Chapter 1

What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What waters lapping the shore
What memories return
Oh my daughter

TS Eliot

Anywhere but here.

Ekaterin did not speak the wish aloud, but turned deliberately away from the others in the room, creating a bubble of silence around her, which it was clear none of them was prepared to breach. Wrapped in its chilly protection, she stalked down the room and gazed out through the wall of glass, which formed the whole of one side of the room, across the storm-ruffled waters of the Long Lake at Vorkosigan Surleau. Appropriately enough, autumn had set in early and the far side of the lake was a dim, amorphous mass of dripping greenery, wreathed with flying wisps of cloud. Unfortunately, the effect of the dark and gloomy scene across the lake was to turn the wall of glass into a mirror, which reflected the room sternly back at her.

No escape.

She caught in the rain-spattered glass the dim reflection of two dark heads - one smooth, one curly - bent together over a book of star maps at the far end of the room, and ruthlessly suppressed a quiver of her lips.

Who am I to deny my heart's love healing because someone else brings it?

The treacherous Other in her head said: And who, then, shall heal my own wounded heart?

She ignored it. Pym, the ever efficient, materialised at her elbow with a bottle poised over her empty wineglass. Her headshake was barely more than the contraction of a single facial muscle.

You think I could drown my loss in the District wine? No, Pym. Not if your bottle were the size of the Long Lake, and I able to stand here and drink till I drained it to its stony bed.

She would not give the onlookers that satisfaction. As she passed unspeaking among them she knew they cast covert glances at her, as though already clearing space in the Vorkosigan attics for her better accommodation, but she would not let them see her lose her self-possession. Not yet.

Not, at least, before you finally break, My Lord Auditor, and follow those thin gnat voices, which cry for you, star to faint star across the sky. Until then, My Lord Auditor, do what you will. And let it be with whom. I shall not stop you.

As her eye swept with a dull cynicism across the large room she was vaguely aware of a greying, red-roan head tuned in her direction; of a stirring of elaborate draperies; even, possibly, of the grey-eyed sparkling penetration of the Vicereine's notice. She shook her head. However ambiguous that move might have seemed, however she might have wanted to interpret movements or looks, that was surely not a quarter from which she might look for partisanship.

Why would the Countess be on your side? Fool. You are alone in this company. Let the High Vor tell the world you brought the taint with you from that unexplored, untried South Continent. And who can say different? Teratogenic, not mutagenic, he assured you before he married you. And that he would never lie to you. Oh my daughter. Would God I had died for you before now, oh Natalie, my child, my child. One poor pathetic child, crying in her cot against the crushing weight of asthmatic attack after asthmatic attack. And you could - no, correction - you did - only protect her against so much. So much oxygen; so many late nights. Neither enough. Not enough for you to reach the conclusion that this was something more than asthma. Until the doctors - standing over that poor cat-sized corpse - said to you that the struggle was a lost cause from the first. That the autopsy had shown she could never have won - poor scrap, fighting so hard to the end to win with the hand she was dealt. That her lungs had never been born to be the size her body demanded was a sentence she received with incredulity and defiance. Oh my poor Natalie, born of the blood of Emperors, not unworthy of your heritage did you go down raging into the dark.

She sent a cold look from end to end of the reception room. Momentarily, the high Vor gathered together quailed under her glance. She acknowledged their frailty with an emotionless nod, and then turned again to look out through the window onto the pitiless, leaden surface of the lake.

Not here, let it please the powers. Anywhere but here.


She was abruptly conscious of thin, dry, mountain soil under her hands, and the tough springiness of heather beneath her knees. The heather, she noted absently, was still in bud. On the mountainside above her there were intermittent white patches tucked close in against grey rock: snow drifts that the warming season had not yet been able to melt away from their high sanctuary. The patches of bracken which crept up the lower slopes of the steep hillside which fell away below her were an almost Barrayaran red-brown, with only a diffident fringe of the new year's green shoots coming up through the dead old growth.

So, wherever I am, it must be spring.

The pale evening blue of the sky and the cloud-filtered sun dipping towards the horizon supported the assumption. Her breath choked momentarily in her throat as her gaze swept round, surveying from this high place a seemingly endless vista of hill and cliff, falling away at last to a restless grey-green sea, populated with the whale-backed masses of numerous rocky islands, a light white line of surf breaking on the boulder-strewn shore below.

And one other thing.

Low over the horizon the faintest ghost hung in the darkening sky. A moon, three-quarters full, wraith-like, brightening as the evening drew in. Only one world in all the far-flung planets of the inhabited Nexus had its attendant asteroid so incomparably positioned, big enough seemingly to blot out the sun at times, and to be a wonder of the sky always. A moon? Involuntarily, she shook her head. That silver glory throughout all worlds and time alone had been granted the definite article and still, by ancient custom, continued to be so. The Moon.

I am on Earth.

The blood thundered in a pounding rush through her ears. Wondering, she stretched out her fingertips to the earth below her, let it trail through her fingers, watched little insects on the lichened rocks, saw the hawk hover high above her in the blue.

Madness. It has come at last.

Involuntarily her tense shoulders relaxed.

I never realised that madness might be freedom too.

She had been waiting for too long for her breaking mind to herald the fact of her own derangement. Instead, her realization that she was now unquestioningly outside the straight paths of sanity brought her a sense of curious peace. Sensuously, luxuriating in the sense of the otherness of being, she exhaled the last traces of Barrayar from her lungs, replacing it with the cool alien scent of wild moor land plants, and the light wind off the sea. A rebellious, anarchic, improper joy woke in her. She stretched her arms out, wide, on either side of her, then got to her feet and moved, lightly, in large dancing circles, revelling in her own irresponsibility.

Madness. And I am free of them all, at last.

For the first time in months there was no concerned eye upon her, no subdued voice enquiring after her, no tactful, watchful presence at her elbow.

Free. Alone. If this is madness, perhaps I fought it off too long.

The chill light breeze cutting through the thin black silk of her Komarran-style trousers and jacket forced her to start the descent down from the high moorland plateau towards the sea. As she descended the narrow, winding path her feet became curiously heavy. It became an effort to keep planting one in front of the other. She had to keep her gaze firmly fixed on the path before her in order to keep from stumbling. The air seemed to grow thicker as she descended, though no warmer. Despite the chill, she felt her skin become clammy.

Ekaterin could not have said what caused her to look up at that precise moment. Certainly there was no betraying sound. Perhaps, however, the oppressive quality of the air around her had deepened by a measurable shade.

There was a dark figure ten metres ahead of her on the path, gliding rapidly over the stones. It was inconceivable that she would not recognise that back.

"Tien!" Terror, coming in waves at last, turned her voice into a croak. She steadied it with an effort of will.

"Tien. Why have you come back to me now? Or is it -"

Despair choked her at the thought, but she forced it back, forced herself to carry on.

"- Is it that you've always been with me? All along?"

The ghost of her first husband half-turned, and smiled condescendingly at her before gliding swiftly out of sight round a corner of crag. The too-familiar smile lit a tiny spark of fury deep within her, a flicker of warmth she had forgotten she possessed.

"Damn you, Tien! Answer me, damn you! Give me a straight answer, just this once."

She ran heedlessly on down the path and rounded the corner to see - nothing. By then her impetus was simply too great: she plunged helplessly on down the hillside, until at last a tough root caught her foot and she fell; rolling over and over until she eventually came to a stop in the thick, damp, half-grown bracken.

Cautious prodding revealed no worse than bruising, and Ekaterin pulled herself up to a sitting position, breathing heavily.

"You came down the mountain," a puzzled, petulant-sounding voice announced from behind her left shoulder.

Nikki was her first thought as she turned her head and saw the speaker. Not, actually, she corrected herself in a second, that there was really any physical resemblance at all: one would be hard put to find a single feature they had in common. The boy was older, for one thing - perhaps seventeen or eighteen - and about her own height. Nikki, at fourteen, was already a couple of inches taller and beginning to develop her family's solid muscularity. This one, by contrast, was thin to the point of emaciation: mere skin stretched over sharply angled bones. His face had - her guts wrenched in queasy recognition - the grey pallor of prolonged and recent illness, emphasised by dark shadows under hot, unhappy, grey eyes.

She looked at him steadily. No resemblance at all, really. Only a fleeting impression of adolescent awkwardness, of a growth spurt badly managed, had imposed a purely superficial likeness to her son.

Helped, of course, by his familiar look of bewildered helplessness inexpertly concealed behind a mask of sullen defiance.

She sighed.

Poor Nikki. And you're too far away for me to tell you how sorry I am for bringing that look to your face - and for being too - preoccupied - even to notice it these past months.

"You came down," the boy said again, argumentatively spacing his booted feet a shoulder's breadth apart, and staring haughtily at her. The assertive body language was uneasily juxtaposed with the immature hint of an attention-seeking whine in his voice. Talk to me now. No, it won't wait.

Only child, I'd bet five marks, some mechanical part of Ekaterin's brain commented robustly, and then: He's your hallucination. Your child, then, in a sense. Your responsibility.

She bit her lip. To give herself a pause for thought she started to scramble to her feet. After a momentary hesitation the boy extended a hand, so fleshless as to be almost a talon, to assist her.

"So," Ekaterin said mildly once she was in a position to look him straight in the eye, "I came down the mountain. It seems to bother you a lot."

He eyed it nervously, like a skittish Anglo-Arab disliking a water jump, and muttered rapidly:

"Better not to explain here. Come with me."

One talon clawed into her upper arm. She thought, briefly, about resistance.

Unhand me, delusion!

It seemed ridiculous to protest. She suffered herself to be bustled down the mountain track towards the seashore.

After a few minutes scramble along a winding cliff path they descended down to the beach, avoiding some substantial, seaweed-covered boulders. The boy gave her a narrow, suspicious glance, evidently contemplating saying something, and then thinking better of it. He dropped his hand to his belt, pulled a thin stick out of it, waved and muttered something incomprehensible. Unbelievingly, Ekaterin saw the boulders shiver, become as insubstantial as smoke, and part to reveal the entrance to a cave. In front of the cave mouth another boy, much taller and heavily built, was stirring something over an open fire with an expression of resignation mixed with distaste.

"Any change?" he enquired, without bothering to look up.

"Yes," the thin boy announced with a hint of self-satisfaction. "Her. She just came down the mountain. Straight through the lot of them. Without, so far as I could tell, using magic at all. I call that one uncanny phenomenon."

That caused the cook to look up. He looked straight across at Ekaterin, puzzlement evident in his face. His glance tracked from her to the thin boy, and then back to Ekaterin. His voice sounded mildly exasperated, as he said,

"Well? Did it occur to you to ask her who she is? Even uncanny phenomena are entitled to have names, Draco, you know."

The thin boy looked sulky.

"Yes. I would know that, wouldn't I? After all, they're what one uses when one's standing in a bloody pentacle summoning them. But I didn't Summon her. She just arrived. From down the mountain."

The thickset boy sighed, wiped one grimy hand down the side of the flowing garment he was wearing, belted in above creased and mud-stained trousers descending to scuffed, heavy duty leather boots, and extended it to Ekaterin.

"Neville Longbottom. And he's Draco Malfoy. And, er -?"

She shook the proffered hand solemnly. A sudden quirkish impulse seized her.

"Lady Ekaterin Nile Vorvayne Vorksosigan," she said formally, and extended her hand to the other boy as she did so. He acknowledged her self-introduction with a slight widening of his eyes, and then raised her hand to his lips, brushing them coolly over the back of her hand. Her eyes met Neville's over the bent blond head; the taller boy was watching the playlet with amusement.

"There's no call to make such a meal of it, Draco," he observed, and then, to Ekaterin, "you've got to excuse him. Vampire ancestry, you know."

Ekaterin had half expected the thin boy to flare up at this calumny, but he took it in stride, with a half-grin: a time-smoothed joke not yet worn threadbare, apparently. He bent over the contents of the pan and took an exaggerated, sommelier's sniff.

"About all there is to make a meal off, judging by that," he drawled. Neville, plainly, was caught between acknowledging the justice of the remark and the invidious position of its maker. He opted to concentrate on the latter.

"Since I've never noticed you stir a finger to do anything about cooking, I don't think you've got a leg to stand on."

"What am I expected to know about cooking, for god's sake? I've always had people to do that."

"Pity they're in Wiltshire and we're in Wester Ross, then. And it's not exactly something I was brought up doing, either."

Draco took another sniff at the pot. "You can tell." His voice changed, to a broader, flatter accent: an imitation, not, in Ekaterin's opinion, a particularly well-done one, of the other boy's tones. "Spot-welding, eh now lad, that's another story."

Years of experience in mediating between Nikki and Arthur Pym had attuned Ekaterin's mental barometer acutely to the moment when tease slid over the borderline into say that just once more, why don't you? She caught sight of Neville's expression of deep affront, and Draco's sudden surprised awareness of it reflected in a fleeting, hurt twist of his lips, quickly suppressed.

Having no pressing desire at the moment to referee an all-out fight between two figments of her diseased imagination, she murmured casually,

"Well, I'll admit it's nice knowing you don't have to cook, and Ma Kosti really is superb in the kitchen, but sometimes I do find I miss doing it. I used to really enjoy the cooking I did, before I remarried - "

She left the sentence hanging, blandly. The two boys looked up at her with renewed interest.

"Is that so?" the thin boy drawled, casting a slightly too elaborately casual glance at the noxious substance now, apparently, engaged in laminating itself to the sides of the pot on the fire.

Her inner voice commented sardonically:

Babies. If you only knew. I've been manoeuvred into doing things against my better judgment by galactically acknowledged experts. Do you really think I'd have given you a straight line like that by accident?

She stole her own look at the contents of the pot, and, for the sake of the cook's feelings, repressed a visible shudder.

And, after all, since there's a high chance I'll have to eat the results, this isn't drudgery. This is self-defence.

It had been so long since she had any appetite that she had, initially, diagnosed her pangs of hunger as nausea. Now, however, her need for food was unmistakable, sharpened by the fresh sea air. She stole another look at the pot.

Food, however, is one thing. That is something else entirely. Even in a delusion.

"I think that might have got just a little overdone," she heard herself commenting, as from many miles away. The two others looked at it thoughtfully, looked back at her, nodded and paused. With three older brothers and a fourteen-year old son, she had a close acquaintance with what and how much the adolescent male could eat, given the right provocation. Anything two evidently ravenous boys were prepared to reject out of hand when engaged on some sort of camping trip was not only born under the star sign Inedible, but was probably a single wormhole jump away from the Dramatically Toxic Nebula, to boot. She began, slowly, to roll up her sleeves. "If there were anything else to cook, perhaps I could -"

"I'll forage," the thin boy said determinedly, and set off round the boulders once more.

"Draco -!" the other boy called after him, but his voice faded, unheard, on the wind. He turned, ruefully, to Ekaterin.

"I do hope that's not going to be rabbit again."

Her eyes widened, with a helpless question in them. He shrugged.

"I don't think either of us has got this living off the land stunt exactly sussed. And - er - being brought up silk-lined doesn't really help. The last time we ran out of provisions, Draco did actually volunteer to go and see what he could do, and to his credit he did manage to produce this somewhat startled-looking rabbit rather quickly - god alone knows how - "

His brow furrowed for a moment, and then he evidently made a conscious decision not to speculate.

"At which point it became horribly apparent that he'd never even contemplated just how many intermediate stages there are between 'dead rabbit' and 'stew'."

"Ah," Ekaterin murmured.

"And you have absolutely no idea just how tightly the little buggers hold on to their skins - even after they're dead -"

"Ulp," Ekaterin said, in uneasy fascination. A fleeting image of the Countess and her roundly expressed views on the superiority of vat protein crossed her mind.

"Or how many squelchy bits they seem to have inside them - sorry - "

She shook her head in a Don't-Mention-It sort of way. After all, to the extent you have independent means at all, they are founded solidly on bug vomit. Don't pretend to a gentility you do not possess.

Neville looked sideways at her. "Anyway, in the end we both decided to try something desperate, but since we hadn't exactly coordinated our approach -"

Her eyes widened yet further.

"-We hit this poor creature with two completely independent but eerily synergistic hexes - "

Ack? A bit of her brain seemed to be asking questions, but the pace of the narrative was too good to enquire. She shrugged, and let it go.

"- and, I'm afraid, the result was more-or-less rabbit pate - "

"Goodness," she muttered faintly.

"Except, of course, for the ears - they just kept sticking out - "

She caught his eye, and suddenly, impossibly, both of them were choking with hysterical giggles. The muscles responsible were so out of practice that Ekaterin thought, momentarily, that she was going to injure herself. When he could speak again, Neville waved an explanatory hand, and added,

"The entire campsite looked like the last reel of a sci-fi B-movie - you know, "Attack of the Mutant Bunnies" or something - "

Coming on top of everything that had gone before the word's unexpected brutality hit her like a sledgehammer. She was conscious that her face had flicked, instantly, into a carven mask: shock, bewilderment and hurt, uncomprehending apology reflected back to her from the boy on the other side of the fire. She knew it was wrong not to say something, not to absolve him of blame, but all explanations seemed equally impossible. She felt her voice inflect itself automatically into High Vor Civil, suitable for receiving decorously proffered bouquets on highly choreographed visits to the outer reaches of the District.

"And, how do you come to be 'living off the land'?"

He eyed her cautiously. Before he answered, he picked the pot off the fire, and took it to a rock pool on the sea's edge, dunking it deep in the green waters. A cloud of steam billowed up, obscuring her view of him, as he crouched down, apparently doing something about scouring the pan.

"We're here after a saxifrage," he said, in a politely reserved tone.

And if you want anything more, it's for you to make the effort to dig for it, resounded unspoken in his voice.

She supposed it was only what she deserved.

"There were quite a few different saxifrages on the mountain top, I noticed," she observed mildly. His eyes narrowed.

"Um, yes. Precisely. On the top of the mountain."

That odd emphasis again. Even if I am mad, I'm entitled to have some curiosity.

She looked at him.

"Look, what is so special about the top of that mountain? Why is it such a surprise I came down from it?"

It was not, in fact, Neville who answered her.

"Interesting. You know, that's the first real question you've asked."

The thin boy was leaning back against one of the shielding boulders, a sizeable sea trout dangling down to his booted foot from the fingers he had hooked through its gills.

"I was expecting you to ask a lot more," he added, as she turned her head towards him. Something about his attitude suddenly became intolerable. Her voice was cold as she said,

"I did ask a question, actually. Earlier."

"About living off the land?" He looked her over dispassionately. "That wasn't a question. That was 'being gracious to the peasantry'. I assure you, I do appreciate the difference."

"Not that you've ever actually practised it," Neville murmured. The thin boy ignored him, but an increase in the iciness of his expression indicated that he had both heard the comment and was not proposing to take it lightly.

Ekaterin, abruptly, had had enough. There had, while she had still been able to take an interest in current fads, been a sudden moral panic in Vorbarr Sultana that old Vor traditions were being eroded under the onslaught of galactic customs. Etiquette columns and classes were booming. She was sure that, had she access to the right papers, a choice of at least three columnists would have been happy to advise her of the proper Vor way to inform a brace of hallucinations that, since they didn't exist, they might as well stop squabbling.

For here and now, only brutal frankness springs to mind. And I suppose you can't actually offend a figment of your imagination.

She set her face.

"The reason I haven't been asking any questions is because there's no point. You aren't real."

Neville looked at her in some bewilderment. "Huh?"

Draco, on the other hand, looked rather pleased.

"Go on," he said.

She shrugged. "You two are simply part of a delusion. I have - been unwell. Depressed. Perhaps - disturbed. I am - really - on Barrayar, on the long lake at Vorksosigan Surleau, half the galaxy away. I am not on Earth. I am not standing here. I am confused and hallucinating. I have merely dreamt you up. There."

They looked at her for a moment in silence. It was the thin boy who broke it.

"Well, that's a load off my mind, then. If I'm only in your head, I can stop worrying about whether things I can't change anyway are actually my fault or not. Tell me, do you think it's likely you might get treatment to cure your problems soon?"

There was a disconcertingly wistful note under his mocking tone.

"Stop that," Neville said with brutal emphasis. He pulled himself to his feet, to allow his height and breadth to emphasise the point. "It took the full time effort of bloody shed-loads of people to bring you back from the dead, and I am damned if I'm going to stand here and listen to you whine on about how you'd rather you were someone's hallucination so you could be blinked out like - like a candle flame - when she stops dreaming you."

Ekaterin flicked the thin boy a quick, covert look.

Cryo-revival, presumably. That would explain a lot.

His voice had a ragged, almost desperate edge.

"Get real, will you? We're losing. And compared to what's going to happen if we're still alive when the Dark Lord wins, is it any wonder that I think being blinked out like a candle flame bloody well sounds like heaven? I'd take it any day."

Neville set his jaw.

"We haven't lost yet. And perhaps our luck's changing." He looked hopefully across at Ekaterin. "Maybe she could help us."

"True." Draco's bleak expression lightened somewhat. "I mean, mad or not, walking straight through about 50 Dementors without pausing for breath is pretty bloody impressive. Come to think of it, you'd have to be mad even to think of doing it."

"Through what?"

They both looked at her. Draco spoke first. It was clear he was choosing his words with care. "Didn't you see anything - unusual - when you were coming down the mountain side?"

"Yes." Her voice was very level. "I saw the ghost of my first husband. Just before I got to those crags, half way down."

Both the boys were evidently startled at that. Draco let out a low whistle.

"Golly. I take it that it wasn't what you might call a happy marriage."

The speed of his insight, almost more than his frankness, took her breath away. He gave a brief, satisfied noise: evidently something about her expression had offered him sufficient confirmation, without her needing to speak. She was glad: she would not lie, faced with a direct question, but the truth, even five years on, still had the power to crush her with the sheer weight of its humiliation.

No. It was not a happy marriage. It was, in fact, a slow, dragging, nightmare, in which Tien slowly sucked every last remnant of joy and love out of me. By the end, I was a husk, too tired for feeling, held together only by duty.

Her eyes were dry: her face carved marble.

The mistake I made was learning how to be flesh and blood again.

Determinedly practical, she said:

"I take it that was not what you expected I'd seen?"

"Well - " He paused. "It certainly wasn't what I watched you see. What I saw was you coming straight through a cordon of Dementors, which was, incidentally, strung out along the hillside just above those crags you mentioned. Funnily enough, neither you nor they seemed to be able to see each other at all. In all the circumstances, it was something I found - strangely interesting."

"Dementors?"

He looked nervously round, rather as though he was afraid that mentioning the word would summon them into his presence. It had got significantly darker, and outside the charmed circle of the firelight the shadows moved, menacingly.

"They're extremely powerful Dark Creatures. Very difficult to distract: almost impossible to destroy. Neither of us would have survived if we'd tried what you did."

Neville sighed.

"Which is, of course, the point."

Ekaterin steadied her voice.

"Don't you think we'd better go back a bit? Suppose you tell me properly what's going on, and what you really are trying to do here?"

"Surely, if you're dreaming us up, you ought already to know?"

It was Neville who had spoken. She looked across at him. He shrugged.

"Sorry. But while I've never been inside someone's delusion before - at least, not that I know of, anyway -" His face twisted, oddly, and he paused momentarily. Possibly it was a trick of the firelight, but Ekaterin thought she detected a flicker of distress on the thin boy's face as he listened.

Neville swallowed, hard, and continued:

"I can tell you, looked at from the outside, it certainly sounds a whole a lot less coherent than you are."

She considered that point. It had to be said, he had put his finger on something that had already begun to trouble her. She had accepted that a delusion could be complex, and self-contained, but could her own mind conspire to tease her with so many loose ends, so many hints, and mysteries? Above all, could any hallucination bedazzle her sense of smell? She breathed in the warm freshness of the bracken above them, the iodine tang of the seaweed from the rocks, the acrid odour of the burned pan.

How can this not be real? And, what does real mean, if this is not?

"It also would be nice," Draco drawled, "to hear a bit more about you, and where you're from. Half a galaxy away makes you awesomely well-travelled, in anyone's book." He looked down at the sea trout in his hand. "While you cook, perhaps."

She almost laughed out loud at his blatant blend of flattery and self-interest. However, she resolutely set her features in a stern mask.

"Well, I can't cook that until you've de-scaled it and taken its innards out."

He looked doubtfully down at the sea trout. Memories of brother-led camping trips and cookouts, at which permission for her to tag along had been granted at the price of her falling natural heir to any gutting and de-scaling jobs going, rose up in her. She firmly beat down the temptation to lay hand on tool herself.

"You use a blunt knife, and go against the lie of the scales," she instructed firmly. "And do watch out, because they go -"

Heedless of her warning, the thin boy had bent with determination to the task in hand.

"-Everywhere," she finished weakly, batting feebly at her hair and jacket, upon which a blizzard of silver fragments had suddenly descended. He moved closer, and surveyed her critically in the half-light, pulling the stick she had seen before from his belt.

"You don't say," he said, and then, abruptly, "Abite!"

Instantly, the fish scales were no more.

Gesture, voice, and effect suddenly came together in a flash of memory: her Great Aunt, tucking a quilt firmly round her shoulders and giving in to her entreaties for just one more bedtime story.

Followed quickly by the long-buried recollection of just how she had discovered her Great Aunt's talent for spinning tales of wonderment in the first place.

The hot, copper-coloured, South Continent sky outside was gathering its strength together for one of those apocalyptic thunderstorms which used to scare you so badly, sending you cowering under your bedclothes to be hauled forth by one brother or the next to humiliating taunts of: "Cowardy cat, scaredy cat, run away and don't come back."

You, politely pretending, as the storm built all through tea at Great Aunt's, that you were unnoticing of the weather. Leaving a slice of chocolate cake barely tasted on the side of your plate, the lump in your throat feeling too big to permit swallowing.

And then, being carried onto the veranda, where the play of sheet lightning across the flatlands was a horror and a miracle, with Great Aunt tucking you into the swing-seat, and settling down besides you while the rain from beyond the sheltering roof fell in stair rods. Gradually losing your fear in sheer excitement as she told you the story of the sorcerer who harnessed the thunder to win the Emperor's daughter.

Watching her beautiful expressive hands, as she gestured towards the thunderheads, as if she could summon up for your pleasure the four incomparable black stallions the sorcerer wove out of air and lightning to draw the wedding carriage.

She looked down at her scale-free jacket, and then across at him. Annoyingly, her voice shook a little.

"Was that magic?"

His voice was sardonic.

"Took you long enough, didn't it?"

She looked around the campsite. Belatedly, she remembered the way the boulders had suddenly gone smoky at a gesture, something she had perhaps too readily put down to her own disturbed state, or perhaps, vaguely, to some sort of holographic trickery. She reached out a hand and touched the rock; it was solid and rough beneath her fingertips. She sat down very suddenly.

"I really think it would be a very good idea if we did start all the explanations again from the beginning," she said steadily.

Neville looked at her.

"Yes. And there's one thing you'd better explain first. Where's your space ship? And are you really humanoid, or is that just a projection to make us feel more relaxed with you? I mean, you don't really have tentacles or anything?"

Ekaterin's jaw dropped.

"You - er, you think I'm a sentient alien?" she enquired weakly.

"Well, you must be, mustn't you?" He began meditatively sharpening a knife, she hoped for fish filleting purposes rather than to defend himself against a tentacled alien menace. "Everyone knows manned space exploration hasn't got beyond the Moon yet."

"I didn't," the thin boy interjected. Neville groaned.

"I can tell you, even the Daily Prophet would have got round to mentioning it if the Muggles had managed to leave the solar system. Even your family couldn't possibly have missed it."

The thin boy nodded, thoughtfully. "I can see that, actually. And anyway, the Dark Lord would have had to put a stop to it, on principle. So she's an alien from Outer Space? That probably explains why she foxed the Dementors."

Ekaterin felt it was high time she derailed this line of argument.

"I am not an alien from Outer Space. Everyone knows that no sentient alien species has yet been discovered anywhere in the Nexus." She paused. "In the entire thousand years of human space exploration." She paused again. "And, for your information, I have no space ship. Or - "

Her voice shook, as she recognised the implications, but she continued determinedly.

"Or, for that matter, a time machine - and they don't exist, anyway. I was just standing looking out of the window at the lake, and then suddenly I was here. And, if I am here, I have absolutely no idea of how I got here. Or, for that matter, how I'm going to get back."

She had expected that they would have been more startled. However, after a momentary widening of their eyes as her meaning sank in, they looked visibly more relaxed than they had been.

Evidently, inexplicable supernatural occurrences slot more easily into their terms of reference than advanced technology.

Neville looked at her.

"Well, in the circumstances I think we can't do anything but offer you our hospitality till the situation works itself out. Which I expect it will, you know. Soon."

"Especially," the thin boy added, "Since you've got a talent no-one who's been here before seems to possess."

She decided to ignore the hint, if that was what it was. He looked hopefully at her for a moment, in case it had been obtuseness rather than reluctance, and then shrugged. She shifted her gaze prudently into the glowing embers of the fire, which was now dying encouragingly away to something it might soon be practicable to cook on.

Neville took command of the now de-scaled trout and started gutting it with commendable efficiency, humming as he did so, and Draco, evidently regarding his efforts to date as being above and beyond the call of duty, flopped down next to the fire.

"If you're from the future, I don't suppose you happen to know whether we won or not?" he enquired.

It seemed cruel to disappoint him, but honesty won out.

"I don't even know what you're fighting about. Or who with."

That by contrast did startle them.

Wise up, kiddos. Her inner voice sounded disconcertingly like the Countess's warm Betan tones. Ever worked out how many wars the human race can manage to pack into a thousand years?

Draco, it seemed, was choosing his words with extreme care.

"But - even a thousand years later we still know about Salazar Slytherin - you mean you haven't actually heard of the Dark Lord at all?"

She cast her mind back to a Galactic History short course she had taken, for interest, one summer during her brief time at the University.

"I think the original founder of House Dyne, on Jackson's Whole, used the title," she said hesitantly. "And I know Miles said something about a space pirate out near Tau Ceti who insisted on being called something similar. And then of course there was Count Pierre Le Sanguinière Vorrutyer's younger brother -"

Neville gave brief bark of laughter. "So there you are, Draco. A Dark Lord, not the Dark Lord. The Death Eaters really ought to think up something a bit more original."

Draco paused, but, evidently, was not cowed.

"Well," he said, "there's even less point in your using your own silly convention, since she quite plainly doesn't."

"It doesn't matter," Ekaterin said hurriedly. "I mean, I'm not likely to meet him, so working out what to call him is the least of my worries."

Draco choked. "I can assure you that it would still be the least of your worries if you did meet him. To say nothing of the last."

"So what are you doing here?" A fleeting recollection made her add,

"And where do saxifrages come into it?"

Their mood, which had apparently lightened, suddenly darkened right back up again. Draco spoke first.

"Unfortunately, it's the one ingredient that absolutely can't be replaced or done without in a particular potion. You only need about five parts per million, but it makes the entire difference between lethal and life-saving. Elegant, I suppose you'd say. Vicious, but elegant."

" And this particular sub-species of saxifrage, so far as we've been able to tell, doesn't grow anywhere except on top of that mountain. Which," Neville added gloomily, "the Dark Lord has taken the precaution of having very thoroughly defended. Such a neat way of committing allied resource to a hopeless task. We can't not try it, and we can't succeed if we do. Even if either of us could do the Patronus charm -"

"Which, for various reasons, neither of us can -"

"- There are just too many Dementors for it to work."

"It's been tried, you know," Draco said. "We weren't actually the first choice team for this particular job."

Neville looked peculiarly disenchanted.

"Come to think of it, we weren't even the third."

Ekaterin considered, and decisively rejected asking what had become of the other candidates. Instead, she coughed and said:

"And the potion does -?"

Draco exchanged a glance with Neville before answering.

"It's the only guaranteed cure for a - certain variant on pneumonia - which, without it, has something like a 90% mortality rate."

Ekaterin shivered. She rather suspected she knew the answer to the question already, but asked it anyway.

"And - is it quite a common illness round here?"

It might have been the shadows gathering around the fireside, but Ekaterin thought Draco was looking even more tightly drawn than he had earlier.

"Since the Dark Lord thought it up, it's been pretty much epidemic," he said, and his mouth twisted as though he had just set his teeth in something very bitter.


The charcoal-broiled fish had been eaten. She had been amused, after the talk of "living off the land", to discover that her companions' supplies appeared to include lemons, butter, peppercorns in a silver grinder, and an exquisite straw-pale dry wine, and that when she had raised the question of vegetables, Neville had vanished only to reappear about a quarter of an hour later bearing quantities of some dark green, succulent plant.

"Samphire," he explained abruptly, and brief blanching and tossing of it in butter produced a taste explosion, which justified, in Ekaterin's mind, the exertions that the Shakespearean peasants had gone to, to bring this delicate, sea-tasting wonder back to the dining table. She wondered, idly, if it still grew on Earth, and if it would be possible to adapt a strain to grow along Barrayar's coastlines.

They had not returned to the discussion of the war during the meal. She had, however, learned many interesting things about the age of Earth in which she now found herself: it seemed that sea levels were much lower, and temperatures different, and this, in its turn, had had its effect on the temperate climate plants her remote ancestors had been able to bring with them to Barrayar and with which she was familiar. She was surprised to find that they were looking in Scotland for a variant of the purple saxifrage, which she had assumed to be a sub-arctic, tundra-based species, exclusively. Neville grinned.

"You'd be amazed what a decent impression of the High Arctic this place can give when it chooses. This February, for example, we had about four feet of snow less than three miles inland from here."

Her voice was shocked. "You weren't camping up here in that?" Her eyes encompassed both of them: Draco's fragility in particular looked peculiarly ill adapted to stand roughing it in harsh weather.

"No. I wasn't. Not, actually, something anyone expected me to do, back then." The thin boy's voice was harsh and edgy. Neville suddenly looked exasperated.

"That, in case you're wondering, wasn't to your address. It is possible to mention the earlier part of this year without trying to get at you, you know."

Draco dropped his voice to an acid purr.

"Be nice if you could point that out to some of your friends back at headquarters, then."

Neville bit his lip. It was evident that he felt, in justice, that he could not wholly deny the hinted allegation. Ekaterin sighed. There were too many undercurrents here for her to manage. She composed her voice into tones of careful politeness.

"Would there be anywhere I could lie down? I'm getting very tired."

"Certainly." Draco drew back to allow her to precede him into the cave. She had thought that she had managed to stifle her exclamation, but evidently enough of a gasp had escaped her lips for him to hear for she heard a quick snort of laughter behind her. As she spun to face him she surprised an impish grin on his face. It was clear he had both anticipated her shock, and relished it.

The cave was furnished. Thick Persian rugs covered the rock floors, with big cushions in glowing colours scattered around on them. Tapestries, depicting a hunt for and the catching of a unicorn, lined the walls, and moved gently in the slight breeze from the cave mouth. There were a couple of long sofas upholstered in heavy crimson silk damask arranged either side of a low coffee table, which was made of ebony inlaid with an elaborate ivory pattern of fantastical beasts and plants. The sofas, it appeared from the quilts flung negligently over them, did double duty as beds. Light came from a pair of heavy bronze oil lamps balanced, precariously, on carved sandalwood stands. There was a brazier in the corner of the cave, which Draco casually lit with a flick of his wand, and from which an aromatic smoke spiralled up into the remote fastnesses of the roof.

"Sorry you're going to have to rough it, milady," he drawled. Ekaterin kept her voice level.

"I think I can manage. And Ekaterin will do, you know."

He acknowledged this with a bare widening of his eyes. "Anyway," he added, "I think at the least you might appreciate a bit of privacy. Ekaterin."

The wand flicked up again, and the back part of the cave was suddenly shuttered off, behind a tall, laquered black and gold screen, elaborately decorated with cranes, bridges and misshapen oriental trees. Ekaterin edged round it only to find a thick mattress on the floor. Without doing more than kick off her shoes she stumbled forward. It was made up with satin quilts and sheets of fine-drawn linen, warm and fragrant as though a well-trained maid's charcoal warming pan had that minute been withdrawn from them. She had not realised how thoroughly exhausted she was, but as soon as she rolled between them she could feel consciousness slipping deliciously away.


It was dark when she wakened: instantly aware of movement on the other side of the screen. As she felt her heart race with fear she heard a low challenge in Neville's voice:

"Hello? Who's there?"

"Me."

She recognized Draco's voice, and her racing pulse steadied. She took care to make her breathing inaudible.

Learned bad habits in the course of the last couple of years, haven't you?

She pushed down the censorious inner critic impatiently.

I am in a strange land, and that land is at war.

All warfare is based on deception. We cannot enter into alliances until we are
acquainted with the designs of our neighbours.

The low-voiced discussion continued outside the frail barrier.

"Sorry. Didn't think I'd wake you. I just went outside for a bit, to check on a few things."

"Um." There was a pause, and then a new, interrogative note in Neville's voice.

"You still having nightmares, then?"

"No." The monosyllable hung, momentarily in the air. "Insomnia turned out to be such an effective remedy for them."

"Ah. I see."

"Anyway, how did today go? I didn't get a chance to ask, what with her -" Ekaterin visualized an explanatory nod in the direction of the peacock screens "- turning up here and everything. Do we have an alternative?"

"No. Not a hope. We checked everything we could find. And we've got less time than we thought. You Know Who seems to be upping the ante. At least, someone's spreading rumours that there's a potion that could cure it, except that it's being kept for the High Command and their families, for god's sake. Oh, and there's a new strain: seems to take about 24 hours to go from perfectly well to death's door. Two new cases today in the village."

There was the sound of indrawn breath.

"Oh? Anyone I - we - know?"

"Depends on how well you know the barmaids at the Three Broomsticks."

There was a pause.

"Not. Not exactly somewhere I've been encouraged to hang out, over recent years. So no - not at all."

"Mm. Well, you've missed your chance, then."

Ekaterin could hear the thin boy muttering sotto voce: she could not, at this remove, tell if he was swearing, weeping or praying.

Neville's voice was suddenly contrite.

"Sorry. I didn't mean that to come out so - oh, hell. Sorry. I've been in a shitty mood since I got back, and this foul headache I've had ever since supper doesn't help."

"Headache?"

There was a harsh edge - anger, blended with fear - in Draco's voice. Neville's voice was light, and too rapid.

"Not a problem. Too long looking at badly drawn herbals in rotten light. It'll have gone by dawn."

Draco's question, though not loud, seemed to shake the screen with its intensity. "Neville - just how long were you there?"

There was a defensive edge in Neville's voice.

"Sssh. You'll wake her. You know how long I was away."

There was an indrawn, exasperated breath from the other side of the screen.

"I didn't ask how long you were away. I asked how long you were there. You know there's a difference: I know there's a difference. Can the bloody bullshit. How long were you there?"

The defensive edge had sharpened.

"Sprout was practically out on her feet. And apart from her, they only had children on duty. No-one who knew anything, really. There's no point risking our lives to bring back plants, if they're going to die for want of repotting in the greenhouses."

"The greenhouses." His voice was meditative. "Well, those ought to be OK - "

There was a pause. It lengthened. Draco's voice hardened right back up again. "If you spent all of - however long it was - in the greenhouses, then how come you know about new cases in the village? Even last time I was there, communication between the school and Hogsmeade was down to 'Strictly as needed'. So?"

Defiantly, Neville's voice came out of the darkness.

"So I needed, OK? Got that?"

There was another speaking silence. Then:

"You stupid fucker. Who could possibly matter that much to you?"

Neville's voice sounded hesitant.

"One of the girls - Frankie - she was local. She's from our village. Her mother used to work for Gran. She was more-or-less lucid just before - anyway, she recovered consciousness. A bit. One of the house-elves told me that she was yelling to go home, that she didn't want to die two hundred miles from home, among bloody Scots strangers - I thought - I thought perhaps the accent - she wasn't actually up to recognizing people much by then - but sounds - "

His voice tailed off. There was the sound of a long exhalation.

"I will never understand you people. Noblesse fucking oblige in the middle of a plague pit. What the hell good do you think that sort of gesture ever does?"

Neville's voice was, abruptly, cold and distant.

"Sorry. Forgot I might be risking infecting you. Anyway, stop worrying. I've got a headache. So what? People do. It'll be gone in the morning. Goodnight."

The silence in the cave was suddenly absolute. Ekaterin tried to compose herself to sleep, but it was a harder task than she had imagined. At length, she dozed.

She was wakened at dawn by a harsh, panicked voice from outside the screen.

"You - Ekaterin, I mean - do you know anything about treating illnesses?"

Too much.

She made her voice very non-committal.

"What's the matter?"

"Neville. He's not making much sense. His forehead's incredibly hot. And he seems to be having trouble breathing."

Although she felt dishevelled and unkempt, she blessed having gone to bed in most of her clothing. She bolted round the screen in double quick time. Neville was stretched on one of the sofas, breathing heavily. The most cursory glance at him gave no good news whatsoever.

"Have you a medical kit?"

Draco raised his eyebrows. "Yes. What do you need?"

Med-techs. A digital thermometer calibrated to one-thousandth of a degree Celsius. An oxygen mask. Hypo-sprays filled with broad-spectrum antibiotics. The Vorkosigan family physician. The Imperial Residence physician. Ventilation units. A completely aseptic environment. A cryo-chamber ready geared up and on stand-by.

Everything you tried, and failed with before, in fact.

Ekaterin drew a deep breath. "Make some tea," she ordered decisively. He looked back at her.

"What sort?" His voice was already less tense: clearly, the relief of having someone take charge was almost overwhelming.

Her order had come automatically, to get him out from under her feet and give her a pause to strategise. Boil water. Lots of water. It was a response that was, for all intents and purposes, hardwired into the X chromosome. Obviously he had taken it for expertise.

The secret weapon of mothers through the ages, she thought briefly, and then:

Damn forward momentum.

She did her best to look stern-but-competent. "Camomile. Jasmine. Whatever. Something not too strong, that we've a chance of getting down him and keeping down. Dehydration's a major risk. Just get cracking."

He vanished to the cave mouth. She permitted herself a sigh of relief.

They've got to the Moon. Therefore, surely, they've got as far as the invention of antibiotics, at least?

She tried, desperately, to cast her mind back. The Professora - the Professora would have known, of course. Surely they must have working antibiotics by now. Or had she managed to hit that bleak century and a half of Earth's history when over-prescription of the wonder-drugs for viral infections, against which they were functionally useless, and their promiscuous deployment in intensive farming, had allowed antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria to run riot? The Era of the Great Pandemics, the books had labelled it.

The books had not, of course, mentioned how many of those pandemics had been sculptured as weapons in battles between warring magical factions.

She put one hand on Neville's baking forehead, and winced.

I don't need a thermometer to tell me how not good this is.

Draco was unexpectedly at her elbow again, a steaming teapot in his hand.

"How did -"

Oh. Stupid. Magic. Of course. Someone who can summon up a mattress out of nowhere isn't going to be delayed any too long by a kettle.

She swallowed the rest of the sentence. "Thank you. I suggest you pour us each a cup, too. Let it cool a bit before you try giving any to Neville though. Hot fluids are good, but we don't want to risk scalds. Now, why don't you show me what you've got in your medical kit which might be useful."

And then I'll start praying that I recognise it. And that one of us knows how to use it.

He retreated towards the back of the cave, evidently in search of the medical supplies. She took a sip of her scalding tea, and almost spluttered it out in sheer surprise.

Rose oolong. She had only once tasted that strange, delicately perfumed brew: in Bel Thorne's quarters, on Graf Station. The herm had told her then about the bitter debate raging among its fellow connoisseurs about whether a China tea subtly blended with dried rose petals had ever really been drunk on old Earth, or whether it was an anachronism wrongly invested with the glamour of a distinguished past.

Bel would be pleased to know it had been right. And - she remembered with nagging guilt - she certainly ought to have sent a tight-beam or something to it long before now. Almost uniquely during recent months, Bel and Nicol's messages had been - bearable. She should have responded to them. Especially to Bel's last - the subtle, diplomatic, deeply snarky, edged warning which was all the prior notice she had been vouchsafed of the imminent landing of Admiral Quinn on Barrayaran soil and of the message she brought with her.

"Old comrades in arms sometimes have much more interesting things to tell one than old war stories, remembered with advantages. A little bird gives me to understand that the Admiral will be petitioning the Emperor for urgent Auditorial assistance in resolving a developing Situation involving wormhole politics in the region of Kline Station. I feel sure her tactical assessment of a Situation is as keen as ever. Perhaps, Ekaterin dear, it would help if you could drop a discreet word or two in your Uncle's ear, and ask him to make himself ready to travel? I am sure notwithstanding the current distressing circumstances he would willingly put himself to inconvenience so as to render to the Admiral all the assistance an Imperial Auditor can properly offer."

Rose oolong. Bel. Graf Station. Whispered words on the other side of the screen in the dark: "A new strain: seems to take about 24 hours to go from perfectly well to death's door. Two new cases today in the village."

I have been here before, indeed.

Biological warfare. Terrorism. A war against civilians, against children, fought in the dark, with lies and deception.

A bubble of fury mixed with something else rose up in her. After a second she recognised that something else. Determination. Experience. Competence.

No - not competence. Expertise.

If the Komarrans couldn't do it and the Cetagandans couldn't do it, I am damned if some shadowy figure who can't even, it seems, answer to his own name is going to defeat me. Whatever it takes.

Her heart was racing and she sucked in huge lungfuls of air, as if she had just remembered how to breathe.

Draco returned from the back of the cave carrying an evidently heavy, multiple-drawered travelling medicine chest apparently made out of mahogany, with green glass knobs on the drawers. He unlatched the front, which swung ponderously open in two halves to reveal yet more drawers, pigeon-holes, and an ingenious folding chopping board. Various powdered and dried substances, some clearly herbal and others as clearly not, had been allocated neatly to pigeonholes. Ekaterin revised her expectations rapidly.

Good heavens. That looks like something out of the Time of Isolation.

"Well?" he enquired hoarsely.

From the same cranny of memory that had helped her earlier she recalled her Great Aunt deploring the weak-kneed modern tendency blindly to rush to galactic remedies when, in her forcefully expressed and not in the least humble opinion, the answer lay in clean living and the legacy of several hundred years of trial and error. And, to prove it, she had laid out for her great-niece's better information her and the previous four generations' hoarded treasure trove of scraps of paper, leather bound ledgers, cheap exercise books and the backs of envelopes: a tumbled mass of recipes, remedies, hints, surprisingly delicate drawings of plants and crabbed memos of their assumed properties. Long rainy entranced afternoons had been spent poring over them.

Now is the time to see if there's anything in it. Now is not the time to find there was nothing in it.

Ekaterin took a deep breath.

"Can you brew up a febrifuge out of that?"

He put his head on one side, considering. "Yes - probably. Let's see - aconite - feverfew - yes - I think so - it won't be brilliant - the yarrow really ought to be fresh, but it doesn't grow this far North, and it doesn't flower till June anyway - but yes, there's everything there. You think I should?"

The panicked note had gone from his voice, and his breathing had steadied. A pang of conscience struck her: it was so obvious that the relief he felt at having someone order him about decisively in a language he understood had given him a wholly inflated estimate of her competence.

Good job his magical powers don't seem to include thought reading, then, isn't it?

"Certainly. Right away." She was surprised by how determined her voice sounded. "We've got to bring the symptoms under control. Then, I need to get up that mountain and find this saxifrage you're looking for, so we've got some hope of an actual cure."

"What - ?"

Whatever the thin boy's own suspicions might have been about the cause of Neville's illness, it had clearly jolted him to hear that she had leaped instantly to the same conclusion. She shook her head, impatiently.

"If I'm wrong, and it's some ordinary fever, that's fine. The febrifuge will deal with that. But if we don't work on the assumption that it isn't natural, we won't have time to try anything else."

He nodded, slowly, accepting her reasoning thankfully without argument, and then pulled out a clasp knife and started chopping ingredients with a speed and precision that startled her.

Especially from someone who claims to know nothing about cooking. Ma Kosti would hire him as an assistant on the strength of his skill with a chopping board alone. She repressed an ironic twist to her lips. It would appear that Old Earth works on pretty much the same demarcation principles as Barrayar. It just seems that brewing up herbal remedies hasn't been discarded into the basket labelled "Women's Work" round here. Yet.

She dampened the nearest cloth which came to hand - she thought it was a tea-towel - and began wiping it over Neville's face, neck and shoulders.

"So, what are the distinguishing marks of this wretched plant, then?"

Draco gave a half-suppressed exclamation as the knife slipped. He looked down, ruefully, pulled out a handkerchief from one pocket, and wrapped it round his forefinger. He did not make any move to sort the chopped stems on the board.

Looks like the odd spot of human blood is neither here nor there in this remedy, then, she thought irrepressibly.

His eyes met Ekaterin's.

"Oh. That was a complication I hadn't expected. I - er, in this outfit Neville's actually the herbologist. I'm only - well, really I'm here as hired muscle."

Charitably, Ekaterin did not allow her expression to reflect her inner thoughts that, while she didn't doubt he had reserves of strength that belied his wasted appearance, any military that regarded him as heavy back up was clearly on desperate ground. Anyway, the problem was too serious for banter. She dropped her voice.

"So - how am I supposed to recognise it?"

There was a horrid silence. It was broken from an unexpected quarter.

"Saxifragae oppositifolia Ambrosiensis." Neville's voice was so gasping that he seemed to be dragging it from his lungs still with scraps of tissue stuck to it and it was obvious that it took all his strength of mind to keep his attention fixed on them.

"And what do you call that?"

Draco's response was clearly instinctive: hard, and antagonistic. Ekaterin winced, but rose to the bait, nonetheless.

"Linnaean, I should think."

Neville gave a deeply relieved noise, and sank back into the cushions. His fading words were:

"Drawings - in my pack."

He collapsed into a violent fit of coughing. Ekaterin moved swiftly towards the side of the couch, trying to do what she could to relieve his discomfort. Draco, meanwhile, had dived hurriedly behind the sofa. He dragged out an aged blue aluminium-framed rucksack, which he unceremoniously up-ended. An avalanche of underwear, pencil ends, extra-strong mints, warm polo-necked jumpers, a small furry stuffed raccoon, four rolls of duck tape, an abacus, a packet of Rizlas (extra-long), the Duke's Playhouse Winter/Spring programme (1997/8), the Collected Poems of Constantine Cavafy and Wainwright's Eastern Fells shot out of it. From one of the side pockets came a stuffed wedge of parchments. Draco seized on them with a cry of triumph, and turned them over to Ekaterin.

She bent her head over them in the uncertain light.

"But - " she said, "these are - "

Draco looked at them. "Well, I can see. I don't know what that's supposed to mean at all."

Ekaterin caught him stealing a glance at the sofa, where Neville had subsided back among the bedclothes, and was clearly not planning on vouchsafing more lucidity any time soon. She bent over the fragile documents - parchment, actually real parchment, under her own hand, open to her very touch. Even back in the Time of Isolation no one would have been this profligate. She swallowed, and bent to her task with reverence.

The drawings were unbelievably delicate, lovingly etched with a fine pen in black Indian ink. Ekaterin looked them over, and breathed an intense, shuddering sigh of relief.

And if we ever get out of this alive, I'd love to see his bench notebooks. Those would be something worth seeing.

Draco looked at her. "Is that good enough? Can you tell what you're looking for? You do know what - ?"

"Stop fretting." She looked at him and, briefly, had a moment of sympathy as she caught the tail end of his expression, before he masked it again. She tried to amplify.

"Yes. It's quite easy to understand if you've been taught how. He's shown quite clearly all the differences between these and the normal variety. I do know what I'm looking for. Honestly."

The details, are, of course, minute. Shadings on a petal that might not yet be in bud. Minor changes in the shape of sepals that may not be showing yet. Leaf edges that may be only barely serrated.

Things that may not be noticed until someone risks their lives by drinking the potion made with it, that is.

Do you care?

She was surprised by the intensity of her feeling.

Yes. I do.

"How long will that be?"

"I may be an hour or so. Not longer."

A harsh hard climb to the crags. A - nasty bit - thereafter. And, if I survive, a bit of a search.

"If I'm not back in four hours, forget the worry. You'll have to think of something else."

He blinked. She continued, determinedly practical. "Try to keep him as cool as possible. Keep wiping him down. His temperature alone -

 Could fry his brain if we don't bring it under control soon

- Is dangerous enough in its own right. Let alone the other symptoms. And keep getting tea down him, for as long as you can. And give him that febrifuge as often as you dare."

He nodded. She took a deep breath, and strode out of the cave.

The slog up to the cliffs was, unexpectedly, beneficial. The effort of dragging protesting limbs up a steep slope and the little games she played with herself ("Five more steps before you pause for breath - now, that was easy - try another five") to keep herself going steadily up it were remarkably effective in keeping her mind off what was to come. Unfortunately (as part of her mind had recognised early on) the difficult part above the crags coincided with a lessening of the gradient.

She recognised the chill clamminess from the first time. There was, however, still no sign of the - Dementors. She realised, abruptly, that she had not been told what they looked like. She suddenly knew that that had been entirely deliberate.

Whatever I see here will come from my own mind, not anyone else's.

Ekaterin shivered. Her own mind, she had good reason to know, could produce horrors enough, especially in the early hours of the morning, after a long disturbed night, blighted by sickness. But the path in front of her was, for the moment, clear.

The thick air suddenly became fresh and bracing: momentarily she felt an echo of yesterday's joy, before it was checked by a chilling reminder.

It will be the way back that will be so difficult, then.

Coupled, she concluded some time later, with finding this bloody plant in the first place.

She had, she felt, crawled personally over every square metre of the hillside, and was out of breath and sweating. It was not that the mountain top lacked saxifrages: indeed, it was home to a wide assortment. None of them, apparently, the right one. Several times she thought she came close to it, but always when she compared them to the parchments there was something not quite right about the plants she examined. And she would not believe that, with so much at stake (more, by now, than he ever intended), those meticulous drawings would be inaccurate in the smallest detail. At last, she flopped into the shade of the rough cairn, which marked the highest point of the ridge, and dropped her chin onto her hands.

I am doing this wrong.

She stared out at the island-girt sea, and thought, hard. I cannot search every square centimetre of this hillside in the time and the light that is granted to me. And I cannot believe I was brought here only to fail, again. So, there must be another way.

She allowed her mind to become calm, like the surface of the long lake in the baking dog days of high summer, slowing her breathing and pulse, waiting for thought to stir, sluggishly, from the depths and swim to the surface.

When it at length did so, it came upon her with the strength and the savagery of one of the lake pike, swirling up in a sudden fury of white-toothed, pitiless grin and green water, to take one of the moorhen chicks all unawares.

Saxifragae oppositifolia Ambrosiensis. And the thin boy - who was evidently intimately familiar with the brewing of herbal remedies and the growing range of yarrow - had not recognised the Linnaean designation his companion had given it at all.

That certainly wasn't out of ignorance of the subject as a whole. Which means that it must be a name from my scientific tradition, not his.

She had, perhaps too readily, taken the Ambrosiensis at face value. Merlinus Ambrosianus. Merlin's saxifrage - wholly appropriate in this strange world where magic happened at the flick of a wand. Neville, too, would presumably never have thought to question it: Merlin's saxifrage, as in "discovered by Merlin". QED.

Except - and here she did not need the Professora's help - the Linnaean naming convention had held sway for a bare three hundred years - the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries. And, if a subspecies had been first discovered in that period and given a Linnaean classification, the odds were that it was someone who was no more magical than she who had done the discovering. A mental picture of a serious, high-Victorian gentleman amateur botanist, burdened with collecting boxes, stove-pipe hat, side-whiskers, and an early copy of The Origin of Species protruding, half-guiltily, from a back pocket of his knapsack, took possession of her mind.

A curate, she decided (worried, doubtless, about whether the Bishop would forgive him his reading matter but too entranced to shun it with proper horror) or perhaps a junior fellow of an Oxford college. Too modest to give the new plant his own name - or perhaps afraid it would have sounded infelicitous (Murgatroydensis?) so falling back on a romantic allusion to the spot where he had happened upon it.

Because in folk traditions either Merlin or the Devil always seemed to be credited with any prehistoric remains left lying about.

She stood up and scanned the mountainside. Now that she knew the scale of what she was looking for it was easy. From a stooped height of two feet above the heather she had seen nothing: from her present vantage point the weathered boulders of the half-tumbled stone circle proclaimed what they were from half the hillside away.

And there, at the foot of the king-stone, on the edge of a small patch of melting snow, she found what she was looking for. Belatedly, then, she realised that she had brought nothing to carry them in, but that, after all the rest of her problems, was easily solved. She rapidly sacrificed her silk Komarran-style bolero jacket to form a sling for the precious plants, and then set her foot to the downward route.


The first thing that alerted her to the presence of the cordon was the thin, cracked high sounds of a baby's crying, modulating abruptly into gasping whoops. Although she had been half prepared, she staggered under the impact. The sun seemed to go in: a cold fog gripped her. A chorus of voices - voices she recognised - assaulted her ears. Her uncle. The Professora. The Vicereine. Her own voice.

So much effort, so much care, and all for nothing. Worse than nothing. Infinite care to prolong an agony of existence. You would not have let a pet animal suffer so. But you had too much pride to see it. And so you failed. You failed as a mother. Failed as a wife. As you will fail in this.

She set her face grimly at the path ahead. She ran her fingers over the precious silk of her burden.

The time of the rose is as worthy as the time of the oak. My daughter was not - is not - will never have been nothing. In this time where I stand she is yet to be; in the time from which I came she has ceased to be. On the necklace of time she hangs in her own place, whole, complete, her own jewel.

On the thought, the breeze blowing up the hillside caught her unaware, its pure freshness dispelling the dark clouds around her as though they had never been. Her feet dragging with weariness, she made her way down to the shore.


At the soft sound of her footstep in the cave mouth Draco was instantly on his feet, spinning towards her with his wand out. He remained tense even after he recognised her, until she nodded.

"All done," she said, and held out the loosely tied bundle that had once been her jacket to him. "Some of the leaves and buds. And two whole plants with the root systems intact. You don't want to risk being put in this position again. Tell whoever's transplanting them that they need a high-acid peaty soil with plenty of moisture."

"I'm sure they'll be grateful for your expert advice." His voice was mocking but had lost the subtly antagonistic note it had had earlier. His face was grey; he looked as exhausted as she felt. When he thought she wasn't looking he had flicked a quick glance at the sofa, and then back at her as if to dare her to suggest he had ever glanced away. Neville, so far as she could tell, was no better: tossing restlessly on the couch.

His relief that she had returned was an almost palpable presence in the cave. She imagined the restless mind behind those hot unhappy eyes going through every permutation of horror it could envisage in her absence: chief among them, presumably, being trapped alone with a companion slipping ever closer to death, waiting for an elusive cure which never materialized.

"Get going," she said gently. "I'll take over here."

He paused and then - was gone, with only a faint pop like the removal of a cork from champagne to denote his vanishing. She picked up a damp cloth and turned wearily to the figure on the sofa.


Neville's voice was hoarse and rasping, but, for once, his words were clearly distinguishable. His glittering eyes were fixed with deadly intensity on a point on the cave wall, above and behind Ekaterin's left shoulder. He pushed himself up, supporting himself on the sofa arm, so as to confront his unseen enemy more effectively.

"Get away from this place," he hissed. "Go back to hell where you belong. I'm not going to let you hurt him, ever again. Got that? Because I mean it. Go back to hell, you cold bastard, and rot forever."

Her momentary horror at his words resolved itself almost instantly into a sense of uneasy familiarity. This, at least, was something she felt capable of managing. Whether they arose out of delirium, the aftermath of idiosyncratic drug reactions, or simple childhood nightmares, Ekaterin had developed a well-honed routine for banishing imaginary horrors.

Of course, in these particular circumstances, it's actually quite possible that there really is an invisible demon from hell propping itself up against that tapestry.

She shook herself firmly. It made no difference to her technique, anyway.

She composed her face into a steely mask, focused intensely on the relevant portion of the wall, and said distinctly,

"And if you don't leave now, you know I'm able to make you. And you won't like that at all. Trust me." She paused, and added yet another layer of menace to her voice. "I'm going to count to five under my breath, and you'd better have gone by the time I've finished. Or you'll really regret it."

She moved her eyes sideways unobtrusively, and noted that Neville had relaxed back into the bedclothes, and that his breathing was, although still ragged, less desperate than it had been.

Ekaterin dropped down by the side of the sofa, and ran the damp cloth over his forehead. He moaned slightly, and shifted over onto one side, burrowing down under the quilt. She sighed and looked out through the cave mouth. The sun had moved hardly at all across the beach outside. Time, since that morning, seemed to have been caught like an insect in amber.


Time dragged onwards. Neville's feverish mutterings became intermittent. She bent over the sofa, hoping to see him doze, but his lips were still working: it was just that he lacked the strength to project the sounds. Gradually even the fits of coughing wore themselves out, and the ragged breathing became almost inaudible. The grey pallor of his face told her, clearer than words, that these were no good signs. Her wiping him down constantly with a damp cloth seemed to produce no discernable response. Finally, even her gentle movement to part his eyelids with her thumb produced no flicker of response.

Her voice cracked with fury and frustration as his pulse fluttered weakly under her fingers.

"Damn you!" she raged. "Stop being so pathetic! You are not going to lie there and make me watch you die. You just aren't, do you hear me?"

"Personally, I'm all for positive thinking," a cool voice said from just behind her, "but I think you'll find this might help it along a bit."

She turned. Draco was holding out a small flask to her. As she took it, a fleeting moment of self-doubt hit her. All the difference between lifesaving and lethal.

"You are sure I found the right plant?" she enquired anxiously. Draco nodded.

"Positive. The man who brewed that one insisted I swallowed a preventative dose, as soon as it was cool enough. And I feel OK."

She took that in. "Well, I suppose that sort of makes sense. You've been working together for a few days, you easily might have caught it too."

Draco's face crinkled; rather, Ekaterin thought, as if he was laughing at a joke she had completely missed.

"I - don't think a risk to my health was what he was actually trying to prevent. He rather gave me to assume that circumventing incompetence or treachery on my part was more what he had in mind," he said, then paused for a moment in thought. "Or treachery or incompetence, not to put myself down, I suppose. Anyway, I'll support his shoulders if you get it down him. Watch it: it tastes unbelievably foul. Try not to let him spit it out."

Ekaterin was surprised that Neville would even be able to swallow, but somehow she managed to force a dose of the repellent-smelling liquid between his cracking lips. He gasped, swallowed, and sank back on the sofa.

"Why don't you go and stretch your legs?" Draco suggested. "I can wait here with him. But it should be OK. Some of the others were already responding when I was allowed to leave. And I'll come and find you as soon as there's any change."

She paused, momentarily, but the attractions of fresh air were too much. She nodded and ducked out into the blessedly fresh air outside, surprised to find that it was not only light but scarcely past mid-afternoon.

There was a patch of soft, rabbit-cropped turf and sea-pinks a little up the beach path, beautifully shielded from the sea-breeze by a solid bulwark of stone and earth. She flopped down onto it. Within seconds she was asleep, and unaware of anything until Draco shook her shoulder to tell her that Neville had regained consciousness, and wanted to talk to her.


Neville looked nervously at her as she re-entered the cave, and started talking rather rapidly immediately as she appeared.

"Thanks for everything. Draco told me what you'd done -"

"Not a problem." She sank down by the side of the sofa and eyed him critically. The glitter had left his eyes; a reassuring dampness plastered his hair lankly across a now cool brow, and his breathing, though still hoarse, had lost the agonized gasping edge it had had earlier.

He looked rather nervously up at her, and glanced round the cave and out towards its entrance, before muttering hurriedly,

"I must have been a nightmare to look after. I was right out of it - I got the impression I must have been coming out with all sorts of nonsense -"

He left the sentence hanging, with a subtle questioning note in it.

So just what is it that he thinks he may have said that he shouldn't?

She tamped down her raging curiosity firmly. Certainly no good ImpSec operative would have missed the opportunity of listening in for all she was worth. How lucky you are not constrained by a - professional absence of ethics.

She smiled reassuringly.

"Yes. You were. People always do, with temperatures. Most of the time it isn't even audible, and none of the words you do get to hear ever seem to stick together into a coherent sentence. It's all white noise, in the end, if you're looking after someone who's doing it."

He looked immeasurably cheered at that reassurance. "Good. I - ah - rather sort of recollected that I'd spent quite a bit of the time talking to dead people."

Her eyes widened but her voice remained unflustered. "Oh, quite probably. My husband does it all the time, so I certainly wouldn't have noticed that, if that was what you were doing."

And maybe it's something I've been putting off doing for too long, too.

She scrambled to her feet.

"You are going to get some proper rest, aren't you, and not try getting up or anything stupid till you're actually a bit stronger?"

He indicated, rather weakly, that he thought the last thing he was about to try was getting up.

"You can say that again," Draco confirmed, coming back into the cave carrying a steaming mug of something spicily aromatic, which he put carefully onto the low table within Neville's reach. "Sleeping draught. Get that down you as soon as it's cool enough. I've had an exhausting day, and I'm not going to have tonight's sleep ruined by listening to you cough and splutter all over the shop. And I'm sure Ekaterin feels the same way about it."

She half turned on her way out of the cave. "What? Oh, yes, probably." She could tell he was looking rather baffled, so she added, in a belated attempt at reassurance,

"Don't worry about me. There's something I have to do, outside. I - I might take a bit of time."

She walked a short way along the beach, noticing idly how the boulders moved to mask the cave entrance completely from sight as soon as she was three paces from it. The sun was dipping down towards the western horizon. A chill breeze had sprung up, and little white caps dotted the deep blue of the sea. About 100 metres from shore there was a sudden swirl of activity, and then another: two dolphins, leaping from one element to the other and then back in a move of intense, timeless grace. She could feel tears on her cheeks for the first time in many months.

This is, indeed, the right place. And time.

The driftwood above the high-watermark was dry and plentiful: the dead stuff tucked under the prickly deep green spears of the gorse bushes which ran to the edge of the shingle would plainly prove excellent kindling.

She shaped a few of the sea-smoothed stones into a rough fireplace, sheltered from the breeze in the lee of some of the boulders, and scrabbled the sand from between them into a hollow, laying the fire with care. She surveyed it thoughtfully, and then pulled two items from her pocket, that she had unobtrusively palmed on leaving the cave. The small metal bowl she balanced carefully on the top of the miniature pyre she had just built. The clasp knife - she flicked open the blade and began to saw at the long tresses of her red-brown hair, allowing them to fall into her lap. Only when she had cut it to a ragged bob all around side did she put the double handful of sacrificed hair into the bowl, and sit back on her heels, contemplating her handiwork.

Unbelievably, it was not until then that she realised what she had forgotten. Her hands felt despairingly at her pockets.

Idiot. Chemical firelighters aren't exactly the sort of thing you carry about on the off-chance. And somehow I doubt they'll have any stashed away in the cave. What do you plan to do now, rub two sticks together?

There was a soft cough from above, and slightly behind her. She turned, to see Draco standing there with his wand out.

"Can I help?" he enquired, gesturing unmistakably with it towards the unlit fire. Her face flamed. For once, there was nothing about him that suggested mockery or antagonism, but she was highly conscious of having been caught at a severe disadvantage. The ragged edges of her sawn off hair blew, infuriatingly, across her face in the breeze.

Having been caught making a total blithering idiot of yourself, in fact, an inner voice commented acidly.

He evidently read as much in her face. He replaced his wand in his belt and moved slowly towards her, palms out and upwards. He dropped to a sitting position on the other side of the attempted fire, and continued smoothly,

"I saw you sneak the knife, you see. And - an obviously unhappy person sloping off onto a deserted beach concealing a sharp knife seemed - somewhat suggestive." He looked at the makeshift fireplace again. "I'm glad I was wrong. If - rather baffled."

His voice went up interrogatively at the end of the sentence.

"How did you know -?"

"That you're desperately unhappy? That was moderately obvious. And anyway, if you hadn't been you'd never have slid past the Dementors. They're drawn by human happiness, you know. They feed off it."

She looked at him. "If unhappiness is the key, then what stopped you getting past them?"

He acknowledged the point with a brief compression of his lips, then shrugged. "Other reasons. Unlike you, I can see them. And they scare me shitless. And they'd certainly have been able to detect that. If they haven't been specifically told to look out for me anyway. Which I strongly suspect they will have been. So? What's all this in aid of?"

Ekaterin gestured at the fireplace. "It's a ceremony we have on Barrayar. Burning an offering for our dead. The - country people - say it's to stop their spirits being restless. Really, I think it's for the benefit of the living. To - apologise for still being here when they are not. To help us to go forward, not back. To let us forgive. Or atone."

Draco looked meditatively at the still-unlit fire. "It seems a good notion. Perhaps, if the current excitements ever end, and I'm still alive at the end of them, I might light an offering then. There's - someone - I need to apologise to. And to say thank you." His expression changed. "So - that's intended for your first husband, then?"

Her surprise at his mistake must have been apparent in her expression, because he suddenly managed to look very young, and very embarrassed.

"Sorry," he choked out.

"No." He had, she thought, earned her frankness by now. "For my daughter."

Go on was plainly conveyed by his slight movement of shoulder and eyebrow.

The wind cutting across the beach seemed to have got colder. She was stammering the words through chattering teeth as she spoke.

"She died, you see. Earlier this year. Of - congenital lung problems. Only a baby. She was - she had - My husband, before he was born, was the victim of a poison gas attack. An attempted political assassination of his parents. They wanted his mother - the Countess - to have an abortion. No-one had ever survived the antidote to the poison as a foetus. It - it's a teratogen. It destroys bones. He survived, when no-one had before - but badly damaged. But he succeeded - on Barrayar, for anyone who is physically - different - that's very difficult. He's a powerful man now - the heir to a Countship - a Lord Auditor - the Emperor's Voice -"

Her voice broke, momentarily, when she became aware that Draco was obviously baffled by the precise significance of her words. She pressed on desperately.

"Even now - even for him, the Emperor's own foster brother, it's very hard on Barrayar to be different. But he can stand what they say of him if they stick to appearance. But - if they call him a mutant - he used to fall back on saying no, no he wasn't. Damaged but not a mutant. The test, of course, for a mutant is the children. And we thought Natalie was quite normal. But when she died, it turned out that she was born that way. Because Miles was the first to have survived soltoxin, they didn't know there were some effects that could be transferred to the next generation, and that needed to be screened for. And that - that's the thing he can't talk about, at all. Because if he does then he is a mutant, after all. It has to be me, or it has to not have happened - at any cost - "

"So - have you forgiven him for killing her? Whether his own world believes he's a mutant or not?"

The voice was cool, dispassionate. Ekaterin gasped.

How could he have known what I thought?

Draco looked faintly apologetic. "It's an aspect I'm likely to focus on, you see. As my own father tried to kill me less than two months ago, you know."

She gulped.

"Then - that can't have been - purely biological."

"No." His voice was calm and contemplative. He shook his head. "No. Quite deliberate. Political, you see. And, my mother was - really very put out about it. He's dead now, though, anyway."

Ekaterin was not quite sure whether the message that he was intending to convey really was that families could get much worse, if only given half a chance. Before she could pursue the issue, however, he said, "Anyway, can I light that for you?"

She shook her head. " I ought - I need to do it for myself. Have you any-" Her recollections of discussions with the Professora yielded the right word at last - "-any matches?"

"Any what?" He looked at her, looked at the fireplace, and shrugged.

"If you need to light it yourself, there's only one thing I can think of. Try this."

He folded her fingers around the smooth wood of his wand, pointing it towards the fireplace. His bony fingers bit into her forearm: his arm was round her shoulders. His voice sounded very close to her ear.

"One thing - you should know this is not exactly the sort of thing I learned in school."

Her voice was slightly hesitant. "Is it safe?"

"This is - yes." He paused, and the mocking note re-inhabited his voice. "If I were marginally less scrupulous, and considerably more competent, it might not be. It's - er, it will be - your life force lighting the fire. All I'm doing is channelling it through the wand. That's a quick - and rather attractive - way of getting access to considerable additional power, for a wizard who doesn't object to using it. Doesn't take anything to speak of to light a fire. You won't lose more than a few seconds off your life expectancy. But - ah - if one happened to be so inclined, it would put you in a position where you couldn't stop me making use of all of the energies locked up in your being alive. Not - ah - a nice way for you to go, but interesting for me."

She thought for a moment. Multiple recollections blazed up in her. She looked straight into his eyes and thought she detected him flinch.

Not someone who expects anyone to trust him.

She smiled.

"Let's see what happens. Do it."

She gulped, suddenly, as her heart first slowed and then raced. She felt a sudden surge of power flow down her arm and tingle like an electric shock through her fingers. The kindling caught fire, and then the driftwood. Her nostrils were catching the first acrid whiff of burnt hair when she felt the air whirl around about her, and become somehow colder, danker and more familiar.

She looked up to find herself kneeling on the soft earth of the Vorkosigan family plot. The outriding squalls of a fine autumnal blast were powering their way up the long lake. In front of her, on the bronze family brazier and under the onslaught of the already thick rain, the fires were dying. She turned, and was not surprised to find Pym at her elbow.

"Milady!" he murmured respectfully. "His Imperial Majesty has arrived."