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Captain Vorpatril's alliance mv-14, страница 1

 часть  #14 серии  Miles Vorkosigan


Captain Vorpatril's alliance mv-14

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Captain Vorpatril's alliance mv-14

  Captain Vorpatril's alliance

  ( Miles Vorkosigan - 14 )

  Lois Mcmaster Bujold

  Lois McMaster Bujold

  Captain Vorpatril's Alliance

  Chapter One

  Ivan’s door buzzer sounded at close to Komarran midnight, just when he was unwinding enough from lingering jump lag, his screwed-up diurnal rhythm, and the day’s labors to consider sleep. He growled under his breath and trod unwillingly to answer it.

  His instincts proved correct when he saw who waited in the aperture.

  “Oh, God. Byerly Vorrutyer. Go away.”

  “Hi, Ivan,” said Byerly smoothly, ignoring Ivan’s anti-greeting. “May I come in?”

  Ivan took about a second to consider the, at best, complicated possibilities Byerly usually trailed in his wake, and said simply, “No.” But he’d hesitated too long. Byerly slipped inside. Ivan sighed, letting the door slide closed and seal. So far from home, it was good to see a familiar face—just not By’s. Next time, use the security screen, and pretend not to be here, eh?

  Byerly padded swiftly across the small but choice living quarters of Ivan’s downtown Solstice luxury flat, rentals by the week. Ivan had picked it out for its potential proximity to Solstice nightlife, which, alas, he had so far not had a chance to sample. Pausing at the broad glass doors to the balcony, Byerly dimmed the polarization on the seductive view of the glittering lights of the capital city. Dome, Ivan corrected his thought to Komarran nomenclature, as the arcology existed under a hodgepodge of seals to keep the toxic planetary atmosphere out and the breathable one in. Byerly pulled the drapes as well, and turned back to the room.

  Yielding to a curiosity he knew he would regret, Ivan asked, “What the hell are you doing on Komarr, By? Isn’t this off your usual beat?”

  Byerly grimaced. “Working.”

  Indeed, an experienced observer, which Ivan unfortunately was, could detect a distinct strain around By’s eyes, along with the redness from drink and perhaps recreational chemicals. Byerly cultivated the authentic look of a Barrayaran high Vor town clown given over to a life of dissolution and idle vice by actually living it, ninety percent of the time. The other ten percent, and most of his hidden income, came from his work as an informer for Imperial Security. And ninety percent of that was just more dissolution and vice, except for having to turn in reports at the end. The residue, Ivan had to concede, could get dicey.

  Ratting out your friends to ImpSec for money, Ivan had once heckled By, to which By had shrugged and replied, And the greater glory of the Imperium. Don’t forget that.

  Ivan wondered which it was tonight.

  In reflexive response to the manners drilled into him in his youth, Ivan offered, “Something to drink? Beer, wine? Something stronger?” He contemplated By’s boneless flop onto his living room couch. “Coffee?”

  “Just water. Please. I need to clear my head, and then I need to sleep.”

  Ivan went to his tidy kitchenette and filled a tumbler. As he handed it to his unwelcome guest, By said, “And what are you doing in Solstice, Ivan?”


  By’s open hand invited him to expand.

  Ivan sat across from him and said, “Trailing my boss, who is here for an Ops conference with his assorted counterparts and underlings. Efficiently combined with the annual Komarr Fleet inspections. All the excitement of a tax inventory, except in dress uniform.” Belatedly, Ivan realized By had to already know all this. He’d found Ivan, hadn’t he? Because By’s random social calls, weren’t.

  “Still working for Admiral Desplains?”

  “Yep. Aide-de-camp, secretary, personal assistant, general dogsbody, whatever he needs. I aim to make myself indispensable.”

  “And still ducking promotion, are you, Captain Vorpatril?”

  “Yes. And succeeding, no thanks to you.”

  By smirked. “They say that at Imperial Service Headquarters, the captains bring the coffee.”

  “That’s right. And I like it that way.” Ivan only wished it were true. It seemed barely months ago, though it was over a year, that the latest flare-up of tensions with Barrayar’s most traditional enemy, the Cetagandan Empire, had pinned Ivan to military headquarters 26.7 hours a Barrayaran day for weeks on end, sweating out all the most horrific possibilities. Designing death in detail. War had been averted through non-traditional diplomacy, mostly on the part of Barrayaran emperor Gregor’s weaseliest Imperial Auditor and, to give credit where it was due, his wife.

  That time. There was always a next time.

  Ivan studied Byerly, who was only a few years older than himself. They shared the same brown eyes, dark hair, and olive skin common to Barrayar’s somewhat inbred military caste, or aristocracy, whatever one wanted to call it, and, indeed, common to most Barrayarans. By was shorter and slighter than Ivan’s six-foot-one, broad-shouldered fitness, but then, he didn’t have a Desplains riding him to keep up the recruiting-poster appearance expected of an officer serving at Imperial Headquarters. Granted, when they weren’t squinting from the dissolution, By’s eyes had the startling beauty that distinguished his famous, or infamous, clan, to which Ivan was connected by a few twigs in his own family tree. That was the problem with being Vor. You ended up related to all sorts of people you’d rather not be. And they all felt free to call on you for favors.

  “What do you want, Byerly?”

  “So direct! You’ll never become a diplomat that way, Ivan.”

  “I once spent a year as assistant military attaché to the Barrayaran Embassy on Earth. It was as much diplomacy as I cared for. Get to the point, By. I want to go to bed. And by the looks of you, so do you.”

  By let his eyes widen. “Why Ivan! Was that an invitation? I’m so thrilled!”

  “Someday,” Ivan growled, “I might say yes to that old line, just to watch you have a coronary.”

  By spread his hand over his heart, and intoned wistfully, “And so I might.” He drained his water and gave over the vamping, the face so often arranged in a vague smarminess firming intently in a way Ivan always found a touch disturbing. “Actually, I have a little task to ask of you.”


  “It’s quite in your line. I may even be said to be doing you a good turn, who knows. I’d like you to pick up a girl.”

  “No,” said Ivan, only in part to see what By would say next.

  “Come, come. You pick up girls all the time.”

  “Not on your recommendations. What’s the catch?”

  Byerly made a face. “So suspicious, Ivan!”


  By shrugged, conceding the point. “Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure. And my duties with, if I may say it, the unusually unpleasant people I am presently accompanying—”

  Spying on, Ivan translated this without difficulty. And the company By kept was usually unpleasant, in Ivan’s opinion. Unusually unpleasant implied…what?

  “—leave me little opportunity to check her out. But they have an inexplicable interest in her. Which I suspect is not friendly. It worries me, Ivan, I must say.” He added after a moment, “She’s quite well-looking, I assure you. You need have no fear on that score.”

  Ivan frowned, stung. “Are you implying I’d refuse to supply assistance to a homely girl?”

  Byerly sat back, eyebrows flicking up. “To your credit, I actually don’t believe that’s the case. But it will add a certain convincing verisimilitude for the outside observer.” He pulled a small plastic flimsy from his jacket and handed it across.

  The background was too fuzzed to make out, but the picture showed a striking young woman striding down a sidewalk. Apparent age could be anyt
hing between twenty and thirty standard-years, though that was no certain clue as to real age. Tumbling black hair, bright eyes, skin glowing an interesting cinnamon brown against a cream tank top. Decided nose, determined chin; either the natural face she was born with, or the work of a real artist, because it certainly didn’t bear the stamped-from-the-same-mold blandness of the usual body sculpture, a biological ideal that lost its appeal with repetition. Long legs in tan trousers that hugged in all the right places. A nicely full figure. Nicely full. If the face was natural, might the other prominent features be, too? With weakening reluctance, Ivan said, “Who is she?”

  “Supposedly, a Komarran citizen named Nanja Brindis, lately moved to Solstice from Olbia Dome.”


  “I have reason to suspect that might be a recent cover identity. She did move here about two months ago, it does seem.”

  “So who is she really?”

  “It would be a fine thing if you could find that out.”

  “If she’s hiding her identity for a good reason, she’s hardly going to tell me.” Ivan hesitated. “Is it a good reason?”

  “I suspect it’s a very good reason. And I also suspect she is not a professional at the game.”

  “This is all pretty vague, Byerly. May I remind you, my security clearance is higher than yours.”

  “Probably.” Byerly blinked in doubt. “But then there is that pesky need-to-know rule.”

  “I’m not sticking my head into one of your dodgy meat grinders—again—unless I know as much as you know. At least.”

  Byerly flung up his well-manicured hands in faux-surrender. “The people I’m with seem to have got themselves involved in a complex smuggling operation. Rather over their heads.”

  “Komarr local space is a major trade nexus. The place is lousy with smugglers. As long as the transients don’t try to offload their goods within the Imperium, in which case Imperial Customs deals sharply with ’em, they get ignored. And the Komarran trade fleets police their own.”

  “That’s two out of three.”

  Ivan’s head came up. “The only thing left is the Imperial fleet.”

  “Just so.”

  “Crap, Byerly, if there was even a hint of that sort of thing going on, Service Security would swoop in. Damned hard.”

  “But even Service Security needs to know where and when to swoop. I am doing, as it were, a preliminary pre-swoop survey. Not only because mistakes are embarrassing, especially if they involve accusations of Vor scions with arrogant and powerful relatives, but because they tip off the real crims, who then promptly escape one’s tediously set net. And you’ve no idea how tedious that can get.”

  “Mm,” said Ivan. “And once military personnel get involved with, they think, simple civilian crime, they become vulnerable to more treasonous blackmail.”

  By bared his teeth. “I’m so pleased you keep up. One of your saving graces.”

  “I’ve had practice.” Ivan hissed alarm. “Desplains should know about this.”

  “Desplains will know about it, in due course. In the meanwhile, try to remember you don’t know.” Byerly paused. “That caution is cancelled, of course, should my dead body turn up in a lewd and compromising position in some ditch outside the dome in the next few days.”

  “Think it might?”

  “The stakes are very high. And not just the money.”

  “So how’s this girl connected, again?”

  Byerly sighed. “She’s not with my crew. She’s definitely not with the non-Barrayarans they’re dealing with, though it’s not outside the realm of reason that she could be a defector. And she’s not what she pretends to be. What’s left, I am forced to leave to you to find out, because I can’t risk coming here again, and I’m not going to have time in the next few days for side-issues.”

  Ivan said slowly, “You think she’s in danger of her life?” Because why else would By bother to set even a side-friend on this side-issue? By didn’t make his living through charity.

  But he did make his living through a weird sort of loyalty. And, somewhere underneath the persiflage, camouflage, and just plain flage, he was high Vor of the highest…

  “Let’s just say, you would gratify me by staying alert. I should not care to explain any accidents that might befall you to your lady mother.”

  Ivan allowed the concern with a rueful nod. “So where am I to find this so-called girl?”

  “I am fairly certain she’s a real girl, Ivan.”

  “You think? With you, one never knows.” He eyed By dryly, and By had the grace to squirm just a bit, in acknowledgement of his cousin Dono née Donna of lamented memory. Donna, that is. Count Dono Vorrutyer was all too vivid a presence, on the Vorbarr Sultana political scene.

  By dodged the diversion and, so to speak, soldiered on, though the idea of By in any branch of the Service made Ivan wince in imagination. “She works as a packing clerk at a place called Swift Shipping. Here’s her home address, too—which was unlisted, by the way, so unless you can devise a convincing reason for turning up there, probably better to run into her coming into or out of work. I don’t gather she does much partying. Make friends, Ivan. Before tomorrow night, by preference.” He rubbed his face, pressing his hands to his eyes. “Actually—by tomorrow night without fail.”

  Ivan accepted the contact data with misgivings. By stretched, rose a bit creakily to his feet, and made his way to the door. “Adieu, dear friend, adieu. Sweet dreams, and may angels guard your repose. Possibly angels with clouds of dark curls, sun-kissed skin, and bosoms like heavenly pillows.”

  “Dry up.”

  By grinned over his shoulder, waved without turning around, and blew out.

  Ivan returned to his couch, sat with a thump, and picked up the flimsy, studying it cautiously. At least By was right about the heavenly pillows. What else was he right about? Ivan had an unsettling premonition that he was going to find out.

  * * *

  Tej was conscious of the customer from the moment he walked in the door, ten minutes before closing. When she’d started this job a month ago, in the hopes of stretching her and Rish’s dwindling resources, she’d been hyperaware of all customers who entered the shop. A job that exposed her directly and continuously to the public was not a good choice, she’d realized almost at once, but it had been the entry-level position she could get with the limited fake references she commanded. A promotion to the back office was mentioned, so she’d hung grimly on. It was being slow in opening up, though, and she’d wondered if her boss was stringing her along. In the meanwhile, her jagged nerves had slowly grown habituated. Till now.

  He was tall for a local. Quite good looking, too, but in a way that fell short of sculpted or gengineered perfections. His skin was Komarran-pale, set off by a long-sleeved, dark blue knit shirt. Gray multi-pocketed sleeveless jacket worn open over it, indeterminate blue trousers. Shoes very shiny yet not new, in a conservative, masculine style that seemed familiar but, annoyingly, eluded recognition. He carried a large bag, and despite the time noodled around looking at the displays. Her co-clerk Dotte took the next customer, she finished with her own, and the fellow glanced up and stepped to the counter, smiling.

  “Hi, there”—with difficulty, he dragged his gaze from her chest to her face—“Nanja.”

  It didn’t take that long to scan her nametag. Slow reader, are you? Why, yes, I get a lot of those. Tej returned the smile with the minimum professional courtesy due a customer who hadn’t, actually, done anything really obnoxious yet.

  He hoisted his bag to the counter and withdrew a large, asymmetrical, and astonishingly ugly ceramic vase. She guessed the design was supposed to be abstract, but it was more as if a party of eye-searing polka dots had all gotten falling-down drunk.

  “I would like this packed and shipped to Miles Vorkosigan, Vorkosigan House, Vorbarr Sultana.”

  She almost asked, What dome? but the unfamiliar accent clicked in before she could make that mistake. The man was not
Komarran at all, but a Barrayaran. They didn’t get many Barrayarans in this quiet, low-rent neighborhood. Even a generation after the conquest, the conquerors tended to cluster in their own enclaves, or in the central areas devoted to the planetary government and off-world businesses, or out near the civilian or military shuttleports.

  “Is there a street address? Scanner code?”

  “No, just use the scanner code for the planet and city. Once it gets that far, it’ll find him.”

  Surely it would cost this man far more to ship this…object to a planet five wormhole jumps away than it was worth. She wondered if she was obliged to point this out. “Regular or premium service? There’s a stiff price difference, but I have to tell you, express won’t really get there much faster.” It all went on the same jumpship, after all.

  “Is it more likely to arrive intact with premium?”

  “No, sir, it will be packed just the same. There are regulations for anything that goes by jumpship.”

  “Right-oh, regular it is.”

  “Extra insurance?” she said doubtfully. “There’s a base coverage that comes with the service.” She named the amount, and he allowed as it would do. It was in truth considerably less than the shipping charges.

  “You pack it yourself? Can I watch?”

  She glanced at the digital hour display over the door. The task would run her past closing time, but customers were fussy about breakables. She sighed and turned to the foamer. He stood on tiptoe and watched over the counter as she carefully positioned the vase—a glimpse of its underside revealed a sale tag with four markdowns—closed the door, and turned on the machine. A brief hiss, a moment of watching the indicator lights wink hypnotically, and the door popped back open, releasing a pungent whiff that stunned her sense of smell and masked every other scent in the shop. She bent and removed the neat block of flexifoam. It was an aesthetic improvement.

  Ivan Vorpatril, read the name on his credit chit. Also with a Vorbarr Sultana home address. Not just a Barrayaran, then, but one of those Vor-people, the conquerors’ arrogant privileged class. Even her father had been wary of—she cut the thought short.

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