Being married to the Regent of Barrayar had its ups and downs. The late-night strategising sessions held with Aral in his pyjamas and his staff all perching around their marital bed or standing awkwardly at increasing distances from it depending on their seniority merely amused her. The three a.m. urgent summonses that turned out to be non-events didn't bother her - better those than the ones that were real. The aides and servants and people armed to the teeth who followed her everywhere she went, she had learned to ignore. But the way you couldn't even have a proper argument with your husband without something, anything, interrupting you was just maddening.

"Miles is a Betan citizen! He's eligible to start voting in four years! And he's so far spent three weeks of his entire life there, and almost all of that was at the Barrayaran Embassy with ImpSec on every door. He needs to understand the place, and how can he if he never spends any time there?"

"There's a reason for that," Aral said. "Do you know how many threats Betan security reported to ImpSec during our visit? And how many others ImpSec found out about that Betan security missed?"

"Threats against you. And me. Not Miles. Betans are generally pretty keen on not letting minors come to harm, even evil imperialist minors." She folded her arms. "On Beta Colony, people don't attack children because of their parents. It's just not how they think."

Aral flinched, but attempted a recovery. "I think he's too young for it. There will be - he'll be exposed to -"

"To things that are perfectly acceptable for a teenager on Beta Colony," Cordelia finished for him. "I grew up there, don't forget."

Aral sighed and put a hand to his stomach, frowning. "Your ulcers bothering you?" Cordelia asked, temporarily distracted.

"A little," he admitted. "Cordelia, I understand your arguments, truly. But I think it's a risky thing for him to do, and there are so many risks to his life that we can't control. I don't like introducing new ones."

He looked so tired and unhappy that for a moment Cordelia was tempted to give in, to tell him not to worry about this right now. But she knew that would be a serious error. This was important; if she had to give way she would just wind up resenting Aral for it. Keeping their relationship alive through all the strains and disasters of Aral's job required constant balancing and negotiating, trying to be a support and a help to him as he wrestled with a three-planet empire, and trying to keep a healthy family life going at the same time. And this, she felt, was one of those moments when she had to push for the family.

There was a quick knock at the door, and Illyan, who'd been doing his usual afternoon rounds at Vorkosigan House, entered without waiting for an invitation. "Excuse me," he said perfunctorily. "Aral. We need you at the office, now."

Aral whirled around, and Cordelia saw his entire bearing change. "What is it?"

"I just got a call. There's a hostage situation and they need us both. I'll explain in the car."

Aral looked back at Cordelia. "I -"

"It's all right," Cordelia said. "Go."

"Actually, my lady," Illyan said, with a swift glance at Aral, "Since he's home on leave, Gregor is asking to sit in on this one. It might be helpful for him to have someone to talk things through with him."

Please could you come and keep the boy-emperor out of our hair whilst we deal with this, Cordelia interpreted this request. And Miles was down in the country with Piotr doing something complicated involving horses, so she had no reason to stay here anyway. Time to give some attention to her other son. "All right."

She allowed herself to be whisked down and into the groundcar with Illyan and Aral. When they were moving, Aral said, "Explain."

"Nine visiting Komarrans were on a tour of a site in Vorvolynkin's District they were planning to invest in when they were snatched by a group of armed men. The 'One Planet' group is taking responsibility, and they have a list of demands."

"One Planet?" Cordelia asked.

"Isolationists," Aral put in succinctly. "A small splinter group. They hate the integrationist programme. What do they want, carpet-bombing of Solstice?"

"Not quite. A lot of legislative stuff, rolling back most of what you've introduced in the past ten years. The equality act, the terraforming budget, the tax adjustments ... you know the drill."

"Who are the hostages?" Aral said after a moment.

"Six men, three women. From Solstice Fleet Construction. They wanted to start manufacturing certain large components of their ships here, where labour is cheaper and you don't have to pay for air for your factories. They were thinking of creating some ties with the technical college in New Athens as well, to help get the local workforce trained up in the techniques they use. All long-term stuff." He grimaced. "Exactly what you've been hoping for, I know."

"Yeah. Shit." Aral sat back with his arms folded. Cordelia winced. It had taken years for Aral to get conditions to the point where Komarrans would start bringing some of their high-tech industries and investment money to Barrayar. If kidnapping was going to be added to the financial risks ... well, that wasn't going to help at all. "What else is there?" Aral asked.

"I've got men assembling rescue plans for you," Illyan went on, "with all the details at the Residence. I've only been told the basics myself so far."

"Isn't it the District police's business?" Aral asked.

"They've requested help from ImpSec. They don't have a lot of this sort of trouble down there, generally, especially not anything this high-profile."

Aral gave a nod. "I see. Right." He glanced at Cordelia. "We're probably not going to be back home before the reception starts. You might want to call your secretary and get her to organise everything you'll need."

"Oh, yes."

Cordelia made the call. Marina took it in her stride, blissfully without fuss. It had taken Cordelia a while to find a secretary she got on well with, who didn't treat her with awed deference and who simply dealt with whatever Cordelia put in front of her and sorted out all the details. Cordelia sometimes thought of Marina as her exec. She would have been valuable in a much higher governmental position, but this was Barrayar and there weren't that many things even a woman as talented as Marina could do.

"As far as I can tell," Illyan said, "tomorrow's vote's going to be close. I know Lady Alys is planning to try to twist a few more arms at the reception to get them over to your proposals, but ... well, she didn't sound very optimistic. Sergyaran settlement just isn't at the top of anyone's lists."

"Well, it ought to be," Aral said. "We need a solid base there. Sergyar has so much potential, and if we can't give a bit more support to people who want to go and join the new colony, we're going to suffer for it down the line. But none of the Counts want it to be their liegepeople who move. It's the permission clause that's causing the most problems-they don't want to be forced to permit anyone to emigrate who requests."

"You don't have to persuade me," Cordelia said. "Save it for later. You need to be thinking about this hostage problem right now."

Aral grimaced. "I know. Someone will give me a list of talking points for the reception later anyway." Not that Aral really needed the help, but he had a staff, and they had to do something to earn their salaries. Aral could think in six directions at once, Cordelia knew, without breaking into a sweat. She loved watching him in action, even when he was doing strange Barrayaran things that made her Betan sensibilities quiver.

They reached the Residence and were whisked inside by Illyan and a couple of ImpSec aides who fell into low-voiced conversation with him. Gregor was waiting for them, accompanied as always by an Armsman. He looked nervous, excited, pleased to be involved. Cordelia wanted to give him a hug, but he was so obviously trying to be one of the adults that she didn't like to destroy his illusions.

"So," she said, "this should be educational." She did allow herself to put her arm through his, and he gave her a surprised look. "You probably know more than I do so far. Let's go."

Just outside the enormous Office of the Lord Regent, Lieutenant Ross, Aral's current secretary, caught up with them. He had a folded flimsy, a read-pad and a worried look. "I've got the latest on the South Continent wildfires, sir. The Weather Office isn't expecting any changes in the direction of the wind, and there's no precipitation forecast in the next twenty-six hours. They want you to give the order to evacuate Trieve. It's a small town -"

"I know Trieve," Aral said shortly.

Ross, good man, said, "Of course, sir. They're asking for Imperial aid as well."

"What about Count Vorgarin? Shouldn't they start with him?"

"He hasn't got the equipment, or the money. He says they've already had all the help he can give out of the District budget, all of his emergency reserves and extra money from his personal purse as well. It's a poor district."

"All right. Give them the go for the evacuation. They can draw on the resources from Black River Base, that'll let the boys there test out their disaster planning as well."

Illyan cleared his throat. "You might want to hold on that, sir."

"Fire moves fast, Simon."

"I know, but ... the leader of the hostage-takers is Lord Casmir Vorgarin. And one of the things he mentioned in his communication was the lack of financial assistance for his father's District in comparison with the wealth of Komarr."

Aral took a breath. "I am not," he said, "going to let thousands of people burn to death to avoid giving the appearance of listening to Casmir Vorgarin. I gave that order before I knew of their demands. You go send that through, Ewan."

Lieutenant Ross saluted, and hurried off.

"It's going to muddy the waters, later," Illyan said.

"Well, you'll just have to deal with it," said Aral unsympathetically. They all went into the office, and after the men waiting there had acknowledged their Regent and their Emperor, Cordelia drew Gregor to sit at the side, where they could talk without disturbing the work. Ross came back in after a few minutes and went to stand a little behind Aral.

"What do you think of that decision?" she asked him quietly.

Gregor looked at the table, where Aral was now looking at a map and a set of rescue proposals from the head of ImpSec Domestic Affairs. "We can't negotiate with terrorists," he said.

"Quite right." Cordelia gave him an encouraging smile, which made Gregor, who knew her well, hesitate.

"We can't," he repeated, a little uncertain.

"Do you know how many years people have been saying that?" Cordelia asked.

Gregor shook his head.

"Many hundreds. And it doesn't seem to have had a noticeable impact on the number of terrorists out there. What is a weapon?"

"A device for making the enemy change his mind," Gregor recited automatically. "But -"

"And what's the difference between doing it with plasma cannons and doing it with words?"

"Um ..."

"There is one," Cordelia said. "Especially here on Barrayar. With weapons, you get to save face. You get to look like you're completely in control, like you're the big tough guys, like you don't have to pay attention to what the other people want. So when you have a situation where you get a choice between words and bombs, you have to ask yourself, how many lives is my face worth?" She gestured to the men talking around the table. "They're looking to use weapons to get the hostages out, which is probably the right call given this situation, but with the situation in Trieve, Aral chose not to put his face before the lives of all the people in the town. Do you think Aral's decision was influenced by the hostage situation?"

"It couldn't have been influenced," Gregor said. "He didn't know about Vorgarin when he gave the order."

"Wrong," Cordelia said. "All events influence each other. Aral is looking at three groups of people whose lives are in danger right now: the hostages, the conspirators, and the people of Trieve. The conspirators are in serious trouble, the hostages are very uncertain, but he can save the people of Trieve. So he did. And he's not going to have time tonight to turn the screws on Count Vorgarin, though he probably was holding something back, or find some other way to pay for the evacuation, so he's doing it through the military budget and letting it double as a drill. It's a legitimate choice, but don't believe for a minute that Aral's not affected by what's happening here."

She wondered privately what effect their unresolved argument was having on Aral. By her own logic, it had to be there somewhere in the mix. She knew that it was making her more analytical, more Betan, because she wanted Miles to be more Betan. Which was silly, because it wouldn't make Miles a whit less painfully Barrayaran if she wandered around Vorkosigan House in a sarong singing the Good Sex Song that she had tried to teach Miles in his kindergarten years like any good Betan child. Though it would certainly distract Aral ...

"Gregor," Aral said, cutting across her wandering thoughts, "would you like to tell me which of these plans you would choose?"

Gregor went to join the men at the table, Cordelia standing a pace behind. There were three plans for rescuing the hostages, A, Б, В, all summarised on a single flimsy and listing a series of numbers with abbreviations Cordelia didn't know alongside them. Gregor read the summary, looking a little worried.

"Analyse," Cordelia said in his ear. "Talk it through."

"Well," Gregor said, "A has the best chance of capturing all the conspirators. And it's the cheapest. But the risk to the hostages is higher. Б is more expensive, but with lower risk to the hostages. B is the most expensive of all, and is most likely to result in casualties amongst the rescuers, but it has the highest chance of getting all the hostages out unharmed." He took a deep breath. "Б seems the best compromise."

"Under normal circumstances," Aral said, "I would agree. But look at the weapons profile for Б. A lot of plasma. And it's wildfire season on the South Continent."

"Oh. Yes." Gregor looked at the three plans again. "В, then," he said. "We have to get the hostages out alive to give the Komarran investment plan a chance of success."

"Yes," Aral said. "You have a duty towards them all, in different ways: the hostages, the conspirators, the soldiers who will risk their lives to rescue them. But your greatest duty is to the hostages, who did not choose to be in the line of fire."

Gregor nodded gravely, looking suddenly older than his eighteen years. Aral made a little gesture with his fingertips, and Gregor turned to the head of Domestic Affairs. "Execute В plan, please," he said.

Cordelia watched as the head of Domestic Affairs gave the go order to his men over a comm link and Aral sat back in his chair, a grimace of pain crossing his face. Another ulcer attack was just what this day needed, Cordelia thought wryly, and wondered whether to try and persuade Aral to skip the reception. But he wouldn't agree to it, she knew. He met her eye.

"About Miles," he said.

Cordelia shook her head. "Later. There's too much else going on right now."

Aral gave a grunt. It had actually been a fairly ordinary day, before this Komarran situation had broken, just the usual rounds of political tail-chasing for Sergyaran settlement and the South Continent wildfires. It had seemed as good a time as any to talk to him about Miles. Now it was different.

"Count Vorgarin for you, sir," said Lieutenant Ross suddenly. "Do you want to speak to him?"

Aral sighed, nodded and went to the comconsole. "Yes?" he said.

"My lord," Vorgarin began, "I want you to know that I had no knowledge of my son's criminal and despicable behaviour. Whatever measures you may take to deal with this, you have and will continue to have my full support."

Cordelia winced. Aral merely nodded slowly. It was what the Count had to do, Cordelia supposed, but ... did he have to sound quite so much like he meant it? Perhaps he did. She turned away from the console, and her wrist-comm chimed. Not wanting to disrupt anything, she stepped outside the door. It was Marina. "My lady, you have a call."

"I'm somewhat busy at the moment," she said.

"I think you should take this one, my lady."

Marina had good instincts. Cordelia sighed and went into a side chamber, escorted by a bowing ImpSec officer. Cordelia gave Marina the room console's code, and waited. A moment later, a middle-aged woman appeared on the screen. Her eyes were red and swollen. With a chill, Cordelia recognised Countess Vorgarin.

"My lady," she said to Cordelia. "I beg you to intercede for my son Casmir." She took a breath, her measured phrases deserting her. "I know he's in trouble. I know he's done something wrong, but ... he's not a bad boy. He's so wild, and he wants his father to notice him, he's fallen in with bad people-but he's honourable, my lady, I swear to you, he's honourable. Please, if you can help him..."

"I do not have that power," Cordelia said, resorting to Barrayaran formality before the Countess's naked pain. "What happens to your son is not in my hands. I'm sorry..." she groped around for the woman's name and finally recalled it, "Leah, but there's nothing I can do for him. He made his own choices."

Countess Vorgarin gazed at her, searingly, then said, "You are a mother, my lady. You know what I feel. I beg of you, help him," and cut the comm. Shaken, Cordelia sat still for a minute. She would never get used to this part of being married to the Lord Regent. She took a deep breath, shut down the comconsole and returned to the office.

Aral had evidently finished with Count Vorgarin. He raised an eyebrow at Cordelia. "The countess," she said briefly.

Aral gave a sigh. "It's not a death penalty case," he said. "Yet. If the kid doesn't do anything stupid he could survive."

"Yeah." And what were the chances of a Barrayaran Vor boy not doing something stupid? From Aral's expression he was thinking something similar.

"I think we're done here," Aral said after a moment. "It's just waiting for ImpSec to move, and it will be several hours before there's any news. I need to go and run over the rest of this afternoon's business with my staff before the reception. Would you care to come, Gregor?"

Gregor had been watching quietly after giving the go order, back in his most reserved mode. Cordelia had no idea what he'd been learning from watching them. "I think I need to go and get ready for the reception," he said, but Cordelia suspected what he meant was that he needed some time to absorb what had been happening. He didn't look nearly as excited as he had earlier.

Aral nodded. "Yes, that's a good thought. All right." He stood up.

Illyan was taking the opportunity of the lull to make a call to Lady Alys. Curious, Cordelia glanced over his shoulder.

"I'm sorry about this, my lady," Illyan was saying, "but I've had to pull the security passes of four of your guests tonight."

"Oh? Who?"

Illyan listed them, people connected to these new conspirators, and Cordelia saw Alys grimace. "All men. Of course. Do you have any idea what this will do to the seating arrangements? Or the dancing? Aren't there some women you could get rid of too, so that the numbers work out?"

Not many people could get away with talking to the Chief of ImpSec like that, and Cordelia noticed the careful not-listening of the other ImpSec men in the room. Illyan smiled at Alys. "I know how much you enjoy a challenge."

"Hah. Very well." Alys' face sobered. "Take care," she said.

Illyan nodded gravely, and she cut the comm.

"Pity," Gregor said. "I was hoping Simon would agree to pull the clearances of the Vor girls Lady Alys has lined up to giggle at me tonight. I wouldn't mind."

Cordelia sighed inwardly. If only she could send Gregor for a year's schooling on Beta Colony. He, even more than Miles, would benefit from it.

"I need to get ready for the reception too," she said. "And remember, Gregor, you won't want me talking you through the reception. Stick to Aral or Vortala, or your Aunt Alys. Barrayaran-style politics make me crazy."

Gregor smiled slightly. "It's more fun with you."

"Yes, but you'll learn more from them. Off you go, now." A dismissal few gave the eighteen-year-old Emperor, but he seemed to like it from her. Cordelia, after a moment of watching Aral and the staffers get started on their work, headed off to go and change into her evening dress.

The waiting, she thought as she went out, was the worst part of being married to the Regent of Barrayar.

It was a six-course dinner, following almost two hours of drinks and canap s and exceedingly complicated conversations. Cordelia was long inured to the dinners now, and had a number of survival strategies that included entirely ridding herself of all her Betan waste-is-bad notions and leaving as much food and drink as she could get away with before her table companions started making elliptical remarks about her health. Tonight she was safely between the Minister for Sergyaran Affairs and Count Vorville, both supporters of the proposed bill. And they had undecideds on either side of them whom they were tag-teaming, leaving Cordelia free to make polite comments about the terrible wildfires and the weather without having to try and wade into the politics. And to worry about what was happening to the poor Komarrans.

At the other end of the table, Aral was talking animatedly, though he too was only picking at his food. Count Vormoncrief on his left was looking extremely skeptical, but at least he was listening.

An aide put a slip of paper into Aral's hand, and he read it. His face didn't change, which was, Cordelia thought, a tell in itself. Not good news. He said something to the aide, who bowed and moved away. A few moments later the aide came up behind Cordelia and gave her the same message.

B plan executed. Eight hostages rescued safely, one abducted by Casmir Vorgarin. All other conspirators taken, one killed. Two serious ImpSec casualties, four minor injuries.

Cordelia smiled as if she'd just received good news. Her eyes met Aral's across the table.

They sat through the rest of the dessert, then when the ladies rose to leave, Aral said something that evinced a roar of laughter from the men sitting around him, then stood up himself. He went out through a different door, but met Cordelia in a connecting corridor.

"What now?" Cordelia said.

"I don't know yet. We got eight of the hostages free and safe, at least, but it's still the same problem in microcosm. Damn the boy."

Illyan hurried up. "Oh good, you're out. I've just got the latest. Lord Casmir Vorgarin wants to talk to you directly. He is threatening to kill his hostage if he isn't given access. We're stalling right now, but that's not going to last."

Aral turned to him. "Impossible," he said. "No."

"Surely just talking to him - " Cordelia began.

"I can't give him that degree of legitimacy," Aral said. "Not now. I could have spoken to him before he demanded it, but I can't start by yielding ground."

"My men believe he is serious about the threat," Illyan said. "And he claims to have a dead-man's-switch rigged in case we try another assault."

Aral shook his head mutely. Cordelia took a step back. This wasn't somewhere she should intervene, much as she wanted to. It was Aral's call. Illyan was listening to his earbug, and his shoulders slumped a little. Aral raised an eyebrow at him. "My most critically injured man just died in hospital. They're trying cryofreeze, but..."

Cryofreeze was still very new on Barrayar, and for someone who'd suffered severe trauma, it was not very reliable. Aral rubbed his stomach. Illyan, noticing, glanced sideways at Cordelia, who gave a little shake of her head.

"Damnation," Aral whispered. "I want that idiot and I want him now."

"Sir," Illyan said, "if I might make a suggestion. Lady Vorkosigan could act as a, a go-between, so as to avoid the worst of the complications whilst still giving him something of the appearance of communicating with the Regent. It would buy us a bit more time for another attempt, at least."

Aral's brows dropped. "Lady Vorkosigan is not a pawn on your gameboard, Simon."

Cordelia took a breath. She had done things like this before, talking to people who couldn't or wouldn't talk to Aral directly, but never with lives on the line like this. But Countess Vorgarin's face was still vivid in her memory.

"I'd be willing to try it," she said. "If it will help get that poor soul out alive. Both of them," she added. "But - you're aware I have had no training in hostage rescue negotiation, aren't you?"

"I'm not trained in it either," Aral pointed out. "Well. If you're willing, it's possible it would work, strategically speaking. There's a chance that just getting an opportunity to vent his grievances to an authority figure will cool him down enough that Simon's ImpSec negotiator can talk him the rest of the way down. Or he might let slip something about this dead-man's-switch, give the engineers something to go on before they try an assault. And in any case it will buy time, and in this situation sitting him out might work as well as anything else." He opened his hand. "Simon will give you all the data you need."

"Are we going to bring Gregor in on this?" Cordelia asked.

"I don't think so. Vortala is leading him through the politics right now, and he needs to know that as much as this stuff. And I don't want him anywhere near the negotiations, in case Vorgarin gets any funny ideas about talking to him instead." Aral gave a decisive nod. "All right. You go get ready for us, Simon. I just need to talk to Ewan about Trieve."

Cordelia didn't think Aral's personal staff were actually telepathic, but in a disturbingly short period of time Lieutenant Ross was with them.

"What's the latest from Trieve?" Aral asked him.

"The evacuation's under way, sir. It's going to be close, though, sir. Meteorology is predicting an increase in windspeed, and the flames have already jumped the first firebreak."

"Damn. Is there anything they need?"

"Well, sir, the commander of Black River Base has been trying to obtain some extra troop carrier shuttles from the depot at New Athens, but Colonel Vorinnis is dragging his feet about it."

Aral's brows lowered. "Is he indeed? Get him for me on the comm, right now."

"Yes, sir." Ewan paused. "The trouble is that the commander of the base isn't Vor, sir, and Colonel Vorinnis is a bit ... touchy."

"I see. Thank you, Ewan."

Whilst he put the call through, Cordelia turned to Aral. "Do you want me to get your physician?" she asked quietly.

Aral shook his head. "It's not getting any worse. I'll be fine. I took the pills."

Cordelia gave him an assessing look. "All right," she said at last. "But take care of yourself. We have an argument to finish later."

"Ha," Aral said. "What an inducement." But his expression softened for a moment, then turned hard again as he went to the comconsole. Cordelia watched from a distance.

"What's the problem with supplying Black River Base with the troop carriers they're requesting?" he demanded.

"They didn't send the request with the proper paperwork, sir. I can't just hand these things out like candy to anyone who calls me!"

"In fact," Aral said, "you can, by my order. I am calling you up now, and I am telling you to send them their carriers. Without delay. You'll get your paperwork once Trieve is evacuated."

The colonel looked mulish for a second, and Aral's brows lowered. "Yes, sir," the colonel said. "I'll send them myself."

Aral nodded shortly and cut the comm. "There's a man I'm going to have to keep an eye on," he said. "All right. Vorgarin. You'll get all the background information on him, and on the hostage he's still got. ImpSec will be in on the call but won't interrupt you. They'll be watching for any information about the set-up, anything that might help them if this does come back to another round of special ops."

This time they didn't go to Aral's office, but down to the Black Room in the sub-basement level. Apparently it was named not for the subjects that were discussed there, but prosaically for the colour the door was painted. Cordelia sat down at the enormous central table to study a set of files an ImpSec staffer put in front of her: details about Casmir Vorgarin, about the One Planet group, about the Komarrans, about the remaining hostage, Ser Crantz, an older man who had been unlucky enough to be standing by Casmir when ImpSec made their move. She skimmed through them, and then pulled up the console and took a deep breath. Aral went to her side.

"I don't know what chance you'll have of encouraging him to surrender," Aral said, "or whether it's even a possibility. You'll just have to go with it, try to get through to him." His hand closed over her shoulder. "Whatever happens, remember it's not your fault. He chose to go down this route, and if it ends badly the blame is his."

"Physician, heal thyself," Cordelia muttered to him, then looked up. "It's all right. I'm ready."

The face that appeared on the view-screen was disturbingly young, barely older than Gregor, soot-smeared and very strained. And frightened, and trying to hide it.

"Casmir," Cordelia said.

He stared at her. "Milady Regent-Consort," he said at last. "I want to speak to the Regent himself."

"Well, you've got me right now." Cordelia smiled. This was the sticky bit. If he cut the comm immediately, they'd be back to where they started, with Simon's gas and stun-grenade plans and hoping the Imperial Engineers could come up with something to do about the dead-man's-switch. "I don't think we've ever met, actually," she went on easily, hoping his Vorish training would prevent him from cutting off a woman who was making polite conversation. "I've met your father, of course, and your oldest brother, but you spend most of your time in the District, isn't that right?"

"Yes," Casmir said, evidently a little baffled by this opening gambit.

Before he could come up with a more complicated response, Cordelia went on with something that would be likely to hold his interest. "I don't suppose you'll have heard the latest from the fires in the District, but Trieve's being evacuated as we speak. The fire looks likely to destroy the entire town. Ten thousand people made homeless."

"And I suppose the Regent will turn his back on them like he has so many times before," Casmir retorted.

"You're certainly not making it any easier for him to help," Cordelia said gently. "After this, there will be a lot of pressure for him not to do anything that looks like he's responding to your demands. Worse if he winds up hauling two bodies out of that room you're in." She studied Casmir, trying to read how he was taking this. Grimly, for the most part. She continued with her point. "And you're hurting them another way as well. I know you've been working hard for the people in the District. You could be doing a lot to help these people right now, if you hadn't started this."

That, she could see, hit home. Casmir took a deep breath. "I'm doing this to help my District, and the whole South Continent. We're fed up with being the last in line for Imperial aid whilst your husband lavishes attention on the Komarrans to feed his guilt there. We have to stand up for ourselves."

It could have come from a propaganda leaflet. It probably had, actually. The line about Aral made her wince, because like all the best lies, there was a pearl of truth embedded in there: Aral did feel guilty about Komarr.

"And that's why you're doing this?" Cordelia said mildly. "How's it working out for you?"

Casmir stared at her. He must have expected an argument. "You're talking to me," he said after a moment's pause.

"Lots of people talk to me every day," Cordelia replied. "None of the others seem to find it necessary to terrorise innocent people first." She focused her gaze on him. "That brings me to the bit that really baffles me about this, actually. You do know why these Komarrans were here, don't you? To bring some of that Komarran wealth you want to the South Continent. You're behind the times, Casmir. The changes you want are coming already. And nobody needs to die for them." She paused. "Speaking of which, I'm sorry to have to tell you that two people were killed in that clusterfuck earlier. Your friend Josef Smith was killed straight off in the action, and Corporal Dmitri Issos died in hospital just a few minutes ago."

Casmir's eyes had widened at her military use of language, then narrowed to slits as she named the two dead.

"Their families are being contacted now," she went on. "You know Josef, I'm sure, but Dmitri had a wife and six children who lived with his parents, in Vorvayne's District. A farming family."

"That's the risk you take in the Service," Casmir said, ever so slightly defensive.

"And your family takes it with you. I'd like there not to be any more deaths tonight." Family, half of this was about family here. She couldn't forget Count Vorgarin's call to Aral. The story had been painfully clear from the files. The youngest son, Casmir opposed his father's more progressive politics but had never managed to get his father to take him seriously. He'd gradually grown more and more distant from his family. His mother had more or less been right about him getting caught up in a bad crowd, though given their natural conservative bent it hadn't taken his new friends long to stick Casmir up as their figurehead, his rank as the son of a count giving him automatic leadership. And he'd thrived on it, and come up with this plan to attract attention to his cause. And, Cordelia could plainly see, to get his father's attention.

"You can make all the threats you want," Casmir said sharply. "It won't change anything."

Cordelia faltered for a moment, then realised what he thought she'd meant. "No! No, no, I'm not threatening your family in the least. I mean something quite different." She found his eye, held it. "I spoke to your mother a little while ago. She begged me for your life. I told her it was not my choice. Your choices have brought you to this place. Your choices can bring you out again. The other side of a prison sentence, no doubt, but you're young. You've got a lot of time ahead of you." She leaned forward. "Your mother didn't give me any messages for you, but I'm a mother too; I know what she'd say. And I think you do too."

Casmir said nothing, but his eyes wavered. Time to stop. She'd said all she had to say, and Casmir wasn't stupid.

"Well," she said, "it's been nice talking to you. Make your choices well."

She cut the connection. Aral, who had been pacing up and down as she talked, now stopped and looked at her, questions in his eyes-shouldn't she have kept him talking till he made a decision, why hadn't she talked about Ser Crantz... Cordelia nodded to him. I know what I'm doing.

I hope.

They all waited in silence for a full minute.

"My lord," Illyan said suddenly. "The door is opening... Ser Crantz is coming out ... he's alone." He fell silent, listening to his earbug. "My men have scanned him, he's not booby-trapped. He's unhurt."

Without preamble, Aral pulled Cordelia up and kissed her on the mouth, hard and prolonged. "You," he broke off to say, "are brilliant, dear Captain." He kissed her again.

Illyan cleared his throat politely a few moments later. "And now we have Casmir Vorgarin under arrest. There was a sticky moment when we went in, but my man Pym handled it perfectly. I'll be commending him for that."

Aral nodded. "Good. Please pass on my thanks - our thanks," he corrected himself, his arm still around Cordelia " - to everyone involved." He released Cordelia. "I'd like to speak to the Komarrans if possible," he said to Illyan.

Illyan nodded and touched his earbug. "Ah. The Emperor and Lady Alys are coming to see you, sir."

"We'll meet them up in the office," Aral said. "I think we're done in here. But try and get me those Komarrans."

Cordelia took a breath and tried to change mental gears. One crisis done, on to the next, that was how it worked in the Barrayaran government, and it all had to go through Aral. That, she thought, was perhaps the worst flaw of all in this system: everything came down to Aral in the end. And Aral was a genius, but even a genius wasn't always enough to handle it all and survive. She couldn't quite regret her urging Aral to take this job fourteen years ago, because all the available alternatives were worse, but she was glad there were only two more years to go.

They went upstairs, and Lady Alys arrived at Aral's office at the same time as they did, her arm politely through Gregor's. Gregor looked tired, Cordelia thought. Social activities were hard for someone as introverted as he was, though he was learning how to handle it.

"The hostage situation is resolved," Aral said to Gregor. "There were two deaths: one of the conspirators, and an ImpSec corporal, and a few other soldiers injured. None of the hostages were hurt beyond some minor cuts."

"Oh," Gregor said. "Is that where you went after dessert?"

"Yes. How are things going upstairs?"

"I don't think we're going to get the votes," Alys answered. "Not this time. It was just too much for them to swallow. If you take off the permission requirement you should be able to get the rest through at the next session, if that's how you want to play it."

"I see," Aral said. "No joy with Vorville and his cronies, then? Well, we live to fight another day. Thank you for your help."

"Not at all," said Alys. "I enjoyed it." She extracted her arm from Gregor. "And you did well too. I must return to the party now."

Gregor lingered, evidently not wishing to return now that he had escaped. Alys glanced at him, read his face accurately, and turned away alone. Aral's console flashed up a message, and he went through to his inner office to deal with it. The Komarrans, Cordelia supposed. She was curious about what they would say, but Gregor was looking at her.

"So, what were you doing up there?" she asked Gregor.

"Trying to memorise everything," he said. "Lady Alys knows so much about everything. I mean, things that happened twenty, thirty years ago! I'm never going to know everyone that well."

"You will," Cordelia said. "And you will always have a staff to help you fill in the details. Aral doesn't try to memorise every single thing, he keeps notes and asks people for help."

"The Counts are all so selfish, too," Gregor went on. "They want Sergyar to grow, but not if they have to give up anything to get it. I tried-Lady Alys let me do the talking a few times, and I tried talking about what my father would have wanted for his planet, but it didn't seem to help. Count Vorhalas was almost rude to me about it, actually."

Cordelia remembered the man she had seen at Aral's side during the Escobar invasion. "I ... his younger brother died at Escobar."

Gregor blinked innocently at this, and Cordelia wished again Aral would let her talk to Gregor about his father. It was bound to come out sometime, and better in a kind and supportive environment than as a political attack. She inhaled, then let her breath out. Not now, when they were all tired and stressed.

"Do I have to go back to the party?" Gregor asked after a moment.

"No. But there's nothing more going on down here. You can head off to bed now, or whatever you like. We're done for the night."

On cue, Aral emerged from his office, looking distinctly unwell now, though not unhappy. "We're done," she repeated firmly. She gave Gregor a quick hug and sent him on his way, then turned back to Aral. "Come on. You know what your doctor says."

Aral gave a snort. "He thinks I should eat at regular mealtimes, get eight hours' sleep a night and avoid stress."

"Yes, well, he's new. And an optimist. But still. Come home before you start scaring your staff."

Aral sighed, grimaced and allowed her to lead him away from the offices, only pausing seven times on the way to the exit to pass on instructions, thanks, criticisms and plans to assorted aides and allies.

"Not the best day," he said once they were in the car. "The Komarrans sounded pretty shaken, but one did say that he'd never been relieved to see ImpSec before. So I suppose that's something. They haven't decided whether or not to continue with their factory plan."

"Well, that's better than an outright 'no'," Cordelia offered.

"It's not so much these ones I'm worried about as the next businessmen who start to consider investing here." He shook his head, circled a hand over his stomach and fell silent for the rest of the ride home.

Vorkosigan House was night-quiet when they arrived. Cordelia put her arm through Aral's, and they slowly climbed the stairs, leaning on each other.

"It doesn't get any easier, does it?" Cordelia said quietly.

Aral sighed. "No."

They reached their bedroom, and both relaxed slightly as the door swung closed behind them, shedding the last of the guards outside.

"About Miles, and Beta," Aral began.

"For pity's sake get into bed first," Cordelia interrupted this. "Judging by how today's gone, someone's going to be knocking on this door in about three hours, and if you're not going to sleep you may as well rest at least." She suited actions to words, stripping off her fine dress perfunctorially and putting it askew on the stand in the dressing room. Someone would sort it out. Servants were annoying at times, but they were also useful, especially when you were exhausted.

A few minutes later, comfortable in tan pyjamas, she propped herself up on one elbow on the bed. Aral was sprawled alongside.

"You're right about him going. Of course you are." He yawned, stretched out his shoulders and finally said, "It's just that I'm scared. Scared he'll prefer Beta after all. And... I won't hold him here if he wants to stay."

"I want him to stay. You know that." Cordelia shifted on the bed so that she was hard against Aral. This wasn't a conversation she could have at a distance. "He'd be safe there, he'd have choices there, he'd have freedom. I want those things for him. But I can't picture it, right now. He's so Barrayaran. So much your son. He loves this planet. The District, the people, you, Gregor, everything. He'll come back."

"He's critical enough of it, sometimes," Aral said, and she knew he was remembering Miles' many attempts at scathing political commentary over meals, gradually growing in sophistication as the years went on.

"Yes. But it's criticism in love. He - he feels Barrayar. He's not going to stay on Beta. He wants to go, I know, but he won't stay."

Aral looked at her. "I don't - my Captain, I don't want this to be something where I win, or you lose. I'd rather Miles move to Beta than that."

"I know. But it's not about us." Cordelia nestled closer to Aral, sliding an arm under his neck to wrap around him. "Miles is Miles. He is his own person, and if he chooses to stay on Barrayar, it will be because that's the right choice for him. It's not a fight. We're both on Miles' side, whoever Miles is."

"How did you get to be so wise?" Aral asked softly. He cupped a hand on her cheek, brushed her lips with his thumb. "We'll let him go, then, and see what he becomes."

Cordelia kissed each of Aral's fingers in turn, fingers that held three planets in their sure grip, that held her here on this planet against all reason and logic, that held them all. They'd survived another day, their marriage and the government both. It was enough. She let herself relax, pulling the sheets over them both, soaking in Aral's warmth. She could stand being married to the Regent of Barrayar, she thought, so long as she was married to Aral.