The Imperial gardens were full of wolf cubs.
Miles sidestepped a moving knot of brawling, still plushy-furred teenagers, bit back a short-lived smile as Ivan was hit behind the knees and almost went down.
Ivan's brother was ambling back, gently nosing the cubs away from his wobbling human. Amongst the assembled Vor and the Armsmen lining the walls at least one in five moved alongside their own companion, and Lady Luck willing tonight there would be more. Half of those young hopefuls milling around, forgetting (some of) their dignity to tease the pups would later in the evening be going to the brothers of those she-wolves who had birthed their intended, request permission to court. It was in fact remarkably similar to the dance one danced with women, save that male or female it was the wolf who had the last word, always.
A wet nose pressed into his palm. Miles blinked down at Ivan's Paddy, sneaked his head a pat.
It was annoying how randomly perceptive Ivan had gotten since he'd acquired Paddy to notice things for him, Miles thought.
"I wonder if it's all the off-world duty, or if they've really gotten louder," he said, nodding his head toward a knot of puppies trying to howl, and mostly producing glass-breaking high whines.
Ivan scoffed. "Off-world duty. Definitely the off-world duty." He plucked a flute of champagne off a server's tray with great dexterity, a hand on Paddy's back for balance, or maybe habit. Miles started looking around for some wolfless people to greet. He might have better luck looking for women, statistically speaking; the only wolfed women in attendance were once again his own mother and Lady Donna Vorrutyer.
Which was rather a pity, because he couldn't help imagining that a woman who had attracted a wolf would have to be fascinating, much too interesting to be confined to some country estate, and those dull gatherings definitely could do with some livening up.
Who knew, maybe in lieu of a wolf he might even come out with a date. Hah.
Paddy nosed insistently at his hip. Miles patted him, and thought an apology at him. Ivan's wolf was a chronic worrier. He had no idea if the wolf heard him back, though he knew a faint awareness ran from his bonds to his parents' wolves through to Ivan's, too weak and wavering to be relied upon. His mother's Adrian wasn't in sight, though.
His father's Petya was, though, graying and rough-furred, sitting right beside the Emperor's sleek queen wolf a little out of the way, framed under an arch leading back into the palace proper. Their two humans, he noticed after another scan of the crowd for the telltale knots of their presence, were holding court separately.
Sometimes Miles almost wanted to resent Gregor for ceasing to be his commiserating wolfless friend as these events. He had come back from his little Greg Bleakman stunt changed and mature enough to have a widowed queen fall for him (and a Volkdarian, too, though the wolves hardly cared about things twenty, thirty years in the past; Gregor had found it ironic for one second and used it for political weight added to His forgiveness of the Vordarian House the next); Miles had gotten another job.
Granted, the whole affair had hardly been the series of life-changing events leading to a rather massive deepening of perspective for Miles it had been for Gregor. Miles had had his Naismith revelation a few years past; he didn't see himself changing enough to fix whatever in him was so off-putting to wolves anytime soon. Ever.
"Is it jet lag or something?"
Miles arched an eyebrow up at Ivan in pointed doubt. Damn it.
"You keep zoning out, cuz, that's not like you. And all right, you've been away a lot recently, but you're hardly spying on everyone and figuring out who's in figurative bed with whom by the set of their wolf's tail and the kind of pastry crumbs on their sleeves."
"You make me sound like a consulting detective of ill repute," Miles countered. "That, or a... I am not even sure what it makes me sound like, but possibly some kind of carnival magician."
A pause, as Ivan considered him in dry disbelief, a touch of worry. Miles felt the edges, the main concept of Paddy's thought -- wolves and pain, threaded through with his lack of understanding.
"You could have stayed home, people would have understood." Ivan fidgeted uneasily. "On account of, you know. Your jet lag."
Miles gritted his teeth, swallowed a "People would have not." Lord Miles Vorkosigan was desperate for a wolf, everyone knew that. A courier's boring, if cushy, job was not so great that he wouldn't throw it away in a heartbeat to become a wolfbrother.
It was alright, though. It wasn't like any cub had ever looked at him twice in his twenty-three years of life, it wasn't going to change now.
"Jet lag is something best grabbed by the horns and wrestled into submission straight away," he growled back, and started looking for someone else to talk to in earnest.
Ivan gave his diminutive frame a dubious once-over. "And what if it tramples you instead?"
Miles responded with a lovingly detailed, non-verbal but odorous thought of horse manure raining from above, shoved at (he hoped) Paddy for the wolf to transmit, and then he stalked away.
An hour later found Miles under the high arches of one of the smaller -- for imperial palace values of such -- galleries, "admiring the new art" Gregor had commissioned at some point while he'd been in space.
By which of course Miles meant Paddy had fretted at Katenka, who had decided in Her infinite wisdom and all of her queen wolf bossiness that Gregor's tracking-flanking-wolf needed some personal attention. He had been out of scenting range for much too long. Gregor, she flashed loud enough for even Miles to catch, ought to roll on him.
"Yes, thank you, Katenka," Gregor said with a faint, fond smile softening his dark eyes.
"With all the plastic in me I fear I wouldn't go squish half as well as I ought," Miles commented, and made a show of observing some modern rendition of something that was probably a Barrayaran garden, from the red of the leaves. That, or it was on fire. Hard to say.
Gregor, alas, declined to be sidetracked.
"So." He arched a single eyebrow pointedly. "Jetlag?"
Miles sighed. It was much harder to tell Gregor than Ivan to butt out. "The scrabbling of little claws and sweet yowling of high-pitched voices is just something I ought to reaccustom myself to."
Especially since once again he wasn't going to come back home with his match, or even a promise of later meetings, to verify compatibility. This time, it was even deliberate.
It's not like I can have both a wolf sibling and my career, he thought, for Katenka to transmit or not as she chose, but he knew Gregor would understand the dilemma. And I really enjoy my career.
"Do you truly?" Gregor murmured, lips barely moving as he watched the painting.
Miles snorted quietly, turned his back to the open arches that gave way to the gardens. "You know I do. This is merely a... well. It's not even really a sacrifice; I never had it in the first place."
One did not pet Her Imperial Highness, Katenka Gregorsister Volkdarian Volkbarra, not in any place some passerby might catch a glimpse of the act. A fact which she seemed to regret about as much as he did, right now. She gave his offered hand a delicate sniff, pressed upon his mind the scent of native Barrayaran moss and hardy grass that made up her name, possessively.
Yes, I guess I'm one of yours, my lady, that'll have to be enough. He crouched to meet her eyes at the same height, gave her the crooked, rueful smile he couldn't give Gregor here. I really do like it, up there.
He thought of slowly tricking people into revealing their hands to him and moments balanced on the edge of a blade, of exciting chases, furious fights and laughter with his packmates-in-the-stars. He thought of how alive he felt, how proud when he brought if off, when he protected his people, when they tricked the enemy -- all those adventures and ups and downs that someone like him ought never to have had, here on Barrayar.
Lord Vorkosigan and Admiral Naismith couldn't have the same wolf; they couldn't even both have wolves, for how hard it would strain one's belief in mere coincidences.
He was never on planet more than one month at a stretch anymore. He couldn't do that to his brother or sister in soul.
"I'm fine, Sire," he said, looking up, and grinned. "Might even go out and play with some cubs, just for the pleasure of seeing the faces their humans pull."
Gregor gave him a dubious look. "No, I do believe you need a quiet moment to yourself. A quiet, restful moment."
"It would be restful!"
Gregor didn't even bother to reply, "for you, maybe," just narrowed his eyes half-seriously. Miles raised his hands in surrender.
"I'll finish looking around here. You've got some interesting pieces."
Gregor inclined his head, gracious in victory, and turned to leave.
He came to a stop an instant before he could trip over a wolf cub.
Six, seven months old, Miles judged her, knee-high on Gregor and thigh-high on him. Snow-white all over; her eyes were that odd gray-green, no longer puppy blue but not yet settled.
She wanted to know everything about space, and she wanted to know it now.
Miles inhaled through his nose, jaw clenched so hard it creaked.
"Is it me, or is she. Very loud?"
He waited and prayed for the answer to be yes (for the answer to be no.) The little delay before the answer was --
"She is," Gregor eventually said, as his queen toppled the cub on the wooden floor with a decisive paw and grimly went about washing her face. "May I present to you Elizaveta Volkhalas, queen-of-queens-to-be."
"She was presented to Us earlier, with her remaining unbonded littermates. A triumph of Volkhalas breeding; their pack sense is surprisingly potent." Gregor's voice went oddly reserved, almost gentle. "They could make themselves heard by quite a few wolfless people out there, Miles. There have been stronger in our history, but generally as outliers; let us say their illustrious dam threw true and then some."
Disappointment was sharp, rather like being stabbed with a serrated blade, for he most certainly felt it sliding in. He ground the heel of his hand against his eye, swallowed a few vile curses in a Betan accent that had no right to exist here.
He couldn't be so let down, he was -- he wasn't, not really, not now, but he needed to become Admiral Naismith again, he would need that soon. It was good that there was no recognition here, just a child who could make herself heard and was damn well determined to have her curiosity assuaged.
Cold corridors/floating (fish person? Bird person?)/leading the pack to victory? (ooh ooh want)
It was so clear.
"Has ImpSec analyzed the probability that she's --"
Wriggling out from under Katenka, the cub shook herself and let out a high-pitched growl, sent him a forceful image of a delicious stolen bone, hidden in a hole she had dug, her pointy little teeth snapping at any hands grabbing for it.
"--Oh. Information goes in, but doesn't come out, is it, m'lady?"
It was reassuring, and shouldn't have been. She was, in human years, maybe eight to ten years old. One did not entrust secrets of the kind he had in his head to children so young.
"She's still a wolf, Miles," Gregor said after a small eternity. "They live in the present and don't care much to remember details that don't impact them pretty forcefully. I will still have to suggest you may be too tired for this little affair after all, or Illyan might have an aneurysm. He's already having a lot of trouble trying to figure out if it would be better for them all to bond ImpSec, or to be released to the bereaved preserves as far from humans as possible."
"And wouldn't that cause a nice stir," Miles managed to reply somehow, eyes staring away, out through the garden doors, so he wouldn't look down at the cub pawing at his boot and whining quietly.
Gregor didn't signal visibly, but a couple of seconds later a Vorbarra Armsman was walking up to them with his gray brother, picking up the wriggling, unhappy cub bodily.
She'll forget you in two minutes, Miles told himself. She hasn't even shared her name. She's curious about the stories, not about you.
She'll forget you soon. You know it.
It shouldn't have stung so badly. "By the way... Which branch of the Volkhalas does her illustrious mother, ah."
There weren't a lot of she-wolves Gregor could refer to, and the look he gave him was clear on the topic. "Count Vorhalas's sister, Sabina Volkhalas, of course."
There was a great reason to be relieved. Miles did not want to think of the mess of ruffled feathers his father would have to smooth down if Miles went and bonded to the wolf-daughter of a man whose two sons had been executed by his own father, one of them for stupidity and the second for that soltoxin attack that had left Miles himself so ridiculously crippled.
He'd met Sabina once, ivory and cream and already entering her autumn years. He still remembered how she had bared her teeth in a silent, hungry rictus while her brother made Miles' father beg for Miles' life. He wondered if she would care, or if as wolves did she had long since forgotten.
She didn't need an old grudge to react to her brother's current feelings on the question of her no doubt last litter, at any rate.
"I'll make your excuses to whom it may concern," Gregor said, and Miles sketched an ironic bow and turned away from the garden to leave through another door.
His old bed had achieved the peculiar result of feeling both comfortably familiar and out of place, which made it hard to achieve a deep sleep. Then again, he had learned to wake in a hurry the second his bedroom door opened -- even soundless, a mere puff of air was enough. It had saved his life once. (It had gotten him laid twice, because if he had been woken up by someone slipping into bed with him he might have shot first.)
Adrian was hardly that silent. The handle snapped back up with a distinctive thwack when his maw let it go, and he shouldered the door aside with carefree enthusiasm. Miles wasn't done sitting up when his mother's brother flopped his barrel and front paws on the mattress, making it bounce under Miles' ass.
Enthusiastic and friendly at thirty the way most dog-wolves stopped being at five, he'd yet been taught from even before Miles' birth not to roughhouse with him, ever; he would often dance and feint around Miles, and never made any direct contact, even after Miles grew strong enough to withstand the full brunt of his energy.
It was four in the morning. Where the energy came from, Miles didn't know, but he wished it would go back there.
"What is it," Miles groaned, already working on extracting himself from the sheets. (Having a full-grown wolf on them did not help much with that goal.) "Tell me you didn't catch a rat again, you know Mother will have you put it back."
Adrian sneeze-snorted wetly and bounced up to lick a stripe up the side of his face, spiking up his hair with mildly gluey drool.
"You," Miles declared, "are a gross creature." Up at last, he found his slippers and put on a robe. "Ready. Lead the way."
Adrian's tail was whipping past the door in the next second. Miles followed at a jog, trying to keep on being annoyed. The mystery was much too fascinating; neither Adrian nor Petya made it a habit to bother people during the night.
He shuffled down the hall and to the grand staircase, followed his mother's wolf down the first and second flights.
From there, he could see a couple of Armsmen down in the hall. They were bent over something, fussing at it, as Jankowski's dog-wolf lay on the tiles Sphinx-like, staring. Miles went down another flight and the thing squirmed.
It was furry. Speckled brown.
When Adrian reached the ground floor and went to sniff, a small muzzle emerged to sniff back.
Well. They'd seen him now. He went the rest of the way down at a leaden-footed walk.
"We didn't mean to wake you, m'lord," Pym said, and sneaked a firm, disappointed look at Adrian, who wagged his tail back. "But, ah--"
The cub jerked in his arms and flopped free, hurried to Miles.
She was streaked with mud and engine grease. He let her leap against his robe once, rested a hand on her head and pushed down, gentle but firm, to get her back on all fours. She'd been limping.
"What did you--" No, no, he couldn't talk to her. Bent at the waist to keep a hand on her withers, her frowned up at the men. "Why is she limping?"
"Your pardon, m'lord," Jankowski said. "I think she walked her pads raw. We, ah, I was taking my turn at the gate and there she came right up, wanting in, and I figured if I let her wander off she'd be liable to get run over before the night was out..."
"No, letting her in was -- the right choice. I suppose."
What he wouldn't have given for the cub to go no farther than the guards' kiosk.
She'd flopped on her hip on top of his feet, was panting. Miles took one of her paws in hand; she let him fold it back to look at the pads without a single wary twitch, without protest.
Pym and Jankowski were looking at him.
He avoided their eyes. "One of you get cleaning wipes and a first-aid kit. The other one, get the car ready to drive her home."
"Do you know which pack she's from, m'lord? Only she wouldn't tell, or not clearly--"
"Yes," Miles said, and then his voice went strangled in his throat and came out horribly strange, painful. "We met this afternoon."
God, he didn't want them to stare at him like that. He didn't want Pym -- Pym of all people -- to start smiling, he didn't want Oleg and Vaska to start wagging their tails, their ears to perk up like that.
Because! he sent back, and knew he would be heard. You can't be here, why even did you come?
She tilted her head back until her muzzle pointed straight up at him, and replied, because.
Because he had so many new and strange scents and things in his head and she wanted them, and because she liked the scent of his wolf-name, the one his parents' wolves had gifted him, the ozone and burnt, vitrified earth left behind after a lightning strike. Fox-and-roses-bushes-and-compost, she added, prompting Miles to growl at Adrian, had told her it. It was a good name. Unusual. Interesting.
"I don't even know yours," he replied, stupid and desperate.
Hot blood coated the inside of his nose, dripped down his throat; it felt like it should steam in the cool autumn air. At first Miles thought, perfect! Her name is Murder Victim, or even better, Murderer, but then he caught the strong scent of wild boar.
I hunt! I win! she sent him, and leapt to try to lick his nose.
"Oh m'lord," Jankowski said, gladness and relief threaded all through his voice, and Pym went, "Ah, m'lady Countess," and if there was a single intolerable thing to this whole situation it would be his mother attempting to make him glad for this. Where were you when I was desperate for you? he couldn't help but think, unfair and harsh.
The cub blinked at him. Not... here?
Not even born, more like. He was such a--
"Miles? Who's your young guest?"
He picked up the cub bodily and stalked to the parlor. "Someone who won't be here much longer!" he called back over his shoulder. His throat had gone even tighter. "Pym! Medkit. Jankowski, car, hop to it."
He lost a slipper in his escape. Good, now it would look properly ridiculous. Escaping before his own mother, and it was rude too, and he -- couldn't.
He put her down all mud and grease on the thick carpet before the fire, on her flank, told her to stay, her poor pads, how could she, why. (He knew why. How monstrously unfair.)
Pym was quick. Miles caught himself reaching for the medkit, fisted his hands, turned away. "I'll make the call. Clean her up, if you will."
"Certainly, sir," Pym said blandly behind him. Miles went to the comconsole, scrolled through the directory.
Ow ow stings ow/you're far away why?
He selected the code with savage determination, waited teeth clenched for the call to connect.
It seemed to take a century.
"House Vorhalas," said an exhausted-looking Armsman, "how may I direct your call, sir?"
Exhausted, or worried? wondered Miles, reading the strain on his face. Both, probably, if they'd already noticed she was gone. "If you're looking for a white female cub," Miles said; he had to pause for a quarter of a second, and made himself bulldoze through before it lasted. "She was found at the Vorkosigan House's front door. She is fine, save for sore paws. We will have her driven back in a minute."
The look of relief on the man's face should have and didn't help; what helped even less was when he turned to look outside the field of the vid pickup and said, "M'lord Count! Elizaveta was found!"
If there was one person Miles wanted to talk to even less than his mother right now... But there was no running away from this, no love and care to grant him forgiveness for his cowardice. He steeled his spine.
"Lord Vorkosigan," Count Vorhalas said, slow and weighed, when he saw his face.
"Count Vorhalas." A polite nod. "As I was telling your man, your cub fetched up at our guard house. She's tired and dirty and her paws are sore, but she is otherwise healthy. An Armsman will drive her back in a minute."
There; all necessary information had been dispensed. Twice in a row, even. Could they do something the easy way today and leave it at that?
The cub yipped a protest at Pym's ministrations; Miles imagined a steel bar in place of vertebrae and did not turn to check.
"And would you happen to have any idea what she was doing there?" the count asked, staring at him with eyes too piercing by half.
Miles lied through his teeth. "Who knows why cubs do anything? Foolish little things. Now if you'll excuse me..."
Count Vorhalas seemed to stare straight into his guilty little soul for an age before he nodded, abrupt, his face a mask of granite. "My thanks and the thanks of my sister, Vorkosigan. Goodnight."
Shoulders drooping, Miles turned off the comconsole, sat in the nearest armchair. He shouldn't have; when he opened his eyes again he could see nothing but her, still sprawled on the rug and staring at him in confusion as Pym finished anointing her paws with antibacterial salve.
The Vorhalas House must have been on the other side of town. All right, maybe not quite that far, but. How had she even tracked him? He'd been driven back, he hadn't walked -- and by some random imperial car no doubt locked straight back in the garage once it came back, too.
Something he could only call an organizational map unfolded in her head, marked with scent names, wolves born from the Volkhalas pack that she knew where to find because her mother knew, who knew wolves of other packs, who knew Ivan's wolf, and Paddy had come to the house on foot before; once she had him she just had to follow his memories.
She'd spent the night running around from one wolf to the next, assembling clues.
She could have been run over, or stolen by some low-life with a grudge, or savaged by some lady's bulldog, have caught rabies from any manner of vermin --
She responded with a brouhaha of offense. Vermin! As if she could be that weak! He tried not to smile, then let himself, only it wasn't a happy smile when it came out; he turned his head away so Pym wouldn't risk seeing if he looked up at the wrong time.
She'd probably had her shots a long time ago. Vorhalas wouldn't have delayed that.
A faint memory of being poked in the rump and then given a bone floated up to him. Was this what Miles wanted to know?
Yes. No. What was Jankowski doing with that car? Miles wanted her gone already.
But mine, she sent, plaintive and confused.
"No!" Miles snapped, hands clenched on the armrests. "I keep telling you, I can't be! You're a furry nuisance, and I don't want you."
One second of staring at each other, two. He screwed his eyes closed. The set of Pym's shoulders had taken on the purest I Am Furniture lines.
Claws scrabbling on the wooden floor had his head jerking up, but too late; the cub pounced his knees, growling, and gave the side of his nearest hand a good nip.
He couldn't even untangle words in there, or clearer notions than offense and sheer exasperation. Betrayal was there, too, hurt and bewildered, but faint enough not to cause the guilt filling his throat to choke him entirely.
"A lady doesn't bite," he said as calmly and sternly as he could, and wondered where all his command experience had gone, that he couldn't assert himself over a puppy.
Elizaveta growled at him again, and caught the first knuckle of his index finger in her sharp cub's teeth and started shaking it.
Miles was hideously, cowardly glad when Jankowski knocked at the door before he could caress her head and apologize.
She allowed the man to carry her out with a haughty huff, glowering at him over the man's liveried shoulder for as long as she could before the door closed.
Miles went back to bed, and spent a very long time pummeling his pillow into shape before he gave in and went to swallow some sleep timers, to make sure he wouldn't dream.
She was back three days later. They had, this time, stopped her at the guard kiosk.
She had, Pym told him apologetically through his bedroom door, jumped through a window while Armsman Theodori let in a car, and ghosted alongside it through the gate, out of the man's line of sight.
She was apparently just under the threshold where her biomass would have tripped the biological sensors.
Pym was making his report through the door because Miles was a goddamn coward who refused to unlock it, and didn't care one whit that the cub was trying to scratch her way through and whining.
"I will bring her back home, m'lord, all my apologies."
"You do that," Miles replied with a sigh, and kept pacing around his carpet and cyphering the Ballad of the Bandit's Three Blind Daughters hands-free in his mind so he wouldn't hear her prodding and trying to figure out why his mind had gone all odd and distant.
There was a thud outside, and a startled yip. Miles immediately dropped the cypher.
"She, ah." Since when did Pym sound quite that stuffed? "She just. Tripped, m'lord. After... After hiking up her leg."
"... Did she just mark my door?"
"Yes, sir. Also the carpet. Copiously. The maid will be here straight away. If you will permit..."
If Miles laughed, she won, and he couldn't afford losing, so he swallowed it down.
What a bitch, though. What a glorious little wolf. What she would become in adulthood if he...
If he abandoned the Dendarii, let them break into stupid infighting and bogus missions and get themselves killed off one by one because he hadn't been there. How many people would die, so he could stroll around Vorbarr Sultana with his own little Good Enough To Be Vor stamp of one-upmanship?
"Yes, take her away, quickly."
Pym did. Miles heard her fight him and growl all the way down.
"Another pastry, Martya?"
Miles passed his father a folder stamped Confidential along the terrace's table, and exchanged a wry smile with his mother over the stack of files. The Koudelkas had come over for afternoon tea, with three of their daughters in tow, and of course it had instantly morphed into "Oh, I'll just help the Prime Minister with this little thing..."
They were supposed to be done soon. In the meantime his lady mother had gathered Madame Koudelka and her daughters to a little wrought iron table in the grass and they were tempting the men over with delicious morsels. Miles was starting to regret sitting on this side of the divide, no matter how out of place he might end up feeling. It wasn't like he could read the actual files, his job was only to locate the right one as quickly as possible. Helpful, but so completely boring. Then again, paperwork often was.
Wasn't, oddly enough, when he was going over some subtle piece of documented trickery for the Dendarii, but...
Like tracking clues?
Damn it. It had been nine days. Miles had assumed (had hoped) that it meant Vorhalas had finally updated his security to the point where it could keep a cub with zero opposable thumbs at her disposal contained. Surely over a week of separation would drive him out of the most stubborn cub's memory?
He put the files down, started massaging his temples with both hands.
"Oh! Look, a wolf cub!"
"Oh my, what is he doing here?"
"She's female," Miles' mother informed Kareen, and took a sip of tea blandly. Miles resisted the urge to bang his head against the table.
Plush fur gone dun with dust, Elizaveta was trotting her way through the grass, flanked by twice-as-tall Adrian. She paused briefly near the table to sniff at the pastries and women there, and suffered Olivia to ruffle her ears for a handful of seconds before she broke away and hopped up the short flight of stairs to the terrace.
Petya lifted his gray head off the tiles to watch her approach. She hunkered down and butt-wriggled her way to him to touch noses, and Miles fought not to see it as endearing, not to see it as right.
Pack leader! she told him, very firmly. He thought back yes before he could stop himself.
"Why does she bother?" he complained. "She must know I'm only going to have her sent back home!"
Kareen squealed, and pressed a hand to her mouth. Her eyes gleamed.
"Oh my god. Miles, you're getting wolfed? This is--"
"An imperial pain!" Miles retorted before Olivia could congratulate him. God. Everyone was going to know now, if this went on. Where would she track him next, a crowded theater?
"You are not helping."
Elizaveta lolled her tongue at him, and went and nosed at his boots to check where he'd been recently.
"I am not getting wolfed," Miles growled, and tried to pretend he was resisting an unmannerly urge to shove her off with his foot like an annoying dog, but truly he didn't even want to, which was a serious problem in itself. "I have a career. That career does not allow for wolves. Ergo, I will not be acquiring a wolf. Quod erat demonstrandum."
Martya's brows furrowed. "But I know this fellow who does courier stuff too, and he -- ow!"
Kareen had just kicked her sister under the table. Awesome. Fantastic. So not only would Martya soon figure out Miles was no courier, her little sister apparently already knew. Who else?
It wasn't like the Koudelkas' security clearance was low, considering who their father worked for and that they'd been Gregor's occasional playmates in childhood by dint of being his. But still!
He glared at the pup. Congratulations! You are ruining opsec.
She sent back an image of a dozen wolves, hunting together, only this wolf didn't know that wolf was going to flank the prey, so they bumped into each other quite catastrophically.
... I can not tell everyone what I'm up to! It's -- damn it. He raked a hand through his hair as he tried to bring it down to simple concepts. I'm stalking enemy packs, right? They have very good ears. If I tell people what I'm doing the enemy might overhear. I have to be very sneaky!
She tilted her head, considering. After a minute she allowed that being sneaky was fun. She'd had a lot of fun sneaking back in here.
From the way Commodore Koudelka was looking at him, sorry and worried, he'd heard about his troubles already. The girls took turns protesting; his decision was silly, he'd gotten on everyone's nerves for years being crazy about horses and wolves and all things Vor, he would be so happy with a wolf -- all things he had obviously never considered before!
"You didn't need to snap," said Kareen in a small, hurt voice.
Miles started massaging the bridge of his nose. "I'm sorry. This is driving me crazy, I can't -- I just. Sorry."
"I just don't get you, Miles," Olivia told him, brows furrowed. "You're obviously a great match, and who would say no to a wolf? I mean, obviously my temperament is not suited to one at all, but if there was one out there who matched me, it would be... Who refuses a wolf?"
This idiot, Miles didn't reply. This too-lucky, unlucky fool of the gods.
"When I was working for Princess Kareen," Madame Koudelka said, in an oddly quiet, pensive tone, "Captain Negri once told me I had the kind of soul that attracts wolves."
None of the girls had obviously heard that before, from the way they turned to stare at their mother.
"It was a source of great pride, of course, but it meant I was forbidden from coming into contact with any litters coming through the palace. I'd be too noticeable to do my job, for one thing, and a prole woman with a wolf, he'd be pressured into sending me away right quick. So I'd just... I used to daydream about it, knowing it was possible, but in the end my duty to Princess Kareen and Prince Gregor was more important."
"Then you understand!" Miles said, a little desperate, and tried not to be aware of the muzzle nudging and nudging at his thigh, patient and relentless.
Madame Koudelka nodded vaguely. "I had a good life, too. I was never closely in contact with new litters after the war, and then it just... never happened. But my life was fine. I liked it."
Miles caught himself staring down at the cub in defiance, made himself stare at the sisters in turn. "There, see?"
"Then again, I didn't have to actively spurn one," she added, melancholy. "I don't think I could have."
Commodore Koudelka made a strange, pained, lemon-biting face. Miles wondered if he had known, or if he simply didn't enjoy the reminder. Hard to tell. He didn't have a wolf either, and he spent plenty enough time around new litters on the job.
Martya and Kareen sighed in unison.
"Aw, man, it would have been so fun to grow up with a wolf, though. I was so jealous when Miles got to ride Petya all over the place!"
"I couldn't walk," Miles reminded Martya with a heavy, pointed sigh. "Or I wouldn't have. A wolf is not a dumb beast of burden."
Olivia snorted. "Oh, you would have."
Miles frowned at her, and then noticed that his hand was off the table and on Elizaveta's head instead; he snatched it back as if burned. She nosed at his side. "Go steal a snack from the ladies, you brat. Play with a stick. Play with Adrian! He would be delighted."
Hmm no. She rested her jaw on his thigh.
"Mentioning Adrian, I was hardly planning on a wolf myself! I'd never even had so much as a goldfish under my care and you people's codependent bond with a semi-sentient species that was for some reason elevated to some kind of mark of nobility seemed extremely peculiar. Even on old Earth I hardly think dire wolves are so enmeshed with any population." She gave an elegant shrug.
Miles knew the story. They'd been visiting a hospital after the war that hosted many vets. There had been a wolf wing. She'd tripped over a teenage cub with two legs in a cast trying to play fetch with the displeased nurses' rolls of bandage and fallen straight on her face, skirts displaying an unseemly amount of womanly leg.
"But you didn't bond with him while in service," Miles replied.
"Service makes accommodations for that kind of thing, though," the Commodore started, and Miles's frustration burst out.
"No! My career is finally going well. After all those false starts I'm where I want to be, and I can't be there and be with her. Should I leave her alone downside for months or years on end? She wants to come with me!"
Elizaveta tilted her head at him.
Pack is waiting up there?
She stretched out a week of time for him, and then a day -- she had no real notion of longer-lasting stretches of time than that. This with the pack up there, that with the pack here?
"Yes." Which was the problem. It would be so cruel to leave her behind, to deny her the adventures she burned for...
The smell inside a power armor, pungent sweat and adrenaline. The meals at the canteen, strange slops smothered in enough spices to drop a horse and mysterious meals that had never mooed in their non-lives, or photosynthesized, for that matter. The people, the intrigue.
A wolf smelling like blood and boar in there. Waiting.
He unfisted his hands, slow and cautious. There were little half-moons gone white in his palms.
He jumped off his feet, started pacing. Elizaveta wagged her tail, hopped to nose his shoulder, fell back. Her tail was gaining speed.
But there are no other wolves up there to be pack with, he said, heart falling.
So? She sneezed her disdain. I can talk to everyone.
Oh. So she could. So she could. "This is -- this could -- well, of course, the glaringly obvious issues, but -- and I'd have to--"
"M'lord?" An Armsman was standing in the French door, wincing weakly. "Count Vorhalas is on the line, inquiring as to whether we might have seen Elizaveta Volkhalas around. Perchance."
Miles whirled around. "Yes," he said pointlessly, as Elizaveta leapt again, her muzzle almost coming up to his face. "Tell him I'll -- oh, no, wait, I should probably call Simon first -- tell him she's here, and I'll."
He looked down at the cub, who met his eyes and yawned straight in his face. Slow, slooow, sleeping-Miles!
"Well. I'll drive her back either way, I suppose. Now--"
His father offered his comlink wordlessly.
"Oh." Miles swallowed, caught by a sudden attack of nerves. "Da, d'you think--"
"I think if you take it back she might take her pound of flesh off you quite too literally," his father said, eyes crinkling, and pushed the comlink at him. "You'll find some way to make it work, I'm sure."
Miles paused. This was the last time he could hesitate. Once he took this from his father's hand, he was committed.
What if Simon says no? He knew she could feel the context in his mind, how important the man's good opinion was to him personally, how professionally he could --
Make him say yes! Or bite him.
Miles barked out a short laugh. We'll leave the biting to you.
She yipped in enthusiastic agreement. Miles had a feeling he might come to regret this, if the occasion ever came for her to act on her threat.
Well, to him the duty of making sure it wouldn't come.
He took the comlink with a grateful, throat-tied nod, and dodged inside the reception room.
"Did you figure out how she came in this time around?" his father was asking the Armsman behind him, low and amused.
"Yes, m'lord," the man said, ashamed. "She convinced several of our wolves to help dig a tunnel under the force field. The soil is fresh and the patrol this morning saw nothing; it was done in the last two hours, belike."
Miles snorted at the same time as his father, back outside. "Well. Queen wolves, what can you do."
What can you do indeed. Miles nudged Elizaveta in the ribs, smiled a little rueful smile as she jumped back at him, tail wagging like she was attempting to take flight.
"Sir?" Simon said. "What can I do for you?"
Alright. Showtime. "No, sir, it's me. This is about my, ah. Gregor informed you of my wolf problem, I suppose?"
Heart in his throat from the nerves, Miles waited for a reply.
"He did mention." Simon did not sound best pleased. "He also mentioned he had a feeling that would not be the end of it, which the next incident seemed sadly to corroborate. Are you telling me...?"
"Yes, sir, I'm sorry," she's mine, I'm hers, it's marvelous, I'm not sorry at all, "but there is quite the obvious workaround to the little problem of Vorkosigan and Naismith having the same wolf."
A pause, a groan. "Damn it, Miles--"
"It's for Vorkosigan not to have one."
He waited briefly, to let the idea start to burrow in Simon's brain, expertly timed to end before he could come back with a retort.
"She could also come from Earth, which Naismith has been known to frequent, and her fur might easily be dyed in case a link between Lord Vorkosigan and a white wolf ever came out--"
"Dye's ridiculously easy to test for," Simon countered, and then paused to swear. If he was critiquing the details, he was tacitly accepting the main thrust, or at least that was how Miles (apparently too often) chose to interpret it.
"Naismith could dye his wolf because it amuses him to pour chemicals for vain pampered ladies on his warrior wolf, and he could definitely enjoy having a wolf especially because his original, who socially values and craves one much more, does not."
"That would certainly be perverse enough for that character," Simon agreed reluctantly. Miles was torn between crowing and being offended on Naismith's behalf. "Which is not to say I approve. This puts an unnecessary element of doubt and confusion in your story, which is already pretty eccentric in the first place! Do we want to give people more reasons to question it?"
"Well, it isn't like this invalidates the rest of his background. Naismith's known to go to odd places and pick up odd things, he's known to be eccentric, I can't see that this would make him seem out of character."
Elizaveta stood before him with her big puppy paws, staring like she could stare at Simon through him.
"But you can see that it would make people more confused and curious about his personal life?" Simon prodded, merciless.
Miles had to concede that one. "I'm sure there's a way to spin it so flamboyantly no one thinks to wonder about something that's being pushed in their faces." A little sigh. "But yes, yes, I agree it's certainly a concern."
"I'm glad to hear that," Simon replied tartly.
"So," Miles inhaled, "That's a point against. But now for a point for -- she is a powerful enough telepath to read non-wolfed people."
A long, pregnant pause.
"So the choice becomes, would you prefer her here, in Vorbarr Sultana, just beside ImpSec -- or out there amongst the enemies of the Imperium?"
She lolled her tongue, pricked up her ears proudly, chin up. That little brat, that lovely little brat. Loudest, best!
You certainly are that. You pest.
She laughed at him. Over the comlink Simon was silent, no doubt thinking, most certainly tapping his finger against the desk, tap tap tap, pause, tap tap tap.
"We need to analyze this," Simon eventually said. Miles looked up at the Armsman at the door, waiting patiently to be noticed.
"Well, you've got until my groundcar gets to Count Vorhalas' door," he said apologetically, "Because he won't wish to understand much in the matter of delays, and he's not stupid enough not to notice the significance of repeat visits to this house." The man had known to call here to check, after all. Most likely he already knew.
Simon swore vilely. Miles bit his lip rather than smile at his superior's misfortune; peeving him now would be most unkind, not to mention counterproductive in the extreme.
"Why your lot goes so crazy over those beasts I will never understand," Simon eventually said with a heavy sigh.
"Shall I manufacture a fire in the garage, or expect traffic jams on the way?" Miles asked, and tried not to grin down at Elizaveta's sudden burst of excitement. It figured he would have a wolf as strange as himself regarding things that burned and/or exploded, and the appeal thereof.
"Miles, if you put fire to your garage don't think for one second I won't be telling your father exactly why." A short sigh. "Get going. I'll run this by one of my analysts and call you back on your own wristcom."
"Yes, sir!" Miles replied, and laughed when Elizaveta yip-howled her triumph.
A half-hour later and a last discussion with Simon saw him much sobered up. He climbed out of the groundcar with what he hoped looked like gravitas and not reluctance (it was neither, it was an odd sadness that he was cowardly glad Elizaveta didn't get.)
She had long since wriggled out over his lap when he made it out, landed in gravel and started running in tight little circles, spraying it everywhere; the liveried men watched in odd consternation as she took to orbiting Miles the second he straightened up and stepped away from the car.
She might as well have been screaming mine, mine to the rooftops, the way she tried to wind around his legs like a cat, the way her scent name suffused his in the pack sense.
"My lord Count will receive you in the red parlor," one of the Armsmen said, with that peculiar expression of one speaking through the pack sense, no doubt with the Count himself.
Miles followed, Elizaveta showing him the way at an eager trot.
He was nervous, at that. A bit. Count Vorhalas was a formidable man, his father's equal on almost all points. Adversaries. He would never be a friend, never someone Miles could be comfortable around even a little bit, but...
Elizaveta leapt into the room, raced to the older cream queen seated on a tasseled cushion by the fire. The older wolf sat up, sniffed at her face, her flanks, interested. Not extremely concerned, though, not as she would have been for a younger cub.
Cubs find matches and go, he heard, like an echo, something about the natural way of things, litter after litter growing up and leaving, sometimes just next door, sometimes out of reach of her pack sense entirely.
She had always known Elizaveta would be one of those who left. That one was no subordinate bitch, no pack second; she was queen-to-be through and through.
Miles pulled himself away from her golden gaze, met her brother's steady, measuring eyes.
The man was old, but the way a healthy tree was old; time had just dug his roots in deeper, hardened, weathered him.
"Count Vorhalas, sir. Thank you for receiving me."
"A bit late, are you," the man replied not-so-cryptically.
He definitely didn't mean the time wasted in traffic, putting the finishing touches to Miles' new cover story. Ouch. Well, Miles deserved that one. "All my apologies." He firmed his tone; not apologizing any longer, just stating facts that he did not wish to talk at length on. "It shan't happen again."
Miles then bowed, formal, mouthed the first words of the traditional request to himself -- no, he wasn't going to forget the way this one went, he didn't think. He hoped not.
"Sir, ma'am, I have found a--"
Mine! Elizaveta yelled at the top of her mind-voice, and leapt up to lick his face. Mine! Weird and interesting and mine! Stalk stalk hunt pounce mine!
Miles pressed his lips together hard to keep from laughing, half from nerves and half from her being such a brat. Count Vorhalas' shoulders had slumped down an inch in mild, amused despair.
"... As she says." He dared a smile, faint and quickly smothered. "I am hers as she is mine; I would very much appreciate your blessing."
The man didn't reply; his wolf stood, stretched her back and then wandered toward Miles, ears canted neutrally, tail at a hunting angle. Elizaveta licked at her mother's jaw, maybe not-so-incidentally standing in her way.
Miles offered his hand, palm up. "Lady Sabina."
She didn't lick, just breathed on his hand for a second, and drew back, regarding him with calm thoughtfulness. Then she turned her head and started grooming the cub's dusty ear. (Miles had done his best to clean her up in the car, but nothing short of a bath would have restored the pristine white of her coat, he feared.)
Silence stretched. Miles waited for a second, two -- and then his patience with this tactic to make him sweat ran out. He was not "Vorkosigan's boy"; he was a man and a leader in his own right, and besides he doubted the man would respect awkwardness and submission.
"I know our families have had their differences in the past," Miles said, quiet, sober. "I know they might always. I don't personally see what relevance it should have in this, in a matter between wolves."
I will not apologize for your sons (dead-gone-what a waste), he thought-felt-sent, and knew it to go through, channeled by his growing bond with Elizaveta, to her mother, to Sabina's brother, and I will not be expecting you to apologize for me (crippled-twisted-wrong (won't let it stop me)); neither of us are responsible for our loved ones' choices.
The count slowly inclined his head in a nod; conceding the point?
"Indeed it does not," he said, "have any relevance at all."
A hard knot of tension unwound in Miles' guts.
"You may have my blessing, Miles Elizavetasbrother Vorkosigan. With as much promptness and lack of reluctance as you yourself have shown in this."
Was the man never going to let it go? Miles thought, half-peeved and half amused.
No, I don't think I will, a thought floated back to him, distantly sardonic.
"There were reasons!"
Doubt came back to him wordless; Vorhalas arched a pepper-and-salt eyebrow.
Miles tried to fix a stern, determined look on his face. "Some of which were very good, and none of which I will share, sir."
Count Vorhalas snorted, turned abruptly away. "Well, come along. You'll be wanting your copy of her family tree, I suppose." And then the both of you can leave.
Which I agree will be a very good thing.
It was oddly freeing to know exactly how much he could get away with, with this man, to know how his words impacted his audience as soon as they came out. Though not having to perpetually fence verbally and mentally with him would be a relief...
He buried the flash of guilt at that thought as deep as he could, and followed Vorhalas and Sabina to Vorhalas' office.
The pack's paperwork was kept the old-fashioned way, on a paper-and-ink ledger; hidden underneath in the drawer was a folder marked Sabina Volkhalas (Wintering Bear and Ice) in quite nice calligraphy. Inside were birth certificates with family trees going back from five to ten generations.
Vorhalas didn't sit, so Miles didn't either, taking his copy from his hand. Nice paper, thick. Elizaveta pushed her nose against the hand holding her birth certificate, curious. What is this?
It's you. He tilted it so she could smell the ink, even though it wouldn't tell her much.
White, female cub, no identifying marks. Her scent name was transcribed as Victorious Chasse à Courre, which he found oddly entertaining considering one hardly hunted bears while riding horses. Then again her sire's scent name was written down as Horse Paddock in Summer, which Miles knew from experience mostly smelled like horse dung.
Nice scent! Elizaveta shared.
Miles repressed a smile. I must agree. He slipped the sheet without folding inside his jacket, careful not to wrinkle it. "Thank you, sir."
"I trust we will not have to discuss anything else until Elizaveta's first litter," the Count said as he went around his desk to guide Miles to the door.
Oh. Damn. Yes. When a bitch wolf left a House, the men of that House had first right of visit to the cubs -- which would be mildly awkward, but that wasn't really an issue. The issue...
Well. Illyan might disapprove but it was more considerate for them to have some warning, obscure though it would have to be. The man was one of a very small number who knew about Admiral Naismith, and had never talked, and while he didn't know the cover was still active, he... Well.
Miles hoped, strangely, that he at least knew Miles was no bloody courier.
"I'm afraid that won't be for some time, sir. My career will not permit one for... quite a few years." Much more than the two years recommended to let a bitch get her full growth.
Racing fighting tricking adventures! Elizaveta shared with great enthusiasm.
Vorhalas stared down at her for a few seconds, and then back up at Miles, a faint spark of humor that Miles hadn't noticed smothering in his eyes.
"I see. Well, there will hardly be a shortage of litters for my people to attend in the meantime."
He guided them to the hall.
Elizaveta seemed to start realizing that she wouldn't be coming back here; she whined as she passed the door, held open by a supercilious Armsman, turned to sniff under the door when it closed behind them with a definitive bang.
"One of the men gave us her blankie and a toy," the driver told Miles quietly as he held the door for Miles to get in. "Poor lil' tyke, she'll be fine in the evening, you'll see. Seen it often enough."
Miles nodded without answering, let his wolf climb in first before he seated himself.
The car door closed, another opened and closed in turn, the car started.
He wrapped himself up in the powerful scent of hot blood pouring off a wounded, lathering boar, placed his hand on her head when she looked up at him.
She looked sad, and felt sad, and he hated having to add to that.
You remember when I was talking to Simon Illyan...?
He glided his hand down her back, felt the plushness of her baby fur. His wolf. His sister. His soulmate.
You have to be a secret here.
She didn't get where he was leading her, not yet.
So we have to trick people into thinking you're dead. So Miles would have to hide the certificate, and if anyone noticed it missing from Vorhalas' and had reason to care they would likely think it fell out, or Vorhalas had thrown it away when she "died".
Tricking is fun, she said wistfully.
And we have to make sure no secrets leak out, ever. That was Simon's condition.
There was no way but to say it. You need to break your pack bond with your mother and littermates. He pulled her halfway onto his lap, and tried not to think about his guilt. You need to break it hard, all the way, until there's nothing left.
She looked up at him and his heart cracked from the startled misery in them. For a second he wanted to take it back, bring her back to the Count, refuse her again and for good, this time.
She would be so lonely.
He couldn't even let her bond much with the Volkosigan pack, not yet, not until she was better versed in the ways of lying mind to mind. The Armsmen didn't have the clearance.
...But not from you?
No, not from me. He hugged her tight, curled over her head. Never.
One second, two, and then he felt something give way in his mind, in hers, a mass of -- a crowd he hadn't noticed whispering in the distance, now brutally silenced.
She heaved out a shaking sigh and crawled farther into his lap. Miles cradled her all the way home.
Trap snapping closed!
Miles smiled urbanely at the Kshatryan woman who was his opposite number in this little delegation, and then he upended the table and its drinks on top of her.
They'd allowed their weapons to be sealed -- bound to their holsters with annoying adhesive string that would take a while longer than they had to dissolve, and he was very sure that the five bodyguards she had come with wore no guns either. The one who'd managed to smuggle monofilament wire up his sleeve went down when Elizaveta swept him off his feet with a hit of her rump to the back of his knees, and Taura had the last four nursing broken legs or arms in a matter of seconds.
Elizaveta closed her maw on her target's leg and dragged him out of the way as Miles shoved the wheeled pallet forward. (He did roll over the poor man's hair.) The second he was out in the corridor he was tapping his mike, only to hear a lot of static.
Elli! Elli Elli Elli, trap!
Quinn would be too far away to hear, and like almost two thirds of his troops was half wolf-deaf to boot, but that never did stop Elizaveta from trying. Taura, though -- Taura moved with them like a pack of three wolves, like an extension of Miles' will, like she was an extension of their senses, like Elizaveta was sister to them both.
They passed a few very surprised Kshatryan soldiers running just a bit too late to their positions, who Miles and Taura stunned without hesitation, and then they were back in their shuttle. Enemy scents?
None! Elizaveta confirmed after a good long sniff around the cockpit. No dirty not-ours fingers in our things.
They could probably afford to take the risk of flying out without a thorough check, then. It wasn't like they had time for it anyways.
The communication blackout was still happening, and no one from their ship had come to look for them upon losing contact. Which meant the Dendarii had their own worries right now.
Hands on the commands, Miles grinned. "Taura, Lizzie?" he said in his twangiest Betan accent.
The she-wolf was sprawled with all her impressive length across Taura's lap, being petted in long, expert strokes. Both of them turned to watch him.
"Ladies, looks like battle armor weather to me."
They had the same hungry, expectant smile.