Obviously, major spoilers for the Next Book.
Ivan's doorbuzzer sounded at close to Komarran midnight, just when he was unwinding enough from lingering jump-lag, screwed-up diurnal rhythm and the day's labours to consider sleep. He growled under his breath and and trod unwillingly to answer it. His instincts proved correct when he saw who waited in the aperture. Oh God, Byerly Vorrutyer. "Go away!"
"Hi, Ivan," said Byerly smoothly, ignoring his anti-greeting. "May I come in?"
Ivan took about a second to consider the at-best complicated possibilities Byerly usually trailed in his wake and said simply, "No."
He'd hesitated too long. Byerly slipped inside. Ivan sighed, letting the door slide closed and sealed. So far from home, it was good to see a familiar face. Just not By's. Next time he'd use the security screen and pretend not to be here.
Byerly padded swiftly across the small but choice living quarters of Ivan's downtown Solstice luxury flat, rentals by the week. Ivan had picked it out for its potential proximity to Solstice night-life, which, alas, he had not so far had a chance to sample. Pausing at the broad glass doors to the balcony, Byerly dimmed the polarisation on the seductive view of the glittering lights of the capital city. Dome, Ivan corrected his thought to Komarran nomenclature, as the arcology existed under a hodge-podge of seals to keep the toxic planetary atmosphere out and the breathable one in.
Byerly pulled the drapes as well and turned back into the room. Yielding to a curiosity he knew he would regret, Ivan asked, "What the hell are you doing on Komarr, By? Isn't this off your usual beat?"
Byerly grimaced. "Working."
Indeed, an experienced observer, which Ivan unfortunately was, could detect a distinct strain around By's eyes, along with the redness from drink and perhaps recreational chemicals. Byerly cultivated the authentic look of a Barrayaran High Vor town clown, given over to a life of dissolution and idle vice, by actually living it, ninety percent of the time. The other ten percent, and most of his hidden income, came from his work as an informer for Imperial Security, and ninety percent of that was just more dissolution and vice, except for having to turn in the reports at the end. The residue, Ivan had to concede, could get messy.
"Ratting out your friends to ImpSec for money," Ivan had once heckled By, to which By had shrugged and replied, "And the greater glory of the Imperium, don't forget that."
Ivan wondered which it was tonight.
In reflexive response to manners drilled into him in his youth, Ivan offered, "Something to drink? Beer? Wine? Something stronger?" He contemplated By's boneless flop onto his living-room couch. "Coffee?"
"Just water. Please. I need to clear my head, and then I need to sleep."
Ivan went to his tidy kitchenette and filled a tumbler. As he handed it to his unwelcome guest, By said, "And what are you doing in Solstice, Ivan?"
By's open hand invited him to expand. Ivan sat across from him and said, "Trailing my boss, who is here for an Ops conference with his assorted counterparts and underlings,
efficiently combined with the annual Komarr fleet inspection. All the excitement of a tax inventory, except in dress uniform."
Belatedly, Ivan realised By had to already know all this to have found Ivan here. Because By's random social calls weren't.
"Still working for Admiral Duplaine(?)"
"Yep. Aide-de-camp, secretary, personal assistant, general dogbody, whatever he needs. I aim to make myself ... dispensable."
"And still ducking promotion, are you, Captain Vorpatril?"
"Yes, and succeeding, no thanks to you."
By smirked. "They say at Imperial Service headquarters the captains bring the coffee.
"That's right, and I like it that way."
Ivan only wished it were true. It seemed barely months ago, though it was over a year, that the latest flare-up of tensions with Barrayar's most traditional enemy, the Cetagandan empire, had pinned Ivan to military headquarters twenty-six point seven hours a Barrayaran day for weeks on end, sweating out all the most horrific possibilities, in detail. War had been averted through non-traditional diplomacy, mostly on the part of Barrayaran Emperor Gregor's weaselyest Imperial Auditor. And, to give credit where it was due, his wife.
That time. There was always a next time
Ivan studied Byerly, who was a few years younger than himself. They shared the same brown eyes, dark hair and olive skin common to Barrayar's somewhat inbred military caste or aristocracy, whatever one wanted to call it, and indeed, common to most Barrayarans. By was shorter and slighter than Ivan's six-foot-one broadshouldered thickness, but then he didn't have a [unintelligible] riding him to keep up the recruitment-poster appearance expected of an officer serving at Imperial Service Headquarters.
Granted, when they weren't squinting from the dissolution, By's eyes had the startling beauty that distinguished his famous--or infamous--clan, to which Ivan was connected by a few twigs in his own family tree. That was the problem with being Vor. You ended up related to all sorts of people you'd rather not be. And they all felt free to call on you for favours.
"What do you want, Byerly?"
"So direct. You'll never become a diplomat that way, Ivan."
"I once spent a year as assistant military attaché to the Barrayaran embassy on Earth. It was as much diplomacy as I cared for. Get to the point, By. I want to go to bed. And by the looks of you, so do you."
By let his eyes widen "Why, Ivan! Was that an invitation? I'm so thrilled!"
"Someday," Ivan growled, "I'm going to say yes to that old line, just to watch you have a coronary."
By spread his hand over his heart and intoned wistfully, "And so I might."
He drained his water and gave over the banter, the face so often arranged in a vague smarminess burning intently in a way that Ivan always found a touch disturbing.
"Actually, I have a little task to ask of you."
"So I presumed."
"It's quite in your line. I may even be said to be doing you a good turn, who knows? I'd like you to pick up a girl."
"No," said Ivan, only in part to see what By would say next.
"Come, come, you pick up girls all the time."
"Not on your recommendations. What's the catch?"
Byerly made a face. "So suspicious, Ivan."
By shrugged, conceding the point. "Unfortunately, I'm not entirely sure. In my duties with, if I may say it, the unusually unpleasant people I am presently accompanying--"
'Spying on', Ivan translated this without difficulty, and accompanied by the catchphrase 'usually unpleasant', in Ivan's opinion. Unusually unpleasant implied--what?
"I've had little opportunity to check her out, but they have an inexplicable interest in her which I suspect is not friendly. It worries me, Ivan, I must say." He added after a moment, "She's quite well-looking, I assure you. You need have no fear on that score."
Ivan frowned, stung. "Are you implying I'd refuse to supply assistance to a homely girl?"
Byerly sat back, eyebrows flicking up. "To your credit, I actually don't believe that's the case. But it will add a certain convincing verisimilitude for the outside observer." He pulled a small plastic flimsy containing a coloured flat-scan from his jacket and handed it across.
The background was too close too make out, but the picture showed a striking young woman striding down a sidewalk. Apparent age could be anything between twenty and thirty standard years, though that was no certain clue as to real age. Tumbling black hair, bright eyes, skin glowing an interesting cinnamon brown against a cream tank top, decided nose, determined chin. Either the natural face she was born with, or the work of a real artist, because it certainly didn't bear the stamped-from-the-same-mould blandness of the usual body-sculpture, a biological ideal that lost its appeal with repetition. Long legs in tan trousers that hugged in all the right places, a nicely full figure ... nicely full. If the face was natural, might the other prominent features be too? With weakening reluctance, Ivan said, "Who is she?"
"Supposedly, a Komarran citizen named Nadya Brindis, lately moved to Solstice from [unintelligible name] Dome."
"I have reason to suspect that might be a recent cover identity. She did move here about two months ago, it does seem."
"So, who is she really?"
"It'd be a fine thing if you can find that out."
"If she's hiding her identity for a good reason she's hardly going to tell me." Ivan hesitated. "Is it a good reason?"
"I suspect it's a very good reason. And I also suspect she is not professional at the game."
"This is all pretty vague, Byerly. May I remind you my security clearance is higher than yours."
"Probably." Byerly blinked in doubt. "But then there's that pesky need-to-know rule."
"I am not sticking my head into one of your dodgy meat-grinders--again--unless I know as much as you know. At least."
Byerly flung up his well-manicured hands in faux surrender. "The people I'm with seem to have gotten themselves involved in a complex smuggling operation. Rather over their heads."
"Komarran local space is a major trade nexus. The place is lousy with smugglers. As long as the transients don't try to offload their goods within the Imperium, in which case Imperial Customs deal sharply with them, they get ignored. And the Komarran trade fleets police their own."
"That's two out of three."
Ivan's head came up. "The only thing left is the Imperial fleet."
"Crap, Byerly, if there was even a hint of that sort of thing going on, Service Security would swoop in. Damned hard."
"Hm. But even Service Security needs to know where to when and when to swoop. I am doing, as it were, a preliminary pre-swoop survey. And not only because mistakes are embarrassing, especially if they involve accusations of Vor scions with arrogant and powerful relatives, but because they tip off the real criminals who then promptly escape one's tediously set net. And you have no idea how tedious that can get."
"Hmm," said Ivan. "And once military personnel get involved with--they think--simple civilian crime, they become vulnerable to more treasonous blackmail."
By bared his teeth. "I'm so pleased you keep up. One of your saving graces."
"I've had practice." He hissed alarm. "Duplaine should know about this."
"Duplaine will know about it in due course. In the meanwhile, try to remember that you don't know." Byerly paused. "That caution is cancelled, of course, should my dead body turn up in a lewd and compromising position in some ditch outside the dome in the next few days."
"Do you think it might?"
"The stakes are very high, and not just the money."
"So how's this girl connected, again?"
Byerly sighed. "She's not with my crew. She's definitely not with the non-Barrayarans they're dealing with, though it's not outside the realm of reason that she could be a defector. And she's not what she pretends to be. What's left I'm forced to leave to you to find out because I can't risk coming here again and I'm not going to have time in the next few days for side issues."
Ivan said slowly, "You think she's in danger of her life."
Because why else would By bother to set even a side friend on this side issue? By didn't make his living through charity. Though he did make his living through a weird sort of loyalty. And somewhere underneath the persiflage, camouflage and just plain flage, he was a high Vor of the highest.
"Let's just say you would gratify me by staying alert. I should not care to explain any accidents that might befall you to your lady mother."
"So where am I to find this so-called girl?"
"I'm fairly certain she's a real girl, Ivan."
"You may think, but with you, one never knows," Ivan replied dryly, and By had the grace to squirm just a bit in acknowledgement of his cousin Dono neé Donna of lamented memory. Donna, that is, not Dono Vorrutyer, who was all too vivid a presence on the Vorbarr Sultana political scene.
By dodged the diversion and, so to speak, soldiered on--though the idea of By in any branch of the service made Ivan wince in imagination.
"She works as a packing clerk at a place called Swift Shipping. Here's her home address, too, which was unlisted, by the way, so unless you can devise a convincing reason for turning up there it's probably better to run into her coming into or out of work. I don't gather she does much partying. Make friends, Ivan. Before tomorrow night by preference." He rubbed his face, pressing his hands to his eyes. "Actually, by tomorrow night without fail."
Ivan accepted the contact data with misgivings. By stretched, rose a bit creakily to his feet and made his way to the door.
"Adieu, dear friend, adieu. Sweet dreams, and may angels guard your repose. Possibly angels with clouds of dark curls, sun-kissed skin and bosoms like heavenly pillows."
By grinned over his shoulder, waved without turning around and blew out.
Ivan returned to his couch, sat with a thump and picked up the flimsy, studying it cautiously. At least By was right about the heavenly pillows. What else was he right about? Ivan had an unsettling premonition he was going to find out.
And in case you didn't spot it, tel did a transcription of the second scene that you can find here.
Crossposted at http://philomytha.dreamwidth.org/34151.html