Read Captain Vorpatril's Alliance Online

Authors: Lois McMaster Bujold

Tags: #General, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #on-the-nook, #bought-and-paid-for, #Space Opera, #Adventure

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BOOK: Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
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The light, exasperated voice continued, “The latest updates from Solstice Dome Security on the break-in remain very unenlightening, but—tied to a
chair
, Ivan? However did you manage that?”

“I haven’t seen the latest—oh, God, they didn’t give my name, did they?”

“Do they know your name?”

“They do now.”

“Ivan! You should know better!” A hesitation. “The next begged question being, of course, how did you get untied?”

The captain heaved a sigh. “Before you say anything more, Byerly—ladies, you’d better come out, now.”

Whoever this man was, he seemed to know Ivan Xav, and far too much about Tej’s affairs. Should she trust in her host’s cavalier disclosure of them?
Do we have a choice?
Tej let out her breath, nodded across to Rish, and stepped out of the bedroom doorway. The new man swung around to take her in, his eyebrows climbing.

“The hell! Do you mean to tell me I’ve been running mad since midmorning trying to trace the woman, and she was here all the—”

Rish stepped out from behind Tej and regarded the newcomer coolly.

He was abruptly expressionless—now,
there
was a curious first response—his face unreadable. But not the rest of him. His eyelids did not widen, but his pupils flared. Rish could actually pick up heart rates, a degree of discernment beyond Tej’s capacity, though she fancied his heart did not speed, but actually slowed, seeming to take bigger gulps in its shock. Of the surprise, fear, and arousal all present in the first faint scent of him, wafting to her, she suspected he was only conscious of the first two.

He blinked, once. Closed his lips with a visible effort. “My word,” he said faintly.

“Yeah, that’s what I said. More or less,” said Vorpatril. “Or would have, if she hadn’t just grassed me with a stunner.”

“Mademoiselle.” The man named Byerly favored Rish with a flowing half-bow, only partly a parody of the gesture. “May I just say, a stunner seems redundant? So, introduce us, mon coz.” He was back in control of himself, now. Rish’s eyes were very narrow, watching him intently. Taking him in, far more literally than he could guess.

“He’s not my cousin,” said Vorpatril, with a jerk of his thumb at his visitor. “The relationship’s more removed, although, alas, not removed nearly far enough. Tej, Rish, meet Byerly Vorrutyer, commonly known as By. Just plain By. Not Lord Vorrutyer or Lord Byerly—those titles are reserved for the sons of the Count.”

In coloration, the two might have been siblings, though the underlying bones denied that first impression. Yet clearly, the two men shared a generous measure of Vor genes.
Caste
might be the precise term. The visitor wore a vaguely military-looking jacket and trousers, decorated with braid and piping that she suspected were more artistic than indicative of rank. The jacket swung open, revealing a fine shirt and colorful braces. And a brief glimpse of a discreet stunner holster.

Ivan Xav was dangerously engaging. This man was dangerously…tense? Tired? Wired? Yet despite his manhandling in the hallway, there was no flinching in his posture, no effort to distance himself from his host. No fear of Vorpatril, nor of Tej for that matter. Rish—by the flicker of his eyes, the angle that he held his body, he was keenly conscious of Rish. Trying to account for her?

Vorpatril went on, “By, meet Tej, also known as Nanja Brindis—but you knew about her, didn’t you? And her…friend, Rish. Who was a surprise to us all, but I believe the dome cops have her down on their play-list as
the maidservant, missing
.”

Tej swallowed. “How do you do, Byerly Vorrutyer,” she said formally. “That tells us who you are, but not, I’m afraid, what you are.” She let her eyebrows rise in an inquiry divided equally between the two Barrayarans.

Vorpatril folded his arms and stared off into space. “That would be for By to say.”

The other Barrayaran drew a long breath—buying time to think?—and cast an inviting wave toward the angled pair of couches. “Indeed. May I suggest we all sit down more comfortably?” Another moment or two purchased, while she and Rish alighted where they’d been before, and the two men took Vorpatril’s late sleeping slot. But after settling himself next to his removed relative, who removed himself yet further to the couch’s end, Byerly still looked rather blank. “Um. So. How…did you all end up here?”

Tej said, in chill tones, “Captain Vorpatril invited us.”

“They wanted a safe place to lie low,” Vorpatril put in. “Which must be working, if you couldn’t find ’em.” He added after another moment, “On purpose, anyway.”

Tej frowned at Byerly. The mismatch between his foppish mannerisms and his body’s testimony was as grating to her senses as clashing colors or a musical discord. “Who
are
you?”

“Good question. Who are you?”

“I can tell you one thing,” said Vorpatril. “Got it from Morozov, the Jackson’s Whole guru in Galactic Affairs out at HQ—Rish, here, is also known as Lapis Lazuli. She used to be part of a whole gengineered dance troupe belonging to the, evidently, late Baronne Cordonah of Cordonah Station. Seems that about seven months ago, House Cordonah was swallowed up by some pretty nasty competitors.”

Tej trembled.

Rish looked up, eyes hot with rage, swiftly banked. “Not competitors. Predators. Scavengers. Hyenas, jackals, and vultures.”

“A veritable zoo,” said Byerly, his brows lifting above widened eyes. “Were you, ah, there at feeding time?”

Tej held up her hand. “We won’t tell you anything.” She waited while his face tightened in frustration, and then offered her only card, or the illusion of it. Pure bluff, exhilarating and sickening. “But we might deal you for it. Answer for answer, value for value.”

Would he go for it? The deal was utterly hollow. The man could pull out his stunner, drop Rish where she sat, and take Tej before she was half launched at him—though perhaps less easily the other way around. She could wake up tied to a chair like poor Ivan Xav, except with the cool kiss of a hypospray of fast-penta held to her arm. In minutes, be spilling everything she knew, along with fits of giggles. Why should he buy what he could so easily steal?

Instead, he sat back. There ensued a long, thoughtful, silence.

“All right,” said Byerly at last. “I’ll deal.”

Rish’s brows rose in surprise. So did Vorpatril’s.

“What’s your real name, Sera Brindis?” By began at once.

Tej’s mouth drew down, concealing both elation and terror. His supple adaptation was almost Jacksonian, and yet he was as purely Barrayaran as Vorpatril. Did he understand what he was doing—what she was doing?
Only one way to find out
. “That’s a question worth my life. What have you to offer of equal weight?”

His head tilted. “Eh, perhaps we won’t start with that one, then. As for what happened last night, I can get that free from Ivan, so I shan’t waste a trade on it. What
did
happen last night, Ivan?”

Vorpatril started. “Eh? You want the short version? No thanks to you, these ladies mistook me for a hired goon sent to stalk them, a misunderstanding we didn’t get straightened around till the real goons showed up. You owe me for a lost night’s sleep, a stunner hangover, having to jump
tall buildings
with a stunner hangover, and, let me add, a major personal disappointment. We bailed, left the goons out cold on the floor, called in the break-in to the dome cops, and came here with barely time left for me to get to work.”

Byerly ran his hands through his dark hair, disarranging it. “Dear
God
Ivan,
why
did you call Dome Security?”

“They were bound to turn up eventually. I didn’t want the goons to get away, sure as hell didn’t want to take ’em with me, and I wasn’t sure if I could trust”—he hesitated—“other authorities, given some things you’d said.” He went on, sounding more aggrieved, “And to cap it, the two most unsympathetic dome cops
ever
tracked me to work just at quitting time and cornered me for forty-five minutes of grilling. They were just itching to arrest me for stalking, rape, kidnapping, murder, who knows what else—being Barrayaran, I expect.”

“Ah, shi—did you mention me?”

“Kept your existence entirely out of it. Had to tap-dance around their physical evidence like a loon to do it, too, so you can say
Thank you, Ivan
.”

“That may be premature.”

Vorpatril’s scowl deepened. “Yeah, and to make things worse, this all took place in an Ops conference room, where you just know it was monitored. It’ll all be in
my boss’s
inbox by tomorrow morning, and I might lie to the dome cops for you, By, but I’m damned well not going to lie to Desplains.”

Byerly pounded his forehead with his fist. “
Ivan
. If you knew that, why didn’t you take them out somewhere else for that interview—coffee shop, park bench,
anywhere
? You haven’t the instinct for self-preservation that God gave a canary. How
ever
have you survived so far?”

“Hey! I do fine, on my own. It’s only when you Im—you damned weasels show up in my life—uninvited, generally—that it gets this complicated.”

“All right, I have a question,” said Tej, interrupting all this—how long would they keep it up? “Who sent Captain Vorpatril to me, who gave him my picture? Was it you?” She frowned at the other Voralphabet.

He spread a hand over his chest and offered her a sitting bow. “None other. I trust you found him satisfactory?”

“Why?”

“That’s two questions.”

“So keep score.” Her eyes narrowed. “Did you know Rish and I were going to be attacked last night? How?”

Vorpatril bit his knuckle.

Byerly’s face set in a faint, empty smile for a moment—processing?—then relaxed into its ironic default expression once more. “I hired them.”

Tej’s heart plummeted. Were they deceived—again…?

“What!” cried Vorpatril indignantly. “You might have said!”

“I was not certain to what degree I could rely on your acting abilities.”

Vorpatril crossed his arms and sat back with a snort.

Uh, what…?
thought Tej. Rish’s empty hand slipped quietly back out of her trouser pocket, even her guarded face bewildered.

Byerly continued to Tej, “I am presently engaged in studying some people. Frequently, the best way to gain a close view is to make myself useful, which I do—selectively. While it is not always true that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, in this case I thought it well to give the appearance of cooperation while diverting its result, at least until I could find out more about you.”

So he’d betrayed her with one hand, and his acquaintances with the other? “That’s…pretty ambidextrous.”

He shrugged, unoffended. “Hence Ivan—a third hand, if you like, whom I admit was a last-minute stop-gap, but this all came up rather suddenly.
My
plan—as there was no indication whatsoever that your strangely elusive maidservant lived in—was that he should take you out frolicking, leaving the cupboard bare for your midnight visitors. Pleasant for you both, frustrating for them, entirely unconnected with me. I still don’t know why they wanted you kidnapped, mind you.” He looked up and batted his eyes invitingly.

“You’re an agent.” Commercial, governmental? Surely not military. “What kind?”

“Now, that
is
a piece of information worth your name.”

Ivan put in, “Er, Tej, if your enemies know who you really are already, why should your friends be kept in the dark? Does this make sense to you? Because it doesn’t to me.”

“You’ve not proved yourselves our friends.”

“What, I have too!” said Vorpatril. He jerked his thumb at the other man, and conceded, “Him, maybe not so much.”

Tej rubbed her mouth. Ivan Xav had a point. “Is he trustworthy?” she asked him straight out.

“No, he’s a damned weasel.” Vorpatril hesitated. “But he won’t betray Barrayar. If what you are poses no threat to the Imperium, you have nothing to fear from him. Probably.”

Byerly cast Vorpatril a look of exasperated disbelief. “Whose side are you on?”

“You’ve been known to make mistakes. I distinctly recall pulling your, and your Countly cousin’s, feet out of the fire on one of ’em, spectacularly. But do I get respect? Do I get gratitude? Do I get—”

Byerly, hunching, said, “You got another job.”

For some reason, this settled him. “Huh.”

Byerly massaged his neck, looked up, and met Tej’s gaze with a mild smile belied by his intent eyes. “Very well. I will now deal for your name.” He inhaled. “I am an Imperial Security surveillance operative. My specialty is normally the high Vor social milieu centering around Vorbarr Sultana. I am out of my usual venue because the people I am following left there and came here in pursuit of their affairs, which are certainly criminal and potentially treasonous.”

Tej shook her head. “The ones who are after us are not Barrayarans.”

“I know. Yours are the people my people are dealing with. Locating you for them was to be a favor, to sweeten a pot presently in process of going sour.”

Vorpatril’s face scrunched. “Hey. Was finding Tej and Rish one of the little ways you made yourself useful, too?”

Byerly shrugged.

“For God’s sake, By! What if those goons
had
snatched ’em?”

“I thought the experiment might yield much useful information, whatever way it fell out,” said Byerly, sounding pressed. “In no case would their captors have been allowed to carry them out of the Imperium. But if Tej and Rish can tell me even more about their, ah, foes, then this affair has fallen out better than I might have expected. Although there are other consequences…well.” Very reluctantly, he added, “Thank you, Ivan.”

“It’s not just my life at risk,” said Tej slowly. “Rish’s is, too.”

Byerly said, “I am working with two associates. If I—what is that Jacksonian phrase?—
get smoked
, it is probable that they will be, too. So you see, I am not without my further responsibilities, either.”

It occurred to Tej that this exchange had just given the Barrayaran agent a very good professional reason to keep her and Rish as far away as possible from kidnappers and hostile interrogators, regardless of his other agendas. Her bluff had won them a very real prize. Or else he’d want them safely dead, but she did not sense the excited tang of such a hidden lethal intent upon him. Tej glanced at Rish, who had been following this with all her attention—and superior senses.
Is he telling the truth?
Rish returned a cautious nod.
Yes, go ahead
. With maybe a
So far
implied.

BOOK: Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
8.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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