With grateful thanks to my two betas: Tel, who spent a ridiculous amount of time batting this back and forth with me, removing plot holes, physical and logical impossibilities, canon inconsistency and melodrama, and Avantika, who read the whole thing twice in twenty-four hours and told me how to make it say what I wanted it to say. If there were any fandom medals, I'd be nominating them both.
There are a few places where I have taken lines directly from Shards of Honor. The title comes from a line at the end of the framing story of Borders of Infinity: "Aral Vorkosigan's Dog still had teeth." It seemed to fit the theme of this fic very well.
"Damn! Captain Negri was right," said Illyan.
"He usually is-what was the instance?"
"He said that permitting private judgements to turn my duty in the smallest matter would be just like getting a little bit pregnant-that the consequences would very soon get beyond me."
-Shards of Honor, chapter 8
Illyan leaned against the wall, arms folded. The damp icy wind seemed to find every gap in his greatcoat and penetrate to his bones, but he stood perfectly still. He would rather freeze out here than ask the Ministry of Political Education's guards to let him wait inside whilst they examined his papers.
The guards were taking as long as possible over the sheaf of documents he had given them. In the end they would have to give way, but the rats who worked here would spin out every opening for all it was worth. But not even they could deny the authority of a letter signed by the Emperor's own hand. At last one came out and handed the papers back to him.
"An escort will be along shortly."
Illyan nodded and resumed waiting, his posture completely neutral, concealing that he was both nervous and excited at what was to come. He had not yet had time to read all the reports on his new surveillance subject, and was searching through both his memories for every reference to him. The son of the great General and heir to a countship, his had seemed to be a charmed life, until the Solstice Massacre brought him down. Now he had been recalled from his apparently routine patrol duty, and the moment he had landed the Ministry had pounced on him and imprisoned him here on a treason charge.
All the young officers had admired and envied Admiral Vorkosigan. Watching his meteoric success, they had dared to hope. An admiral before forty! Vorkosigan's early captaincy may have had as much to do with his father's name as his skill, but not even the most envious could put the brilliant victory at Komarr down to nepotism. Working in ImpSec, Illyan knew that his chances of commanding a space fleet were limited, but even he could not wholly resist the dreams of glory. And then Vorkosigan had come crashing down. The mood among the young officers had been bleak for a long time after that.
Now Vorkosigan had fallen foul of the Ministry of Political Education again, but this time the Emperor himself was taking a hand in his future. With the Escobar invasion plans gathering momentum, despite his reservations Illyan could not help but wonder whether the Hero of Komarr would pull it off again.
It would depend, he supposed, on what he found here now. The rumours said Vorkosigan had taken to drink after his demotion. Older, darker rumours from his days at officers' training college echoed this. Vorkosigan had been a drunkard before, and had, or had friends who had, been in the habit of cornering cadets and young officers after hours and taking advantage of them. Alexander the Great, it was said, had been a drunkard and preferred men, but Illyan knew better than to draw the fallacious conclusion. Most likely he would find a broken man here in the cells. But even a broken man could be of use to the Emperor.
Two black-uniformed guards arrived with a third man following them.
"Ah, Simon," said the third man in warmly friendly tones. "It's been a while. I see you're doing well for yourself these days."
Illyan blinked, mentally erased nine years from the Political Officer and recognised Mikhail Radnov from the Emperor Dorca Memorial Military College.
"Mikhail," he said in polite answer, neither repulsing nor welcoming. He had not been close friends with Radnov, but they had often been thrown together during training, jockeying for top of their class in intelligence and security work, before they had gone their separate ways, Illyan to ImpSec and Radnov to the Ministry. For a while, Illyan had envied Radnov his more distinguished posting, but over the past decade the Ministry's star had waned, and ImpSec's had risen.
"I'm afraid before we go in I must ask you for your sidearms," Radnov said with an apologetic smile. "Can't violate the regs even for an old friend."
Illyan withdrew his stunner and nerve disruptor, checked the safety catches and passed them to the escorting guards hand-grip first with an ironic smile. Everyone knew that he would have other weapons concealed discreetly about his uniform; this was simply the Ministry's way of marking their territory.
"I'm sure you want to get out of this dreadful cold," Radnov continued. "I can't think why you were kept waiting around out here so long. I am sorry."
Radnov had always been a smooth talker. Illyan replied with equal smoothness, "Oh, it's colder than this where I grew up, you remember. It doesn't bother me."
"Of course, of course. Now do please come in and I'll show you down."
Despite Radnov's friendly overtures, Illyan knew he was on enemy territory as they entered the dimly lit corridors. At this hour there were few people about, no witnesses to his arrival. ImpSec's arm had a long reach, but in here he was on his own.
Neither of them made any reference to Illyan's mission here; Radnov presumably because losing their prisoner to ImpSec rankled, and Illyan because he knew that every word he said to Radnov was more data for the Ministry to analyse. Radnov went ahead to negotiate with the guards at the entrance to the prison area, who stared suspiciously at Illyan's Horus eyes. Illyan stared back, and they were admitted. One black-uniformed guard led them to a line of cell doors and stopped. Illyan waited again, tension curling up his spine, whilst the guard entered a code into the keypad. The door hissed open.
"It's your lucky day, sir," Radnov said to the man inside, a razor smile on his lips and fury in his eyes. "We're transferring you to ImpSec custody." There was a mere grunt in response.
Then Captain Vorkosigan emerged. Illyan had many of images of the man stored amongst the millions on his chip, but nonetheless surveyed him with a comprehensive look. Memories, no matter how sharp, could not replace the experience of the flesh. Captain Vorkosigan was shorter than Illyan had expected, thickset and dark, with a sardonic look in his eyes. He moved stiffly, limping, and Illyan's eyes narrowed, but he saw only old scars on Vorkosigan's skin. But then, the Ministry guards were experts at avoiding leaving marks. He noted the suspicion in case Negri wanted to gain some leverage in an already complicated situation by making a formal complaint.
Captain Vorkosigan ignored Radnov and focused on Illyan. Despite himself Illyan quailed a little under his intense gaze. Even in his ill-fitting prisoner's jumpsuit Vorkosigan radiated power and strength. No broken man this. Vorkosigan gave him a curt nod but did not speak.
"This," Radnov said, still smiling, "is my old classmate Simon. He's going to take you off to ImpSec." Radnov looked at Illyan. "The question is, have you got this job as a reward or a punishment?"
"I really couldn't say," Illyan retorted. "Shall we go?"
The cell door hissed closed again, the escorting guards took up stations on either side of Captain Vorkosigan, and Radnov waved Illyan to his side as they retreated up the stairs to the ground level and through to the gatehouse.
"We must catch up properly sometime soon," Radnov said. "It's been far too long. This inter-departmental rivalry only adds spice to friendship, don't you think?"
"Just so," Illyan said. "Well, you know where to find me."
One of the guards returned his weapons, Radnov clapped Illyan on the shoulder in farewell, and he was left alone with Captain Vorkosigan.
"I'm taking you to ImpSec headquarters, sir," he said. "You'll stay there tonight. I believe there will be further decisions taken in the morning."
Vorkosigan only nodded. He sat quietly in the groundcar and Illyan got in beside him. As the driver pulled away, Illyan relaxed a fraction. The hard part was over now. He kept one eye on Captain Vorkosigan, trying to discern what he could of his new assignment, but Vorkosigan's face was unreadable, set and blank.
Illyan considered Radnov's teasing question. Why had he been assigned this duty? The Ministry had charged Vorkosigan with treason, but surely if that were a true charge, Negri would have left him imprisoned. He ran over the few words Negri had said to him before dispatching him with a sheaf of papers to the Ministry. Take these. Get Lord Vorkosigan out of Grishnov's dirty paws, and bring him back here. You'll be watching him until further notice. Try not to antagonise him, we need his co-operation. It sounded like Vorkosigan was an ally. Of course, Negri had no compunction about spying on allies as well as enemies, but so openly? The imaginary plots in Illyan's head grew more and more arcane as they drove.
They sat in uncomfortable silence until the car pulled up at the side entrance to ImpSec. There Illyan got out and opened the other door for Captain Vorkosigan. Vorkosigan winced as he pushed himself to his feet, and Illyan automatically put out a hand to help him out. Vorkosigan ignored it and straightened himself out stiffly. His eyes crossed Illyan's, and the unconcealed hostility on his face made Illyan flinch even as his chip began to fast-forward through the last half-hour, looking for some explanation.
They were admitted without question into the ugly building. There was a brief delay whilst Illyan sent his weapons down to the armoury for inspection, requested a new set, checked and holstered them. The Ministry probably hadn't bothered to tamper with the old ones whilst they were out of his sight, but Illyan didn't take risks like that. Then they proceeded into the depths of HQ, not to Yuri's infamous dungeons but to the new protected witness apartments. A door opened at a touch of Illyan's palm, revealing a handsome modern room, small but not uncomfortable.
"Please ask for anything you need, sir," Illyan said quietly, trying to build bridges with the Captain. "I believe your uniforms and so on have already been delivered. Er - would you like to see a medic?"
"I'm fine." Vorkosigan turned away and sat down in an armchair in a clear attitude of dismissal.
"I will call for you tomorrow," Illyan continued. Vorkosigan made no reply. Unable to think of anything more to say, Illyan left. He returned to his office with a feeling of deep unease. It seemed he had done something to antagonise Vorkosigan already. Surely he could not be angry at being removed from Grishnov's custody? Negri had sent Illyan to fetch him with the intent of starting him off in Vorkosigan's good books. What had gone wrong?
He filed a brief report of Vorkosigan's arrival, opened up his comconsole, and found that the full ImpSec file on Lord Vorkosigan had finally been delivered. Perhaps here he would find clues, either for Vorkosigan's unfriendly behaviour or the reason for this assignment. He settled down to read.
Although Illyan could store away the contents of a page at a single glance, it was two in the morning before he finished reading and digesting Lord Vorkosigan's file. Understanding had filled him as soon as he saw mention of Radnov's name in the most recent reports, the leader of a mutiny against Captain Vorkosigan. Radnov had always been a subtle bastard. Being manipulated by him made Illyan's teeth clench. He had no doubt that this result was precisely what Radnov had intended.
The following morning, Illyan was unsurprised to learn that his first orders were to escort Captain Vorkosigan to the Imperial Residence for an audience with the Emperor. Whatever was going on with Vorkosigan's imprisonment and release, there was no doubt that the Emperor was pulling the strings. They entered the Emperor's private office and found Ezar with Captain Negri waiting for them. Captain Vorkosigan went to stand at parade rest in front of the desk, and Illyan took up his habitual recording stance a little to one side, mirroring Negri's position behind the Emperor. Neither of them were invited to sit.
"You seem to have a talent for trouble, Captain," Ezar said. "Not only has your arrest caused me quite a lot of difficulty with my Ministers, it appears your blundering about has given Beta, and by implication Escobar, a completely unnecessary advantage in our manoeuvring."
"Might be worth it if it means we don't get landed with that crazy invasion proposal," Vorkosigan growled. Ezar's thin lips pursed, concealing what emotion not even Illyan could tell for certain.
"You'll have to try a bit harder for that," he said. "Now, I have seen Negri's agent's report on the whole mess, and I find the treason charge specious."
"More than that," said Vorkosigan at once. "I have enough evidence against Radnov and his friends to bring them all down."
"And cause me yet more bother with Grishnov?" Ezar returned. "How will this be of any use to me?"
Illyan knew at that moment that Vorkosigan would be permitted to pursue his charges, and he saw from the slight change of Negri's expression that he realised it too. The Emperor was asking to be convinced.
Vorkosigan obliged him. "I suspect Grishnov may have been behind the mutiny, though I don't have a great deal of evidence. But it might be something you can hold over him, perhaps even divide him from the Minister of War, since he won't take kindly to Grishnov interfering in the military order. And it cannot be harmful for a just emperor to see justice done."
Illyan froze at the pointed inflection of that last sentence, but Ezar only chuckled.
"Very well, Lord Vorkosigan. I will give you another opportunity to hang yourself. But I must give a sop to Grishnov, at least until the end of the various trials and inquiries which I am sure shall follow soon. You are officially under suspicion, and so you must be guarded. The Ministry being out of the question, you shall be under the guardianship of ImpSec and will enjoy their hospitality until further notice. Further, Negri has offered me Lieutenant Illyan here to attach himself to you and, ah, monitor what you do. He will report to Negri alone."
Illyan made a little bow as Ezar gestured to him. Was this the explanation for his new assignment? Just a cover to keep Grishnov happy? Surely any agent could have been used for that; why waste his special talents on a dummy assignment? Nothing was making sense.
Vorkosigan threw him a look of unmistakeable dislike. "Him?"
"You will cooperate in this," said Ezar, and there was a flicker of anger in his voice that made Vorkosigan grunt his assent.
"Better than that Ministry cell, I suppose."
"Indeed. Also better than the execution platform in the Great Square. Thank you, Lord Vorkosigan. I have no doubt I shall see you again soon."
Both he and Illyan made their bows to the emperor and departed the office. In the corridor, Vorkosigan turned to him and gave him a searching gaze.
"I don't like spies," he ground out. "But it seems I can't be rid of you. Very well. But I will not have you watching me behind my back. If you've got to follow me around everywhere, you'll do it publicly. I give you my word as Vorkosigan I will not attempt to meet with anyone, speak with anyone, without your presence."
Admiral Vorkosigan's word. Illyan felt a shiver go down his spine.
"As you wish, sir," he said, his bland voice giving nothing away.
Vorkosigan looked him up and down and finally gave a nod, of acquiescence rather than approval, turned and began to stride away. Illyan followed. Dummy assignment or not, it was going to be uncomfortable work.
Later that day, Count Vorkosigan arrived at ImpSec HQ to meet with his son.
"Well, you're up to your neck in crap, aren't you, boy," he said trenchantly as he entered. "How could you let your men mutiny under you? Were you soused the whole time, or what?"
Vorkosigan rose to attention as if a superior officer had arrived, and Illyan, already standing, tried to fade discreetly backwards. The Count looked at him. "Who's this?"
"Negri's appointed babysitter," Vorkosigan said. "He has to stay." He gave Illyan a look that on any other man would have been almost sullen, but nonetheless came out as fierce.
The Count gave a grunt and turned back to his son. "The question is, when are you going to get your head out of your ass?"
"Ezar has given me permission to press charges against my political officer," Vorkosigan said. "And if I can see a shot at Grishnov, I'll take that too."
The Count gave Vorkosigan a hard look and then went to sit in the single armchair in the room. "Right," he said. "You weren't drunk."
"No, sir. It was a set-up. Grishnov planned it. He's trying to finish us off, sir."
"Ha." The Count's lip curled. "Grishnov's an amateur. Quite a bright one, but an amateur. All right. I've been feeling around, and the short and dirty version is this: if I pull too many strings right now the entire Council will call it a Vorkosigan power-grab and it'll give Grishnov more help even with you attacking him. The best I can do for you is to get you a private hearing. It'll be a panel of Auditors, Generals, Ministers and Counts. Some of them will be ours, some will be Grishnov's and a few will be neutral. You'll get to make your case, explain that fiasco, and assuming you manage to keep hold of your temper it should be all right. Worst case, you'll be back to Kyril Island for a bit."
Captain Vorkosigan gave a snort. "Won't that be fun. I expect they threw a party when I left before."
They had. It was in his file. Illyan didn't let his expression change, but the Count threw him a sharp look anyway.
"Negri tells me you met a woman," the Count said after a moment.
Vorkosigan made a low, angry sound in his throat. "Do you always pump Negri for details of my personal life?"
"Only since you stopped telling me anything about it. Where'd she go?"
"Back to Beta Colony. I don't want to talk about it."
They stared at each other for a moment, and Illyan felt like he'd been caught between a pair of practised duellists. Finally the Count said, "Very well. If you follow my lead, you'll get your hearing. How it turns out will be up to you."
"... and so I maintain, my lords, that this was an act of simple mutiny." Vorkosigan closed his mouth and stood to attention, rigid and motionless.
The quorum of nine sat in a row behind their long table, listening. Illyan was standing silently against the wall, Ezar's vid recorder at this private hearing, a more usual job for him than following a disgraced officer around.
"Thank you, Captain Vorkosigan," said Lord Auditor Vorparadijs, who was representing the Emperor on the quorum. "Please wait outside."
Illyan followed Vorkosigan and Lieutenant Radnov out to the antechamber, where they all stood in silence. Illyan stared out the window at the river and the city beyond, and wondered how things were going to go. Memories of the past week popped up in his head like bubbles: drinks with this count or minister, confidential discussions with another, hours of listening to a third give his opinion on every military topic imaginable before Vorkosigan could get a word in edgewise to explain his situation. Illyan had stood silent and still at the edge of perception, as unnoticeable as a servant, and Vorkosigan had studiously ignored him.
But Vorkosigan had given Illyan a shock in his speeches to the panel. He had read in the files that Vorkosigan was not afraid to speak bluntly to the most powerful of the ministers or even to the Emperor himself, but it was one thing to read about this behaviour, and quite another to hear Vorkosigan's quiet voice carrying his deadly words around the small chamber. The only person Illyan was sure had enjoyed the show was the young Count Vorvayne, one of the representatives of the Council of Counts on the panel, and Vorkosigan's sure ally.
They waited twenty-two minutes by Illyan's chip before the chamberlain opened the door. Even Illyan felt a little of the tension, though he would be outside the splatter zone however the panel voted. Vorkosigan and Radnov stood some distance apart facing the table, Illyan behind Vorkosigan and a little to one side, so he could see his face.
Vorparadijs rapped the table with his sword-hilt.
"It is the finding of this panel," he announced, "that Lieutenant Mikhail Radnov should be taken to a military court and there charged with mutiny against the captain of his ship."
Illyan glanced at Radnov's face. He was impassive. Vorkosigan seemed to be striving for a similarly deadpan expression, but he could not quite conceal the gleam in his eyes. Illyan watched him meditatively. Perhaps this verdict would mean that he would be released from this duty. He had no particular animosity towards Vorkosigan, despite the dismissive treatment he had received. Illyan was well used to spying on far more hostile subjects. But with the Escobar invasion coming up, there must be some posting more suited to an ambitious officer.
"We also recommend," Vorparadijs went on, "that a full investigation be launched into the circumstances of the escape of the Betan prisoners."
That made sense, Illyan thought. Vorkosigan had been rather too closely involved with the Betan commander for his story to be taken at face value, and their escape had been little short of a disaster for the invasion plans.
"You are dismissed."
Two military policemen entered and escorted Radnov out. Illyan and Vorkosigan followed. In the antechamber, Vorkosigan bent to organise his papers.
"My congratulations, sir," Illyan said quietly as Vorkosigan glanced at him. Vorkosigan gave a grunt in acknowledgement, his attention focused beyond Illyan's shoulder on a man approaching. Count Vorvayne with his own congratulations, judging from his enthusiastic support for Vorkosigan's case. From his ImpSec reports Illyan knew that Vorvayne had recently had troubles of his own with the Ministry of Political Education. Not that Illyan had mentioned this to Vorkosigan. He was here as a spy, after all, not a source of free intelligence. But Vorkosigan had proved to be more than competent with his politicking even without Illyan's advice.
"That went well," Vorvayne was saying with a grin. "Count Vormoncrief was a bit sticky, but the generals were with you all the way. I won't forget this."
Vorkosigan gave the young count a flashing smile, but a more wary expression immediately fell back over his face. "It's a step in the right direction, but I'm not going to celebrate until I see how Grishnov handles it. There are still moves he could make."
"Aren't there always. But you've got your man for sure. To think he hoped to get away with mutiny!"
The Prime Minister, Count Vortala, approached them. He had not been on the panel, but had been keenly interested in the outcome. He gave Vorkosigan a small nod of approval, leaning forward on his stick. Count Vorvayne bowed and stepped back a little, watching but not intruding.
"So," Vortala said, "what do you have in store for us next?"
"I'm not sure what will happen with the business about the Betans," Vorkosigan said slowly. "But I think I could nail Grishnov too, if I play this right. He's gone too far in this."
"You had a better majority than I might have expected," Vortala observed obliquely.
"The case was airtight." Vorkosigan paused. "I know Grishnov put Radnov up to it."
Vorvayne's eyes widened. Illyan carefully prevented himself from sitting up straight at this declaration. He listened with his full attention.
"If you want to make that case, it'll have to be more than airtight," Vortala replied, but he did not look surprised at the statement.
"Didn't Grishnov say…" Vorvayne began uncertainly. "When he gave his evidence to the panel. Something about orders. Sounded dodgy to me." His brow furrowed.
Vortala raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "Yes?"
The memory sparked from Illyan's chip, and he supplied it automatically.
"Minister Grishnov said that 'all Political Officers have standing orders to assume command when they suspect the commanding officer of a serious crime'." Illyan automatically echoed the tone and inflection of Grishnov's voice as he repeated the words, and all three men stared for a moment at him.
"Yes, thanks, that was it," Vorvayne said cheerfully, ignoring Vorkosigan's scowl. "Standing orders for mutiny, on nothing but the PO's own judgement. You can see why Grishnov spends so much time keeping the Political Officer system separate from the regular military, it undermines us at every step. I don't think the Staff is going to be too happy about all this."
"Indeed not. But it's quite a leap from that to explicit individual orders." Vortala gave a nod. "I'm sure you'll have an interesting time ahead, Lord Vorkosigan." He straightened stiffly and limped away. Vorvayne also made a move to go.
"Let me know if I can help," he said, with a final triumphant grin. Vorkosigan nodded and picked up his files. Illyan reached out to carry them, and received a scowl.
"You pay very close attention to 'Minister Grishnov'." His tone was dangerous.
Illyan looked blankly at him and said nothing, and after a moment of eyeing each other Vorkosigan dumped the files into his arms.
"Spies," Vorkosigan muttered to himself as he began to stride out of the chamber. "Always hanging on my coat-tails."