Lois McMaster Bujold
The Mountains of Mourning
(Barrayar — 5)
Miles heard the woman weeping as he was climbing the hill from the long lake. He hadn't dried himself after his swim, as the morning already promised shimmering heat. Lake water trickled cool from his hair onto his naked chest and back, more annoyingly down his legs from his ragged shorts. His leg braces chafed on his damp skin as he pistoned up the faint trail through the scrub, military double-time. His feet squished in his old wet shoes. He slowed in curiosity as he became conscious of the voices.
The woman's voice grated with grief and exhaustion. "Please, lord, please. All I want is m'justice…"
The front gate guard's voice was irritated and embarrassed. "I'm no lord. C'mon, get up, woman. Go back to the village and report it at the district magistrate's office."
"I tell you, I just came from there!" The woman did not move from her knees as Miles emerged from the bushes and paused to take in the tableau across the paved road. "The magistrate's not to return for weeks, weeks. I walked four days to get here. I only have a little money…" A desperate hope rose in her voice, and her spine bent and straightened as she scrabbled in her skirt pocket and held out her cupped hands to the guard. "A mark and twenty pence, it's all I have, but -"
The exasperated guard's eye fell on Miles, and he straightened abruptly, as if afraid Miles might suspect him of being tempted by so pitiful a bribe. "Be off, woman!" he snapped.
Miles quirked an eyebrow and limped across the road to the main gate. "What's all this about, Corporal?" he inquired easily.
The guard corporal was on loan from Imperial Security, and wore the high-necked dress greens of the Barrayaran Service. He was sweating and uncomfortable in the bright morning light of this southern district, but Miles fancied he'd be boiled before he'd undo his collar on this post. His accent was not local; he was a city man from the capital, where a more-or-less efficient bureaucracy absorbed such problems as the one on her knees before him.
The woman, now, was local and more than local — she had backcountry written all over her. She was younger than her strained voice had at first suggested. Tall, fever-red from her weeping, with stringy blonde hair hanging down across a ferret-thin face and protuberant gray eyes. If she were cleaned up, fed, rested, happy and confident, she might achieve a near-prettiness, but she was far from that now, despite her remarkable figure. Lean but full-breasted — no, Miles revised himself as he crossed the road and came up to the gate. Her bodice was all blotched with dried milk leaks, though there was no baby in sight. Only temporarily full-breasted. Her worn dress was factory-woven cloth, but hand-sewn, crude and simple. Her feet were bare, thickly callused, cracked and sore.
"No problem," the guard assured Miles. "Go away," he hissed to the woman.
She lurched off her knees and sat stonily.
"I'll call my sergeant" — the guard eyed her warily — "and have her removed."
"Wait a moment," said Miles.
She stared up at Miles from her cross-legged position, clearly not knowing whether to identify him as hope or not. His clothing, what there was of it, offered her no clue as to what he might be. The rest of him was all too plainly displayed. He jerked up his chin and smiled thinly. Too-large head, too-short neck, back thickened with its crooked spine, crooked legs with their brittle bones too-often broken, drawing the eye in their gleaming chromium braces. Were the hill woman standing, the top of his head would barely be even with the top of her shoulder. He waited in boredom for her hand to make the backcountry hex sign against evil mutations, but it only jerked and clenched into a fist.
"I must see my lord Count," she said to an uncertain point halfway between Miles and the guard. "It's my right. My daddy, he died in the Service. It's my right."
"Prime Minister Count Vorkosigan," said the guard stiffly, "is on his country estate to rest. If he were working, he'd be back in Vorbarr Sultana." The guard looked as though he wished he were back in Vorbarr Sultana.
The woman seized the pause. "You're only a city man. He's my count. My right."
"What do you want to see Count Vorkosigan for?" asked Miles patiently.
"Murder," growled the girl/woman. The security guard spasmed slightly. "I want to report a murder."
"Shouldn't you report to your village speaker first?" inquired Miles, with a hand-down gesture to calm the twitching guard.
"I did. He'll do nothing." Rage and frustration cracked her voice. "He says it's over and done. He won't write down my accusation, says it's nonsense. It would only make trouble for everybody, he says. I don't care! I want my justice!"
Miles frowned thoughtfully, looking the woman over. The details checked, corroborated her claimed identity, added up to a solid if subliminal sense of the authentic that perhaps escaped the professionally paranoid security man. "It's true, Corporal," Miles said. "She has a right to appeal, first to the district magistrate, then to the count's court. And the district magistrate won't be back for two weeks."
This sector of Count Vorkosigan's native district had only one overworked district magistrate, who rode a circuit that included the lakeside village of Vorkosigan Surleau but one day a month. Since the region of the Prime Minister's country estate was crawling with Imperial Security when the great lord was in residence, and closely monitored even when he was not, prudent troublemakers took their troubles elsewhere.
"Scan her, and let her in," said Miles. "On my authority."
The guard was one of Imperial Security's best, trained to watch for assassins in his own shadow. He now looked scandalized, and lowered his voice to Miles. "Sir, if I let every country lunatic wander the estate at will -"
"I'll take her up. I'm going that way."
The guard shrugged helplessly, but stopped short of saluting; Miles was decidedly not in uniform. The gate guard pulled a scanner from his belt and made a great show of going over the woman. Miles wondered if he'd have been inspired to harass her with a strip-search without Miles's inhibiting presence. When the guard finished demonstrating how alert, conscientious, and loyal he was, he palmed open the gate's lock, entered the transaction, including the woman's retina scan, into the computer monitor, and stood aside in a pose of rather pointed parade rest. Miles grinned at the silent editorial and steered the bedraggled woman by the elbow through the gates and up the winding drive.
She twitched away from his touch at the earliest opportunity, yet still refrained from superstitious gestures, eyeing him with a strange and hungry curiosity. Time was, such openly repelled fascination with the peculiarities of his body had driven Miles to grind his teeth; now he could take it with a serene amusement only slightly tinged with acid. They would learn, all of them. They would learn.
"Do you serve Count Vorkosigan, little man?" she asked cautiously.
Miles thought about that one a moment. "Yes," he answered finally. The answer was, after all, true on every level of meaning but the one she'd asked it. He quelled the temptation to tell her he was the court jester. From the look of her, this one's troubles were much worse than his own.
She had apparently not quite believed in her own rightful destiny, despite her mulish determination at the gate, for as they climbed unimpeded toward her goal a nascent panic made her face even more drawn and pale, almost ill. "How — how do I talk to him?" she choked. "Should I curtsey…?" She glanced down at herself as if conscious for the first time of her own dirt and sweat and squalor.
Miles suppressed a facetious set-up starting with, Kneel and knock your forehead three times on the floor before speaking, that's what the General Staff does, and said instead, "Just stand up straight and speak the truth. Try to be clear. He'll take it from there. He does not, after all" — Miles's lips twitched — "lack experience."
A hundred years ago, the Vorkosigans' summer retreat had been a guard barracks, part of the outlying fortifications of the great castle on the bluff above the village of Vorkosigan Surleau. The castle was now a burnt-out ruin, and the barracks transformed into a comfortable low stone residence, modernized and re-modernized, artistically landscaped and bright with flowers. The arrow slits had been widened into big glass windows overlooking the lake, and com link antennae bristled from the roof. There was a new guard barracks concealed in the trees downslope, but it had no arrow slits.
A man in the brown and silver livery of the Count's personal retainers exited the residence's front door as Miles approached with the strange woman in tow. It was the new man, what was his name? Pym, that was it.
"Where's m'lord Count?" Miles asked him.
"In the upper pavilion, taking breakfast with m'lady." Pym glanced at the woman, and waited on Miles in a posture of polite inquiry.
"Ah. Well, this woman has walked four days to lay an appeal before the district magistrate's court. The court's not here, but the Count is, so she now proposes to skip the middlemen and go straight to the top. I like her style. Take her up, will you?"
"During breakfast?" said Pym.
Miles cocked his head at the woman. "Have you had breakfast?"
She shook her head mutely.
"I thought not." Miles turned his hands palm-out, dumping her, symbolically, on the retainer. "Now, yes."
"My daddy, he died in the Service," the woman repeated faintly. "It's my right." The phrase seemed as much to convince herself as anyone else, now.
Pym was, if not a hill man, district-born. "So it is," he sighed, and gestured her to follow him without further ado. Her eyes widened, as she trailed him around the house, and she glanced back nervously over her shoulder at Miles. "Little man…?"
"Just stand straight," he called to her. He watched her round the corner, grinned, and took the steps two at a time into the residence's main entrance.
After a shave and cold shower, Miles dressed in his own room overlooking the long lake. He dressed with great care, as great as he'd expended on the Service Academy ceremonies and Imperial Review two days ago. Clean underwear, long-sleeved cream shirt, dark green trousers with the side piping. High-collared green tunic tailor-cut to his own difficult fit. New pale blue plastic ensign's rectangles aligned precisely on the collar and poking most uncomfortably into his jaw. He dispensed with the leg braces and pulled on mirror-polished boots to the knee, and swiped a bit of dust from them with his pajama pants, ready-to-hand on the floor where he'd dropped them before going swimming.
He straightened and checked himself in the mirror. His dark hair hadn't even begun to recover from that last cut before the graduation ceremonies. A pale, sharp-featured face, not too much dissipated bag under the gray eyes, nor too bloodshot — alas, the limits of his body compelled him to stop celebrating well before he could hurt himself.
Echoes of the late celebration still boiled up silently in his head, crooking his mouth into a grin. He was on his way now, had his hand clamped firmly around the lowest rung of the highest ladder on Barrayar, Imperial Service itself. There were no give-aways in the Service even for sons of the old Vor. You got what you earned. His brother-officers could be relied on to know that, even if outsiders wondered. He was in position at last to prove himself to all doubters. Up and away and never look down, never look back.
One last look back. As carefully as he'd dressed, Miles gathered up the necessary objects for his task. The white cloth rectangles of his former Academy cadet's rank. The hand-calligraphed second copy, purchased for this purpose, of his new officer's commission in the Barrayaran Imperial Service. A copy of his Academy three-year scholastic transcript on paper, with all its commendations (and demerits). No point in anything but honesty in this next transaction. In a cupboard downstairs he found the brass brazier and tripod, wrapped in its polishing cloth, and a plastic bag of very dry juniper bark. Chemical firesticks.
Out the back door and up the hill. The landscaped path split, right going up to the pavilion overlooking it all, left forking sideways to a garden-like area surrounded by a low fieldstone wall. Miles let himself in by the gate. "Good morning, crazy ancestors," he called, then quelled his humor. It might be true, but lacked the respect due the occasion.
He strolled over and around the graves until he came to the one he sought, knelt, and set up the brazier and tripod, humming. The stone was simple, General Count Piotr Pierre Vorkosigan, and the dates. If they'd tried to list all the accumulated honors and accomplishments, they'd have had to go to microprint.
He piled in the bark, the very expensive papers, the cloth bits, a clipped mat of dark hair from that last cut. He set it alight and rocked back on his heels to watch it burn. He'd played a hundred versions of this moment over in his head, over the years, ranging from solemn public orations with musicians in the background, to dancing naked on the old man's grave. He'd settled on this private and traditional ceremony, played straight. Just between the two of them.
"So, Grandfather," he purred at last. "And here we are after all. Satisfied now?"
All the chaos of the graduation ceremonies behind, all the mad efforts of the last three years, all the pain, came to this point; but the grave did not speak, did not say, Well done; you can stop now. The ashes spelled out no messages; there were no visions to be had in the rising smoke. The brazier burned down all too quickly. Not enough stuff in it, perhaps.
He stood and dusted his knees, in the silence and the sunlight. So what had he expected? Applause? Why was he here, in the final analysis? Dancing out a dead man's dreams — who did his Service really serve? Grandfather? Himself? Pale Emperor Gregor? Who cared?
"Well, old man," he whispered, then shouted: "ARE YOU SATISFIED YET?" The echoes rang from the stones.
A throat cleared behind him, and Miles whirled like a scalded cat, heart pounding.
"Uh… my lord?" said Pym carefully. "Pardon me, I did not mean to interrupt… anything. But the Count your father requires you to attend on him in the upper pavilion."
Pym's expression was perfectly bland. Miles swallowed, waiting for the scarlet heat he could feel in his face to recede. "Quite." He shrugged. "The fire's almost out. I'll clean it up later. Don't… let anybody else touch it."
He marched past Pym and didn't look back.
The pavilion was a simple structure of weathered silver wood, open on all four sides to catch the breeze, this morning a few faint puffs from the west. Good sailing on the lake this afternoon, maybe. Only ten days precious home leave left, and much Miles wanted to do, including the trip to Vorbarr Sultana with his cousin Ivan to pick out his new lightflyer. And then his first assignment would be coming through — ship duty, Miles prayed. He'd had to overcome a major temptation, not to ask his father to make sure it was ship duty. He would take whatever assignment fate dealt him, that was the first rule of the game. And win with the hand he was dealt.
The interior of the pavilion was shady and cool after the glare outside. It was furnished with comfortable old chairs and tables, one of which bore the remains of a noble breakfast — Miles mentally marked two lonely-looking oil cakes on a crumb-scattered tray as his own. Miles's mother, lingering over her cup, smiled across the table at him.
Miles's father, casually dressed in an open-throated shirt and shorts, sat in a worn armchair. Aral Vorkosigan was a thickset, gray haired man, heavy-jawed, heavy browed, scarred. A face that lent itself to savage caricature — Miles had seen some, in Opposition press, in the histories of Barrayar's enemies. They had only to draw one lie, to render dull those sharp penetrating eyes, to create everyone's parody of a military dictator.
And how much is he haunted by Grandfather? Miles wondered. He doesn't show it much. But then, he doesn't have to. Admiral Aral Vorkosigan, space master strategist, conqueror of Komarr, hero of Escobar, for sixteen years Imperial Regent, supreme power on Barrayar in all but name. And then he'd capped it, confounded history and all self-sure witnesses and heaped up honor and glory beyond all that had gone before by voluntarily stepping down and transferring command smoothly to Emperor Gregor upon his majority. Not that the Prime Ministership hadn't made a dandy retirement from the Regency, and he was showing no signs yet of stepping down from that.
And so Admiral Aral's life took General Piotr's like an overpowering hand of cards, and where did that leave Ensign Miles? Holding two deuces and the joker. He must surely either concede or start bluffing like crazy…
The hill woman sat on a hassock, a half-eaten oil cake clutched in her hands, staring open-mouthed at Miles in all his power and polish. As he caught and returned her gaze her lips pressed closed and her eyes lit. Her expression was strange — anger? Exhilaration? Embarrassment? Glee? Some bizarre mixture of all? And what did you think I was, woman?
Being in uniform (showing off his uniform?), Miles came to attention before his father. "Sir?"
Count Vorkosigan spoke to the woman. "That is my son. If I send him as my Voice, would that satisfy you?"
"Oh," she breathed, her wide mouth drawing back in a weird, fierce grin, the most expression Miles had yet seen on her face, "yes, my lord."
"Very well. It will be done."
What will be done? Miles wondered warily. The Count was leaning back in his chair, looking satisfied himself, but with a dangerous tension around his eyes hinting that something had aroused his true anger. Not anger at the woman, clearly they were in some sort of agreement, and — Miles searched his conscience quickly — not at Miles himself. He cleared his throat gently, cocking his head and baring his teeth in an inquiring smile.
The Count steepled his hands and spoke to Miles at last. "A most interesting case. I can see why you sent her up."
"Ah…" said Miles. What had he got hold of? He'd only greased the woman's way through Security on a quixotic impulse, for God's sake, and to tweak his father at breakfast. "…ah?" he continued noncommittally.
Count Vorkosigan's brows rose. "Did you not know?"
"She spoke of a murder, and a marked lack of cooperation from her local authorities about it. Figured you'd give her a lift on to the district magistrate."
The Count settled back still further and rubbed his hand thoughtfully across his scarred chin. "It's an infanticide case."
Miles's belly went cold. I don't want anything to do with this. Well, that explained why there was no baby to go with the breasts. "Unusual… for it to be reported."
"We've fought the old customs for twenty years and more," said the Count. "Promulgated, propagandized… In the cities, we've made good progress."
"In the cities," murmured the Countess, "people have access to alternatives."
"But in the backcountry — well — little has changed. We all know what's going on, but without a report, a complaint — and with the family invariably drawing together to protect its own — it's hard to get leverage."
"What," Miles cleared his throat, nodded at the woman, "what was your baby's mutation?"
"The cat's mouth." The woman dabbed at her upper lip to demonstrate. "She had the hole inside her mouth, too, and was a weak sucker, she choked and cried, but she was getting enough, she was…"
"Hare-lip," the Count's off-worlder wife murmured half to herself, translating the Barrayaran term to the galactic standard, "and a cleft palate, sounds like. Harra, that's not even a mutation. They had that back on Old Earth. A… a normal birth defect, if that's not a contradiction in terms. Not a punishment for your Barrayaran ancestors' pilgrimage through the Fire. A simple operation could have corrected -" Countess Vorkosigan cut herself off. The hill woman was looking anguished.
"I'd heard," the woman said. "My lord had made a hospital to be built at Hassadar. I meant to take her there, when I was a little stronger, though I had no money. Her arms and legs were sound, her head was well-shaped, anybody could see — surely they would have" — her hands clenched and twisted, her voice went ragged — "but Lem killed her first."
A seven-day walk, Miles calculated, from the deep Dendarii Mountains to the lowland town of Hassadar. Reasonable, that a woman newly risen from childbed might delay that hike a few days. An hour's ride in an aircar…
"So one is reported as a murder at last," said Count Vorkosigan, "and we will treat it as exactly that. This is a chance to send a message to the farthest corners of my own district. You, Miles, will be my Voice, to reach where it has not reached before. You will dispense Count's justice upon this man — and not quietly, either. It's time for the practices that brand us as barbarians in galactic eyes to end."
Miles gulped. "Wouldn't the district magistrate be better qualified…?"
The Count smiled slightly. "For this case, I can think of no one better qualified than yourself."
The messenger and the message all in one; Times have changed. Indeed. Miles wished himself elsewhere, anywhere — back sweating blood over his final examinations, for instance. He stifled an unworthy wail, My home leave…!
Miles rubbed the back of his neck. "Who, ah… who is it killed your little girl?" Meaning, who is it I'm expected to drag out, put up against a wall, and shoot?
"My husband," she said tonelessly, looking at — through — the polished silvery floorboards.
I knew this was going to be messy…
"She cried and cried," the woman went on, "and wouldn't go to sleep, not nursing well — he shouted at me to shut her up -"
"Then?" Miles prompted, sick to his stomach.
"He swore at me, and went to go sleep at his mother's. He said at least a working man could sleep there. I hadn't slept either…"
This guy sounds like a real winner. Miles had an instant picture of him, a bull of a man with a bullying manner — nevertheless, there was something missing in the climax of the woman's story.
The Count had picked up on it too. He was listening with total attention, his strategy-session look, a slit-eyed intensity of thought you could mistake for sleepiness. That would be a grave mistake. "Were you an eyewitness?" he asked in a deceptively mild tone that put Miles on full alert. "Did you actually see him kill her?"
"I found her dead in the midmorning, lord."
"You went into the bedroom -" Count Vorkosigan led her on.
"We've only got one room." She shot him a look as if doubtful for the first time of his total omniscience. "She had slept, slept at last. I went out to get some brillberries, up the ravine a way. And when I came back… I should have taken her with me, but I was so glad she slept at last, didn't want to risk waking her -" Tears leaked from the woman's tightly-closed eyes. "I let her sleep when I came back, I was glad to eat and rest, but I began to get full" — her hand touched a breast — "and I went to wake her…"
"What, were there no marks on her? Not a cut throat?" asked the Count. That was the usual method for these backcountry infanticides, quick and clean compared to, say, exposure.
The woman shook her head. "Smothered, I think, lord. It was cruel, something cruel. The village Speaker said I must have overlain her, and wouldn't take my plea against Lem. I did not, I did not! She had her own cradle, Lem made it with his own hands when she was still in my belly…" She was close to breaking down.
The Count exchanged a glance with his wife, and a small tilt of his head. Countess Vorkosigan rose smoothly.
"Come, Harra, down to the house. You must wash and rest before Miles takes you home."
The hill woman looked taken aback. "Oh, not in your house, lady!"
"Sorry, it's the only one I've got handy. Besides the guard barracks. The guards are good boys, but you'd make 'em uncomfortable…" The Countess eased her out.
"It is clear," said Count Vorkosigan as soon as the women were out of earshot, "that you will have to check out the medical facts before, er, popping off. And I trust you will also have noticed the little problem with a positive identification of the accused. This could be the ideal public-demonstration case we want, but not if there's any ambiguity about it. No bloody mysteries."
"I'm not a coroner," Miles pointed out immediately. If he could wriggle off this hook…
"Quite. You will take Dr. Dea with you."
Lieutenant Dea was the Prime Minister's physician's assistant. Miles had seen him around — an ambitious young military doctor in a constant state of frustration because his superior would never let him touch his most important patient — oh, he was going to be thrilled with this assignment, Miles predicted morosely.
"He can take his osteo kit with him, too," the Count went on, brightening slightly, "in case of accidents."
"How economical," said Miles, rolling his eyes. "Look, uh — suppose her story checks out and we nail this guy. Do I have to, personally…?"
"One of the liveried men will be your bodyguard. And — if the story checks — the executioner."
That was only slightly better. "Couldn't we wait for the district magistrate?"
"Every judgment the district magistrate makes, he makes in my place. Every sentence his office carries out, is carried out in my name. Someday, it will be done in your name. It's time you gained a clear understanding of the process. Historically, the Vor may be a military caste, but a Vor lord's duties were never only military ones."
No escape. Damn, damn, damn. Miles sighed. "Right. Well… we could take the aircar, I suppose, and be up there in a couple of hours. Allow some time to find the right hole. Drop out of the sky on 'em, make the message loud and clear… be back before bedtime." Get it over with quickly.
The Count had that slit-eyed look again. "No…" he said slowly, "not the aircar, I don't think."
"No roads for a groundcar, up that far. Just trails." He added uneasily — surely his father could not be thinking of — "I don't think I'd cut a very impressive figure of central Imperial authority on foot, sir."
His father glanced up at his crisp dress uniform and smiled slightly. "Oh, you don't do so badly."
"But picture this after three or four days of beating through the bushes," Miles protested. "You didn't see us in Basic. Or smell us."
"I've been there," said the Admiral dryly. "But no, you're quite right. Not on foot. I have a better idea."
My own cavalry troop, thought Miles ironically, turning in his saddle, just like Grandfather. Actually, he was pretty sure the old man would have had some acerbic comments about the riders now strung out behind Miles on the wooded trail, once he'd got done rolling on the ground laughing at the equitation being displayed. The Vorkosigan stables had shrunk sadly since the old man was no longer around to take an interest: the polo string sold off, the few remaining ancient and ill-tempered ex-cavalry beasts put permanently out to pasture. The handful of riding horses left were retained for their sure-footedness and good manners, not their exotic bloodlines, and kept exercised and gentle for the occasional guest by a gaggle of girls from the village.
Miles gathered his reins, tensed one calf, and shifted his weight slightly, and Fat Ninny responded with a neat half turn and two precise back steps. The thickset roan gelding could not have been mistaken by the most ignorant urbanite for a fiery steed, but Miles adored him, for his dark and liquid eye, his wide velvet nose, his phlegmatic disposition equally unappalled by rushing streams or screaming aircars, but most of all for his exquisite dressage-trained responsiveness. Brains before beauty. Just being around him made Miles calmer. The beast was an emotional blotter, like a purring cat. Miles patted Fat Ninny on the neck. "If anybody asks," he murmured, "I'll tell them your name is Chieftan." Fat Ninny waggled one fuzzy ear, and heaved a wooshing, barrel-chested sigh.
Grandfather had a great deal to do with the unlikely parade Miles now led. The great guerilla general had poured out his youth in these mountains, fighting the Cetagandan invaders to a standstill and then reversing their tide. Anti-flyer heatless seeker-strikers smuggled in at bloody cost from off-planet had a lot more to do with the final victory than cavalry horses, which, according to Grandfather, had saved his forces through the worst winter of that campaign mainly by being edible. But through retroactive romance, the horse had become the symbol of that struggle.
Miles thought his father was being overly optimistic, if he thought Miles was going to cash in thusly on the old man's residual glory. The guerilla caches and camps were shapeless lumps of rust and trees, dammit, not just weeds and scrub anymore — they had passed some, earlier in today's ride — the men who had fought that war had long since gone to ground for the last time, just like Grandfather. What was he doing here? It was jump ship duty he wanted, taking him high, high above all this. The future, not the past, held his destiny.
Miles's meditations were interrupted by Dr. Dea's horse, which, taking exception to a branch lying across the logging trail, planted all four feet in an abrupt stop and snorted loudly. Dr. Dea toppled off with a faint cry. "Hang onto the reins," Miles called, and pressed Fat Ninny back down the trail.
Dr. Dea was getting rather better at falling off; he'd landed more-or-less on his feet this time. He made a lunge at the dangling reins, but his sorrel mare shied away from his grab. Dea jumped back as she swung on her haunches and then, realizing her freedom, bounced back down the trail, tail bannering, horse body-language for Nyah, nyah, ya can't catch me! Dr. Dea, red and furious, ran swearing in pursuit. She broke into a canter.
"No, no, don't run after her!" called Miles.
"How the hell am I supposed to catch her if I don't run after her?" snarled Dea. The space surgeon was not a happy man. "My medkit's on that bloody beast!"
"How do you think you can catch her if you do?" asked Miles. "She can run faster than you can."
At the end of the little column, Pym turned his horse sideways, blocking the trail. "Just wait, Harra," Miles advised the anxious hill woman in passing. "Hold your horse still. Nothing starts a horse running faster than another running horse."
The other two riders were doing rather better. The woman Harra Csurik sat her horse wearily, allowing it to plod along without interference, but at least riding on balance instead of trying to use the reins as a handle like the unfortunate Dea. Pym, bringing up the rear, was competent if not comfortable.
Miles slowed Fat Ninny to a walk, reins loose, and wandered after the mare, radiating an air of calm relaxation. Who, me? I don't want to catch you. We're just enjoying the scenery, right. That's it, stop for a bite. The sorrel mare paused to nibble at a weed, but kept a wary eye on Miles's approach.
At a distance just short of starting the mare bolting off again, Miles stopped Fat Ninny and slid off. He made no move toward the mare, but instead stood still and made a great show of fishing in his pockets. Fat Ninny butted his head against Miles eagerly, and Miles cooed and fed him a bit of sugar. The mare cocked her ears with interest. Fat Ninny smacked his lips and nudged for more. The mare snuffled up for her share. She lipped a cube from Miles's palm as he slid his other arm quietly through the loop of her reins.
"Here you go, Dr. Dea. One horse. No running."
"No fair," wheezed Dea, trudging up. "You had sugar in your pockets."
"Of course I had sugar in my pockets. It's called foresight and planning. The trick of handling horses isn't to be faster than the horse, or stronger than the horse. That pits your weakness against his strengths. The trick is to be smarter than the horse. That pits your strength against his weakness, eh?"
Dea took his reins. "It's snickering at me," he said suspiciously.
"That's nickering, not snickering." Miles grinned. He tapped Fat Ninny behind his left foreleg, and the horse obediently grunted down onto one knee. Miles clambered up readily to his conveniently-lowered stirrup.
"Does mine do that?" asked Dr. Dea, watching with fascination.
Dea glowered at his horse. "This animal is an idiot. I shall lead it for a while."
As Fat Ninny lurched back to his four feet Miles suppressed a riding-instructorly comment gleaned from his Grandfather's store such as, Be smarter than the horse, Dea. Though Dr. Dea was officially sworn to Lord Vorkosigan for the duration of this investigation, Space Surgeon Lieutenant Dea certainly outranked Ensign Vorkosigan. To command older men who outranked one called for a certain measure of tact.
The logging road widened out here, and Miles dropped back beside Harra Csurik. Her fierceness and determination of yesterday morning at the gate seemed to be fading even as the trail rose toward her home. Or perhaps it was simply exhaustion catching up with her. She'd said little all morning, been sunk in silence all afternoon. If she was going to drag Miles all the way up to the back of beyond and then wimp out on him…
"What, ah, branch of the Service was your father in, Harra?" Miles began conversationally.
She raked her fingers through her hair in a combing gesture more nervousness than vanity. Her eyes looked out at him through the straw-colored wisps like skittish creatures in the protection of a hedge.
"District Militia, m'lord. I don't really remember him. He died when I was real little."
She nodded. "In the fighting around Vorbarr Sultana, during Vordarian's Pretendership."
Miles refrained from asking which side he had been swept up on — most foot soldiers had had little choice, and the amnesty had included the dead as well as the living.
"Ah… do you have any sibs?"
"No, lord. Just me and my mother left."
A little anticipatory tension eased in Miles's neck. If this judgment indeed drove all the way through to an execution, one misstep could trigger a blood feud among the in-laws. Not the legacy of justice the Count intended him to leave behind. So the fewer in-laws involved, the better. "What about your husband's family?"
"He's got seven. Four brothers and three sisters."
"Hm." Miles had a mental flash of an entire team of huge, menacing hill hulks. He glanced back at Pym, feeling a trifle understaffed for his task. He had pointed out this factor to the Count, when they'd been planning this expedition last night.
"The village Speaker and his deputies will be your back-up," the Count had said, "just as for the district magistrate on court circuit."
"What if they don't want to cooperate?" Miles had asked nervously.
"An officer who expects to command Imperial troops," the Count had glinted, "should be able to figure out how to extract cooperation from a backcountry headman."
In other words, his father had decided this was a test, and wasn't going to give him any more clues. Thanks, Da.
"You have no sibs, lord?" said Harra, snapping him back to the present.
"No. But surely that's known, even in the back-beyond."
"They say a lot of things about you." Harra shrugged.
Miles bit down on the morbid question in his mouth like a wedge of raw lemon. He would not ask it, he would not… he couldn't help himself. "Like what?" forced out past his stiff lips.
"Everyone knows the Count's son is a mutant." Her eyes flicked defiant-wide. "Some said it came from the off-worlder woman he married. Some said it was from radiation from the wars, or a disease from, um, corrupt practices in his youth among his brother-officers -"
That last was a new one to Miles. His brow lifted.
"— but most say he was poisoned by his enemies."
"I'm glad most have it right. It was an assassination attempt using soltoxin gas, when my mother was pregnant with me. But it's not -" a mutation, his thought hiccoughed through the well-worn grooves — how many times had he explained this? — it's teratogenic, not genetic, I'm not a mutant, not… What the hell did a fine point of biochemistry matter to this ignorant, bereaved woman? For all practical purposes — for her purposes — he might as well be a mutant. " — important," he finished.
She eyed him sideways, swaying gently in the clop-a-clop rhythm of her mount. "Some said you were born with no legs, and lived all the time in a float chair in Vorkosigan House. Some said you were born with no bones -"
"— and kept in a jar in the basement, no doubt," Miles muttered.
"But Karal said he'd seen you with your grandfather at Hassadar Fair, and you were only sickly and undersized. Some said your father had got you into the Service, but others said no, you'd gone off-planet to your mother's home and had your brain turned into a computer and your body fed with tubes, floating in a liquid -"
"I knew there'd be a jar turn up in this story somewhere." Miles grimaced. You knew you 'd be sorry you asked, too, but you went and did it anyway. She was baiting him, Miles realized suddenly. How dare she… but there was no humor in her, only a sharp-edged watchfulness.
She had gone out, way out on a limb to lay this murder charge, in defiance of family and local authorities alike, in defiance of established custom. And what had her Count given her for a shield and support, going back to face the wrath of all her nearest and dearest? Miles. Could he handle this? She must be wondering indeed. Or would he botch it, cave and cut and run, leaving her to face the whirlwind of rage and revenge alone?
He wished he'd left her weeping at the gate.
The woodland, fruit of many generations of terraforming forestry, opened out suddenly on a vale of brown native scrub. Down the middle of it, through some accident of soil chemistry, ran a half-kilometer-wide swathe of green and pink — feral roses, Miles realized with astonishment as they rode nearer. Earth roses. The track dove into the fragrant mass of them and vanished.
He took turns with Pym, hacking their way through with their Service bush knives. The roses were vigorous and studded with thick thorns, and hacked back with a vicious elastic recoil. Fat Ninny did his part by swinging his big head back and forth and nipping off blooms and happily chomping them down. Miles wasn't sure just how many he ought to let the big roan eat — just because the species wasn't native to Barrayar didn't mean it wasn't poisonous to horses. Miles sucked at his wounds and reflected upon Barrayar's shattered ecological history.
The fifty thousand Firsters from Earth had only meant to be the spearhead of Barrayar's colonization. Then, through a gravitational anomaly, the worm-hole jump through which the colonists had come shifted closed, irrevocably and without warning. The terraforming that had begun, so careful and controlled in the beginning, collapsed along with everything else. Imported Earth plant and animal species had escaped everywhere to run wild, as the humans turned their attention to the most urgent problems of survival. Biologists still mourned the mass extinctions of native species that had followed, the erosions and droughts and floods, but really, Miles thought, over the centuries of the Time of Isolation the fittest of both worlds had fought it out to a perfectly good new balance. If it was alive and covered the ground who cared where it came from?
We are all here by accident. Like the roses.
They camped that night high in the hills, and pushed on in the morning to the flanks of the true mountains. They were now out of the region Miles was personally familiar with from his childhood, and he checked Harra's directions frequently on his orbital survey map. They stopped only a few hours short of their goal at sunset of the second day. Harra insisted she could lead them on in the dusk from here, but Miles did not care to arrive after nightfall, unannounced, in a strange place of uncertain welcome.
He bathed the next morning in a stream, and unpacked and dressed carefully in his new officer's Imperial dress greens. Pym wore the Vorkosigan brown-and-silver livery, and pulled the Count's standard on a telescoping aluminum pole from the recesses of his saddlebag and mounted it on his left stirrup. Dressed to kill, thought Miles joylessly. Dr. Dea wore ordinary black fatigues and looked uncomfortable. If they constituted a message, Miles was damned if he knew what it was.
They pulled the horses up at midmorning before a two-room cabin set on the edge of a vast grove of sugar maples, planted who-knew-how-many centuries ago but now raggedly marching up the vale by self-seeding. The mountain air was cool and pure and bright. A few chickens stalked and bobbed in the weeds. An algae-choked wooden pipe from the woods dribbled water into a trough, which overflowed into a squishy green streamlet and away.
Harra slid down, smoothed her skirt, and climbed the porch. "Karal?" she called. Miles waited high on horseback for the initial contact. Never give up a psychological advantage.
"Harra? Is that you?" came a man's voice from within. He banged open the door and rushed out. "Where have you been, girl? We've been beating the bushes for you! Thought you'd broke your neck in the scrub somewhere -" He stopped short before the three silent men on horseback.
"You wouldn't write down my charges, Karal," said Harra rather breathlessly. Her hands kneaded her skirt. "So I walked to the district magistrate at Vorkosigan Surleau to Speak them myself."
"Oh, girl," Karal breathed regretfully, "that was a stupid thing to do…" His head lowered and swayed, as he stared uneasily at the riders. He was a balding man of maybe sixty, leathery and worn, and his left arm ended in a stump. Another veteran.
"Speaker Serg Karal?" began Miles sternly. "I am the Voice of Count Vorkosigan. I am charged to investigate the crime Spoken by Harra Csurik before the Count's court, namely the murder of her infant daughter Raina. As Speaker of Silvy Vale, you are requested and required to assist me in all matters pertaining to the Count's justice."
At this point Miles ran out of prescribed formalities and was on his own. That hadn't taken long. He waited. Fat Ninny snuffled. The silver-on-brown cloth of the standard made a few soft snapping sounds, lifted by a vagrant breeze.
"The district magistrate wasn't there," put in Harra, "but the Count was."
Karal was gray-faced, staring. He pulled himself together with an effort, came to a species of attention, and essayed a creaking half-bow. "Who — who are you, sir?"
"Lord Miles Vorkosigan."
Karal's lips moved silently. Miles was no lip reader, but he was pretty sure it came to a dismayed variant of Oh, shit. "This is my liveried man Sergeant Pym, and my medical examiner, Lieutenant Dea of the Imperial Service."
"You are my lord Count's son?" Karal croaked.
"The one and only." Miles was suddenly sick of the posing. Surely that was a sufficient first impression. He swung down off Ninny, landing lightly on the balls of his feet. Karal's gaze followed him down, and down. Yeah, so I'm short. But wait'll you see me dance. "All right if we water our horses in your trough here?" Miles looped Ninny's reins through his arm and stepped toward it.
"Uh, that's for the people, m'lord," said Karal. "Just a minute and I'll fetch a bucket." He hitched up his baggy trousers and trotted off around the side of the cabin. A minute's uncomfortable silence, then Karal's voice floating faintly, "Where'd you put the goat bucket, Zed?"
Another voice, light and young, "Behind the woodstack, Da." The voices fell to a muffled undertone. Karal came trotting back with a battered aluminum bucket, which he placed beside the trough. He knocked out a wooden plug in the side and a bright stream arced out to splash and fill. Fat Ninny flicked his ears and snuffled and rubbed his big head against Miles, smearing his tunic with red and white horse hairs and nearly knocking him off his feet. Karal glanced up and smiled at the horse, though his smile fell away as his gaze passed on to the horse's owner. As Fat Ninny gulped his drink Miles caught a glimpse of the owner of the second voice, a boy of around twelve who flitted off into the woods behind the cabin.
Karal fell to, assisting Miles and Harra and Pym in securing the horses. Miles left Pym to unsaddle and feed, and followed Karal into his house. Harra stuck to Miles like glue, and Dr. Dea unpacked his medical kit and trailed along. Miles's boots rang loud and unevenly on the wooden floorboards.
"My wife, she'll be back in the nooning," said Karal, moving uncertainly around the room as Miles and Dea settled themselves on a bench and Harra curled up with her arms around her knees on the floor beside the fieldstone hearth. "I'll… I'll make some tea, m'lord." He skittered back out the door to fill a kettle at the trough before Miles could say, No, thank you. No, let him ease his nerves in ordinary movements. Then maybe Miles could begin to tease out how much of this static was social nervousness and how much was — perhaps — guilty conscience. By the time Karal had the kettle on the coals he was noticeably better controlled, so Miles began.
"I'd prefer to commence this investigation immediately, Speaker. It need not take long."
"It need not… take place at all, m'lord. The baby's death was natural — there were no marks on her. She was weakly, she had the cat's mouth, who knows what else was wrong with her? She died in her sleep, or by some accident."
"It is remarkable," said Miles dryly, "how often such accidents happen in this district. My father the Count himself has remarked on it."
"There was no call to drag you up here." Karal looked in exasperation at Harra. She sat silent, unmoved by his persuasion.
"It was no problem," said Miles blandly.
"Truly, m'lord," Karal lowered his voice, "I believe the child might have been overlain. 'S no wonder, in her grief, that her mind rejected it. Lem Csurik, he's a good boy, a good provider. She really doesn't want to do this — her reason is just temporarily overset by her troubles."
Harra's eyes, looking out from her hair-thatch, were poisonously cold.
"I begin to see," Miles's voice was mild, encouraging.
Karal brightened slightly. "It all could still be all right. If she will just be patient. Get over her sorrow. Talk to poor Lem. I'm sure he didn't kill the babe. Not rush to something she'll regret."
"I begin to see," Miles let his tone go ice cool, "why Harra Csurik found it necessary to walk four days to get an unbiased hearing. 'You think.' 'You believe.' 'Who knows what?' Not you, it appears. I hear speculation — accusation — innuendo — assertion. I came for facts, Speaker Karal. The Count's justice doesn't turn on guesses. It doesn't have to. This isn't the Time of Isolation. Not even the backbeyond.
"My investigation of the facts will begin now. No judgment will be — rushed into, before the facts are complete. Confirmation of Lem Csurik's guilt or innocence will come from his own mouth, under fast-penta, administered by Dr. Dea before two witnesses — yourself and a deputy of your choice. Simple, clean, and quick." And maybe I can be on my way out of this benighted hole before sundown. "I require you, Speaker, to go now and bring Lem Csurik for questioning. Sergeant Pym will assist you."
Karal killed another moment pouring the boiling water into a big brown pot before speaking. "I'm a traveled man, lord. A twenty-year Service man. But most folks here have never been out of Silvy Vale. Interrogation chemistry might as well be magic to them. They might say it was a false confession, got that way."
"Then you and your deputy can say otherwise. This isn't exactly like the good old days, when confessions were extracted under torture, Karal. Besides, if he's as innocent as you guess — he'll clear himself, no?"
Reluctantly, Karal went into the adjoining room. He came back shrugging on a faded Imperial Service uniform jacket with a corporal's rank marked on the collar, the buttons of which did not quite meet across his middle anymore. Preserved, evidently, for such official functions. Even as in Barrayaran custom one saluted the uniform, and not the man in it, so might the wrath engendered by an unpopular duty fall on the office and not the individual who carried it out. Miles appreciated the nuance.
Karal paused at the door. Harra still sat wrapped in silence by the hearth, rocking slightly.
"Mlord," said Karal. "I've been Speaker of Silvy Vale for sixteen years now. In all that time nobody has had to go to the district magistrate for a Speaking, not for water rights or stolen animals or swiving or even the time Neva accused Bors of tree piracy over the maple sap. We've not had a blood feud in all that time."
"I have no intention of starting a blood feud, Karal. I just want the facts."
"That's the thing, m'lord. I'm not so in love with facts as I used to be. Sometimes, they bite." Karal's eyes were urgent.
Really, the man was doing everything but stand on his head and juggle cats — one-handed — to divert Miles. How overt was his obstruction likely to get?
"Silvy Vale cannot be permitted to have its own little Time of Isolation," said Miles warningly. "The Count's justice is for everyone, now. Even if they're small. And weakly. And have something wrong with them. And cannot even speak for themselves — Speaker."
Karal flinched, white about the lips — point taken, evidently. He trudged away up the trail, Pym following watchfully, one hand loosening the stunner in his holster.
They drank the tea while they waited. Miles pottered about the cabin, looking but not touching. The hearth was the sole source of heat for cooking and wash water. There was a beaten metal sink for washing up, filled by hand from a covered bucket but emptied through a drainpipe under the porch to join the streamlet running down out of the trough. The second room was a bedroom, with a double bed and chests for storage. A loft held three more pallets; the boy around back had brothers, apparently. The place was cramped, but swept, things put away and hung up.
On a side table sat a government-issue audio receiver, and a second and older military model, opened up, apparently in the process of getting minor repairs and a new power pack. Exploration revealed a drawer full of old parts, nothing more complex than for simple audio sets, unfortunately. Speaker Karal must double as Silvy Vale's com link specialist. How appropriate. They must pick up broadcasts from the station in Hassadar, maybe the high-power government channels from the capital as well.
No other electricity, of course. Powersat receptors were expensive pieces of precision technology. They would come even here, in time; some communities almost as small, but with strong economic co-ops, already had them. Silvy Vale was obviously still stuck in subsistence-level, and must needs wait till there was enough surplus in the district to gift them, if the surplus was not grabbed off first by some competing want. If only the city of Vorkosigan Vashnoi had not been obliterated by Cetagandan atomics, the whole district could be years ahead, economically…
Miles walked out on the porch and leaned on the rail. Karal's son had returned. Down at the end of the cleared yard Fat Ninny was standing tethered, hip-shot, ears aflop, grunting with pleasure as the grinning boy scratched him vigorously under his halter. The boy looked up to catch Miles watching him, and scooted off fearfully to vanish again in the scrub downslope. "Huh," muttered Miles.
Dr. Dea joined him. "They've been gone a long time. About time to break out the fast-penta?"
"No, your autopsy kit, I should say. I fancy that's what we'll be doing next."
Dea glanced at him sharply. "I thought you sent Pym along to enforce the arrest."
"You can't arrest a man who's not there. Are you a wagering man, Doctor? I'll bet you a mark they don't come back with Csurik. No, hold it — maybe I'm wrong. I hope I'm wrong. Here are three coming back…"
Karal, Pym, and another were marching down the trail. The third was a hulking young man, big-handed, heavy-browed, thick-necked, surly. "Harra," Miles called, "is this your husband?" He looked the part, by God, just what Miles had pictured. And four brothers just like him — only bigger, no doubt…
Harra appeared by Miles's shoulder and let out her breath. "No, m'lord. That's Alex, the Speaker's deputy."
"Oh." Miles's lips compressed in silent frustration. Well, I had to give it a chance to be simple.
Karal stopped beneath him and began a wandering explanation of his empty-handed state. Miles cut him off with a lift of his eyebrows. "Pym?"
"Bolted, m'lord," said Pym laconically. "Almost certainly warned."
"I agree." He frowned down at Karal, who prudently stood silent. Facts first. Decisions, such as how much deadly force to pursue the fugitive with, second. "Harra. How far is it to your burying place?"
"Down by the stream, lord, at the bottom of the valley. About two kilometers."
"Get your kit, Doctor, we're taking a walk. Karal, fetch a shovel."
"M'lord, surely it isn't needful to disturb the peace of the dead," began Karal.
"It is entirely needful. There's a place for the autopsy report right in the Procedural I got from the district magistrate's office. Where I will file my completed report upon this case when we return to Vorkosigan Surleau. I have permission from the next-of-kin — do I not, Harra?"
She nodded numbly.
"I have the two requisite witnesses, yourself and your," gorilla, "deputy, we have the doctor and the daylight — if you don't stand there arguing till sundown. All we need is the shovel. Unless you're volunteering to dig with your hand, Karal." Miles's voice was flat and grating and getting dangerous.
Karal's balding head bobbed in his distress. "The — the father is the legal next-of-kin, while he lives, and you don't have his -"
"Karal," said Miles.
"Take care the grave you dig is not your own. You've got one foot in it already."
Karal's hand opened in despair. "I'll… get the shovel, m'lord."
The mid-afternoon was warm, the air golden and summer-sleepy. The shovel bit with a steady scrunch-scrunch through the soil at the hands of Karal's deputy. Downslope, a bright stream burbled away over clean rounded stones. Harra hunkered watching, silent and grim.
When big Alex levered out the little crate — so little! — Sergeant Pym went off for a patrol of the wooded perimeter. Miles didn't blame him. He hoped the soil at that depth had been cool, these last eight days. Alex pried open the box, and Dr. Dea waved him away and took over. The deputy too went off to find something to examine at the far end of the graveyard.
Dea looked the cloth-wrapped bundle over carefully, lifted it out, and set it on his tarp laid out on the ground in the bright sun. The instruments of his investigation were arrayed upon the plastic in precise order. He unwrapped the brightly-patterned cloths in their special folds; Harra crept up to retrieve them, straighten and fold them ready for re-use, then crept back.
Miles fingered the handkerchief in his pocket, ready to hold over his mouth and nose, and went to watch over Dea's shoulder. Bad, but not too bad. He'd seen and smelled worse. Dea, filter-masked, spoke procedurals into his recorder, hovering in the air by his shoulder, and made his examination first by eye and gloved touch, then by scanner.
"Here, my lord," said Dea, and motioned Miles closer. "Almost certainly the cause of death, though I'll run the toxin tests in a moment. Her neck was broken. See here on the scanner where the spinal cord was severed, then the bones twisted back into alignment."
"Karal, Alex." Miles motioned them up to witness; they came reluctantly.
"Could this have been accidental?" said Miles.
"Very remotely possible. The re-alignment had to be deliberate, though."
"Would it have taken long?"
"Seconds only. Death was immediate."
"How much physical strength was required? A big man's or…"
"Oh, not much at all. Any adult could have done it, easily."
"Any sufficiently motivated adult." Miles's stomach churned at the mental picture Dea's words conjured up. The little fuzzy head would easily fit under a man's hand. The twist, the muffled cartilaginous crack — if there was one thing Miles knew by heart, it was the exact tactile sensation of breaking bone, oh yes.
"Motivation," said Dea, "is not my department." He paused. "I might note, a careful external examination could have found this. Mine did. An experienced layman" — his eye fell cool on Karal — "paying attention to what he was doing, should not have missed it."
Miles too stared at Karal, waiting.
"Overlain," hissed Harra. Her voice was ragged with scorn.
"M'lord," said Karal carefully, "it's true I suspected the possibility."
Suspected, hell. You knew.
"But I felt — and still feel, strongly" — his eye flashed a wary defiance — "that only more grief would come from a fuss. There was nothing I could do to help the baby at that point. My duties are to the living."
"So are mine, Speaker Karal. As, for example, my duty to the next small Imperial subject in mortal danger from those who should be his or her protectors, for the grave fault of being" — Miles flashed an edged smile — "physically different. In Count Vorkosigan's view this is not just a case. This is a test case, fulcrum of a thousand cases. Fuss…" he hissed the sibilant; Harra rocked to the rhythm of his voice, "you haven't begun to see fuss yet."
Karal subsided as if folded.
There followed an hour of messiness yielding mainly negative data: no other bones were broken, the infant's lungs were clear, her gut and bloodstream free of toxins except those of natural decomposition. Her brain held no secret tumors. The defect for which she had died did not extend to spina bifida, Dea reported. Fairly simple plastic surgery would indeed have corrected the cat's mouth, could she somehow have won access to it. Miles wondered what comfort this confirmation was to Harra. Cold, at best.
Dea put his puzzle back together, and Harra re-wrapped the tiny body in intricate, meaningful folds. Dea cleaned his tools and placed them in their cases and washed his hands and arms and face thoroughly in the stream, for rather a longer time than needed for just hygiene Miles thought, while the gorilla re-buried the box.
Harra made a little bowl in the dirt atop the grave and piled in some twigs and bark scraps and a sawed-off strand of her lank hair.
Miles, caught short, felt in his pockets. "I have no offering on me that will burn," he said apologetically.
Harra glanced up, surprised at even the implied offer. "No matter, m'lord." Her little pile of scraps flared briefly and went out, like her infant Raina's life.
But it does matter, thought Miles.
Peace to you, small lady, after our rude invasions. I will give you a better sacrifice, I swear by my word as Vorkosigan. And the smoke of that burning will rise and be seen from one end of these mountains to the other.
Miles charged Karal and Alex straightly with producing Lem Csurik, and gave Harra Csurik a ride home up behind him on Fat Ninny. Pym accompanied them.
They passed a few scattered cabins on the way. At one a couple of grubby children playing in the yard loped alongside the horses, giggling and making hex signs at Miles, egging each other on to bolder displays, until their mother spotted them and ran out and hustled them indoors with a fearful look over her shoulder. In a weird way it was almost relaxing to Miles, the welcome he'd expected, not like Karal's and Alex's strained, self-conscious, careful not-noticing. Raina's life would not have been an easy one.
Harra's cabin was at the head of a long draw, just before it narrowed into a ravine. It seemed very quiet and isolated, in the dappled shade.
"Are you sure you wouldn't rather go stay with your mother?" asked Miles dubiously.
Harra shook her head. She slid down off Ninny, and Miles and Pym dismounted and followed her in.
The cabin was of standard design, a single room with a fieldstone fireplace and a wide roofed front porch. Water apparently came from the rivulet in the ravine. Pym held up a hand and entered first behind Harra, his hand on his stunner. If Lem Csurik had run, might he have run home first? Pym had been making scanner checks of perfectly innocent clumps of bushes all the way here.
The cabin was deserted. Although not long deserted: it did not have the lingering, dusty silence one would expect of eight days mournful disoccupation. The remains of a few hasty meals sat on the sink board. The bed was slept-in, rumpled and unmade. A few man's garments were scattered about. Automatically Harra began to move about the room, straightening it up, reasserting her presence, her existence, her worth. If she could not control the events of her life, at least she might control one small room.
The one untouched item was a cradle that sat beside the bed, little blankets neatly folded. Harra had fled for Vorkosigan Surleau just a few hours after the burial.
Miles wandered about the room, checking the view from the windows. "Will you show me where you went to get your brillberries, Harra?"
She led them up the ravine; Miles timed the hike. Pym divided his attention unhappily between the brush and Miles, alert to catch any bone-breaking stumble. After flinching away from about three aborted protective grabs Miles was ready to tell him to go climb a tree. Still, there was a certain understandable self-interest at work here; if Miles broke a leg it would be Pym who'd be stuck with carrying him out.
The brillberry patch was nearly a kilometer up the ravine. Miles plucked a few seedy red berries and ate them absently, looking around, while Harra and Pym waited respectfully. Afternoon sun slanted through green and brown leaves, but the bottom of the ravine was already gray and cool with premature twilight. The brillberry vines clung to the rocks and hung down invitingly, luring one to risk one's neck reaching. Miles resisted their weedy temptations, not being all that fond of brillberries. "If someone called out from your cabin, you couldn't hear them up here, could you?" remarked Miles.
"About how long did you spend picking?"
"About" — Harra shrugged — "a basketful."
The woman didn't own a chrono. "An hour, say. And a twenty-minute climb each way. About a two-hour time window, that morning. Your cabin was not locked?"
"Just a latch, m'lord."
Method, motive, and opportunity, the district magistrate's Procedural had emphasized. Damn. The method was established, and almost anybody could have used it. The opportunity angle, it appeared, was just as bad. Anyone at all could have walked up to that cabin, done the deed, and departed, unseen and unheard. It was much too late for an aura detector to be of use, tracing the shining ghosts of movements in and out of that room, even if Miles had brought one.
Facts, hah. They were back to motive, the murky workings of men's minds. Anybody's guess.
Miles had, as per the instructions in the district magistrate's Procedural, been striving to keep an open mind about the accused, but it was getting harder and harder to resist Harra's assertions. She'd been proved right about everything so far.
They left Harra re-installed in her little home, going through the motions of order and the normal routine of life as if they could somehow re-create it, like an act of sympathetic magic.
"Are you sure you'll be all right?" Miles asked, gathering Fat Ninny's reins and settling himself in the saddle. "I can't help but think that if your husband's in the area, he could show up here. You say nothing's been taken, so it's unlikely he's been here and gone before we arrived. Do you want someone to stay with you?"
"No, m'lord." She hugged her broom, on the porch. "I'd like to be alone for a while."
"Well… all right. I'll, ah, send you a message if anything important happens."
"Thank you, m'lord." Her tone was unpressing; she really did want to be left alone. Miles took the hint.
At a wide place in the trail back to Speaker Karal's, Pym and Miles rode stirrup to stirrup. Pym was still painfully on the alert for boogies in the bushes.
"My lord, may I suggest that your next logical step be to draft all the able-bodied men in the community for a hunt for this Csurik? Beyond doubt, you've established that the infanticide was a murder."
Interesting turn of phrase, Miles thought dryly. Even Pym doesn't find it redundant. Oh, my poor Barrayar. "It seems reasonable at first glance, Sergeant Pym, but has it occurred to you that half the able-bodied men in this community are probably relatives of Lem Csurik's?"
"It might have a psychological effect. Create enough disruption, and perhaps someone would turn him in just to get it over with."
"Hm, possibly. Assuming he hasn't already left the area. He could have been halfway to the coast before we were done at the autopsy."
"Only if he had access to transport." Pym glanced at the empty sky.
"For all we know one of his sub-cousins had a rickety lightflyer in a shed somewhere. But… he's never been out of Silvy Vale. I'm not sure he'd know how to run, where to go. Well, if he has left the district it's a problem for Imperial Civil Security, and I'm off the hook." Happy thought. "But — one of the things that bothers me, a lot, are the inconsistencies in the picture I'm getting of our chief suspect. Have you noticed them?"
"Can't say as I have, m'lord."
"Hm. Where did Karal take you, by the way, to arrest this guy?"
"To a wild area, rough scrub and gullies. Half a dozen men were out searching for Harra. They'd just called off their search and were on their way back when we met up with them. By which I concluded our arrival was no surprise."
"Had Csurik actually been there, and fled, or was Karal just ring-leading you in a circle?"
"I think he'd actually been there, m'lord. The men claimed not, but as you point out they were relatives, and besides, they did not, ah, lie well. They were tense. Karal may begrudge you his cooperation, but I don't think he'll quite dare disobey your direct orders. He is a twenty-year man, after all."
Like Pym himself, Miles thought. Count Vorkosigan's personal guard was legally limited to a ceremonial twenty men, but given his political position their function included very practical security. Pym was typical of their number, a decorated veteran of the Imperial Service who had retired to this elite private force. It was not Pym's fault that when he had joined he had stepped into a dead man's shoes, replacing the late Sergeant Bothari. Did anyone in the universe besides himself miss the deadly and difficult Bothari? Miles wondered sadly.
"I'd like to question Karal under fast-penta," said Miles morosely. "He displays every sign of being a man who knows where the body's buried."
"Why don't you, then?" asked Pym logically.
"I may come to that. There is, however, a certain unavoidable degradation in a fast-penta interrogation. If the man's loyal it may not be in our best long-range interest to shame him publicly."
"It wouldn't be in public."
"No, but he would remember being turned into a drooling idiot. I need… more information."
Pym glanced back over his shoulder. "I thought you had all the information, by now."
"I have facts. Physical facts. A great big pile of — meaningless, useless facts." Miles brooded. "If I have to fast-penta every backbeyonder in Silvy Vale to get to the bottom of this, I will. But it's not an elegant solution."
"It's not an elegant problem, m'lord," said Pym dryly.
They returned to find Speaker Karal's wife back and in full possession of her home. She was running in frantic circles, chopping, beating, kneading, stoking, and flying upstairs to change the bedding on the three pallets, driving her three sons before her to fetch and run and carry. Dr. Dea, bemused, was following her about trying to slow her down, explaining that they had brought their own tent and food, thank you, and that her hospitality was not required. This produced a most indignant response from Ma Karal.
"My lord's own son come to my house, and I to turn him out in the fields like his horse! I'd be ashamed!" And she returned to her work.
"She seems rather distraught," said Dea, looking over his shoulder.
Miles took him by the elbow and propelled him out onto the porch. "Just get out of her way, Doctor. We're doomed to be Entertained. It's an obligation on both sides. The polite thing to do is sort of pretend we're not here till she's ready for us."
Dea lowered his voice. "It might be better, in light of the circumstances, if we were to eat only our packaged food."
The chatter of a chopping knife, and a scent of herbs and onions, wafted enticingly through the open window. "Oh, I would imagine anything out of the common pot would be all right, wouldn't you?" said Miles. "If anything really worries you, you can whisk it off and check it, I suppose, but — discreetly, eh? We don't want to insult anyone."
They settled themselves in the homemade wooden chairs, and were promptly served tea again by a boy draftee of ten, Karal's youngest. He had apparently already received private instructions in manners from one or the other of his parents, for his response to Miles's deformities was the same flickering covert not-noticing as the adults, not quite as smoothly carried off.
"Will you be sleeping in my bed, m'lord?" he asked. "Ma says we got to sleep on the porch."
"Well, whatever your Ma says, goes," said Miles. "Ah… do you like sleeping on the porch?"
"Naw. Last time, Zed kicked me and I rolled off in the dark."
"Oh. Well, perhaps, if we're to displace you, you would care to sleep in our tent by way of trade."
The boy's eyes widened. "Really?"
"Certainly. Why not?"
"Wait'll I tell Zed!" He danced down the steps and shot away around the side of the house. "Zed, hey, Zed…!"
"I suppose," said Dea, "we can fumigate it, later…"
Miles's lips twitched. "They're no grubbier than you were at the same age, surely. Or than I was. When I was permitted." The late afternoon was warm. Miles took off his green tunic and hung it on the back of his chair, and unbuttoned the round collar of his cream shirt.
Dea's brows rose. "Are we keeping shopman's hours, then, m'lord, on this investigation? Calling it quits for the day?"
"Not exactly." Miles sipped tea thoughtfully, gazing out across the yard. The trees and treetops fell away down to the bottom of this feeder valley. Mixed scrub climbed the other side of the slope. A crested fold, then the long flanks of a backbone mountain, beyond, rose high and harsh to a summit still flecked with dwindling dirty patches of snow.
"There's still a murderer loose out there somewhere," Dea pointed out helpfully.
"You sound like Pym." Pym, Miles noted, had finished with their horses and was taking his scanner for another walk. "I'm waiting."
"Not sure. The piece of information that will make sense of all this. Look, there's only two possibilities. Csurik's either innocent or he's guilty. If he's guilty, he's not going to turn himself in. He'll certainly involve his relations, hiding and helping him. I can call in reinforcements by com link from Imperial Civil Security in Hassadar, if I want to. Any time. Twenty men, plus equipment, here by aircar in a couple of hours. Create a circus. Brutal, ugly, disruptive, exciting — could be quite popular. A manhunt, with blood at the end.
"Of course, there's also the possibility that Csurik's innocent, but scared. In which case…"
"In which case, there's still a murderer out there." Miles drank more tea. "I merely note, if you want to catch something, running after it isn't always the best way."
Dea cleared his throat and drank his tea too.
"In the meantime, I have another duty to carry out. I'm here to be seen. If your scientific spirit is yearning for something to do to while away the hours, try keeping count of the number of Vor-watchers that turn up tonight."
Miles's predicted parade began almost immediately. It was mainly women, at first, bearing gifts as to a funeral. In the absence of a com link system Miles wasn't sure by what telepathy they managed to communicate with each other, but they brought covered dishes of food, flowers, extra bedding, and offers of assistance. They were all introduced to Miles with nervous curtseys, but seldom lingered to chat; apparently a look was all their curiosity desired. Ma Karal was polite, but made it clear that she had the situation well in hand, and set their culinary offerings well back of her own.
Some of the women had children in tow. Most of these were sent to play in the woods in back, but a small party of whispering boys sneaked back around the cabin to peek up over the rim of the porch at Miles. Miles had obligingly remained on the porch with Dea, remarking that it was a better view, without saying for whom. For a few moments Miles pretended not to notice his audience, restraining Pym with a hand signal from running them off. Yes, look well, look your fill, thought Miles. What you see is what you 're going to get, for the rest of your lives or at any rate mine. Get used to it…. Then he caught Zed Karal's whisper, as self-appointed tour guide to his cohort — "That big one's the one that's come to kill Lem Csurik!"
"Zed," said Miles.
There was an abrupt frozen silence from under the edge of the porch. Even the animal rustlings stopped.
"Come here," said Miles.
To a muted background of dismayed whispers and nervous giggles, Karal's middle boy slouched warily up on to the porch.
"You three -" Miles's pointing finger caught them in mid-flight, "wait there." Pym added his frown for emphasis, and Zed's friends stood paralyzed, eyes wide, heads lined up at the level of the porch floor as if stuck up on some ancient battlement as a warning to kindred malefactors.
"What did you just say to your friends, Zed?" asked Miles quietly. "Repeat it."
Zed licked his lips. "I jus' said you'd come to kill Lem Csurik, lord." Zed was clearly now wondering if Miles's murderous intent included obnoxious and disrespectful boys as well.
"That is not true, Zed. That is a dangerous lie."
Zed looked bewildered. "But Da — said it."
"What is true, is that I've come to catch the person who killed Lem Csurik's baby daughter. That may be Lem. But it may not. Do you understand the difference?"
"But Harra said Lem did it, and she ought to know, he's her husband and all."
"The baby's neck was broken by someone. Harra thinks Lem, but she didn't see it happen. What you and your friends here have to understand is that I won't make a mistake. I can't condemn the wrong person. My own truth drugs won't let me. Lem Csurik has only to come here and tell me the truth to clear himself, if he didn't do it.
"But suppose he did. What should I do with a man who would kill a baby, Zed?"
Zed shuffled. "Well, she was only a mutie…" then shut his mouth and reddened, not-looking at Miles.
It was, perhaps, a bit much to ask a twelve-year-old boy to take an interest in any baby, let alone a mutie one… no, dammit. It wasn't too much. But how to get a hook into that prickly defensive surface? And if Miles couldn't even convince one surly twelve-year-old, how was he to magically transmute a whole District of adults? A rush of despair made him suddenly want to rage. These people were so bloody impossible. He checked his temper firmly.
"Your Da was a twenty-year man, Zed. Are you proud that he served the Emperor?"
"Yes, lord." Zed's eyes sought escape, trapped by these terrible adults.
Miles forged on. "Well, these practices — mutie-killing — shame the Emperor, when he stands for Barrayar before the galaxy. I've been out there. I know. They call us all savages, for the crimes of a few. It shames the Count my father before his peers, and Silvy Vale before the District. A soldier gets honor by killing an armed enemy, not a baby. This matter touches my honor as a Vorkosigan, Zed. Besides," Miles's lips drew back on a mirthless grin, and he leaned forward intently in his chair — Zed recoiled as much as he dared — "you will all be astonished at what only a mutie can do. That I have sworn on my grandfather's grave."
Zed looked more suppressed than enlightened, his slouch now almost a crouch. Miles slumped back in his chair and released him with a weary wave of his hand. "Go play, boy."
Zed needed no urging. He and his companions shot away around the house as though released from springs.
Miles drummed his fingers on the chair arm, frowning into the silence that neither Pym nor Dea dared break.
"These hill-folk are ignorant, lord," offered Pym after a moment.
"These hill-folk are mine, Pym. Their ignorance is… a shame upon my house." Miles brooded. How had this whole mess become his anyway? He hadn't created it. Historically, he'd only just got here himself. "Their continued ignorance, anyway," he amended in fairness. It still made a burden like a mountain. "Is the message so complex? So difficult? 'You don't have to kill your children anymore.' It's not like we're asking them all to learn — 5-Space navigational math." That had been the plague of Miles's last Academy semester.
"It's not easy for them." Dea shrugged. "It's easy for the central authorities to make the rules, but these people have to live every minute of the consequences. They have so little, and the new rules force them to give their margin to marginal people who can't pay back. The old ways were wise, in the old days. Even now you have to wonder how many premature reforms we can afford, trying to ape the galactics."
And what's your definition of a marginal person, Dea? "But the margin is growing," Miles said aloud. "Places like this aren't up against famine every winter any more. They're not isolated in their disasters; relief can get from one district to another under the Imperial seal… we're all getting more connected, just as fast as we can. Besides," Miles paused, and added rather weakly, "perhaps you underestimate them."
Dea's brows rose ironically. Pym strolled the length of the porch, running his scanner in yet another pass over the surrounding scrubland. Miles, turning in his chair to pursue his cooling teacup, caught a slight movement, a flash of eyes, behind the casement-hung front window swung open to the summer air — Ma Karal, standing frozen, listening. For how long? Since he'd called her boy Zed, Miles guessed, arresting her attention. She raised her chin as his eyes met hers, sniffed, and shook out the cloth she'd been holding with a snap. They exchanged a nod. She turned back to her work before Dea, watching Pym, noticed her.
Karal and Alex returned, understandably, around suppertime.
"I have six men out searching," Karal reported cautiously to Miles on the porch, now well on its way to becoming Miles's official HQ. Clearly, Karal had covered ground since mid afternoon. His face was sweaty, lined with physical as well as the underlying emotional strain. "But I think Lem's gone into the scrub. It could take days to smoke him out. There's hundreds of places to lie low out there."
Karal ought to know. "You don't think he's gone to some relatives?" asked Miles. "Surely, if he intends to evade us for long, he has to take a chance on re-supply, on information. Will they turn him in when he surfaces?"
"It's hard to say." Karal turned his hand palm-out. "It's… a hard problem for 'em, m'lord."
How long would Lem Csurik hang around out there in the scrub, anyway? His whole life — his blown-to-bits life — was all here in Silvy Vale. Miles considered the contrast. A few weeks ago, Csurik had been a young man with everything going for him; a home, a wife, a family on the way, happiness; by Silvy Vale standards, comfort and security. His cabin, Miles had not failed to note, though simple, had been kept with love and energy and so redeemed from the potential squalor of its poverty. Grimmer in the winter, to be sure. Now Csurik was a hunted fugitive, all the little he had torn away in the twinkling of an eye. With nothing to hold him, would he run away and keep running? With nothing to run to, would he linger near the ruins of his life?
The police force available to Miles a few hours way in Hassadar was an itch in his mind. Was it not time to call them in, before he fumbled this into a worse mess? But… if he were meant to solve this by a show of force, why hadn't the Count let him come by aircar on the first day? Miles regretted that two-and-a-half-day ride. It had sapped his forward momentum, slowed him down to Silvy Vale's walking pace, tangled him with time to doubt. Had the Count foreseen it? What did he know that Miles didn't? What could he know? Dammit, this test didn't need to be made harder by artificial stumbling blocks, it was bad enough all on its own. He wants me to be clever, Miles thought morosely. Worse, he wants me to be seen to be clever, by everyone here. He prayed he was not about to be spectacularly stupid instead.
"Very well, Speaker Karal. You've done all you can for today. Knock off for the night. Call your men off too. You're not likely to find anything in the dark."
Pym held up his scanner, clearly about to volunteer its use, but Miles waved him down. Pym's brows rose, editorially. Miles shook his head slightly.
Karal needed no further urging. He dispatched Alex to call off the night search with torches. He remained wary of Miles. Perhaps Miles puzzled him as much as he puzzled Miles? Dourly, Miles hoped so.
Miles was not sure at what point the long summer evening segued into a party. After supper the men began to drift in, Karal's cronies, Silvy Vale's elders. Some were apparently regulars who shared the evening government news broadcasts on Karal's audio set. Too many names, and Miles daren't forget a one. A group of amateur musicians arrived with their homemade mountain instruments, rather breathless, obviously the band tapped for all the major weddings and wakes in Silvy Vale; this all seemed more like a funeral to Miles every minute.
The musicians stood in the middle of the yard and played. Miles's porch-HQ now became his aristocratic box seat. It was hard to get involved with the music when the audience was all so intently watching him. Some songs were serious, some — rather carefully at first — funny. Miles's spontaneity was frequently frozen in mid-laugh by a faint sigh of relief from those around him; his stiffening froze them in turn, self-stymied like two people trying to dodge each other in a corridor.
But one song was so hauntingly beautiful — a lament for lost love — that Miles was struck to the heart. Elena… In that moment, old pain transformed to melancholy, sweet and distant: a sort of healing, or at least the realization that a healing had taken place, unwatched. He almost had the singers stop there, while they were perfect, but feared they might think him displeased. But he remained quiet and inward for a time afterward, scarcely hearing their next offering in the gathering twilight.
At least the piles of food that had arrived all afternoon were thus accounted for. Miles had been afraid Ma Karal and her cronies had expected him to get around that culinary mountain all by himself.
At one point Miles leaned on the rail and glanced down the yard to see Fat Ninny at tether, making more friends. A whole flock of pubescent girls were clustered around him, petting him, brushing his fetlocks, braiding flowers and ribbons in his mane and tail, feeding him tidbits, or just resting their cheeks against his warm silky side. Ninny's eyes were half-closed in smug content.
God, thought Miles jealously, if I had half the sex-appeal of that bloody horse I'd have more girlfriends than my cousin Ivan. Miles considered, very briefly, the pros and cons of making a play for some unattached female. The striding lords of old and all that… no. There were some kinds of stupid he didn't have to be, and that was definitely one of them. The service he had already sworn to one small lady of Silvy Vale was surely all he could bear without breaking; he could feel the strain of it all around him now, like a dangerous pressure in his bones.
He turned to find Speaker Karal presenting a woman to him, far from pubescent; she was perhaps fifty, lean and little, work-worn. She was carefully clothed in an aging best-dress, her graying hair combed back and bound at the nape of her neck. She bit at her lips and cheeks in quick tense motions, half-suppressed in her self-consciousness.
" 'S Ma Csurik, m'lord. Lem's mother." Speaker Karal ducked his head and backed away, abandoning Miles without aid or mercy — Come back, you coward!
"Ma'am," Miles said. His throat was dry. Karal had set him up, dammit, a public play — no, the other guests were retreating out of earshot too, most of them.
"M'lord," said Ma Csurik. She managed a nervous curtsey.
"Uh… do sit down." With a ruthless jerk of his chin Miles evicted Dr. Dea from his chair and motioned the hill woman into it. He turned his own chair to face hers. Pym stood behind them, silent as a statue, tight as a wire. Did he imagine the old woman was about to whip a needler-pistol from her skirts? No — it was Pym's job to imagine things like that for Miles, so that Miles might free his whole mind for the problem at hand. Pym was almost as much an object of study as Miles himself. Wisely, he'd been holding himself apart, and would doubtless continue to do so till the dirty work was over.
"M'lord," said Ma Csurik again, and stumbled again to silence. Miles could only wait. He prayed she wasn't about to come unglued and weep on his knees or some damned thing. This was excruciating. Stay strong, woman, he urged silently.
"Lem, he…" She swallowed. "I'm sure he didn't kill the babe. There's never been any of that in our family, I swear it! He says he didn't, and I believe him."
"Good," said Miles affably. "Let him come say the same thing to me under fast-penta, and I'll believe him too."
"Come away, Ma," urged a lean young man who had accompanied her and now stood waiting by the steps, as if ready to bolt into the dark at a motion. "It's no good, can't you see." He glowered at Miles.
She shot the boy a quelling frown — another of her five sons? — and turned back more urgently to Miles, groping for words. "My Lem. He's only twenty, lord."
"I'm only twenty, Ma Csurik," Miles felt compelled to point out. There was another brief impasse.
"Look, I'll say it again," Miles burst out impatiently. "And again, and again, till the message penetrates all the way back to its intended recipient. I cannot condemn an innocent person. My truth drugs won't let me. Lem can clear himself. He has only to come in. Tell him, will you? Please?"
She went stony, guarded. "I… haven't seen him, m'lord."
"But you might."
She tossed her head. "So? I might not." Her eyes shifted to Pym and away, as if the sight of him burned. The silver Vorkosigan logos embroidered on Pym's collar gleamed in the twilight like animal eyes, moving only with his breathing. Karal was now bringing lighted lamps onto the porch, but keeping his distance still.
"Ma'am," said Miles tightly. "The Count my father has ordered me to investigate the murder of your granddaughter. If your son means so much to you, how can his child mean so little? Was she… your first grandchild?"
Her face was sere. "No, lord. Lem's older sister, she has two. They're all right," she added with emphasis.
Miles sighed. "If you truly believe your son is innocent of this crime, you must help me prove it. Or — do you doubt?"
She shifted uneasily. There was doubt in her eyes — she didn't know, blast it. Fast-penta would be useless on her, for sure. As Miles's magic wonder drug, much counted-upon, fast-penta seemed to be having wonderfully little utility in this case so far.
"Come away, Ma," the young man urged again. "It's no good. The mutie lord came up here for a killing. They have to have one. It's a show."
Damn straight, thought Miles acidly. He was a perceptive young lunk, that one.
Ma Csurik let herself be persuaded away by her angry and embarrassed son plucking at her arm. She paused on the steps, though, and shot bitterly over her shoulder, "It's all so easy for you, isn't it?"
My head hurts, thought Miles.
There was worse to come before the evening ended.
The new woman's voice was grating, low and angry. "Don't you talk down to me, Serg Karal. I got a right for one good look at this mutie lord."
She was tall and stringy and tough. Like her daughter, Miles thought. She had made no attempt to freshen up. A faint reek of summer sweat hung about her working dress. And how far had she walked? Her gray hair hung in a switch down her back, a few strands escaping the tie. If Ma Csurik's bitterness had been a stabbing pain behind the eyes, this one's rage was a wringing knot in the gut.
She shook off Karal's attempted restraint and stalked up to Miles in the lamplight. "So."
"Uh… this is Ma Mattulich, m'lord," Karal introduced her. "Harra's mother."
Miles rose to his feet, managed a short formal nod. "How do you do, madam." He was very conscious of being a head shorter. She had once been of a height with Harra, Miles estimated, but her aging bones were beginning to pull her down.
She merely stared. She was a gum-leaf chewer, by the faint blackish stains around her mouth. Her jaw worked now on some small bit, tiny chomps, grinding too hard. She studied him openly, without subterfuge or the least hint of apology, taking in his head, his neck, his back, his short and crooked legs. Miles had the unpleasant illusion that she saw right through to all the healed cracks in his brittle bones as well. Miles's chin jerked up twice in the twitchy, nervous-involuntary tic that he was sure made him look spastic, before he controlled it with an effort.
"All right," said Karal roughly, "you've seen. Now come away, for God's sake, Mara." His hand opened in apology to Miles. "Mara, she's been pretty distraught over all this, m'lord. Forgive her."
"Your only grandchild," said Miles to her, in an effort to be kind, though her peculiar anguish repelled kindness with a scraped and bleeding scorn. "I understand your distress, ma'am. But there will be justice for little Raina. That I have sworn."
"How can there be justice now?" she raged, thick and low. "It's too late — a world too late — for justice, mutie lordling. What use do I have for your damned justice now?"
"Enough, Mara!" Karal insisted. His brows drew down and his lips thinned, and he forced her away and escorted her firmly off his porch.
The last lingering remnant of visitors parted for her with an air of respectful mercy, except for two lean teenagers hanging on the fringes who drew away as if avoiding poison. Miles was forced to revise his mental image of the Brothers Csurik. If those two were another sample, there was no team of huge menacing hill hulks after all. They were a team of little skinny menacing hill squirts instead. Not really an improvement; they looked as if they could move as fast as striking ferrets if they had to. Miles's lips curled in frustration.
The evening's entertainments ended finally, thank God, close to midnight. Karal's last cronies marched off into the woods by lantern light. The repaired and re-powered audio set was carried off by its owner with many thanks to Karal. Fortunately it had been a mature and sober crowd, even somber, no drunken brawls or anything. Pym got the Karal boys settled in the tent, took a last patrol around the cabin, and joined Miles and Dea in the loft. The pallets' stuffing had been spiked with fresh scented native herbs, to which Miles hoped devoutly he was not allergic. Ma Karal had wanted to turn her own bedroom over to Miles's exclusive lordly use, exiling herself and her husband to the porch too, but fortunately Pym had been able to persuade her that putting Miles in the loft, flanked by Dea and himself, was to be preferred from a security standpoint.
Dea and Pym were soon snoring, but sleep eluded Miles. He tossed on his pallet as he turned his ploys of the day, such as they had been, over and over in his mind. Was he being too slow, too careful, too conservative? This wasn't exactly good assault tactics, surprise with a superior force. The view he'd gained of the terrain from Karal's porch tonight had been ambiguous at best.
On the other hand, it did no good to charge off across a swamp, as his fellow cadet and cousin Ivan Vorpatril had demonstrated so memorably once on summer maneuvers. It had taken a heavy hovercab with a crane to crank the six big, strong, healthy, fully field-equipped young men of Ivan's patrol out of the chest-high, gooey black mud. Ivan had got his revenge simultaneously, though, when the cadet "sniper" they had been attacking fell out of his tree and broke his arm while laughing hysterically as they sank slowly and beautifully into the ooze. Ooze that a little guy, with his laser rifle wrapped in his loincloth, could swim across like a frog. The war games umpire had ruled it a draw. Miles rubbed his forearm and grinned in memory, and faded out at last.
Miles awoke abruptly and without transition deep in the night with a sense of something wrong. A faint orange glow shimmered in the blue darkness of the loft. Quietly, so as not to disturb his sleeping companions, he rose on his pallet and peered over the edge into the main room. The glow was coming through the front window.
Miles swung onto the ladder and padded downstairs for a look out doors. "Pym," he called softly.
Pym shot awake with a snort. "M'lord?" he said, alarmed.
"Come down here. Quietly. Bring your stunner."
Pym was by his side in seconds. He slept in his trousers with his stunner holster and boots by his pillow. "What the hell -?" Pym muttered, looking out too.
The glow was from fire. A pitchy torch, flung to the top of Miles's tent set up in the yard, was burning quietly. Pym lurched toward the door, then controlled his movements as the same realization came to him as had to Miles. Theirs was a Service-issue tent, and its combat-rated synthetic fabric would neither melt nor burn.
Miles wondered if the person who'd heaved the torch had known that. Was this some arcane warning, or a singularly inept attack? If the tent had been ordinary fabric, and Miles in it, the intended result might not have been trivial. Worse with Karal's boys in it — a bursting blossom of flame — Miles shuddered.
Pym loosened his stunner in his holster and stood poised by the front door. "How long?"
"I'm not sure. Could have been burning like that for ten minutes before it woke me."
Pym shook his head, took a slight breath, raised his scanner, and vaulted into the fire-gilded darkness.
"Trouble, m'lord?" Speaker Karal's anxious voice came from his bedroom door.
"Maybe. Wait -" Miles halted him as he plunged for the door. "Pym's running a patrol with a scanner and a stunner. Wait'll he calls the all-clear, I think. Your boys may be safer inside the tent."
Karal came up to the window, caught his breath, and swore.
Pym returned in a few minutes. "There's no one within a kilometer, now," he reported shortly. He helped Karal take the goat bucket and douse the torch. The boys, who had slept through the fire, woke at its quenching.
"I think maybe it was a bad idea to lend them my tent," said Miles from the porch in a choked voice. "I am profoundly sorry, Speaker Karal. I didn't think."
"This should never…" Karal was spluttering with anger and delayed fright, "this should never have happened, m'lord. I apologize for… for Silvy Vale." He turned helplessly, peering into the darkness. The night sky, star-flecked, lovely, was threatening now.
The boys, once the facts penetrated their sleepiness, thought it was all just great, and wanted to return to the tent and lie in wait for the next assassin. Ma Karal, shrill and firm, herded them indoors instead and made them bed down in the main room. It was an hour before they stopped complaining at the injustice of it and went back to sleep.
Miles, keyed up nearly to the point of gibbering, did not sleep. He lay stiffly on his pallet, listening to Dea, who slept breathing heavily, and Pym, feigning sleep for courtesy and scarcely seeming to breathe at all.
Miles was about to suggest to Pym that they give up and go out on the porch for the rest of the night when the silence was shattered by a shrill squeal, enormously loud, pain-edged, from outside.
"The horses!" Miles spasmed to his feet, heart racing, and beat Pym to the ladder. Pym cut ahead of him by dropping straight over the side of the loft into an elastic crouch, beating him to the door. There, Pym's trained bodyguard's reflexes compelled him to try to thrust Miles back inside. Miles almost bit him. "Go, dammit! I've got a weapon!"
Pym, good intentions frustrated, swung out the cabin door with Miles on his heels. Halfway down the yard they split to each side as a massive snorting shape loomed out of the darkness and nearly ran them down: the sorrel mare, loose again. Another squeal pierced the night from the lines where the horses were tethered.
"Ninny?" Miles called, panicked. It was Ninny's voice making those noises, the like of which Miles had not heard since the night a shed had burned down at Vorkosigan Surleau with a horse trapped inside. "Ninny!"
Another grunting squeal, and a thunk like someone splitting a watermelon with a mallet. Pym staggered back, inhaling with difficulty, a resonant deep stutter, and tripped to the ground where he lay curled up around himself. Not killed outright, apparently, because between gasps he was managing to swear lividly. Miles dropped to the ground beside him, checked his skull — no, thank God it had been Pym's chest Ninny's hoof had hit with that alarming sound. The bodyguard only had the wind knocked out of him, maybe a cracked rib. Miles more sensibly ran around to the front of the horse lines. "Ninny!"
Fat Ninny was jerking his head against his rope, attempting to rear. He squealed again, his white-rimmed eyes gleaming in the darkness. Miles ran to his head. "Ninny, boy! What is it?" His left hand slid up the rope to Ninny's halter, his right stretched to stroke Ninny's shoulder soothingly. Fat Ninny flinched, but stopped trying to rear, and stood trembling. The horse shook his head. Miles's face and chest were suddenly spattered with something hot and dark and sticky.
"Dea!" Miles yelled. "Dea!"
Nobody slept through this uproar. Six people tumbled off the porch and down the yard, and not one of them thought to bring a light… no, the brilliant flare of a cold light sprang from between Dr. Dea's fingers, and Ma Karal was struggling even now to light a lantern. "Dea, get that damned light over here!" Miles demanded, then stopped to choke his voice back down an octave to its usual carefully cultivated deeper register.
Dea galloped up and thrust the light toward Miles, then gasped, his face draining. "My lord! Are you shot?" In the flare the dark liquid soaking Miles's shirt glowed suddenly scarlet.
"Not me," Miles said, looking down at his chest in horror. A flash of memory turned his stomach over, cold at the vision of another blood-soaked death, that of the late Sergeant Bothari whom Pym had replaced. Would never replace.
Dea spun. "Pym?"
"He's all right," said Miles. A long inhaling wheeze rose from the grass a few meters off, the exhalation punctuated with obscenities. "But he got kicked by the horse. Get your medkit!" Miles peeled Dea's fingers off the cold light, and Dea dashed back to the cabin.
Miles held the light up to Ninny and swore in a sick whisper. A huge cut, a third of a meter long and of unknown depth, scored Ninny's glossy neck. Blood soaked his coat and runneled down his foreleg. Miles's fingers touched the wound fearfully; his hands spread on either side, trying to push it closed, but the horse's skin was elastic and it pulled apart and bled profusely as Fat Ninny shook his head in pain. Miles grabbed the horse's nose — "Hold still, boy!" Somebody had been going for Ninny's jugular. And had almost made it; Ninny — tame, petted, friendly, trusting Ninny — would not have moved from the touch until the knife bit deep.
Karal was helping Pym to his feet as Dr. Dea returned. Miles waited while Dea checked Pym over, then called, "Here, Dea!"
Zed, looking quite as horrified as Miles, helped to hold Ninny's head as Dea made inspection of the cut. "I took tests," Dea complained sotto voce as he worked. "I beat out twenty-six other applicants for the honor of becoming the Prime Minister's personal physician. I have practiced the procedures of seventy separate possible medical emergencies, from coronary thrombosis to attempted assassination. Nobody — nobody — told me my duties would include sewing up a damned horse's neck in the middle of the night in the middle of a howling wilderness…" But he kept working as he complained, so Miles didn't quash him, but kept gently petting Ninny's nose, and hypnotically rubbing the hidden pattern of his muscles, to soothe and still him. At last Ninny relaxed enough to rest his slobbery chin on Miles's shoulder.
"Do horses get anesthetics?" asked Dea plaintively, holding his medical stunner as if not sure just what to do with it.
"This one does," said Miles stoutly. "You treat him just like a person, Dea. This is the last animal that the Count my grandfather personally trained. He named him. I watched him get born. We trained him together. Grandfather had me pick him up and hold him every day for a week after he was foaled, till he got too big. Horses are creatures of habit, Grandfather said, and take first impressions to heart. Forever after Ninny thought I was bigger than he was."
Dea sighed and made busy with anesthetic stun, cleansing solution, antibiotics, muscle relaxants, and biotic glue. With a surgeon's touch he shaved the edges of the cut and placed the reinforcing net. Zed held the light anxiously.
"The cut is clean," said Dea, "but it will undergo a lot of flexing — I don't suppose it can very well be immobilized, in this position? No, hardly. This should do. If he were a human, I'd tell him to rest at this point."
"He'll be rested," Miles promised firmly. "Will he be all right now?"
"I suppose so. How the devil should I know?" Dea looked highly aggrieved, but his hand sneaked out to re-check his repairs.
"General Piotr," Miles assured him, "would have been very pleased with your work." Miles could hear him in his head now, snorting, Damned technocrats. Nothing but horse doctors with a more expensive set of toys. Grandfather would have loved being proved right. "You, ah… never met my grandfather, did you?"
"Before my time, my lord," said Dea. "I've studied his life and campaigns, of course."
Pym had a hand-light now, and was limping with Karal in a slow spiral around the horse lines, inspecting the ground. Karal's eldest boy had recaptured the sorrel mare and brought her back and re-tethered her. Her tether had been torn loose, not cut; had the mysterious attacker's choice of equine victim been random, or calculated? How calculated? Was Ninny attacked as a mere symbol of his master, or had the person known how passionately Miles loved the animal? Was this vandalism, a political statement, or an act of precisely directed, subtle cruelty?
What have I ever done to you? Miles's thought howled silently to the surrounding darkness.
"They got away, whoever it was," Pym reported. "Out of scanner range before I could breathe again. My apologies, m'lord. They don't seem to have dropped anything on the ground."
There had to have been a knife, at least. A knife, its haft gory with horse blood in a pattern of perfect fingerprints, would have been extremely convenient just now. Miles sighed.
Ma Karal drifted up and eyed Dea's medkit, as he cleaned and repacked it. "All that," she muttered under her breath, "for a horse…"
Miles refrained, barely, from leaping to a hot defense of the value of this particular horse. How many people in Silvy Vale had Ma Karal seen suffer and die, in her lifetime, for lack of no more medical technology than what Dea was carrying under his arm just now?
Guarding his horse, Miles watched from the porch as dawn crept over the landscape. He had changed his shirt and washed off. Pym was inside getting his ribs taped. Miles sat with his back to the wall and a stunner on his lap as the night mists slowly grew gray. The valley was a blur, fog-shrouded, the hills darker rolls of fog beyond. Directly overhead, gray thinned to a paling blue. The day would be fine and hot once the fog burned away.
It was surely time now to call out the troops from Hassadar. This was getting just too weird. His bodyguard was half out of commission — true, it was Miles's horse that had rendered him so, not the mystery attacker. But just because the attacks hadn't been fatal didn't mean they hadn't been intended so. Perhaps a third attack would be brought off more expertly. Practice makes perfect.
Miles felt unstrung with nervous exhaustion. How had he let a mere horse become such a handle on his emotions? Bad, that, almost unbalanced — yet Ninny's was surely one of the truly innocent pure souls Miles had ever known. Miles remembered the other innocent in the case then, and shivered in the damp. It was cruel, lord, something cruel… Pym was right, the bushes could be crawling with Csurik assassins right now.
Dammit, the bushes were crawling — over there, a movement, a damping wave of branch lashing in recoil from — what? Miles's heart lurched in his chest. He adjusted his stunner to full power, slipped silently off the porch, and began his stalk, crouching low, taking advantage of cover wherever the long grasses of the yard had not been trampled flat by the activities of the last day, and night. Miles froze like a predatory cat as a shape seemed to coalesce out of the mist.
A lean young man, not too tall, dressed in the baggy trousers that seemed to be standard here, stood wearily by the horse lines, staring up the yard at Karal's cabin. He stood so for a full two minutes without moving. Miles held a bead on him with his stunner. If he dared make one move toward Ninny…
The young man walked back and forth uncertainly, then crouched on his heels, still gazing up the yard. He pulled something from the pocket of his loose jacket — Miles's finger tightened on the trigger — but he only put it to his mouth and bit. An apple. The crunch carried clearly in the damp air, and the faint perfume of its juices. He ate about half, then stopped, seeming to have trouble swallowing. Miles checked the knife at his belt, made sure it was loose in its sheath. Ninny's nostrils widened, and he nickered hopefully, drawing the young man's attention. He rose and walked over to the horse.
The blood pulsed in Miles's ears, louder than any other sound. His grip on the stunner was damp and white-knuckled. The young man fed Ninny his apple. The horse chomped it down, big jaw rippling under his skin, then cocked his hip, dangled one hind hoof, and sighed hugely. If he hadn't seen the man eat off the fruit first Miles might have shot him on the spot. It couldn't be poisoned… The man made to pet Ninny's neck, then his hand drew back in startlement as he encountered Dea's dressing. Ninny shook his head uneasily. Miles rose slowly and stood waiting. The man scratched Ninny's ears instead, looked up one last time at the cabin, took a deep breath, stepped forward, saw Miles, and stood stock still.
"Lem Csurik?" said Miles.
A pause, a frozen nod. "Lord Vorkosigan?" said the young man. Miles nodded in turn.
Csurik swallowed. "Vor lord," he quavered, "do you keep your word?"
What a bizarre opening. Miles's brows climbed. Hell, go with it. "Yes. Are you coming in?"
"Yes and no, m'lord."
"A bargain, lord. I must have a bargain, and your word on it."
"If you killed Raina…"
"No, lord. I swear it. I didn't."
"Then you have nothing to fear from me."
Lem Csurik's lips thinned. What the devil could this hill man find ironic? How dare he find irony in Miles's confusion? Irony, but no amusement.
"Oh, lord," breathed Csurik, "I wish that were so. But I have to prove it to Harra. Harra must believe me — you have to make her believe me, lord!"
"You have to make me believe you first. Fortunately, that isn't hard. You come up to the cabin and make that same statement under fast-penta, and I will rule you cleared."
Csurik was shaking his head.
"Why not?" said Miles patiently. That Csurik had turned up at all was strong circumstantial indication of his innocence. Unless he somehow imagined he could beat the drug. Miles would be patient for, oh, three or four seconds at least. Then, by God, he'd stun him, drag him inside, tie him up till he came round, and get to the bottom of this before breakfast.
"The drug — they say you can't hold anything back."
"It would be pretty useless if you could."
Csurik stood silent a moment.
"Are you trying to conceal some lesser crime on your conscience? Is that the bargain you wish to strike? An amnesty? It… might be possible. If it's short of another murder, that is."
"No, lord. I've never killed anybody!"
"Then maybe we can deal. Because if you're innocent, I need to know as soon as possible. Because it means my work isn't finished here."
"That's… that's the trouble, m'lord." Csurik shuffled, then seemed to come to some internal decision and stood sturdily. "I'll come in and risk your drug. And I'll answer anything about me you want to ask. But you have to promise — swear! — you won't ask me about… about anything else. Anybody else."
"Do you know who killed your daughter?"
"Not for sure." Csurik threw his head back defiantly. "I didn't see it. I have guesses."
"I have guesses too."
"That's as may be, lord. Just so's they don't come from my mouth. That's all I ask."
Miles holstered his stunner and rubbed his chin. "Hm." A very slight smile turned one corner of his lip. "I admit, it would be more — elegant — to solve this case by reason and deduction than brute force. Even so tender a force as fast-penta."
Csurik's head lowered. "I don't know elegant, lord. But I don't want it to be from my mouth."
Decision bubbled up in Miles, straightening his spine. Yes. He knew, now. He had only to run through the proofs, step by chained step. Just like 5-Space math. "Very well. I swear by my word as Vorkosigan, I shall confine my questions to the facts to which you were an eyewitness. I will not ask you for conjectures about persons or events for which you were not present. There, will that do?"
Csurik bit his lip. "Yes, lord. If you keep your word."
"Try me," suggested Miles. His lips wrinkled back on a vulpine smile, absorbing the implied insult without comment.
Csurik climbed the yard beside Miles as if to an executioner's block. Their entrance created a tableau of astonishment among Karal and his family, clustered around their wooden table where Dea was treating Pym. Pym and Dea looked rather blanker, till Miles made introduction: "Dr. Dea, get out your fast-penta. Here's Lem Csurik come to talk with us."
Miles steered Lem to a chair. The hill man sat with his hands clenched. Pym, a red and purpling bruise showing at the edges of the white tape circling his chest, took up his stunner and stepped back.
Dr. Dea muttered under his breath to Miles as he got out the hypospray. "How'd you do that?"
Miles's hand brushed his pocket. He pulled out a sugar cube and held it up, and grinned through the C of his thumb and finger. Dea snorted, but pursed his lips with reluctant respect.
Lem flinched as the hypospray hissed on his arm, as if he expected it to hurt.
"Count backwards from ten," Dea instructed. By the time Lena reached three, he had relaxed; at zero, he giggled.
"Karal, Ma Karal, Pym, gather round," said Miles. "You are my witnesses. Boys, stay back and stay quiet. No interruptions, please."
Miles ran through the preliminaries, half a dozen questions designed to set up a rhythm and kill time while the fast-penta took full effect. Lem Csurik grinned foolishly, lolling in his chair, and answered them all with sunny good will. Fast-penta interrogation had been part of Miles's military intelligence course at the Service Academy. The drug seemed to be working exactly as advertised, oddly enough.
"Did you return to your cabin that morning, after you spent the night at your parents'?"
"Yes, m'lord." Lem smiled.
"About what time?"
Nobody here had a chrono; that was probably as precise an answer as Miles was likely to get. "What did you do when you got there?"
"Called for Harra. She was gone, though. It frightened me that she was gone. Thought she might've run out on me." Lem hiccoughed. "I want my Harra."
"Later. Was the baby asleep?"
"She was. She woke up when I called for Harra. Started crying again. It goes right up your spine."
"What did you do then?"
Lem's eyes widened. "I got no milk. She wanted Harra. There's nothing I could do for her."
"Did you pick her up?"
"No, lord, I let her lay. There was nothing I could do for her. Harra, she'd hardly let me touch her, she was that nervous about her. Told me I'd drop her or something."
"You didn't shake her, to stop her screaming?"
"No, lord, I let her lay. I left to look down the path for Harra."
"Then where did you go?"
Lem blinked. "My sister's. I'd promised to help haul wood for a new cabin. Bella — m'other sister — is getting married, y'see, and -"
He was beginning to wander, as was normal for this drug. "Stop," said Miles. Lem fell silent obediently, swaying slightly in his chair. Miles considered his next question carefully. He was approaching the fine line, here. "Did you meet anyone on the path? Answer yes or no."
Dea was getting excited. "Who? Ask him who!"
Miles held up his hand. "You can administer the antagonist now, Dr. Dea."
"Aren't you going to ask him? It could be vital!"
"I can't. I gave my word. Administer the antagonist now, doctor!"
Fortunately, the confusion of two interrogators stopped Lem's mumbled willing reply to Dea's question. Dea, bewildered, pressed his hypospray against Lem's arm. Lem's eyes, half-closed, snapped open within seconds. He sat up straight and rubbed his arm, and his face.
"Who did you meet on the path?" Dea asked him directly.
Lem's lips pressed tight; he looked for rescue to Miles.
Dea looked too. "Why won't you ask him?"
"Because I don't need to," said Miles. "I know precisely who Lem met on the path, and why he went on and not back. It was Raina's murderer. As I shall shortly prove. And — witness this, Karal, Ma Karal — that information did not come from Lem's mouth. Confirm!"
Karal nodded slowly. "I… see, m'lord. That was very good of you."
Miles gave him a direct stare, his mouth set in a tight smile. "And when is a mystery no mystery at all?"
Karal reddened, not replying for a moment. Then he said, "You may as well keep on like you're going, m'lord. There's no stopping you now, I suppose."
Miles sent runners to collect the witnesses, Ma Karal in one direction, Zed in a second, Speaker Karal and his eldest in a third. He had Lem wait with Pym, Dea, and himself. Having the shortest distance to cover, Ma Karal arrived back first, with Ma Csurik and two of her sons in tow.
His mother fell on Lem, embracing him and then looking fearfully over her shoulder at Miles. The younger brothers hung back, but Pym had already moved between them and the door.
"It's all right, Ma." Lem patted her on the back. "Or… anyway, I'm all right. I'm clear. Lord Vorkosigan believes me."
She glowered at Miles, still holding Lem's arm. "You didn't let the mutie lord give you that poison drug, did you?"
"Not poison," Miles denied. "In fact, the drug may have saved his life. That damned near makes it a medicine, I'd say. However" — he turned toward Lem's two younger brothers, and folded his arms sternly — "I would like to know which of you young morons threw the torch on my tent last night?"
The younger one whitened; the elder, hotly indignant, noticed his brother's expression and cut his denial off in mid-syllable. "You didn't!" he hissed in horror.
"Nobody," said the white one. "Nobody did."
Miles raised his eyebrows. There followed a short, choked silence.
"Well, nobody can make his apologies to Speaker and Ma Karal, then," said Miles, "since it was their sons who were sleeping in the tent last night. I and my men were in the loft."
The boy's mouth opened in dismay. The youngest Karal stared at the pale Csurik brother, his age mate, and whispered importantly, "You, Dono! You idiot, didn't ya know that tent wouldn't burn? It's real Imperial Service issue!"
Miles clasped his hands behind his back, and fixed the Csuriks with a cold eye. "Rather more to the point, it was attempted assassination upon your Count's heir, which carries the same capital charge of treason as an attempt upon the Count himself. Or perhaps Dono didn't think of that?"
Dono was thrown into flummoxed confusion. No need for fast-penta here, the kid couldn't carry off a lie worth a damn. Ma Csurik now had hold of Dono's arm too, without letting go of Lem's; she looked as frantic as a hen with too many chicks, trying to shelter them from a storm.
"I wasn't trying to kill you, lord!" cried Dono.
"What were you trying to do, then?"
"You'd come to kill Lem. I wanted to make you go away. Frighten you away. I didn't think anyone would really get hurt — I mean, it was only a tent!"
"You've never seen anything burn down, I take it. Have you, Ma Csurik?"
Lem's mother nodded, lips tight, clearly torn between a desire to protect her son from Miles, and a desire to beat Dono till he bled for his potentially lethal stupidity.
"Well, but for a chance, you could have killed or horribly injured three of your friends. Think on that, please. In the meantime, in view of your youth and ah, apparent mental defectiveness, I shall hold the treason charge. In return, Speaker Karal and your parents shall be responsible for your good behavior in future, and decide what punishment is appropriate."
Ma Csurik melted with relief and gratitude. Dono looked as if he'd rather have been shot. His brother poked him and whispered, "Mental defective!" Ma Csurik slapped the taunter on the side of his head, suppressing him effectively.
"What about your horse, m'lord?" asked Pym.
"I do not suspect them of the business with the horse," Miles replied slowly. "The attempt to fire the tent was plain stupidity. The other was… a different order of calculation altogether."
Zed, who had been permitted to take Pym's horse, returned then with Harra up behind him. Harra entered Speaker Karal's cabin, saw Lem, and stopped with a bitter glare. Lem stood openhanded, his eyes wounded, before her.
"So, lord," Harra said. "You caught him." Her jaw was clenched in joyless triumph.
"Not exactly," said Miles. "He came here and turned himself in. He's made his statement under fast-penta, and cleared himself. Lem did not kill Raina."
Harra turned from side to side. "But I saw he'd been there! He'd left his jacket, and took his good saw and wood planer away with him. I knew he'd been back while I was out! There must be something wrong with your drug!"
Miles shook his head. "The drug worked fine. Your deduction was correct as far as it went. Lem did visit the cabin while you were out. But when he left, Raina was still alive, crying vigorously. It wasn't Lem."
She swayed. "Who, then?"
"I think you know. I think you've been working very hard to deny that knowledge, hence your excessive focus on Lem. As long as you were sure it was Lem, you didn't have to think about the other possibilities."
"But who else would care?" Harra cried. "Who else would bother?"
"Who, indeed?" sighed Miles. He walked to the front window and glanced down the yard. The fog was clearing in the full light of morning. The horses were moving uneasily. "Dr. Dea, would you please get a second dose of fast-penta ready?" Miles turned, paced back to stand before the fireplace, its coals still banked for the night. The faint heat was pleasant on his back.
Dea was staring around, the hypospray in his hand, clearly wondering to whom to administer it. "My lord?" he queried, brows lowering in demand for explanation.
"Isn't it obvious to you, Doctor?" Miles asked lightly.
"No, my lord." His tone was slightly indignant.
"Nor to you, Pym?"
"Not… entirely, m'lord." Pym's glance, and stunner aim, wavered uncertainly to Harra.
"I suppose it's because neither of you ever met my grandfather," Miles decided. "He died just about a year before you entered my father's service, Pym. He was born at the very end of the Time of Isolation, and lived through every wrenching change this century has dealt to Barrayar. He was called the last of the Old Vor, but really, he was the first of the new. He changed with the times, from the tactics of horse cavalry to that of flyer squadrons, from swords to atomics, and he changed successfully. Our present freedom from the Cetagandan occupation is a measure of how fiercely he could adapt, then throw it all away and adapt again. At the end of his life he was called a conservative, only because so much of Barrayar had streamed past him in the direction he had led, prodded, pushed, and pointed all his life.
"He changed, and adapted, and bent with the wind of the times. Then, in his age — for my father was his youngest and sole surviving son, and did not himself marry till middle age — in his age, he was hit with me. And he had to change again. And he couldn't.
"He begged for my mother to have an abortion, after they knew more or less what the fetal damage would be. He and my parents were estranged for five years after I was born. They didn't see each other or speak or communicate. Everyone thought my father moved us to the Imperial Residence when he became Regent because he was angling for the throne, but in fact it was because the Count my grandfather denied him the use of Vorkosigan House. Aren't family squabbles jolly fun? Bleeding ulcers run in my family, we give them to each other." Miles strolled back to the window and looked out. Ah, yes. Here it came.
"The reconciliation was gradual, when it became quite clear there would be no other son," Miles went on. "No dramatic denouement. It helped when the medics got me walking. It was essential that I tested out bright. Most important of all, I never let him see me give up."
Nobody had dared interrupt this lordly monologue, but it was clear from several expressions that the point of it was escaping them. Since half the point was to kill time, Miles was not greatly disturbed by their failure to track. Footsteps sounded on the wooden porch outside. Pym moved quietly to cover the door with an unobscured angle of fire.
"Dr. Dea," said Miles, sighting through the window, "would you be so kind as to administer that fast-penta to the first person through the door, as they step in?"
"You're not waiting for a volunteer, my lord?"
"Not this time."
The door swung inward, and Dea stepped forward, raising his hand. The hypospray hissed. Ma Mattulich wheeled to face Dea, the skirts of her work dress swirling around her veined calves, hissing in return — "You dare!" Her arm drew back as if to strike him, but slowed in mid-swing and failed to connect as Dea ducked out of her way. This unbalanced her, and she staggered. Speaker Karal, coming in behind, caught her by the arm and steadied her. "You dare!" she wailed again, then turned to see not only Dea but all the other witnesses waiting: Ma Csurik, Ma Karal, Lem, Harra, Pym. Her shoulders sagged, and then the drug cut in and she just stood, a silly smile fighting with anguish for possession of her harsh face.
The smile made Miles ill, but it was the smile he needed. "Sit her down, Dea, Speaker Karal."
They guided her to the chair lately vacated by Lem Csurik. She was fighting the drug desperately, flashes of resistance melting into flaccid docility. Gradually the docility became ascendant, and she sat draped in the chair, grinning helplessly. Miles sneaked a peek at Harra. She stood white and silent, utterly closed.
For several years after the reconciliation Miles had never been left with his grandfather without his personal bodyguard. Sergeant Bothari had worn the Count's livery, but been loyal to Miles alone, the one man dangerous enough — some said, crazy enough — to stand up to the great General himself. There was no need, Miles decided, to spell out to these fascinated people just what interrupted incident had made his parents think Sergeant Bothari a necessary precaution. Let General Piotr's untarnished reputation serve — Miles, now. As he willed. Miles's eyes glinted.
Lem lowered his head. "If I had known — if I had guessed — I wouldn't have left them alone together, m'lord. I thought — Harra's mother would take care of her. I couldn't have — I didn't know how -"
Harra did not look at him. Harra did not look at anything. "Let us conclude this," Miles sighed. Again, he requested formal witness from the crowd in the room and cautioned against interruptions, which tended to unduly confuse a drugged subject. He moistened his lips and turned to Ma Mattulich.
Again, he began with the standard neutral questions, name, birthdate, parents' names, checkable biographical facts. Ma Mattulich was harder to lull than the cooperative Lem had been, her responses scattered and staccato. Miles controlled his impatience with difficulty. For all its deceptive ease, fast-penta interrogation required skill, skill and patience. He'd got too far to risk a stumble now. He worked his questions up gradually to the first critical ones.
"Were you there, when Raina was born?"
Her voice was low and drifting, dreamy. "The birth came in the night. Lem, he went for Jean the midwife. The midwife's son was supposed to go for me but he fell back to sleep. I didn't get there till morning, and then it was too late. They'd all seen."
"The cat's mouth, the dirty mutation. Monsters in us. Cut them out. Ugly little man." This last, Miles realized, was an aside upon himself. Her attention had hung up on him, hypnotically. "Muties make more muties, they breed faster, overrun… I saw you watching the girls. You want to make mutie babies on clean women, poison us all…"
Time to steer her back to the main issue. "Were you ever alone with the baby after that?"
"No, Jean she hung around. Jean knows me. She knew what I wanted. None of her damn business. And Harra was always there. Harra must not know. Harra must not… why should she get off so soft? The poison must be in her. Must have come from her Da, I lay only with her Da and they were all wrong but the one."
Miles blinked. "What were all wrong?" Across the room Miles saw Speaker Karal's mouth tighten. The headman caught Miles's glance and stared down at his own feet, absenting himself from the proceedings. Lem, his lips parted in absorption, and the rest of the boys were listening with alarm. Harra hadn't moved.
"All my babies," Ma Mattulich said.
Harra looked up sharply at that, her eyes widening.
"Was Harra not your only child?" Miles asked. It was an effort to keep his voice cool, calm; he wanted to shout. He wanted to be gone from here…
"No, of course not. She was my only clean child, I thought. I thought, but the poison must have been hidden in her. I fell on my knees and thanked God when she was born clean, a clean one at last, after so many, so much pain… I thought I had finally been punished enough. She was such a pretty baby, I thought it was over at last. But she must have been mutie after all, hidden, tricksy, sly…"
"How many," Miles choked, "babies did you have?"
"Four, besides Harra my last."
"And you killed all four of them?" Speaker Karal, Miles saw, gave a slow nod to his feet.
"No!" said Ma Mattulich. Indignation broke through the fast-penta wooze briefly. "Two were born dead already, the first one, and the twisted-up one. The one with too many fingers and toes, and the one with the bulgy head, those I cut. Cut out. My mother, she watched over me to see I did it right. Harra, I made it soft for Harra. I did it for her."
"So you have in fact murdered not one infant, but three?" said Miles frozenly. The younger witnesses in the room, Karal's boys and the Csurik brothers, looked horrified. The older ones, Ma Mattulich's contemporaries, who must have lived through the events with her, looked mortified, sharing her shame. Yes, they all must have known.
"Murdered?" said Ma Mattulich. "No! I cut them out. I had to. I had to do the right thing." Her chin lifted proudly, then drooped. "Killed my babies, to please, to please… I don't know who. And now you call me a murderer? Damn you! What use is your justice to me now? I needed it then — where were you then?" Suddenly, shockingly, she burst into tears, which wavered almost instantly into rage. "If mine must die then so must hers! Why should she get off so soft? Spoiled her… I tried my best, I did my best, it's not fair…"
The fast-penta was not keeping up with this… no, it was working, Miles decided, but her emotions were too overwhelming. Upping the dose might level her emotional surges, at some risk of respiratory arrest, but it would not elicit any more complete a confession. Miles's belly was trembling, a reaction he trusted he concealed. It had to be completed now.
"Why did you break Raina's neck, instead of cutting her throat?"
"Harra, she must not know," said Ma Mattulich. "Poor baby. It would look like she just died…"
Miles eyed Lem, Speaker Karal. "It seems a number of others shared your opinion that Harra should not know."
"I didn't want it to be from my mouth," repeated Lem sturdily.
"I wanted to save her double grief, m'lord," said Karal. "She'd had so much…"
Miles met Harra's eyes at that. "I think you all underestimate her. Your excessive tenderness insults both her intelligence and will. She comes from a tough line, that one."
Harra inhaled, controlling her own trembling. She gave Miles a short nod, as if to say Thank you, little man. He returned her a slight inclination of the head, Yes, I understand.
"I'm not sure yet where justice lies in this case," said Miles, "but this I swear to you, the days of cooperative concealment are over. No more secret crimes in the night. Daylight's here. And speaking of crimes in the night," he turned back to Ma Mattulich, "was it you who tried to cut my horse's throat last night?"
"I tried," said Ma Mattulich, calmer now in a wave of fast-penta mellowness, "but it kept rearing up on me."
"Why my horse?" Miles could not keep exasperation from his voice, though a calm, even tone was enjoined upon fast-penta interrogators by the training manual.
"I couldn't get at you," said Ma Mattulich simply.
Miles rubbed his forehead. "Retroactive infanticide by proxy?" he muttered.
"You," said Ma Mattulich, and her loathing came through even the nauseating fast-penta cheer, "you are the worst. All I went through, all I did, all the grief, and you come along at the end. A mutie made lord over us all, and all the rules changed, betrayed at the end by an off-worlder woman's weakness. You make it all for nothing. Hate you. Dirty mutie…" her voice trailed off in a drugged mumble.
Miles took a deep breath and looked around the room. The stillness was profound, and no one dared break it.
"I believe," he said, "that concludes my investigation into the facts of this case."
The mystery of Raina's death was solved.
The problem of justice, unfortunately, remained.
Miles took a walk.
The graveyard, though little more than a crude clearing in the woodland, was a place of peace and beauty in the morning light. The stream burbled endlessly, shifting green shadows and blinding brilliant reflections. The faint breeze that had shredded away the last of the night fog whispered in the trees, and the tiny, short-lived creatures that everyone on Barrayar but biologists called bugs sang and twittered in the patches of native scrub.
"Well, Raina," Miles sighed, "and what do I do now?" Pym lingered by the borders of the clearing, giving Miles room. "It's all right," Miles assured the tiny grave, "Pym's caught me talking to dead people before. He may think I'm crazy, but he's far too well-trained to say so."
Pym in fact did not look happy, nor altogether well. Miles felt rather guilty for dragging him out; by rights the man should be resting in bed, but Miles had desperately needed this time alone. Pym wasn't just suffering the residual effect of having been kicked by Ninny. He had been silent ever since Miles had extracted the confession from Ma Mattulich. Miles was unsurprised. Pym had steeled himself to play executioner to their imagined hill bully; the substitution of a mad grandmother as his victim had clearly given him pause. He would obey whatever order Miles gave him though, Miles had no doubt of that.
Miles considered the peculiarities of Barrayaran law as he wandered about the clearing, watching the stream and the light, turning over an occasional rock with the toe of his boot. The fundamental principle was clear; the spirit was to be preferred over the letter, truth over technicalities. Precedent was held subordinate to the judgment of the man on the spot. Alas, the man on the spot was himself. There was no refuge for him in automated rules, no hiding behind the law says as if the law were some living overlord with a real Voice. The only voice here was his own.
And who would be served by the death of that half-crazed old woman? Harra? The relationship between mother and daughter had been wounded unto death by this, Miles had seen that in their eyes, yet still Harra had no stomach for matricide. Miles rather preferred it that way. Having her standing by his ear crying for bloody revenge would have been enormously distracting just now. The obvious justice made a damn poor reward for Harra's courage in reporting the crime. Raina? Ah. That was more difficult.
"I'd like to lay the old gargoyle right there at your feet, small lady," Miles muttered to her. "Is it your desire? Does it serve you? What would serve you?" Was this the great burning he had promised her?
What judgment would reverberate along the entire Dendarii mountain range? Should he indeed sacrifice these people to some larger political statement, regardless of their wants? Or should he forget all that, make his judgment serve only those directly involved? He scooped up a stone and flung it full force into the stream. It vanished invisibly in the rocky bed.
He turned to find Speaker Karal waiting by the edge of the graveyard. Karal ducked his head in greeting and approached cautiously.
"So, m'lord," said Karal.
"Just so," said Miles.
"Have you come to any conclusion?"
"Not really." Miles gazed around. "Anything less than Ma Mattulich's death seems… inadequate justice, and yet I cannot see who her death would serve."
"Neither could I. That's why I took the position I did in the first place."
"No…" said Miles slowly, "no, you were wrong in that. For one thing, it very nearly got Lem Csurik killed. I was getting ready to pursue him with deadly force at one point. It almost destroyed him with Harra. Truth is better. Slightly better. At least it isn't a fatal error. Surely I can do… something with it."
"I didn't know what to expect of you, at first," admitted Karal.
Miles shook his head. "I meant to make changes. A difference. Now… I don't know."
Speaker Karal's balding forehead wrinkled. "But we are changing."
"Not enough. Not fast enough."
"You're young yet, that's why you don't see how much, how fast. Look at the difference between Harra and her mother. God — look at the difference between Ma Mattulich and her mother. There was a harridan." Speaker Karal shuddered. "I remember her, all right. And yet, she was not so unusual, in her day. So far from having to make change, I don't think you could stop it if you tried. The minute we finally get a powersat receptor up here, and get on the com net, the past will be done and over. As soon as the kids see the future — their future — they'll be mad after it. They're already lost to the old ones like Ma Mattulich. The old ones know it, too, don't believe they don't know it. Why d'you think we haven't been able to get at least a small unit up here yet? Not just the cost. The old ones are fighting it. They call it off-planet corruption, but it's really the future they fear."
"There's so much still to be done."
"Oh, yes. We are a desperate people, no lie. But we have hope. I don't think you realize how much you've done, just by coming up here."
"I've done nothing," said Miles bitterly. "Sat around, mostly. And now, I swear, I'm going to end up doing more nothing. And then go home. Hell!"
Speaker Karal pursed his lips, looked at his feet, at the high hills. "You are doing something for us every minute. Mutie lord. Do you think you are invisible?"
Miles grinned wolfishly. "Oh, Karal, I'm a one-man band, I am. I'm a parade."
"As you say, just so. Ordinary people need extraordinary examples. So they can say to themselves, well, if he can do that, I can surely do this. No excuses."
"No quarter, yes, I know that game. Been playing it all my life."
"I think," said Karal, "Barrayar needs you. To go on being just what you are."
"Barrayar will eat me, if it can."
"Yes," said Karal, his eyes on the horizon, "so it will." His gaze fell to the graves at his feet. "But it swallows us all in the end, doesn't it? You will outlive the old ones."
"Or in the beginning." Miles pointed down. "Don't tell me who I'm going to outlive. Tell Raina."
Karal's shoulders slumped. "True. S'truth. Make your judgment, lord. I'll back you."
Miles assembled them all in Karal's yard for his Speaking, the porch now having become his podium. The interior of the cabin would have been impossibly hot and close for this crowd, suffocating with the afternoon sun beating on the roof, though outdoors the light made them squint. They were all here, everyone they could round up, Speaker Karal, Ma Karal, their boys, all the Csuriks, most of the cronies who had attended last night's funereal festivities, men, women, and children. Harra sat apart. Lem kept trying to hold her hand, though from the way she flinched it was clear she didn't want to be touched. Ma Mattulich sat displayed by Miles's side, silent and surly, flanked by Pym and an uncomfortable-looking Deputy Alex.
Miles jerked up his chin, settling his head on the high collar of his dress greens, as polished and formal as Pym's batman's expertise could make him. The Imperial Service uniform that Miles had earned. Did these people know he had earned it, or did they all imagine it a mere gift from his father, nepotism at work? Damn what they thought. He knew. He stood before his people, and gripped the porch rail.
"I have concluded the investigation of the charges laid before the Count's Court by Harra Csurik of the murder of her daughter Raina. By evidence, witness, and her own admission, I find Mara Mattulich guilty of this murder, she having twisted the infant's neck until it broke, and then attempted to conceal that crime. Even when that concealment placed her son-in-law Lem Csurik in mortal danger from false charges. In light of the helplessness of the victim, the cruelty of the method, and the cowardly selfishness of the attempted concealment, I can find no mitigating excuse for the crime.
"In addition, Mara Mattulich by her own admission testifies to two previous infanticides, some twenty years ago, of her own children. These facts shall be announced by Speaker Karal in every corner of Silvy Vale, until every subject has been informed."
He could feel Ma Mattulich's glare boring into his back. Yes, go on and hate me, old woman. I will bury you yet, and you know it. He swallowed and continued, the formality of the language a sort of shield before him.
"For this unmitigated crime, the only proper sentence is death. And I so sentence Mara Mattulich. But in light of her age and close relation to the next-most-injured party in the case, Harra Csurik, I choose to hold the actual execution of that sentence. Indefinitely." Out of the corner of his eye Miles saw Pym let out, very carefully and covertly, a sigh of relief. Harra combed at her straw-colored bangs with her fingers and listened intently.
"But she shall be as dead before the law. All her property, even to the clothes on her back, now belongs to her daughter Harra, to dispose of as she wills. Mara Mattulich may not own property, enter contracts, sue for injuries, nor exert her will after death in any testament. She shall not leave Silvy Vale without Harra's permission. Harra shall be given power over her as a parent over a child, or as in senility. In Harra's absence Speaker Karal will be her deputy. Mara Mattulich shall be watched to see she harms no other child.
"Further. She shall die without sacrifice. No one, not Harra nor any other, shall make a burning for her when she goes into the ground at last. As she murdered her future, so her future shall return only death to her spirit. She will die as the childless do, without remembrance."
A low sigh swept the older members of the crowd before Miles. For the first time, Mara Mattulich bent her stiff neck.
Some, Miles knew, would find this only spiritually symbolic. Others would see it as literally lethal, according to the strength of their beliefs. The literal-minded, such as those who saw mutation as a sin to be violently expiated. But even the less superstitious, Miles saw in their faces, found the meaning clear. So.
Miles turned to Ma Mattulich, and lowered his voice. "Every breath you take from this moment on is by my mercy. Every bite of food you eat, by Harra's charity. By charity and mercy — such as you did not give — you shall live. Dead woman."
"Some mercy. Mutie lord." Her growl was low, weary, beaten.
"You get the point," he said through his teeth. He swept her a bow, infinitely ironic, and turned his back on her. "I am the Voice of Count Vorkosigan. This concludes my Speaking."
Miles met Harra and Lem afterwards, in Speaker Karal's cabin.
"I have a proposition for you." Miles controlled his nervous pacing and stood before them. "You're free to turn it down, or think about it for a while. I know you're very tired right now." As are we all. Had he really been in Silvy Vale only a day and a half? It seemed like a century. His head ached with fatigue. Harra was red-eyed too. "First of all, can you read and write?"
"Some," Harra admitted. "Speaker Karal taught us some, and Ma Lannier."
"Well, good enough. You wouldn't be starting completely blind. Look. A few years back Hassadar started a teacher's college. It's not very big yet, but it's begun. There are some scholarships. I can swing one your way, if you will agree to live in Hassadar for three years of intense study."
"Me!" said Harra. "I couldn't go to a college! I barely know… any of that stuff."
"Knowledge is what you're supposed to have coming out, not going in. Look, they know what they're dealing with in this district. They have a lot of remedial courses. It's true, you'd have to work harder, to catch up with the town-bred and the lowlanders. But I know you have courage, and I know you have will. The rest is just picking yourself up and ramming into the wall again and again until it falls down. You get a bloody forehead, so what? You can do it, I swear you can."
Lem, sitting beside her, looked worried. He captured her hand again. "Three years?" he said in a small voice. "Gone away?"
"The school stipend isn't that much," said Miles. "But Lem, I understand you have carpenter's skills. There's a building boom going on in Hassadar right now. Hassadar's going to be the next Vorkosigan Vashnoi, I think. I'm certain you could get a job. Between you, you could live."
Lem looked at first relieved, then extremely worried. "But they all use power tools — computers — robots…"
"By no means. And they weren't all born knowing how to use that stuff either. If they can learn it, you can. Besides, the rich pay well for hand-work, unique one-off items, if the quality's good. I can see you get a start, which is usually the toughest moment. After that you should be able to figure it out all right."
"To leave Silvy Vale…" said Harra in a dismayed tone.
"Only in order to return. That's the other half of the bargain. I can send a com unit up here, a small one with a portable power pack that lasts a year. Somebody'd have to hump down to Vorkosigan Surleau to replace it annually, no big problem. The whole set up wouldn't cost much more than oh, a new lightflyer." Such as the shiny red one Miles had coveted in a dealer's showroom in Vorbarr Sultana, very suitable for a graduation present, he had pointed out to his parents. The credit chit was sitting in the top drawer of his dresser in the lake house at Vorkosigan Surleau right now. "It's not a massive project like installing a powersat receptor for the whole of Silvy Vale or anything. The holovid would pick up the educational satellite broadcasts from the capital; set it up in some central cabin, add a couple of dozen lap-links for the kids, and you've got an instant school. All the children would be required to attend, with Speaker Karal to enforce it, though once they'd discovered the holovid you'd probably have to beat them to make them go home. I, ah," Miles cleared his throat, "thought you might name it the Raina Csurik Primary School."
"Oh," said Harra, and began to cry for the first time that grueling day. Lem patted her clumsily. She returned the grip of his hand at last.
"I can send a lowlander up here to teach," said Miles. "I'll get one to take a short-term contract, till you're ready to come back. But he or she won't understand Silvy Vale the way you do. Wouldn't understand why. You — you already know. You know what they can't teach in any lowland college."
Harra scrubbed her eyes and looked up — not very far up — at him. "You went to the Imperial Academy."
"I did." His chin jerked up.
"Then I," she said shakily, "can manage… Hassadar Teacher's College." The name was awkward in her mouth. At first. "At any rate — I'll try, m'lord."
"I'll bet on you," Miles agreed. "Both of you. Just, ah," a smile sped across his mouth and vanished, "stand up straight and speak the truth, eh?"
Harra blinked understanding. An answering half-smile lit her tired face, equally briefly. "I will. Little man."
Fat Ninny rode home by air the next morning, in a horse van, along with Pym. Dr. Dea went along with his two patients, and his nemesis the sorrel mare. A replacement bodyguard had been sent with the groom who flew the van from Vorkosigan Surleau, who stayed with Miles to help him ride the remaining two horses back down. Well, Miles thought, he'd been considering a camping trip in the mountains with his cousin Ivan as part of his home leave anyway. The liveried man was the laconic veteran Esterhazy, whom Miles had known most of his life, excellent company for a man who didn't want to talk about it. Unlike Ivan, you could almost forget he was there. Miles wondered if Esterhazy's assignment had been random chance, or a mercy of the Count's. Esterhazy was good with horses.
They camped overnight by the river of roses. Miles walked up the vale in the evening light, desultorily looking for the spring of it; indeed, the floral barrier did seem to peter out a couple of kilometers upstream, merging into slightly less impassable scrub. Miles plucked a rose, checked to make sure that Esterhazy was nowhere in sight, and bit into it curiously. Clearly, he was not a horse. A cut bunch would probably not survive the trip back as a treat for Ninny. Ninny could settle for oats.
Miles watched the evening shadows flowing up along the backbone of the Dendarii range, high and massive in the distance. How small those mountains looked from space! Little wrinkles on the skin of a globe he could cover with his hand, all their crushing mass made invisible. Which was illusory, distance or nearness? Distance, Miles decided. Distance was a damned lie. Had his father known this? Miles suspected so.
He contemplated his urge to throw all his money, not just a lightflyer's worth, at those mountains; to quit it all and go teach children to read and write, to set up a free clinic, a powersat net, or all of these at once. But Silvy Vale was only one of hundreds of such communities buried in these mountains, one of thousands across the whole of Barrayar. Taxes squeezed from this very district helped maintain the very elite military school he'd just spent — how much of their resources in? How much would he have to give back just to make it even, now? He was himself a planetary resource, his training had made him so, and his feet were set on their path.
What God means you to do, Miles's theist mother claimed, could be deduced from the talents He gave you. The academic honors, Miles had amassed by sheer brute work. But the war games, outwitting his opponents, staying one step ahead — a necessity, true, he had no margin for error — the war games had been an unholy joy. War had been no game here once, not so long ago. It might be so again. What you did best, that was what was wanted from you. God seemed to be lined up with the Emperor on that point, at least, if no other.
Miles had sworn his officer's oath to the Emperor less than two weeks ago, puffed with pride at his achievement. In his secret mind he had imagined himself keeping that oath through blazing battle, enemy torture, what-have-you, even while sharing cynical cracks afterwards with Ivan about archaic dress swords and the sort of people who insisted on wearing them.
But in the dark of subtler temptations, those that hurt without heroism for consolation, he foresaw, the Emperor would no longer be the symbol of Barrayar in his heart.
Peace to you, small lady, he thought to Raina. You've won a twisted poor modern knight, to wear your favor on his sleeve. But it's a twisted poor world we were both born into, that rejects us without mercy and ejects us without consultation. At least I won't just tilt at windmills for you. I'll send in sappers to mine the twirling suckers, and blast them into the sky…
He knew who he served now. And why he could not quit. And why he must not fail.