Tales from the Academy

By Scott Washburn

Book One

Prologue

Countess Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan often felt that the Barrayaran penchant for pomp and circumstance—particularly when she was obliged to sit through it—was taken too far. But not today. This was one ceremony she was perfectly willing to sit through. Indeed, she had to struggle to keep the expression on her face from morphing from stately satisfaction to outright glee.

She was sitting in the garden courtyard of the Count's Residence in Hassadar, capital of Vorkosigan District, watching her grandchildren being presented to the people of the city. It was a tradition that stretched far back into the Time of Isolation when the birth of a Count's heir, or in this case, the heir's heir, was an event of great significance and a time for celebration. It had also been a way to show that the heir was mutation free—something that was still of particular significance in many minds. Her gaze drifted over to her son, Miles. He and his wife, Ekaterin, were standing behind the two display cribs and grinning ear to ear. Miles was holding little Helen Natalie and chatting with a townswoman. Cordelia knew full well how important this was to him. It was vindication on more levels than she could count at the moment.

Miles' impeccably tailored brown-and-silver Vorkosigan house uniform could not disguise the fact that he was scarcely five feet tall, nor completely hide the slight hunchback that he'd had his whole life. And while he had learned to ignore the hurtful whispers of mutant, to be able to show off his two perfect children, produced by him and his lovely wife, must eclipse all his other accomplishments. Although, Cordelia noted with a wry smile, Miles wasn't being shy about displaying those other accomplishments, too. His uniform coat was adorned with a selection of his many medals and awards, and the gold Imperial Auditor's seal hung from his neck on its elaborate chain.

A line of people wound past the flowering roses and out the garden gate and, from reports, went for many blocks through the city. They had been coming to pay their respects and see and praise the children for several hours now and would continue to do so for the rest of the day. The Vorkosigans were popular rulers and this was the first excuse for a major celebration since Miles' and Ekaterin's wedding a year and a half ago.

But it made for a long day. They had agreed to take things in shifts to give themselves a break from time to time. Aral was off somewhere now and ought to be back shortly, unless some local politician had gotten hold of him. Cordelia rose from her chair. She would take her turn now, she decided. After all, she hadn't held her grandchildren since breakfast.

But as she smoothed her skirt, she caught sight of a small commotion in the line of people. A young woman was talking intently with one of the armsmen, who was shaking his head emphatically. What was this all about? Oh. Cordelia caught sight of the envelope in the woman's hand. A petitioner. Why hadn't she left her petition in the basket at the gate? The armsman was offering to take the envelope, but the woman pulled it away and gestured in Cordelia's direction. As she did so, their eyes met and locked and the woman froze. The armsman, Holt, it was, turned to follow the woman's gaze, saw his countess, and frowned in annoyance. He turned back and grasped the woman's arm. The people next to her in line were growing angry, too. After waiting hours to get in, they didn't want the moment spoiled.

And neither did Cordelia. Making up her mind, she strode quickly down the line to stand next to Armsman Holt. "Is there a problem here?" she asked.

Holt, startled, turned to look at her, his face coloring slightly. "No, my lady. Nothing you need trouble yourself with." The nearby townspeople and the young woman, were all staring, wide-eyed. The woman, scarcely more than a girl, she saw now, clutched her envelope, clearly mustering her courage to dispute Holt's statement.

"Is that for me, Miss…?" asked Cordelia, indicating the envelope.

"Yes, my lady," said the girl, bending a knee in an awkward curtsy. "Or… or for the Count. Or the Lord Auditor. Anyone who…"

"Anyone who'd pay attention?"

"Yes, my lady."

"There's a basket at the gate," growled Holt. "And I offered to take it if that wouldn't do."

"That's true," said Cordelia. "And there are several official channels for electronic mail, too, that you could try."

"I have tried!" cried the girl, who clapped her mouth shut in shock at how loudly she had spoken. The line was moving forward and a number of people cut around the woman, but she didn't seem to care. Her eyes remained fixed on Cordelia. "Please, my lady, I've sent messages to everyone I could think of and nothing's happened."

Cordelia frowned. It was probably something trivial then. Miles, acting in his capacity as Aral's heir while they were away on Sergyar, had set up a very good system for people to register complaints or petitions and get results if they warranted them. If this girl's petitions had gone unanswered it was unlikely they had much substance. Still, it would be simple enough to hear her now and avoid a scene. She put out her hand. "What's your name?"

"Anny… I mean Andreanne Payne, my lady." She held out the envelope and Cordelia took it. She smiled when she saw that Aral's, Miles' and her names and full titles were neatly hand-written on it. The girl wasn't leaving any route untried. She'd give her points for persistence, if nothing else. She popped open the seal and drew out a sheet of paper—real paper, not a flimsy—and unfolded it. She quickly scanned down the page—and stopped.

"Heavens. Are you serious about this, Anny?"

"Yes, my lady!" The look on her face screamed sincerity—and fear.

"Anywhere else I wouldn't have to ask this, but here I do: why?"

"M-my family has always served, my lady. But my older brother was killed in a logging accident and…" she drew herself up. "And I'm the eldest now."

"I… see. What in the world makes you think that you can do this?"

"He did." The girl jerked her head in Miles' direction. Cordelia wasn't sure if she was pleased or offended by the answer. But then she sensed someone coming up behind her and she knew it was Aral even before he spoke.

"What's this?" he asked. Holt, the girl, and all the nearby townspeople bowed and curtsied and 'm'lorded' right and left.

"Ah. Dear, this is Anny Payne. Anny, this is… well, I guess you know who this is, don't you?"

"Yes, m'lady," gulped Anny.

"Pleased to meet you, Miss Payne. What can we do for you?" Aral looked from the girl to Cordelia. She held out the paper.

"It seems that Anny has been unfairly denied admittance—to the Barrayaran Imperial Service Academy."

Cordelia had to give Aral credit: he barely flinched at all. "Indeed?" he rumbled, taking the paper and looking it over. "You took the entrance exam? How?"

"Y-you can take the academic parts on-line, now, m'lord. I… I put down my brother's name. But when I passed the first tests they asked for more information and… and…" She held out her hands helplessly.

"I see…"

"Dear, let's not all stand here like this," said Cordelia. "People are beginning to stare. Why don't we all go over there where we can talk?"

"Certainly, my dear captain. A good idea. Come, Miss Payne." To Armsman Holt's obvious dismay, Aral unhooked the velvet-covered rope that was herding the visitors past the cribs and ushered Anny through. There was no security risk: everyone was thoroughly scanned before they were allowed through the force field guarding the Residence, no, Holt's concerns were propriety, not security. Anny's face had gone nearly as white as the paper of her petition to find herself trapped between her count and countess, but she didn't falter. The girl certainly had courage, Cordelia granted. But did she really understand what she was doing?

They walked down a short path to a shaded spot where there were some chairs and refreshments, out of sight of the visitors. Coming in the opposite way was Miles who handed off Aral Alexander to a nurse for a diaper change. Miles strolled over with his hands in his pockets and nodded at each of them and looked quizzically at Anny. "Hullo," he said.

"Miles, dear, this is Anny Payne," said Cordelia. "Anny has an interesting… situation." Aral handed him the paper. Halfway through it he glanced up sharply at Anny, but then continued to the end.

"These are really your test scores?" he asked.

"Yes, my lord auditor," whispered Anny.

Miles whistled. "Only two points below mine, although I imagine the test has changed a bit." Cordelia smiled. Not just because Miles could remember the exact score he received fifteen years earlier, but because she could remember her own entrance exam scores from the Betan Astronomical Survey Academy from half a century ago. "Still, you must realize what you are up against here, Anny."

"Yes, my lord auditor." The girl set her jaw and looked stubborn.

"The law is quite clear," said Aral. "Men only."

"Laws can be changed, dear," said Cordelia. "You've changed enough over the years to know that."

Miles scratched at his nose. "Sooner or later, someone was bound to try this. Actually, I'm kind of surprised that it took this long, what with you here, mother."

"This would be very… unpopular in certain circles," said Aral.

"But probably more popular in others," countered Cordelia. "Why, I imagine Count Dono would be quite happy to sponsor a bill…"

Miles cleared his throat noisily. "I don't know if this would be the best time, Mother. And I don't know if it would even be necessary. The Academy has always had quite a bit of latitude to make… exceptions." He glanced at Aral and her pointedly. "Perhaps if I had a word with General Vorgarin." Miles frowned and looked unhappy. In his role as Imperial Auditor his Word was very nearly law, but it was not a power to be used frivolously or often.

"Now love," said Cordelia, "you are still on vacation. And it's been far too long since I stirred things up around here." She smiled and took Anny by the arm.

"Let me take a crack at this."