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Lois McMaster Bujold - Vorkosigan 04.5 - The Mountains of Mourning

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Lois McMaster Bujold - Vorkosigan 04.5 - The Mountains of Mourning

The Mountains of Mourning

by Lois McMaster Bujold

    This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional,and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

Copyright ? 1989 by Lois McMaster Bujold

    All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in anyform.

A Baen Books Original

Baen Publishing Enterprises

    P.O. Box 1403

    Riverdale, NY 10471

    www.baen.com

    The Mountains of Mourning

    Miles heard the woman weeping as he was climbing the hill from the long lake. He hadn't driedhimself after his swim, as the morning already promised shimmering heat. Lake water trickledcool from his hair onto his naked chest and back, more annoyingly down his legs from his raggedshorts. His leg braces chafed on his damp skin as he pistoned up the faint trail through thescrub, military double-time. His feet squished in his old wet shoes. He slowed in curiosity ashe became conscious of the voices.

    The woman's voice grated with grief and exhaustion. "Please, lord, please. All I want ism'justice..."

The front gate guard's voice was irritated and embarrassed. "I'm no lord. C'mon, get up ,

    woman. Go back to the village and report it at the district magistrate's office."

    "I tell you, I just came from there!" The woman did not move from her knees as Miles emergedfrom the bushes and paused to take in the tableau across the paved road. "The magistrate's not

    to return for weeks, weeks. I walked four days to get here. I only have a little money...." Adesperate hope rose in her voice, and her spine bent and straightened as she scrabbled in herskirt pocket and held out her cupped hands to the guard. "A mark and twenty pence, it's all Ihave, but —"

    The exasperated guard's eye fell on Miles, and he straightened abruptly, as if afraid Milesmight suspect him of being tempted by so pitiful a bribe. "Be off, woman!" he snapped.

    Miles quirked an eyebrow and limped across the road to the main gate. "What's all this about,Corporal?" he inquired easily.

    The guard corporal was on loan from Imperial Security, and wore the high-necked dress greens ofthe Barrayaran Service. He was sweating and uncomfortable in the bright morning light of thissouthern district, but Miles fancied he'd be boiled before he'd undo his collar on this post.His accent was not local; he was a city man from the capital, where a more-or-less efficientbureaucracy absorbed such problems as the one on her knees before him.

    The woman, now, was local and more than local — she had backcountry written all over her. Shewas younger than her strained voice had at first suggested. Tall, fever-red from her weeping,with stringy blonde hair hanging down across a ferret-thin face and protuberant gray eyes. Ifshe were cleaned up, fed, rested, happy and confident, she might achieve a near-prettiness, butshe was far from that now, despite her remarkable figure. Lean but full-breasted — no, Milesrevised himself as he crossed the road and came up to the gate. Her bodice was all blotchedwith dried milk leaks, though there was no baby in sight. Only temporarily full-breasted. Herworn dress was factory-woven cloth, but hand-sewn, crude and simple. Her feet were bare,thickly callused, cracked and sore.

"No problem," the guard assured Miles. "Go away ," he hissed to the woman.

She lurched off her knees and sat stonily.

"I'll call my sergeant" — the guard eyed her warily — "and have her removed."

"Wait a moment," said Miles.

    She stared up at Miles from her cross-legged position, clearly not knowing whether to identifyhim as hope or not. His clothing, what there was of it, offered her no clue as to what he mightbe. The rest of him was all too plainly displayed. He jerked up his chin and smiled thinly.Too-large head, too-short neck, back thickened with its crooked spine, crooked legs with theirbrittle bones too-often broken, drawing the eye in their gleaming chromium braces. Were thehill woman standing, the top of his head would barely be even with the top of her shoulder. Hewaited in boredom for her hand to make the backcountry hex sign against evil mutations, but itonly jerked and clenched into a fist.

    "I must see my lord Count," she said to an uncertain point halfway between Miles and the guard."It's my right. My daddy, he died in the Service. It's my right."

    "Prime Minister Count Vorkosigan," said the guard stiffly, "is on his country estate to rest.If he were working, he'd be back in Vorbarr Sultana." The guard looked as though he wished he

    were back in Vorbarr Sultana.

The woman seized the pause. "You're only a city man. He's my count. My right."

"What do you want to see Count Vorkosigan for?" asked Miles patiently.

    "Murder," growled the girl/woman. The security guard spasmed slightly. "I want to report amurder."

    "Shouldn't you report to your village speaker first?" inquired Miles, with a hand-down gestureto calm the twitching guard.

    "I did. He'll do nothing ." Rage and frustration cracked her voice. "He says it's over anddone. He won't write down my accusation, says it's nonsense. It would only make trouble foreverybody, he says. I don't care! I want my justice!"

    Miles frowned thoughtfully, looking the woman over. The details checked, corroborated herclaimed identity, added up to a solid if subliminal sense of the authentic that perhaps escapedthe professionally paranoid security man. "It's true, Corporal," Miles said. "She has a rightto appeal, first to the district magistrate, then to the count's court. And the districtmagistrate won't be back for two weeks."

    This sector of Count Vorkosigan's native district had only one overworked district magistrate,who rode a circuit that included the lakeside village of Vorkosigan Surleau but one day amonth. Since the region of the Prime Minister's country estate was crawling with ImperialSecurity when the great lord was in residence, and closely monitored even when he was not,prudent troublemakers took their troubles elsewhere.

"Scan her, and let her in," said Miles. "On my authority."

    The guard was one of Imperial Security's best, trained to watch for assassins in his ownshadow. He now looked scandalized, and lowered his voice to Miles. "Sir, if I let every countrylunatic wander the estate at will —"

"I'll take her up. I'm going that way."

    The guard shrugged helplessly, but stopped short of saluting; Miles was decidedly not inuniform. The gate guard pulled a scanner from his belt and made a great show of going over thewoman. Miles wondered if he'd have been inspired to harass her with a strip-search withoutMiles's inhibiting presence. When the guard finished demonstrating how alert, conscientious,and loyal he was, he palmed open the gate's lock, entered the transaction, including thewoman's retina scan, into the computer monitor, and stood aside in a pose of rather pointedparade rest. Miles grinned at the silent editorial and steered the bedraggled woman by theelbow through the gates and up the winding drive.

    She twitched away from his touch at the earliest opportunity, yet still refrained fromsuperstitious gestures, eyeing him with a strange and hungry curiosity. Time was, such openlyrepelled fascination with the peculiarities of his body had driven Miles to grind his teeth;now he could take it with a serene amusement only slightly tinged with acid. They would learn,all of them. They would learn.

"Do you serve Count Vorkosigan, little man?" she asked cautiously.

    Miles thought about that one a moment. "Yes," he answered finally. The answer was, after all,true on every level of meaning but the one she'd asked it. He quelled the temptation to tellher he was the court jester. From the look of her, this one's troubles were much worse than hisown.

    She had apparently not quite believed in her own rightful destiny, despite her mulishdetermination at the gate, for as they climbed unimpeded toward her goal a nascent panic madeher face even more drawn and pale, almost ill. "How — how do I talk to him?" she choked."Should I curtsey...?" She glanced down at herself as if conscious for the first time of herown dirt and sweat and squalor.

Miles suppressed a facetious set-up starting with, Kneel and knock your forehead three times

     and said instead, "Juston the floor before speaking, that's what the General Staff does,

    stand up straight and speak the truth. Try to be clear. He'll take it from there. He does not,after all" — Miles's lips twitched — "lack experience."

She swallowed.

    A hundred years ago, the Vorkosigans' summer retreat had been a guard barracks, part of theoutlying fortifications of the great castle on the bluff above the village of VorkosiganSurleau. The castle was now a burnt-out ruin, and the barracks transformed into a comfortablelow stone residence, modernized and re-modernized, artistically landscaped and bright withflowers. The arrow slits had been widened into big glass windows overlooking the lake, and comlink antennae bristled from the roof. There was a new guard barracks concealed in the treesdownslope, but it had no arrow slits.

    A man in the brown and silver livery of the Count's personal retainers exited the residence'sfront door as Miles approached with the strange woman in tow. It was the new man, what was hisname? Pym, that was it.

"Where's m'lord Count?" Miles asked him.

    "In the upper pavilion, taking breakfast with m'lady." Pym glanced at the woman, and waited onMiles in a posture of polite inquiry.

    "Ah. Well, this woman has walked four days to lay an appeal before the district magistrate'scourt. The court's not here, but the Count is, so she now proposes to skip the middlemen and gostraight to the top. I like her style. Take her up, will you?"

"During breakfast ?" said Pym.

Miles cocked his head at the woman. "Have you had breakfast?"

She shook her head mutely.

    "I thought not." Miles turned his hands palm-out, dumping her, symbolically, on the retainer."Now, yes."

    "My daddy, he died in the Service," the woman repeated faintly. "It's my right." The phraseseemed as much to convince herself as anyone else, now.

    Pym was, if not a hill man, district-born. "So it is," he sighed, and gestured her to followhim without further ado. Her eyes widened, as she trailed him around the house, and she glancedback nervously over her shoulder at Miles. "Little man...?"

    "Just stand straight," he called to her. He watched her round the corner, grinned, and took thesteps two at a time into the residence's main entrance.

    * * *

    After a shave and cold shower, Miles dressed in his own room overlooking the long lake. Hedressed with great care, as great as he'd expended on the Service Academy ceremonies andImperial Review two days ago. Clean underwear, long-sleeved cream shirt, dark green trouserswith the side piping. High-collared green tunic tailor-cut to his own difficult fit. New paleblue plastic ensign's rectangles aligned precisely on the collar and poking most uncomfortablyinto his jaw. He dispensed with the leg braces and pulled on mirror-polished boots to the knee,and swiped a bit of dust from them with his pajama pants, ready-to-hand on the floor where he'ddropped them before going swimming.

    He straightened and checked himself in the mirror. His dark hair hadn't even begun to recoverfrom that last cut before the graduation ceremonies. A pale, sharp-featured face, not too muchdissipated bag under the gray eyes, nor too bloodshot — alas, the limits of his body compelledhim to stop celebrating well before he could hurt himself.

    Echoes of the late celebration still boiled up silently in his head, crooking his mouth into agrin. He was on his way now, had his hand clamped firmly around the lowest rung of the highestladder on Barrayar, Imperial Service itself. There were no give-aways in the Service even forsons of the old Vor. You got what you earned. His brother-officers could be relied on to knowthat, even if outsiders wondered. He was in position at last to prove himself to all doubters.Up and away and never look down, never look back.

    One last look back. As carefully as he'd dressed, Miles gathered up the necessary objects forhis task. The white cloth rectangles of his former Academy cadet's rank. The hand-calligraphedsecond copy, purchased for this purpose, of his new officer's commission in the BarrayaranImperial Service. A copy of his Academy three-year scholastic transcript on paper, with all itscommendations (and demerits). No point in anything but honesty in this next transaction. In acupboard downstairs he found the brass brazier and tripod, wrapped in its polishing cloth, anda plastic bag of very dry juniper bark. Chemical firesticks.

    Out the back door and up the hill. The landscaped path split, right going up to the pavilionoverlooking it all, left forking sideways to a garden-like area surrounded by a low fieldstonewall. Miles let himself in by the gate. "Good morning, crazy ancestors," he called, thenquelled his humor. It might be true, but lacked the respect due the occasion.

    He strolled over and around the graves until he came to the one he sought, knelt, and set upthe brazier and tripod, humming. The stone was simple, General Count Piotr Pierre Vorkosigan,

    and the dates. If they'd tried to list all the accumulated honors and accomplishments, they'dhave had to go to microprint.

    He piled in the bark, the very expensive papers, the cloth bits, a clipped mat of dark hairfrom that last cut. He set it alight and rocked back on his heels to watch it burn. He'd playeda hundred versions of this moment over in his head, over the years, ranging from solemn publicorations with musicians in the background, to dancing naked on the old man's grave. He'dsettled on this private and traditional ceremony, played straight. Just between the two ofthem.

"So, Grandfather," he purred at last. "And here we are after all. Satisfied now?"

    All the chaos of the graduation ceremonies behind, all the mad efforts of the last three years,all the pain, came to this point; but the grave did not speak, did not say, Well done; you can

     The ashes spelled out no messages; there were no visions to be had in the risingstop now.

    smoke. The brazier burned down all too quickly. Not enough stuff in it, perhaps.

    He stood and dusted his knees, in the silence and the sunlight. So what had he expected?Applause? Why was he here, in the final analysis? Dancing out a dead man's dreams — who didhis Service really serve? Grandfather? Himself? Pale Emperor Gregor? Who cared?

    "Well, old man," he whispered, then shouted: "ARE YOU SATISFIED YET?" The echoes rang from thestones.

A throat cleared behind him, and Miles whirled like a scalded cat, heart pounding.

    "Uh... my lord?" said Pym carefully. "Pardon me, I did not mean to interrupt... anything. Butthe Count your father requires you to attend on him in the upper pavilion."

    Pym's expression was perfectly bland. Miles swallowed, waiting for the scarlet heat he couldfeel in his face to recede. "Quite." He shrugged. "The fire's almost out. I'll clean it uplater. Don't... let anybody else touch it."

He marched past Pym and didn't look back.

    * * *

    The pavilion was a simple structure of weathered silver wood, open on all four sides to catchthe breeze, this morning a few faint puffs from the west. Good sailing on the lake thisafternoon, maybe. Only ten days precious home leave left, and much Miles wanted to do,including the trip to Vorbarr Sultana with his cousin Ivan to pick out his new lightflyer. And

    then his first assignment would be coming through — ship duty, Miles prayed. He'd had toovercome a major temptation, not to ask his father to make sure it was ship duty. He would takewhatever assignment fate dealt him, that was the first rule of the game. And win with the handhe was dealt.

    The interior of the pavilion was shady and cool after the glare outside. It was furnished withcomfortable old chairs and tables, one of which bore the remains of a noble breakfast — Milesmentally marked two lonely-looking oil cakes on a crumb-scattered tray as his own. Miles'smother, lingering over her cup, smiled across the table at him.

    Miles's father, casually dressed in an open-throated shirt and shorts, sat in a worn armchair.Aral Vorkosigan was a thickset, gray haired man, heavy-jawed, heavy browed, scarred. A facethat lent itself to savage caricature — Miles had seen some, in Opposition press, in thehistories of Barrayar's enemies. They had only to draw one lie, to render dull those sharppenetrating eyes, to create everyone's parody of a military dictator.

     Miles wondered. And how much is he haunted by Grandfather?He doesn't show it much. But then,

     . Admiral Aral Vorkosigan, space master strategist, conqueror of Komarr,he doesn't have to

    hero of Escobar, for sixteen years Imperial Regent, supreme power on Barrayar in all but name.And then he'd capped it, confounded history and all self-sure witnesses and heaped up honor andglory beyond all that had gone before by voluntarily stepping down and transferring command

    smoothly to Emperor Gregor upon his majority. Not that the Prime Ministership hadn't made adandy retirement from the Regency, and he was showing no signs yet of stepping down from that

    .

    And so Admiral Aral's life took General Piotr's like an overpowering hand of cards, and wheredid that leave Ensign Miles? Holding two deuces and the joker. He must surely either concede orstart bluffing like crazy....

    The hill woman sat on a hassock, a half-eaten oil cake clutched in her hands, staring open-mouthed at Miles in all his power and polish. As he caught and returned her gaze her lipspressed closed and her eyes lit. Her expression was strange — anger? Exhilaration?Embarrassment? Glee? Some bizarre mixture of all? And what did you think I was, woman?

Being in uniform (showing off his uniform?), Miles came to attention before his father. "Sir?"

    Count Vorkosigan spoke to the woman. "That is my son. If I send him as my Voice, would thatsatisfy you?"

    "Oh," she breathed, her wide mouth drawing back in a weird, fierce grin, the most expressionMiles had yet seen on her face, " yes , my lord."

"Very well. It will be done."

    What will be done? Miles wondered warily. The Count was leaning back in his chair, lookingsatisfied himself, but with a dangerous tension around his eyes hinting that something hadaroused his true anger. Not anger at the woman, clearly they were in some sort of agreement,and — Miles searched his conscience quickly — not at Miles himself. He cleared his throatgently, cocking his head and baring his teeth in an inquiring smile.

    The Count steepled his hands and spoke to Miles at last. "A most interesting case. I can seewhy you sent her up."

    "Ah..." said Miles. What had he got hold of? He'd only greased the woman's way through Securityon a quixotic impulse, for God's sake, and to tweak his father at breakfast. "...ah?" hecontinued noncommittally.

Count Vorkosigan's brows rose. "Did you not know?"

    "She spoke of a murder, and a marked lack of cooperation from her local authorities about it.Figured you'd give her a lift on to the district magistrate."

    The Count settled back still further and rubbed his hand thoughtfully across his scarred chin."It's an infanticide case."

Miles's belly went cold. I don't want anything to do with this. Well, that explained why

    there was no baby to go with the breasts. "Unusual... for it to be reported."

    "We've fought the old customs for twenty years and more," said the Count. "Promulgated,propagandized... In the cities, we've made good progress."

"In the cities," murmured the Countess, "people have access to alternatives."

    "But in the backcountry — well — little has changed. We all know what's going on, but withouta report, a complaint — and with the family invariably drawing together to protect its own —it's hard to get leverage."

"What," Miles cleared his throat, nodded at the woman, "what was your baby's mutation?"

    "The cat's mouth." The woman dabbed at her upper lip to demonstrate. "She had the hole insideher mouth, too, and was a weak sucker, she choked and cried, but she was getting enough, she was ...."

    "Hare-lip," the Count's off-worlder wife murmured half to herself, translating the Barrayaranterm to the galactic standard, "and a cleft palate, sounds like. Harra, that's not even amutation. They had that back on Old Earth. A... a normal birth defect, if that's not acontradiction in terms. Not a punishment for your Barrayaran ancestors' pilgrimage through theFire. A simple operation could have corrected —" Countess Vorkosigan cut herself off. The hillwoman was looking anguished.

    "I'd heard," the woman said. "My lord had made a hospital to be built at Hassadar. I meant totake her there, when I was a little stronger, though I had no money. Her arms and legs weresound, her head was well-shaped, anybody could see — surely they would have" — her handsclenched and twisted, her voice went ragged — "but Lem killed her first."

    A seven-day walk, Miles calculated, from the deep Dendarii Mountains to the lowland town ofHassadar. Reasonable, that a woman newly risen from childbed might delay that hike a few days.An hour's ride in an aircar....

    "So one is reported as a murder at last," said Count Vorkosigan, "and we will treat it asexactly that. This is a chance to send a message to the farthest corners of my own district.You, Miles, will be my Voice, to reach where it has not reached before. You will dispenseCount's justice upon this man — and not quietly, either. It's time for the practices thatbrand us as barbarians in galactic eyes to end."

Miles gulped. "Wouldn't the district magistrate be better qualified...?"

    The Count smiled slightly. "For this case, I can think of no one better qualified thanyourself."

The messenger and the message all in one; Times have changed. Indeed. Miles wished himself

    elsewhere, anywhere — back sweating blood over his final examinations, for instance. Hestifled an unworthy wail, My home leave...!

Miles rubbed the back of his neck. "Who, ah... who is it killed your little girl?" Meaning,

    who is it I'm expected to drag out, put up against a wall, and shoot?

"My husband," she said tonelessly, looking at — through — the polished silvery floorboards.

I knew this was going to be messy....

    "She cried and cried," the woman went on, "and wouldn't go to sleep, not nursing well — heshouted at me to shut her up —"

"Then?" Miles prompted, sick to his stomach.

    "He swore at me, and went to go sleep at his mother's. He said at least a working man couldsleep there. I hadn't slept either...."

    This guy sounds like a real winner. Miles had an instant picture of him, a bull of a man witha bullying manner — nevertheless, there was something missing in the climax of the woman'sstory.

    The Count had picked up on it too. He was listening with total attention, his strategy-sessionlook, a slit-eyed intensity of thought you could mistake for sleepiness. That would be a gravemistake. "Were you an eyewitness?" he asked in a deceptively mild tone that put Miles on fullalert. "Did you actually see him kill her?"

"I found her dead in the midmorning, lord."

"You went into the bedroom —" Count Vorkosigan led her on.

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