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The tall and dour non-com wore Imperial dress greens and carried his communications panel like a field marshall's baton. He slapped it absently against his thigh and raked the group of young men before him with a gaze of dry contempt. Challenging.
All part of the game, Miles told himself. He stood in the crisp autumn breeze and tried not to shiver in his shorts and running shoes. Nothing to put you off balance like being nearly naked when all about you look ready for one of Emperor Gregor's reviews although, in all fairness, the majority here were dressed the same as himself. The non-com proctoring the tests merely seemed like a one-man crowd. Miles measured him, wondering what conscious or unconscious tricks of body language he used to achieve that air of icy competence. Something to be learned there ...
"You will run in pairs," the non-com instructed. He did not seem to raise his voice, but somehow it was pitched to carry to the ends of the lines. Another effective trick. Miles thought; it reminded him of that habit of his father's, of dropping his voice to a whisper when speaking in a rage. It locked attention.
"The timing of the five kilometer run begins immediately upon completion of the last phase of the obstacle course; remember it." The non-com began counting off pairs.
The eliminations for officers candidacy in the Barrayaran Imperial Military Service took a grueling week. Five days of written and oral examinations were behind Miles now. The hardest part was over, everybody said. There was almost an air of relaxation among the young men around him. There was more talking and joking in the group, exaggerated complaints about the difficulty of the exams, the withering wit of the examining officers, the poor food, interrupted sleep, surprise distractions during the testing. Self-congratulatory complaints, these, among the survivors. They looked forward to the physical tests as a game. Recess, perhaps. The hardest part was over—for everyone but Miles.
He stood to his full height, such as it was, and stretched, as if to pull his crooked spine out straight by force of will. He gave a little upward jerk of his chin, as if balancing his too-large head, a head meant for a man over six feet, on his just-under-five-foot frame, and narrowed his eyes at the obstacle course. It began with a concrete wall, five meters high, topped with iron spikes. Climbing it would be no problem, there was nothing wrong with his muscles, it was the coming down that worried him. The bones, always the damn bones ...
"Kosigan, Kostolitz," the non-com called, passing in front of him. Miles's brows snapped down and he gave the non-com a sharp upward glance, then controlled his gaze to a blank straightness. The omission of the honorific before his name was policy, not insult. All classes stood equal in the Emperor's service now. A good policy. His own father endorsed it.
Grandfather bitched, to be sure, but that unreconstructed old man had begun his Imperial service when its principal arm was horse cavalry and each officer trained his own military apprentices. To have addressed him in those days as Kosigan, without the Vor, might have resulted in a duel. Now his grandson sought entrance to a military academy, off planet style, and training in the tactics of energy weapons, wormhole exits, and planetary defense. And stood shoulder to shoulder with boys who would not have been permitted to polish his sword in the old days.
Not quite shoulder to shoulder. Miles reflected dryly, stealing a sidelong glance up at the candidates on either side of him. The one he had been paired with for the obstacle course, what's his name, Kostolitz, caught the glance and looked back down with ill-concealed curiosity. Miles's eye level gave him a fine opportunity to study the fellow's excellent biceps. The non-com signaled fall out for those not running the obstacle course immediately. Miles and his companion sat on the ground.
"I've been seeing you around all week," offered Kostolitz. 'What the hell is that thing on your leg?"
Miles controlled his irritation with the ease of long practice. God knew he did stand out in a crowd, particularly this crowd. At least Kostolitz did not make hex signs at him, like a certain decrepit old countrywoman down at Vorkosigan Surleau. In some of the more remote and undeveloped regions on Barrayar, such as deep in the Dendarii Mountains in the Vorkosigans' own district, infanticide was still practiced for defects as mild as a harelip, despite sporadic efforts from the more enlightened centers of authority to stamp it out. He glanced down at the pair of gleaming metal rods paralleling his left leg between knee and ankle that had remained secretly beneath his trouser leg until this day. "Leg brace," he replied, polite but unencouraging. Kostolitz continued to stare. 'What for?" 'Temporary. I have a couple of brittle bones there. Keeps me from breaking them, until the surgeon's quite sure I'm done growing. Then I get them replaced with synthetics."
"That's weird," commented Kostolitz. "Is it a disease, or what?" Under the guise of shifting his weight, he moved just slightly farther from Miles.
Unclean, unclean, thought Miles wildly; should I ring a bell? I ought to tell him it's contagious—I was six-foot-four this time last year ... He sighed away the temptation. "My mother was exposed to a poison gas when she was pregnant with me. She pulled through all right, but it wrecked my bone growth."
"Huh. Didn't they give you any medical treatment?" "Oh, sure. I've had an Inquisition's worth. That's why I can walk around today, instead of being carried in a bucket."
Kostolitz looked mildly revolted, but stopped trying to sidle subtly upwind. "How did you ever get past the medicals? I thought there was a minimum height rule.'
"It was waived, pending my test results."
"Oh." Kostolitz digested this.
Miles returned his attention to the test ahead. He should be able to pick up some time on that belly-crawl under the laser fire; good, he would need it on the five kilometer run. Lack of height, and a permanent limp from a left leg shorter, after more fractures than he could remember, by a good four centimeters than his right, would slow him down. No help for it. Tomorrow would be better; tomorrow was the endurance phase. The herd of long-legged gangling boys around him could unquestionably beat him on me sprint. He fully expected to be anchor man on the first 25 Kilometer leg tomorrow, probably the second as well, but after 75 kilometers most would be flagging as the real pain mounted. I am a professional of pain, Kostolitz, he thought to his rival. Tomorrow, after about kilometer 100, I'll ask you to repeat those questions of yours—if you have the breath pare.
Bloody hell, lets pay attention to business, not this dink. A five meter drop—perhaps it would be better to go around, take a zero on that part. But his overall score was bound to be relatively poor. He hated to part with a single point unnecessarily, and at the very beginning, too. He was going to need every one of them. Skipping the wall would cut into his narrow safety margin—
"You really expect to pass the physicals?" asked Kostolitz, looking around. "I mean, above the 50th percentile?"
Kostolitz looked baffled. "Then what the hell's the point?"
"I don't have to pass it; just make something near a decent score."
Kostolitz's eyebrows rose. "Whose ass do you have to kiss to get a deal like that? Gregor Vorbarra's?"
There was an undercurrent of incipient jealousy in his tone, class-conscious suspicion. Miles's jaw clamped. Let us not bring up the subject of fathers ...
"How do you plan to get in without passing?" Kostolitz persisted, eyes narrowing. His nostrils flared at the scent of privilege, like an animal alert for blood.
Practice politics. Miles told himself. That too should be in your blood, like war. "I petitioned," Miles explained patiently, "to have my scores averaged instead of taken separately. I expect my writtens to bring up my physicals."
"That far up? You'd need a damn near perfect score!" "That's right," Miles snarled.
"Kosigan, Kostolitz," another uniformed proctor called. They entered the starting area.
"It's a little hard on me, you know," Kostolitz complained.
"Why? It hasn't got a thing to do with you. None of your business at all," Miles added pointedly.
"We're put in pairs to pace each other. How will I know how I'm doing?"
"Oh, don't feel you have to keep up with me," Miles purred.
Kostolitz's brows lowered with annoyance. They were chivvied into place. Miles glanced across the parade ground at a distant knot of men waiting and watching; a few military relatives, and the liveried retainers of the handful of Counts' sons present today. There was a pair of hard-looking men in the blue and gold of the Vorpatrils'; his cousin Ivan must be around here somewhere.
And there was Bothari, tall as a mountain and lean as a knife, in the brown and silver of the Vorkosigans. Miles raised his chin in a barely perceptible salute. Bothari, 100 meters away, caught the gesture and changed his stance from at ease to a silent parade rest in acknowledgment.
A couple of testing officers, the non-com, and a pair of proctors from the course were huddled together at a distance. Some gesticulations, a look in Miles's direction; a debate, it seemed. It concluded. The proctors returned to their stations, one of the officers started the next pair of boys over the course, and the non-com approached
Miles and his companion. He looked uneasy. Miles schooled his features to cool attention.
"Kosigan," the non-com began, voice carefully neutral. "You're going to have to take off the leg brace. Artificial aids not permitted for the test."
A dozen counter-arguments sprang up in Miles's mind. He tightened his lips on them. This non-com was in a sense his commanding officer; Miles knew for certain that more than physical performance was being evaluated today. "Yes, sir." The non-com looked faintly relieved.
"May I give it to my man?" asked Miles. He threatened the non-com with his eyes—if not, I'rn going to stick you with it, and you'll have to cart it around the rest of the day—see how conspicuous it makes you feel ...
"Certainly, sir," said the non-com. The "sir" was a slip; the non-com knew who he was, of course. A small wolfish smile slid across Miles's mouth, and vanished. Miles gave Bothari a high sign, and the liveried bodyguard trotted over obediently. "You may not converse with him," the non-com warned.
"Yes, sir," acknowledged Miles. He sat on the ground and unclipped the much-loathed apparatus. Good; a kilo less to carry. He tossed it up to Bothari, who caught it one-handed, and squirmed back to his feet. Bothari, correctly, offered him no hand up.
Seeing his bodyguard and the non-com together, the non-com suddenly bothered Miles less. The proctor looked shorter, somehow, and younger; even a little soft. Bothari was taller, leaner, much older, a lot uglier, and considerably meaner-looking. But then, Bothari had been a non-com himself when this proctor had been a toddler.
Narrow jaw, hooked beak of a nose, eyes of a nondescript color set too close together; Miles looked up at his liveried retainer's face with a loving pride of possession. He glanced toward the obstacle course and let his eyes pass over Bothari's. Bothari glanced at it too, pursed his tips, tucked the brace firmly under his arm, and gave a slight shake of his head directed, apparently, at the middle distance. Miles's mouth twitched. Bothari sighed, and trotted back to the waiting area.
So Bothari advised caution. But then, Bothari's job was to keep him intact, not advance his career—no, unfair, Miles chided himself. No one had been of more service in the preparations for this frantic week than Bothari. He'd spent endless time on training, pushing Miles's body to its too-soon-found limits, unflaggingly devoted to his charge's passionate obsession. My first command, thought Miles. My private army.
Kostolitz stared alter Bothari. He identified the livery at last, it seemed, for he looked back at Miles in startled illumination.
"So, that's who you are," he said, with a jealous awe. "No wonder you got a deal on the tests."
Miles smiled tightly at the implied insult. The tension crawled up his back. He groped for some suitably scathing retort, but they were being motioned to the starting mark.
Kostolitz's deductive faculty crunched on, it seemed, for he added sardonically, "And so that's why the Lord Regent never made the bid for the Imperium!"
'Time mark," said the proctor, "now!"
And they were off. Kostolitz sprinted ahead of Miles instantly. You'd better run, you witless bastard, because if I can catch you, I'm going to kill you—Miles galloped after him, feeling like a cow in a horse race.
The wall, the bloody wall—Kostolitz was grunting halfway up it when Miles arrived. At least he could show this working-class hero how to climb. He swarmed up it as if the tiny toe and finger holds were great steps, his muscles powered—over-powered—by his fury. To his satisfaction, he reached the top ahead of Kostolitz. He looked down, and stopped abruptly, perched gingerly among the spikes.
The proctor was watching closely. Kostolitz caught up with Miles, his face suffused with effort. "A Vor, scared of heights?" Kostolitz gasped, with a grinning glare over his shoulder. He flung himself off, hit the sand with an authoritative impact, recovered his balance, and dashed off.
Precious seconds would be wasted climbing down like some arthritic little old lady—perhaps if he hit the ground rolling—the proctor was staring—Kostolitz had already reached the next obstacle—Miles jumped.
Time seemed to stretch itself, as he plummeted toward the sand, especially to allow him the full sick savor of his mistake. He hit the sand with the familiar shattering crack.
And sat, blinking stupidly at the pain. He would not cry out—at least, me detached observer in the back of his brain commented sardonically, you can't blame it on the brace—this time you've managed to break both of them.
His legs began to swell and discolor, mottled white and flushed. He pulled himself along until they were stretched out straight, and bent over a moment, hiding his face in his knees. Face buried, he permitted himself one silent rictus scream. He did not swear. The vilest terms he knew seemed wholly inadequate to the occasion.
The proctor, awakening to the fact that he was not going to stand up, started toward him. Miles pulled himself across the sand, out of the path of the next pair of candidates, and waited patiently for Bothari.
He had all the time in the world, now.
Miles decided he definitely didn't like the new anti-grav crutches, even though they were worn invisibly inside his clothing. They gave his walk a slithery uncertainty that made him feel spastic. He would have preferred a good old-fashioned stick, or better yet a sword-stick like Captain Koudelka's that one could drive into the ground with a satisfying thunk at each step, as if spearing some suitable enemy—Kostolitz, for example. He paused to gather his balance before tackling the steps to Vorkosigan House.
Minute particles in their worn granite scintillated warmly in the autumn morning light, in spite of the industrial haze that hung over the capital city of Vorbarr Sultana. A racket from farther down the street marked where a similar mansion was being demolished to make way for a modem building. Miles glanced up to the high-rise directly across the street; a figure moved against the roofline. The battlements had changed, but the watchful soldiers still stalked along them.
Bothari, looming silently beside him, bent suddenly retrieve a lost coin from me walkway. He placed it car fully in his left pocket. The dedicated pocket.
One comer of Miles's mouth lifted, and his eyes warmed with amusement. "Still the dowry?"
"Of course," said Bothari serenely. His voice was de< bass, monotonous in cadence. One had to know him long time to interpret its expressionlessness. Miles knew every minute variation in its timbre as a man knows t own room in the dark.
"You've been pinching tenth-marks for Elena as long as I can remember. Dowries went out with the horse cavalry, for God's sake. Even the Vor marry without the these days. This isn't the Time of Isolation." Miles made his mockery gentle in tone, carefully fitted to Bothari obsession. Bother, after all, had always treated Miles ridiculous craze seriously.
"I mean her to have everything right and proper."
"You ought to have enough saved up to buy Greg Vorbarra by now," said Miles, thinking of the hundred of small economies his bodyguard had practiced before him, over the years, for the sake of his daughter's dowry.
"Shouldn't joke about the Emperor." Bothari depressed this random stab at humor firmly, as deserved. Miles sighed and began to work his with cautiously up the steps, legs stiff in their plastic immobilizers.
The painkillers he'd taken before he'd left the military in infirmary were beginning to wear off. He felt unutterably weary. The night had been a sleepless on sitting up under local anesthetics, talking and joking with the surgeon as he puttered endlessly, piecing d minute shattered fragments of bone back together lit an unusually obstreperous jigsaw puzzle. I put on pretty good show, Miles reassured himself; but he longed to get off stage and collapse. Just a couple more acts to go.
"What kind of fellow are you planning to shop for?" Miles probed delicately during a pause in his climb.
"An officer," Bothari said firmly.
Miles's smile twisted. So that's the pinnacle of your ambition, too. Sergeant? he inquired silently. "Not too soon, I trust/'
Bothari snorted. "Of course not. She's only ..." He paused, the creases deepening between his narrow eyes. "Time's gone by ..." his mutter trailed off.
Miles negotiated the steps successfully, and entered Vorkosigan House, bracing for relatives. The first was to be his mother, it seemed; that was no problem. She appeared at the foot of the great staircase in the front hall as the door was opened for him by a uniformed servant-cum-guard. Lady Vorkosigan was a middle-aged woman, the fiery red of her hair quenched by natural grey, her height neatly disguising a few extra kilos weight. She was breathing a bit heavily; probably had run downstairs when he was spotted approaching. They exchanged a brief hug. Her eyes were grave and unjudgmental.
"Father here?" he asked.
"No. He and Minister Quintillan are down at headquarters, arm-wrestling with the General Staff about their budget this morning. He said to give you his love and tell you he'd try to be here for lunch."
"He, ah—hasn't told Grandfather about yesterday yet, has he?"
"No—I really think you should have let him, though. It's been rather awkward this morning."
"I'll bet." He gazed up at the stairs. It was more than his bad legs that made them seem mountainous. Well, let's get the worst over with first . . . "Upstairs, is he?"
"In his rooms. Although he actually took a walk in the garden this morning, I'm glad to say."
"Mm." Miles started working his way upstairs.
"Lift tube," said Bothari.
"Oh, hell, it's only one flight."
"Surgeon said you're to stay off them as much as possible."
Miles's mother awarded Bothari an approving smile, which he acknowledged blandly with a murmured, "Milady." Miles shrugged grudgingly and headed for the back of the house instead.
"Miles," said his mother as he passed, "don't, ah ... He's very old, he's not too well, and he hasn't had to be polite to anybody in years—just take him on his own terms, all right?"
"You know I do." He grinned ironically, to prove how unaffected he proposed to be. Her lips curved in return, but her eyes remained grave.
He met Elena Bothari, coming out of his grandfather's chambers. His bodyguard greeted his daughter with a silent nod, and won for himself one of her rather shy smiles.
For the thousandth time Miles wondered how such an ugly man could have produced such a beautiful daughter. Every one of his features was echoed in her face, but richly transmuted. At eighteen she was tall, like her father, fully six feet to his six-and-a-half; but while he was whipcord lean and tense, she was slim and vibrant. His nose a beak, hers an elegant aquiline profile; his face too narrow, hers with the air of some perfectly-bred aristocratic sight-hound, a borzoi or a greyhound. Perhaps it was the eyes that made the difference; hers were dark and lustrous, alert, but without his constantly shifting, unsmiling watchfulness. Or the hair; his greying, clipped in his habitual military burr, hers long, dark, straight-shining. A gargoyle and a saint, by the same sculptor, facing each other across some ancient cathedral portal.
Miles shook himself from his trance. Her eyes met his briefly, and her smile faded. He straightened up from his tired slouch and produced a false smile for her, hoping to lure her real one back. Not too soon. Sergeant ...
"Oh, good, I'm so glad you're here," she greeted him. "It's been gruesome this morning."
"Has he been crotchety?"
"No, cheerful. Playing Strat-0 with me and paying no attention—do you know, I almost beat him? Telling his war stories and wondering about you—if he'd had a map of your course, he'd have been sticking pins in it to mark your imaginary progress ... I don't have to stay, do I?" "No, of course not."
Elena twitched a relieved smile at him, and trailed off down the corridor, casting one disquieted look back over her shoulder.
Miles took a breath, and stepped across General Count Piotr Vorkosigan's inner threshold.
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