Chapter 2

One filthy hand shot straight to her mouth.

"Oh, goodness! Gregor! Here! Now!" She yelped, on a rising note that came undignifiedly close to a squeak. She was suddenly appallingly conscious of her appearance. Her knees were covered in mud. The recent heavy rain had plastered her silk trousers and matching sleeveless top onto her body in tight, clinging folds. Her hair - she shuddered at the very thought of her hair.

And I haven't had a shower for the last thousand years, her inner voice wailed, with more than a hint of hysteria.

Pym looked sympathetic.

"Yes, milady. The - er the Vicereine did suggest to Lord Miles, when the possibility of His Imperial Majesty's attending this evening was raised, that you might wish to have some opportunity to prepare, but Lord Miles seemed to want it to be a surprise -"

Her furious glare appeared to have skewered him somewhere vital and sensitive: his voice dried up, but the corners of his mouth gave her to understand that Torture was being bravely borne in the interests of The Family. She was not in a mood to sympathise.

"Pym! You mean you knew about this all along and you didn't tell me?"

The somewhat gruff and stifled mutter about "Orders" which was all the Armsman seemed able to manage at this juncture did little or nothing to calm her agitation as they double-timed it up the short-cut through the woods towards the house. Somehow finding the breath to speak, she gasped,

"Didn't it occur to Miles - or to you - or anybody that I might have appreciated the chance to change? This outfit wasn't suitable to receive the Emperor in even before -"

Her hand waved in a vague, all-encompassing gesture.

Before it got slept in. Before I crawled on hands and knees across a mountain-top in it. Before I used half of it as an impromptu carrying bag. Before I spent several hours crouching in it next to what I certainly thought at the time was a death-bed. Before I knelt down wearing it in a muddy graveyard.

"Pym," she said, surprising herself at the cold, deadly intonation in her voice, but still, considerately, putting elaborate obstacles between herself and what she really wanted to say to him.

He looked nervously at her.

"Milady?"

"I'm Vor. I'm a Vor Lady. There are certain - expectations attached to that position. It isn't exactly as if, when I know the Emperor is on his way, I can simply tell my batman to tell me to bring me the appropriate version of my uniform, for heaven's sake."

His pause was even more chastened than she had hoped. She looked at him, momentarily, and suspiciously, before she realised: suddenly and heart-rendingly. Uniform. A curly dark head bent together with a smooth one at the end of the reception room. Too proud to look at too closely. But, if one did -?

Her memory, once pressed into service, proved treacherously accurate.

Dendarii dress grey and whites, in flattering, figure-hugging, perfectly laundered velveteens and suedes.

"Pym?" she enquired conversationally.

"Milady?"

Her voice was a mere whisper.

"I know Miles wanted this to be a surprise for me. But who else did know about it?"

The Armsman gulped, guiltily. She looked at him steadily and with deepening interest. He choked.

"The Vicereine. ImpSec. Lady Alys. Um - relevant service personnel. Those having - ah - the need to know."

His stricken expression suddenly betrayed the sense he must have of matters slipping rapidly and irrevocably out of control. She looked over him with a cool, dispassionate glance; paused, and then, abruptly, lost it.

"You mean, don't you, Pym: every single person in that room except me?"

He blinked; he was clearly shocked to his rigid backbone by the depths of her understanding, but not, in any event, dishonest. He would not pretend to her that her perception was less acute than it was.

"Milady."

She gulped, but they were now very close to the house. It was important to compose herself to be proper, to be properly restrained and Vor, in front of the Armsmen and in front of those who might listen to her. For fear of the attics, you know. She was, of course, the heir's wife: the Lord Auditor's Lady. There were restraints associated with that position. Especially if one were considered - not entirely stable.

A favourite Nikki-ism of the moment sprang unbidden into her mind:

Stuff that for a game of toy soldiers.

"Pym," she said in a perfectly normal voice, "I'm going to kill him. And it isn't going to be a swift death, either. First, I propose to tie him down to the floor and staple his hands and feet to the floorboards. Then, I'm going to pile a tonne of ice cubes over him, and watch his face while they melt. After that, I'm going to turn a few hutches of butterbugs against him, and see whether it occurs to them (against the odds, I grant you, but all things are possible) to turn him into useful protein. If they don't, I will then offer a substantial financial inducement to the leading Vorbarr Sultana tap-dancing troupe to come and organize a dancing competition on his chest. And, if he's still alive after that, I intend to get out a rusty bread-knife and start slicing off any protruding bits one by one."

Before Pym had had the time to gulp out the protest about this programme, as was his bounden duty to his liege lord, a cool voice said from the shadows,

"I think it's only appropriate at this juncture to point out that the penalty for injury of a Lord Auditor is the same as that for treason against the Imperium: namely, to be hung to starve in chains in Vorhartung Square in the face of the whole population."

Before either of them could make any sound the speaker moved out from the shadows of the veranda at the back of the house.

"Of course," the Emperor said, looking quizzically at Ekaterin, "that assumes that the perpetrator is not able to command an Imperial pardon."

"Ulp?"

Gregor smiled at her. "I - have just been speaking to Cordelia. In the circumstances, I think you ought to assume that Our clemency will extend up to - though not past - that rather graphic bit with the rusty bread-knife."

Unexpectedly, the lord of three planets stepped forward, took her in his arms, and bestowed a gentle, brotherly peck on one cheekbone. As he disengaged, looking down at her, it was clear that for the first time he had taken in the sight of Pym behind her, carrying the bronze tripod. His expression abruptly changed: one finger reached out to touch her forehead, and came away with a smudged, greasy ash mark on its end. He looked down at it with frozen anger, which it took Ekaterin a moment to decode from the complex messages signed by his unmoving features.

"I am deeply sorry, milady," he breathed. "I - had not realised my arrival was - quite so inopportune. Miles should have told me this."

Her mind whirled. Opportunity. Revenge. Her voice was suddenly squeezing itself past a profound blockage: a blockage which represented justice as opposed to, she thought at the back of what was now a very tiny mind, mercy.

"Not fair, my lord. He didn't know I was going to - burn an offering today." She paused. She needed to be wholly honest here - for her own sake, if nothing else. "I didn't know myself. I - just thought it was the right time."

Gregor's gaze swept her. His nostrils flared slightly.

"Is - that - so."

He paused: consciously stood back, and suddenly seemed to take in everything about her from her sodden costume to her preposterous haircut. He drew even further back, apparently still looking at her with fascination.

"Ekaterin. I - We - request and require that you get out of - that is, that you get yourself into some dry things as soon as possible. Before you catch your death. Please." His face, suddenly, relaxed, and he smiled.

"Please don't hurry yourself. I am - abruptly reminded - that I was probably one of the last cadets at the Academy to hear General Piotr's famous lecture on the Proper Uses of Surprise In Modern Warfare. Miles must have just missed it. And it would be a shame for my senior officers to be unaware of quite how good it was. I expect we'll be talking drily of tactics for quite some time. Please feel free to spend the time more - profitably."

He was as suddenly gone as he had arrived. In stunned silence they passed into the house. Pym coughed, gently.

"Milady? My - er - niece has just joined the staff here. And she has an amazing way with hair. May I send her to wait on you?"

Ekaterin looked despairingly at the reflection of her head in one of the gilt-framed, Time of Isolation mirrors hanging on the wall of the passageway.

"Well, I'd certainly be grateful if she could do her best. But even to get this mess looking half-way presentable is going to take nothing short of - "

Her voice came to an abrupt stop. A surreptitious, half-familiar, movement of Pym's hand down by his side had suddenly arrested her attention. He caught her glance, and she thought for a second she surprised a fleeting look of guilt on his face. She composed her features to their most non-committal expression.

"Please ask her join me in my room. At once. And after this evening is over, Pym, I think you and I need to have a little talk."

"Milady!" he choked, and fled.

Pym's niece (Anna, she turned out to be called) was both soothing and efficient. And she did, Ekaterin had to concede, have an amazing way with hair. By the end of twenty minutes of Anna's ministrations the short, tangled mass had been turned into something that was not merely presentable but chic. She had worn her hair long for so many years that losing its familiar weight made her feel suddenly as light as air.

That merely left the problem of what to wear. Ekaterin strode meditatively over to the closet, prepared to extract something suitably demure from the serried ranks of black, and paused. Hanging up was a soft white confection, which had certainly not been there that morning.

"Anna?" she enquired.

"Milady?"

"What's that?"

She took it off the hanger, allowing the delicate fabric to ripple over her fingers. It had a blue-grey trim, which precisely matched her eyes. The white had an elusive opalescent quality which seemed determined on proving conclusively to the observer that white is not an absence of colour, but a combination of all possible colours.

"I think you should wear that one, milady," Anna said, with a fervency that bordered on evangelism.

Ekaterin allowed its softness to brush over her fingertips again, and hesitated.

"Hm. I'm not sure I ought to. I mean, I'm supposed to be still wearing mourning for formal affairs -"

And having a visit from the Emperor is about as formal as it gets. Even in this family.

"Lady Alys sent it as a gift, milady," Anna proffered. "It arrived this morning."

"Ah - I - oh?"

That puts a rather different complexion on things.

Lady Alys Vorpatril had been the prime arbiter of Proper on the Vorbarr Sultana social scene since before Ekaterin was born. And for the vast majority of that time she had worn widows' weeds, either out of respect for or as an implied rebuke to her late husband Lord Padma, killed in the course of the War of Vordarian's Pretendership. If Lady Alys took the view that it was time for mourning to be relaxed in this particular case, then there was certainly no-one hardy enough to challenge her on it.

Certainly not in the Imperium. Or anywhere in the Nexus, probably. Up to and including Emperor Fletchir Giaja of Cetaganda.

"How kind of her." Ekaterin held the dress up against herself. "Oh, but it is cut very low -"

Anna was plainly having to restrain herself from gritting her teeth. "It's this year's neckline, milady. And that style would really suit you. And, anyway, if Lady Alys selected it - "

Her voice implied that if Lady Alys had given it her imprimatur, the assembled ranks of Vor womanhood appearing stark naked in Vorhartung Square in front of the Review of Imperial Troops for the Emperor's Birthday would represent, fixed as the laws of the Medes and the Persians, Correct Form. Ekaterin did not feel that in all honesty she could disagree.

Ekaterin looked doubtfully into the recesses of the closet, and down at the dress again. As she moved her head she caught a sudden fleeting glance of her reflection in the mirror on the back of the door, and caught her breath. Her hair was enchanting. All Anna's doing. It would be churlish not to set it off properly. She nodded.

"Go ahead. I'll wear it."

She thought she heard Anna give a suppressed sigh of relief.

She slid the dress on, and looked at herself closely in the mirror. That neckline was really - very low. High necks had been in vogue for almost all her lifetime. The Professora, her historian aunt, had once run an eye-opening seminar, which correlated all the most theoretically restrictive periods of history for Barrayaran women with the fashions that had then held sway. It seemed that the tighter the domestic chains on them, the more bosom and shoulder the Vor ladies had felt it incumbent to display. Legs, now: those had been a very different matter. Political freedom and visible acreage of calf had gone - hand in hand.

She shook her head. Maybe I'll leave the socio-political analysis to the Vicereine. Another thought struck her, unawares.

Tien would have had apoplexy if I had appeared in public in something like this.

Her hand went hesitantly to her throat. "Anna, please bring me my Great-Aunt's necklace. The diamond one."

It had been a constant battle to keep Tien from turning that archaic piece of jewellery - her one legacy from her Great Aunt (apart from the skellytum, of course) - into cash, even though after the invention of synthetics the value of the stones had been negligible, and the heavy setting was infinitely too old-fashioned to command any price as a work of artistry. She had, desperately, fought a rear-guard action on the basis, as he frequently told her, of sentiment over sense. He had constantly, and, for once, fairly, pointed out that not only was it deplorably inappropriate to her modest position in life, she had nothing to wear with which it could properly go.

Ekaterin surveyed the combination of the heavy constellation of flashing stones and the cloud-like white of the dress in the mirror, and smiled.

It seems I have now.

After that, and a final adjustment to her hair, she felt strong enough to go down.

She was almost on the threshold of the main reception room when she felt Pym's hand on her elbow.

"Milady!"

There was a suffused look pervading his features, almost as though his earlier experiences that day had represented a presumed nadir which subsequent events had insisted on plunging him recklessly past.

"Would it be possible for you to accompany me down to the guard post?"

Not in these shoes was the unworthy thought which sprang, irresistibly, to mind. She peered out through the window. The rain had cleared, and it seemed that there was a reasonable prospect of it turning into a fine - though chilly - night. Nevertheless -

"Pym - why?" she enquired reasonably. Anyone who got to the guard post would either be cleared through - and taken up to the house by an ImpSec escort of suitable seniority depending on rank - or would be filed for future reference, probably in the cells in the village. Vorkosigan family members were not - for blindingly obvious reasons - usually invited down to the guard post to see whether any of ImpSec's apparent black sheep might possibly have a greyish tinge to them.

Pym gulped. "We - er - have a Situation."

Not another one.

It was a shock to Ekaterin to realize that she must have said the words aloud. Pym was nodding briskly.

"I'm sorry, milady. But there's someone at the gate asking for you - and the ImpSec guard down there - you'd think, milady, with the Emperor here they'd have gone for someone with real experience of actually doing the job, not one of these spit-and-polish kids barely out of the Academy, no matter who his great-uncle - ahem, anyway, he seems to be quite out of his depth, and getting very edgy indeed - and if you could see your way to coming with me at once it might avert something happening that I'm sure we'd all regret. Milady."

Pym had spoken so rapidly he seemed to have achieved it all on a single breath. The concept of smooth, imperturbable Pym being so discombobulated was intriguing in itself. After a pause, she nodded.

"All right. But I'll need a wrap, and an umbrella, and some galoshes for these slippers - and we're taking the paved way down, not the shingle, understood?"

He nodded. "Milady."

He must have had the accoutrements ready and waiting in one of the hall cupboards. In less than a minute they were on their way.


Although, on their walk down to the guard post, Ekaterin had been speculating feverishly about whom she was likely to meet there, the reality still came as a shock.

Draco turned in the guard post to face them as they arrived. She repressed an exclamation. While it might have been less than an hour since she had seen him last, it was clear that in his own time considerably longer must have passed. The grey pallor of his skin had turned into a clear ivory, whipped on his cheekbones to a healthy pink from the cold sting of the wind outside. He had gained several pounds and no longer looked as though a breath of air would shatter him. Gawky, adolescent awkwardness seemed miraculously to have been transmuted into assurance. The biggest single difference about him, however, was that since she had seen him last he had clearly contracted an acutely contagious case of happiness, and seemed to be searching with the fervour of a latter day Typhoid Mary for opportunities to communicate it.

Automatically, she extended her hand to him.

Ignoring it, he bobbed irrepressibly to his feet, and, for the second time that evening, she found herself being unexpectedly embraced and kissed firmly on her cheek.

Ekaterin caught her breath as she spotted the shocked expressions on the faces of the guard and, fleetingly, on that of the well-trained Pym.

How long can it have been, that those around me have thought themselves not permitted to express happiness in my presence?

The pang of guilt caused by this reflection caused her to increase the proportion of how wonderful to see you to the and just what is going on? in the tone of her greeting.

"Draco! How - er - nice of you to drop by. You're - um - looking very well."

The heat of the guard post was oppressive. She dropped her wrap onto a convenient chair.

His eyes widened, and then danced with mischief. "Thank you. It's a pleasure to see you too. And I must say, Ekaterin, you certainly clean up even better than I might have expected from our last meeting. And I like the - er - outfit."

His grin was impudent. The rapid but unconcealed up-and-down flicker of his eyes was even more so. Intolerable, in fact. Ekaterin flushed, and was abruptly aware of just how big an acreage of disconcertment that particular reaction was currently betraying. She pursed her lips, disapprovingly, instead. In the background, Ekaterin heard the ImpSec man give a small sound reminiscent of "Ack".

All her Vor-lady training and instincts recoiled. One cannot permit strange young men half one's age to flirt outrageously with one in front of the staff. It's against all the Rules.

She turned her head and saw the ImpSec guard looking particularly stuffed, and squirming slightly. She groaned inwardly.

The moment he goes off duty this is going to be all over the Household. Everyone is going to start gossiping. And what is Miles going to think?

On the thought, another recollection struck her. The corners of her mouth quirked up.

Of course, perhaps if you're sufficiently High Vor, maybe they aren't exactly Rules. Perhaps they're really - only guidelines.

She smiled, graciously.

"Anyway, is there some sort of problem?"

She looked pointedly at the ImpSec guard, who, to his credit, puffed up with outrage at the implied question.

"Milady! He had absolutely none of the right paperwork! And no explanation why he had none, none at all! And all he kept saying was, that Lady Ekaterin Vorksosigan would sort it all out when she arrived. And then he just sat here and said he was waiting for you! And I've been holding him here ever since."

Draco grinned at her. "Absolutely. Accurate sort of chap, that guard of yours. The only bit he hasn't quite got right is that he thinks he's been holding me here, and I happen to know it's just good manners on my part. It doesn't occur often, so stands to reason I'd remember it."

The ImpSec guard gasped with pure irritation.

"Sonny, I think you should know I've had you covered with a hand needler ever since you arrived here."

"A what?" Draco regarded him for a moment or so, indifferently.

The ImpSec guard looked, momentarily, dead white, and then puce.

"Well, I don't think you'd take that attitude if I'd fired it!"

Draco looked at him, and then smiled, slowly. "Nor would you, I rather suspect."

Pym and Ekaterin, probably for varying reasons, looked with horror at the ImpSec guard.

"A threat of deadly force against one of the Family's guests!" Ekaterin spluttered. "What were you thinking of?"

'I was thinking, milady, that the evidence he was one of the Family's guests was wholly inadequate. And after all, the Emperor is on the premises. Milady." The guard, while clearly aware he was on shaky ground, was still standing rigidly to attention on it.

"Oh, is he really?" Draco enquired with interest. "Well, if he'd bothered to explain that, I'd have had a bit more sympathy. Only he's been feeding me information on a need to know basis, and so far as I can tell all he thinks I need to know is 'one move in the wrong direction, and that's the last move you ever make.' Unfortunately, which direction is the wrong one doesn't seem to be part of the information I need to know, either."

"Oh, I'm so sorry -"

He smiled nonchalantly at her. "Oh, don't get too upset. It's been making me feel completely at home."

Pym snorted and glared at the guard. "Well, I trust that you have now had the good sense to substitute a stunner for that needler."

"Certainly not! The Situation requires, in my judgment, a weapon carrying real authority. And I'll remind you that even a Count's Armsman has no right to overrule ImpSec, on a matter touching His Imperial Majesty's safety -"

Pym was red in the face.

"And I'll remind you that if your alleged detainee were to try anything now, you'd have a straight choice between using your bare hands and pulling the trigger on that needler. In a reinforced pillbox with cermacrete walls, with the Lord Auditor's Lady right in the middle of the ricochet zone. The Vicereine would have your remains stuck back together with surgical glue and cryo-revived just so she could have the pleasure of pinning you down to the carpet and personally turning you to a hand-shredded mass of quivering flesh. Slowly. Yeoman."

There was sudden silence, broken by the tiniest of sounds. Ekaterin fancied it was that of a weapon being surreptitiously holstered.

"Who's the Vicereine?" Draco asked.

The ImpSec guard gulped in sheer disbelief.

Various possible explanations flitted through Ekaterin's mind. They all seemed to require her to provide much too much background information. Eventually she compromised weakly on:

"Cordelia, Countess Vorkosigan. My - er - mother-in-law. "

"And Vicereine?"

He sounded rather fascinated.

"She - um - runs one of the Empire's planets. With Count Aral - ah, I mean, the Viceroy. My father-in-law. But she's - ah - at home at present."

Ekaterin gestured vaguely upslope towards the house.

"So it's actually the Vicereine's reception for the Emperor I'm in the middle of gate-crashing?"

Ekaterin could not tell whether the note in Draco's voice was more appalled or impressed. She nodded, mechanically. He looked thoughtfully at Pym.

"That line you used about the surgical glue made her sound remarkably like my mother, actually."

Pym opened his mouth, but the ImpSec guard got in edgeways.

"Well, I'd be surprised if your mother had ever managed to stop a civil war single-handed by turning up at a Staff-conference with the opposing commander's severed head in her shopping bag."

"Well, not as of last time I saw her, certainly," Draco conceded. His eyes danced as he flicked a glance at Ekaterin. "But then, as you'll appreciate, it's been some time since we met last."

He paused, and then looked at Pym. "I'm sure we would all be better for a pause in his ill-informed commentary."

Pym, momentarily, looked grumpy. Then he raised his hand - for a moment Ekaterin was unclear if he was holding something or not - and on the instant the ImpSec guard was frozen in position. Ekaterin gasped.

"Is that all right? That can't be good for him?"

Draco looked at her. "He'll be fine. That is, unless you decide to report him to his superiors for being unconscious on duty." He paused, momentarily. "And I suspect the complexity of explaining the circumstances would outweigh the momentary pleasure of doing that."

Ekaterin ignored the attempted distraction, and looked steadily at him. "So? What are you doing here?"

He shrugged. "How would I know? As you found out for yourself, it isn't exactly a voluntary method of transportation. Last I knew, I was getting changed in a frantic hurry, because I'd just got an express owl to say my mother was going to some terribly swish, fearfully hush-hush do which the Brazilian Minister of Magic was going to attend, and she needed me as an escort - hence this gear, of course - "

To her chagrin, Ekaterin had not noticed his clothes. Her eyes swept him covertly now: midnight blue flowing robes in deep velvets and crepes, over matching breeches tucked into boots in the softest possible deep navy suede. He had a diamond pin in the white linen of his elaborately tied cravat. He looked deeply exotic and very galactic, and entirely Proper - in the full Lady Alys sense - for the Emperor's reception.

"- and the last thing I remember, was Neville coming in to say, that the last of the plague areas had been reported free for a fortnight, now, and High Command reckoned it was really over and was rather chuffed with us, so I made some comment about it being all really down to you, and I wished I could tell you so - and then there I was, in this soaking wet lane, in the dark, well, at least until I could do ex Tenebris anyway, somewhere I'd never seen before in my life. I made for the nearest light I could see and said I'd got lost, and where was I, and they said: practically at the Vorkosigan Residence, so obviously I then said - oh, wonderful, not as badly mislaid as I'd feared, as I'm a friend of Lady Ekaterin's and could they point me in the right direction to the entrance, which they did, and so here I am."

He smiled serenely at her.

"Anyway," he added airily, "what papers should I have?"

Ekaterin compressed her lips. "Pym?"

"That is not the point, " he said through gritted teeth. "As soon as the guard commed his name up from the guard post I knew not to expect paperwork. The real question is: where on his personal timeline is he? Because if I'm not satisfied about that he isn't going to leave here, and I think you should know now that I am carrying a weapon of real authority."

"Nicely concealed, too," Draco conceded. "When we get five minutes you'll have to teach me that trick." Pym glared at him. He shrugged. "June 26, 1998. That do?"

Pym's lips worked in silent calculation. Reluctantly, he nodded. "Well, then, the flimsies you should be carrying: your visa from the shuttle port endorsed with your permitted length of stay. Evidence of either sufficient funds to get yourself off-planet at the end of that time, or an un-expired outbound jumpship ticket. Plus a letter of introduction to the Family would be nice."

"I don't recall hearing that the Countess had all this trouble," Ekaterin said indignantly. "I mean, she got here from Beta one jump ahead of a whole load of treason charges, and no-one stopped her to ask her for paperwork."

Pym exhaled. "Nobody stops the Countess. In this case, I think it would be best if we least make a sketch at following procedures. Actually, the real problem is ImpSec records: the shuttleport would have been bound to com through your details for security clearance as soon as you mentioned you were coming here, and the details ought to be in the computer. And, of course, they aren't."

"I'd have liked to see them try to security clear me," Draco murmured.

Pym raised an eyebrow. "You'd be surprised what ImpSec records do contain. Especially the - fold-space - ones."

On the word, a thought struck him. "Hm. I wonder if - "

He shoved the frozen guard unceremoniously off his chair and sat down meditatively at the comconsole, taking a few slow passes over the plate, and then giving an interested: "Hm". He bent in fascination to his task. Draco and Ekaterin exchanged a rather relieved-looking glance.

"So, what are you doing at the moment? And how's the war going?"

"Much better, thanks. Though that completely undeserved reputation for competence which you saddled us with meant that both our next two jobs were absolute stinkers, thank you very much, I don't think."

His amused, confident tone belied his words. She smiled, almost despite herself. "I can only be half to blame for that. I mean - I know the traditional reward for a job well done is another job, but I've never known any decent commander hand out a tough mission on the basis of your last-but-one job being a success."

"Um. Well. Be that as it may, I was actually quite looking forward to this evening, by way of a change from all the excitement - not that anything ma decides to spring on one is ever entirely predictable, come to think of it - " His voice tailed off, and he obviously decided it was time to change the subject. "Anyway, how long have you been back?"

She looked down at her chrono. "About an hour and a half. And since no-one told me the Emperor was coming, they can't be surprised if I didn't mention it to a friend I met on Earth and who tight-beamed me recently to say he was visiting Barrayar to - to - "

Inspiration abruptly failed her. Why do people come to Barrayar, anyway? Dammit. How does Miles do it?

Pym looked up.

"I would respectfully suggest, Milady that Mr Malfoy decided to visit in order to consider widening his family investment portfolio of galactic speculative ventures to include butterbugs. Following - er, a chance meeting with you on Earth, and follow-up correspondence with MVK Enterprises. Documented and verified correspondence. "

Ekaterin clapped her hands together. "Oh, brilliant! And Mark and Kareen are still on Beta, and it's the last topic Miles is likely to question him on!"

Pym, with a very faint dusting of smug over his natural carapace of efficient tapped rapidly at the comconsole and then sat up, his head on one side, evidently contemplating his handiwork, permitted himself a small, satisfied smile and turned the comconsole off.

"Perhaps I ought to suggest that as a - theoretical weak spot - to my contacts at ImpSec HQ," he murmured.

Draco gave Ekaterin a plaintive look.

"What is a butterbug? Because I can tell you, if it's anything like a Blast-Ended Skrewt I'm not buying."

"And what's-?"

Pym looked severe.

"Something the Household would greatly appreciate Mr Malfoy's not mentioning to Dr Borgos if he should happen to meet him. Milady. Anyway, it was fortunate that the Hassadar shuttleport had the presence of mind to send your documentation down by light-flyer courier when they realised that you'd accidentally left it where you hired the ground-car."

And he spread the unused travel voucher, letter of introduction (bearing, Ekaterin was startled to notice, her own signature), the visa and temporary residence permit across the comconsole plate with the air of one laying down an undefeatable Grand Slam hand.

Draco looked meaningfully at the ImpSec guard. "So - go on and revive him, and we can start this one again from the beginning, properly. Because I'm sure Ekaterin oughtn't to be keeping the Emperor waiting."

Pym cleared his throat. "There is one other thing."

Ekaterin caught the tone and tensed, inwardly. Draco was obviously also prepared for problems.

"Weapons may not be carried in the Emperor's presence. Except, of course, by those tasked with guarding him."

"I've already been searched," Draco proffered, "And if that paranoid grunt of yours couldn't find a weapon -"

"- It means he didn't know what he was looking for," Pym finished. "Your wand, please. Or you don't move past this point."

Draco went dead white, then spluttered.

"Absolutely not ! You must see that from my point of view. I am on a totally strange planet. What's more, ever since I've been here, people have been pointing loaded weapons at me. I can't possibly agree to being separated from my wand. Over my dead body!"

"If necessary," Pym said quietly.

"Wonderful. Two death threats before I even get my first drink. You are going out of your way to make me feel at home. "

Pym settled himself stolidly across the exit. Draco, looking much more like he had a bare two hours, and half a galaxy away, bit his lip, his hand poised above his belt.

Irresistible force meets immovable object. In a reinforced pillbox with cermacrete walls. And you're in the fall out zone.

Men.

Ekaterin coughed.

"Would - would you mind if I looked after it for you? I wouldn't lose it, you know. And you would, at least, know where it was all the time. And that wouldn't be against the rules - I mean, I suppose it's not a weapon in my hands. "

Pym looked thoughtful. "Indeed not, milady."

There was a perceptible lessening of tension about Draco's shoulders. His voice was grudging.

"That ought to be OK. Provided I get it back as soon as the Emperor leaves."

Pym nodded. Draco suddenly sounded as though he had thought of something else.

"And provided also I get it back without fuss the instant if it should be needed in the Emperor's interests. Or Ekaterin's."

There was a meditative note in Pym's voice. "Well, it's unlikely they would conflict -"

He looked speculatively at Draco. "Yes. I agree. But there is one other thing. When you get to the reception there will be an ImpSec operative - of our specially talented sort - on the premises. I won't identify him or her to you, but if you try anything at all out of line, their task will be simply to take you down, as effectively as necessary. I sent another message when I was buggering the ImpSec records to account for you."

Ekaterin's lips were beginning to part in protest when she spotted that Draco was nodding. Apparently having a concealed assassin primed to take out dubious guests was less an abuse of hospitality than simple prudence in his book. She gulped.

"Well, now that's settled - "

She looked pointedly at the unconscious ImpSec guard. Pym coughed, and obeyed.

After that, things had gone with uncanny smoothness. They were almost at the house - the front entrance, this time, the sound of conversation and music spilling out from the brilliantly lit reception rooms - before a thought struck her.

"Draco - what did you mean, by possibly having to use your wand in my or the Emperor's interests?"

She was acutely conscious of that cool, strange burden, strapped to her shin by some remarkable contraption conjured by Pym for the occasion. Draco raised his eyebrows.

"Well, your turning up when you did saved - a lot of people's lives. I owe you a blood debt. Those things matter to my people, even if sometimes we choose to ignore them. And here I am, the night your Emperor just happens to drop by for drinks. It wouldn't surprise me to find I'm here to make sure that debt is paid. Somehow. That's how these things work. After all, I hardly think I was snatched across a thousand years and half a galaxy simply to exercise my gift of brilliant repartee."

They were actually on the threshold of the reception room now. The guests, absorbed in chatter among themselves, had not yet noticed them. Ekaterin felt a sudden shiver between her shoulder blades and then, self-consciously, fixed a bright, social, High Vor smile on her lips.

"I can assure you, given the standard of conversation at formal receptions I've had to attend, brilliant repartee is worth bringing someone halfway across the galaxy for. To say nothing of your other talents."

He looked mildly rueful. "Most people take the view that my single biggest talent is an ability to get so far up people's noses as to require surgical extraction. And I certainly can't have been brought here for that reason."

Her eyes, scanning the room for any sign of the Vicereine or Lady Alys - she would certainly have to tackle those formidable dragons first - were suddenly arrested by a glimpse of dark curly hair above impeccable velveteen dress grey and whites. Unbidden, she felt her lips curl up in a smile.

"Oh, really not?" she murmured. "Are you sure? Anyway, come with me - there's someone I simply must introduce you to."


They were intercepted in their progress across the room by a slightly-built, dark-haired man, one of the few in the room not wearing what Draco still thought of as elaborate and uncomfortable fancy dress. He knew by now, of course, about the Muggle concept of "uniform": indeed, he had managed to earn himself a flesh-flensing dressing down for his innocent comment - when an earnest Muggle-born Allied wizard had been canvassing support for his view that snazzily designed uniform robes might enhance Allied morale - that the Dark Mark might be an ill-considered gesture when one thought of close interrogations, but an outfit that marked you as the wrong side from across a crowded battlefield was plainly the hallmark of someone with a death wish. Wearing uniforms to a cocktail party struck him as too baffling even to enquire into. Before the slight man spoke Draco had chalked up his immaculately-cut non-uniform clothes as a major point in his favour.

"Ekaterin, darling, who is your friend? Surely he can't be from round here?"

Draco thought Ekaterin's expression was interesting: momentary flustration overlaid by something subtler and more calculating. Acting on what he hoped was a cue, he did not await her explanation of his presence, but smiled, and extended a hand.

"Draco Malfoy. I met Ekaterin on Earth. And -?"

The stranger's hand was warm and dry; his handshake firm. "Byerley Vorrutyer. Known as By. It's so nice to meet galactics: they don't just hear the family name and instantly begin with deeply personal questions about the Mad Architect, the Sex-Change Count or the Desperately Dubious Admiral."

Draco's eyebrows must have flashed the expected enquiry, because his new acquaintance shrugged his shoulders, and amplified,

"Vorrutyer, you see, tends to translate as: 'mad, bad and dangerous to know" in these parts.'

"Really?" Draco allowed his voice to slide into a drawl. "I wonder if our respective families could, by any chance, be related?"

Ekaterin eyed them both momentarily, and then smiled. "By, could you possibly look after Draco? I need to explain to the Countess and Lady Alys that we'll be another one for supper. Do excuse me."

She was off amid the glittering throng. By looked after her thoughtfully.

"Now, that really does seem - a great deal better." He turned to Draco. "Have you known Lady Ekaterin long?"

About a thousand years. Or a matter of hours. Which do you prefer?

"Some time," he temporized.

"Ah? And do you know about - "

By paused, as though uncertain what to say next.

"Her daughter's death?" Draco hazarded, as the pause lengthened.

"Ah, you do know, then." By looked relieved, but, somehow, puzzled. Draco shrugged.

"Yes. She told me."

By repressed an exclamation. "She did? She doesn't usually talk about it. She must trust you a lot - "

He allowed his voice to tail off: his eyes became hooded and calculating. Next time he spoke, it was with an air of self-consciously changing the subject.

"And have you had the opportunity to sample the delights of our capital, Vorbarr Sultana, yet? Or did you come straight here?"

"Straight here. Leaving aside a little detour to be pointed in the right direction. All I've seen locally has been an absolutely sopping lane, and the path between here and the guard post, which wasn't a great deal drier. And these aren't the boots for it."

"Really? What a pity. Do let me offer myself as your native guide, if you find time for a tour of our capital. I can show you - one or two of its lesser known aspects."

Draco smiled.

"I look forward to it. Tell me, which one is Ekaterin's husband?"

He looked out over the swirling throng. By, he realised, was giving him another of those subtly questioning looks. He shrugged. "I didn't manage to meet him on Earth. I believe he was - unwell - at the time."

By's shoulder-set subtly relaxed; the thin excuse, it seemed, passed muster. He looked, and pointed in the direction of a handful of uniformed men emerging from a side-room with rather the air of children being let out of an immensely boring lesson. "Over there. The - er - not very tall one."

Draco looked in the appropriate direction. He tried not to let the surprise he felt show on his face: By was looking for it, clearly, and it would, he felt, be unsophisticated.

"I gather the Emperor thinks very highly of him," he drawled, by way of pause for thought. Momentarily, By almost seemed impressed.

"Well, yes." By paused. "Some people say he's a genius."

"And do - does Ekaterin think so?"

"Who knows?" By looked across the room, something close to a frown on his brow. "As the man said, 'Any fool can manage a clever man, but it takes a very clever woman to manage a fool'."

Draco raised his eyebrows. "I can't see Ekaterin marrying a fool." By pursed his lips. "Hm. Well. No. I prefer to think of Lord Miles as an appallingly bright individual, prone to lapse from time to time into well marked episodes of extreme stupidity. One of whom happens to be approaching us now."

A striking brunette woman, wearing - Good grief, this uniform idiocy is catching - came to a stop in front of them. She had a slight air of summing them both up as unpromising new recruits in need of a great deal of kicking into shape.

"By! " she began, without any attempt at apology for the interruption, "Have you seen Ekaterin? Miles is incredibly worried about where she's got herself to."

By raised an eyebrow. "I don't see why he should be. It's her own home, after all." He paused. "Still, interesting that he noticed she was missing, I suppose. Anyway, Elli, may I introduce Ekaterin's guest, from Earth? Draco Malfoy. Draco, this is Elli. The Tertium Quid."

Elli's beautiful lips compressed. "That's Quinn, By. I don't know why you seem to have such difficulty with it. That must be at least the third time I've had to correct you."

"Do you read Kipling, Draco?" By murmured inconsequentially. Draco shook his head.

"Pity. Ancient discredited English author, unduly neglected. I rather hoped, coming from Earth, you might be one of the few people who'd have heard of him beside myself. And my - ah - late grandfather, of course. Collecting pre-Space flight English literature was - um - one of his more mentionable obsessions."

Draco grinned.

"Sorry. My education didn't concentrate particularly on M - on English literature." He paused, and flicked a wicked glance at By. "It was unusually strong on classical languages, though."

Elli coughed, in annoyance. "This is not the time to start playing literary parlour games, By. Miles is getting frantic, he doesn't even know if Pym managed to find Ekaterin when he sent him out to look for her over two hours ago. And he's been stuck in that room with the Emperor for at least the last forty-five minutes, while the Emperor has positively insisted on giving a great long disquisition on tactics for no apparent reason whatsoever - he might have had a year or two of so-called active service, but his audience is exponentially more experienced in real combat than he is - with an expression on his face which Miles tells me means he finds the whole thing hugely funny, though why he should I can't imagine -"

She paused for breath, and, Draco suspected, sympathy. Neither he nor By proffered any. She continued, with a deeply aggrieved air:

"And, as a result, Miles doesn't even know whether she even knows if the Emperor has arrived, let alone whether she's presentable - "

"Oh, I can reassure you on - " By began, while Draco simultaneously said:

"Well, in my opinion - "

Both came to a tangled stop. By gestured graciously for Draco to continue.

"In my opinion, if her current outfit's what Ekaterin manages when she's aiming for "presentable", I'd be interested to see what she wears when she finally decides to dress to impress," he finished, blandly. He put his head on one side, surveyed Elli in a leisurely way, and added,

"In fact, I'd imagine that it would be pretty much an object lesson for every wo - for everyone in the room."

He narrowed his eyes and continued looking at her for a precise few seconds longer, to ensure she took the point. She did, together with her departure, with an affronted "Ha!" through her nostrils.

By blew out a long breath, almost a whistle. "My, my, my. Not a happy girl, in any way whatsoever. I wonder if that means her current campaign is suffering setbacks? Hm. One can but hope. Of course, it may just be the shock to her of coming across two heretics gathered together."

"Heretics?"

"Those who decline to fall down and worship in the shrine of the one True Face." By scrutinized Draco closely. "I take it I am being fair in numbering you in our excommunicable ranks?"

Draco looked after the retreating grey-and-white back. "Well, it is a very noticeable face."

By snorted. "So it should be. Betan surgeons do excellent work. Especially the top-dollar establishments."

"Ah? That's a relief."

"Mm?"

He grinned. " My mother's side of the family have been conscientiously breeding for looks for generations, and I'd have hated to have to break it to her that I'd met someone on another planet who was naturally almost as stunning-looking as I remember my great grandmother's being."

By's eyebrows went up. Draco continued,

"Mind you, Great-grandmamma was nearly eighty when I was born, so I suppose she might reasonably claim that the comparison wasn't an entirely fair one."

By sucked in his breath appreciatively. "I'll look forward to the reaction when I pass that one on - oh, discreetly unattributably, of course, what do you take me for? - to some of the girls in the capital. Elli dearest hasn't entirely gone out of her way to endear herself in certain circles."

"Ah? You do surprise me."

"Mm. And, of course, there's a fairly general assumption that while she understands the concept of meum and tuum, on the whole she appears greatly to prefer tuum. Plus there's a great deal of sympathy for Ekaterin, of course. Add in just a soupçon of suspicion that the Imperium has not merely noticed but has rather definite views on the situation, and - " By's hand made a cauldron-stirring gesture. "They say that all's fair in love and war, but I'm not sure Elli's entirely appreciated how quickly one can turn into the other, on Barrayar."

Draco was unsurprised. His family had been blending personal and political for as long as he could remember, and these people, from what he could gather, were playing their games on a stage which made even the Dark Lord's ambitions look - municipal. Three planets, for crying out loud.

He shivered, momentarily.

I do hope I'm wrong about why I'm here.

Through the great glass window he could see the lights of the scattered houses on the opposing shore reflected in the uncanny black dancing surface of the lake.

But somehow, I don't think I am.

"Anyway," By said, breaking into Draco's abstracted silence, "if the battle lines do start being drawn up - and I certainly hope they shan't - so messy and distracting, with the Vorbarr Sultana winter season just starting up properly and getting interesting - I take it from that little comedy that you'll be putting yourself in Ekaterin's camp?"

"Where else?" His prompt partisanship obviously surprised By. Without waiting for any further question Draco added abruptly,

" I owe her - quite a lot. She saved the life of - of a friend of mine. Back on Earth."

By digested this piece of information. His brows knitted momentarily.

"Close friend, I take it?"

The unexpected question plunged Draco abruptly into areas he wasn't even sure he had an answer to, yet. Certainly not one he was prepared to offer up for anyone else's scrutiny, still less that of a stranger he'd met less than ten minutes before.

What can I say?

Even to someone who I'd bet is a lot more likely to understand than people who've known me all my life.

His head whirled under the pressure of sudden realisation.

This was not - quite what I expected to feel. Or do. By any means. So: how far do you have to go to work out what matters and what doesn't?

"As it gets," he mumbled. He had, it seemed, conveyed more than he meant by his tone, since By looked closely at him, and made a rather rueful grimace.

"And would that mean: close enough to prove an obstacle to that tour of Vorbarr Sultana I was planning?"

It was an effort, but he managed a nonchalant drawl. "Not if sightseeing was what you were thinking of, no."

By snorted abruptly with laughter, not, Draco fancied, untinged with self-mockery.

"Times like this, I wished I lived on Beta. They do it with earrings there, you know."

"Really?" Draco raised an eyebrow. "How excruciatingly uncomfortable-sounding."

"I can assure you, they have distinct advantages."

The warm flat tones behind them made both of them jump.

"As, I understand, Byerley was just appreciating." The speaker, a middle-aged woman with elaborately dressed, greying red-brown hair, and a sardonic glint in her warm, intensely intelligent eyes, favoured both of them with a penetrating but not, Draco thought, wholly unsympathetic look. Her companion, an even more elegantly dressed dark-haired woman of about the same age, merely looked repressive.

"Ah, Countess Cordelia. Lady Alys. I was just on my way to make my duty to the Emperor," By murmured, and, raising each of their hands to his lips in turn, slid into the sea of humanity in the room (which seemed, at present, to be ebbing rapidly towards the door) with scarcely a ripple.

"Tell me," Draco enquired rapidly, "given I've been such a total nuisance, is the etiquette on Barrayar for me to go down to the kitchens personally to grovel abjectly before your cook, or is it better if I present myself to you for slicing up into small bits at your leisure, and simply leave a handwritten note for her, giving her carte blanche to feed the remains to the cat if she wishes?"

Both the ladies exchanged a cryptic glance.

"Tell me," the Countess enquired coolly, "which would be correct - where you come from?"

He gave that one a moment's thought. "Well, if I'd turned up unannounced at one of my mother's receptions for - " he gulped " - well, at one of my mother's receptions, anyway, assuming I survived the initial faux pas which is by no means certain, I'd have been frog-marched by my scruff down to the kitchen for Mrs P. to do her worst on, with my mother standing by to point out any bits she'd missed. I mean, in my mother's book as son of the house I could certainly have got away with murder, but upsetting the cook is much more serious than that."

Lady Alys' basilisk eye on him softened considerably. Obviously he was speaking her language. "It's nice to know that some places on Earth still have decent standards. That wasn't at all the impression I got from Ivan when he was posted to our Embassy there -"

"Doubtless he was mixing with the Wrong Sort, Alys." The Countess's voice was heavy with irony. "Well, in this particular case, since Ekaterin wasn't told herself that the Emperor was arriving, I hardly think we can hold you responsible for upsetting our arrangements for his visit. In fact, taking a leaf out of your mother's book, I have packed the son of the house off to make his peace with Ma Kosti. Other apologies which might be owing in the circumstances - not being a mother's place to command."

Lady Alys's brow wrinkled. "Cordelia, I really think you ought to say something. Everywhere I go now, I seem to be having to fend off the same questions."

"Which I'm sure you do very well." The Countess's eye swept restlessly across the thinning mob in the reception room; her voice was flat and non-committal.

"That is hardly the point. As I'm sure you know. Cordelia, Simon and I went ski-ing in a little resort in the Black Escarpment this spring. They'd had an early thaw that refroze badly, so we had avalanche warnings every day. When they caught some lunatic going up to the top stage of the ski-lift with a couple of kilos of industrial explosives zipped into his jacket they didn't bother to wait until he'd brought the whole hillside down on top of us before running him out of town ."

"An interesting analogy. But one, I suspect, which will be lost on our guest."

Lady Alys, momentarily, looked both surprised and annoyed at the reminder. The Countess gave her a pointed look, before turning to Draco with an air of decision.

"So, which part of Earth are you from - Draco? You know, it's strange, but you do remind me very strongly of a friend from Earth who Mark - my other son - brought to visit us a few years back. It seems wildly improbable, I know, but you wouldn't by any chance know a Professor Snape?"

His jaw dropped, helplessly.

What the hell-?

"Yes," he heard himself saying, as from a very long distance away, and the coolness of his voice surprised him. " As a matter of fact I do. He teaches - taught - me."

"Botanical chemistry, would that be?"

The Countess's voice seemed to be sounding a subtle warning: he nodded, unable to work out a verbal response which would be safe.

"Aha. Well, do give him the Family's warmest regards when you next see him. Tell him - the furniture restorers did a splendid job on that chair. No-one can see the joins. And I do hope your stay with us will be less - eventful - than his."

And what's that supposed to mean?

An acidly queasy feeling started to make itself felt in Draco's guts. He had, by now, been in action too often not to recognise it.

"I - hope I may at least avoid damaging the furniture," he murmured, looking straight at the Countess with his best poker face. Her face acknowledged by the barest flicker exactly what he had not said.

God, they breed them bright around here.

A sudden thought struck him, and with it a stronger twinge of nausea.

Or at least: natural predators cull the stupid ones pretty effectively from the herd.

The Countess cast a further glance around the room.

"Well, Alys," she observed, "that looks like practically the last of the cocktail party guests. May I rely on you to round up the stragglers and speed them on their way to their homes? I really must present Draco to Gregor before we go into supper. And then I need a quick word with Armsman Pym."

The dark haired lady nodded; favoured Draco with a gracious and, he thought, rather approving smile, and moved determinedly off into the room. He turned his attention to his hostess.

"Who's Gregor?"

She looked momentarily rather baffled. Her lips quirked at the corners. "Didn't Ekaterin say? Oh, no, I suppose she wouldn't. The Emperor, of course."

My god. First name terms with the ruler of three planets and they don't even seem to think it's odd. At least if ma blows me out of the water for missing her shindig, I can tell her my retroactive prior engagement was at a more up-market do.

"Oh, " he murmured faintly, "of course."

He suffered himself to be led gently towards the tall dark-haired figure in one corner of the reception room.


Draco was relieved to discover that he was, at least, going to be permitted a reviving glass or so of champagne and the odd canapé, before being seated at supper to work out how formal table manners had evolved in a thousand years or so. He expected that, since start at the outside and work in had almost certainly begun with flint utensils and hairy mammoths, he was probably relatively safe in assuming it had also taken itself across the cosmos as a planetary universal, but he had definite qualms about what to do if presented with, say, the Barrayaran equivalent of asparagus.

In the little private antechamber in the (apparently spanking new) dining wing, where drinks were being served, Ekaterin finally reappeared at his elbow, looking rather calmer than before.

"Hello!" she greeted him. "Have you been being looked after?"

"Comprehensively, thanks. No want unsupplied." He eyed her momentarily, and considered asking about Snape. He rejected the thought. Clearly if she had met Snape - and known of his talents - her bewilderment on the mountain side would have been less intense.

"Good." She paused, uncertainly. He tracked the direction of her gaze: the diminutive man he now knew to be her husband had entered the room, together with the uniformed brunette. Elli had clearly recovered her temper, and was chattering animatedly. He caught an instant's glimpse of pain in Ekaterin's face before the shutters came abruptly down again.

"Anyway," he murmured hurriedly, " I didn't have a chance to ask, earlier. Is your necklace an original, or is it a remarkably fine reproduction?"

Ekaterin turned towards him, her expression puzzled, but interested. He breathed a covert sigh of relief. If in doubt, get them onto their children, their jewellery, or the multiple inadequacies of their lovers. It seemed his mother's rules for sustaining a reputation as a brilliant and sympathetic conversationalist had not lost their validity with time.

A tall grey haired woman turned round to join them. "Ah?" she enquired, with an air of professional interest.

"Draco: Professora Helen Vorthys," Ekaterin murmured. "The historian. My aunt."

He bowed over her outstretched hand.

"What was that you were saying about Ekaterin's necklace? I've always wondered about that one myself."

He shrugged.

"Well, it looks like early twentieth century Russian work to me. Very good work."

And you ought to know that jewellery is the one area of Muggle studies in which the family has always taken an extensive interest.

"May I?" At Ekaterin's nod he extended a hand and reversed the pendant of the necklace - a thick cluster of diamonds set in the crescent formed by the arched body of a delicate white-gold art nouveau sprite. He made a small, pleased sound.

"Ah - here. See that?"

He indicated with his thumbnail a minute etching on the reverse of the pendant. The Professora bent over his gesturing hand, and suddenly looked enlightened. Ekaterin craned her neck in an effort to see.

"What -?"

A double-headed eagle, surrounded by elaborate curlicues, bearing on its breast a small, square ended ellipse with a single vertical stroke through it.

"Real Russian Cyrillic, not Barrayaran," the Professora murmured, with a hint of awe in her voice. "Ekaterin, did it ever occur to your Great-Aunt to get that thing valued?"

Ekaterin shook her head. "I think she'd have as soon have tried to put a price on a member of the family."

Draco smiled at her. "Well," he began.

"Excuse me."

The clipped, absolutely humourless - no, make that bloody livid - voice came from approximately the level of Draco's hand where he was holding the pendant. Making it, therefore, on exactly the same level as -

Oops.

"Might I ask what you're doing?"

The Lord Auditor's voice was low and deadly. Ekaterin's face flamed, and she twitched the pendant rapidly out of Draco's grasp as she straightened up. The Professora looked - interested.

It would, of course, be possible to answer the question. The option of doing so lasted a bare nano-second in his brain before being decisively rejected.

It was not merely that he had a faint sense that proffering a perfectly true and perfectly innocent explanation would somehow betray some of the deepest traditions of his heritage. It was not even that he had absorbed a substantial dose of his mother's philosophy that whilst jealousy was a deeply destructive emotion, well-defined areas of doubt and uncertainty were what made human relationships worth getting up in the mornings for. Perhaps the real reason was that his imagination simply could not conceive a halfway gallant way of embarking on an explanation, which essentially consisted of:

"No, honestly. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, I'm really much more interested in your wife's necklace than in her cleavage."

Instead, he took refuge in a technique his mother had frequently commended to him but he had rarely had the patience to practise: he smiled sweetly and said absolutely nothing.

With a gentle, amused purr in her voice the Professora said, "Miles, dear, Ekaterin's friend from Earth has been putting forward some very interesting views about the provenance of her necklace. It seems you may have a more valuable jewel in the family than perhaps you thought."

"Really." The Lord Auditor seemed to be conducting this conversation through gritted teeth. Draco assumed a relaxed posture, and kept his eyes fixed firmly on Ekaterin's husband's face: his younger self might have gone in for unsubtle when it came to insult but he had learnt - more sophisticated - approaches as he got older.

Shortarse is one of those words that would definitely be - uncool.

And he's presumably heard all the variants, anyway.

"Miles, I can see Lady Alys signalling me. Do excuse me."

Ekaterin sidled uncomfortably away across the room. The Professora looked hesitantly after her. Miles fixed a poignard-sharp social smile on his face, and continued:

"I don't recollect hearing your name before. How did you come to meet Ekaterin, exactly?"

Well, I could tell you the details. I suppose, in one sense, you're even - entitled - to know.

He paused, irresolutely. In that instant, the curly-haired brunette drifted into their small group.

"Oh, dear," she said, "did I see Ekaterin rushing off in a state again?"

Draco caught the Professora giving her a look which (before social duty evidently interposed its inflexible mask on the older woman's expression) chilled his blood. He had not thought a gentle, middle-aged academic capable of such bare-bladed fury.

He made his voice infinitely bland. "Not at all. I gather Lady Alys needed her help. Since you ask - ah - Miles - I met Ekaterin when she was being rather impressive. And saving the lives of an awful lot of people in the process."

Miles, oddly, looked suddenly more angry than before.

"That incident on the Komarran jump-station," he hissed, "is supposed to be one of the most classified of Imperial secrets."

Draco put his head on one side.

"In that case," he pointed out reasonably, "why are you telling a stranger you met five minutes ago all about it?"

The Lord Auditor appeared on the point of choking.

Fortunately, at this moment, Pym announced supper, and the party made their way into the dining room proper. Still more to Draco's relief, while having an Emperor at the head of the table might present its daunting social pitfalls, it certainly kept the lid on guerrilla conversational tactics. He had Cordelia on his left, a reassuring buffer between him and the Emperor, protecting him (he thought) from awkward questions about Earth by a sequence of judicious conversational nudges in other directions. Elli, on his right, rather pointedly ignored him and addressed her few staccato remarks to the vague-looking, grey haired man on her right. Neither the table arrangements nor the meal bore the slightest trace of having been hastily re-arranged to fit an extra guest. Pym and a young woman servitor circled the table with calm efficiency. Candle flames flickered from low silver candelabra set amid the massed blooms of the elaborate floral decorations on the table. It was all intensely civilized, and impeccably well-bred.

Which made it all the more shocking when, two bites into the fish course, the French windows burst inwards in a blizzard of glass shards and the ImpSec man from the guard-post, his face a bloodied mess, sprawled heavily into the room.

"Sire," he gasped, trying to rise, "It's an attack! They're -"

There was a flash like green lightning from outside the house. The ImpSec guard fell forward onto his face. He did not rise again.