tori_angeli: A quote from the Vorkosigan Saga. (Creepy Planetary Conquest)
Tori Angeli ([personal profile] tori_angeli) wrote2012-11-01 07:38 pm
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NaNoWriMo: Mad Yuri's War, chapter I


The roar of white noise filled up the blackness of the little north office like tons of grain being poured into a silo.

Aral Vorkosigan curled beneath the desk, peering through the crack between the floor and the back of the desk. It was dark in the room, and the only indication he had, the only sign that anyone knew they were in here, was the occasional spread of light on the floor as the men banged on the office door. With each resounding pound, the yellow light from the hallway spread over the floor as the crack between the doors widened. Aral closed his eyes. Then he opened them again, staring obsessively at that triangle of light. He did and did not want to see when that triangle overtook the floor, the doors kicked in, the light interrupted by shadows of booted feet and men with guns. The paltry fortress of the desk was not going to be sufficient to keep him from the men who he had watched kill his mother.

His hands shook, clenched, and unclenched. He had to find something. He had to find some kind of a weapon. He was General Count Piotr Vorkosigan's son, and any such son must die with a weapon in his hands. No. No, Rurik had not died with a weapon in his hands. Rurik had died staring shocked at his killer, taking a nerve disruptor bolt to the head. Where was Marta? Was she alive?

Marta was Aral's responsibility. Any younger sibling is the responsibility of her older siblings. Was Marta alive?

He didn't know. He did know that he had to stay alive himself. He had to protect anyone left alive, like Aunt Sonia and the baby. Above all, he had to protect the baby.

Taking a deep breath, Aral whipped out from under the desk and pulled open the desk drawer. At that moment, there was a deep, resounding shockwave as an explosion he could not hear splintered the doors open.

Earlier that evening, Aral had been fussing over the collar of his shirt. He had odd proportions for his age—a short, stocky neck, a thick jaw, but the narrow shoulders and short arms of any child his age. Eleven. Old enough to take care of himself, more or less. At least, he didn't require looking after in the absence of his parents and fifteen-year-old brother, and could even look after six-year-old Marta if need be. She sat in the middle of the back seat of the groundcar, while Rurik sat on her far side, staring out the window and sulking like a teenage boy. Mamere had made him come. No, first birthdays are not especially meaningful to the one having the birthday, or at least, they are unlikely to remember it being meaningful, but Countess Olivia Vorbarra Vorkosigan had been making a fuss over this party for weeks now. It was the first birthday of her little sister's first child. Sonia Vorbarra had married Ivan Vorpatril, turning him into Lord Ivan Vorpatril as a man who was merely Vorpatril would not do as a husband for a princess. Aunt Sonia was a very practical mother, much like Olivia, and both sisters were treating the event like a small family reunion. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, it wasn't. Their brother, Valery Vorbarra, and his family were not able to attend. Their father, Aral's grandfather Prince Xav Vorbarra, was running late. Piotr Vorkosigan had stated he would not be attending the moment the plans began.

Come to think of it, did Da even like young children? He hadn't seemed to take a great deal of interest in any of his own until they were old enough to talk and learn how to ride and do useful things. Aral stretched out his memory, trying to conjure up anything of his father from before what he supposed could be the age of six, and was always disturbed when he could only think of how his father looked from behind while his mother and aunt chatted and laughed over tea and pastries.

Aral unbuttoned his collar just one button. Any shirt small enough to fit his arms was too small to fit his neck. Even things custom-tailored were quickly grown out of. It was just about time for new clothes, his mother had sighed earlier this afternoon, a wistful melancholy akin to they grow too fast in her eyes and voice. Perhaps her concern was also for the family's bank account, although the Vorkosigan bank accounts were in better shape now than they used to be. Da was a Count, after all, and that came with some income, although Vorkosigan's District had never been what anyone would call well-populated. As such, tax money was not in abundance. Still, they could afford new shirts. No, Mamere's sigh had surely been over too-fast growth of children and frustration over not having had new clothes made before the party.

Aral didn't see the big deal any more than Rurik, really. It was just a small family party, one his cousin wouldn't even remember later.

Lord and Lady Vorpatrils' mansion was in the western side of Vorbarr Sultana, the capital city of the planet and the Vorbarra district. It wasn't a huge mansion, not like Vorkosigan House, but it was very comfortable indeed for a family of three and their staff. Tonight, the security perimeter was well out of sight, with only a few Armsmen on loan from the Vorkosigans, the Vorpatrils, and the Vorbarras. Esterhazy, a youngish man who had been newly hired, was driving the ground car, liveried in brown and silver.

The car came to a halt in front of the Vorpatrils' mansion. Aral, being curbside, was one of the first out. Unfortunately, his mother stepped out of the front seat at the same time and immediately went to buttoning his collar again with a discerning frown.

“Darling, I know it's not comfortable--”

“It hurts,” whined Aral. Maybe he was still young enough that he could get away with that. To add emphasis, he wrapped his arms around his mother's waist and pressed his cheek to her breast. As pitiful as possible.

Olivia ran her fingers through his hair. “Don't try to pull that on me, now. I know for a fact it doesn't hurt that much. Just leave it buttoned until after we've seen Aunt Sonia and Uncle Ivan and the baby, all right? Then no one will care. Your obligation of politeness will be fulfilled and we can go back to being family.”

Aral peeled away from her reluctantly and slumped his shoulders, making sure she knew he wasn't re-buttoning his collar of his own will. She smiled in wry amusement. Sadist.

Mamere took Marta by the hand and adjusted the girl's dark curls—given to her by a curling iron, not by nature. Rurik was leaning against the ground car with his arms folded until everyone was situated and Esterhazy was ready to pull away. A black-and-silver liveried Armsman, on loan from Prince Xav, and on loan to Prince Xav from his half-brother Emperor Yuri, stepped forward with a smile and a flat welcome. Olivia gave a polite nod as he offered his arm and escorted them into the mansion.

Aral had never actually been to this house, since visits were usually made to the much larger and much more spacious Vorkosigan House for events that required a visit. Birthdays and Winterfair and Midsummer and the like. But this was a Vorpatril birthday, and not a birthday for Aunt Sonia or Uncle Ivan, whose birthday celebrations did not historically include much for children to do. This was the baby's birthday, although Aral didn't see what all the fuss was about. Not about the birthday, and not about the baby.

It had been different when Marta was born. Marta had been Aral's baby, or it had felt that way. His little sister. Now he understood himself to be in an awkward position between the older brother and the younger sister. Rurik was Lord Vorkosigan, their father's heir, while Aral was merely Lord Aral, a courtesy given to him by virtue of the fact that he was the son of a Count. Marta was the only girl, and Mamere cherished that more than anyone, as if being a girl was particularly different from being a boy. Well, aside from social issues. Marta could never be a soldier, and Rurik and Aral would most certainly be soldiers. Still, even if Marta's existence left Aral feeling perhaps a tad forgotten, through no real fault of Olivia's since most of it was in his imagination, Marta was his baby sister. There was a world of difference between a baby sister and a baby cousin.

Aunt Sonia and Uncle Ivan came to greet them at the door. It was obligatory to behave as if they never saw each other, exchanging hugs and kisses, when Aunt Sonia had been over at Vorkosigan House only yesterday, running last-minute menus by Olivia to make sure none of the children had any allergies to anything on it. Aunt Sonia was dressed beautifully in a deep green dress with glinting accessories, complimenting her husband's dress green uniform. Lord Ivan Vorpatril was a rather quiet, smiling man, at least around the children. He hardly ever spoke to Aral, but Aral had always rather liked him. Uncle Ivan was the sort of indulgent uncle more likely to slip you sweets in secrecy than to talk patronizing conversation. Perhaps he just didn't talk that much with anyone. Aunt Sonia was a restful woman, and together they made a very level couple.

In Aunt Sonia's arms was the baby. Little Lord Padma was sucking on his fist and sitting contentedly in his mother's arms, looking out at the world with happy brown eyes. He didn't hold on to his mother. Aral noticed that often about babies. They didn't hold on when they were being carried, not unless they had some reason, like if you were tipping them upside-down in play. Babies didn't hold on because they didn't think you wouldn't hold on. Babies didn't hold on because they trusted anyone condescending to hold them.

Aral didn't see the big deal. Padma was happy. Padma was always happy, though, with or without a fancy, if intimate, birthday party and presents the servants were arranging in one of the sitting rooms. That was one of the things, perhaps, that made Aral unable to take much interest in his newest cousin. There wasn't much variation with Padma. He was a happy baby. He laughed, he had a gigantic unabashed smile that made everything with a pair of ovaries absolutely delighted with him. He played a little, if you liked pat-a-cake and the like. If you liked stupid childish toys. He could stand and toddle a bit, he could say Ma and Da and variants thereof, but he couldn't say Aral's name yet. Olivia became Ee-bee and even that approximation was lauded and applauded by the womenfolk. The fact was that one-year-olds just weren't very interesting unless they were your own, and Padma was Aunt Sonia's, not Aral's.

Aunt Sonia could tell you that, too. She was so proud every time the baby did something new. Mamere would say things about how it was obvious Aunt Sonia was a first-time mother, whatever that meant. Why was a first child any different from a second or third child? Mamere seemed to treat all three of them equally, if not the same. It was Father who had clear favorites. But Father was Count Vorkosigan. It made sense he would be more interested in his heir. Although truth be told, Father seemed to prefer Rurik for other reasons, such as being able to hold a halfway adult conversation. Maybe Aral just had to grow up in order to gain that kind of attention from his father.

Pleasantries exchanged, everyone seemed to scatter to visit while the final preparations were being made for dinner. The Vorkosigans had arrived early, after all. Marta immediately sat down to coo over the baby and start teaching him how to say her name.

“Marrrrta,” she said to him patiently, sitting him on her lap.

Padma simply looked thrilled that he was being spoken to, which made it virtually indistinguishable from his reaction any time anything else happened. Padma always reacted to things with delight. He never cried, he never misbehaved, at least to hear Aunt Sonia talk. Then what made him interesting, if he always did the same thing all the time? Maybe, like Aral, he would be interesting to other people when he was older.

Aral shrugged and went to chase the heels of Uncle Ivan. Uncle Ivan didn't even look at Aral before a smile crept onto his face. A hand sneaked into his pocket and pulled out a cake-flavored candy stick. Why cake-flavored candy is better than cake, no one knows, but Aral understood the concept and seized it with gratitude. Uncle Ivan's eyes glittered in amusement as he headed into the sitting room to keep an eye on Marta and the baby. Uncle Ivan was nearly as infatuated with Padma as everyone else, but he had an excuse, being his father.

Rurik disappeared. Rurik always disappeared, maybe to find a comconsole and kill time by himself. Aral wound his way through the unfamiliar halls, unsure what to do with himself. Peppered here and there were Armsmen, loaned from the Emperor because, well, that much of his family in one place had to be protected, especially when the Emperor had no surviving heirs himself.

Emperor Dorca the Just had had three children. The oldest, now-Emperor Yuri, had been by his first wife. During his marriage, Dorca had had a mistress, known by his wife, and she had borne Xav. Years later, the youngest sibling, Lucia, had been born to Dorca's first wife. After the first wife's death, Dorca had married his long-time mistress and legitimized Xav. All of Xav's descendants, including Aral, were technically in line for the Imperium, although quite a lot of people would have to die in order for Aral to inherit through his mother. Salic descent was an iffy way to inherit at best, impossible at worst. Before Olivia, titles could go to Xav's son Prince Valery and his children. Still, anyone with as much proximity to the Emperor as Olivia and Sonia had to have some of the strongest security on Barrayar. They were princesses.

Aral pushed open a door to find both princesses, actually. The room appeared to be a sizable library, although not as large as the one one at Vorkosigan House. Olivia and Sonia were bent over a book together and cackling over something. Aral strained to read the cover.

Great Disasters of the Vorbarr Sultana Opera.

Oh. Some sort of book with funny true stories. It didn't come as any surprise to Aral that his mother and aunt were people with senses of humor.

Olivia wiped at her eyes and beckoned for Aral to come inside. “Aral, you'd like this book. You were there when we saw Tosca, weren't you?”

Aral wrinkled his nose. He'd enjoyed the opera, but he wasn't going to admit to that. Rurik had hated it, and older brothers always had the best of taste. “Yeah. Why?”

Olivia handed Sonia the book, her giggling renewed. “You do it. I can't.”

Aunt Sonia grinned broadly and began to read. “A certain soprano of particular fame during the Time of Isolation was not known to the public for being near-sighted. It was a secret she kept well, until a night of Tosca ruined her credibility for ever.”

The story went on to describe the lead soprano murdering her Scarpia with a banana, having been unable to find the prop knife. The story had both women in stitches all over again. Aral was more carried away by their mirth than he was amused by the story itself, flinging himself onto a chaise and clutching his sides. Once the laughter died down and a comfortable silence followed, a servant poked her head in through the library doors.

“Lady Vorpatril? Ma Yeshevsky would like to see you in the kitchen.”

Still wiping her eyes, Aunt Sonia handed the book back to Mamere and stifled a chuckle. “I'll be right there, Anya, pass the word.”

Anya grinned quietly at her mistress' diversion and slinked away, shutting the doors.

Sonia took several deep breaths, the first of which was interrupted by a few more giggles. “Goodness, I must have looked like such a girl. Wait till word of that behavior spreads around.”

Olivia smiled tightly. “Being Vor isn't quite what it was in the Time of Isolation. We're less important than we used to be, as much as Piotr says otherwise. Besides, you're Lady Vorpatril now, and Lady Vorpatril is perfectly permitted to laugh over silly stories all she likes. Tonight, you don't have any obligation to be Princess Sonia.”

Aunt Sonia gave her sister a peck on the cheek. “I'd better see what Ma Yeshevsky wants me to taste, or smell, or what have you. A small, intimate party my foot, leg, and elbow. You'd think we were hosting Uncle Yuri.”

Even if Emperor Yuri was Aral's great-uncle, it always struck him as odd, the sort of familiarity Aunt Sonia had with him. Mamere always spoke of him in grave and respectful tones befitting of an Emperor, at least in front of her children. Perhaps that was the difference—Sonia didn't have to teach Aral anything. She might later affect those same solemn tones in front of Padma, though.

Aunt Sonia departed in a breeze of green and gold and long black silk hair, while Mamere reached for Aral's arm and drew him gently up the wide steps to the other half of the library, which was raised a few feet above the rest.

“It's not our library at Vorkosigan House,” she said needlessly, “but they have a different selection. I think you would be interested in their new music library, but what I want to show you now is their collection of books about Barrayaran artists.”

Aral suddenly stopped slouching and followed her with a spring in his step. One of the advantages of being Lord Aral rather than Lord Vorkosigan was that his career path was not decided for him already. He was free to take up other interests and hobbies, even if it was understood that he would be a soldier the moment he was old enough to enter the military academy. From his cushy position as an officer, however, he could retire after twenty years if he desired, and lead whatever life he chose. The library at Vorkosigan House had precious little in the way of books about art and just as little music, although the Countess maintained a private collection of opera scores and recordings. The Count his Father was more inclined toward military history, with horses as his second calling. The abstract and artistic had little place in his life.

Olivia pulled out a book and handed it to Aral. “I think you'd like him. This is a biography of Anton Vortugalov. He did a lot of the photorealistic work you seem to like so much. He made a specialty of charcoal, unlike most who seem to think paint is the only 'real' medium.”

Aral plopped down on the floor crosslegged and opened the book in his lap. “Everyone starts out with charcoals. Or pencils. You have to learn to draw first, I think.” But opening the book, he saw the artist playing with textures in his preferred medium, and was instantly silent as he examined the pictures and flipped through the book to see if the author wrote anything about the artist's process.

Olivia gave a tight smile and sat beside him on the floor. “I could find you an art instructor, you know.”

Aral hesitated, then closed the book. He pushed it toward her with a shrug. “I know.”

As if testing him, his mother continued. “Some of the best in the world live in Vorbarr Sultana.”

“I know.” Aral hugged his knees.

“You want me to hire one?”

He shook his head.

“Are you afraid your father wouldn't like it?”

He shook his head. Was it technically lying if you didn't say anything? But it was much more complicated than that. The fact was, his father didn't think art was a worthwhile pursuit. Neither did Rurik. If neither his father nor his older brother believed it worthwhile, why should Aral?

Olivia waited for a long time for a more descriptive answer before she sighed deeply. “Well, you are eleven, I suppose. You'll sort these things out for yourself.” Before he could react, an arm snaked around him and he was yanked firmly against her side, her cheek pressing briefly to the top of his head. She didn't treat him like he was made of glass the way some mothers did with their children, and the playful affection made him smile.

Marta burst in at that moment, round face lit with excitement. “He said my name! Mama, he said 'Marta!'”

Aral took this news with about a pound of salt, but held his tongue. It was more likely that Padma gave a reasonable approximation without actually pronouncing anything properly. Out of principle, he peeled away from his mother, as reluctant as anyone to leave the padded, maternal-smelling circle of a mother's half-hug (mothers always have to have a reasonable amount of padding so they can squish when you hug them tight, and Olivia was no exception). Marta's face, however, was so happy that Olivia just sort of grinned and allowed her daughter to climb into her lap.

She winced, however, when Marta seemed to believe the reasonable amount of padding meant an utter lack of nerve endings and began to bounce. “Hold still, love. You're not a baby anymore.”

Aral grinned, unable to help himself. “Marta, you could suck your thumb again and maybe she'd let you.”

Marta frowned at him and grabbed a thin book to throw at him. Mamere, fortunately, intercepted the object before it became airborne. “No throwing,” she said sternly.

The girl made up for her misbehavior by making a play at being ultra-affectionate and throwing her arms around her mother. Olivia merely plucked her away and looked her in the eyes. “Did you hear what I said?”

Marta nodded, wide-eyed.

“What did I say?”

“No throwing.”

“What do you say to Aral?”


“Don't say it to me.” Mamere raised her chin.

Marta turned her face, if not her eyes, toward her brother. “Sorry.”

She was a little sister, annoying as any little sister, but she was still his little sister. He crawled over to her and wrapped her in a hug, knowing full well she would still throw the book at him if she could get away with it. Maybe some brotherly affection would amplify the guilt being imposed upon her.

The door swung open. An Armsman in black and silver, stern and white-faced, stood there.

“Milady instructs me to inform you that dinner is ready.”

“Oh!” Countess Vorkosigan struggled out from under two of her children and stood, patting her black hair into place. “We'll be along shortly, then. Are you all right, Asmik?”

Aral immediately studied the Armsman again. Asmik looked fine, just pale. As if he might be recovering from a cold, perhaps.

“Fine, milady.” He bowed and continued his duty as a living doorstop.

Countess Olivia Vorbarra Vorkosigan took each of her two youngest children in hand. “Once more unto the fray, then.”

Prince Xav Vorbarra was not meant to be a politician. He was a diplomat, and the line between the two careers involved quite a bit of weaseling not only with other nations, but with one's own people. Xav did not like weaseling. He did not like squirming to make the Barrayaran populace think they were getting what they wanted. That was his brother's job. Xav had a hard enough time presenting his brother's proposals in such a way that was acceptable to Galactics, then not incurring his wrath by agreeing to things Yuri did not approve of. Whether or not the concessions or lack of them were wise had nothing to do with whether Yuri approved of them. Lately he was more likely to accuse Xav of doing things behind his back than of doing things unwisely. Xav decided he would rather be a fool than a traitor, since while neither were true, the former accusation did not carry implications of a growing paranoia in the Emperor.

Yuri was...erratic. At the very best of times, he was erratic. So much so that he refused to see Xav, and the few times he answered his calls on the comconsole were to sneer and gloat over the fact that Yuri was catching on to Xav's designs, although he would not condescend to explain what those alleged designs were. Xav had spoken with his contact at Imperial Security, who had assigned him guards he knew could be trusted. He refused to keep any of the Vorbarra Armsmen nearby, although Yuri had pressed him to do so, then cried foul at his brother's refusal of his gift.

Xav's hands wrinkled the flimsy he was comparing to the comconsole screen. He preferred writing out first drafts. It made the whole thing easier to edit as he typed it into the comconsole.

An ImpSec guard opened the door and poked his head through.

“Count Vorkosigan to see you, sir.”

Xav stifled a great sigh and tossed the flimsy down onto the desk, swiveling back and forth restlessly in his chair. “Send him in.” Just what I needed to make the night less complicated.

The ImpSec man gave a nod and stepped inside. He was followed by another guard, behind which came a somewhat irritable looking man in his early to mid-forties. Xav often speculated whether Piotr Vorkosigan was always irritable, or if he was only irritable in Xav's presence. Prince Xav and Count Vorkosigan were very much political rivals, but of the semi-amicable sort where they were still able to respect each other as people. Vorkosigan was a very upstanding sort of man with strict mores and a stronger code of ethics. His stance on domestic policy was only somewhat conservative. His stance on foreign policy, being the great General Vorkosigan of the Cetagandan War, was considerably more conservative than his domestic policy. To blame Vorkosigan for his domestic policy, being from a sparsely populated region in which it was difficult to reach or be reached by his own people due to the terrain and lack of sufficient roads, was a little unfair and a little fair at the same time. His foreign policy, however, seemed fairly inexusable.

He was going to come to protest the entire arms treaty, wasn't he?

Vorkosigan gave Xav a stiff bow. “Your Imperial Highness.”

Xav gave a polite nod in return. “Count Vorkosigan. It's good to see you.” Even diplomats were expected to lie through their teeth. “Will you have a seat?” A long, thin hand whose skin was beginning to turn translucent with age gestured to a chair.

Vorkosigan sat without saying anything. At the age of forty-three, he was still a formidable-looking man, and if his hair was beginning to pepper with grey at his temples it only lent him an air of respectability. “I understand you've been drafting the latest proposal with the Cetas.”

Xav could already feel a headache coming on. He resisted the urge to rub his temple. “Basic diplomacy, Piotr: if we don't give, neither will they.”

“If we give, they still won't give,” Piotr argued with a slight growl to his voice. “You might have spent the war with the Betans--” Xav tensed as he translated that into you may have spent the war banging a Betan “--but even you couldn't be blind to the treachery they accomplished in the meantime.”

During the Occupation, Piotr's capital city, Vorkosigan Vashnoi, had been nuked to hell for being a center of resistance.

Xav swiveled in his chair a little. “If we don't give, they'll take it as a sign that we are preparing for war. If they don't give, we'll interpret it the same way. It's complicated, Piotr.”

“Less complicated than you think.” Piotr sat back. “And with the Emperor's health, more dangerous than you're accounting for.”

Xav glanced up sharply at Vorkosigan. “His health?”

Vorkosigan glowered at Xav. “You think you've kept that little secret? Anyone who's attended a session of the Council of Counts is seeing it. Count Vorbarra had an outburst just last week. Didn't you hear?”

Xav gave in to the urge to rub his temple. “I haven't spoken with him recently. I'm not my brother's keeper.”

Vorkosigan's eyes lit with something like sympathy. “Ah.”

“What's your point, Vorkosigan?”

“That if I know, you know, the entire bleeding Council of Counts knows, the Cetas will know very soon.”

“As it stands, Cetaganda is in no position to even attempt to re-take us. We gave them quite a sting last time they were here. Or you did.”

“Then why do we need the treaty?”

“I said re-take. I didn't say anything about them striking out in a preemptive strike for supposed self-defense.”

“And with the Emperor weak...”

Xav shook his head. “Please try not to get yourself arrested for treason in my office, Vorkosigan. Something might get broken. You can bet he's bugged the hell out of Vorhartung Castle.”

Piotr growled. “Even your offices?”

“Especially my offices.”

That glimmer of sympathy again lit Vorkosigan's eye. Xav decided he hated it. He and Yuri had been friends once upon a time. That wasn't Vorkosigan's business.

Xav keyed his comconsole to save the document. “It isn't my decision, ultimately. It's his.”

Vorkosigan looked glum. “And you no longer have influence over him.”

Xav gave a wry smile. “None.” He glanced over at the Count. “Are you planning to attend Padma's birthday party?”

His son-in-law looked like he'd rather make his proposals to Emperor Yuri himself than go to a one-year-old's birthday party. Vorkosigan wasn't the sort of fellow who liked anyone's children but his own, and even then, was the sort of father who felt it toughened his children to withhold the full extent of his affection from them. “Absolutely not.”

Xav suppressed a smile. “I'd rather be there than here.”

“Is your Betan going?” Vorkosigan eyed his father-in-law dryly.

“She's planning to turn up late, I believe. We'll see if she's later than I am.”

“She have something more important?”

Xav's reply was cut off when one of his ImpSec guards burst through the door, sending both him and Vorkosigan to their feet.

“What's the meaning of this?” barked Vorkosigan.

The guard's face was grave. He addressed Xav. “Sir, something's happening. We need to get you out of here.” He glanced at Vorkosigan. “Both of you.”

Xav immediately seized his coat and draped it over one shoulder as more guards poured in, along with several brown-and-silver liveried Vorkosigan Armsmen. “What's happening?”

“We just thwarted an attack on your other office suite at your house. When they headed in this direction, we realized they weren't looking for your information. They were looking for you.”

Vorkosigan's hand clenched around an invisible weapon. The guards and Armsmen began to herd them outside the suite. “Damn fool, attacking the Emperor's brother.”

The guard's face was very pale. “They wore service uniforms, sir. Some of them wore Vorbarra livery.”

Xav and Vorkosigan halted at the exact same moment. Xav saw Vorkosigan's face drain of color.

It was Xav who spoke first. “Yuri's been pressuring me to have some of the family Armsmen around.”

“Olivia said he was providing them for the birthday party tonight.” Vorkosigan's eyes were like mirrors.

The guard gave a sharp nod. “I'll have people sent to the Vorpatril mansion.”

“No.” Xav started walking again, yanking his coat over his arms. “I mean, yes, but take us there with you.”

Aral tried to keep himself from slumping at the table. Padma was so very delighted with his birthday cake that it was all over him. Aral hadn't been able to finish his piece, foisting the rest of it off on Marta, who was more than happy to polish it off. A servant came forward and started wiping the cake from the baby's face, but Aunt Sonia waved her off.

“Just give him the dish cloth, Katrina. Come back in a half an hour and see what happens.”

Oh yes, Aral had heard about this. Padma, the Self-Cleaning Baby, would play with an dish cloth until all the food was gone from most of his body. Last time, Sonia had only had to wipe sauce from behind his ears. Aral squirmed at the sight of cake up the baby's nose.

As he squirmed, the door was kicked in.

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