Chapter 3

Scarcely before the shards had stopped falling the dinner party exploded into action. Almost too fast to spot, the Countess's hand dived beneath the table-top. The electric lights in the room instantly went out. The candles doused themselves at the same moment - Pym, Draco presumed. The only light in the room was that which filtered in from the veranda lights outside.

The howling emptiness in the gap that had once been the window was replaced in a split second by a curtain of dancing motes which somehow blocked out the wind, and against which the intermittent drizzle evaporated on impact. A heavy steel shutter clanged down, cutting off access from the ante-chamber. The woman servitor pulled some sort of weapon from a holster - a very well concealed holster, Draco noted grimly, and moved herself into the line of fire between the Emperor and the window.

"Ekaterin!" he snapped urgently.

His wand, amazingly, was already on the table in front of him. She gave him a quick nod, and then moved to kneel on the glass-covered carpet next to the dead ImpSec guard. The grey-haired man who had been on Elli's other side was already beside him, fingers probing gently under the dead man's hair.

Ekaterin's voice was urgent.

"Simon - do you think - can we - if we could get to the portable chamber in the medical suite in time, could he be cryo-revived?"

The grey-haired man's voice was doubtful.

"Depends what he died of. I can't feel any blisters, or anything -"

Ekaterin's voice was low, but remarkably steady.

" Was that - a nerve disruptor?"

You mean she doesn't know?

Pym, who was flattened against one side of the window arch, trying apparently in vain to spot the attackers in the gloom outside, turned his head slightly.

"Regrettably, no, milady."

"Blue fire, for nerve disruptors."

It was the Emperor who had spoken. He looked out through what had been the window, trying, Draco thought, to locate a precise point in the gardens outside. The Countess tracked his glance. The Emperor sighed.

"Poor Petris. I always suspected he found his great ancestor an almost crushing weight to carry around with him, in ImpSec."

The grey haired man looked up from the corpse. "I don't think even the Captain could have faulted him for this last."

"No. And near enough to the same spot. The oldest of my ImpSec ghosts will be on hand to greet their newest recruit."

There was a pause.

"Pym!" The Countess's voice had sharpened. "What did you mean - regrettably?"

The Armsman's glance flickered across the ill-lit wreckage of the room. His eyes met Draco's.

"I've never seen it done, of course, but it seemed to fit the description."

And you would know hung in the air between them.

Draco's voice was grim. "That was the fourth time I've seen it done this month. And yes - you're quite right."

"Right about what?"

The Lord Auditor stopped his restless movements about the room, where he had apparently been inventorying their stock of items suitable for improvised use in combat. He continued, "No visible assailant, no chemical smell, no sound of power discharge, no apparent marking on the body, no nimbus - I was sitting right next to where he died, and if it had been anything like a gravitic imploder weapon I'd have been caught in the backwash, too. So - since you seem to know so much about it - what killed him?"

It broke all the rules. It was not the sort of question he was supposed ever to allow to be asked, let alone answer. And, furthermore, he had a shrewd suspicion that they were not going to enjoy the answer, either.

"Well?" The Emperor was asking too - which made it an Imperial command, of sorts, he supposed, and anyway the people who could enforce those particular rules against him had been dead for close on a thousand years. He drew a deep breath.

"Magic," Draco said simply.

In some respects it was most interesting to see which of the others did not react as expected to his answer.

Ekaterin's eyes widened a little, but after the events they had recently been through on Earth she could hardly have been surprised; the Countess, too, gave a small sotto voce "Ha!" as though a lost jigsaw piece had suddenly reappeared and been slotted into place. The grey-haired man called Simon looked puzzled, and a little put-out, as though groping for a recollection that he knew he ought to have, but which had momentarily slipped. Lady Alys simply looked as though she felt showing any form of surprise would be deeply unladylike. The Emperor - Draco couldn't tell what the Emperor thought.

Elli's response was a short, disbelieving sniff, and By flashed him a quick Is-This-Really-The-Time? look. The couple Draco now knew as Ekaterin's aunt and uncle looked as though they were awaiting better data before formulating a response. Miles, on the other hand, smiled a slow satisfied smile.

"Ah. From Earth. You're another one, then."

Another one? Oh, Snape, I suppose. What the hell was he doing here? I wonder how he'd react if I told him his friends on Barrayar were asking after him.

There were some confused noises from outside. Draco set his teeth.

Assuming I get out of here in any fit state to tell him anything.

He focused intently on Pym. "Do you have anti-Apparation charms on the house?"

Pym turned slowly away from the window. "No. It wasn't necessary. My - our - people on Barrayar have lost the art of Apparation."

He paused. "Mind you, until a couple of minutes ago I'd have said they'd also lost the secrets of the Unforgivable Curses, too."

He turned back to the window, but not before Draco caught a brief glimpse of appalled realisation sweeping across his face like an incoming tide. The expression shook him more than he cared to acknowledge.

Not here too.

Draco's voice was harsh. "Well, I haven't been giving seminars, if that's what you think."

Pym's voice was low. "No, sir, I didn't." He looked sombrely out through the curtain of dancing motes into the darkness. "But somebody has, and that's the truth."

"I think it might be helpful to the rest of us if you felt able to explain a bit more fully what you're talking about."

The calmly worded enquiry came from Ekaterin's uncle, a large rumpled teddy-bear of a man who had been sitting opposite Draco during the abortive meal.

Draco looked at Pym, who gulped nervously and addressed his remarks inflexibly to the head of the table.

"There's been - as ImpSec is well aware, Sire - a small magical community on Barrayar since the Founding. But our skill is limited; we lost - much - during the Time of Isolation. We know that - in the old days - wizards had been able to kill with a word - "

"Well, two words, technically," Draco murmured.

"And to bend others to their will - but the secret of how to do it was lost - it became a legend to us - "

Draco hoped his expression was not as wistful as he felt, but something about the Vicereine's gaze on him was not encouraging in this respect.

Pym's voice assumed increased confidence. "We know there are magical communities on a number of other planets: not Beta, not Jackson's Whole - not Komarr, so far as we can tell -"

There was a slight indrawn breath. "Well," the Lord Auditor breathed, "At least that's one complication avoided."

Pym's face was carefully non-committal. "Unfortunately, my lord, there is a very - um -persistent tradition from the time of occupation that magic is known on Cetaganda, even though it does not seem to be practised among the ghem lords."

Even Draco could tell that this piece of information did not represent good news.

"So," the Emperor said bleakly, "it appears we are faced with an enemy certainly receiving assistance from off-planet, if not in fact acting as the spearhead of a Cetagandan invasion. Pym - have you any idea of who would remain loyal among the Barrayaran - magicians - if disloyalty promised to increase their natural powers so dramatically?"

One has to hand it to him, he's got a nasty way of getting to the root of the matter.

Pym coughed, looking, for a moment, hunted.

"I would hope, Sire - the majority."

Draco took care that his face was in shadow. He gulped, silently.

Suppose the Dark Lord had had a monopoly on the Unforgivable Curses - and only his supporters had been able to Apparate -

"And what does our visitor from Earth say to that?" The Emperor's tone was reflective; it was not, however a voice that could possibly be ignored.

"If this is the start of it, then that's probably true - for now." His voice rang harshly into the listening silence. "It won't be so for long. When a few people have seen Cruciatus in action, for example - I take it your legends include Cruciatus, do they, Pym? - I think you'll soon see loyalties start - slipping -"

"Then we have to stop it now." The Lord Auditor's face was ablaze with calculation. "You can get a message out, I take it? Pym, who're the best people for him to start talking to?"

Pym looked thoughtful. "I'd say he should Apparate up to Vorkosigan House, my lord. My lad Arthur was invited to fetch up there for supper with young Nikki after their Imperial Scouts' review this afternoon. I can give Arthur a message introducing him to our neighbours - Vladimir's a twice twenty years man, and his grandfather was killed by the Cetas fighting with the Count-your-Grandfather and the old Emperor - I'd lay oath to his loyalty, and he'll know the others to trust. But - "

The Lord Auditor pressed on relentlessly.

"Good. Get the word around among the loyalists. See what they can contrive by way of a counter-attack. The rebels won't expect to be taken in rear: not if we move quickly. The important thing's going to be cutting out their off-planet advisors - now, I wonder how that's being funded? Do wizards succumb to guerrilla accountancy, do you suppose? Oh and - Draco? You need to give Dr Canaba - no, Weddell - a tissue sample. I'll cut him orders to get down to isolating the gene pattern for this - ah - talent and developing a scan diagnostic kit for ImpSec. They need to be told to scan everyone coming in from outside the Imperium, and hold anyone who matches the gene pattern. Containment, that's the thing. We need to cut off the rebels' chance of reinforcement. The Ariel must be loyal, of course. Give the Dendarii on board my personal order - yes, it'll have to come from Naismith, that'll get them - ha! - to jump straight through to Sergyar. Gregor - you can request and require the Count-my-father to assume command of the space-based forces in Komarr orbit. That ought to convince any waverers what side to stay with. These infiltrators must have come in on some sort of transport or other wherever they're from. You need to get Allegre and Duv on that end as soon as you've got the message up to the Ariel. Oh, and -"

The Emperor looked at him with deceptive mildness.

"Miles, exactly how many lines of command were you planning to cut through?"

The beautiful brunette appeared to be wondering, too. Draco thought it was time to say something.

"Well, mine, for one."

They all looked at him. He shrugged.

"Well, while you were busily planning my role in this little conflict you seemed to be overlooking the minor point that this is no quarrel of mine. I'm currently engaged in another war, and, although I daresay I may be being just slightly egotistical to think of this, if I manage to get killed here it just might have some bearing on our chances of avoiding defeat there. And since there also happens to be then, I really don't want to have to speculate about what that might do to your current problems."

The Lord Auditor's air of being taken suddenly aback would, in other circumstances, have been comical. Draco turned to the Emperor.

"This isn't anything personal, of course. But I'm not your subject. In fact, naturally speaking, any loyalties I might have in this fight ought to be outside that window."

He jerked his chin towards the dancing curtain. "After all, look at it from my point of view. I was brought up to believe that if wizards didn't stick together - if they allowed their blood to be diluted by interbreeding with Mu- with non-magical people - they would eventually diminish into a subject race, growing fewer and weaker year on year. And that we were justified in doing anything - anything at all - to prevent that happening."

He took a deep breath.

"A - a short while ago - something happened to convince me that - I was wrong about what was justified. And I told myself that I'd been lied to, anyway, and that things wouldn't turn out that way after all, whatever I did."

He looked across at Pym, whose face was unreadable.

"But - it seems they have. It just looks to have taken a bit longer than we all thought. I can see here exactly the nightmare we were always threatened with. Who am I to say that if the wizards and witches of Barrayar are doing something about it that they're doing wrong and that I was right in helping to bring it about in the first place?"

"I see," breathed the Vicereine, "a principled objection."

Ekaterin looked up. "So what becomes of your blood debt then?"

"I - ah - oh." God, she's quick. "Milady - Ekaterin - I haven't forgotten that. But - the normal expression of a blood oath is 'to protect you and yours, to the death if necessary.' In this room - if they were to get in - I could make a decent stab at doing that. I can probably manage to get you and your family out of here, somehow. What I can't do is be in two places at once. I am not a one-man bloody army, for heaven's sake. In fact, all I am, I'm afraid, is a random factor those people outside aren't aware of yet."

She thought about that for a bit. Then she shook her head. "Draco - I'm Vor. I can't ask you to provide a - an escape route just for me and my family. Not in the teeth of this. It would be - it would be deserting in the heat!"

He looked at her, thought of saying something, and then changed his mind.

Principled nutters. What is there about my life that fates me to keep being dragged by principled nutters into their suicidal schemes?

"Well," he said in a defeated sort of way to Pym, "If that's what the lady wants, then I suppose I'm at her disposal. Work out some way of convincing the people who're loyal that I happen to have at least the powers of the people they'll be fighting against, tell me how to get there and I'll be on my way, then."

Pym looked infinitely hesitant.

"The difficulty, sir, is that in order to convey to them your full - er - credentials - it would be necessary to use your family name. And that might have rather the opposite effect to what we would intend. If you take my meaning, sir."

He took it, instantly. He could feel his face flame. His voice rose in something close to a howl of outrage.

"Yes. I do bloody well see. Exactly. No further explanation necessary, in fact. Frigging hell! You get the bad luck to be saddled with a father who was a sodding psychopath, and then it's all anyone can remember about you for the next thousand years, for fuck's sake!"

He was conscious of a speaking silence all around him. Lady Alys was skewering him on the end of an outraged glance. The Vicereine had her hand to her lips, looking from him to the Emperor with an unreadable expression on her face.

Oops. I suppose that isn't the sort of thing they usually hear in an Imperial dining chamber. Not quite what one might call inter-galactic diplomacy. Though if they're serious about the Emperor having been a serving soldier I'll be flabbergasted if anything I just said was something he'd honestly never heard before.

At least one other person in the room was a witch or wizard: even if he could take out Pym, whoever the other one was would, he presumed, then be able to hold him down to await the Emperor's pleasure.

The Emperor rose to his feet, apparently for the sole purpose of looking down at him.

How - strange. It seems ironic brown eyes can be just as daunting as mad red ones. If they have the power of three planets behind them, that is.

"Do I take it that your father would have been a defeated psychopath?"

The voice was coolly sardonic, but, above everything, it was the voice of someone one could under no circumstances contemplate lying to and getting away with it. Draco gulped.

"I'm not entirely sure," he confessed, and then added, "it was looking encouragingly like it when I left."

The Emperor's gaze swept round the room.

"Pym?" He enquired conversationally. That imperturbable servitor positively shuddered.

"I regret, Sire," he choked out, "I do not believe that is a matter on which I am at liberty to enlighten you. Sire."

The Imperial eyebrows rose. "Indeed."

He looked once more at Draco. "Hopefully, when the current - excitements - are over you may have the opportunity of visiting Vorbarra Sultana. I can commend to you the tour of Vorhartung Castle. I think you will find the exhibit on my late ancestor Yuri instructive. If you are really in any doubt as to how a psychopath who ends up on the losing side is remembered. As opposed to a victorious one."

He looked across at the Armsman.

"Pym." He cleared the Imperial throat. "I wish it to be clearly understood by these people that I Mr Malfoy acts as Our Voice in this matter. In the circumstances I can think of no-one who would be more suited to the job. Give him all the information he needs in order to - ah - Apparate to Vorkosigan House, and contact your son."

"Yes, Sire."

The room's atmosphere lightened perceptibly. The Vicereine's eyes danced. Only the beautiful curly haired brunette creased her brows in an outraged frown, and then leant forward.

"Sire!" she said assertively. "As the senior ImpSec officer present - "

There was a slight stir in the corner of the room. Lady Alys's lips set in a tight line. The middle-aged, slightly vague gentleman who had been sitting on Elli's far side creased his brows, his expression caught midway between exasperated and rueful. The brunette coughed.

"As the senior ImpSec operative on active duty present," she corrected, "I must formally register my concern at this proposal. Sire."

Brave woman.

The Emperor raised his eyebrows. Go on they invited. Draco suppressed a shudder.

"Yes, Admiral Quinn?"

Admiral? At her age? And just how did she get that rank, that early? Slept with her C/O?

Across the table Draco was aware of Ekaterin's rigidly immobile face: expressionless, many might have said. He did not propose to make that mistake. He had, after all, been brought up by a mother who could, should occasion warrant it, convey a running and scurrilous silent commentary on the guests at a dinner party, while maintaining an expression of mask-like inanity to anyone who did not know her exceptionally well.

He glanced away from Ekaterin to the Lord Auditor, who seemed, from his edginess, to be on a count down towards detonation point, and then back to the Admiral. Revelation swept over him in a great awakening light.

Oh. I see. She has.

He put his head on one side.

The only real question is whether that comes under the subject heading of Ancient History or Current Affairs.

So far as he could tell, Ekaterin wasn't sure, either. He fixed his gaze firmly on the Admiral, and smiled.

"Are you about to make a personal remark?" he drawled sweetly.

She glared at him, but addressed herself solidly to the Emperor.

"Sire! On this man's own admission his background is deeply unstable. Standard procedures would urge the utmost care before allowing anyone with that sort of psych profile any sort of politically sensitive role."

Draco saw the Countess and Lady Alys exchange a glance, and his heart skipped a beat. He looked quickly back to the Emperor, but he was, if anything, projecting himself as even blander than before.

So why do I keep getting these flashbacks to steaming heaps of ash on the Manor carpet?

He made his voice studiedly reasonable.

"Oh, I don't think it'd be fair simply to ask the Emperor to rule me out of court simply because of my father. As I explained earlier, I do also have some - personal qualms - about setting myself against the people outside the window."

"I appreciate your frankness," the Emperor commented coolly. "Admiral Quinn?"

She evidently regarded his last comment as a mere attempt to annoy her.

"We've only his own word that he has these powers he's supposed to have - "

Ekaterin swept her with a glance.

"Not his bare word, surely, Elli, " she murmured. "Don't you mean, only his word supported by my testimony?"

She paused, for five full heartbeats. There was a faint, choked sound. Draco thought it came from the direction of the Countess. Before, however, Elli could collect her thoughts enough to speak, Ekaterin added thoughtfully,

"And that of Armsman Pym, of course."

Armsman Pym, quite clearly, was preparing to volunteer to take on the assembled forces outside single-handed if it only got him out of this blizzard of nuances. The Lord Auditor looked as though he were seriously considering feigning an epileptic fit to dispel the intensity of the local atmosphere. There was only one thing to do. Draco decided to take matters a lot too far.

"Do I take it that Admiral Quinn would be happier with a demonstration?"

There was a short cough.

"Blessed are they who have not seen and yet have believed," the Countess observed dryly. Her bright eyes, however, conveyed the exact opposite. The Emperor, too, leaned forward in anticipation.

Admiral Quinn waved her hand in irritation.

"Oh, this is too idiotic - "

She paused, her eyes widening.

She burped.

"Oh, excuse me, I -"

She burped again. This time, a shimmering iridescent bubble made its way from between her parted lips. As the eyes of all the assembled company focused on it in horrified fascination, as it bobbed slowly up towards the ceiling, where it burst and a brilliant blue-green dragonfly fluttered out. Another bubble was already emerging, followed in rapid succession by another and then a third. Then, bubbles which came forth in a procession too quick to measure by eye.

"Draco!" Ekaterin waved an arm to deter the small cloud of flickering wings and sparkling bodies that was hovering above the dining table. "Elli is our guest."

He grinned at her, unrepentantly. " I know that." He paused. "That's why I rejected slugs."

Elli favoured him with a withering glance. Unfortunately, as she was at that precise moment also uttering a staccato, machine-gun fire of bubbles containing rare Amazonian dragonflies with wingspans quite 10 cm across, the impact was somewhat diluted.

"Draco!" There was a snap of authentic command in Ekaterin's voice.

He bowed, ironically.

"If it be your will, milady."

He gestured, languidly. The bubble eruption stopped. The dragonflies already dancing in the room spun into a tighter and tighter vortex, a flickering blur of brilliant colour, until finally they coalesced into a shimmering mass. With a high, pure note like the flick of a fingernail on soap-bubble blown glass the mass abruptly dropped out of the air at Ekaterin's feet. She bent and picked it up: a wrap, in the finest silk, glowing with all the hues of a million dragonflies.

In the sudden stunned hush, the tiny sound she made could be heard in all four corners of the room.

A soft exclamation of surprise, shading up into a brief, enchanted, wildly inappropriate, completely ill-timed, half-stifled but wholly delighted giggle.

Ekaterin clapped her hand to her mouth with guilty speed, but not before the Lord Auditor had spun to face her, his contorted features so ablaze with unashamed relief and adoration that they could have set the room on fire.

Ah. That answers it. History. At least, it is now.

He was surprised - not only at the satisfaction the reflection gave him, but that he even had leisure to think about it in the light of the current crisis.

"Well," the Emperor observed dryly, "I trust that clarifies the issue to everyone's satisfaction."

His tone made it less a question than an order. Elli subsided into resentful silence, periodically interrupted by hiccups. To the evident disappointment of By - who fixed her with a glittering and malicious gaze - these proved unproductive.

"So," the Emperor continued as though nothing had happened, "to make sure Our loyal subjects among these people accept you as Our Voice -"

He got up and crossed the room to a small escritoire in the corner, where he sat down. "Miles?"

The diminutive Lord Auditor approached, somewhat hesitantly. "Mm?"

"Didn't I see you showing off General Piotr's dagger while we were having drinks?"

Miles suddenly looked stuffed. Wordlessly, he touched a couple of points on the wood of the escritoire. A section of the heavily carved moulding slid sideways, allowing a secret drawer to spring out. Draco fancied he was not the only one whose intake of breath was audible. The Emperor picked the gaudy cloisonné weapon delicately out of the drawer with an absence of expression that spoke louder than words.

So what became of that "no weapons in the Emperor's presence" rule? Making exceptions to the rule because someone's your foster brother is sheer nuts. How many palace revolutions ever begin with the pantry boy, for god's sake? These people are completely insane.

The Emperor pulled a pen from an inside pocket of his beautifully cut suit and scribbled for a few moments. He then paused, considered what he had written, and added a word or two more. He picked up the dagger, rolled back his cuff and meditatively, unemotionally, sliced across the back of his forearm. A bead of bright blood welled up. He contemplated it, and then dipped his signet ring into it, pressing it down upon the paper.

"Try presenting that," he said, "if you encounter any difficulties."

Draco could see that Pym was on the point of saying something. He got in first.

"Honestly," he said, "I think it's only fair to point out to you that given who I am, most people don't actually hand me a sample of their blood to play with."

The Emperor considered this momentarily. Draco noted with some relief that there appeared no need to expand on the hint: local folk tales were, it seemed, helpfully informative on the subject of Dark uses for blood and hair.

"I can assure you," he said gently, "that you will find that blood infinitely more powerful where I've put it than anywhere else you might think of. Trust me."

That wasn't the way round where I thought the problem might be.

The Emperor held the paper out to him. He took it, and hesitated.

"Good luck," the Emperor said. His sardonic brown eyes glinted momentarily. "We're all going to need it."

He found himself bowing, automatically.

He was still thinking about that when - after some intensive explanations from Pym, and some even more intensive interruptions from the Lord Auditor - he finally got to Disapparate.


There was a sudden, ominous movement beneath their feet, a suppressed, juddering roar, which then faded - not quite to nothing, but to an even more ominous working silence, punctuated with the patter of falling pebbles, and the occasional squeak of protest from tortured wood. The elegant plasterwork cracked clear across one wall of the dining room.

Ekaterin cast a quick, sidelong glance at her uncle, and found her aunt doing the same thing. The Imperium's foremost expert in engineering failure analysis winced.

"I would suggest that no-one makes any sudden movements," he murmured, "and loud noises might preferably be avoided, too."

At which moment a booming voice made itself heard from outside.

"Well, someone might mention that to them," By muttered pointedly.

"We warn you not to make any sudden movements," the voice announced. "The entire part of the building in which you are sitting has been placed by our powers on a knife-edge. If you have no fancy to slide down in ruin to the lake, you have two choices."

"Yeah, I can guess." Miles was slumped in a small, morose heap in his seat at the foot of the table. "How about: bad and worse?"

The voice spoke again.

"You may surrender the Muggle Gregor Vorbarra alive, or you may surrender him dead."

Cordelia looked at her son. "You said it, kiddo."

Gregor's nostrils widened very slightly. Pym looked at him urgently. "Sire!" he hissed, "don't listen to them. They're bluffing - must be. If they could have got in here, they would have, by now. And they can't have got that much support, that quickly, to support an assassination attempt on Your Imperial Majesty as their opening move."

Miles, at least, seemed to find the opportunity to strategise revitalizing. He sat up straighter.

"That's true," he muttered, creasing his brows. "And another thing - if these people are supposed to be able to kill at a word, how come they let Petris get all the way up here before finishing him off? That's got to be a blunder, or -"

"Or at the very least, some deeply ill-thought out notion of dramatic timing." Simon Illyan looked thoughtfully at Miles. "Reminds me of some particularly insubordinate subordinates I used to have. The details are hazy, but - "

Miles gave a wry grimace.

"Simon! Now?"

The former ImpSec head smiled, blandly. Something about his expression struck Ekaterin forcibly beneath her ribs.

In some weird way he's almost enjoying this. The old warhorse smelling cordite again, long after being put out to grass.

"Ha! Don't flatter yourself, boy. You weren't my only - excessively over-imaginative - subordinate, you were just my most successfully insubordinate one. And all the over-imaginative ones tended to be over-imaginative in the same way. Imperial marks to sand, this 'poised on a knife-edge' nonsense is them trying to cover up the effects of some cack-handed attempt to break in here, and they're as much upset by it as you are. But not quite as seriously pissed as whoever's really running this show is going to be when they find out about it."

"So I take it that you do not think it my Imperial duty to walk out of here and surrender to them for the general good?"

Gregor's voice had an indefinable note to it. Ekaterin's heart almost thudded to a stop. All the others in the room suddenly started to talk at once.

"Gregor, you can't think -!"

"What - it'd be madness!"

"Everyone in this room will put their lives on the line to protect you, Sire!'

And, cutting through the Babel, the firm, assured voice of the Countess.

"Gregor, trust me and Alys on this one - yes, and I don't see Simon disagreeing. The safety of the Imperium during your minority was bought and paid for in blood. And if it wasn't our blood - well, mostly -"

Her eye flickered, momentarily, in Miles's direction. Ekaterin thought she read a moment's doubt in her expression.

"Then that was more by luck than judgment. If you give yourself up, all you'd do is throw the Crown Prince and Laisa right back to where we all were thirty-five years ago. And frankly, Gregor, I'm too bloody old to go through that lot again."

"Besides," Professor Vorthys added, eyeing the widening crack in the plasterwork at the far end of the room with a disconcerting mix of professional interest and personal alarm, "I wouldn't recommend anyone in this room walks anywhere. The balance could be shifted by the slightest movement."

The Emperor sighed.

"So, a big thumbs down to the grandly futile heroic exit, then? Pity. But then, I suppose traditional Vor idiocy is idiocy still. And magical idiocy likewise. What do you suppose they'll think up for an encore?"

They did not have long to wait. The booming voice sounded again.

"Well, we see you are not disposed - at present - to act sensibly. Believe us, it is not our intention to spill innocent blood. We would greatly prefer to readjust matters on Barrayar to the proper order of things without wasting lives. Our powers give us that luxury, unlike yours. But only if you are prepared to sacrifice your pride for the good of all Barrayar. But time is short: we urge you not to waste your opportunity to throw yourself on the Magus-Emperor's mercy."

"Magus-Emperor?"

Gregor looked at Pym. Pym shrugged, helplessly.

"Your guess is as good as mine. Sire."

He drew in his breath with a deeply disapproving hiss.

Gregor shook his head firmly from side to side.

"Whatever powers these people may have, Emperor is not a title to play with lightly. Not on Barrayar. Pym: can you amplify my voice, somehow?"

Pym gave a quick, sidelong glance at the crack in the wall, caught Professor Vorthys's eye (the Professor nodded, doubtfully) and then pulled a wand from his sleeve, tapping respectfully on Gregor's throat.

"Ah - Sonorus - Sire," he murmured apologetically. Gregor cleared his throat and turned towards the window arch. Even prepared, as she halfway was, Ekaterin was still startled by the deep booming note which emerged.

"This is your Emperor. We do not propose to say this again. We hold the Imperium, as a trust for the peoples of Barrayar, of Komarr, and of Sergyar. In that trust, we hold the oaths of every one of you to preserve the peace of the Imperium. We invoke those oaths now. You threaten the peace and stability of the Empire. Give up this treasonous attempt."

He paused.

"If you do not, then nothing can save you from Our wrath. The Imperium can only have one Emperor. And that is not a duty to be surrendered. Or - hyphenated. Ever. That concludes Our Speaking."

He nodded to Pym, who murmured:

"Finite incantatem!".

His voice now back to normal volume, Gregor inhaled deeply.

The voice from outside commenced again.

"If that is your answer, you must await the justice of the Magus-Emperor. You, together with - all our other hostages."

There was silence.

Ekaterin's hand had gone to her mouth. "Hostages - Miles - the nursery -"

Miles looked as unpreparedly appalled as she felt, but it was Cordelia who spoke.

"Believe me, Ekaterin, I triggered all the force shielding when I hit the panic buttons. Alexander is at least as safe as we are - without the special dangers of being in the vicinity of the Imperial lightning conductor."

She nodded, briefly, in the direction of Gregor, who acknowledged his unorthodox designation with a faint movement of one eyebrow. Cordelia continued:

"And both his nurses were - among their other talents - hand selected by General Allegre."

"On my personal advice, milady," Pym added. "I assure you, they have a full range of skills."

The Vicereine's face was sere.

"Ekaterin, I give you my word: anything I can do to protect my grandchild I will. And if these people have any sense of history they will not call me on that word, whatever powers they think they have."

The dark pit whirled around her. Fool not to have thought of it earlier. She wanted to pace, frantically, like the trapped animal she suddenly felt herself to be. The small sound of earth pattering down from outside the window brought her back to her senses.

Small mercies, but real ones. The nursery is in the stable part of the house. Whatever else happens to Alexander, he will not be brought down in the general ruin if we make a false step here.

She gave a brief, tight-lipped acknowledgement with her head in the direction of Cordelia, not trusting her voice.

Protect you and yours. He spotted it, of course, straight away. These people think - in ways he is used to. A straight choice, then, between the individual and the mass.

And now you are irrevocably committed to the general good.

Consciously, she brought down a wall of thick glass between her and her fears. To test its strength, she looked steadily down the table at the Emperor, who, for once, failed to meet her gaze.

Guilt, perhaps? Laisa and the Crown Prince are off-planet, by luck - surely he cannot think I blame him for that chance?

Or is that inability to meet my gaze a recognition that, in our fears at least, we are equals?

She gave him a stiff little chin-up nod.

After all, if this is coming from Cetaganda, Komarr will be no refuge if we cannot contain it here.

She scanned the room. Elli was curled on her seat in a tense, disgruntled ball, chewing determinedly on her finger ends. Miles, at the far end of the table, also looked as though he was on the point of combusting.

This is not a situation where forward momentum is helpful. This is a situation where riding madly off in all directions could bring the house crashing down and the Imperium with it. All one can do is wait. Hope. Remain still, but watchful. Try - by whatever means - to keep yourself and those around you from becoming paralysed with fear.

Rather like kneeling by the bedside of a sick child, in fact.

Pym was still flattened against the wall next to the window arch, scanning cautiously out through the force shielding. Anna, equally professional, had adopted a similar position against the steel frame of the door. Ekaterin's lips quirked at a sudden, whimsical recollection.

If one's personal maid turns out to be ImpSec, does that make her inspirations with one's hair a State secret?

Miles had started drumming with his fingers on the table. By gave him an exasperated glance, and then turned away with a too-self-consciously resigned sigh. Elli looked at By, and her lips moved as she inaudibly, though with deliberate and elaborate emphasis, began counting up to ten.

If someone doesn't do something soon we'll bring down the hill-side simply with the momentum generated as we fly at each other's throats.

And who then will be left to protect the children?

Ekaterin coughed, and then tapped her teaspoon gently - for who knew what minute sound or movement might prove excessive - against the stem of her wineglass. When she was sure she had the attention of all the people in the room, she spoke.

"It looks as though - for the time being - we're stuck here. Outside these walls is a deep danger we can barely understand. And to move brings more peril, and the risk of disaster. We need - somehow - to pass the time, until either the danger falls away of its own accord, or is defeated, or we fall to it."

She paused. She caught her aunt's bright eye on her: yes, you would know, earliest of them all, where I might be going.

She cleared her throat again. A bubble of that same anarchic joy that she had felt on the mountaintop welled up in her.

Let these - soldiers - digest this.

"Since action, at the moment, is impossible, we need to reflect. To occupy ourselves. And I have heard of some people who were once in a - somewhat similar - position."

She had them - they were turning to listen to her. A plan - any plan - boss them about in a language they understand - she kept any trace of her inner exultation out of her expression.

"I suggest we occupy our time - until we know what else we need to do, at least - telling stories. On themes to be determined by - the master of ceremonies -"

Her eyes slid unobtrusively towards Gregor. He was leaning slightly forward on the table: his head at a half-cocked angle.

"What?!"

The disbelief erupting from Elli was so explosive that not only Ekaterin herself, but also her uncle and By could be spotted casting hasty glances towards the corner of the room closest - they believed - to the line of the fault, in case something might have been dislodged by it.

"We're being held hostage by some bunch of crazies who are trying a coup d'etat in favour of someone they call the Magus-Emperor and the best response you can think of is that we should sit down and start telling fairy-stories? Flower-child, you are one seriously strange lady."

Ekaterin did not bother to look at her. Cordelia was leaning forwards, her face alight with anticipation. Even Lady Alys, she imagined, was giving her a decorous thumbs up.

The Emperor cleared his throat.

"For God's sake let us sit upon the ground," he breathed, and then, with the reflexive haste of one whose breath had been law since before he was out of short trousers, added, "Not literally of course: I don't think that any precipitate movement would be a good idea here."

He paused, and then said,

"And, for that matter, speaking strictly for me, I'd prefer to choose a slightly more - ah - optimistic subject matter than the original."

He surveyed the room, dusky in the flickering light from the veranda, and allowed his eye to rest upon Pym and Anna.

"Also," he added gently, "those currently engaged upon active official duties in Our service may be relieved of the obligation to participate. Though by all means, if you have a story to contribute on any topic, please do so. As for the rest of you -"

His eye swept the room.

"Ekaterin's suggestion seems an excellent one. For the first round, therefore, We rule that the subject is: Love At First Impeded, and then Triumphantly Vindicated. By, with all your knowledge of the capital's gossip, I'm sure you can set us off on a suitable note?"

By, Ekaterin noted, to his considerable credit, did not miss a beat. He moved his legs into a comfortably crossed position, leaned back in his chair, smiled a deeply double-edged smile, and began.

"Indeed, Sire. Though, if you'll excuse me, I'll save retailing the current gossip in case you need me to spice up one or two of the later rounds. I think for this one, I need to go back a bit, to a story my great-grandmother told to her daughter, and she to hers, and her to me. Now, this goes back to the very early years of Emperor Dorca the Good - when he was merely Emperor Dorca the Exceedingly Careful in fact -"

He cast a sidelong glance at the Emperor, who looked saturnine.

"And concerns the then Countess Vorinniss, her steward, and the importance (whoever else you may be lying to) of telling the linch-pin of your alibi exactly what you really are planning to do, when he or she is expected to testify that you were doing something completely different at the relevant time."

He paused, and gathered the company around the table within the delicious complicity of his wicked glance.

"It was high summer and everyone had left the capital to go to their estates to supervise the unwashed serfdom getting the harvest in. Well - practically everyone, that is - "


Draco Apparated - mercifully undamaged, despite his profound, albeit unspoken apprehensions - into a cool black and white hallway, with heavy carved wood on doorframes and lintels. It was, in its air of spacious age, though not in its high ceilings and generously proportioned doors and windows, reassuringly home-like. He had, of course, his wand out, and was not disposed to take any risks, especially since the house had a depth of quiet he did not associate readily with places of this size. He was, of course, used to the discreet isolation the serving staff afforded to the heir or - he gulped, as memory suddenly intruded - he supposed, to the owner. But there was always a buzz; a listening silence in the background, or a sense that a shout or the ring of a bell would bring instant attention. This place had a - nothingness. It had been stripped bare of its human inhabitants.

He turned his wand slowly in his hand, as he had been taught, and murmured the words of the location spell.

Ah.

Not in fact a wholly deserted house, then.

Just one whose remaining inhabitants are trying their damnedest to pretend it is.

Quite well, actually.

Taking the precaution of casting a silencing spell on his boots, he moved up the main staircase and on towards the upper floors. On the second storey he took directions again from the wand.

Still upwards. Sound instincts there, someone. Searchers, naturally, do not look up. Unless guided.

Wand still in hand, Draco headed determinedly for the attics. On the bare wooden staircase outside the little door he paused, took a deep breath, and with infinite caution turned the handle.

He sensed, rather than saw, the movement from the shadows.

"Expelliarmus!" he snapped abruptly. As expected, there was a clatter as a wand hit the wooden boards of the attic floor.

"Accio," he ordered. Only when it was safely in his belt did he turn towards the spot from which it had come.

"Out of there, and show yourself!"

Which was when a heavy body dropped silently from the rafters on top of him and took his neck in the steely grip of one sharply-angled arm.

He choked, his wand hand waving wildly as the breath was squeezed out of him.

"Surrender in the Emperor's name," his assailant hissed.

Draco gasped the hex with what felt like his dying breath. The pressure on his windpipe suddenly eased, and there was a quickly suppressed moan of pain from behind him. He pulled himself free of the weakened grasp, and spun on the spot.

Defiant eyes looked up at him from a teenage boy who was crouched low to the ground, nursing his elbow. Draco was, by this time, unsurprised to note that his juvenile assailant was in uniform.

"What did you do to him, you bastard?"

The voice came from the same patch of shadows, its owner prudently still declining to show himself. Draco shrugged.

"A lot less than I could have done. I can't remember at the moment whether that was gout or tennis elbow I hexed him with, but in any case the effects are strictly temporary."

He turned back to the resentful boy on the floor, checking him over quickly and unobtrusively to see if he was also carrying a wand. It appeared not. He breathed a covert sigh of relief.

"And as for you," Draco continued smoothly, "why ruin a perfectly sensible plan by starting chatting to me before disarming me, or, better still from your perspective, slitting my throat?"

The stocky boy on the floor looked sulky, muttering something which sounded rather like "always works on the 'vids".

"What are you going to do to us?" the voice from the shadows continued, a thin veneer of defiance not entirely masking a pit of terror underneath. Draco shrugged.

"Well, seeing your face would be nice."

He gestured with his wand, for emphasis. Reluctantly, another boy of about the same age - fourteen or so, Draco guessed - and wearing the same uniform as the stocky boy, made his appearance from behind a stack of battered-looking furniture. With his appearance the last shreds of doubt disappeared. He raised his eyebrows.

"Ah. Arthur Pym, I presume."

"Don't tell him," the boy on the floor muttered urgently. Draco modulated his voice to a purr.

"Even on an Imperial command?"

It had not been the circumstances in which he had envisaged producing the Emperor's - what did these people call it? - flimsy, but he managed to pull it out of the breast pocket of his robes with a suitable flourish. The two boys craned sceptically over to look at it, but evidently the sprawling Vorbarra which occupied the bottom third of the document was sufficient to convince them, even though it took the rust-brown seal below it to widen their eyes in something approaching awe.

"So," he continued, while the glamour of it was still clearly distracting them, "to whom do I owe the honour of being nearly strangled?"

The stocky boy gave a shy half-grin. "Nikolai Vorsoisson," he murmured.

Good god, how do they ever keep any names straight round here? And I bet it really screws up the Floo network. If they have one, of course.

"And I am Arthur Pym," the other boy added helpfully. "How did you know?"

Draco shrugged. "Strong resemblance to your father. Plus being about the right age. And he told me to expect to find you here."

"You nearly didn't," the other boy - Nikolai - said excitedly. " We were hiding in the sub-basement for a bit, checking out the round-up on the guard's surveillance screen. It was really - something. We reckoned at least one of the ones searching had to be a Ceta. He had that creepy look - you know, from the vids? He was the officer, we think. They took all the staff - they stunned Armsman Roic somehow - "

"Though we reckon he took at least three of them down before they did - "

"And then they started searching the rest of the house to see if they'd missed anyone, so we sneaked up the back stairs and hid - "

"And I did some Obsfuscation charms," Arthur added with a bit of shy pride. "And I don't think they were banking on there being anyone magical here at all, because it actually worked -"

"And then we were trying to work out what to do next when you turned up."

"Ah." He seated himself on a convenient sofa whose state of considerable disrepair amply explained its banishment to the attic, and considered them carefully. "And had you come to any conclusions?"

Arthur looked nervous.

"Well - " he paused. "I think father would want me to go to Sergeant Bonn. They've been friends since forever. And he's bound to know who the loyal - "

He gulped. Plainly he was not used to being able to say the words out loud. Draco looked at him steadily. He finished in a rush.

"Who the loyal witches and wizards would be. And then you can link up with them, and we can start counter-attacking."

He looked hopefully at Draco, who suppressed an impulse to make a biting comment.

What is there about this planet that leads its inhabitants to put a totally misplaced faith in me?

 Oh. You and yours. Blood oath. So that would be that, then.

Draco sighed. "OK. At least it's a starting point. And I can't think of anything better, anyway. In fact, I think your father mentioned something of the sort. Well, we'd better be going then."


They paused, prudently, to refine their plans in the lush shadows of a lushly planted garden neighbouring the Bonns' modest, but centrally located, maisonette.

"No. I don't think that's such a bright idea."

Draco's caution was ingrained: he could not have explained it if asked. Fortunately, neither of the two boys was disposed to argue with anyone carrying the Emperor's parchment. He amplified.

"You ring the bell and talk to him first. I'll - take the long way round. To check on - in case there are spies overhearing us. Oh, and don't mention me - for the moment. I'd rather explain myself."

He vanished into the shadows at the back of the building.

The window catch was not, given his training, a particularly complex problem. There was - he supposed - something Muggle and scientific holding it in place. He disposed of that with a word. The underlying charm was, he grudgingly admitted, comparatively sophisticated. He was, however, more than equal to its subtleties. The window swung soundlessly inwards, and he was over the sill in seconds. He moved subtly through the dark living room and towards the kitchen, from which the sound of voices was rising.

"No, honestly, Uncle Vladimir, it's true. And father said we had to come to you, and that you'd be bound to know what to do to help."

There was a deep bass avuncular rumble. "Well, young Arthur, I'll certainly not say he was wrong."

Tone and words together were the key fitted to a long-locked memory. Draco's hand was not entirely steady as he gently eased the door to the kitchen open a fraction. The warm, contemplative voice continued,

"Yes, certainly, he was right about that. Arthur - what you have to understand is that sometimes two people can both mean the best, but have different ways of getting there."

Oh yes?

Draco eased the door a little further open.

"I hope, Arthur, your father will see in time why we couldn't simply stand by at this cross-roads for our people. This is our first real opportunity in centuries to be what we were always meant to be - a turning point of history. I wish he could have stood shoulder to shoulder with us. We've been sounding him out over the last few years, and believe me, no one was sorrier that I was when we finally realised he wouldn't be persuaded to join with us. And at least - given current circumstances - I'm relieved to think that he's unlikely to actively oppose us - now."

It did not take Arthur's squeak of shocked surprise, or Nikki's bullish grunt of anger to cue his entry. Draco had heard the telltale shift in tone, and had already kicked the door fully open, moving instinctively and blindingly fast towards the left as he did so, aiming his wand towards the sound source.

"Stupefy! And keep your bloody heads down, you idiot kids!"

His warning was not superfluous - he caught a movement through the serving hatch from the darkened dining area, and rolled to the floor as the hex crackled above his head with a sulphurous burning smell. He raised his wand. "Conjunctiva!".

There was a high keening shriek of pain as the blinding curse hit home. He dodged round the opening to the dining area, and stunned the streaming-eyed woman as she stood there, her hands to her face, groping helplessly for her wand.

He moved back into the kitchen. Vladimir was out in a heap on the floor. Arthur, clearly, was struggling hard to hold back tears. The red marks of fingers still showed on his throat. Nikki was dead white: Draco was unsure whether through shock or fury. He had picked Vladimir's wand from the floor where he must have dropped it, and was twiddling it aimlessly around its point on the kitchen table.

"Give it to me."

Nikki passed it to him. He looked at it briefly, took it in both hands, and snapped it across his knee. The core was something unfamiliar, which glowed like a burning coal before fading to ash. Arthur looked up at the thin, sharp sound, his expression looking momentarily eased, before reverting to its former hooded distress.

Draco wondered if there was something he should try to say, but all that occurred was: Welcome to our world.

"You knew. You didn't come in with us. You knew." Nikki's voice had an edge of hero-worship. Draco shook his head.

"No. I didn't know. That was the point. The way I chose - was the one which gave us all the luxury of being able to be wrong."

Mechanically, he conjured ropes to tie Vladimir and - Mrs Vladimir, he supposed - securely to chairs, several metres apart. Then he looked at Arthur.

"Is that all of them?"

Arthur appeared non-plussed. Draco gestured impatiently. "No brothers, sisters, sons? No violently vengeful Doberman Pinschers? There were likely just to be the two of them at home, yes?"

Dumbly, Arthur nodded. Nikki put in helpfully,

"They have a son, but he's just started Basic. He's probably on Kyril Island by now."

"He ought to be in hell."

Arthur's voice was urgent and breathy. Draco raised an eyebrow.

"Sins of the fathers?"

Nikki patted his friend's arm consolingly. "S'all right," he said. "Miles says, Kyril's Island's about s'near as it gets, anyhow."

"Miles?"

Nikki looked up, perplexed by the note of surprise in Draco's voice. Evidently his ordinary prudence at the door had been transmuted into omniscience in the boy's mind.

"M'stepfather. Lord Auditor Miles Vorkosigan," he added, explanatorily and with more than a hint of pride.

The bottom abruptly lurched out of Draco's stomach.

"Ah, then that would make Ekaterin your mother, would it?" he enquired. Nikki nodded, puzzled.

Wonderful. I've just used Ekaterin's fourteen-year-old son as a human shield to break into the house of a demonstrably treacherous full-grown wizard with forty years Muggle combat training to boot.

She's going to flay me alive when she finds out.

He gulped, surreptitiously.

Well, he did try to strangle me first, his inner voice said comfortingly.

Which comfort lasted only until he managed to picture his own mother's probable response if any of the people who had undoubtedly had the urge to utilise his fourteen-year old self in equivalent ways had actually mustered the enterprise to do it.

Nikki, on the other hand, quite clearly would have been violently indignant at any intervention by his nearest and dearest which would prevent his involvement in the current crisis. Apart from his concern for his friend, he was looking as though Christmas had come early. The fact that he had just been at risk of his life at the hands of a magical conspirator seemed to be already well on its way to being converted into a school break-time story - hey, guys, you'll never guess what happened to me this weekend. His air of waiting for the next thrilling instalment was palpable. Draco made up his mind.

"Well," he said, "we'd better try and find out what these people know." He looked at the unconscious couple, and he felt his lips quirk. Judging by Arthur's face, his expression could not have been a pleasant one. He allowed his voice to become a low purr. "They wanted to bring back long lost knowledge. They should have been more careful what they wished for."

Reliable intelligence was essential here, and he had been taught - and was keyed up to use - all the skills which could extract it. There would, he knew, be an emotional and physiological pay-back to cope with eventually, but he had learned ways of deferring settlement of those particular accounts for as long as it took to keep himself functioning. Nor did he feel any pity for the Bonns. Vladimir's tone had betrayed that he was so entangled in a too-familiar maze of self righteousness and self-justification that had their positions been reversed - or even if it had been Arthur or Nikki who had the relevant knowledge to be extracted - the older man would not have hesitated for a second. However - he set his jaw. He would have to find a plausible errand to send the kids on. He had been forced to sit in on his first interrogation when he was barely older than Nikki, but he would not inflict that on Ekaterin's son. And as for Arthur - he shivered, covertly. In his present mood the real danger was that the Armsman's son would find it a pleasure rather than a distasteful necessity.

Nikki eyed him nervously. "Hadn't we better get them back to Vorksosigan House? I mean - that's already been searched. And that's probably the nearest place we can find fast-penta."

"Fast-penta?"

Arthur had been looked miserably down at his boots. He answered without looking up. "Veritaserum."

"Ah." He had not reckoned on being able to obtain a truth potion here, and suddenly felt that a black cloud had lifted off him. "Yes. Of course."

He looked speculatively at the bound captives.

There must be some clever way of getting them out of here with none of their friends spotting us.

"I can get Miles's light-flyer," Nikki volunteered. "We can take them in that."

"Um?"

His question faded into thin air: Nikki had already vanished out on his self-appointed errand, plainly assuming that Draco would have raised boring adult objections to his proposal, given a split second to do it in. Arthur met his eyes for the first time since the Bonns' allegiance had been revealed.

"It's ok," he said hesitantly, "he does know how to fly it. Honest."

Draco mentally added killed while piloting stolen aircraft to the list of perils he was demonstrably being useless at protecting Ekaterin's son from, decided that there was nothing he could do about it at the moment, and began prowling round the living room.

"Are you looking for weapons?"

Draco had, as a matter of fact, been looking for the drinks cabinet, but he felt it would be deeply damaging to his Sorcerer Superspy persona to admit it. Besides, it gave him an inspiration about what to do with Arthur.

"Among other things," he admitted unblushingly. After all, jolly useful things in a fight, bottles. "Look - you must know the house - and your Concealment charms are obviously pretty good. How are your Location charms? Why not see if you can find any weapons - useful magical objects - paperwork linking them to these rebels, whatever?"

Plainly happy to be doing anything which involved action rather than thought, Arthur nodded and pulled out his wand. A thought struck Draco.

"And if you do come across anything that looks as though it might be Dark, don't mess with it. Call me and I'll - " see if it's as good as the one in father's collection - " deal with it."

Arthur had not, however, located anything more interesting than something he claimed was a regulation pattern stunner (which he had instantly pocketed) when the soft whine of an engine fan from the street outside heralded Nikki's return. Arthur and Draco came out in time to see him make a creditable landing as close as possible to the maisonette. It was clear from Nikki's expression as he popped the canopy that he was on the adrenaline trip of his young life.

Draco charitably refrained from enquiring whether the bent edge on one tail-fin was a new acquisition. Instead, he retreated into the house to collect the unbound but still unconscious Bonns, prudently dousing the nearest streetlight first. It seemed enough to obscure their eerie drift towards the vehicle under the Mobilicorpus charm, since no alarm sounded as Nikki sealed the canopy again, and the over-loaded and cramped light-flyer rose protestingly into the night sky.


"Enervate," Draco commanded. Sergeant Bonn came to, scratching absently at the pinkish place on his wrist where the test spot had been applied. Draco was not at all convinced that either of the boys who had assured him that it was correct procedure to do an allergy test had any idea what a successful result looked like. He decided to wing it.

"Hello, Sergeant Bonn," he said, "do you happen to be allergic to - ah - fast-penta?"

"Yes," the older man said firmly, through gritted teeth.

Draco pulled out his wand, and waved it gently in front of the bound captive. Bonn's eyes followed the wand tip with fascination.

"Sergeant Bonn, I'd ask you to reconsider that answer very carefully. The alternative is Cruciatus. Are you still allergic to fast-penta?"

The sergeant looked at him steadily. "Just who the hell do you think you are?"

Draco smiled sweetly.

"I'm asking the questions round here."

The two boys looking on gave a deeply satisfied joint sigh. Looks like it takes more than a few hundred years and a few million light years to ruin a good cliché .

"You're bluffing. Only the Cetagandan special advisors and the Magus-Emperor - "

His eyes narrowed. He looked Draco over carefully.

"Oh shit," he breathed. "You're a Ceta, aren't you? But you're not one of our Cetas. In fact - what clan's face paint should you be wearing - ghem boy?"

His voice hissed out the last phrase as though it was a deep and deadly insult. The two boys looked in sudden startlement at Draco.

He deliberately altered his expression to an enigmatic smile. It seemed inherently cooler than falling down, biting the carpet, and shrieking, "Someone tell me what the fuck's going on now!"

"Well," he said, "since we've established I'm not bluffing, I suggest we see if you are. Arthur!"

The Armsman's son stepped forward hesitantly and placed the - what did they call it? - hypospray against Bonn's neck. There was a faint hiss. The two boys looked at the interviewee with a mixture of apprehension and interest, which only confirmed Draco's suspicions about the allergy test. Bonn, however, continued simply to look at him, his initial hostility shading slowly and inexorably into a slack-jawed amiability.

"So," Draco began, "you were talking about the Cetagandan special advisors and the Magus-Emperor. What is it that only they can do?"

Bonn looked owlish. "Special powers," he annunciated carefully. "Inner circle. They need to know who can be trusted with the lost skills. Those of us who do well in this matter will be selected for advanced training."

And if you believe that, you'll believe anything. The Magus-Emperor - whoever he is - isn't going to be too keen on training up potential rivals. Any new knowledge for the rank and file is going to be doled out in Knutsworths. Just enough to keep them interested. And half a jump ahead of the opposition.

"And what is - this matter? What's being planned?"

Bonn gestured expansively. "New era."

Yes, well, they always say that. Something more specific would be nice.

His voice hardened. "Be more specific, please."

"Turning point for wizards. 'N witches, naturally." He looked across nervously at Mrs Bonn, who was still in stunned slumber. Draco noted his half-fearful glance with interest. Bet I can guess who strong-armed whom into this conspiracy.

"Galactic alliance of wizardry. The Cetas give us back our lost learning - we'll help them when the time comes, on Cetaganda, to throw out the ghem and those mutant bastard haut with them."

Arthur had been looking increasingly wound up. He burst forth into impassioned speech. "Uncle Vladimir, how could you get involved in a conspiracy with the Cetas? When your own grandfather was a hero of the First Cetagandan War, too!"

Bonn shook his head, and smiled sunnily at Draco. "Boy doesn't understand. We aren't allied with those Cetas."

"Well, of course not!" Arthur's voice was high with outrage. "Any of those Cetas who were still alive would be at least 120 years old by now."

Bonn shook his head, slowly.

"No - our advisors are just as much opposed to the ghem lords as we were then. They've been lying low. They said - they said the ghem lords don't realize magical powers still exist. They've been living in hiding - like us - trying to preserve what they could (done better at that, they have, mind you, boy). If the ghem had found them - they'd have certainly tried to eliminate them. Couldn't put up with anyone who might be a threat to their cushy lifestyle, I think."

His relaxed blurry expression suddenly sharpened. "Doesn't explain why you're here, ghem boy. Wizard ghem boy. Funny, that."

Momentarily, there was a sense of intelligence working underneath the false good cheer. Then his features slumped back again to vacuity.

"Ah, well," Draco said, "just shows what a bastard it is, getting involved in magical conspiracies. No-one ever gives you a straight story. If I were you, Sergeant, I'd make some pretty firm representations about that next time I met some of these so-called special advisors. I think you'll find they've not been telling you everything. In fact, Sergeant, I reckon you've been played for a mushroom on this one. You might want to warn your Barrayaran friends about that, too."

Regrettably, his broad hints did not seem to penetrate Bonn's fast-penta haze. He shrugged and pressed on.

"So - what is this galactic alliance planning to do with the present Emperor, then?"

Bonn's slack lips tightened. "We have the Magus-Emperor's promise. He's going to let us veterans decide Gregor Vorbarra's future. When we have secured the Imperium."

"And what had you in mind?" Draco enquired casually. Bonn's smile became, momentarily, feral.

"Need to think about that. Us veterans, we lost blood in the Komarr campaigns. Lost comrades. We didn't go through that to have a half-Komarran brat put over us as Crown Prince. Gregor betrayed us all with his off-planet marriage - stop him now before him and his mutie Lord Auditor foster-brother takes us all to hell - "

Nikki broke in indignantly. "Miles isn't - "

"The issue here," Draco finished smoothly, flicking Nikki a glance which collapsed him into silence. "Securing the Imperium - that sounds like quite a big job. You'd have to have put a fairly good team together for that one, no?"

Fast-penta, he concluded over the course of the next few minutes, was a wonderful tool for the interrogator; its only defect was that it tended to produce an embarrassing overload of information. His head was soon reeling with relevant, useful facts. Had he used Cruciatus, he reflected sourly, Bonn would have been unconscious with sheer pain long before now: here, the information just kept coming - and coming - and coming -

Between numberless incomprehensible side-issues and digressions, Bonn readily confided his estimate of the numbers of the rebel magicians (forty or so, including six of the elusive special advisors - though Bonn was confident that the numbers of Barrayarans joining the revolt would increase exponentially once they secured their initial objective of capturing the Emperor). He also cheerfully pointed out on a map of Barrayar fetched from the library by Nikki the location of the Magus-Emperor's headquarters. Draco hoped that a small hamlet in the hills a few kilometers north of some town called Vor-someone'sville located somewhere in Vorsomeone-else's District made more sense to Arthur and Nikki than it did to him. It looked, at least, reassuringly close to the capital. Under the drug's influence, Bonn even chattily confided a full set of passwords and counter-signs of which Arthur made careful notes, even though Draco felt that any plan which involved his using them to march into the enemy stronghold against those sort of odds was a plan that was staying firmly pinned to the drawing board.

On being asked, however, for more details about the Magus-Emperor himself, Bonn's well of information abruptly dried up. It seemed he was not deep enough in the plot even to have been entrusted with knowledge of the identity of the person to whom he had boldly committed the Imperium's future. Draco, having seen what he had seen in his short life, was unsurprised. There were, however, other options.

"One final question, Sergeant," he said. "For the moment, at least. Is your wife allergic to fast-penta?"

The Sergeant gaped open-mouthed for a moment. "Evgenia? No - I shouldn't think so. Why-?"

Draco nodded to him with the cool courtesy that he had learned from experts was the most chilling note on which to end an interrogation. "Thank you, Sergeant. Stupefy!"

The Sergeant relapsed into unconsciousness. Draco exhaled, thoughtfully. Arthur and Nikki looked at him, deep questions in their eyes.

"Are you really a Cetagandan ghem agent?" Nikki enquired breathlessly. Draco swept him with an arrogant up and down glance.

"I suggest you consider that question very carefully," he said. "And work out what the chances would be of my giving you a straight answer if it did happen to be true. Absent a dose of your Veritaserum, that is. By the way, if you do start getting any strange ideas on that front, I should warn you that if you come too close with that bloody spray gadget I'll hex you with a hell of a sight worse than tennis elbow."

Nikki, apparently, accurately decoded this as no, of course not, what do you take me for? and relaxed into a shy grin. Arthur, however, still looked stubborn.

"You can't be planning to interrogate Aunt Evgenia, can you?"

Draco nodded, surprised. "Of course. You have got enough of that potion, haven't you?"

"Yes but - I mean, she just looks after the house, and stuff. She won't have access to - she hasn't got any military intelligence - "

Military intelligence? Ah, yes: the quality that makes men armed only with rifles run towards enemy machine gun posts.

He snorted.

"I'm not expecting her to. Ordinary magical commonsense was more what I had in mind. Plus any average witch's quota of salacious gossip, of course."

Without pausing for more argument he revived Madam Bonn, and gestured for Arthur to perform the spray routine again. Her eyes - wide and hostile at first, still bloodshot from his earlier curse - assumed an air of unnatural good cheer. He smiled at her.

"Ma'am? Your full name, please?"

Her voice was further from slurring than her husband's had been; it retained, despite the drug-induced bonhomie, an icy patrician edge.

"Evgenia Lyudmilla Vorpatril Bonn."

Phew. At last something I recognise.

On the edge of his hearing he heard one of the boys give a quick indrawn breath. He shook his head very slightly as a warning against further interruption, and made his voice polite, social, well-brought-up.

"Vorpatril? I had the pleasure earlier this evening of meeting Lady Alys Vorpatril. Might she perhaps be related?"

Something flickered deep within those dark eyes. The smile remained fixed on her lips, however, and she answered readily enough.

"She married my second cousin. I stood in the wedding circle - holding her train." Her lips quirked: for a moment the empty cheer became warm and genuine. "Met a young corporal who was in Captain Lord Padma's honour guard. Found we had - more in common than the family suspected. We eloped a fortnight later."

Draco gently checked her babble of reminiscences about the outfit she had worn for her scrambled wedding, and the reactions of her family - hostile, in the main, he gathered, though Captain Lord Padma had apparently endeavoured to promote a reconciliation, with minor success.

"So - your friends down at Vorkosigan Surleau are holding Lady Alys hostage at this very moment. Aren't you worried about her?"

Madam Bonn giggled. "Not me. Stuck up cow, Alys. Probably biggest relief of Lord Padma's life, him getting shot in Vordarian's war. Not having to see Alys across the breakfast table every morning. Take a nerve disruptor to the head any day, over that. Anyway, they know not to hurt her. Magus-Emperor's orders. After all, we're doing her the biggest favour - oh, such a big favour. And Alys won't know who's behind it, at all. So funny, that."

Politely interested was in every line of Draco's face as he asked the next question. The kids, to their credit, maintained absolute silence.

"Tell me more about this favour. What are you doing for her?"

"Putting her son on the Imperial Throne. Emperor Ivan, first of the Vorpatril dynasty."

She looked at her unconscious husband. "Vladimir mustn't know, mustn't know yet. Secret - just me and the Magus-Emperor. Family business."

Draco was beginning to get a headache. He diagnosed it, wryly, as Vor-overload. "So - is Alys's son the Magus-Emperor, then?"

She shook her head vigorously. "That idiot Ivan?" She looked, through the haze of goodwill, almost indignant at the thought. "No. No talent, that one. Ivan's to be Emperor. For the - for the common people. Not our sort. Keep them happy. Look good on a balcony. Fills out a uniform nicely. The Magus-Emperor will - make sure he acts in our interests. You know how. Our people know who's really ruling - no-body else needs to. Not until we're ready."

Fortunately, the two boys appeared too shocked to say anything. Draco enquired gently:

"So, one last thing, Madam Bonn. How exactly are you related to the Magus-Emperor?"

She smiled sweetly, dotingly. "He's m'little brother. Half-brother. M'father married again after m'mother's death. One of the Vortaine cousins. Quiet. Nice woman. Always sent us Winterfair tokens."

She began, painstakingly, to list the contents of all the packages she could remember.

Draco moved smoothly back out of her line of sight for the moment. "Arthur," he said, "can you ask her to tell you who she knows definitely isn't involved in this conspiracy? So, which wizards and witches you can trust? And take really detailed notes."

He moved completely away, beckoning to Nikki. They retreated to a corner of the room, and Draco cloaked their conversation with a silencing charm, to avoid distracting Arthur from his interrogation.

"Can you possibly make sense of that lot for me?" he asked urgently. "After all, you seem to be related to half these people. Could they get away with putting this Ivan-person on the throne if they killed the Emperor? I mean, aren't there some other heirs?"

Nikki looked solemn but not, Draco was relieved to see, too overcome by the stress of being asked a real question in a life-and-death crisis to give it the thought it required.

"Dunno," he said after a few minutes cogitation. He started counting on his fingers. "There's the Crown Prince. But he's only tiny - two and a bit. That'd mean - "

He calculated. "Fifteen and a half years of a Regency. Longer than when the Emperor was little - and the Crown Prince's half-Komarran too. Well, you heard the Sergeant. That'd mean civil war for certain sure."

He paused and gulped. Draco found a seat on the window-ledge, and swung one leg idly. "Go on," he said.

"Well, the next is Count Vorkosigan - the Viceroy, I mean. But he's way old. And he'd back the Crown Prince, anyway. He was fiercely loyal to the Emperor when he was Regent - all the history vid-discs say so. N' Countess Cordelia, too."

Nikki, Draco guessed, was not temperamentally inclined to take a revisionist view of history. Not, at least, with much of the received version living in the same family. Still, having met the Vicereine, Draco reckoned Nikki was likely to be right at least about that.

"That must make Miles - the Lord Auditor - next?"

"Yes, but - " Nikki blushed and became tongue-tied. Abruptly, Draco was reminded of a conversation on a Scottish beach.

Putative mutants even less acceptable than toddlers on the throne, it seems.

He nodded, brusquely. "Well, I'm sure he'd be just as loyal to the Crown Prince as his father. Next?"

"I suppose it'd be the twins - " Nikki's hand flew to his mouth, as he suddenly realised the enormity of his gaffe. Draco continued seamlessly on, as though he had heard nothing. His ability to do that, he suspected, had saved his life more than once.

"We've already agreed, a minority is a recipe for civil war. Everyone knows that. After that, then?"

Nikki looked suddenly appalled. His voice was very low. "That's Ivan."

Nasty, then. A very plausible candidate indeed. And if they can keep him permanently under Imperius - and I expect they can -

Space-ports opened to legions of "special advisors". Hand-picked supporters gaining Dark knowledge by stealth - and it will be Dark. They are too hungry in their need for the lost things to stop at any barrier. Access to other knowledge cut off at source.

Disappearances. Whispered fears moving on the wind. "If you aren't good, the Magus-Emperor will take you". Gaps in neighbourhoods that no-one dares question why.

He was abruptly conscious of Arthur flapping his hands frantically in front of his face. He muttered "Finite incantatem" to end the privacy charm, and added crossly,

"Yes? What?"

"She - Aunt Evgenia's just said something. Ivan - Lord Vorpatril - it's tonight. It's now. They're planning to snatch him any minute."

Evgenia, indeed, had a smile on her lips that gave new depth to the superficial fast-penta geniality.

"Too late, boy. We have him easy to our hand now. Didn't take any enchantments to bring that one in - oh, no. Just a willing dark-eyed witch-girl. He's sure that she's waiting for him now, down on the bridge below the rapids - all dressed up (but not too dressed, he's hoping) - waiting there all warm and ready for her Vor lordling - and he thinks he enticed her there - so funny that - with his sideways looks, and promises - and he's going to meet her tonight, but not with marriage on his mind - oh, no - whatever he may have breathed in her ear - "

Under the drug's influence she went off unstoppably into an uninhibited and by no means brief speculation about what else Ivan might be expected to have on his mind, and why her hand-selected - decoy, honey-trap, stalking goat - no, ditch that last metaphor - was the ideal woman for the job, and panting for the opportunity to boot. The riveted kids listened with an air of guilty fascination: Draco was unclear whether because it had never occurred to them that a woman might have such views, or, if she had them, express them, or because the subject matter came as a genuine novelty to them.

Unsophisticated bloody planet, whichever, he thought grumpily, and then, on a note of appalled realization:

Before Nikki sees Ekaterin again we really are going to have to have a serious chat about which bits of this whole thing he must under no circumstances mention to her.

Um.

Which bits does that leave, I wonder?

Let's think about that one after we've managed the easy bits, shall we? Such as saving the planet.

He pointed his wand at Madam Bonn.

"Stupefy!" He looked at the kids. "Arthur, take her wand. We need to get these two - somewhere you can lock them in - pronto. I expect we'll be needing them later. Now, do you know this Ivan Vor-thing's address?"

Dumbly, Nikki nodded. Draco smiled. "Good. Then that's another chance for you to demonstrate your piloting skills, then. And try to leave a bit more of the tail fins intact this time."


They touched down outside an elegant mansion block of flats in a leafy district sufficiently close to the centre of the City for Draco to make a faintly impressed estimate of just how much high-value real estate those roadside trees were currently occupying, and apply it as a factor to the probable rental of the flats. They had not, however, even got so far as stopping the engine before a light-flyer accelerated its way out of an underground garage with a massive growling of engines, and lit off into the night sky.

"After it - that's him," Arthur squeaked excitedly, and then, abruptly remembering protocol.

"Er, Lord Vorpatril, I mean."

Nikki was already swinging the light-flyer up and after the vanishing streak of light which was their quarry. Draco took one look at his tensely exhilarated features, and decided to say nothing. He smoothed down his robes, pulled out his wand, and sat back in his seat.

After all, if the worse comes to the worse I can Apparate out of this. If I'm still conscious at the time, that is.

The Lord Auditor's light-flyer was clearly a super-charged model. The bright dot in the sky ahead of them was no longer gaining. Rather, it was becoming larger in the clear frame of the canopy. It was beginning to develop features - a distinct identity - they were rapidly overhauling it - their distinctive streamlined scarlet shape must be clearly visible to the other pilot -

"Miles, you hyperactive little runt," a voice barked tinnily out of the console in front of the white-knuckled pilot, "we aren't sixteen any more, and this isn't the bloody Dendarii Gorge. If you're looking for cheap thrills, I recommend you drop in to one of m'mother's coffee mornings to listen to what Vorbarr Sultana's saying about you. But get off my tail. Go and give someone a thorough Auditing, ok? Get rid of your rotten karma on someone who's done something to deserve it. I'm otherwise engaged this evening. Got that?"

The light-flyer ahead swung down and away in a stomach-churning manoeuvre. Nikki blinked, gasped, and followed it. Disconcertingly, Arthur Pym buried his head in his hands and started to make little moaning noises. The tinny voice barked again.

"Miles! I do not find this even a little bit funny, copy?"

The other light-flyer slowed to the point almost of stalling, then screamed upwards. Doggedly, Nikki pursued it.

The disembodied voice managed to sound menacing even through the loudspeaker. "Miles - you'd better not be doing this to impress - anybody - with your handling of your joystick. Or it'll be popsicle time in the Vorksosigan bathtub again. And you know I can collect on that promise."

Draco and Arthur exchanged a glance of wild surmise. Nikki had his tongue between his teeth, and was concentrating - hard - on not losing the other aircraft, which was now slaloming wildly among a serried rank of high-rise office blocks. There was an air of resignation mixed with fury in the voice as it spoke again.

"Look, I'm proposing to say this once, and once only. I'm just a poor bloody officer trying his damnedest to lead a quiet life. I don't speak with the Emperor's Voice, I'm not in line for a seat in the Council of Counts and - you know what, Miles? That's exactly the way I like it. I'm not the one with the compulsive urge to form the whole bleeding planetary population into a parade just so I can stick myself at the head of it. Not only can I bear to slip past unnoticed in the crowd, I've spent decades practising how to do it better."

It was amazing how the sound of teeth being gritted came clearly over the link between the two craft.

"But, y'know, Miles, if there's one area where I can spot you points, it's that I can manage my sex-life without being about to split the Auditors' college, or risking having to diet for the Emperor or having half the officers in Vorbarr Sultana taking bets on whether the contents are as good as the picture on the packet. And, funnily enough, Miles, looking after my own sex-life is what I'm doing tonight. I'm off-duty, I've got a hot date who doesn't come with a free bonus civil war included, and I want to be left alone to get on with it."

That message ended with a remarkably final-sounding "click". Evidently the pilot of the other light-flyer had said all he wished.

"Well," Draco said, "it doesn't sound as if he'd enjoy being made Emperor by force. I think it's high time I saved him from himself."

A phrase from a Muggle story - which, regrettably, his father had discovered and thrown out before Draco had reached the denouement (though he suspected, somehow, that the lantern-jawed hero had managed to overcome the million-to-one odds and defeat the insectoid aliens) - sprang felicitously to mind.

"Match velocities, please."

Arthur looked at him. "Is it safe?"

Do I look like someone who'd do it if it wasn't?

Draco's tone was airy. "Well, we'll find out, won't we?" He added, reassuringly, "I have done something similar before, actually. Using only a broomstick, a Muggle helicopter and an Invisibility Cloak I'd - ah - sort-of borrowed for the occasion, actually."

"Why did you -?" Nikki's voice was fascinated, but his gaze was, commendably, fixed on his instruments.

"Um - well, to be frank, there were a lot of Galleons riding on the outcome, and I was going through a temporary cash-flow crisis I didn't precisely want to confide in my father about. Anyway, that isn't important right now. You two - get back to Vorkosigan House. Without running foul of the Ministry - I mean, whatever they have for air traffic control round here. I'll try and contact you there. But if I don't - wait two hours and then start alerting the loyal witches and wizards Madam Bonn mentioned. Oh, and I forgot earlier. Get them to give the Bonns another dose of that Veritaserum, and check who the traitors are within your Ministry - ImpSec - I mean. Bound to be some. Always are. And Nikki -?"

"Yes?"

"I imagine Lord Vorpatril's going to be - quite surprised - when I Apparate onto his light-flyer. I wouldn't like to bet on what he's going to do. The second I go, swing away, fast."

Nikki nodded, breathlessly. He looked transcendent at the controls, playing the machine as though it were part of him. Draco had seen witches and wizards carried outside themselves like that as they drew upon the deepest deeps of their power to weave a complex enchantment, but he had assumed it was a state of being wholly foreign to Muggles. Life, it seemed, was more complicated than he had always been told.

The reflection brought a curious sense of comfort. With it to warm him, he Disapparated.