Copyright © 1999
"Have you heard if the municipal traffic control system will be coming on line soon?" Pym asked, apropos what Miles counted as their third near-miss this week.
"Nope. Delayed in development again, Lord Vorbohn the Younger reports. Due to the increase in fatal lightflyer incidents, they're concentrating on getting the automated air system up first."
Pym nodded, and returned his attention to the crowded road. The Armsman was a habitually fit man, his graying temples seeming merely an accent to his brown and silver uniform. He'd served the Vorkosigans as a liege-sworn guard since Miles had been an Academy cadet, and would doubtless go on doing so till either he died of old age, or they were all killed in traffic.
So much for short cuts. Next time they'd go around the campus. Miles watched through the canopy as the taller new buildings of the University fell behind, and they passed through its spiked iron gates into the pleasant old residential streets favored by the families of senior professors and staff. The distinctive architecture dated from the last un-electrified decade before the end of the Time of Isolation. This area had been reclaimed from decay in the past generation, and now featured shady green Earth trees, and bright flower boxes under the tall narrow windows of the tall narrow houses. Miles re-balanced the flower arrangement between his feet. Would it be seen as redundant by its intended recipient?
Pym glanced aside at his slight movement, following his eye to the foliage on the floor. "The lady you met on Komarr seems to have made a strong impression on you, m'lord…" He trailed off invitingly.
"Yes," said Miles, uninvitingly.
"Your lady mother had high hopes of that very attractive Miss Captain Quinn you brought home those times." Was that a wistful note in Pym's voice?
"Miss Admiral Quinn, now," Miles corrected with a sigh. "So had I. But she made the right choice for her." He grimaced out the canopy. "I've sworn off falling in love with galactic women and then trying to persuade them to immigrate to Barrayar. I've concluded my only hope is to find a woman who can already stand Barrayar, and persuade her to like me."
"And does Madame Vorsoisson like Barrayar?"
"About as well as I do." He smiled grimly.
"And, ah… the second part?"
"We'll see, Pym." Or not, as the case may be. At least the spectacle of a man of thirty-plus, going courting seriously for the first time in his life -- the first time in the Barrayaran style, anyway -- promised to provide hours of entertainment for his interested staff.
Miles let his breath and his nervous irritation trickle out through his nostrils as Pym found a place to park near Lord Auditor Vorthys's doorstep, and expertly wedged the polished old armored groundcar into the inadequate space. Pym popped the canopy; Miles climbed out, and stared up at the three-story patterned tile front of his colleague's home.
Georg Vorthys had been a professor of engineering failure analysis at the Imperial University for thirty years. He and his wife had lived in this house for most of their married life, raising three children and two academic careers, before Emperor Gregor had appointed Vorthys as one of his hand-picked Imperial Auditors. Neither of the Professors Vorthys had seen any reason to change their comfortable lifestyle merely because the awesome powers of an Emperor's Voice had been conferred upon the retired engineer; Madame Dr. Vorthys still walked every day to her classes. Dear no, Miles! the Professora had said to him, when he'd once wondered aloud at their passing up this opportunity for social display. Can you imagine moving all those books? Not to mention the laboratory and workshop jamming the entire basement.
Their cheery inertia proved a happy chance, when they invited their recently-widowed niece and her young son to live with them while she completed her own education. Plenty of room, the Professor had boomed jovially, the top floor is so empty since the children left. So close to classes, the Professora had pointed out practically. Less than six kilometers from Vorkosigan House! Miles had exulted in his mind, adding a polite murmur of encouragement aloud. And so Ekaterin Nile Vorvayne Vorsoisson had arrived. She's here, she's here! Might she be looking down at him from the shadows of some upstairs window even now?
Miles glanced anxiously down the all-too-short length of his body. If his dwarfish stature bothered her, she'd shown no signs of it so far. Well and good. Going on to the aspects of his appearance he could control: no food stains spattered his plain gray tunic, no unfortunate street detritus clung to the soles of his polished half-boots. He checked his distorted reflection in the groundcar's rear canopy. Its convex mirroring widened his lean, if slightly hunched, body to something resembling his obese clone-brother Mark, a comparison he primly ignored. Mark was, thank God, not here. He essayed a smile, for practice; in the canopy, it came out twisted and repellent. No dark hair sticking out in odd directions, anyway.
"You look just fine, my lord," Pym said in a bracing tone from the front compartment. Miles's face heated, and he flinched away from his reflection. He recovered himself enough to take the flower arrangement and rolled-up flimsy Pym handed out to him with, he hoped, a tolerably bland expression. He balanced the load in his arms, turned to face the front steps, and took a deep breath.
After about a minute, Pym inquired helpfully from behind him, "Would you like me to carry anything?"
"No. Thank you." Miles trod up the steps and wiggled a finger free to press the chime-pad. Pym pulled out a reader, and settled comfortably in the groundcar to await his lord's pleasure.
Footsteps sounded from within, and the door swung open on the smiling pink face of the Professora. Her gray hair was wound up on her head in her usual style. She wore a dark rose dress with a light rose bolero, embroidered with green vines in the manner of her home District. This somewhat formal Vor mode, which suggested she was just on her way either in or out, was belied by the soft buskins on her feet. "Hello, Miles. Goodness, you're prompt."
"Professora," Miles ducked a nod to her, and smiled in turn. "Is she here? Is she in? Is she well? You said this would be a good time. I'm not too early, am I? I thought I'd be late. The traffic was miserable. You're going to be around, aren't you? I brought these. Do you think she'll like them?" The sticking-up red flowers tickled his nose as he displayed his gift while still clutching the rolled-up flimsy, which had a tendency to try to unroll and escape whenever his grip loosened.
"Come in, yes, all's well. She's here, she's fine, and the flowers are very nice --" the Professora rescued the bouquet and ushered him into her tiled hallway, closing the door firmly behind them with her foot. The house was dim and cool after the spring sunshine outside, and had a fine aroma of wood wax, old books, and a touch of academic dust.
"She looked pretty pale and fatigued, at Tien's funeral. Surrounded by all those relatives. We really didn't get a chance to say more than two words each." I'm sorry and Thank you, to be precise. Not that he'd wanted to talk much to the late Tien Vorsoisson's family.
"It was an immense strain for her, I think," said the Professora judicially. "She'd been through so much horror, and except for Georg and myself -- and you -- there wasn't a soul there to whom she could talk truth about it. Of course, her first concern was getting Nikki through it all. But she held together without a crack from first to last. I was very proud of her."
"Indeed. And she is…?" Miles craned his neck, glancing into the rooms off the entry hall: a cluttered study lined with bookshelves, and a cluttered parlor lined with bookshelves. No young widows.
"Right this way." The Professora conducted him down the hall and out through her kitchen to the little urban back-garden. A couple of tall trees and a brick wall made a private nook of it. Beyond a tiny circle of green grass, at a table in the shade, a woman sat with flimsies and a reader spread before her. She was chewing gently on the end of a stylus, and her dark brows were drawn down in her absorption. She wore a calf-length dress in much the same style as the Professora's, but solid black, with the high collar buttoned up to her neck. Her bolero was gray, trimmed with simple black braid running around its edge. Her dark hair was drawn back to a thick braided knot at the nape of her neck. She looked up at the sound of the door opening; her brows flew up and her lips parted in a flashing smile that made Miles blink. Ekaterin.
"Mil -- my Lord Auditor!" She rose in a flare of skirt; he bowed over her hand.
"Madame Vorsoisson. You look well." She looked wonderful, if still much too pale. Part of that might be the effect of all that severe black, which also made her eyes show a brilliant blue-gray. "Welcome to Vorbarr Sultana. I brought these..." He gestured, and the Professora set the flower arrangement down on the table. "Though they hardly seem needed, out here."
"They're lovely," Ekaterin assured him, sniffing them in approval. "I'll take them up to my room later, where they will be very welcome. Since the weather has brightened up, I find I spend as much time as possible out here, under the real sky."
She'd spent nearly a year sealed in a Komarran dome. "I can understand that," Miles said. The conversation hiccuped to a brief stop, while they smiled at each other.
Ekaterin recovered first. "Thank you for coming to Tien's funeral. It meant so much to me."
"It was the least I could do, under the circumstances. I'm only sorry I couldn't do more."
"But you've already done so much for me and Nikki --" She broke off at his gesture of embarrassed denial, and instead said, "But won't you sit down? Aunt Vorthys --?" She drew back one of the spindly garden chairs.
The Professora shook her head. "I have a few things to attend to inside. Carry on." She added a little cryptically, "You'll do fine."
She went back into her house, and Miles sat across from Ekaterin, placing his flimsy on the table to await its strategic moment. It half-unrolled, eagerly.
"Is your case all wound up?" she asked.
"That case will have ramifications for years to come, but I'm done with it for now," Miles replied. "I just turned in my last reports yesterday, or I would have been here to welcome you earlier." Well, that and a vestigial sense that he'd ought to let the poor woman at least get her bags unpacked, before descending in force.
"Will you be sent out on another assignment now?"
"I don't think Gregor will let me risk getting tied up elsewhere till after his marriage. For the next couple of months, I'm afraid all my duties will be social ones."
"I'm sure you'll do them with your usual flair."
God, I hope not. "I don't think flair is exactly what my Aunt Vorpatril -- she's in charge of all the Emperor's wedding arrangements -- would wish from me. More like, shut up and do what you're told, Miles. But speaking of paperwork, how's your own? Is Tien's estate settled? Did you manage to recapture Nikki's guardianship from that cousin of his?"
"Vassily Vorsoisson? Yes, thank heavens, there was no problem with that part."
"So, ah, what's all this, then?" Miles nodded at the cluttered table.
"I'm planning my course work for the next session at university. I was too late to start this summer, so I'll begin in the fall. There's so much to choose from. I feel so ignorant."
"Educated is what you aim to be coming out, not going in."
"I suppose so."
"And what will you choose?"
"Oh, I'll start with basics -- biology, chemistry…" she brightened. "One real horticulture course." She gestured at her flimsies. "For the rest of the season, I'm trying to find some sort of paying work. I'd like to feel I'm not totally dependent on the charity of my relatives, even if it's only my pocket money."
That seemed almost the opening he was looking for, but Miles's eye caught sight of a red ceramic basin, sitting on the wooden planks forming a seat bordering a raised garden bed. In the middle of the pot a red-brown blob, with a fuzzy fringe like a rooster's crest growing out of it, pushed up through the dirt. If it was what he thought… He pointed to the basin. "Is that by chance your old bonsai'd skellytum? Is it going to live?"
She smiled. "Well, at least it's the start of a new skellytum. Most of the fragments of the old one died on the way home from Komarr, but that one took."
"You have a -- for native Barrayaran plants, I don't suppose you can call it a green thumb, can you?"
"Not unless they're suffering from some pretty serious plant diseases, no."
"Speaking of gardens." Now, how to do this without jamming his foot in his mouth too deeply. "I don't think, in all the other uproar, I ever had a chance to tell you how impressed I was with your garden designs, that I saw on your comconsole."
"Oh." Her smile fled, and she shrugged. "They were no great thing. Just twiddling."
Right. Let them not bring up any more of the recent past than absolutely necessary, till time had a chance to blunt memory's razor edges. "It was your Barrayaran garden, the one with all the native species, which caught my eye. I'd never seen anything like it."
"There are a dozen of them around. Several of the District universities keep them, as living libraries for their biology students. It's not really an original idea."
"Well," he persevered, feeling like a fish swimming upstream against this current of self-deprecation, "I thought it was very fine, and deserved better than just being a ghost garden on the holovid. I have this spare lot, you see…"
He flattened out his flimsy, which was a ground plot of the block occupied by Vorkosigan House. He tapped his finger on the bare square at the end. "There used to be another great house, next to ours, which was torn down during the Regency. ImpSec wouldn't let us build anything else -- they wanted it as a security zone. There's nothing there but some scraggly grass, and a couple of trees that somehow survived ImpSec's enthusiasm for clear lines of fire. And a criss-cross of walks, where people made mud paths by taking short cuts, and they finally gave up and put some gravel down. It's an extremely boring piece of ground." So boring he had completely ignored it, till now.
She tilted her head, to follow his hand as it blocked out the space on the ground plan. Her own long finger made to trace a delicate curve, but then shyly withdrew. He wondered what possibility her mind's eye had just seen, there.
"Now, I think," he went on valiantly, "that it would be a splendid thing to install a Barrayaran garden -- all native species -- open to the public, in this space. A sort of gift from the Vorkosigan family to the city of Vorbarr Sultana. With running water, like in your design, and walks and benches and all those civilized things. And those discreet little name tags on all the plants, so more people could learn about the old ecology and all that." There: art, public service, education -- was there any bait he'd left off his hook? Oh yes, money. "It's a happy chance that you're looking for a summer job," chance, hah, watch and see if I leave anything to chance, "because I think you'd be the ideal person to take this on. Design and oversee the installation of the thing. I could give you an unlimited, um, generous budget, and a salary, of course. You could hire workmen, bring in whatever you needed."
And she would have to visit Vorkosigan House practically every day, and consult frequently with its resident lord. And by the time the shock of her husband's death had worn away, and she was ready to put off her forbidding formal mourning garb, and every unattached Vor bachelor in the capital showed up on her doorstep, Miles could have a lock on her affections that would permit him to fend off the most glittering competition. It was too soon, wildly too soon, to suggest courtship to her crippled heart; he had that clear in his head, even if his own heart howled in frustration. But a straightforward business friendship just might get past her guard….
Her eyebrows had flown up; she touched an uncertain finger to those exquisite, pale unpainted lips. "This is exactly the sort of thing I wish to train to do. I don't know how to do it yet."
"On the job training," Miles responded instantly. "Apprenticeship. Learning by doing. You have to start sometime. You can't start sooner than now."
"But what if I make some dreadful mistake?"
"I do intend this be an on-going project. People who are enthusiasts about this sort of thing always seem to be changing their gardens around. They get bored with the same view all the time, I guess. If you come up with better ideas later, you can always revise the plan. It will provide variety."
"I don't want to waste your money."
If she ever became Lady Vorkosigan, she would have to get over that quirk, Miles decided firmly.
"You don't have to decide here on the spot," he purred, and cleared his throat. Watch that tone, boy. Business. "Why don't you come to Vorkosigan House tomorrow, and walk over the site in person, and see what ideas it stirs up in your mind. You really can't tell anything by looking at a flimsy. We can have lunch, afterward, and talk about what you see as the problems and possibilities then. Logical?"
She blinked. "Yes, very." Her hand crept back curiously toward the flimsy.
"What time may I pick you up?"
"Whatever is convenient for you, Lord Vorkosigan. Oh, I take that back. If it's after twelve hundred, my aunt will be back from her morning class, and Nikki can stay with her."
"Excellent!" Yes, much as he liked Ekaterin's son, Miles thought he could do without the assistance of an active nine-year-old in this delicate dance. "Twelve hundred it will be. Consider it a deal." Only a little belatedly, he added, "And how does Nikki like Vorbarr Sultana, so far?"
"He seems to like his room, and this house. I think he's going to get a little bored, if he has to wait until his school starts to locate boys his own age."
It would not do to leave Nikolai Vorsoisson out of his calculations. "I gather then that the retro-genes took, and he's in no more danger of developing the symptoms of Vorzohn's Dystrophy?"
A smile of deep maternal satisfaction softened her face. "That's right. I'm so pleased. The doctors in the clinic here in Vorbarr Sultana report he had a very clean and complete cellular uptake. Developmentally, it should be just as if he'd never inherited the mutation at all." She glanced across at him. "It's as if I'd had a five hundred kilo weight lifted from me. I could fly, I think."
So you should.
Nikki himself emerged from the house at this moment, carrying a plate of cookies with an air of consequence, followed by the Professora with a tea tray and cups. Miles and Ekaterin hastened to clear a place on the table.
"Hello, Nikki," said Miles.
"Hi, Lord Vorkosigan. Is that your groundcar out front?"
"It's a barge." This observation was delivered without scorn, as a point of interest.
"I know. It's a relic of my father's time as Regent. It's armored, in fact -- has a massive momentum."
"Oh yeah?" Nikki's interest soared. "Did it ever get shot at?"
"I don't believe that particular car ever did, no."
When Miles had last seen Nikki, the boy had been wooden-faced and pale with concentration, carrying the taper to light his father's funeral offering, obviously anxious to get his part of the ceremony right. He looked much better now, his brown eyes quick and his face mobile again. The Professora settled and poured tea, and the conversation became general for a time.
It became clear shortly that Nikki's interest was more in the food than in his mother's visitor; he declined a flatteringly grown-up offer of tea, and with his great-aunt's permission snagged several cookies and dodged back indoors to whatever he'd been occupying himself with before. Miles tried to remember what age he'd been when his own parents' friends had stopped seeming part of the furniture. Well, except for the military men in his father's train, of course, who'd always riveted his attention. But then, Miles had been military-mad from the time he could walk. Nikki was jump-ship mad, and would probably light up for a jump pilot. Perhaps Miles could provide one sometime, for Nikki's delectation. A happily married one, he corrected this thought.
He'd laid his bait on the table, Ekaterin had taken it; it was time to quit while he was winning. But he knew for a fact that she'd already turned down one premature offer of re-marriage from a completely unexpected quarter. Had any of Vorbarr Sultana's excess Vor males found her yet? The capital was crawling with young officers, rising bureaucrats, aggressive entrepreneurs, men of ambition and wealth and rank drawn to the empire's heart. But not, by a ratio of almost five to three, with their sisters. The parents of the preceding generation had taken galactic sex-selection technologies much too far in their foolish passion for male heirs, and the very sons they'd so cherished -- Miles's contemporaries -- had inherited the resulting mating mess. Go to any formal party in Vorbarr Sultana these days, and you could practically taste the damned testosterone in the air, volatilized by the alcohol no doubt.
"So, ah… have you had any other callers yet, Ekaterin?"
"I only arrived a week ago."
That was neither yes nor no. "I'd think you'd have the bachelors out in force in no time." Wait, he hadn't meant to point that out…
"Surely," she gestured down her black dress, "this will keep them away. If they have any manners at all."
"Mm, I'm not so sure. The social scene is pretty intense just now."
She shook her head, and smiled bleakly. "It makes no difference to me. I had a decade of… of marriage. I don't need to repeat the experience. The other women are welcome to the bachelors; they can have my share, in fact." The conviction in her face was backed by an uncharacteristic hint of steel in her voice. "That's one mistake I don't have to make twice. I'll never remarry."
Miles controlled his flinch, and managed a sympathetic, interested smile at this confidence. We're just friends. I'm not hustling you, no, no. No need to fling up your defenses, milady, not for me.
He couldn't make this go faster by pushing harder; all he could do was screw it up worse. Forced to be satisfied with his one day's progress, Miles finished his tea, exchanged a few more pleasantries with the two women, and took his leave.
Pym hurried to open the groundcar door as Miles skipped down the last three steps in one jump. He flung himself into the passenger seat, and as Pym slipped back into the driver's side and closed the canopy, waved grandly. "Home, Pym."
Pym eased the groundcar into the street, and inquired mildly, "Go well, did it, m'lord?"
"Just exactly as I had planned. She's coming to Vorkosigan House tomorrow for lunch. As soon as we get home, I want you to call that gardening service -- get them to get a crew out tonight and give the grounds an extra going-over. And talk to -- no, I'll talk to Ma Kosti. Lunch must be… exquisite, yes. Ivan always says women like food. But not too heavy. Wine -- does she drink wine in the daytime, I wonder? I'll offer it, anyway. Something from the estate. And tea if she doesn't choose the wine, I know she drinks tea. Scratch the wine. And get the house cleaning crew in, get all those covers off the first floor furniture -- off all the furniture. I want to give her a tour of the house while she still doesn't realize… No, wait. I wonder… if the place was a dreadful bachelor mess, perhaps it would stir up her pity. Maybe instead I ought to clutter it up some more, used glasses strategically piled up, the odd fruit peel under the sofa -- a silent appeal, Help us! Move in and straighten this poor fellow out -- or would that be more likely to frighten her off? What do you think, Pym?"
Pym pursed his lips judiciously, as if considering whether it was within his Armsman's duties to spike his lord's taste for street theater. He finally said in a cautious tone, "If I may presume to speak for the household, I think we should prefer to put our best foot forward. Under the circumstances."
"Oh. All right."
Miles fell silent for a few moments, staring out the canopy as they threaded through the crowded city streets, out of the University district and across a maze-like corner of the Old Town, angling back toward Vorkosigan House. When he spoke again, the manic humor had drained from his voice, leaving it cooler and bleaker.
"We'll be picking her up tomorrow at twelve hundred. You'll drive. You will always drive, when Madame Vorsoisson or her son are aboard. Figure it in to your duty schedule from now on."
"Yes, m'lord." Pym added a carefully laconic, "My pleasure."
The seizure disorder was the last souvenir that ImpSec Captain Miles Vorkosigan had brought home from his decade of military missions. He'd been lucky to get out of the cryo-chamber alive and with his mind intact; Miles was fully aware that many did not fare nearly so well. Lucky to be merely medically discharged from the Emperor's Service, not buried with honors, the last of his glorious line, or reduced to some animal or vegetative existence. The seizure-stimulator the military doctors had issued him to bleed off his convulsions was very far from being a cure, though it was supposed to keep them from happening at random times. Miles drove, and flew his lightflyer -- but only alone. He never took passengers any more. Pym's batman's duties had been expanded to include medical assistance; he had by now witnessed enough of Miles's disturbing seizures to be grateful for this unusual burst of level-headedness.
One corner of Miles's mouth crooked up. After a moment, he asked, "And how did you ever capture Ma Pym, back in the old days, Pym? Did you put your best foot forward?"
"It's been almost eighteen years ago. The details have gone a bit fuzzy." Pym smiled a little. "I was a senior sergeant at the time. I'd taken the ImpSec advanced course, and was assigned to security duty at Vorhartung Castle. She had a clerk's job in the archives there. I thought, I wasn't some boy any more, it was time I got serious… though I'm not just sure that wasn't an idea she put into my head, because she claims she spotted me first."
"Ah, a handsome fellow in uniform, I see. Does it every time. So why'd you decide to quit the Imperial Service and apply to the Count-my-father?"
"Eh, it seemed the right progression. Our little daughter'd come along by then, I was just finishing my twenty-years hitch, and I was facing whether or not to continue my enlistment. My wife's family was here, and her roots, and she didn't particularly fancy following the flag with children in tow. Captain Illyan, who knew I was District-born, was kind enough to give me a tip, that your father had a place open in his Armsmen's score. And a recommendation, when I nerved up to apply. I figured a Count's Armsman would be a more settled job, for a family man."
The groundcar arrived at Vorkosigan House; the ImpSec corporal on duty opened the gates for them, and Pym pulled around to the porte cochère and popped the canopy.
"Thank you, Pym," Miles said, and hesitated. "A word in your ear. Two words."
Pym made to look attentive.
"When you chance to socialize with the Armsmen of other Houses… I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't mention Madame Vorsoisson. I wouldn't want her to be the subject of invasive gossip, and, um… she's no business of everyone and his younger brother anyway, eh?"
"A loyal Armsman does not gossip, m'lord," said Pym stiffly.
"No, of course not. Sorry, I didn't mean to imply… um, sorry. Anyway. The other thing. I'm maybe guilty of saying a little too much myself, you see. I'm not actually courting Madame Vorsoisson."
Pym tried to look properly blank, but a confused expression leaked into his face. Miles added hastily, "I mean, not formally. Not yet. She's… she's had a difficult time, recently, and she's a touch… skittish. Any premature declaration on my part is likely to be disastrous, I'm afraid. It's a timing problem. Discreet is the watchword, if you see what I mean?"
Pym attempted a discreet but supportive-looking smile.
"We're just good friends," Miles reiterated. "Anyway, we're going to be."
"Yes, m'lord. I understand."
"Ah. Good. Thank you." Miles climbed out of the groundcar, and added over his shoulder as he headed into the house, "Find me in the kitchen when you've put the car away."
Ekaterin stood in the middle of the blank square of grass with gardens boiling up in her head.
"If you excavated there," she pointed, "and piled it up on that side, you'd gain enough slope for the water flow. A bit of a wall there, too, to block off the street noise and to heighten the effect. And the walkway curving down --" she wheeled, to encounter Lord Vorkosigan watching her, smiling, his hands stuffed in his gray trouser pockets. "Or would you prefer something more geometrical?"
"Beg pardon?" He blinked.
"It's an aesthetic question."
"I, uh… aesthetics are not exactly my area of expertise." He said this in a tone of sad confession, as though it might be something of which she was previously unaware.
Her hands sketched the bones of the projected piece, trying to call structure out of the air. "Do you want an illusion of a natural space, Barrayar before it was touched by man, with the water seeming like rocks and a creek, a slice of backcountry in the city -- or something more in the nature of a metaphor, with the Barrayaran plants in the interstices of these strong human lines -- probably in concrete. You can do really wonderful things with water and concrete."
"Which is better?"
"It's not a question of better. It's a question of what you are trying to say."
"I hadn't thought of it as a political statement. I'd thought of it as a gift."
"If it's your garden, it will be seen as a political statement whether you intended it or not."
The corner of his lip quirked as he took this in. "I'll have to think about that. But there's no doubt in your mind something could be done with the area?"
"Oh, none." The two Earth trees, seemingly stuck in the flat ground at random, would have to go. That silver maple was punky in the heartwood and would be no loss, but the young oak was sound -- perhaps it could be moved. The terraformed topsoil must also be salvaged. Her hands twitched with the desire to start digging into the dirt then and there. "It's an extraordinary space to find preserved in the middle of Vorbarr Sultana." Across the street, a commercial office building rose a dozen stories high. Fortunately, it angled to the north, and did not block out much light. The hiss and huff of groundcar fans made continuous counterpoint along the busy thoroughfare crossing the top end of the block, where she'd mentally placed her wall. Across the park on the opposite side, a high gray stone wall topped with iron spikes was already in place; treetops rising beyond it half-screened from view the great house holding down the center of the block.
"I'd invite you to sit while I think about it," said Lord Vorkosigan, "but ImpSec never put in benches -- they didn't want to encourage loitering around the Regent's residence. Suppose you run up both contrasting designs on your comconsole, and bring them to me for review. Meanwhile, shall we walk round to the house? I think my cook will have lunch ready soon."
"Oh… all right…" With only one backward glance at the entrancing possibilities, Ekaterin let him lead her away.
They angled across the park. Around the corner of the gray wall at Vorkosigan House's front entrance, a concrete kiosk sheltered a guard in Imperial Security undress greens. He coded open the iron gate for the little Lord Auditor and his guest, and watched them pass through it, exchanging a short formal nod for Vorkosigan's thank-you half-salute, and smiling pleasantly at Ekaterin.
The somber stone of the mansion rose before them, four stories high in two major wings. What seemed dozens of windows frowned down. The short semi-circle of drive curled around a brilliantly healthy patch of green grass and under a portico, which sheltered carved double doors flanked by tall narrow windows.
"Vorkosigan House is about two hundred years old, now. It was built by my great-great-great grandfather, the seventh Count, in a moment of historically unusual family prosperity ended by, among other things, the building of Vorkosigan House," Lord Vorkosigan told her cheerfully. "It replaced some decaying clan fortress down in the old Caravanserai area, and not before time, I gather."
He started to hold his hand to a palm-lock, but the doors eased soundlessly open before he could even touch it. His brows twitched up, and he bowed her inside.
Two guardsmen in Vorkosigan brown and silver livery stood at attention, flanking the entrance to the black-and-white stone-paved foyer. A third liveried man, Pym, the tall driver whom she'd met when Vorkosigan had picked her up earlier, was just turning away from the door security control panel; he too braced before his lord. Ekaterin was daunted. She had not received the impression when she'd seen him on Komarr that Vorkosigan maintained the old Vor formalities to quite this extent. Though not totally formal -- instead of being sternly expressionless, the large guardsmen all smiled down at them, in a friendly and most welcoming manner.
"Thank you, Pym," said Vorkosigan automatically, and paused. After a moment regarding them back with a quizzical bent to his brows, he added, "I thought you were on night shift, Roic. Shouldn't you be asleep?"
The largest and youngest of the guards stood more stiffly to attention, and murmured, "M'lord."
"M'lord is not an answer. M'lord is an evasion," Vorkosigan said, in a tone more of observation than censure. The guard ventured a subdued smile. Vorkosigan sighed, and turned from him. "Madame Vorsoisson, permit me to introduce the rest of the Vorkosigan Armsmen presently seconded to me -- Armsman Jankowski, Armsman Roic. Madame Vorsoisson."
She ducked her head, and they both nodded back, murmuring "Madame Vorsoisson", and "My pleasure, Madame."
"Pym, you can let Ma Kosti know we're here. Thank you, gentlemen, that will be all," Vorkosigan added, with peculiar emphasis.
With more subdued smiles, they melted away down the back passage. Pym's voice drifted back, "See, what did I tell you --" His further explication to his comrades, whatever it was, was quickly muffled by distance into an unintelligible mutter.
Vorkosigan rubbed his lips, recovered his hostly cordiality, and turned back to her again. "Would you like to take a walk around the house before lunch? Many people find it of historical interest."
Personally, she thought it would be utterly fascinating, but she didn't want to come on like some goggling backcountry tourist. "I don't wish to trouble you, Lord Vorkosigan."
His mouth flickered to dismay and back again to earnest welcome. "No trouble. A pleasure, in fact." His gaze at her grew oddly intent.
Did he want her to say yes? Perhaps he was very proud of his possessions. "Then thank you. I should like that very much."
It was the right answer. His cheer returned in force, and he immediately motioned her to the left. A formal antechamber gave way to a wonderful library running the length of the end of the wing; she had to tuck her hands in her bolero pockets to keep them from diving at the old printed books with leather bindings which lined parts of the room from floor to ceiling. He bowed her out glass doors at the end of the library and across a back garden where several generations of servitors had clearly left very little room for any improvements. She thought she might plunge her arm to the elbow into the soil of the perennial beds. Apparently determined to be thorough, he led on into the cross-wing and down to an enormous wine cellar stocked with produce of various Vorkosigan District country farms. They passed through a sub-basement garage. The gleaming armored groundcar was there, and a red enameled lightflyer tucked into a corner.
"Is that yours?" Ekaterin said brightly, nodding to the lightflyer.
His answer was unusually brief. "Yes. But I don't fly it much any more."
Oh. Yes. His seizures. She could have kicked herself. Fearing that some tangled attempt to apologize could only make it worse, she followed his short-cut up through a huge and redolent kitchen complex. There Vorkosigan formally introduced her to his famous cook, a plump middle-aged woman named Ma Kosti, who smiled broadly at Ekaterin and thwarted her lord's attempt to sample his lunch-in-preparation. Ma Kosti made it plain she felt her vast domain was under-utilized -- but how much could one short man eat, after all? He should be encouraged to bring in more company; hope you will come again soon, and often, Madame Vorsoisson.
Ma Kosti benignly shooed them on their way again, and Vorkosigan conducted Ekaterin through a bewildering succession of formal receiving rooms and back to the paved foyer. "Those are the public areas," he told her. "The second floor is all my own territory." With an infectious enthusiasm, he hustled her up the curving staircase to show off a suite of rooms he assured her had once been occupied by the famous General Count Piotr himself, and which were now his own. He made sure to point out the excellent view of the back gardens from the suite's sitting room.
"There are two more floors, plus the attics. The attics of Vorkosigan House are something to behold. Would you like to see them? Is there anything you'd particularly like to see?"
"I don't know," she said, feeling a little overwhelmed. "Did you grow up here?" She stared around the well-appointed sitting room, trying to picture the child-Miles therein, and decide whether she was grateful he'd stopped short of hauling her through his bedroom, just visible through the end door.
"In fact, for the first five or six years of my life, we lived at the Imperial Residence with Gregor," he replied. "My parents and my grandfather had some little, um, disagreement in the early years of the Regency, but then they were reconciled, and Gregor went off to the preparatory academy. My parents moved back here; they claimed the third floor the way I've marked off the second. Heir's privilege. Several generations in one house works best if it's a very large house. My grandfather had these rooms till he died, when I was about seventeen. I had a room on my parent's floor, though not in the same wing. They chose it for me because Illyan said it had the worst angle of fire from… um, it has a good view of the garden too. Would you care to…?" He turned, gestured, smiled over his shoulder, and led her out and up another flight, around a corner, and part way down a long hall.
The room into which they turned did have a good window on the garden, but any traces of the boy Miles had been were erased. It was now done up as a bland guest room, with scant personality beyond what was lent it by the fabulous house itself. "How long were you here?" she asked, staring around.
"Till last winter, actually. I moved downstairs after I was medically discharged." He jerked up his chin in his habitual nervous tic. "During the decade I served in ImpSec, I was home so seldom, I never thought to need more."
"At least you had your own bath. These houses from the Time of Isolation are sometimes --" She broke off, as the door she casually opened proved instead to be a closet. The door next to it must lead into the bath. A soft glow of light came on automatically.
The closet was stuffed with uniforms -- Lord Vorkosigan's old military uniforms, she realized from the size of them, and the superior tailoring. He wouldn't have been able to use standard-issue gear, after all. She recognized black fatigues, Imperial dress and undress greens, and the glittering brilliance of the formal parade red-and-blues. An array of boots stood guard along the floor from side to side. They'd all been put away clean, but the close concentrated aroma of him still permeated the warm dry air that puffed against her face like a caress. She inhaled, stunned by the military-masculine patchouli. It seemed to flow from her nose to her body directly, circumventing her brain. He stepped anxiously to her side, watching her face; the well-chosen scent he wore that she'd noticed in the cool air of his groundcar, a flattering spicy-citrus overlying clean male, was suddenly intensified by his proximity.
It was the first moment of spontaneous sensuality she'd felt since Tien's death. Oh, since years before Tien's death. It was embarrassing, yet oddly comforting too; Am I alive below the neck after all? She was abruptly aware that this was a bedroom.
"What's this one?" She kept her voice from squeaking upward much, and reached to pull out an unfamiliar gray uniform on its hanger, a heavy short jacket with epaulettes, many closed pockets, and white trim, with matching trousers. The stripes on the sleeves and assorted collar-pins encoding rank were a mystery to her, but there seemed to be a lot of them. The fabric had that odd fire-proof feel one found only in seriously expensive field gear.
His smile softened. "Well, now." He slipped the jacket off the hanger she clutched, and held it up briefly. "You've never met Admiral Naismith, have you. He was my favorite covert ops persona. He -- I -- ran the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet for ImpSec for years."
"You pretended to be a galactic admiral?"
" -- Lieutenant Vorkosigan?" he finished wryly. "It started as a pretense. I made it real." One corner of his mouth zigged up, and with a murmur of Why not?, he hung the jacket over the doorknob and slipped out of his gray tunic, revealing a fine white shirt. A shoulder holster she'd not guessed he wore held a hand-weapon flat to his left side. Even here, he goes armed? It was only a heavy-duty stunner, but he seemed to wear it as un-self-consciously as he wore his shirt. I suppose if you are a Vorkosigan, that's how you dress every day.
He traded the tunic for the jacket, and pulled it on; his suit trousers were so close a color match, he hardly needed to don the uniform pants to present his effect, or effect his presentation. He stretched, and on the return came to a posture totally unlike anything she'd seen in him before: relaxed, extended, somehow filling the space beyond his undersized body. One arm came out to prop him casually against the doorframe, and his tilted smile turned into something blazing. In a deadpan-perfect flat Betan accent that seemed never to have heard of the concept of the Vor caste, he said, "Aw, don't let that dull dirt-sucking Barrayaran bring you down. Stick with me, lady, and I'll show you the galaxy." Ekaterin, startled, stepped back a pace.
He jerked up his chin, still grinning dementedly, and began fastening the clasps. His hands reached the jacket waist, straightened the band, and paused. The ends were a couple of centimeters short of meeting at the middle, and the clasp notably failed to seat itself even when he gave it a covert tug. He stared down in such obvious dismay at this treasonous shrinkage, Ekaterin choked on a giggle.
He glanced up at her, and a rueful smile lit his eyes in response to the crinkle of her own. His voice returned to Barrayaran-normal. "I haven't had this on for over a year. Seems we outgrow our past in more ways than one." He hitched back out of the uniform jacket. "Hm. Well, you met my cook. Food's not a job for her, it's a sacred calling."
"Maybe it shrank in the wash," she offered in attempted consolation.
"Bless you. No." He sighed. "The Admiral's deep cover was fraying badly even before he was killed. Naismith's days were numbered anyway."
His voice made light of this loss, but she'd seen the scars on his chest left by the needle-grenade. Her mind circled back to the seizure she'd witnessed, on the living room floor of her and Tien's cramped apartment on Komarr. She remembered the look in his eyes after the epileptic storm had passed: mental confusion, shame, helpless rage. The man had driven his body far past its limits, in the belief, apparently, that unsupported will could conquer anything.
So it can. For a time. Then time ran out -- no. Time ran on. There was no end to time. But you come to the end of yourself, and time runs on, and leaves you. Her years with Tien had taught her that, if nothing else.
"I suppose I ought to give these to Nikki to play with." He gestured casually at the row of uniforms. But his hands carefully straightened the gray jacket again on its hanger, brushed invisible lint, and hooked it back into its place in the bar. "While he still can, and is young enough to want to. He'll outgrow them in another year or so, I think."
Her breath drew in. I think that would be obscene. These relics had clearly been life and death to him. What possessed him, to make-believe they were no more than a child's playthings? She couldn't think how to discourage him from this horrifying notion without sounding as though she scorned his offer. Instead, after the moment's silence threatened to stretch unbearably, she blurted, "Would you go back? If you could?"
His gaze grew distant. "Well, now…. now that's the strangest thing. I think I would feel like a snake trying to crawl back into its shed dead skin. I miss it every minute, and I have no wish at all to go back." He looked up, and twinkled at her. "Needle grenades are a learning experience, that way."
This was his idea of a joke, apparently. She wasn't sure if she wanted to kiss him and make it well, or run away screaming. She managed a faint smile.
He shrugged on his plain civilian tunic, and the sinister shoulder holster disappeared from view again. Closing the closet door firmly, he took her on a spin around the rest of the third floor; he pointed out his absent parents' suite, but to Ekaterin's secret relief did not offer to take her inside the succession of rooms. It would have felt very odd to wander through the famous Count and Countess Vorkosigan's intimate space, as though she were some voyeur.
They finally fetched up back on "his" floor, at the end of the main wing in a bright room he called the Yellow Parlor, which he apparently used as a dining room. A small table was elegantly set up for lunch for two. Good, they were not expected to dine downstairs in that elaborately-paneled cavern with the table that extended to seat forty-eight; ninety-six in a squeeze, if a second table, cleverly secreted behind the wainscoting, was brought out in parallel. At some unseen signal, Ma Kosti appeared with luncheon on a cart: soup, tea, an exquisite salad involving cultured shrimp and fruit and nuts. She left her lord and his guest discreetly alone after the initial flourishing serving, though a large silver tray with a domed cover which she left sitting atop the cart at Lord Vorkosigan's elbow promised more delights to come.
"It's a great house," Lord Vorkosigan told Ekaterin between bites, "but it gets really quiet at night. Lonely. It's not meant to be this empty. It needs to be filled up with life again, the way it used to be in my father's heyday." His tone was almost disconsolate.
"The Viceroy and Vicereine will be returning for the Emperor's wedding, won't they? It should be full again at Midsummer," she pointed out helpfully.
"Oh, yes, and their whole entourage. Everyone will be back on planet for the wedding." He hesitated. "Including my brother Mark, come to think of it. I suppose I should warn you about Mark."
"My uncle once mentioned you had a clone. Is that him, um… it?"
"It is the preferred Betan pronoun for a hermaphrodite; definitely him. Yes."
"Uncle Vorthys didn't say why you -- or was it your parents? -- had a clone made, except that it was complicated, and I should ask you." The explanation that leapt most readily to mind was that Count Vorkosigan had wanted an un-deformed replacement for his soltoxin-damaged heir, but that obviously wasn't the case.
"That's the complicated part. We didn't. Some Komarran expatriates exiled to Earth did, as part of a much-too-baroque plot against my father. I guess when they couldn't get up a military revolution, they thought they'd try some biological warfare on a budget. They got an agent to filch a tissue sample from me -- it couldn't have been that hard, I'd had hundreds of medical treatments and tests and biopsies as a child -- and farmed it out to one of the less savory clone lords on Jackson's Whole."
"My word. But Uncle Vorthys said your clone didn't look like you -- did he grow up without your, um, prenatal damage, then?" She gave him a short nod, but kept her eyes politely on his face. She'd already encountered his somewhat erratic sensitivity about his birth defects. Teratogenic, not genetic, he'd made sure she understood.
"If it had been that simple… He actually started to grow as he should, so they had to body-sculpt him down to my size. And shape. It was pretty gruesome. They'd intended him to pass close inspection as my replacement, so when I did things like have my busted leg bones replaced with synthetics, his got surgically replaced too. I know exactly how much that must have hurt. And they forced him to study to pass for me. All the years I thought I was an only child, he was developing the worst case of sibling rivalry you ever saw. I mean, think about it. Never allowed to be yourself, constantly -- under threat of torture, in fact -- compared with your older brother… By the time the plot fell through, he was on a fair way to being driven crazy."
"I should think so! But… how did you rescue him from the Komarrans?"
He was silent for a little, then said, "He kind of turned up on his own, at the last. As soon as he came within my Betan mother's orbit -- well, you can imagine. Betans have very strict and clear convictions about parental responsibilities to clones. It surprised the hell out of him, I think. He knew he had a brother, God knows he'd had his face ground into that fact, but he wasn't expecting parents. He certainly wasn't expecting Cordelia Vorkosigan. The family has adopted him, I suppose is the simplest way of thinking about it. He was here on Barrayar for a while, then last year my mother sent him off to Beta Colony, to attend university and get therapy under the supervision of my Betan grandmother."
"That sounds good," she said, pleased with the bizarre tale's happy ending. The Vorkosigans stood by their own, it seemed.
"Mm, maybe. Reports leaking back from my grandmother suggest it's been pretty rocky for him. You see, he's got this obsession -- perfectly understandable -- about differentiating himself from me, so's no one could ever mistake one of us for the other ever again. Which is fine by me, don't get me wrong. I think it's a great idea. But… but he could have gotten a facial mod, or body sculpture, or growth hormones, or changed his eye color or bleached his hair, or anything but… instead what he decided to do was gain a great deal of weight. At my height, the effect is damned startling. I think he likes it that way. Does it on purpose." He stared rather broodingly at his plate. "I thought his Betan therapy might do something about that, but apparently not."
A scrabble at the edge of tablecloth made Ekaterin start; a determined-looking half-grown black-and-white kitten hauled itself up over the side, tiny claws like pitons, and made for Vorkosigan's plate. He smiled absently, picked a couple of remaining shrimp from his salad, and deposited them before the little beast; it growled and purred through its enthusiastic chewing. "The gate guard's cat keeps having these kittens," he explained. "I admire their approach to life, but they do turn up…" He picked the large cover off the tray, and deposited it over the creature, trapping it. The undaunted purr resonated against the silver hemisphere like some small machine stripping its gears. "Dessert?"
The silver tray was loaded with eight different dessert pastries, so alarmingly beautiful Ekaterin thought it an aesthetic crime to eat them without making a vid recording for posterity first. "Oh, my." After a long pause, she pointed at one with thick cream and glazed fruit like jewels. Vorkosigan slipped it onto a waiting plate, and handed it across. He stared at the array longingly, but did not select one for himself, Ekaterin noticed. He was not in the least fat, she thought indignantly; when he'd played Admiral Naismith he must have must have been practically emaciated. The pastry tasted as wonderful as it looked, and Ekaterin's contribution to the conversation ceased for a short time. Vorkosigan watched her, smiling in, apparently, vicarious pleasure.
As she was scraping up the last molecules of cream from her plate with her fork, footsteps sounded in the hall, and men's voices. She recognized Pym's rumble, saying, "… no, m'lord's in conference with his new landscape designer. I really don't think he wishes to be disturbed."
A drawling baritone replied, "Yeah, yeah, Pym. Nor did I. It's official business from m'mother."
A look of extreme annoyance flashed over Vorkosigan's face, and he bit off an expletive too muffled to quite make out. As his visitor loomed in the doorway to the Yellow Parlor, his expression went very bland.
The man Pym was failing to impede was a young officer, a tall and startlingly handsome captain in undress greens. He had dark hair, laughing brown eyes, and a lazy smile. He paused to sweep Vorkosigan a mocking half-bow, saying, "Hail, O Lord Auditor coz. My God, is that a Ma Kosti lunch I spy? Tell me I'm not too late. Is there anything left? Can I lick your crumbs?" He stepped inside, and his eye swept over Ekaterin. "Oh ho! Introduce me to your landscape designer, Miles!"
Lord Vorkosigan said, somewhat through his teeth, "Madame Vorsoisson, may I make you known to my feckless cousin, Captain Ivan Vorpatril. Ivan, Madame Vorsoisson."
Undaunted by this disapproving editorial, Vorpatril grinned, bowed deeply over her hand, and kissed it. His lips lingered an appreciative second too long, but at least they were dry and warm; she didn't have to overcome an impolite impulse to wipe her hand on her skirt, when he at last released it. "And are you taking commissions, Madame Vorsoisson?"
Ekaterin was not quite sure whether to be amused or offended at his cheerful leer, but amused seemed safer. She permitted herself a small smile. "I'm only just starting."
Lord Vorkosigan put in, "Ivan lives in an apartment. I believe there is a flowerpot on his balcony, but the last time I looked, its contents were dead."
"It was winter, Miles." A faint mewing from the silver dome at his elbow distracted him. He stared at the cover, curiously tilted it up on one side, said, "Ah. One of you," and let it back down. He wandered around the table, spied the unused dessert plate, smiled beatifically, and helped himself to two of the pastries and the leftover fork at his cousin's plate. Returning to the empty place opposite, he settled his spoils, dragged up a chair, and seated himself between Lord Vorkosigan and Ekaterin. He regarded the mews of protest rising in volume from the dome, sighed, retrieved the feline prisoner, and settled it on his lap atop the fine cloth napkin, occupying it with a liberal smear of cream on its paws and face. "Don't let me interrupt you," he added around his first bite.
"We were just finishing," said Vorkosigan. "Why are you here, Ivan?" He added under his breath, "And why couldn't three bodyguards keep you out? Do I have to give orders to shoot to kill?"
"My strength is great because my cause is just," Vorpatril informed him. "My mother has sent me with a list of chores for you as long as my arm. With footnotes." He drew a roll of folded flimsies from his tunic, and waved them at his cousin; the kitten rolled on its back and batted at them, and he amused himself briefly, batting back. "Tik-tik-tik!"
"Your determination is relentless because you're more afraid of your mother than you are of my guardsmen."
"So are you. So are your guardsmen," observed Lord Vorpatril, downing another bite of dessert.
Vorkosigan swallowed an involuntary laugh, then recovered his severe look again. "Ah… Madame Vorsoisson, I can see I'm going to have to deal with this. Perhaps we'd best break off for today." He smiled apologetically at her, and pushed back his chair.
Lord Vorkosigan doubtless had important security matters to discuss with the young officer. "Of course. Um, it was good to meet you, Lord Vorpatril."
Impeded by the kitten, the captain didn't rise, but he nodded a most cordial farewell. "Madame Vorsoisson, a pleasure. I hope we'll see each other again soon."
Vorkosigan's smile went thin; she rose with him, and he shepherded her out into the hall, raising his wristcom to his lips and murmuring, "Pym, please bring the car around front." He gestured onward, and fell into step beside her down the corridor. "Sorry about Ivan."
She didn't quite see what he felt the need to apologize for, so concealed her bewilderment in a shrug.
"So do we have a deal?" he went on. "Will you take on my project?"
"Maybe you'd better see a few possible designs, first."
"Yes, of course. Tomorrow… or you can call me whenever you're ready. You have my number?"
"Yes, you gave me several of them back on Komarr. I still have them."
"Ah. Good." They turned down the great stairway, and his face went thoughtful. At the bottom, he looked up at her and added, "And do you still have that little memento?"
He meant the tiny model Barrayar, pendant on a chain, souvenir of the grim events they couldn't talk about in any public forum. "Oh, yes."
He paused hopefully, and she was stricken that she couldn't pull the jewelry out of her black blouse and demonstrate it on the spot, but she'd thought it too valuable to wear everyday; it was put away, carefully wrapped, in a drawer in her aunt's house. After a moment, the sound of the groundcar came from the porte cochère, and he ushered her back out the double doors.
"Good day, then, Madame Vorsoisson." He shook her hand, firmly and without holding it for too long, and saw her into the groundcar's rear compartment. "I guess I'd better go straighten out Ivan." As the canopy closed and the car pulled away, he turned to stalk back indoors. By the time the car bore her smoothly out the gates, he'd vanished from view.
Ivan set one of the used salad plates down on the floor, and plunked the kitten next to it. He had to admit, a young animal of almost any kind made an excellent prop; he'd noted the way Madame Vorsoisson's cool expression had softened as he'd noodled with the furry little verminoid. Where had Miles found that astonishing widow? He sat back, and watched the kitten's pink tongue flash over the sauce, and reflected glumly on his own last night's outing.
His date had seemed such a possible young woman: University student, away from home for the first time, bound to be impressed with an Imperial Vor officer. Bold of gaze and not a bit shy; she'd picked him up in her lightflyer. Ivan was expert in the uses of a lightflyer for breaking down psychological barriers and creating the proper mood. A few gentle swoops and you could almost always evoke some of those cute little shrieks where the young lady clung closer, her chest rising and falling as her breath came faster through parted and increasingly-kissable lips. This girl, however… he hadn't come so near to losing his last meal in a lightflyer since being trapped by Miles in one of his manic phases for an updraft demonstration over Hassadar. She'd laughed, fiendishly, while Ivan had smiled helplessly through clenched teeth, his knuckles whitening on the seat straps.
Then, in the restaurant she'd picked, they'd met up oh-so-casually with that surly pup of a graduate student, and the playlet began to fall into place. She'd been using him, dammit, to test the pup's devotion to her cause; and the cur had rolled over and snarled right on cue. How do you do, sir. Oh, isn't this your uncle you said was in the Service? I beg your pardon…. The smooth way he'd managed to turn the overly-respectful offer of a chair into a subtle insult had been worthy of, of Ivan's shortest relative, practically. Ivan had escaped early, silently wishing them joy of each other. Let the punishment fit the crime. He didn't know what was happening with young Barrayaran girls these days. They were turning almost… almost galactic, as if they'd been taking lessons from Miles's formidable friend Quinn. His mother's tart recommendation that he stick to women of his own age and class seemed almost to begin to make sense.
Light footsteps echoed from the hall, and his cousin appeared in the doorway. Ivan considered, and dismissed, an impulse to favor Miles with a vivid account of last night's debacle. Whatever emotion was tightening Miles's lips and pulling his head down into that bulldog-with-a-hair-up-its-butt look, it was very far from promising sympathy.
"Rotten timing, Ivan," Miles bit out.
"What, did I spoil your tete-?-tete? Landscape designer, eh? I could develop a sudden interest in a landscape like that, too. What a profile."
"Exquisite," Miles breathed, temporarily distracted by some inner vision.
"And her face isn't bad, either," Ivan added, watching him.
Miles almost took the bait right then, but he muffled his initial response in a grimace. "Don't get greedy. Weren't you telling me you have that sweetheart deal with Madame Vor-what's-her-name?" He pulled back his chair and slumped into it, crossing his arms and his ankles and watching Ivan through narrowed eyes.
"Ah. Yes. Well. That seems to have fallen through."
"You amaze me. Was the compliant husband not so compliant after all?"
"It was all so unreasonable. I mean, they're cooking up their kid in a uterine replicator. It's not like someone even can graft a little bastard onto the family tree these days. In any case, he's nailed down a post in the colonial administration, and is whisking her off to Sergyar. He scarcely even let us make a civil good-bye." It had been an unpleasant scene with oblique death threats, actually. It might have been mitigated by the slightest sign of regret, or even concern for Ivan's health and safety, on her part, but instead she'd spent the moment hanging on her husband's arm and looking impressed by his territorial trumpeting. As for the pubescent prole terrorist with the lightflyer whom he'd next tried to persuade to mend his broken heart… he suppressed a shudder.
Ivan shrugged off his retrospective moment of depression, and went on, "But a widow, a real live young widow! Do you know how hard they are to find these days? I know fellows in HQ who'd give their right hands for a friendly widow, except they have to save them for those long, lonely nights. However did you luck onto this honey-pot?"
His cousin didn't deign to answer. After a moment, he gestured to the flimsy, rolled up beside Ivan's empty plate. "So what's all this?"
"Ah." Ivan flattened it out, and handed it across the table. "It's the agenda for your upcoming meeting with the Emperor, the Empress-to-be, and my mother. She's pinning Gregor to the wall on all the final details about the wedding. Since you are to be Gregor's Second, your presence is requested and required."
"Oh." Miles glanced down the contents. A puzzled line appeared between his brows, and he looked up again at Ivan. "Not that this isn't important, but shouldn't you be on duty at Ops right now?"
"Ha," said Ivan glumly. "Do you know what those bastards have done to me?"
Miles shook his head, brows rising inquisitively.
"I have been formally seconded to my mother -- my mother -- as aide-de-camp till the wedding's over. I joined the Service to get away from my mother, blast it. And now she's suddenly my chain of command!"
His cousin's brief grin was entirely without sympathy. "Until Laisa is safely hitched to Gregor, and can take over her duties as his political hostess, your mother may be the most important person in Vorbarr Sultana. Don't underestimate her. I've seen planetary invasion plans less complex than what's being booted about for this Imperial Wedding. It's going to take all Aunt Alys's generalship to bring it off."
Ivan shook his head. "I knew I should have put in for off-planet duty while I still could. Komarr, Sergyar, some dismal embassy, anywhere but Vorbarr Sultana."
Miles's face sobered. "I don't know, Ivan. Short of a surprise attack, this is the most politically important event of -- I was about to say, of the year, but I really think, of our lifetimes. The more little heirs Gregor and Laisa can put between you and me and the Imperium, the safer we'll be. Us and our families."
"We don't have families yet," Ivan pointed out. So, is that what's on his mind with the pretty widow? Oh ho!
"Would we have dared? I sure thought about the issue, every time I got close enough to a woman to… never mind. But this wedding needs to run on rails, Ivan."
"I'm not arguing with that," said Ivan sincerely. He reached down to dissuade the kitten, who had licked the plate clean, from trying to sharpen its claws on his polished boots. A few moments spent petting it in his lap bought it off from that enthusiasm, and it settled down, purring, to the serious business of digesting and growing more hairs to shed on Imperial uniforms. "So what's your widow's first name, say again?" Miles hadn't actually imparted that bit of information, yet.
"Ekaterin," Miles sighed. His mouth seemed to caress all four syllables, before reluctantly parting with them.
Oh, yeah. Ivan thought back over every bit of chaff his cousin had ever inflicted upon him for his numerous love affairs. Did you think I was a stone, for you to sharpen your wits upon? Opportunities to even the score seemed to hover on the horizon like rain clouds after a long drought. "Grief-stricken, is she, you say? Seems to me she could use someone with a sense of humor, to cheer her up. Not you, you're clearly in one of your funks. Maybe I ought to volunteer to show her the town."
Miles had poured himself more tea and been just about to put his feet up on a neighboring chair; at this, they came back down with a thump. "Don't even think about it. This one is mine."
"Really? You secretly betrothed already? Quick work, coz."
"No," he admitted grudgingly.
"You have some sort of an understanding?"
"So she is not, in point of fact, anyone's but her own. At present."
Uncharacteristically, Miles took a slow sip of tea before responding. "I mean to change that. When the time is right, which it surely is not yet."
"Hey, all's fair in love and war. Why can't I try?"
Miles snapped back, "If you step in this, it will be war."
"Don't let your exalted new status go to your head, coz. Even an Imperial Auditor can't order a woman to sleep with him."
"Marry him," Miles corrected frostily.
Ivan tilted his head, his grin spreading. "My God, you are gone completely over the edge. Who'd have guessed it?"
Miles bared his teeth. "Unlike you, I have never pretended to not be interested in that fate. I have no brave bachelor speeches to eat. Nor a juvenile reputation as a local stud to maintain. Or live down, as the case may be."
"My, we are snarky today."
Miles took a deep breath; before he could speak, Ivan put in, "Y'know, that head-down hostile scrunch makes you look more hunch-backed. You ought to watch that."
After a long, chill silence, Miles said softly, "Are you challenging my ingenuity…Ivan?"
"Ah…" it didn't take long to grope for the right answer. "No."
"Good," Miles breathed, settling back. "Good…" Another long and increasingly disturbing silence followed this, during which his cousin studied Ivan through narrowed eyes. At last, he seemed to come to some internal decision. "Ivan, I'm asking for your word as Vorpatril -- just between you and me -- that you will leave Ekaterin alone."
Ivan's brows flew up. "That's a little pushy, isn't it? I mean, doesn't she get a vote?"
Miles's nostrils flared. "You have no real interest in her."
"How do you know? How do I know? I barely had a chance to say hello before you hustled her out."
"I know you. For you, she's interchangeable with the next ten women you chance to meet. Well, she's not interchangeable for me. I propose a treaty. You can have all the rest of the women in the universe. I just want this one. I think that's fair."
It was one of those Miles-arguments again, which always seemed to result oh-so-logically in Miles getting whatever Miles wanted. Ivan recognized the pattern; it hadn't changed since they were five years old. Only the content had evolved. "The problem is, the rest of the women in the universe are not yours to dispense. Either," Ivan pointed out triumphantly. After a couple of decades practice, he was getting quicker at this. "You're trying to trade something you don't have for -- something you don't have."
Thwarted, Miles settled back in his chair, and glowered at him.
"Seriously," said Ivan, "isn't your passion a trifle sudden, for a man who just parted company with the estimable Quinn at Winterfair? Where have you been hiding this Kat, till now?"
"Ekaterin. I met her on Komarr," Miles replied shortly.
"During your case? This is recent, then. Hey, you haven't told me all about your first case, Lord Auditor coz. I must say, all that uproar about their solar mirror sure seems to have petered out into nothing." He waited expectantly, but Miles did not pick up on this invitation. He must not be in one of his voluble moods. Either you can't turn him on, or you can't turn him off. Well, if there was a choice, taciturn was probably safer for the innocent bystanders than spring-wound. Ivan added after a moment, "So does she have a sister?"
"They never do." Ivan heaved a sigh. "Who is she, really? Where does she live?"
"She is Lord Auditor Vorthys's niece, and her husband suffered a ghastly death barely two months ago. I doubt she's in the mood for your humor."
She wasn't the only one so disinclined, it appeared. Damn, but Miles seemed stuck in prick-mode today. "Eh, he got mixed up in one of your affairs, did he? That'll teach him." Ivan leaned back, and grinned sourly. "That's one way to solve the widow shortage, I suppose. Make your own."
All the latent amusement which had parried Ivan's sallies till now was abruptly wiped from his cousin's face. His back straightened as much as it could, and he leaned forward, his hands gripping his chair arms. His voice dropped to an arctic pitch. "I will thank you, Lord Vorpatril, to take care not to repeat that slander. Ever."
Ivan's stomach lurched in surprise. He had seen Miles come the Lord Auditor a couple of times now, but never before at him. The freezing gray eyes suddenly had all the expression of a pair of gun barrels. Ivan opened his mouth, then closed it, more carefully. What the hell was going on here? And how did someone so short manage to project that much menace? Years of practice, Ivan supposed. And conditioning. "It was a joke, Miles."
"I don't find it very damned amusing." Miles rubbed his wrists, and frowned into the middle distance. A muscle jumped in his jaw; he jerked up his chin. After a moment, he added more bleakly, "I won't be telling you about the Komarran case, Ivan. It's slit-your-throat-before-reading stuff, and no horseshit. I will tell you this, and I expect it to go no further. Etienne Vorsoisson's death was a mess and a murder, and I surely failed to prevent it. But I did not cause it."
"For God's sake Miles, I didn't really think you --"
"However," his cousin raised his voice to over-ride this, "all the evidence which proves this is now as classified as it's possible to be. It follows, that should such an accusation be made against me, I can't publicly access the facts or testimony to disprove it. Think about the consequences of that for one minute, if you please. Especially if… if my suit prospers."
Ivan sucked on his tongue for a moment, quelled. Then he brightened. "But… Gregor has access. Who could argue with him? Gregor could pronounce you clear."
"My foster-brother the Emperor, who appointed me Auditor as a favor to my father? Or so everyone says?"
Ivan shifted uncomfortably. So, Miles had heard that one, had he? "The people who count know better. Where do you pick this stuff up, Miles?"
A dry shrug, and a little hand-gesture, was the only reply he got. Miles was growing unnervingly political, these days. Ivan had slightly less interest in becoming involved with Imperial politics than in holding a plasma arc to his head and pulling the trigger. It wasn't that he ran away screaming whenever the loaded topics arose; that would draw too much attention. Saunter off slowly, that was the ticket. Miles… Miles the maniacal maybe had the nerve for a political career. The dwarf always did have that little suicidal streak. Better you than me, boy.
Miles, who had fallen into a study of his half-boots, looked up again. "I know I have no right to demand a damned thing from you, Ivan. I still owe you for… for the events of last fall. And the dozen other times you saved my neck, or tried to. All I can do is ask. Please. I don't get many chances, and this one matters the world to me." A crooked smile.
Damn that smile. Was it Ivan's fault, that he had been born undamaged while his cousin had been born crippled? No, blast it. It was bloody bungled politics that had wrecked him, and you'd think it would be a lesson to him, but no. Demonstrably, even sniper fire couldn't stop the hyperactive little git. In between inspiring you to strangle him with your bare hands, he could make you proud enough to cry. At least, Ivan had taken care no one could see his face, when he'd watched from the Council floor as Miles had taken his Auditor's oath with that terrifying intensity, before all the assembled panoply of Barrayar last Winterfair. So small, so wrecked, so obnoxious. So incandescent. Give the people a light, and they'll follow it anywhere. Did Miles know how dangerous he was?
And the little paranoid actually believed Ivan had the magic to entice any woman Miles really wanted away from him. His fears were more flattering to Ivan than he would ever let on. But Miles had so few humilities, it seemed almost a sin to take this one away from him. Bad for his soul, eh.
"All right," Ivan sighed. "But I'm only giving you first shot, mind. If she tells you to take a hike, I think I should have just as much right to be next in line as the other fellow."
Miles half-relaxed. "That's all I'm asking." Then tensed again. "Your word as Vorpatril, mind."
"My word as Vorpatril," Ivan allowed grudgingly, after a very long moment.
Miles relaxed altogether, looking much more cheerful. A few minutes of desultory conversation about the agenda for Lady Alys's planning session segued into an enumeration of Madame Vorsoisson's manifold virtues. If there was one thing worse than enduring his cousin's preemptive jealousy, Ivan decided, it was listening to his romantically hopeful burbling. Clearly, Vorkosigan House was not going to be a good place to hide out from Lady Alys this afternoon, nor, he suspected, for many afternoons to come. Miles wasn't even interested in a spot of recreational drinking; when he started to explain to Ivan his several new plans for gardens, Ivan pleaded duty, and escaped.
As he found his way down the front stairs, it dawned on Ivan that Miles had done him again. He'd obtained exactly what he wanted, and Ivan wasn't even sure how it had happened. Ivan hadn't had any intention of giving up his name's word on this one. The very suggestion had been quite offensive, when you looked at it from a certain angle. He frowned in frustration.
It was all wrong. If this Ekaterin woman was indeed that fine, she deserved a man who'd hustle for her. And if the widow's love for Miles was to be tested, it would certainly be better done sooner than later. Miles had no sense of proportion, of restraint, of… of self-preservation. How devastating it would be, if she decided to throw him back. It would be the ice-water bath therapy all over again. Next time, I should hold his head under longer. I let him up too soon, that was my mistake…
It would be almost a public service, to dangle the alternatives in front of the widow before Miles got her mind all turned inside out like he did everyone else's. But… Miles had extracted his word from Ivan, with downright ruthless determination. Forced it, practically, and a forced oath was no oath at all.
The way around this dilemma occurred to Ivan between one step and the next; his lips pursed in a sudden whistle. The scheme was nearly… Milesian. Cosmic justice, to serve the dwarf a dish with his own sauce. By the time Pym let him out the front door, Ivan was smiling again.