Copyright © 1999
"Hello?" came a soft alto voice from the door of the laundry room-cum-laboratory. "Is Lord Mark here?"
Kareen looked up from assembling a new stainless steel rack on wheels to see a dark-haired woman leaning diffidently through the doorway. She wore very conservative widow's garb, a long-sleeved black shirt and skirt set off only by a somber gray bolero, but her pale face was unexpectedly young.
Kareen put down her tools and scrambled to her feet. "He'll be back soon. I'm Kareen Koudelka. Can I help you?"
A smile illuminated the woman's eyes, all too briefly. "Oh, you must be the student friend who is just back from Beta Colony. I'm glad to meet you. I'm Ekaterin Vorsoisson, the garden designer. My crew took out that row of amelanchier bushes on the north side this morning, and I wondered if Lord Mark wanted any more compost."
So that's what those scrubby things had been called. "I'll ask. Enrique, can we use any um, amel-whatsit bush chippings?"
Enrique leaned around his comconsole display and peered at the newcomer. "Is it Earth-descended organic matter?"
"Yes," replied the woman.
"I suppose. They were Lord Vorkosigan's bushes."
"We'll try some." He disappeared once more behind the churning colored displays of what Kareen had been assured were enzymatic reactions.
The woman stared curiously around the new lab. Kareen followed her gaze proudly. It was all beginning to look quite orderly and scientific and attractive to future customers. They'd painted the walls cream white; Enrique had picked the color because it was the exact shade of bug butter. Enrique and his comconsole occupied a niche in one end of the room. The wet-bench was fully plumbed, set up with drainage into what had once been the washtub. The dry-bench, with its neat array of instruments and brilliant lighting, ran along the wall all the way to the other end. The far end was occupied by racks each holding a quartet of meter-square custom-designed new bughouses. As soon as Kareen had the last set assembled, they could release the remaining queen-lines from their cramped travel box into their spacious and sanitary new homes. Tall shelves on both sides of the door held their proliferating array of supplies. A big plastic waste bin brimmed with a handy supply of bug fodder; a second provided temporary storage for bug guano. The bugshit had not proved nearly as smelly or abundant as Kareen had expected, which was nice, as the task of cleaning the bughouses daily had fallen to her. Not half-bad for a first week's work.
"I must ask," said the woman, her eye falling on the heaped-up maple bits in the first bin. "What does he want all those chippings for?"
"Oh, come in, and I'll show you," said Kareen enthusiastically. The dark-haired woman responded to Kareen's friendly smile, drawn in despite her apparent reserve.
"I'm the Head Bug Wrangler of this outfit," Kareen went on. "They were going to call me the lab assistant, but I figured as a shareholder I ought to at least be able to pick my own job title. I admit, I don't have any other wranglers to be the head of, yet, but it never hurts to be optimistic."
"Indeed." The woman's faint smile was not in the least Vor-supercilious; drat it, she hadn't said if it was Lady or Madame Vorsoisson. Some Vor could get quite huffy about their correct title, especially if it was their chief accomplishment in life so far. No, if this Ekaterin were that sort, she would have made a point of the Lady at the first possible instant.
Kareen unlatched the steel-screen top of one of the bug hutches, reached in, and retrieved a single worker-bug. She was getting quite good at handling the little beasties without wanting to puke by now, as long as she didn't look too closely at their pale pulsing abdomens. Kareen held out the bug to the gardener, and began a tolerably close copy of Mark's Better Butter Bugs for a Brighter Barrayar sales talk.
Though Madame Vorsoisson's eyebrows went up, she didn't shriek, faint, or run away at her first sight of a butter bug. She followed Kareen's explanation with interest, and was even willing to hold the bug and feed it a maple leaf. There was something very bonding about feeding live things, Kareen had to admit; she would have to keep that ploy in mind for future presentations. Enrique, his interest piqued by the voices drifting past his comconsole discussing his favorite subject, wandered over and did his best to queer her pitch by adding long, tedious technical footnotes to Kareen's streamlined explanations. The garden designer's interest soared visibly when Kareen got to the part about future R&D to create a Barrayaran-vegetation-consuming bug.
"If you could teach them to eat strangle-vines, South Continent farmers would buy and keep colonies for that alone," Madame Vorsoisson told Enrique, "whether they produced edible food as well or not."
"Really?" said Enrique. "I didn't know that. Are you familiar with the local planetary botany?"
"I'm not a fully-trained botanist -- yet -- but I have some practical experience, yes."
"Practical," echoed Kareen. A week of Enrique had given her a new appreciation for the quality.
"So let's see this bug manure," the gardener said.
Kareen led her to the bin and unsealed the lid. The woman peered in at the heap of dark, crumbly matter, leaned over, sniffed, ran her hand through it, and let some sift out through her fingers. "Good heavens."
"What?" asked Enrique anxiously.
"This looks, feels, and smells like the finest compost I've ever seen. What kind of chemical analysis are you getting off it?"
"Well, it depends on what the girls have been eating, but --" Enrique burst into a kind of riff on the periodic table of the elements. Kareen followed the significance of about half of it.
Madame Vorsoisson, however, looked impressed. "Could I have some to try on my plants at home?" she asked.
"Oh, yes," said Kareen gratefully. "Carry away all you want. There's getting to be rather a lot of it, and I'm really beginning to wonder where would be a safe place to dispose of it."
"Dispose of it? If this is half as good as it looks, put it up in ten-liter bags and sell it! Everyone who's trying to grow Earth plants here will be willing to try it."
"Do you think so?" said Enrique, anxious and pleased. "I couldn't get anyone interested, back on Escobar."
"This is Barrayar. For a long time, burning and composting was the only way to terraform the soil, and it's still the cheapest. There was never enough Earth-life based compost to both keep old ground fertile and break in new lands. Back in the Time of Isolation they even had a war over horse manure."
"Oh, yeah, I remember that one from my history class." Kareen grinned. "A little war, but still, very… symbolic."
"Who fought who?" asked Enrique. "And why?"
"I suppose the war was really over money and traditional Vor privilege," Madame Vorsoisson explained to him. "It had been the custom, in the Districts where the Imperial cavalry troops were quartered, to distribute the products of the stables free to any prole who showed up to cart it away, first-come first-served. One of the more financially pressed Emperors decided to keep it all for Imperial lands or sell it. This issue somehow got attached to a District inheritance squabble, and the fight was on."
"What finally happened?"
"In that generation, the rights fell to the District Counts. In the following generation, the Emperor took them back. And in the generation after that -- well, we didn't have much horse cavalry any more." She went to the sink to wash, adding over her shoulder, "There is still a customary distribution every week from the Imperial Stables here in Vorbarr Sultana, where the ceremonial cavalry squad is kept. People come in their ground cars, and carry off a bag or two for their flower beds, just for old time's sake."
"Madame Vorsoisson, I've lived for four years in butter bug guts," Enrique told her earnestly as she dried her hands.
"Mm," she said, and won Kareen's heart on the spot by receiving this declaration with no more risibility than a slight helpless widening of her eyes.
"We really need someone on the macro-level as a native guide to the native vegetation," Enrique went on. "Do you think you could help us out?"
"I suppose I could give you some sort of quick overview, and some ideas about where to go to next. But you'd really need a District agronomy officer -- Lord Mark can surely access the one in the Vorkosigan's District for you."
"There, you see already," cried Enrique. "I didn't even know there was such a thing as a District agronomy officer."
"I'm not sure Mark does, either," Kareen added doubtfully.
"I'll bet the Vorkosigans' manager, Tsipis, could guide you," Madame Vorsoisson said.
"Oh, do you know Tsipis? Isn't he a lovely man?" said Kareen.
Madame Vorsoisson nodded instant agreement. "I've not met him in person yet, but he's given me ever so much help over the comconsole with Lord Vorkosigan's garden project. I mean to ask him if I could come down to the District to collect stones and boulders from the Dendarii Mountains to line the stream bed -- the water in the garden is going to take the form of a mountain stream, you see, and I fancied Lord Vorkosigan would appreciate the home touch."
"Miles? Yes, he loves those mountains. He used to ride up into them all the time when he was younger."
"Really? He hasn't talked much to me about that part of his life --"
Mark appeared at the door at that moment, tottering along under a large box of laboratory supplies. Enrique relieved him of it with a glad cry, and carried it off to the dry bench, and began unpacking the awaited reagents.
"Ah, Madame Vorsoisson," Mark greeted her, catching his breath. "Thank you for the maple chippings. They seem to be a hit. Have you met everyone?"
"Just now," Kareen assured him.
"She likes our bugs," said Enrique happily.
"Have you tried the bug butter yet?" Mark asked.
"Not yet," Madame Vorsoisson said.
"Would you be willing to? I mean, you did see the bugs, yes?" Mark smiled uncertainly at this new potential customer/test subject.
"Oh…all right." The gardener's return smile was a trifle crooked. "A small bite. Why not."
"Give her a taste test, Kareen."
Kareen pulled one of the liter tubs of bug butter from the stack on the shelf, and pried it open. Sterilized and sealed, the stuff would keep indefinitely at room temperature. She'd harvested this batch just this morning; the bugs had responded most enthusiastically to their new fodder. "Mark, we're going to need more of these containers. Bigger ones. A liter of bug butter per bughouse per day is going to add up to a lot of bug butter after a while." Pretty soon, actually. Especially when they hadn't been able to persuade anyone in the household to eat more than a mouthful apiece. The Armsmen had taken to avoiding this corridor.
"Oh, the girls will make more than that, now they're fully fed," Enrique informed them cheerfully over his shoulder from the bench.
Kareen stared thoughtfully at the twenty tubs she'd put up this morning, atop the small mountain from the last week. Fortunately, there was a lot of storage space in Vorkosigan House. She scrounged up one of the disposable spoons kept ready for sampling, and offered it to Madame Vorsoisson. Madame Vorsoisson accepted it, blinked uncertainly, scooped a sample from the tub, and took a brave bite. Kareen and Mark anxiously watched her swallow.
"Interesting," she said politely after a moment.
Her brows knotted in sympathy; she glanced at the stack of tubs. After a moment she offered, "How does it respond to freezing? Have you tried running it through an ice cream freezer, with some sugar and flavoring?"
"Actually, not yet," said Mark. His head tilted in consideration. "Hm. D'you think that would work, Enrique?"
"Don't see why not," responded the scientist. "The colloidal viscosity doesn't break down when exposed to sub-zero temperatures. It's thermal acceleration which alters the protein micro-structure and hence texture."
"Gets kind of rubbery when you cook it," Mark translated this. "We're working on it, though."
"Try freezing," Madame Vorsoisson suggested. "With, um, perhaps a more dessert-sounding name?"
"Ah, marketing," Mark sighed. "That's the next step now, isn't it?"
"Madame Vorsoisson said she would test out the bug shit on her plants for us," Kareen consoled him.
"Oh, great!" Mark smiled again at the gardener. "Hey, Kareen, you want to fly down to the District with me day after tomorrow, and help me scout sites for the future facility?"
Enrique paused in his unpacking to unfocus his gaze into the air, and sigh, "Borgos Research Park."
"Actually, I was thinking of calling it Mark Vorkosigan Enterprises," Mark said. "D'you I ought to spell it out in full? MVK Enterprises might have some potential for confusion with Miles."
"Kareen's Butter Bug Ranch," Kareen put in sturdily.
"We'll obviously have to have a shareholder's vote." Mark smirked.
"But you'd win automatically," Enrique said blankly.
"Not necessarily," Kareen told him, and shot Mark a mock-glower. "Anyway, Mark, we were just talking about the District. Madame Vorsoisson has to go down there and collect rocks. And she told Enrique she could help him with figuring out Barrayaran native botany. What if we all go together? Madame Vorsoisson says she's never met Tsipis except over the comconsole. We could introduce her, and make a sort of picnic out of it all."
And she wouldn't end up alone with Mark, and exposed to all sorts of… temptation, and confusion, and resolve-melting neck rubs, and back-rubs, and ear-nibbling, and… she didn't want to think about it. They'd got on very professionally all week here at Vorkosigan House, very comfortably. Very busily. Busy was good. Company was good. Alone together was…um.
Mark muttered under his breath to her, "But then we'd have to take Enrique, and…" By the look on his face, alone together had been just what he'd had in mind.
"Oh, c'mon, it'll be fun." Kareen took the project firmly in hand. A very few minutes of persuasion and schedule-checking and she had the quartet committed, with an early start set and everything. She made a mental note to arrive at Vorkosigan House in plenty of time to make sure Enrique was bathed, dressed, and ready for public display.
Quick, light footsteps sounded from the corridor, and Miles rounded the doorjamb like a trooper swinging himself through a shuttle hatch. "Ah! Madame Vorsoisson," he panted. "Armsman Jankowski only just told me you were here." His gaze swept the room, taking in the demonstration in progress. "You didn't let them feed you that bug vom -- bug stuff, did you? Mark --!"
"It's not half-bad, actually," Madame Vorsoisson assured him, earning a relieved look from Mark, followed by a see-what-did-I-tell you jerk of his chin at his brother. "It may possibly need a little product development before it's ready to market."
Miles rolled his eyes. "Just a tad, yes."
Madame Vorsoisson glanced at her chrono. "My excavation crew will be back from lunch any minute. It was nice to meet you, Miss Koudelka, Dr. Borgos. Until day after tomorrow, then?" She picked up the bag of tubs packed with bug manure Kareen had put up for her, smiled, and excused herself. Miles followed her out.
He was back in a couple of minutes, having evidently seen her to the door at the end of the corridor. "Good God, Mark! I can't believe you fed her that bug vomit. How could you!"
"Madame Vorsoisson," said Mark with dignity, "is a very sensible woman. When presented with compelling facts she doesn't let a thoughtless emotional response overcome her clear reason."
Miles ran his hands through his hair. "Yeah, I know."
Enrique said, "Impressive, actually. She seemed to understand what I wanted to say even before I spoke."
"And after you spoke, too," said Kareen mischievously. "That's even more impressive."
Enrique grinned sheepishly. "Was I too technical, do you think?"
"Evidently not in this case."
Miles's brows drew down. "What's going on the day after tomorrow?"
Kareen answered sunnily, "We're all going down to the District together to visit Tsipis and look around for various things we need. Madame Vorsoisson's promised to introduce Enrique to Barrayaran native botany on site, so he can start to design what modifications he'll need to make to the new bugs later."
"I was going to take her on her first tour of the District. I have it all planned out. Hassadar, Vorkosigan Surleau, the Dendarii Gorge -- I have to make exactly the right first impression."
"Too bad," said Mark unsympathetically. "Relax. We're only going to have lunch in Hassadar and scout around a bit. It's a big District, Miles, there'll be plenty left for you to show off later."
"Wait, I know! I'll go with you. Expedite things, yeah."
"There are only four seats in the lightflyer," Mark pointed out. "I'm flying, Enrique needs Madame Vorsoisson, and I'm damned if I'm going to leave Kareen behind in order to pack you." He somehow smiled fondly at her and glowered at his brother simultaneously.
"Yeah, Miles, you're not even a stockholder," Kareen supported this.
With a driven glare, Miles decamped, going off up the corridor muttering, "… can't believe he fed her bug vomit. If only I'd gotten here before -- Jankowski, dammit, you and I are going to have a little --"
Mark and Kareen followed him out the door. They stood in the corridor watching this retreat. "What in the world's bit him?" Kareen asked in wonder.
Mark grinned evilly. "He's in love."
"With his gardener?" Kareen's brows rose.
"Causality's the other way around, I gather. He met her on Komarr during his recent case. He hired her as his gardener to create a little propinquity. He's courting her in secret."
"In secret? Why? She seems perfectly eligible to me -- she's Vor, even -- or is her rank only by marriage? But I shouldn't think that would matter to Miles. Or -- are her relatives against it, because of his --?" a vague gesture down her body implied Miles's putative mutations. She frowned in outrage at the scent of this romantically doleful scenario. How dare they look down on Miles for --
"Ah, secret from her, as I understand it."
Kareen wrinkled her nose. "Wait, what?"
"You'll have to get him to explain it. It made no sense to me. Not even by Miles's standards of sense." Mark frowned thoughtfully. "Unless he's having a major outbreak of sexual shyness."
"Sexually shy, Miles?" Kareen scoffed. "You met that Captain Quinn he had in tow, didn't you?"
"Oh, yes. I've met several of his girlfriends, in fact. The most appalling bunch of bloodthirsty amazons you ever saw. God, they were frightening." Mark shuddered in memory. "Of course, they were all pissed as hell at me at the time for getting him killed, which I suppose accounts for some of it. But I was just thinking… you know, I really wonder if he picked them -- or if they picked him? Maybe, instead of being such a great seducer, he's just a man who can't say no. It would certainly explain why they were all tall aggressive women who were used to getting what they wanted. But now -- maybe for the first time -- he's up against trying to pick for himself. And he doesn't know how. He hasn't had any practice." A slow grin spread across Mark's broad face at this vision. "Ooh. I wanna watch."
Kareen punched his shoulder. "Mark, that's not nice. Miles deserves to meet the right woman. I mean, he's not getting any younger, is he?"
"Some of us get what they deserve. Others of us get luckier than that." He captured her hand, and nuzzled the inside of her wrist, making the hairs stand up on her arm.
"Miles always says you make your own luck. Stop that." She repossessed her hand. "If sweat-equity is going to pay my way back to Beta Colony, I need to get back to work." She retreated into the lab; Mark followed.
"Was Lord Vorkosigan very upset?" Enrique asked anxiously as they reappeared. "But Madame Vorsoisson said she didn't mind trying our bug butter--"
"Don't worry about it, Enrique," Mark told him jovially. "My brother is just being a prick because he has something on his mind. If we're lucky, he'll go take it out on his Armsmen."
"Oh," said Enrique. "That's all right, then. I have a plan to bring him around."
"Yeah?" said Mark skeptically. "What plan?"
"It's a surprise," said the scientist, with a sly grin, or at any rate, as sly as he could bring off, which really wasn't very. "If it works, that is. I'll know in a few more days."
Mark shrugged, and glanced at Kareen. "You know what he's got up his sleeve?"
She shook her head, and settled herself on the floor once more with her rack-assembly project. "You might try pulling an ice cream freezer out of yours, though. Ask Ma Kosti first. Miles seems to have showered her with every piece of food service equipment imaginable. I think he was trying to bribe her into resisting the employment offers from all his friends." Kareen blinked, seized by inspiration.
Product development, too right. Never mind the appliances, the resource they had right here in Vorkosigan House was human genius. Frustrated human genius; Ma Kosti pressed the hard-working entrepreneurs to come to a special lunch in her kitchen every day, and sent trays of snacks to the lab betimes. And the cook was already soft on Mark, even after just a week; he so obviously appreciated her art. They were well on their way to bonding.
She jumped up and handed Mark the screwdriver. "Here. Finish this."
Grabbing six tubs of bug butter, she headed for the kitchen.
* * *
Miles climbed from the old armored groundcar, and paused a moment on the flower-bordered curving walkway to stare enviously at René Vorbretten's entirely modern townhouse. Vorbretten House perched on the bluff overlooking the river, nearly opposite to Vorhartung Castle. Civil war as urban renewal: the creaky old fortified mansion which had formerly occupied the space had been so damaged in the Pretender's War that the previous Count and his son, when they'd returned to the city with Aral Vorkosigan's victorious forces, had decided to knock it flat and start over. In place of dank, forbidding, and defensively useless old stone walls, truly effective protection was now supplied by optional force-fields. The new mansion was light and open and airy, and took full advantage of the excellent views of the Vorbarr Sultana cityscape up and down stream. It doubtless had enough bathrooms for all the Vorbretten Armsmen. And Miles bet René didn't have troubles with his drains.
And if Sigur Vorbretten wins his case, René will lose it all. Miles shook his head, and advanced to the arched doorway, where an alert Vorbretten Armsman stood ready to lead Miles to his liege-lord's presence, and Pym, no doubt, to a good gossip downstairs.
The Armsman brought Miles to the splendid sitting room with the window-wall looking across the Star Bridge toward the castle. This morning, however, the wall was polarized to near-darkness, and the Armsman had to wave on lights as they entered. René was sitting in a big chair with his back to the view. He sprang to his feet as the Armsman announced, "Lord Auditor Vorkosigan, m'lord."
René swallowed, and nodded dismissal to his Armsman, who withdrew silently. At least René appeared sober, well-dressed, and depilated, but his handsome face was dead pale as he nodded formally to his visitor. "My Lord Auditor. How may I serve you?"
"Relax, René, this isn't an official visit. I just dropped by to say hello."
"Oh." René exhaled visible relief, the sudden stiffness in his face reverting to mere tiredness. "I thought you were… I thought Gregor might have dispatched you with the bad news."
"No, no, no. After all, the Council can't very well vote without telling you." Miles nodded vaguely toward the river, and the Council's seat beyond it; René, recalled to his hostly duties, depolarized the window and pulled chairs around for himself and Miles to take in the view while they talked. Miles settled himself across from the young Count. René had thought quickly enough to drag up a rather low chair for his august visitor, so Miles's feet didn't dangle in air.
"But you might have been -- well, I don't know what you might have been," said René ruefully, sitting down and rubbing his neck. "I wasn't expecting you. Or anyone. Our social life has evaporated with amazing speed. Count and Countess Ghembretten are apparently not good people to know."
"Ouch. You've heard that one, have you?"
"My Armsmen heard it first. The joke's all over town, isn't it?"
"Eh, yeah, sort of." Miles cleared his throat. "Sorry I wasn't by earlier. I was on Komarr when your case broke, and I only heard about it when I got back, and then Gregor sent me up-country, and, well, screw the excuses. I'm sorry as hell this thing has happened to you. I can flat guarantee the Progressives don't want to lose you."
"Can you? I thought I had become a deep embarrassment to them."
"A vote's a vote. With turnover among the Counts literally a once-in-a-lifetime event --"
"Usually," René put in dryly.
Miles shrugged this off. "Embarrassment is a passing emotion. If the Progressives lose you to Sigur, they lose that vote for the next generation. They'll back you." Miles hesitated. "They are backing you, aren't they?"
"More or less. Mostly. Some." René waved an ironic hand. "Some are thinking that if they vote against Sigur and lose, they'll have made a permanent enemy in the Council. And a vote, as you say, is a vote."
"What do the numbers look like, can you tell yet?"
René shrugged. "A dozen certain for me, a dozen certain for Sigur. My fate will be decided by the men in the middle. Most of whom aren't speaking with the Ghembrettens this month. I don't think it looks good, Miles." He glanced across at his visitor, his expression an odd mix of sharpness and hesitancy. In a neutral tone he added, "And do you know how Vorkosigan's District is going to vote yet?"
Miles had realized he would have to answer that question if he saw René. So, no doubt, did every other Count or Count's Deputy, which also explained the sudden dip in René's social life lately; those who weren't avoiding him, were avoiding the issue. With a couple of weeks to think it through behind him, Miles had his answer ready. "We're for you. Could you doubt it?"
René managed a rueful smile. "I had been almost certain, but then there is that large radioactive hole the Cetagandans once put in the middle of your District."
"History, man. Do I help your vote-count?"
"No," sighed René. "I'd already factored you in."
"Sometimes, one vote makes all the difference."
"It makes me crazy to think it might be that close," René confessed. "I hate this. I wish it were over."
"Patience, René," Miles counseled. "Don't throw away any advantage just because of an attack of nerves." He frowned thoughtfully. "Seems to me what we have here are two co-equal legal precedents, jostling each other for primacy. A Count chooses his own successor, with the consent of the Council by their vote of approval, which is how Lord Midnight got in."
René's smile twisted. "If a horse's ass can be a Count, why not the whole horse?"
"I think that was one of the fifth Count Vortala's arguments, actually. I wonder if any transcripts of those sessions still exist in the archives? I must read them someday, if they do. Anyway, Midnight clearly established that direct blood relationship, though customary, was not required, and even if Midnight's case is rejected, there are dozens of other less memorable precedents on that score anyway. Count's choice before Count's blood, unless the Count has neglected to make a choice. Only then does male primogeniture come into play. Your grandfather was confirmed as heir in his… his mother's husband's lifetime, wasn't he?" Miles had been confirmed as his own father's heir during the Regency, while his father had been at the height of his power to ram it through the Council.
"Yes, but fraudulently, according to Sigur's suit. And a fraudulent result is no result."
"I don't suppose the old man might have known? And is there any way to prove it, if he did? Because if he knew your grandfather was not his son, his confirmation was legal, and Sigur's case evaporates."
"If the sixth Count knew, we haven't been able to find a scrap of evidence. And we've been turning the family archives inside out for weeks. I shouldn't think he could have known, or he would surely have killed the boy. And the boy's mother."
"I'm not so sure. The Occupation was a strange time. I'm thinking about how the bastard war played out in the Dendarii region." Miles blew out his breath. "Ordinary known Cetagandan by-blows were usually aborted or killed as soon as possible. Occasionally, the guerrillas used to make a sort of gruesome game of planting the little corpses for the occupying soldiers to find. Used to unnerve the hell out of the Cetagandan rank and file. First was their normal human reaction, and second, even the ones who were so brutalized by then as not to care realized anywhere we slipped in a dead baby, we could just as well have slipped in a bomb."
René grimaced distaste, and Miles realized belatedly that the lurid historical example might have acquired a new personal edge for him. He hurried on, "The Cetagandans weren't the only people to object to that game. Some Barrayarans hated it too, and took it as a blot on our honor -- Prince Xav, for example. I know he argued vehemently with my grandfather against it. Your great… the sixth Count could well have been in agreement with Xav, and what he did for your grandfather a sort of silent answer."
René tilted his head, looking struck. "I never thought of that. He was a friend of old Xav's, I believe. But there's still no proof. Who knows what a dead man knew, but never spoke of?"
"If you have no proof, neither does Sigur."
René brightened slightly. "That's true."
Miles gazed again at the magnificent view along the urbanized river valley. A few small boats chugged up and down the narrowing stream. In former eras, Vorbarr Sultana had been as far inland as navigation from the sea could get, as the rapids and falls here blocked further commercial transport. Since the end of the Time of Isolation, the dam and locks just upstream from the Star Bridge had been destroyed and re-built three times.
Across from where they sat in Vorbretten House, Vorhartung Castle's crenellations loomed up through the spring-green treetops, gray and archaic. The traditional meeting-place of the Council of Counts had overlooked -- in both senses of the word, Miles thought dryly -- all these transformations. When there wasn't a war on, waiting for old Counts to die in order to effect change could be a slow process. One or two popped off a year, on average these days, but the pace of generational turnover was slowing still further as life spans extended. Having two seats open at once, and both up for grabs by either a Progressive or a Conservative heir, was fairly unusual. Or rather, René's seat was up for grabs between the two main parties. The other was more mysterious.
Miles asked René, "Do you have any idea what was the substance of Lady Donna Vorrutyer's motion of impediment against her cousin Richars taking the Vorrutyer Countship? Have you heard any talk?"
René waved a hand. "Not much, but then, who's talking to me, these days? Present company excepted." He shot Miles a covertly grateful look. "Adversity does teach who your real friends are."
Miles was embarrassed, thinking of how long it had taken him to get over here. "Don't take me for more virtuous than I am, René. I would have to be the last person on Barrayar to argue that carrying a bit of off-planet blood in one's veins should disqualify one for a Countship."
"Oh. Yes. You're half-Betan, that's right. But in your case, at least it's the correct half."
"Five-eighths Betan, technically. Less than half a Barrayaran." Miles realized he'd just left himself open for a pot shot about his height, but René didn't take aim. Byerly Vorrutyer would never have let a straight-line like that pass unexploited, and Ivan would have at least dared to grin. "I usually try to avoid bringing people's attention to the math."
"Actually, I did have a few thoughts on Lady Donna," René said. "Her case just might end up impinging on you Vorkosigans after all."
René, drawn out of his bleak contemplation of his own dilemma, grew more animated. "She placed her motion of impediment and took off immediately for Beta Colony. What does that suggest to you?"
"I've been to Beta Colony. There are so many possibilities I can scarcely begin to sort them out. The first and simplest thought is that she's gone to collect some sort of obscure evidence about her cousin Richars's ancestry, genes, or crimes."
"Have you ever met Lady Donna? Simple isn't how I'd describe her."
"Mm, there's that. I should ask Ivan for a guess, I suppose. I believe he slept with her for a time."
"I don't think I was around town then. I was out on active duty during that period." A faint regret for his abandoned military career crept into René's voice, or maybe Miles was projecting. "But I'm not surprised. She had a reputation for collecting men."
Miles cocked an interested eyebrow at his host. "Did she ever collect you?"
René grinned. "I somehow missed that honor." He returned the ironic glance. "And did she ever collect you?"
"What, with Ivan available? I doubt she ever looked down far enough to notice me."
René opened his hand, as if to deflect Miles's little flash of self-deprecation, and Miles bit his tongue. He was an Imperial Auditor now; public whining about his physical lot in life sat oddly on the ear. He had survived. No man could challenge him now. But would even an Auditorship be enough to induce the average Barrayaran woman to overlook the rest of the package? So it's a good thing you're not in love with an average woman, eh, boy?
René went on, "I was thinking about your clone Lord Mark, and your family's push to get him recognized as your brother."
"He is my brother, René. My legal heir and everything."
"Yes, yes, so your family has argued. But what if Lady Donna has been following that controversy, and how you made it come out? I'll bet she's gone off to Beta Colony to have a clone made of poor old Pierre, and is going to bring it back to offer as his heir in place of Richars. Somebody had to try that, sooner or later."
"It's… certainly possible. I'm not sure how it would fly with the fossils. They damn near choked on Mark, year before last." Miles frowned in thought. Could this damage Mark's position? "I heard she was practically running the District for Pierre these last five years. If she could get herself appointed the clone's legal guardian, she could continue to run it for the next twenty. It's unusual to have a female relative be a Count's guardian, but there are some historical precedents."
"Including that Countess who was legally declared a male in order to inherit," René put in. "And then had that bizarre suit later about her marriage."
"Oh, yeah, I remember reading about that one. But there was a civil war on, at the time, which broke down the barriers for her. Nothing like being on the side of the right battalions. No civil war here except for whatever lies between Donna and Richars, and I've never heard an inside story on that feud. I wonder… if you're right -- would she use a uterine replicator for the clone, or would she have the embryo implanted as a body-birth?"
"Body-birth seems weirdly incestuous," René said, with a grimace of distaste. "You do wonder about the Vorrutyers, sometimes. I hope she uses a replicator."
"Mm, but she never had a child of her own. She's what, forty or so… and if the clone were growing inside her own body, she'd at least be sure to have it -- excuse me, him -- as thoroughly personally guarded as possible. Much harder to take away from her, that way, or to argue that someone else should be his guardian. Richars, for example. Now that would be a sharp turn of events."
"With Richars as guardian, how long do you think the child would live?"
"Not past his majority, I suspect." Miles frowned at this scenario. "Not that his death wouldn't be impeccable."
"Well, we'll find out Lady Donna's plan soon," said René. "Or else her case will collapse by default. Her three months to bring her evidence are almost up. It seems a generous allotment of time, but I suppose in the old days they had to allow everyone a chance to get around on horseback."
"Yes, it's not good for a District to leave its Countship empty for so long." One corner of Miles's mouth turned up. "After all, you wouldn't want the proles to figure out they could live without us."
René's brows twitched acknowledgment of the jibe. "Your Betan blood is showing, Miles."
"No, only my Betan upbringing."
"Biology isn't destiny?"
"Not any more, it's not."
The light music of women's voices echoed up the curving staircase into the sitting room. A low alto burble Miles thought he recognized was answered by a silvery peal of laughter.
René sat up, and turned around; his lips parted in a half smile. "They're back. And she's laughing. I haven't heard Tatya laugh in weeks. Bless Martya."
Had that been Martya Koudelka's voice? The thump of a surprising number of feminine feet rippled up the stairs, and three women burst into Miles's appreciative view. Yes. The two blonde Koudelka sisters, Martya and Olivia, set off the dark good looks of the shorter third woman. The young Countess Tatya Vorbretten had bright hazel eyes, wide-set in a heart-shaped face with a foxy chin. And dimples. The whole delightful composition was framed by ringlets of ebony hair that bounced as she now did.
"Hooray, René!" said Martya, the owner of the alto voice. "You're not still sitting alone here in the dark and gloom. Hi, Miles! Did you finally come to cheer René up? Good for you!"
"More or less," said Miles. "I didn't realize you all knew each other so well."
Martya tossed her head. "Olivia and Tatya were in school together. I just came along for the ride, and to boot them into motion. Can you believe, on this beautiful morning, they wanted to stay in?"
Olivia smiled shyly, and she and Countess Tatya clung together for a brief supportive moment. Ah, yes. Tatya Vorkeres had not been a countess back in those private-school days, though she had certainly already been a beauty, and an heiress.
"Where all did you go?" asked René, smiling at his wife.
"Just shopping in the Caravanserai. We stopped for tea and pastries at a café in the Great Square, and caught the changing of the guard at the Ministry." The Countess turned to Miles. "My cousin Stannis is a directing officer in the fife and drum corps of the City Guard now. We waved at him, but of course he couldn't wave back. He was on duty."
"I was sorry we hadn't made you come out with us," said Olivia to René, "but now I'm glad. You would have missed Miles."
"It's all right, ladies," said Martya stoutly. "Instead I vote we make René escort us all to the Vorbarr Sultana Hall tomorrow night. I happen to know where I can get four tickets."
This was seconded and voted in without reference to the Count, but Miles couldn't see him offering much resistance to a proposal that he escort three beautiful women to hear music that he adored. And indeed, with a somewhat sheepish glance at Miles, he allowed himself to be persuaded. Miles wondered how Martya had cornered the tickets, which were generally sold out a year or two in advance, on such short notice. Was she drawing on her sister Delia's ImpSec connections, perhaps? This whole thing smelled of Team Koudelka in action.
The Countess smiled, and held up a hand-calligraphed envelope. "Look, René! Armsman Kelso handed this to me as we came in. It's from Countess Vorgarin."
"Looks like an invitation to me," said Martya in a tone of vast satisfaction. "See, things aren't so bad as you feared."
"Open it," urged Olivia.
Tatya did so; her eyes raced down the handwriting. Her face fell. "Oh," she said in a flattened tone. The delicate paper half-crumpled in her tight fist.
"What?" said Olivia anxiously.
Martya retrieved the paper, and read down it in turn. "The cat! It's an un-invitation! To her baby daughter's naming party. ‘…afraid you would not be comfortable', my eye! The coward. The cat!"
Countess Tatya blinked rapidly. "That's all right," she said in a muffled voice. "I hadn't been planning to go anyway."
"But you said you were going to wear --" René began, then closed his mouth abruptly. A muscle jumped in his jaw.
"All the women -- and their mothers -- who missed catching René these last ten years are being just… just…" Martya sputtered to Miles, "feline."
"That's an insult to cats," said Olivia. "Zap has better character."
René glanced across at Miles. "I couldn't help noticing…" he said in an extremely neutral voice, "we haven't received a wedding invitation from Gregor and Dr. Toscane as yet."
Miles held up a reassuring hand. "Local invitations haven't been sent out yet. I know that for a fact." This was not the moment to mention that inconclusive little political discussion on the subject he'd sat in on a few weeks ago at the Imperial Residence, Miles decided.
He stared around the tableau, Martya fuming, Olivia stricken, the Countess chilled, René flushed and stiff. Inspiration struck. Ninety-six chairs. "I'm giving a little private dinner party in two nights time. It's in honor of Kareen Koudelka and my brother Mark getting home from Beta Colony. Olivia will be there, and all the Koudelkas, and Lady Alys Vorpatril and Simon Illyan, and my cousin Ivan and several other valued friends. I'd be honored if you both would join us."
René managed a pained smile at this palpable charity. "Thank you, Miles. But I don't think --"
"Oh, Tatya, yes, you've got to come," Olivia broke in, squeezing her old friend's arm. "Miles is finally unveiling his lady-love for us all to meet. Only Kareen's seen her so far. We're all just dying of curiosity."
René's brows went up. "You, Miles? I thought you were as confirmed a bachelor as your cousin Ivan. Married to your career."
Miles grimaced furiously at Olivia, and twitched at René's last words. "I had this little medical divorce from my career. Olivia, where did you ever get the idea that Madame Vorsoisson -- she's my landscape designer, you see, René, but she's Lord Auditor Vorthys's niece, I met her on Komarr, she's just recently widowed and certainly not -- not ready to be anybody's lady-love. Lord Auditor Vorthys and the Professora will be there too, you see, a family party, nothing inappropriate for her."
"For who?" asked Martya.
"Ekaterin," escaped his mouth before he could stop it. All four lovely syllables.
Martya grinned unrepentantly at him. René and his wife looked at each other -- Tatya's dimple flashed, and René pursed his lips thoughtfully.
"Kareen said Lord Mark said you said," Olivia said innocently. "Who was lying, then?"
"Nobody, dammit, but -- but --" he swallowed, and prepared to run down the drill one more time. "Madame Vorsoisson is… is…" why was this getting harder to explain with practice, instead of easier? "Is in formal mourning for her late husband. I have every intention of declaring myself to her when the time is right. The time is not right. So I have to wait." He gritted his teeth. René was now leaning his chin on his hand, his finger across his lips, and his eyes alight. "And I hate waiting," Miles burst out.
"Oh," said René. "I see."
"Is she in love with you too?" asked Tatya, with a furtive fond glance at her husband.
God, the Vorbrettens were as gooey as Gregor and Laisa, and after three years, too. This marital enthusiasm was a damned contagious disease. "I don't know," Miles confessed in a smaller voice.
"He told Mark he's courting her in secret," Martya put in to the Vorbrettens. "It's a secret from her. We're all still trying to figure that one out."
"Is the entire city party to my private conversations?" Miles snarled. "I'm going to strangle Mark."
Martya blinked at him with manufactured innocence. "Kareen had it from Mark. I had it from Ivan. Mama had it from Gregor. And Da had it from Pym. If you're trying to keep a secret, Miles, why are you going around telling everyone?"
Miles took a deep breath.
Countess Vorbretten said demurely, "Thank you, Lord Vorkosigan. My husband and I would be pleased to come to your dinner party." She dimpled at him.
His breath blew out in a, "You're welcome."
"Will the Viceroy and Vicereine be back from Sergyar?" René asked Miles. His voice was tinged with political curiosity.
"No. In fact. Though they're due quite soon. This is my party. My last chance to have Vorkosigan House to myself before it fills up with the traveling circus." Not that he didn't look forward to his parents' return, but his head-of-the-House role had been rather… pleasant, these past few months. Besides, introducing Ekaterin to Count and Countess Vorkosigan, her prospective future parents-in-law, was something he wished to choreograph with the utmost care.
He'd surely done his social duty by now. Miles rose with some dignity, and bid everyone farewell, and politely offered Martya and Olivia a ride, if they wished it. Olivia was staying on with her friend the Countess, but Martya took him up on it.
Miles gave Pym a fishy look as the Armsman opened the groundcar canopy for them to enter the rear compartment. Miles had always put down Pym's extraordinary ability to collect gossip, a most valuable skill to Miles in his new post, to Pym's old ImpSec training. He hadn't quite realized Pym might be trading. Pym, catching the look but not its cause, went a bit blander than usual, but seemed otherwise unaffected by his liege-lord's displeasure.
In the rear compartment with Martya as they pulled away from Vorbretten House and swung down toward the Star Bridge, Miles seriously considered dressing her down for roasting him about Ekaterin in front of the Vorbrettens. He was an Imperial Auditor now, by God or at least by Gregor. But then he'd get no further information out of her. He controlled his temper.
"How do the Vorbrettens seem to be holding up, from your view?" he asked her,
She shrugged. "They're putting up a good front, but I think they're pretty shaken. René thinks he's going to lose the case, and his District, and everything."
"So I gathered. And he might, if he doesn't make more push to keep it." Miles frowned.
"He's hated the Cetagandans ever since they killed his Da in the war for the Hegen Hub. Tatya says it just spooks him, to think the Cetagandans are in him." She added after a moment, "I think it spooks her a little, too. I mean… now we know why that branch of the Vorbrettens suddenly acquired that extraordinary musical talent, after the Occupation."
"I'd made that connection too. But she seems to be standing by him." Unpleasant, to think this mischance might cost René his marriage as well as his career.
"It's been hard on her too. She likes being a Countess. Olivia says, back in their school days, envy sometimes made the other girls mean to Tatya. Being picked out by René was kind of a boost for her, not that the rest of them couldn't see it coming, with her glorious soprano. She does adore him."
"So you think their marriage will weather this?" he asked hopefully.
"This whole thing began when they were going to start their baby. And they haven't gone ahead. Tatya… doesn't talk about that part of things. She'll talk about everything else, but not that."
"Oh." Miles tried to figure out what that might mean. It didn't sound very encouraging.
"Olivia is almost the only one of Tatya's old friends who've shown up, after all this blew up. Even René's sisters have kind of gone to ground, though for the opposite reason I suppose. It's like nobody wants to look her in the eye."
"If you go back far enough, we're all descended from off-worlders, dammit," Miles growled in frustration. "What's one-eighth? A tinge. Why should it disqualify one of the best people we have? Competence should count for something."
Martya's grin twisted. "If you want sympathy, you've come to the wrong store, Miles. If my Da were a Count, it wouldn't matter how competent I was, I still wouldn't inherit. All the brilliance in the world wouldn't matter a bit. If you're just now finding out that this world is unjust, well, you're behind the times."
Miles grimaced. "It's not news to me, Martya." The car pulled up outside Commodore Koudelka's townhouse. "But justice wasn't my job, before." And power isn't nearly as all-powerful as it looks from the outside. He added, "But that's probably the one issue I can't help you on. I have the strongest personal reasons for not wanting to re-introduce inheritance through the female line into Barrayaran law. Like, my survival. I like my job very well. I don't want Gregor's."
He popped the canopy, and she climbed out, and gave him a sort of acknowledging salaam for both this last point and the ride. "See you at your dinner party."
"Give my best to the Commodore and Drou," he called after her.
She shot him a bright Team Koudelka smile over her shoulder, and bounced away.