SUMMARY: Missing moment from Diplomatic Immunity. With Miles and Bel in cryostasis, it's up to Ekaterin to prevent Barrayar and Cetaganda from going to war over the lost haut infants.
NOTES: Thanks to my beta-readers katieay and govcampbell. Written for femgenficathon 2010, prompt #40: There seems to be a kind of order in the universe, in the movement of the stars and the turning of the earth and the changing of the seasons, and even in the cycle of human life. But human life itself is almost pure chaos. Everyone takes his stance, asserts his own rights and feelings, mistaking the motives of others, and his own. --Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980), Pulitzer-prize winning American author, journalist and political activist.
DISCLAIMER: Lois McMaster Bujold owns the Vorkosigan universe and everything it encompasses. This is a work of fan fiction, and thus derives no profit or material benefit therefrom.
Time. Time was essential. Time was everything.
Time had run out.
Three days had come and gone since Captain Clogston had ordered Miles and Bel placed in cryostasis until a more lasting solution to the Cetagandan virus could be found. Once the quarantine was lifted so she and Nicol could transfer over from the Kestrel, Ekaterin had spent nearly every waking moment urging the ship's captain to push his vessel beyond maximum safe speed limits, refusing to stop for anyone in her path, repeating the names of ghem-General Dag Benin and the haut Pel Navarr into the vacuum of space until she thought her tongue would go numb.
And now, she had the Cetagandans' rapt attention, in the form of two heavily armed battle cruisers and a third ship bearing the screaming-bird sigil of the Star Crèche, perched off the lead Barrayaran ship's bow.
The time has come. It's now or never.
She wiped her terror-moist hands on her skirt and activated the comconsole before her valor failed her. It came to life with a buzz, the display unfurling like a seedpod bursting open in time-release photography. At first there was only static, white noise to fill the void while a connection was sought, accepted, and sent back along the same channel.
At last the image of a man in a dark red uniform, stylized warpaint obscuring his facial features, came into view. Though he was not a complete stranger to her, Ekaterin clenched her hands in her lap to hide their trembling. "Ghem-General Benin?"
She gave him time enough to acknowledge her greeting, then launched into her prepared speech. "My name is Ekaterin Vorkosigan. I have an important -- a vitally important -- message for you from Barrayar." At the sudden narrowing of Benin's eyes she added, "From Miles Vorkosigan, Imperial Auditor, who speaks with the Emperor's Voice."
If anything, the mention of Miles seemed to increase Benin's wariness. "Why does Lord Vorkosigan not deliver this vitally important message himself?"
Ekaterin had no way of knowing if Benin had received any of the "personal, urgent, most urgent" transmissions the Barrayaran vanguard had been sending him multiple times daily ever since they left Graf Station a week ago. She had no way of knowing if Benin knew the 1,000 uterine replicators containing haut infants destined for Rho Ceta were safe on this very ship, ready to be turned over to the Cetagandans. Nor could she know if Benin knew that the ba who'd murdered the planetary consort and her attendants and kidnapped the fetuses, who was why Miles couldn't speak to Benin himself, was also here, closely watched by three heavily armed guards.
All Ekaterin knew was that, miraculously, the Cetagandan and Barrayaran fleets massing between Marilac and Rho Ceta had so far managed to resist open warfare, despite alarming reports of increasingly twitchy trigger fingers on both sides, blockaded wormholes and recalled ambassadors and suspended negotiations. Otherwise Benin's ship would likely have reduced hers to atoms the instant they came into range.
It had been a huge gamble to approach with their shields and weapons disengaged once contact had been made, but strategically it had been the only choice: Go unarmed into the enemy camp and hope for the best. It was the kind of gamble Miles would take. The captain of the ship ferrying them to the rendezvous, who had his own ideas about how to "handle" the Cetagandans, had disagreed vehemently, but Ekaterin stood her ground.
"My husband," Ekaterin began, pausing to let Benin make the connection, "is unable to speak." He's dying, damn you, cryostasis the only thing keeping those wretched parasites from cooking him from the inside out like they did Lieutenant Solian. "I speak on his behalf."
Benin's eyes shifted briefly to the side, then retrained on her. Ekaterin wondered who his seconds were lurking beyond the vid pickup on his side, just as Roic and the ship's captain stood in the wings on hers. A stranger duel surely never took place.
Benin raised his chin slightly. "It follows, then, that you speak with the Emperor's Voice as well, Lady Vorkosigan."
She ignored the hiss of protest from the captain. "An unwelcome but necessary substitution, General. My sole task is to deliver those messages Miles entrusted to me before--" She forged ahead. "I have no authority to treat with you beyond those matters of immediate interest to us both. I am merely a courier." A courier upon whose weary shoulders rested the fate of all Barrayar. Don't shoot the messenger.
"And what matters would those be?"
Ekaterin took a deep breath. I am the Pied Pier in reverse, leading the children of Hamlin home. "I have, on this ship, all one thousand of the haut infants originally intended for Rho Ceta." Benin slowly raised his chin. "Alive. We have your children, all of them, safe and unharmed. We wish to return them to you immediately."
Though his posture by no means relaxed, Benin leaned back and studied her thoughtfully. The warpaint made it impossible to gauge whatever thoughts or emotions might be playing across his face. "With what conditions?" he finally asked.
"None." She hoped her prompt response adequately conveyed her conviction. I want these children off this ship now, so I can go home and embrace my own before it's too late.
"This is not a trade negotiation. We will not withhold the haut infants in exchange for any concessions from Cetaganda."
She caught movement out of the corner of her eye when the ship's captain shifted his weight, a less-than-subtle expression of his extreme displeasure at what he'd called her eagerness to "roll over and play fetch" for the Cetagandans. He hadn't explicitly blamed her gender -- he was far too politically-minded for that -- but Ekaterin could tell his thoughts ran that way. For her part, she was beginning to appreciate Cordelia's habit of using "Barrayarans!" as an epithet.
With typical military male bullishness, the captain had wanted to exploit the advantage Barrayar held to its fullest extent, withholding the uterine replicators until the Cetagandans agreed to whatever Barrayar demanded. His blind stupidity had so infuriated Ekaterin she'd seriously considered ordering Roic to take the man to the nearest airlock hatch and shove him through it, driven perhaps by a morbid curiosity to test just how deep Roic's loyalty and obedience ran. In the end, the Armsman had simply taken the captain aside and said something to make all the color drain from his face. He'd offered no further resistance after that.
"They are yours to claim as soon as you can come for them," she concluded.
The wariness returned in full force. "What's that saying from ancient Earth? 'Beware of Greeks bearing gifts'? How do I know this isn't some elaborately barbaric Barrayaran ruse?"
Ekaterin swallowed a splutter of exasperation. "You know Miles. Does he strike you as the sort of person who would do something like that?"
Benin bared his teeth in a feral grin. "Actually, yes. It is exactly the sort of scheme I would expect from the former Admiral Naismith."
She reluctantly acknowledged the truth of this, cursing herself for bringing up Miles in the first place. The barn door was open now, though, and while she would not -- would not, dammit -- retract her promise not to leverage the haut infants in return for medical treatment for Miles and Bel, it might be worth her while to appeal to Benin's humanity. Or, at least, whatever remained of humanity in the ghem genome.
"Fair point. I plead for your compassion, then. Miles has staked his life on trusting you. Surely that must count for something."
"His life? How do you mean?"
"The person responsible for kidnapping the infants and murdering the Rho Cetan consort and her attendants also infected Miles with a virus. One of your own, so you can probably imagine the results." Benin gave a nod of acknowledgement.
"He may not make it home in time. Yet he insisted on personally escorting the haut infants to you. You, General Benin, you and the haut Pel. No one else." Feeling the burn of tears in her eyes, Ekaterin dug her fingernails into her palms. "Miles swears you're no fool. Don't make a liar out of him." Don't make a widow out of me. Again.
His face remained impassive, aloof, but not stony. "What has become of the ba?"
Ekaterin hesitated, her brain still not acclimated to referring to another person by a gender-neutral pronoun. "It is here as well."
"You will deliver it to us along with the haut infants?"
"Yes," she said with a sharp nod. "The ba, the infants, everything. Take them, please."
"And still you make no demands for Barrayar?"
Couldn't Benin see that each moment spent in this agonizing interview was a moment lost for Miles? "I am in no position to make demands. All I ask is that you take the replicators off our hands, stand your forces down, and--" Her voice cracked. "--go home. Just... go home."
Benin tilted his head slightly, his fierce countenance seeming to soften despite the warpaint. "What about Lord Vorkosigan? You must have assumed that we have an antidote to the virus. As long as we believe the haut infants are indeed in your possession, you have the strategic advantage over us. Why don't you use it?"
"Because my husband is not a bargaining chip." In her mind's eye, Ekaterin saw his small, cold body lying in its cryostasis container. Like Snow White in her glass coffin. "Because these are children we're talking about, General, unborn children, and I believe with every breath in my body that children should never be used as pawns in someone's strategy. I will not stoop to that level. I will not sacrifice Miles' honor on the pyre of this silly, stupid war in the making. He made me promise to make sure the haut infants were delivered safely into your hands. Only after I had redeemed that promise was I to seek medical assistance for him."
Benin considered this for a long moment. At one point he must have muted the sound transmission, because Ekaterin could see him turn and speak to someone out of range, yet heard none of the conversation. At last he turned back to her. "Very well, Lady Vorkosigan. I will pilot a shuttle to your ship within the hour. Do not, under any circumstances, raise your shields or activate your weapons. If you do, we will destroy your ship and all on board."
True to his word, Benin's shuttle docked with the Barrayaran ship less than an hour later. Ekaterin, waiting anxiously in the hatch bay, glimpsed a screaming-bird emblem on the shuttle's undercarriage as it drew near. Presumably that meant the haut Pel Navarr accompanied Benin, that perhaps even she had orchestrated this rendezvous. Ekaterin felt oddly reassured at the thought.
At last the flex tube was connected on both sides. At a command from the captain, the airlock hatch on the Barrayaran side hissed open. When its counterpart on the shuttle did likewise, all the Barrayaran men except the corporal at the airlock controls instinctively reached for their sidearms.
"Put those damn things away," Ekaterin demanded.
Roic obeyed, if unhappily. The others hesitated, but at a glare from Ekaterin and a step towards them from the Armsman, did the same.
"I will not have you setting off a war between Barrayar and Cetaganda when we are so close to resolving this mess," she hissed, holding her finger and thumb a couple of centimeters apart to emphasize her point. "One wrong step and I'll personally see to it the Emperor hears of it." If any of us are still alive once the dust settles. To think that a mere two years ago she would never have dared invoke Gregor's name this way. Amazing, the changes she'd undergone since meeting Miles.
Benin floated through the flex tube and landed smoothly on his feet. Behind him came two opaque bubbles -- the force-shielded float chairs haut ladies used to move among lesser beings. Ekaterin was almost certain one of them was the haut Pel, but who was the other? She directed her attention to Benin once they had passed through the airlock and entered the hatch bay.
"Lady Vorkosigan." He bowed formally to her. "If you would escort us to where you are keeping the haut infants."
"Of course. This way, please."
She felt as if she was at the head of a very strange parade as she led Benin and his two mysterious companions through the ship's corridors to the erstwhile weapons storage hold that had been converted into a cargo bay for one thousand uterine replicators and the equipment and technicians needed to monitor and service them. Benin kept pace beside her, forcing Roic to take position behind the two haut-lady bubbles, the captain and two subordinates behind him. Everyone else on board not currently preoccupied with caring for the haut infants, Miles and Bel, or the ba, were ordered to stay out of sight. But not out of mind. Ekaterin knew Benin was on high alert, his sharp gaze missing not a detail as he strode through the corridors at her side. If something -- or someone -- were to raise the alarm, would he see her as friend or foe?
A guard stood before the sealed door to the cargo bay. Upon seeing the Cetagandan officer, he drew himself up to his full height. "Sergeant," Ekaterin said firmly, "please step aside and let us through." At a nod from the captain, he did as ordered, allowing Roic to step forward and enter the access code.
Once inside the bay, Ekaterin moved to the side to allow Benin and the haut women room to enter. Roic resumed his preferred position just behind her, while the captain strode forward to intercept the technician hurrying towards them to apprise him of the latest development in this crazy saga.
Ekaterin's attention was drawn to the two force bubbles, which had drifted forward -- perhaps more quickly than they'd moved through the corridor, but that could have been her own impatience projecting on them -- towards the nearest row of racks, then paused and rotated back towards the door, hovering expectantly.
At some undetected cue, Benin approached her. "Lady Vorkosigan," he said, "please dismiss these men." A sweep of his gaze took in all the Barrayaran officers and Roic.
"Uh..." The look on Roic's face spoke volumes: Don't, m'lady! She gave him an apologetic shake of her head. Have faith, Armsman. "Gentlemen, leave us."
The captain's expression was equally incredulous. "Lady Vorkosigan, this is madness. Surely your husband--"
"Just do as I say. I trust General Benin not to do anything--" She gave him a meaningful look. Miles trusts you. Don't let me down. "--foolish." For an instant, she thought she saw Benin's eyes crinkle in sardonic appreciation. "All of you, out. Now. Even the techs."
There was a lot of grumbling, not all of it verbalized, but they filed out. Once the last man had exited, Benin hit the control panel to close and lock the door behind them. He then made a quick survey of the cargo bay, presumably to be sure no one was hiding in a back corner. Upon his return, he gave one of the bubbles a slight nod.
The force fields blinked out, revealing the haut women seated within.
Ekaterin immediately recognized the haut Pel Navarr from their brief encounter at Gregor and Laisa's wedding reception a year and a half ago. Her astonishing beauty was no less breathtaking on second sight than it had been the first time, leaving Ekaterin to wonder if she would ever grow accustomed to it. What circumstances would even allow her to acquire such familiarity with the consort of Eta Ceta, arguably the second-most powerful woman in the Cetagandan Empire. Did haut women even form friendships, or were such simple intimacies too crude, too animalistic for post-human society?
Without a word to either Ekaterin or Benin, the haut women dismounted from their float chairs and quickly began an inventory of the uterine replicators and their precious contents. Though she kept a respectful distance, Ekaterin soon realized the second woman was probably a doctor of some sort, as she withdrew from a voluminous sleeve an instrument that allowed her to gather and analyze the vital statistics of each fetus. Moving rapidly through the rows, the two women completed their task in a matter of minutes and returned to their float chairs. While the other woman connected her device to the control pad in the armrest of her float chair, Pel addressed Benin and Ekaterin.
"All of the haut infants are stable and accounted for. Though they must soon be delivered of the uterine replicators, we detect no permanent evidence of damage." Though she winced at "permanent evidence," Ekaterin nonetheless let out a silent exhale of relief.
"General Benin," Pel continued. Benin came to attention and awaited her command. "Summon a team of attendants from my ship to prepare the haut infants for immediate transfer." Her cool demeanor seemed to soften a little. "Then inform the forces gathered near Rho Ceta and Marilac to withdraw. There will be no war with Barrayar today."
"Yes, haut Pel," Benin replied deferentially and without hesitation. He rose and departed without another word, closing the door to the outer corridor behind him.
Pel then turned to Ekaterin. "Lady Vorkosigan. You said that Lord Vorkosigan was infected with a virus taken from the child ship?"
"Yes, haut Pel." Ekaterin's voice trembled as hope flooded her veins for the first time in days. "Miles and a Betan herm named Bel Thorne. They are both extremely ill."
Pel glanced at her companion, who replied with a nod. "Take us to them, please."
They met Captain Clogston and Nicol in the infirmary. Nicol had not left Bel's side once she'd come on board. Nor had Clogston abandoned his post or his patients since the convoy's departure from Graf Station, subsisting on prodigious amounts of coffee and catnaps on an unoccupied bunk when the needs of his body demanded it. Ekaterin hoped he would be recognized and rewarded for his extraordinary service during this extraordinary crisis.
As before, the two force bubbles paused upon entering the infirmary. Without General Benin to act as emissary, it was left to Ekaterin to interpret the unspoken command as they rotated back around to face her.
"Um, Captain Clogston...." His blank stare wasn't exactly an invitation to continue, but she'd come too far already to choose this moment to back down. "They've come to see Miles and Portmaster Thorne." His bemused look remained. She wanted to tear her hair out. "They won't drop their force fields as long as you're in the room."
He folded his arms over his chest and looked down his nose at her. "Lord Auditor Vorkosigan and Portmaster Thorne are my patients. I will not excuse myself simply to suit some queer Cetagandan notion of propriety. If these women are here to examine my patients, they may do so in my presence," he finished with a sniff.
Ekaterin looked in desperation to the nearer bubble, hoping for a sign of acquiescence, but none came. She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, wondering what would happen if she were to throw a screaming, foot-stamping, object-hurling tantrum until she got her way. She'd had it up to here with diplomatic protocol and sensitive male egos. Clogston had earned the right to stay, but, dammit, Miles was so very sick. She'd throw Gregor out on his ear without a second thought if she thought it would buy Miles one more chance.
"Captain, please," she groaned. "Just give them five, ten minutes, long enough to determine if there's anything they can do. Is that too much to ask?"
"Please, Captain," came Nicol's plaintive voice, thin with fatigue and strain. "This may be Bel's and Lord Vorkosigan's last chance. Surely you wouldn't deny them that, after all they've endured."
Her delicate, heart-shaped face and doe eyes seemed to soften his crusty façade, for after a long pause Clogston relented, his shoulders slumping as he scrubbed his hands over his unshaven, fatigue-grey face. "All right, fine," he grumbled. "I'm too damn tired to argue with you women anyway. At least soldiers have the good sense to follow orders."
"Right over the edge of the cliff," Ekaterin murmured. The falter in his step told her he'd heard, but he continued on. She might have sympathized with him if she weren't just as tired from lack of sleep and hours spent arguing with people too stuck in lock-step with their sense of self-importance to deal appropriately with the urgency of the situation.
She turned back around to find the haut women had left their float chairs and were conferring over the two cryostasis containers. Nicol had politely moved her floater to give Pel's companion room to link her diagnostic instrument to the control panel. Nicol gave Ekaterin a weak, strained smile of gratitude when she strolled over to stand beside her, seeking comfort and strength in the other woman's company. Though she had not been able to spend much time with Nicol in recent days, her attention having been diverted to the challenge of negotiating a rendezvous with the Cetagandans, just knowing that she was not alone in her sickbed vigil had been an enormous boon to Ekaterin's state of mind.
"Any change?" Ekaterin asked under her breath. She could see Bel's face through the small window Nicol had diligently kept clear of condensation. To say that the herm looked peaceful, at rest, would grossly underrate the fierce battle it had waged against the virus; while its facial muscles were relaxed by the coma-inducing sedative, the lassitude looked waxen and unnatural to Ekaterin's eye. She shuddered, unhappily reminded of the death-mask of some ancient king she'd seen in a museum on her recent trip to Earth, and drew her arms around her waist as though cold, though the cryostasis berths -- sarcophagi in potentia -- were hermetically sealed.
"Nothing. Which," Nicol continued with a quaver in her soft voice, "is as much good news as I've allowed myself to hope for. At least they're not getting any worse."
"While they live, we hope."
"Do you think they'll actually help?" Nicol asked, indicating the haut women. "Cetagandans aren't really known for caring about anyone but themselves. Especially the haut, or so I've heard from Bel."
Ekaterin nodded. "Ask any Barrayaran over a certain age and they'd probably agree with you. But I think Miles' involvement in all this is the one thing that could induce them to help." Please let it be so.
Nicol reached out to grasp her hand. "Surely you deserve credit too, for speaking on his behalf -- and Bel's -- and not letting these stupid Barrayarans ruin everything." Her face twisted.
Remembering the circumstances that had taken her and Miles to Graf Station in the first place, Ekaterin could appreciate Nicol's hostility. "We're not all bad," she said, squeezing Nicol's hand.
Her cheeks flushed and she looked down at her clasped lower hands. "I'm sorry. I keep forgetting he's Barrayaran. When I first met him -- when he rescued me from Jackson's Whole -- I would never have guessed it of him." She looked up again. "I forget it's true for you as well."
Ekaterin smiled. "Sometimes, I forget myself."
Pel had left the other haut woman by Miles and returned to her float chair. Curious, Ekaterin drew near, Nicol right behind her. Pel pressed a button in the control panel embedded in the chair's armrest. "General Benin?" At his reply she asked, "Is the transfer of the haut infants to my ship underway?"
"The attendants you requested have just boarded the Barrayaran vessel," came his disembodied voice.
"Very good. Brief them if you have not done so already, then come to the Barrayarans' medical suite directly. It's very urgent." Ekaterin covered her mouth to muffle a gasp.
"At your service, haut Pel."
"How bad is it?" Ekaterin asked as soon as Pel had released the general. "Is there--" Is there anything to be done short of taking Miles home to be buried at Vorkosigan Surleau? "Tell me the truth."
"And me," Nicol chimed in.
The older woman turned her full attention on Ekaterin. "The herm's condition is grim, and Lord Vorkosigan is profoundly ill as a result of the virus."
"Can anything be done?" Nicol asked.
"We cannot treat them here. We will transfer them to my ship as soon as General Benin can make the arrangements."
"Can you cure them?" was Ekaterin's question.
An ordinary woman would have shown sympathy by now, but Pel's cool, serene façade remained unaltered, unmoved. Strangely, Ekaterin found it encouraging; she did not think she could bear any pity at this point. Just tell me the truth.
"We have the antidote," Pel told her. Ekaterin exhaled audibly. "We will administer it when they are on my ship. Even after they have received the antidote, however, they will require additional care, which we are prepared to provide."
Her gaze shifted so that she was no longer looking directly at Ekaterin. "I cannot promise they will survive. The herm in particular faces a difficult battle." Her gaze re-focused, sharpened, and her posture grew even more erect. "We will do everything we can. It is the least we can do, after what Lord Vorkosigan has done for us. After what you have done for us, Lady Vorkosigan."
Ekaterin's teeth tugged at her lip, then she drew herself to her full height, letting her clenched hands fall to her sides. I promised Miles I'd hold the fort. I will not surrender it now, not even when the last defender is felled and the last missile launched. "I trust Miles to your capable hands, haut Pel. You are my last hope."
Deep within Pel's Star Crèche ship was a chamber set aside to house a magnificent and exquisitely manicured garden, complete with fountains, birdsong, and gentle breezes, all designed to satisfy a particular aesthetic objective. The ghem lady Pel appointed to attend to Ekaterin, hearing of her interest in horticulture, showed her how to find it and invited her to spend as much time there as she wished while she remained on board. Ekaterin had anticipated remaining by Miles' side while he convalesced, but at present ghem-General Benin was with him, so she decided to take advantage of an opportunity she might not ever get again.
The garden was a pleasant respite, to be sure, but its artificiality was plainly evident to Ekaterin's practiced eye. Not that any of the plants were synthetic or simulacra; rather, they were clearly the products of very skilled botanists, hybrids upon hybrids upon hybrids.
Miles had told her that genetic manipulation was a vocation for many Cetagandans, with the lower classes "playing" with lower life forms while the haut exerted their efforts in shaping the human genome to suit their fancy. The haut infants Miles had rescued were thus, in many respects, just as manufactured as these plants. Beautiful, yes; natural, no. Nature, in all its chaotic unpredictability, erratic and irregular, was anathema to the Cetagandans. As she reached out to caress the abnormally perfect bark of a nearby tree, Ekaterin felt a sudden longing for the wild, untamed beauty of the forests of the Dendarii Mountains. I want to go home.
She looked up from the fern she was admiring to see General Benin approaching. She got up stiffly, taking care not to let her feet catch on the hem of the long over-tunic the attendant had given her to wear, and brushed the loose soil from her fingers. She then schooled her features to a mask of polite inquiry. "General," she said cordially when he drew near. "I trust your interview with Miles went to your satisfaction?"
He bowed slightly. "Conversations with Lord Vorkosigan are always quite--"
Her brows lifted at his hesitation. Beneath his warpaint, signs of strain were evident in the deep lines around his mouth and the shadows under his eyes. "Exasperating?" she suggested, sympathy and acrid humor jostling for space in the tone of her voice.
His lips twisted and what appeared to be a dimple appeared briefly in one decorated cheek. Ekaterin pressed her lips together to hide her own smirk. "Stimulating," he replied.
"Ah." She fell into step beside him as they strolled past a grove of flowering shrubs, their sweet scent evoking images of the tropics. "I hope he at least told you all you needed to know."
"He told me enough. The remainder I will discover from other sources."
"Miles does hate to make things easy for people," she sighed.
Benin gave her a strange look, but did not comment. Instead he extended an arm to indicate a nearby bench, integrated so carefully into the ornate root structure of the tree that sheltered it as to be almost invisible. Accepting his silent invitation, Ekaterin took a seat beside him. "Actually," he began after a moment's pause, "I did not come here to talk about your husband, but rather, you."
"Oh?" She folded her hands together in her lap to hide their sudden trembling. She was suddenly aware how very alone she was, how vulnerable. In the blink of an eye, she and Miles could vanish into a Cetagandan prison and never be seen or heard from again.
"Yes." His hands lay lightly on his thighs, fingers splayed. "My Imperial Master and Mistress are fully aware of your actions during the past few days. In particular, they are conscious of the difficult position you were in, and of the choices you were compelled to make. Your willingness to place the lives of the haut infants ahead of your husband's and to come into Cetagandan territory at a time when tensions between our two empires were at their greatest in decades, has not gone unnoticed or unremarked."
"I only did what I had to do," she protested.
"Perhaps," he agreed. "But not everyone, least of all a Barrayaran, would have. In fact, I can't think of anyone other than Lord Vorkosigan who would have done what you did." A faint smile tugged at Ekaterin's cheek. "My Imperial Master and Mistress earnestly desire the opportunity to demonstrate their gratitude to you."
She turned her gaze up to him. "What… do they have in mind?" she asked cautiously.
"Simply a token of their appreciation, to be bestowed upon you at a ceremony tomorrow evening on Rho Ceta, when the children will be presented to their Constellations. You would do us all great honor by attending."
Ekaterin's eyes grew wide. "Oh," she breathed. "Really, I-I--"
"It is only a small token, but one given with great feeling. Mere words cannot convey to you the enormity of the debt Cetaganda owes you."
"The debt is Miles', not mine," she replied. "He's the one who was sickened by that virus."
He turned to face her, his hand reaching towards her but not quite making contact. "No." At her querying look he explained, "Yes, we are indebted to him, and my Imperial Master and Mistress will seek a suitable redemption. But it is you, Lady Vorkosigan, who has saved us all, Barrayaran and Cetagandan alike. If not for you, there would not be a ceremony tomorrow."
This last speech, though spoken quietly, was delivered with more fervor than Ekaterin would have expected from a Cetagandan. As head of Imperial Security, Benin's head would surely have been the first to roll had this debacle gone pear-shaped. Whatever risks she took were mirrored by his own; he could easily have ordered the Barrayaran convoy vaporized the moment they entered Cetagandan space, but instead he waited until the gaps in the information trickling in were filled. Against all common sense and instinct, he had trusted Miles.
He had trusted her.
"Thank you, General," she said at last. "I am honored and touched."
Benin accepted this with a nod, then got to his feet. "I beg your pardon for leaving you so abruptly, but there remains much to be done before tomorrow." He turned to face Ekaterin directly. "Lord Vorkosigan has always been a... formidable adversary." He gave her a low, courtly bow. "Just as you are a messenger to be reckoned with. I hope our paths cross again someday, Lady Vorkosigan."
Her eyebrows twitched upward. "Hope for better circumstances next time while you're at it."
Once more his mouth curled in sardonic amusement as he pressed his palm over his chest, then strode away.