has ever been discovered in the Nexus?”
The Doctor and Jack looked at each other. Then the Doctor made a little, wriggling hand gesture in Jack’s direction. You go first.
He exhaled. “Things just changed.” The silence from outside the room was suddenly oppressive; surely, Laisa thought, there ought to be servitors moving around by now? Morning was wearing on. And then, as if on cue, came an explosion of gunfire, harsh, metallic voices in the distance, frantic shouting and then – on and on – the sound of seemingly endless screaming until, abruptly, it dwindled into a whimpering sound no-one would have thought could come from a human throat at all and - ceased.
The door-handle started to turn. Jack caught her bodily by the shoulders, thrusting her violently behind him. Miles and the Doctor spun towards the door. Gregor, a nerve-disruptor having materialised from no-where into his hand, brought the other palm smacking down onto one of the panic buttons.
The door swung open; a beautiful dark-skinned woman was standing in the archway. “Come on!” she said, gesturing towards Miles and the Doctor. “They’ve taken over the lower levels already. We have to stop them. We’ve no time for backchat. Unless, of course, you want to make us some? But hurry up, whatever.”
She was gone; the door swung to behind her. Laisa found her voice first. “And that was -?”
It was Jack who answered.
“That would be Martha.” He nodded towards the Doctor. “His companion. Officially. Of course, that’s just her nom-de-guerre. Saves the world, on average, once every three weeks. Single-handed, pretty much. No idea how she does it. I think, myself, it’s like chameleons. We stand around, trying to look cute, and meanwhile she just -” He spread his hands. “She can get herself anywhere, just by blending into the background. And once there – well: laser cannon; meet flies. And afterwards – no-one ever notices what it was she just did.”
Miles’ eyes were spread wide, his voice sunk to a hushed whisper. “Oh, God. I just hope it doesn’t occur to her to link up with my aunt. Or my fiancée. And especially not with my mother.”
The firing and the metallic voices from outside were getting louder. Involuntarily Laisa pressed herself back against the woodwork. The loudest of them was right outside the door, in the very corridor. She tensed for the moment when that fragile barrier must go down in fire and ruin, saw her own despair reflected in the faces of her companions.
The metallic voice changed; there was a new note in it. One, Laisa could almost have sworn, of uncertainty.
“BUT YOU ARE A BE-TAN. YOU CAN-NOT DO TH-“
An abrupt silence descended. Gregor, pale but composed, looked across at Miles. “Too late,” he said. “Looks like she just did.”