About the Author
A science fiction legend, Lois McMaster Bujold is one of the most highly regarded speculative fiction writers of all time. She has won three Nebula Awards and six Hugo Awards, four for Best Novel, matching Robert A. Heinlein's record. The majority of Bujold's works comprise three separate book series: the Miles Vorkosigan Saga, the Chalion Series, and the Sharing Knife Series. The mother of two, Ms. Bujold lives in Minneapolis.
Read an Excerpt
By Lois McMaster Bujold
Baen BooksISBN: 0-671-57808-1
Chapter OneThe last gleaming sliver of Komarr's true-sun melted out of sight beyond the low hills on the western horizon. Lagging behind it in the vault of the heavens, the reflected fire of the solar mirror sprang out in brilliant contrast to the darkening, purple-tinged blue. When Ekaterin had first viewed the hexagonal soletta-array from downside on Komarr's surface, she'd immediately imagined it as a grand Winterfair ornament, hung in the sky like a snowflake made of stars, benign and consoling. She leaned now on her balcony overlooking Serifosa Dome's central city park, and gravely studied the lopsided spray of light through the glassy arc overhead. It sparkled deceptively in contrast to the too-dark sky. Three of the six disks of the star-flake shone not at all, and the central seventh was occluded and dull.
Ancient Earthmen, she had read, had taken alterations in the clockwork procession of their heavens-comets, novae, shooting stars-for disturbing omens, premonitions of disasters natural or political; the very word, disaster, embedded the astrological source of the concept. The collision two weeks ago of an out-of-control inner-system ore freighter with the insolation mirror that supplemented Komarr's solar energy was surely most literally a disaster, instantly so for the half-dozen Komarran members of the soletta's station-keeping crew who had been killed. But it seemed to be playing out in slow motion thereafter; it had so far barely affected the sealed arcologies that housed the planet's population. Below her, in the park, a crew of workers was arranging supplemental lighting on high girders. Similar stopgap measures in the city's food-producing greenhouses must be nearly complete, to spare them and this equipment to such an ornamental task. No, she reminded herself; no vegetation in the dome was merely ornamental. Each added its bit to the biological reservoir that ultimately supported life here. The gardens in the domes would live, cared for by their human symbiotes.
Outside the arcologies, in the fragile plantations that labored to bio-transform a world, it was another question altogether. She knew the math, discussed nightly at her dinner table for two weeks, of the percentage loss of insolation at the equator. Days gone winter-cloudy-except that they were planetwide, and going on and on, until when? When would repairs be complete? When would they start, for that matter? As sabotage, if it had been sabotage, the destruction was inexplicable; as half-sabotage, doubly inexplicable. Will they try again? If it was a they at all, ghastly malice and not mere ghastly accident.
She sighed, and turned away from the view, and switched on the spotlights she'd put up to supplement her own tiny balcony garden. Some of the Barrayaran plants she'd started were particularly touchy about their illumination. She checked the light with a meter, and shifted two boxes of deerslayer vine closer to the source, and set the timers. She moved about, checking soil temperature and moisture with sensitive and practiced fingers, watering sparingly where needed. Briefly, she considered moving her old bonsai'd skellytum indoors, to provide it with more controlled conditions, but it was all indoors here on Komarr, really. She hadn't felt wind in her hair for nearly a year. She felt an odd twinge of identification with the transplanted ecology outside, slowly starving for light and heat, suffocating in a toxic atmosphere ... Stupid. Stop it. We're lucky to be here.
"Ekaterin!" Her husband's inquiring bellow echoed, muffled, inside the residence tower.
She poked her head through the door to the kitchen. "I'm on the balcony."
"Well, come down here!"
She set her gardening tools in the box seat, closed the lid, sealed the transparent doors behind her, and hurried across the room into the hall and down the circular staircase. Tien was standing impatiently beside the double doors from their apartment to the building's corridor, a comm link in his hand.
"Your uncle just called. He's landed at the shuttleport. I'll get him."
"I'll get Nikolai, and go with you."
"Don't bother, I'm just going to meet him at the West Station locks. He said to tell you, he's bringing a guest. Another Auditor, some sort of assistant to him, it sounded like. But he said not to worry, they'll both take pot luck. He seemed to imagine we'd feed them in the kitchen or something. Eh! Two Imperial Auditors. Why ever did you have to invite him, anyway?"
She stared at him in dismay. "How can my Uncle Vorthys come to Komarr and not see us? Besides, you can't say your department isn't affected by what he's investigating. Naturally he wants to see it. I thought you liked him."
He slapped his hand arhythmically on his thigh. "Back when he was just the old weird Professor, sure. Eccentric Uncle Vorthys, the Vor tech. This Imperial appointment of his took the whole family by surprise. I can't imagine what favors he called in to get it."
Is that your only idea of how men advance? But she did not speak the weary thought aloud. "Of all political appointments, surely Imperial Auditor is the least likely to be gained that way," she murmured.
"Naïve Kat." He smiled shortly, and hugged her around the shoulders. "No one gets something for nothing in Vorbarr Sultana. Except, perhaps, your uncle's assistant, whom I gather is closely related to the Vorkosigan. He apparently got his appointment for breathing. Incredibly young for the job, if he's the one I heard about who was sworn in at Winterfair. A lightweight, I presume, although all your Uncle Vorthys said was that he was sensitive about his height and not to mention it. At least some part of this mess promises to be a show."
He tucked his comm link away in his tunic pocket. His hand was shaking slightly. Ekaterin grasped his wrist and turned it over. The tremula increased. She raised her eyes, dark with worry, in silent question to his.
"No, dammit!" He jerked his arm away. "It's not starting. I'm just a little tense. And tired. And hungry, so see if you can't pull together a decent meal by the time we're back. Your uncle may have prole tastes, but I can't imagine they're shared by a Vorbarr Sultana lordling." He thrust his hands into his trouser pockets and looked away from her unhappy frown.
"You're older now than your brother was then."
"Variable onset, remember? We'll go soon. I promise."
"Tien ... I wish you'd give up this galactic treatment plan. They have medical facilities here on Komarr that are almost as good as, as Beta Colony or anywhere. I thought, when you won this post here, that you would. Forget the secrecy, just go openly for help. Or go discreetly, if you insist. But don't wait any longer!"
"They're not discreet enough. My career is finally on course, finally paying off. I have no desire to be publicly branded a mutant now."
If I don't care, what does it matter what anyone else thinks? She hesitated. "Is that why you don't want to see Uncle Vorthys? Tien, he's the least likely of my relatives-or yours, for that matter-to care if your disease is genetic or not. He will care about you, and about Nikolai."
"I have it under control," he insisted. "Don't you dare betray me to your uncle, this close to the real payoff. I have it under control. You'll see."
"Just don't ... take your brother's way out. Promise me!" The lightflyer accident that hadn't been quite an accident: that had ushered in these years of chronic, subclinical nightmare waiting and watching....
"I have no intention of doing anything like that. It's all planned. I'll finish out this year's appointment, then we'll take a long overdue galactic vacation, you and me and Nikolai. And it will all be fixed, and no one will ever know. If you don't lose your head and panic at the last minute!" He grasped her hand, and grimaced an unfelt smile, and strode out the doors.
Wait and I'll fix it. Trust me. That's what you said the last time. And the time before that, and the time before that.... Who is betrayed? Tien, you're running out of time, can't you see it?
She turned for her kitchen, mentally revising her planned family dinner to include a Vor lord from the Imperial capital. White wine? Her limited experience of the breed suggested that if you could get them sufficiently sloshed, it wouldn't matter what you fed them. She put another of her precious imported-from-home bottles in to chill. No ... make that two more bottles.
She added another place to the table on the balcony off the kitchen that they routinely used for a dining room, sorry now she'd not engaged a servitor for the evening. But human servants on Komarr were so expensive. And she'd wanted this bubble of domestic privacy with Uncle Vorthys. Even the staid official newsvid reps were badgering everyone involved in the investigation; the arrival of not one but two Imperial Auditors on-site in Komarr orbit had not calmed the fever of speculation, but only redirected it. When she'd first spoken with him shortly after his arrival on-site, on a distance-delayed channel that defeated any attempt at long conversation, normally-patient Uncle Vorthys's description of the public briefings into which he'd been roped had been notably irritated. He'd hinted he would be glad to escape them. Since his years of teaching must have inured him to stupid questions, Ekaterin wondered if the true source of his irritation was that he couldn't answer them.
But mostly, she had to admit, she just wanted to recapture the flavor of a happier past, greedily for herself. She'd lived with Aunt and Uncle Vorthys for two years after her mother had died, attending the Imperial University under their casual supervision. Life with the Professor and the Professora had somehow been less constrained, and constraining, than in her father's conservative Vor household in the South Continent frontier town of her birth; perhaps because they'd treated her as the adult she aspired to be, rather than the child she had been. She'd felt, a bit guiltily, closer to them than to her real parent. For a while, any future had seemed possible.
Then she'd chosen Etienne Vorsoisson, or he had chosen her ... You were pleased enough at the time. She'd said Yes to the marriage arrangements her father's Baba had offered, with all good will. You didn't know. Tien didn't know. Vorzohn's Dystrophy. Nobody's fault.
Nine-year-old Nikolai bounded into the kitchen. "I'm hungry, Mama. Can I have a piece of that cake?"
She intercepted fast-moving fingers attempting to sample frosting. "You can have a glass of fruit juice."
"Aw ..." But he accepted the proffered substitute, cannily offered in one of the good wineglasses lined up waiting. He gulped it down, bobbing about as he drank. Excited, or was he picking up parental nerves? Stop projecting, she told herself. The boy had spent the last two hours in his room, tinkering intently with his models; he was due to shake out the knots.
"Do you remember Uncle Vorthys?" she asked him. "It's been three years since we visited him."
"Sure." He finished swallowing his snack. "He took me to his laboratory. I thought it would be beakers and bubbly things, but it was all big machines and concrete. Smelled funny, kind of dusty and sharp."
"From the welders and the ozone, that's right," she said, impressed with his recall. She rescued the glass. "Hold out your hand. I want to see how much you have left to grow. Puppies with big paws are supposed to grow up to be big dogs, you know." He held up his hand to hers, and they met, palm to palm. His fingers were within two centimeters of being as long as her own. "Oh, my."
He flashed her a self-conscious, satisfied grin, and stared briefly down at his feet, wriggling them in speculation. His right big toe poked through a new hole in his new sock.
His child-light hair was darkening; it might yet become as brown as hers. He was chest-high to her, though she could have sworn he had been only hip-high about fifteen minutes ago. His eyes were brown like his Da's. His grubby hand-where did he find so much dirt in this dome?-was as steady as his eyes were clear and guileless. No tremula.
The early symptoms of Vorzohn's Dystrophy were deceptive, mimicking half a dozen other diseases, and could strike any time from puberty to middle age. But not today, not Nikolai.
Sounds from the apartment's entryway, and low-pitched masculine voices, drew them out of her kitchen. Nikolai shot ahead of her. When she arrived behind him, he was already being half picked up by the stout, white-haired man who seemed to fill the space. "Oof!" He stopped short of swinging Nikolai around. "You've grown, Nikki!"
Uncle Vorthys hadn't changed, despite his awe-inspiring new title: same grand nose and big ears, same rumpled, oversized tunic and trousers that always looked slept-in, same deep laugh. He deposited his great-nephew on the flagstones, spared a hug for his niece, which was firmly returned, and bent and felt in his valise. "Something here for you, Nikki, I do believe ..." Nikolai bounced around him; Ekaterin retreated temporarily to wait her turn.
Tien was shouldering through the door with baggage. Only then did she notice the man standing apart, smiling distantly, watching this homey scene.
She swallowed startlement. He was barely taller than nine-year-old Nikolai, but unmistakably not a child. He had a large head set on a short neck, and a faintly hunched stance; the rest of him looked lean but solid. He wore tunic and trousers in a subtle gray, the tunic open on a fine white shirt, and polished half-boots. His clothing was entirely without the pseudo-military ornamentation usually affected by the high Vor, but the perfection of the fit-it had to be hand-tailored, to fit that odd body-hinted a price Ekaterin didn't dare to estimate.
She was uncertain of his age; not much older than herself, perhaps? There was no gray in the dark hair, but laugh-lines around his eyes, and pain-lines around his mouth, scored his winter-pale skin. He moved stiffly, setting down his valise, wheeling to watch Nikolai monopolize his great-uncle, but did not otherwise appear very crippled. He was not a figure who blended in, but his air was notably unobtrusive. Socially uncomfortable? Ekaterin was recalled abruptly to her duties as a daughter of the Vor.
She advanced to him. "Welcome to my household ..." ack, Tien hadn't mentioned his name "... my Lord Auditor."
He held out his hand and captured hers in a perfectly ordinary, businesslike grasp. "Miles Vorkosigan." His hand was dry and warm, smaller than her own, but bluntly masculine; clean nails. "And you, Madame?"
"Oh! Ekaterin Vorsoisson."
He released her hand without kissing it, to her relief. She stared briefly at the top of his head, level with her collarbone, realized he would be speaking to her cleavage, and stepped back a little. He looked up at her, still smiling slightly.
Excerpted from Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold Excerpted by permission.
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