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By the time Miles had showered, groomed, and donned a fresh uniform and glossy spare boots, his pills had cut in and he was feeling no pain at all. When he caught himself whistling as he splashed on after-shave and adjusted a rather flashy and only demi-regulation black silk scarf around his neck, tucked into his grey-and-white jacket, he decided he'd better cut the dosage in half next round. He was feeling much too good.
Too bad the Dendarii uniform did not include a beret one could tilt at a suitably rakish angle, though. He might order one added. Tung would probably approve; Tung had theories about how spiffy uniforms helped recruiting and morale. Miles was not entirely sure this wouldn't just result in acquiring a lot of recruits who wanted to play dress-up. Private Danio might like a beret . . . Miles abandoned the notion. Elli Quinn was waiting patiently for him in the Triumph's number six shuttle hatch corridor. She swung gracefully to her feet and ahead of him into their shuttle, remarking, "We'd better hustle. How long do you think your cousin can cover for you at the embassy?"
"I suspect it's already a lost cause," Miles said, strapping himself in beside her. In light of the warnings on the pain pill packet about operating equipment, he let her take the pilot's seat again. The little shuttle broke smoothly away from the side of the flagship and began to drop through its orbital clearance pattern.
Miles meditated morosely on his probable reception when he showed up back at the embassy. Confined-to-quarters was the least he might expect, though he plead mitigating circumstances for all he was worth. He did not feel at all like hustling back to that doom. Here he was on Earth on a warm summer night, with a glamorous, brilliant woman friend. It was only—he glanced at his chronometer—2300. Night life should just be getting rolling. London, with its huge population, was an around-the-clock town. His heart rose inexplicably.
Yet what might they do? Drinking was out; God knew what would happen if he dropped alcohol on top of his current pharmaceutical load, with his peculiar physiology, except that it could be guaranteed not to improve his coordination. A show? It would immobilize them for a rather long time in one spot, security-wise. Better to do something that kept them moving.
To hell with the Cetagandans. He was damned if he would become hostage to the mere fear of them. Let Admiral Naismith have one last fling, before being hung back in the closet. The lights of the shuttleport flashed beneath them, reached up to pull them in. As they rolled into their rented hardstand (140 GSA federals per diem) with its waiting Dendarii guard, Miles blurted, "Hey, Elli. Let's go—let's go window shopping."
And so it was they found themselves strolling in a fashionable arcade at midnight. Not just Earth's but the galaxy's wares were spread out for the visitor with funds. The passers-by were a parade worth watching in their own right, for the student of fad and fashion. Feathers were in this year, and synthetic silk, leather, and fur, in revival of primitive natural fabrics from the past. And Earth had such a lot of past to revive. The young lady in the—the Aztec-Viking outfit, Miles guessed—leaning on the arm of the young man in faintly 24th-century boots and plumes particularly caught his eye. Perhaps a Dendarii beret wouldn't be too unprofessionally archaic after all.
Elli, Miles observed sadly, was not relaxing and enjoying this. Her attention on the passers-by was more in the nature of a hunt for concealed weapons and sudden movements. But she paused at last in real intrigue before a shop discreetly labeled, CULTURED FURS: A DIVISION OF GALACTECH BIOENGINEER-ING. Miles eased her inside.
The display area was spacious, a sure tip-off to the price range they were operating in. Red fox coats, white tiger carpets, extinct leopard jackets, gaudy Tau Cetan beaded lizard bags and boots and belts, black and white macaque monkey vests—a holovid display ran a continuous program explaining the stock's origins not in the slaughter of live animals, but in the test tubes and vats of GalacTech's R&D division. Nineteen extinct species were offered in natural colors. Coming up for the fall line, the vid assured them, were rainbow rhino leather and triple-length white fox in designer pastels. Elli buried her hands to the wrists in something that looked like an explosion of apricot Persian cat.
"Does it shed?" Miles inquired bemusedly.
"Not at all," the salesman assured them. "GalacTech cultured furs are guaranteed not to shed, fade, or discolor. They are also soil-resistant."
An enormous width of silky black fur poured through Elli's arms. "What is this? Not a coat. ..."
"Ah, that's a very popular new item," said the salesman. "The very latest in biomechanical feedback systems. Most of the fur items you see here are ordinary tanned leathers—but this is a live fur. This model is suitable for a blanket, spread, or throw rug. Various sorts of outerwear are upcoming from R&D next year."
"A live fur?" Her eyebrows rose enchantingly. The salesman rose on his toes in unconscious echo—Elli's face was having its usual effect on the uninitiated.
"A live fur," the salesman nodded, "but with none of the defects of a live animal. It neither sheds nor eats nor," he coughed discreetly, "requires a litter box."
"Hold on," said Miles. "How can you advertise it as living, then? Where's it getting its energy from, if not the chemical breakdown of food?"
"An electromagnetic net in the cellular level passively gathers energy from the environment. Holovid carrier waves and the like. And every month or so, if it seems to be running down, you can give it a boost by placing it in your microwave for a few minutes on the lowest setting. Cultured Furs cannot be responsible, however, for the results if the owner accidentally sets it on high."
"That still doesn't make it alive," Miles objected.
"I assure you," said the salesman, "this blanket was blended from the very finest assortment of felis domesticus genes. We also have the white Persian and the chocolate-point Siamese stripe in stock, in the natural colors, and I have samples of decorator colors that can be ordered in any size."
"They did that to a cat?" Miles choked as Elli gathered up the whole huge boneless double-armful.
"Pet it," the salesman instructed Elli eagerly.
She did so, and laughed. "It purrs!"
"Yes. It also has programmable thermotaxic orientation—in other words, it snuggles up."
Elli wrapped it around herself completely, black fur cascading over her feet like the train of a queen's robe, and rubbed her cheek into the silky shimmer. "What won't they think of next? Oh, my. You want to rub it all over your skin."
"You do?" muttered Miles dubiously. Then his eyes widened as he pictured Elli, in all her lovely skin, lolling on the hairy thing. "You do?" he said in an entirely changed tone. His lips peeled back in a hungry grin. He turned to the salesman. "We'll take it."
The embarrassment came when he pulled out his credit card, stared at it, and realized he couldn't use it; It was Lieutenant Vorkosigan's, chock full of his embassy pay and utterly compromising to his present cover. Quinn, beside him, glanced over his shoulder at his hesitation. He tilted the card toward her to see, shielded in his palm, and their eyes met.
"Ah . . . no," she agreed. "No, no." She reached for her wallet.
I should have asked the price first, Miles thought to himself as they exited the shop carting the unwieldy bundle in its elegant silver plastic wrappings. The package, the salesman had finally convinced them, did not require air-holes. Well, the fur had delighted Elli, and a chance to delight Elli was not to be lost for mere imprudence—or pride—on his part. He wanted to delight her. He would pay her back later.
But now, where could they go to try it out? He tried to think, as they exited the arcade and made their way to the nearest tubeway access port. He didn't want the night to end. He didn't know what he did want. No, he knew perfectly well what he wanted, he just didn't know if he could have it.
Elli, he suspected, didn't know how for his thought had taken him either. A little romance on the side was one thing; the change of career he was thinking of proposing to her—nice turn of phrase, that—would overturn her existence. Elli the space-born, who called all downsiders dirtsuckers in careless moments, Elli with a career agenda of her own. Elli who walked on land with all the dubious distaste of a mermaid out of water. Elli was an independent country. Elli was an island. And he was an idiot and this couldn't go on unresolved much longer or he would burst.
A view of Earth's famous moon, Miles figured, was what they needed, preferably shining on water. The town's old river, unfortunately, went underground in this sector, absorbed into arterial pipes below the 23rd-century building boom that had domed the half of the landscape not occupied by dizzily soaring spires and preserved historic architecture. Quietude, some fine and private place, was not easy to come by in a city of roiling millions.
The grave's a fine and private place, but none, I think, do there embrace. . . . The deathly flashbacks to Dagoola had faded of late weeks, but this one took him unawares in an ordinary public lift tube descending to the bubble-car system. Elli was falling, torn out of his numb grip by a vicious vortex— design defect in the anti-grav system—swallowed by darkness—
"Miles, ow!" Elli objected. "Let go of my arm! What's the matter?"
"Falling," Miles gasped.
"Of course we're falling, this is the down-tube. Are you all right? Let me see the pupils of your eyes." She grabbed a hand-grip and pulled them to the side of the tube, out of the central fast traffic zone. Midnight Londoners continued to flow past them. Hell had been modernized, Miles decided wildly, and this was a river of lost souls gurgling down some cosmic drain, faster and faster.
The pupils of her eyes were large and dark. . . .
"Do your eyes get dilated or constricted when you get one of your weird drug reactions?" she demanded worriedly, her face centimeters from his.
"What are they doing now?"
"I'm all right." Miles swallowed. "The surgeon double-checks anything she puts me on, now. It may make me a little dizzy, she told me that." He had not loosed his grip.
In the lift tube, Miles realized suddenly, their height difference was voided. They hung face to face, his boots dangling above her ankles—he didn't even need to hunt up a box to stand on, nor risk a twist in his neck—impulsively, his lips dove onto hers. There was a split-second wail of terror in his mind, like the moment after he'd plunged from the rocks into thirty meters of clear green water that he knew was icy cold, after he'd surrendered all choice to gravity but before the consequences engulfed him.
The water was warm, warm. . . . Her eyes widened in surprise. He hesitated, losing his precious forward momentum, and began to withdraw. Her lips parted for him, and her arm clamped around the back of his neck. She was an athletic woman; the grip was a non-regulation but effective immobilization. Surely the first time his being pinned to the mat had meant he'd won. He devoured her lips ravenously, kissed her cheeks, eyelids, brow, nose, chin—where was the sweet well of her mouth? there, yes. . . .
The bulky package containing the live fur began to drift, bumping down the lift tube. They were jostled by a descending woman who frowned at them, a teenage boy shooting down the center of the tube hooted and made rude, explicit gestures, and the beeper in Elli's pocket went off.
Awkwardly, they recaptured the fur and scrambled off the first exit they came to, and fled the tube's field through an archway onto a bubble-car platform. They staggered into the open and stared at each other, shaken. In one lunatic moment, Miles realized, he'd upended their carefully-balanced working relationship, and what were they now? Officer and subordinate? Man and woman? Friend and friend, lover and lover? It could be a fatal error.
It could also be fatal without the error; Dagoola had thrust that lesson home. The person inside the uniform was larger than the soldier, the man more complex than his role. Death could take not just him but her tomorrow, and a universe of possibilities, not just a military officer, would be extinguished. He would kiss her again—damn, he could only reach her ivory throat now—
The ivory throat emitted a dismayed growl, and she keyed open the channel on the secure comm link, saying, "What the hell . . . ? It can't be you, you're here. Quinn here!"
"Commander Quinn?" Ivan Vorpatril's voice came small but clear. "Is Miles with you?"
Miles's lips rippled in a snarl of frustration. Ivan's timing was supernatural, as ever.
"Yes, why?" said Quinn to the comm link.
"Well, tell him to get his ass back here. I'm holding a hole in the Security net for him, but I can't hold it much longer. Hell, I can't stay awake much longer." A long gasp that Miles interpreted as a yawn wheezed from the comm link.
"My God, I didn't think he could really do it," Miles muttered. He grabbed the comm link. "Ivan? Can you really get me back in without being seen?"
"For about fifteen more minutes. And I had to bend regs all to hell and gone to do it, too. I'm holding down the guard post on the third sub-level, where the municipal power and sewer connections come through. I can loop the vid record and cut out the shot of your entry, but only if you get back here before Corporal Veli does. I don't mind putting my tail on the line for you, but I object to putting my tail on the line for nothing, you copy?"
Elli was studying the colorful holovid display mapping the tubeway system. "You can just make it, I think."
"It won't do any good—"
She grabbed his elbow and marched him toward the bubble cars, the firm gleam of duty crowding out the softer light in her eyes. "We'll have ten more minutes together on the way."
Miles massaged his face, as she went to credit their tokens, trying to rub his escaping rationality back through his skin by force. He looked up to see his own dim reflection staring back at him from the mirrored wall, shadowed by a pillar, face suffused with frustration and terror. He squeezed his eyes shut and looked again, moving in front of the pillar and staring. Most unpleasant—for a second, he had seen himself wearing his green Barrayaran uniform. Damn the pain pills. Was his subconscious trying to tell him something? Well, he didn't suppose he was in real trouble until a brain scan taken of him in his two different uniforms produced two different patterns.
Upon reflection, the idea was suddenly not funny.
He embraced Quinn upon her return with more complicated feelings than sexual desire alone. They stole kisses in the bubble car—more pain than pleasure; by the time they reached their destination Miles was in the most physically uncomfortable state of arousal he could ever recall. Surely all his blood had departed his brains to engorge his loins, rendering him moronic by hypoxia and lust.
She left him on the platform in the embassy district with an anguished whisper of "Later . . . !" It was only after the tubeway had swallowed her that Miles realized she'd left him holding the bag, which was vibrating with a rhythmic purr.
"Nice kitty." Miles hoisted it with a sigh, and began walking—hobbling—home.
He awoke blearily the next morning engulfed in rumbling black fur.
"Friendly thing, isn't it?" remarked Ivan.
Miles fought his way clear, spitting fuzz. The salesman had lied: clearly the near-beast ate people, not radiation. It enveloped them secretly in the night and ingested them like an amoeba—he'd left it on the foot of his bed, dammit. Thousands of little kids, sliding under their blankets to protect them from the monsters in their closets, were in for a shocking surprise. The cultured fur salesman was clearly a Cetagandan agent-provocateur assassin. . . .
Ivan, wearing his underwear and with his toothbrush sticking jauntily out between gleaming incisors, paused to run his hands through the black silk. It rippled, as if trying to arch into the strokes.
" 'At's amazing," Ivan's unshaven jaw worked, shifting the toothbrush around. "You want to rub it all over your skin."
Miles pictured Ivan, lolling. . . . "Yech," he shuddered. "God. Where'sa coffee?"
"Downstairs. After you're dressed all nice and regulation. Try to at least look as if you'd been in bed since yesterday afternoon."
Miles smelled trouble instantly when Galeni called him, alone, into his office a half hour after their work-shift started.
"Good morning, Lieutenant Vorkosigan," Galeni smiled, falsely affable. Galeni's false smile was as horrendous as his rare real one was charming. "Morning, sir," Miles nodded warily. "All over your acute osteo-inflammatory attack, I see."
"Do sit down."
"Thank you, sir." Miles sat, gingerly—no pain pills this morning. After last night's adventure, topped by that unsettling hallucination in the tubeway, Miles had flushed them, and made a mental note to tell his fleet surgeon that there was yet another med she could cross off his list. Galeni's eyebrows drew down in a flash of doubt. Then his eye fell on Miles's bandaged right hand. Miles shifted in his seat, and tried to be casual about tucking it behind the small of his back. Galeni grimaced sourly, and keyed up his holovid display.
"I picked up a fascinating item on the local news this morning," said Galeni. "I thought you'd like to see it too." I think I'd rather drop dead on your carpet, sir.
Miles had no doubt about what was coming. Damn, and he'd only worried about the Cetagandan embassy picking it up.
The journalist from Euronews Network began her introduction—clearly, this part had been made a little later, for the wineshop fire was dying down in the background. When the cut with Admiral Naismith's smudged, strained face came on, it was still burning merrily. ". . . unfortunate misunderstanding," Miles heard his own Betan voice coughing. "—I promise a full investigation ..." The long shot of himself and the unhappy clerk rolling out the front door on fire was only moderately spectacular. Too bad it couldn't have been nighttime, to bring out the full splendor of the pyrotechnics. The frightened fury in the holovid Naismith's face was faintly echoed in Galeni's. Miles felt a certain sympathy. It was no pleasure commanding subordinates who failed to follow orders and sprang dangerous idiocies on you. Galeni was not going to be happy about this.
The news clip ended at last, and Galeni flipped the off-switch. He leaned back in his chair and regarded Miles steadily. "Well?"
This was not, Miles's instincts warned him, the time to get cute. "Sir, Commander Quinn called me away from the embassy yesterday afternoon to handle this situation because I was the closest ranking Dendarii officer. In the event, her fears proved fully justified. My prompt intervention did prevent unnecessary injuries, perhaps deaths. I must apologize for absenting myself without leave. I cannot regret it, however."
"Apologize?" purred Galeni, suppressing fury. "You were out, AWOL, unguarded in direct defiance of standing orders. I missed the pleasure, evidently by seconds, of making my next report to Security HQ a query of where to ship your broiled body. Most interesting of all you managed to, apparently, teleport in and out of the embassy without leaving a ripple in my security records. And you plan to wave it all off with an apology? I think not, Lieutenant."
Miles stood the only ground he had. "I was not without a bodyguard, sir. Commander Quinn was present. I wave off nothing."
"Then you can begin by explaining precisely how you passed out, and back in, through my security net without anyone noticing you." Galeni leaned back in his chair with his arms folded, frowning fiercely.
"I ..." here was the fork of the thing. Confession might be good for his soul, but should he rat on Ivan? "I left in a group of guests departing the reception through the main public entrance. Since I was wearing my Dendarii uniform, the guards assumed I was one of them."
"And your return?"
Miles fell silent. Galeni ought to be put in full possession of the facts, in order to repair his net, but among other things Miles didn't know himself exactly how Ivan had diddled the vid scanners, not to mention the guard corporal. He'd fallen into bed without asking the details.
"You cannot protect Vorpatril, Lieutenant," remarked Galeni. "He's my meat next after you."
"What makes you think Ivan was involved?" Miles's mouth went on, buying time to think. No, he should have thought first.
Galeni looked disgusted. "Get serious, Vorkosigan."
Miles took a breath. "Everything Ivan did, he did at my command. The responsibility is entirely mine. If you'll agree that no charges will fall upon him, I'll ask him to give you a complete report on how he created the temporary hole in the net."
"You will, eh?" Galeni's lips twisted. "Has it occurred to you yet that Lieutenant Vorpatril is above you in this chain of command?"
"No, sir," gulped Miles. "It, er . . . slipped my mind."
"His too, it appears."
"Sir. I had originally planned to be gone only a short time, and arranging my return was the least of my worries. As the situation extended itself, it was apparent to me that I should return openly, but when I did get back it was two in the morning and he'd gone to a great deal of trouble—it seemed ungrateful—"
"And besides," Galeni interpolated sotto voce, "it looked like it might work. ..."
Miles suppressed an involuntary grin. "Ivan is an innocent party. Charge me as you wish, sir."
"Thank you, Lieutenant, for your kind permission."
Goaded, Miles snapped, "Dammit, sir, what would you have of me? The Dendarii are as much Barrayaran troops as any who wear the Emperor's uniform, even if they don't know it. They are my assigned charge. I cannot neglect their urgent needs even to play the part of Lieutenant Vorkosigan."
Galeni rocked back in his chair, his eyebrows shooting up. "Play the part of Lieutenant Vorkosigan? Who do you think you are?"
"I'm ..." Miles fell silent, seized by a sudden vertigo, like falling down a defective lift tube. For a dizzy moment, he could not even make sense of the question. The silence lengthened.
Galeni folded his hands on his desk with an unsettled frown. His voice went mild. "Lose track, did you?"
"I'm ..." Miles's hands opened helplessly. "It's my duty, when I'm Admiral Naismith, to be Admiral Naismith as hard as I can. I don't usually have to switch back and forth like this."
Galeni cocked his head. "But Naismith isn't real. You said so yourself."
"Uh . . . right, sir. Naismith isn't real." Miles inhaled. "But his duties are. We must set up some more rational arrangement for me to be able to carry them out."
Galeni did not seem to realize that when Miles had, however inadvertantly, entered his chain of command, it had expanded not by one but by five thousand. Yet if he did awake to the fact, might he start messing with the Dendarii? Miles's teeth closed on the impulse to point out this possibility in any way. A hot flash of—jealousy?—shot through him. Let Galeni continue, please God, to think of the Dendarii as Miles's personal affair. . . .
"Hm." Galeni rubbed his forehead. "Yes, well—in the meantime, when Admiral Naismith's duties call, you come to me first, Lieutenant Vorkosigan." He sighed. "Consider yourself on probation. I would order you confined to quarters, but the ambassador has specifically requested your presence for escort duties this afternoon. But be aware that I could have made serious charges. Disobeying a direct order, for instance."
"I'm . . . keenly aware of that, sir. Uh . . . and Ivan?"
"We'll see about Ivan." Galeni shook his head, apparently contemplating Ivan. Miles couldn't blame him.
"Yes, sir," said Miles, deciding he'd pushed as hard as he dared, for now.
Great, thought Miles sardonically, exiting Galeni's office. First he thought I was insubordinate. Now he just thinks I'm crazy. Whoever I am.
The afternoon's political-social event was a reception and dinner in honor of a visit to Earth of the Baba of Lairouba. The Baba, hereditary head-of-state of his planet, was combining political and religious duties. After completing his pilgrimage to Mecca he had come to London for participation in the right-of-passage talks for the Western Orion Arm group of planets. Tau Ceti was the hub of this nexus, and Komarr connected to it through two routes, hence Barrayar's interest.
Miles's duties were the usual. In this case he found himself partnering one of the Baba's four wives. He wasn't sure whether to classify her as a dread dowager or not—her bright brown eyes and smooth chocolate hands were pretty enough, but the rest of her was swathed in yards of creamy silk edged with gold embroidery that suggested a zaftig pulchritude, like a very enticing mattress.
Her wit he could not gauge, as she spoke neither English, French, Russian nor Greek, in their Barrayaran dialects or any other, and he spoke neither Lairouban nor Arabic. The box of keyed translator earbugs had unfortunately been mis-delivered to an unknown address on the other side of London, leaving half the diplomats present able only to stare at their counterparts and smile. Miles and the lady communicated basic needs by mime—salt, ma'am?—with good will through dinner, and he made her laugh twice. He wished he knew why.
Even more unfortunately, before the after-dinner speeches could be cancelled a box of replacement ear-bugs was delivered by a panting caterer's assist ant. There followed several speeches in a variety of tongues for the benefit of the press corps. Things broke up, the zaftig lady was swept off Miles's hands by two of her co-wives, and he began to make his way across the room back to the Barrayaran ambassador's party. Hounding a soaring alabaster pillar holding up the arched ceiling, he came face to face with the lady journalist from Euronews Network.
"Man Dieu, it's the little admiral," she said cheerfully. "What are you doing here?"
Ignoring the anguished scream inside his skull, Miles schooled his features to an—exquisitely—polite blankness. "I beg your pardon, ma'am?"
"Admiral Naismith Or ..." She took in his uniform, her eyes lighting with interest. "Is this some mercenary covert operation, Admiral?"
A beat passed. Miles allowed his eyes to widen, his hand to stray to his weaponless trouser seam and twitch there. "My God," he choked in a voice of horror—not hard, that—"Do you mean to tell me Admiral Naismith has been seen on Earth?"
Her chin lifted, and her lips parted in a little half-smile of disbelief. "In your mirror, surely."
Were his eyebrows visibly singed? His right hand was still bandaged. Not a burn, ma'am, Miles thought wildly. I cut it shaving. . . .
Miles came to full attention, snapping his polished boot heels together, and favored her with a small, formal bow. In a proud, hard, and thickly Barrayaran-accented voice, he said, "You are mistaken, ma'am. I am Lord Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar. Lieutenant in the Imperial Service. Not that I don't aspire to the rank you name, but it's a trifle premature."
She smiled sweetly. "Are you entirely recovered from your burns, sir?"
Miles's eyebrows rose—no, he shouldn't have drawn attention to them—"Naismith's been burned? You have seen him? When? Can we speak of this? The man you name is of the greatest interest to Barrayaran Imperial Security."
She looked him up and down. "So I would imagine, since you are one and the same."
"Come, come over here," and how was he going to get out of this one? He took her by the elbow and steered her toward a private corner. "Of course we are the same. Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Mercenaries is my—" illegitimate twin brother? No, that didn't scan. Light didn't just dawn, it came like a nuclear flash at ground zero. "—clone," Miles finished smoothly.
"What?" Her certainty cracked; her attention riveted upon him.
"My clone," Miles repeated in a firmer voice. "He's an extraordinary creation. We think, though we've never been able to confirm it, that he was the result of an intended Cetagandan covert operation that went greatly awry. The Cetagandans are certainly capable of the medical end of it, anyway. The real facts of their military genetic experiments would horrify you." Miles paused. That last was true enough. "Who are you, by the way?"
"Lise Vallerie," she flashed her press cube at him, "Euronews Network."
The very fact she was willing to reintroduce herself confirmed he'd chosen the right tack. "Ah," he drew back from her slightly, "the news services. I didn't realize. Excuse me, ma'am. I should not be talking to you without permission from my superiors." He made to turn away.
"No, wait—ah—Lord Vorkosigan. Oh—you're not related to that Vorkosigan, are you?"
He jerked up his chin and tried to look stern. "My father."
"Oh," she breathed in a tone of enlightenment, "that explains it."
Thought it might, Miles thought smugly. He made a few more little escaping-motions. She clamped to him like a limpet. "No, please ... if you don't tell me, I shall surely investigate it on my own."
"Well ..." Miles paused. "It's all rather old data, from our point of view. I can tell you a few things, I suppose, since it impinges upon me so personally. But it is not for public dissemination. You must give me your word of that, first."
"A Barrayaran Vor lord's word is his bond, is it not?" she said. "I never reveal my sources."
"Very well," nodded Miles, pretending he was under the impression she'd promised, though her words in fact had said nothing of the sort. He nabbed a pair of chairs, and they settled themselves out of the way of the roboservers clearing the banquet debris. Miles cleared his throat, and launched himself.
"The biological construct who calls himself Admiral Naismith is ... perhaps the most dangerous man in the galaxy. Cunning—resolute—both Cetagandan and Barrayaran Security have attempted, in the past, to assassinate him, without success. He's started to build himself a power-base, with his Dendarii Mercenaries. We still don't know what his long-range plans for this private army are, except that he must have some."
Vallerie's finger went to her lips doubtfully. "He seemed—pleasant enough, when I spoke with him. Allowing for the circumstance. A brave man, certainly."
"Aye, there's the genius and the wonder of the man," cried Miles, then decided he'd better tone it down a bit. "Charisma. Surely the Cetagandans, if it was the Cetagandans, must have intended something extraordinary for him. He's a military genius, you know."
"Wait a moment," she said. "He is a true clone, you say—not just an exterior copy? Then he must be even younger than yourself."
"Yes. His growth, his education, were artificially accelerated, apparently to the limits of the process. But where have you seen him?"
"Here in London," she answered, started to say more, and then stopped. "But you say Barrayar is trying to kill him?" She drew away from him slightly. "I think perhaps I'd better let you trace him yourselves."'
"Oh, not anymore." Miles laughed shortly. "Now we just keep track of him. He'd dropped out of sight recently, you see, which makes my own security extremely nervous. Clearly, he must have been originally created for some sort of substitution plot aimed ultimately against my father. But seven years ago he went renegade, broke away from his captors-creators, and started working for himself. We—Barrayar—know too much about him now, and he and I have diverged too much, for him to attempt to replace me at this late date."
She eyed him. "He could. He really could."
"Almost." Miles smiled grimly. "But if you could ever get us in the same room, you'd see I was almost two centimeters taller than he is. Late growth, on my part. Hormone treatments ..." His invention must give out soon—he babbled on. ...
"The Cetagandans, however, are still trying to kill him. So for, that's the best proof we have that he's' actually their creation. Clearly, he must know too much about something. We'd dearly love to know what." He favored her with an inviting canine smile, horribly false. She drew back slightly more.
Miles let his fists close angrily. "The most offensive thing about the man is his nerve. He might at least have picked another name for himself, but he flaunts mine. Perhaps he became used to it when he was training to be me, as he must have done once. He speaks with a Betan accent, and takes my mother's Betan maiden name for his surname, Betan-style, and do you know why?"
Yeah, why, why . . . ?
She shook her head mutely, staring at him in repelled fascination.
"Because by Betan law regarding clones, he would actually be my legal brother, that's why! He attempts to gain a false legitimacy for himself. I'm not sure why. It may be a key to his weakness. He must have a weakness, somewhere, some chink in his armor—" besides hereditary insanity, of course—He broke off, panting slightly. Let her think it was from suppressed rage, and not suppressed terror.
The ambassador, thank God, was motioning at him from across the room, his party assembled to depart. "Pardon me, ma'am," Miles rose. "I must leave you. But, ah ... if you encounter the false Naismith again, I should consider it a great service if you would get in touch with me at the Barrayaran embassy."
Pour quoi? her lips moved slightly. Rather warily, she rose too. Miles bowed over her hand, executed a neat about-face, and fled.
He had to restrain himself from skipping down the steps to the Palais de London in the ambassador's wake. Genius. He was a frigging genius. Why hadn't he thought of this cover story years ago? Imperial Security Chief Illyan was going to love it. Even Galeni might be slightly cheered.
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