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Cetaganda Part 23

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"The other governors?"

Giaja frowned annoyance at the consorts. "A little pragmatic blindness in that direction will close matters. But they will not find new appointments easy to come by."

"And," Miles glanced at the ladies, "the haut Vio? What about her? The others only tried to commit a crime. She actually succeeded."

Rian nodded. Her voice went very flat. "She too will be offered a choice. To replace the servitor she destroyed-de-s.e.xed, depilated, and demoted to ba, her metabolism altered, her body thickened... but returned to a life inside the Celestial Garden, as she desired with a pa.s.sion beyond reason. Or she may be permitted a painless suicide."

"Which... will she choose?"



"Suicide, I hope," said Nadina sincerely.

A multiple standard seemed at work in all this justice. Now that the thrill of the chase was over, Miles felt a nauseated revulsion at the shambles of the kill. For this I laid my life on the line?

"What about... the haut Rian? And me?"

Fletchir Giaja's eyes were cool and distant, light-years gone. "That... is a problem upon which I shall now retire and meditate." ^ The Emperor called Benin back in to escort Miles away, after a short murmured conference. But away to where? Home to the emba.s.sy, or head-first down the nearest oubliette? Did the Celestial Garden have oubliettes?

Home, it appeared, for Benin returned Miles to the company of Vorreedi and Ivan, and took them to the Western Gate, where a car from the Barrayaran emba.s.sy already waited. They paused, and the ghem-Colonel addressed Vorreedi.

"We cannot control what goes into your official reports. But my Celestial Master..." Benin paused to select a suitably delicate term, "expects that none of what you have seen or heard will appear as social gossip."

"That, I think I can promise," said Vorreedi sincerely.

Benin nodded satisfaction. "May I have your words upon your names in the matter, please."

He'd been doing his homework upon Barrayaran customs, it seemed. The three Barrayarans dutifully gave their personal oaths, and Benin released them into the dank night air. It was about two hours till dawn, Miles guessed.

The emba.s.sy aircar was blessedly shadowed. Miles settled into a corner, wis.h.i.+ng he had Ivan's talent for invisibility, but wis.h.i.+ng most of all that they could cut tomorrow's ceremonies and start home immediately. No. He'd come this far, might as well see it through to the bitter end.

Vorreedi had gone beyond emotion to silence. He spoke to Miles only once, in chill tones.

"What did you think you were doing, Vorkosigan?"

"I stopped the Cetagandan Empire from breaking up into eight aggressively expanding units. I derailed plans for a war by some of them with Barrayar. I survived an a.s.sa.s.sination attempt, and helped catch three high-ranking traitors. Admittedly, they weren't our traitors, but still. Oh. And I solved a murder. That's enough for one trip, I hope."

Vorreedi struggled with himself for a moment, then bit out helplessly, "Are you a special agent, or not?" On a need-to-know list... Vorreedi didn't. Not really, not at this point. Miles sighed inwardly. "Well, if not... I succeeded like one, didn't I?"

Ivan winced. Vorreedi sat back with no further comment, but radiating exasperation. Miles smiled grimly, in the dark.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN.

Miles woke from a late, uneasy doze to find Ivan cautiously shaking him by the shoulder.

He closed his eyes again, blocking out the dimness of his suite and his cousin. "Go 'way." He tried to pull the covers back up over his head.

Ivan renewed his efforts, more vigorously. "Now I know it was a mission," he commented. "You're having your usual post-mission sulks."

"I am not sulking. I am tired."

"You look terrific, you know. Great blotch on the side of your face that goon left with his shock-stick. Goes all the way up to your eye. It'll show from a hundred meters. You should get up and look in the mirror."

"I hate people who are cheerful in the morning. What time is it? Why are you up? Why are you here?" Miles lost his clutch on his bedclothes as Ivan dragged them ruthlessly from his grip.

"Ghem-Colonel Benin is on his way here to pick you up. In an Imperial land-cruiser half a block long. The Cetagandans want you at the cremation ceremony an hour early."

"What? Why? He can't be arresting me from here, diplomatic immunity. a.s.sa.s.sination? Execution? Isn't it a little late for that?"

"Amba.s.sador Vorob'yev also wants to know. He sent me to rustle you up as swiftly as possible." Ivan propelled Miles toward his bathroom. "Start depilating, I've brought your uniform and boots from the emba.s.sy laundry. Anyway, if the Cetagandans really wanted to a.s.sa.s.sinate you, they'd hardly do it here. They'd slip something subtle under your skin that wouldn't go off for six months, and then would drop you mysteriously and untraceably in your tracks."

"Rea.s.suring thought." Miles rubbed the back of his neck, surrept.i.tiously feeling for lumps. "I bet the Star Creche has some great terminal diseases. But I pray I didn't offend them."

Miles suffered Ivan to play valet, on fast-forward, with editorials. But he forgave his cousin all sins, past, present, and future, in exchange for the coffee bulb Ivan also shoved into his hand. He swallowed and stared at his face in the mirror, above his unfastened black tunic. The shock-stick contusion across his left cheek was indeed turning a spectacular polychrome, crowned by a blue-black circle under his eye. The other two hits were not as bad, as his clothing had offered some protection. He still would have preferred to spend the day in bed. In his cabin on the outbound ImpSec jumps.h.i.+p, heading home as fast as the laws of physics would allow.

They arrived at the emba.s.sy's lobby to find not Benin but Mia Maz waiting in her formal black and white funeral clothing. She had been keeping Amba.s.sador Vorob'yev company when they'd dragged in last night-this morning, rather-and could not have had much more sleep than Miles. But she looked remarkably fresh, even chipper. She smiled at Miles and Ivan. Ivan smiled back.

Miles squinted. "Vorob'yev not here?"

"He's coming down as soon as he's finished dressing," Maz a.s.sured him.

"You... coming with me?" Miles asked hopefully. "Or... no, I suppose you have to be with your own delegation. This being the big finish and all."

"I'll be accompanying Amba.s.sador Vorob'yev." Maz's smile escaped into a chipmunk grin, dimples everywhere. "Permanently. He asked me to marry him last night. I think it was a measure of his general distraction. In the spirit of the insanity of the moment, I said yes."

If you can't hire help... Well, that would solve Vorob'yev's quest for female expertise on the emba.s.sy's staff. Not to mention accounting for all that bombardment of chocolates and invitations. "Congratulations," Miles managed. Though perhaps it ought to be Congratulations to Vorob'yev and Good luck to Maz.

"It still feels quite strange," Maz confided. "I mean, Lady Vorob'yev. How did your mother cope, Lord Vorkosigan?"

"You mean, being an egalitarian Betan and all? No problem. She says egalitarians adjust to aristocracies just fine, as long as they get to be the aristocrats."

"I hope to meet her someday."

"You'll get along famously," Miles predicted with confidence.

Vorob'yev appeared, still fastening his black tunic, at almost the same moment as ghem- Colonel Benin was escorted inside by the emba.s.sy guards. Correction. Ghem-General Benin. Miles smiled under his breath at the glitter of new rank insignia on Benin's blood-red dress uniform. I called that one right, did I not?

"May I ask what this is all about, ghem-General?" Vorob'yev didn't miss the new order.

Benin half-bowed. "My Celestial Master requests the attendance of Lord Vorkosigan at this hour. Ah... we will return him to you."

"Your word upon it? It would be a major embarra.s.sment for the emba.s.sy were he to be mislaid... again." Vorob'yev managed to be stern at Benin while simultaneously capturing Maz's hand upon his arm and covertly stroking it.

"My word upon it, Amba.s.sador," Benin promised. At Vorobyev's reluctant nod of permission, he led Miles out. Miles glanced back over his shoulder, lonely for Ivan, or Maz, or somebody on his side.

The groundcar wasn't half a block long, but it was a very fine vehicle indeed, and not military issue. Cetagandan soldiers saluted Benin punctiliously, and settled him and his guest in the rear compartment. When they pulled away from the emba.s.sy, it felt something like riding in a house.

"May I ask what all this is about, ghem-General?" Miles inquired in turn.

Benin's expression was almost... crocodilian. "I am instructed that explanations must wait until you arrive at the Celestial Garden. It will take only a few minutes of your time, nothing more. I first thought that you would like it, but upon mature reflection, I think you will hate it. Either way, you deserve it."

"Take care your growing reputation for subtlety doesn't go to your head, ghem-General," Miles growled. Benin merely smiled.

It was definitely an Imperial audience chamber, if a small one, not a conference chamber like the room last night. There was only one seat, and Fletchir Giaja was in it already. The white robes he wore this morning were bulky and elaborate to the point of half-immobilizing him, and he had two ba servitors waiting to help him with them when he rose again. He had his icon-look plastered back on his face again, his expression so reserved it resembled porcelain. Three white bubbles floated silently beyond his left hand. Another ba servitor brought a small flat case to Benin, who stood upon the Emperor's right.

"You may approach my Celestial Master, Lord Vorkosigan," Benin informed him.

Miles stepped forward, deciding not to kneel. He and the haut Fletchir Giaja were almost eye to eye as he stood.

Benin handed the case to the emperor, who opened it. "Do you know what this is, Lord Vorkosigan?" Giaja asked.

Miles eyed the medallion of the Order of Merit on its colored ribbon, glittering on a bed of velvet. "Yes, sir. It is a lead weight, suitable for sinking small enemies. Are you going to sew me into a silk sack with it, before you throw me overboard?"

Giaja glanced up at Benin, who responded with a Didn't I tell you so? shrug.

"Bend your neck, Lord Vorkosigan," Giaja instructed him firmly. "Unaccustomed as you may be to doing so."

Was not Rian in one of those bubbles? Miles stared briefly at his mirror-polished boots, as Giaja slipped the ribbon over his head. He stepped back half a pace, tried and failed to keep his hand from touching the cool metal. He would not salute. "I... refuse this honor, sir.

"No, you don't," Giaja said in an observant tone, watching him. "I am given to understand by my keenest observers that you have a pa.s.sion for recognition. It is a..."

Weakness that can be exploited- "-an understandable quality that puts me much in mind of our own ghem."

Well, it was better than being compared to the hauts' other semi-siblings, the ba. Who were not the palace eunuchs they seemed, but rather some sort of incredibly valuable in-house science projects-the late Ba Lura might be better than half-sibling to Giaja himself, for all Miles knew. Sixty- eight percent shared chromosomal material, say. Quite. Miles decided he would have more respect for, not to mention caution of, the silent slippered ba after this. They were all in on this haut-business together, the putative servitors and their putative masters. No wonder the emperor had taken Lura's murder so seriously.

"As far as recognition goes, sir, this is hardly something that I will be able to show around at home. More like, hide it in the bottom of the deepest drawer I own."

"Good," said Fletchir Giaja in a level tone. "As long as you lay all the matters a.s.sociated with it alongside."

Ah. That was the heart of it. A bribe for his silence. "There is very little about the past two weeks that I shall take pleasure in remembering, sir."

"Remember what you will, as long as you do not recount it."

"Not publicly. But I have a duty to report."

"Your cla.s.sified military reports do not trouble me."

"I..." He glanced aside at Rian's white bubble, hovering near. "Agree."

Giaja's pale eyelids swept down in an accepting blink. Miles felt very strange. Was it a bribe to accept a prize for doing exactly what he'd been going to do, or not do, anyway?

Come to think of it... would his own Barrayarans think he had struck some sort of bargain? The real reason he'd been detained for that unwitnessed chitchat with the Emperor last night began to glimmer up at last in his sleep-deprived brain. Surely they can't imagine Giaja could suborn me in twenty minutes of conversation. Could they?

"You will accompany me," Giaja went on, "on my left hand. It's time to go." He rose, a.s.sisted by the ba, who gathered up his robes.

Miles eyed the hovering bubbles in silent desperation. His last chance... "May I speak with you one more time, haut Rian?" he addressed them generally, uncertain which was the one he sought.

Giaja glanced over his shoulder, and opened his long-fingered hand in a permissive gesture, though he himself continued on at the decorous pace enforced by his costume. Two bubbles waited, one followed, and Benin stood guard just outside the open door. Not exactly a private moment. That was all right. There was very little Miles wanted to say out loud at this point anyway.

Miles glanced back and forth uncertainly at the pale glowing spheres. One blinked out, and there Rian sat, much as he had first seen her, stiff white robes cloaked by the inkfall of s.h.i.+ning hair. She still took his breath away.

She floated closer, and raised one fine hand to touch his left cheek. It was the first time they had touched. But if she asked, Does it hurt?, he swore he'd bite her.

Rian was not a fool. "I have taken much from you," she spoke quietly, "and given nothing."

"It's the haut way, is it not?" Miles said bitterly.

"It is the only way I know."

The prisoner's dilemma...

From her sleeve, she removed a dark and s.h.i.+ning coil, rather like a bracelet. A tiny hank of silken hair, very long, wound around and around until it seemed to have no end. She thrust it at him. "Here. It was all I could think of."

That's because it is all you have that you truly own, milady. All else is a gift of your constellation, or the Star Creche, or the haut, or your emperor. You live in the interstices of a communal world, rich beyond the dreams of avarice, owning... nothing. Not even your own chromosomes.

Miles took the coil from her. It was cool and smooth in his hand. "What does this signify? To you?"

"I... truly do not know," she confessed.

Honest to the end. Does the woman even know how to lie? "Then I shall keep it. Milady. For memory. Buried very deep."

"Yes. Please."

"How will you remember me?" He had absolutely nothing on him that he could give away right now, he realized, except for whatever lint the emba.s.sy laundry had left in the bottoms of his pockets. "Or will it please you to forget?"

Her blue eyes glinted like sun on a glacier. "There is no danger of that. You will see." She move'd gently away from him. Her force-screen took form around her slowly, and she faded like perfume. The two bubbles floated after the emperor to seek their places.

The dell was similar in design to the one where the haut had held the elegiac poetry recitations, only larger, a wide sloping bowl open to the artificial sky of the dome. Haut-lady bubbles and haut- and ghem-lords in white filled its sides. The thousand or so galactic delegates in all their muted garbs crowded its circ.u.mference. In the center, ringed by a respectfully unpeopled band of gra.s.s and flowers, sat another round force dome, a dozen meters or more in diameter. Dimly through its misted surface Miles could see a jumble of objects piled high around a pallet, upon which lay the slight, white- clad figure of the haut Lisbet Degtiar. Miles squinted, trying to see if he could make out the polished maplewood box of the Barrayaran delegation's gift, but Dorca's sword was buried somewhere out of sight. It hardly mattered.

But he was going to have a ringside seat, a nearly Imperial view of it all. The final parade, down an alley cleared to the center of the bowl, was arranged in inverse order of clout; the eight planetary consorts and the Handmaiden in their nine white bubbles, seven-count 'em folks, seven-ghem- governors, then the emperor himself and his honor guard. Benin blended into ghem-General Naru's former place without a ripple. Miles limped along in Giaja's train, intensely self-conscious. He must present an astonis.h.i.+ng sight, slight, short, sinister, his face looking like he'd lost a s.p.a.ceport bar fight the night before. The Cetagandan Order of Merit made a fine show against his House blacks, quite impossible to miss.

Miles supposed Giaja was using him to send some kind of signal to his haut-governors, and not a terribly friendly one. Since Giaja clearly had no plans to let out the details of the past two weeks' events, Miles could only conclude it was one of those catch it if you can things, intended to unnerve by doubt as much as knowledge, a highly delicate species of terrorism.

Yeah. Let 'em wonder. Well, not them-he pa.s.sed the Barrayaran delegation near the front of the galactic mob. Vorob'yev stared at him stunned. Maz looked surprised but pleased, pointing at Miles's throat and saying something to her fiance. Vorreedi looked wildly suspicious. Ivan looked... blank. Thank you for your vote of confidence, coz.

Miles himself stared for a moment when he spotted Lord Yenaro in the back row of ghem- lords. Yenaro was dressed in the purple and white garb of a Celestial Garden ghem-lord-in-waiting of the tenth rank, sixth degree, the lowest order. The lowest of the highest, Miles corrected himself. Looks like he got that a.s.sistant perfumers job after all. And so the haut Fletchir Giaja brought another loose cannon under control. Smooth.

They all took their a.s.signed places at the center of the bowl. A procession of young ghem- girls laid a final offering of flowers all around the central force-bubble. A chorus sang. Miles found himself attempting to calculate the price in labor alone of the entire month's ceremonies if one set the time of everyone involved at some sort of minimum wage. The sum was... celestial. He became increasingly aware that he hadn't had breakfast, or nearly enough coffee. I will not pa.s.s out. I will not scratch my nose, or my a.s.s. I will not- A white bubble drifted up in front of the emperor. A short, familiar ba paced alongside it, carrying a compartmented tray. Rian's voice spoke from the bubble, ceremonial words; the ba laid the tray before Giaja's feet. Miles, at Giaja's left hand, stared down into the compartments and smiled sourly. The Great Key, the Great Seal, and all the rest of Lisbet's regalia, were returned to their source. The ba and the bubble retreated. Miles waited in mild boredom for Giaja to call forth his new empress from somewhere in the mob of hovering haut-bubbles.

The emperor motioned Rian and her ba to approach again. More formal phrases, so convoluted Miles took a full belated minute to unravel their meaning. The ba bowed and picked up the tray again on its mistress's behalf. Miles's boredom evaporated in a frisson of shock, m.u.f.fled by intense bemus.e.m.e.nt. For once, he wished he were shorter, or had Ivan's talent for invisibility, or could magically teleport himself somewhere, anywhere, out of here. A stir of interest, even astonishment, ran through the haut and ghem audience. Members of the Degtiar constellation looked quite pleased. Members of other constellations... looked on politely.

The haut Rian Degtiar took possession of the Star Creche again as a new Empress of Cetaganda, fourth Imperial Mother to be chosen by Fletchir Giaja, but now first in seniority by virtue of her genomic responsibility. Her first genetic duty would be to cook up her own Imperial prince son. G.o.d. Was she happy, inside that bubble?

Her new... not husband, mate, the emperor-might never touch her. Or they might become lovers. Giaja might wish to emphasize his possession of her, after all. Though to be fair, Rian must have known this was coming before the ceremony, and she hadn't looked like she objected. Miles swallowed, feeling ill, and horribly tired. Low blood sugar, no doubt.

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