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

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance (6 page)

BOOK: Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
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Throughout the Jackson’s Whole system, information was tightly controlled, for the money, power, and security it could bestow, and for that narrow edge that could mean the difference between a deal succeeding or failing. At the other extreme, Tej’s favorite tutors from her youth, a trio of Betans her parents had imported at great trouble and expense, had described a planetary information network on their homeworld that seemed open to the point of madness—suicide, perhaps. Yet somehow Beta Colony remained, famously, one of the most scientifically advanced and innovative planets in the Nexus, which was
why
the tutors had been imported. Of all the instructors she’d been plagued with, the Betans were the only ones whose departure she’d mourned when, homesick, they had declined to renew their contracts for another year. Most other planetary or system polities fell somewhere between the two extremes of attempted information control.

“I think we may be thinking too hard,” said Tej. “We don’t need to start with his secrets, just with what everybody else knows.”
Everybody but us
.

Rish pursed her lips, nodded, and stepped aside. “Have at it. Shout out if you find anything useful.”

Tej took her seat. Stuck hiding in their flat, Rish had been allowed far more time to learn the arcana of making this net disgorge data than Tej, but how common could that odd name be? She leaned over and entered it.

A Komarran database was the first to pop up above the vid plate, bearing the promising title of
The Vor of Barrayar
. All in alphabetical order, starting with V and ending with V.
Oh
. There were, it seemed, hundreds and hundreds of Vorpatrils scattered across the three planets of the Barrayaran Empire. She tried reordering the names by significance.

At the top of that list was one Count Falco Vorpatril. The Counts of Barrayar were the chiefs of their clans, each commanding a major territorial District on the north continent of their planet. In their way, Tej supposed they were the equivalents of a Jacksonian Great House barons, except that they came by their positions by mere inheritance, instead of having to work and scheme for them. It seemed a poor system to her, one that did nothing to assure that only the strongest and smartest rose to the top.
Or the most treacherous
, she was uncomfortably reminded. Count Falco, a bluff, hearty looking, white-haired man, had no son named Ivan. Pass on.

Several high-ranking military officers followed, and some Imperial and provincial government men with assorted opaque and archaic-sounding titles. There was an Admiral Eugin Vorpatril, but he had no son named Ivan either.

Belatedly, she remembered the little paper cards from Vorpatril’s pocket. There were several Ivan Vorpatrils, including a school administrator on Sergyar and a wine merchant on the South Continent, but only one Ivan Xav.

His entry was short, half a screen, but it did have a confirming vid scan. It seemed to be of him as much a younger officer, though, suggesting that he had improved with age. Tej wasn’t sure how such a stiff, formal portrait could still look feckless. His birth date put him at 34 standard-years old, now. The entry listed his father, Lord Padma Xav Vorpatril, as deceased, and his mother, Lady Alys Vorpatril, as still living.

Her eye paused, arrested. His father’s death date was the same as his birth date.
That’s odd
. So, her Ivan Xav was half an orphan, and had been so for a long time. That seemed…painless. You could not miss, fiercely and daily, a man you’d never met.

She was reminded of his horrible vase. Who had he sent it to, again? She bit her lip, bent, and spelled the awkward name out very carefully. All those Vor names tended to come out as a blurred
Voralphabet
in her mind, unless she paid strict attention.

Double oh
.

A very uncommon name, Vorkosigan; barely a dozen or so living adult males. But she should have recognized it nonetheless. The clan Count of that surname appeared, when she reordered the entire database by significance, second on the whole list, right after Emperor Gregor Vorbarra. Count, Admiral, Regent, Prime Minister, Viceroy…Aral Vorkosigan’s entry scrolled on for what seemed several meters of closely written text. Unofficial titles included such nicknames as
Butcher of Komarr
, or
Gregor’s Wolf
. He did have a son named Miles, of just about her Ivan Xav’s age. VorMiles also had an entry much longer than Captain Vorpatril’s, if much shorter than his sire’s.

Tej was not as vague as most Jacksonians about the history of this patch of the wormhole nexus. But she’d never expected even to visit here, let alone be trapped for months, so she hadn’t exactly studied up. Her original evacuation route had called for a direct transit across the Barrayaran Imperium, not even touching down on the surfaces of Komarr or Sergyar, just making what orbital or jump-station transfers were needed to reach her final destination of Escobar. Or even, when that goal had begun to seem unsafe as well, to Beta Colony of imagined-happy memory. No one would blink at Rish there. Well, all right, they probably would blink, she was
made
to be riveting, but no one would harass her. Anyway, the point was, this stop had never been on any sensible planner’s itinerary.

Barrayar had one of the most bizarre colonization histories in the whole of the Nexus, which was full of the relicts and results of audacious human ventures. The story extended far back to the 23rd Century CE, when wormhole travel had first been developed, launching a human diaspora from Old Earth. A prize because of its breathable atmosphere, the planet drew an early settlement attempt of some fifty thousand would-be colonists. Who promptly disappeared from all contact when their sole wormhole link proved unstable, collapsing with catastrophic results. Missing, presumed dead, and over the next six centuries, all but forgotten.

Till, little more than a hundred years ago, a new jump route was prospected from—to its ultimate regret—Komarr. The explorers discovered a thriving but backward world. Subsequently, twenty years of Komarran-supported Cetagandan occupation had failed to civilize the savage planet, but did succeed in militarizing it.

A generation after the expensive withdrawal of the Occupation, the Barrayarans had come boiling out of their cul-de-sac to seize Komarr in turn, presumably to block any further galactic attempts to civilize them. The momentum of their Komarran success had led in turn to an ill-advised overreaching, as the Barrayarans of the day then went on to try to conquer more distant Escobar the same way. That expedition had failed, disastrously, in the face of strong Escobaran resistance aided by every neighbor the victim possessed, including clever Beta Colony; high-ranking casualties had included the Barrayaran crown prince himself.

It was still a matter of profound respect and awe, to Jacksonian students of the great Deals of history, how evil Emperor Ezar had managed to hang on to the newly-discovered planet of Sergyar during the treaty settlements, adding it firmly to his empire before dying and leaving his throne to a five-year-old grandson. After that, the Imperium had settled down a lot, more concerned with consolidating the boundaries they’d gained than expanding them beyond their power to defend. But in all, the Barrayarans remained uncomfortable neighbors. Jacksonians generally were just as glad they weren’t right next door, but rather, buffered by a complex multi-jump route through the open system of the Hegen Hub and the free planetary polity of Pol.

All of which, plus two out of three systems of the Imperium, a person had to cross to reach the safety of Escobar, or Beta Colony beyond, sigh.

Tej returned to Ivan Xav’s entry. Really, there was little more here than what had been revealed by the contents of his pockets, though she supposed this confirmed their validity. He was what he seemed, a middling Vor officer of middling responsibilities and middling rank. Just middling along.

So why was he looking for me?
But before she could explore further, Rish emerged refreshed from her bath to offer a shared brunch, which perforce consisted of half a military ration bar, nasty but nutritious, and half a bottle of wine each. It was surprisingly good wine, though Tej suspected the beer would have complemented the entrée more stoutly. And after
that
, she fell into an exhausted doze on the sofa. Even after her months downside, Komarr’s short day length remained physiologically awkward. She hadn’t slept soundly since they’d arrived.

Nor since before…

*
 
*
 
*

Ivan was only a few minutes late, which he was honestly able to blame on the morning bubble-car clump-up on the tube from Dome Center out to the military shuttleport—happily, the slowdown had been in a high section with a nice view, not in the disturbing underground stretch. Barrayar’s Komarr command HQ was somewhat awkwardly split between the downside installation next to the ’port and the orbital and jump-point stations, but no pop-ups to orbit were scheduled today for the visiting admiral and his loyal assistant.

Desplains, a spare and quietly competent officer in his late fifties, took in Ivan’s neat but squinty appearance with an ironic eye. “Heavy drinking last night, Vorpatril?”

“No, sir, not a drop. I was kidnapped by two beautiful women and held prisoner in their flat all night. They didn’t let me get a wink of sleep.”

Desplains snorted amusement and shook his head. “Save your sex fantasies for your friends, Ivan. Time to saddle up.”

Ivan gathered the notes and agendas and followed him out.

The three-hour-long morning meeting with the downside local staff was more torture than last night’s ordeal had been, in all, and Ivan only kept awake by surreptitiously pinching his earlobe with his fingernail. The afternoon’s schedule promised to be more entertaining, a private planning session with Desplains’s own inspection team, a cadre of keen and occasionally evil officers known to the inspected as the Vor Horsemen of the Apocalypse, though only two of the group had surnames burdened with that prefix.

This left Ivan his lunch hour to pursue his own affairs. He grabbed a rat bar
again
, poured a cup of tarry coffee, popped two painkillers in an attempt to clear the sleep-deprivation cotton batting from his head, unwillingly contemplated his secured comconsole, and instead of starting a tedious and possibly frustrating search, called the building next door. Admiral Desplains’s name cleared his route at once.

ImpSec Galactic Affairs shared its downside offices with ImpSec Komarr, although how much the two sets of spook-handlers talked to each other was anyone’s guess. Once past the lobby security, the hushed, windowless corridors reminded Ivan all too much of ImpSec’s parent headquarters back in Vorbarr Sultana: utilitarian, secretive, and faintly depressing.
They must’ve imported the same interior designer, just before he hanged himself.

The top Galactic Affairs analyst for Jackson’s Whole here was one Captain Morozov; Ivan had been interviewed by him twice before, over his cousin Mark’s affairs. The personal touch always sped things up, in Ivan’s experience. Morozov also met, adequately, Ivan’s current
who-do-you-trust
calibrations. Ivan found him presiding over a similar cubicle and comconsole as a few years back, even more packed with books, cartons of flimsies, and odder memorabilia. Morozov was a pale scholar-soldier with a square, bony face, and an unusually cheerful outlook on life and his work—ImpSec regulars could be morbid.

Morozov greeted Ivan with either a wave or an ImpSec-style salute, it was hard to tell which, and drew up the spare swivel chair with an extended foot. “Captain Vorpatril. We meet again. What can Galactic Affairs do for Admiral Desplains today?”

Ivan settled himself, finding a place for his feet amongst the cartons. “I”—he conscientiously did not say
we
—“have a query on an unusual person with a suspected Jacksonian connection.” Carefully, if vividly, Ivan described Rish, withholding her name for now—it could be just another alias, after all. There seemed no point in describing Tej. There might be whole planets full of cinnamon-skinned beauties out there somewhere, for all Ivan knew. Rish, he suspected, was unique.
Keep it simple
.

Morozov listened intently, his eyebrows climbing, fingertips pressed together in a gesture copied, Ivan was fairly sure, from his infamous former boss. As Ivan wound up he vented a
Huh!
Before Ivan could inquire just what kind of
Huh!
it was, Morozov spun to his comconsole and zipped through its file listings too fast for Ivan to follow. He sat back with a triumphant little
Tah-dah!
gesture as a still vid formed over the plate.

Ivan leaned forward, staring. “Good grief! There’s a whole set!” With a conscious effort, he closed his mouth.

The vid showed a group portrait, posed and formal. Rish, it was clearly Rish, knelt on one knee, second from the left. She was wearing very little; a gold thong and a winding pattern of gold foil that appeared to be glued on, barely covering other strategic points and twining up to her neck as if to present her face as an exotic blossom. Surrounding her were four other women and a man. They had slightly varying heights and builds, but all looked equally lithe and shimmering. One woman was white and silver, one yellow and metallic gold, one green and gold, one red and garnet, and the man was jet black and silver. Six faces differently but equally exquisite, smiling faintly, serene.

“Who
are
they?”

Morozov smiled like a particularly satisfied stage magician. Ivan had to admit, that was one hell of a rabbit.

“Their names are Pearl, Ruby, Emerald, Topaz, Onyx, and the blue one is Lapis Lazuli. Baronne Cordonah’s famous living Jewels. That scan was taken several years ago.”

“Jacksonian genetic constructs?”

“Of course.”

“What, um, do they do? Besides stand around and look stunning.”

“Well, the Baronne was known to use them as décor from time to time—from all reports, she was a woman who knew how to make an entrance. Also as a dance troupe, for very favored visitors. Servants, and I suspect much more. They are certainly jeeveses.”

BOOK: Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
12.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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