Copyright © 1999
A cool spring drizzle misted onto Miles's hair as he stepped into the shelter of the Vorthys's doorway. In the gray air, the gaudy tile front of the house was subdued, becoming a patterned subtlety. Ekaterin had inadvertently delayed this meeting by sending him her proposed garden designs over the comconsole. Fortunately, he hadn't had to feign indecision over the choice; both layouts were very fine. He trusted they would still be able to spend hours this afternoon, heads bent together over the vid display, comparing and discussing the fine points.
A fleeting memory of the erotic dream from which he'd awoken this morning warmed his face. It had been a re-play of his and Ekaterin's first meeting in the garden here, but in this version her welcome had taken a much more, um, exciting and unexpected turn. Except why had his stupid unconscious spent so much worry about tell-tale grass-stains on the knees of his trousers, when it could have been manufacturing even more fabulous moments of abundance for his dream-self? And then he'd woken up too damned soon….
The Professora opened the door to him, and smiled a welcome. "Come in, Miles." She added, as he entered her hallway, "Have I ever mentioned before how much I appreciate the fact that you call before you visit?"
Her house did not have its usual hushed, library-like quiet. There seemed to be a party going on. Startled, Miles swiveled his head toward the archway on his left. A clink of plates and glassware and the scent of tea and apricot pastries wafted from the parlor.
Ekaterin, smiling politely but with two little parallel lines of tension between her brows, sat enthroned in her uncle's overstuffed chair in the corner, holding a teacup. Ranged around the room, perched on more decorative chairs, were three men, two in Imperial undress greens and one in a civilian tunic and trousers.
Miles didn't recognize the heavy-set fellow who wore major's tabs, along with Ops pins, on his high collar. The other officer was Lieutenant Alexi Vormoncrief, whom Miles knew slightly. His pins, too, indicated he now worked in Ops. The third man, in the finely-cut civilian togs, was highly adept at avoiding work of any kind, as far as Miles knew. Byerly Vorrutyer had never joined the Service; he'd been a town clown for as long as Miles had been acquainted with him. Byerly had impeccable taste in everything but his vices. Miles would have been loath to introduce Ekaterin to him even after she was safely betrothed.
"Where did they come from?" Miles asked the Professora in an undertone.
"Major Zamori I had as an undergraduate student, fifteen years ago," the Professora murmured back. "He brought me a book he said he thought I would like. Which is true; I already had a copy. Young Vormoncrief came to compare pedigrees with Ekaterin. He thought they might be related, he said, as his grandmother was a Vorvane. Aunt to the Minister for Heavy Industries, you know."
"I know that branch, yes."
"They have spent the past hour establishing that, while the Vorvanes and the Vorvaynes are indeed of the same root stock, the families split off at least five generations back. I don't know why By Vorrutyer is here. He neglected to supply me with an excuse."
"There is no excuse for By." But Miles thought he could see exactly why the three of them were there, lame stories and all, and she was clutching her teacup in the corner and looking trapped. Couldn't they do better than those palpably transparent tales? "Is my cousin Ivan here?" he added dangerously. Ivan worked in Ops, come to think of it. Once was happenstance, twice was co-incidence…
"Ivan Vorpatril? No. Oh, dear, is he likely to turn up? I'm out of pastries. I had bought them for the Professor's dessert tonight…"
"I trust not," muttered Miles. He fixed a polite smile on his face, and swung into the Professora's parlor. She followed after him.
Ekaterin's chin came up, and she smiled and put down her cup-shield. "Oh, Lord Vorkosigan! I'm so glad you're here. Um… do you know these gentlemen?"
"Two out of three, Madame. Good morning, Vormoncrief. Hello, Byerly."
The three acquaintances exchanged guarded nods. Vormoncrief said politely, "Good morning, my Lord Auditor."
"Major Zamori, this is Lord Auditor Miles Vorkosigan," the Professora supplied.
"Good day, sir," said Zamori. "I've heard of you." His gaze was direct and fearless, despite his being so heavily outnumbered by Vor lords. But then, Vormoncrief was a mere stripling of a lieutenant, and Byerly Vorrutyer didn't rank at all. "Did you come to see Lord Auditor Vorthys? He just stepped out."
Ekaterin nodded. "He went for a walk."
"In the rain?"
The Professora rolled her eyes slightly, by which Miles guessed her husband had skipped off and left her to play duenna to her niece by herself.
"No matter," Miles went on. "In fact, I have some little business with Madame Vorsoisson." And if they took that to mean a Lord Auditor's Imperial business, and not merely Lord Vorkosigan's private business, who was he to correct them?
"Yes," Ekaterin nodded in confirmation of this.
"My apologies for interrupting you all," Miles added, by way of a broad hint. He did not sit down, but leaned against the frame of the archway, and crossed his arms. No one moved.
"We were just discussing family trees," Vormoncrief explained.
"At some length," murmured Ekaterin.
"Speaking of strange pedigrees, Alexi, Lord Vorkosigan and I were almost related much more closely," Byerly remarked. "I feel quite a familial attachment to him."
"Really?" said Vormoncrief, looking puzzled.
"Oh, yes. One of my aunts on the Vorrutyer side was once married to his father. So Aral Vorkosigan is actually some sort of virtual, if not virtuous, uncle to me. But she died young, alas -- ruthlessly pruned from the tree -- without bearing me a cousin to cut the future Miles out of his inheritance." Byerly cocked a brow at Miles. "Was she fondly remembered, in your family dinner conversations?"
"We never much discussed the Vorrutyers," said Miles.
"How odd. We never much discussed the Vorkosigans, either. Hardly at all, in fact. Such a resounding silence, one feels."
Miles smiled, and let just such a silence stretch between them, curious to see who would flinch first. By's eye began to glint appreciation, but the first whose nerve broke was one of the innocent bystanders.
Major Zamori cleared his throat. "So, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan. What's the final word on the Komarr accident, really? Was it sabotage?"
Miles shrugged, and let By and his habitual needling drop from his attention. "After six weeks of sifting through the data, Lord Auditor Vorthys and I returned a probable cause of pilot error. We debated the possibility of pilot suicide, but finally discarded the idea."
"And which was your opinion?" asked Zamori, sounding interested. "Accident or suicide?"
"Mm. I felt suicide would explain a lot about certain physical aspects of the collision," Miles replied, sending up a silent prayer of apology to the soul of the slandered pilot. "But since the dead pilot neglected to supply us with any supporting evidence, such as notes or messages or therapy records, we couldn't make it an official verdict. Don't quote me," he added, for verisimilitude.
Ekaterin, sheltered in her uncle's chair, nodded understanding to him of this official lie, perhaps adding it to her own repertoire of deflections.
"So what do you think of this Komarran marriage of the Emperor's?" Vormoncrief added. "I suppose you must approve of it -- you're in it."
Miles took note of his dubious tone. Ah yes, Vormoncrief's uncle Count Boriz Vormoncrief, being just outside the spatter-zone, had inherited the leadership of the shrinking Conservative Party after the fall of Count Vortrifrani. The Conservative party's response to future-Empress Laisa had been lukewarm at best, though, prudently, no overt hostility had been permitted to leak into their public stances where someone -- i.e., ImpSec -- would have been compelled to take notice of it. Still, just because Boriz and Alexi were related didn't by any means guarantee they shared the same political views. "I think it's great," said Miles. "Dr. Toscane is brilliant and beautiful, and Gregor, well, it's high time he produced an heir. And you have to figure, if nothing else it leaves one more Barrayaran woman for the rest of us."
"Well, it leaves one more Barrayaran woman for one of us," Byerly Vorrutyer corrected this sweetly. "Unless you are proposing something delightfully outré."
Miles's smile thinned, as he contemplated By. Ivan's wit, wearing as it could sometimes grow, was saved from being offensive by a certain ingenuousness. Unlike Ivan, Byerly never insulted anyone unintentionally.
"You gentlemen should all pay a visit to Komarr," Miles recommended genially. "Their domes are just chock full of lovely women, all with clean gene scans and galactic educations. And the Toscanes aren't the only clan fielding an heiress. Many of the Komarran ladies are rich -- Byerly." He restrained himself from helpfully explaining to all present that Madame Vorsoisson's feckless late husband had left her destitute, first because Ekaterin was sitting right there, with her eyebrows tilted at him, and secondly because he couldn't imagine that By, for one, didn't already know it.
Byerly smiled faintly. "Money isn't everything, they say."
Check. "Still, I'm sure you could make yourself pleasant, if you ever chose to try."
By's lip quirked. "Your faith in me is touching, Vorkosigan."
Alexi Vormoncrief said sturdily, "A daughter of the Vor is good enough for me, thanks. I've no need or taste for off-world exotica."
While Miles was still trying to work out if this was an intended slur on his Betan mother -- with By, he would have been sure, but Vormoncrief had never struck him as over-supplied with subtlety -- Ekaterin said brightly, "I'll just step up to my room and get those data disks, shall I?"
"If you please, Madame." Miles trusted By had not made her the object of any of his guerrilla conversational techniques. If so, Miles might have a little private word with his ersatz cousin. Or maybe even send his Armsmen to do so, just like the good old days….
She rose, and made her way to the hall and up the stairs. She did not return. Vormoncrief and Zamori eventually exchanged disappointed looks, and noises about time to be going, and made to rise. The military raincoat Vormoncrief shrugged on had had time to dry since his arrival, Miles noted with disapproval. The gentlemen courteously took their leave of their putative hostess, the Professora.
"Tell Madame Vorsoisson I'll bring that disc of jumpship designs around for Nikki as soon as I may," Major Zamori assured the Professora, glancing up the stairway.
Zamori's been here often enough to know Nikki already? Miles regarded his regular profile uneasily. He seemed tall, too, though not as tall as Vormoncrief; it was his bulk that helped make his presence loom like that. Byerly was slim enough that his height was not so apparent.
They lingered a moment in an awkward crowded gaggle in the tiled hall, but Ekaterin did not descend again, and at last they gave up and let themselves be shepherded out the front door. It was raining harder now, Miles saw with some satisfaction. Zamori plunged off into the shower, head-down. The Professora closed the door on them with a grimace of relief.
"You and Ekaterin can use the comconsole in my study," she directed Miles, and turned to start collecting the plates and cups left derelict in her parlor.
Miles trod across the hall into her office-cum-library, and looked around. Yes, this would be a fine and cozy spot for his conference. The front window was propped open to catch a fresh draft. Voices from the porch carried through the damp air with unfortunate clarity.
"By, you don't think Vorkosigan is dangling after Madame Vorsoisson, is he?" That was Vormoncrief.
Byerly Vorrutyer replied indifferently, "Why not?"
"You'd think she'd be revolted. No, it must be just some left-over business from his case."
"I wouldn't wager on that. I know women enough who would hold their noses and take the plunge for a Count's heir even if he came covered in green fur."
Miles's fist clenched, then carefully unclenched. Oh, yeah? So why didn't you ever supply me with that list, By? Not that Miles cared now…
"I don't claim to understand women, but Ivan's the catch I could see them going for," Vormoncrief said. "If the assassins had been a little more competent, way back when, he might have inherited the Vorkosigans' Countship. Too bad. My uncle says he'd be an ornament to our party, if he didn't have that family alliance with Aral Vorkosigan's damned Progressives."
"Ivan Vorpatril?" Byerly snorted. "Wrong type of party for him, Alexi. He only goes to the kind where the wine flows freely."
Ekaterin appeared in the archway, and smiled crookedly at Miles. He considered slamming the window shut, hard. There were technical difficulties with that idea; it had a crank-latch. Ekaterin too had caught the voices -- how soon? She drifted in, and cocked her head, and lifted an inquiring and unrepentant brow at him, as if to say, At it again, are you? Miles managed a brief embarrassed smile.
"Ah, here's your driver at last," Byerly added. "Lend me your coat, Alexi; I don't wish to damp my lovely new suit. What do you think of it? The color flatters my skin tone, no?"
"Hang your skin tone, By."
"Oh, but my tailor assured me it does. Thank you. Good, he's opening the canopy. Now for the dash through the wet; well, you can dash. I shall saunter with dignity, in this ugly but unarguably waterproof Imperial garment. Off we go now…" Two sets of footsteps faded into the drizzle.
"He is a character, isn't he?" said Ekaterin, half-laughing.
"Yes. He's very snarky. I could scarcely believe the things he dared to say. Or keep my face straight."
"I scarcely believe the things By says either," said Miles shortly. He pulled a second chair around in front of the comconsole as close to the first as he dared, and settled her. "Where did they all come from?" Besides the Ops department of Imperial Headquarters, apparently. Ivan, you rat, you and I are going to have a talk about what sort of gossip you sprinkle around at work…
"Major Zamori called on the Professora last week," said Ekaterin. "He seems a pleasant enough fellow. He had a long chat with Nikki -- I was impressed with his patience."
Miles was impressed with his brains. Damn the man, for spotting Nikki as one of the few chinks in Ekaterin's armor.
"Vormoncrief first turned up a few days ago. I'm afraid he's a bit of a bore, poor man. Vorrutyer just came in with him this morning; I'm not sure he was exactly invited."
"He's found a new victim to sponge off, I suppose," said Miles. Vorrutyers seemed to come in two flavors, flamboyant and reclusive; By's father, the youngest son of his generation, was a misanthropic pinchmark of the second category, and never came near the capital if he could help it. "By's notoriously without visible means of support."
"He puts up a good front, if so," said Ekaterin judiciously.
Upper-class poverty was a dilemma with which Ekaterin could identify, Miles realized. He hadn't intended his remark as a ploy to gain sympathy for Byerly Vorrutyer. Blast.
"I think Major Zamori was a bit put out when they arrived on top of his visit," Ekaterin went on. She added fretfully, "I don't know why they're here."
Check your mirror, Miles refrained from advising her. He let his brows rise. "Truly?"
She shrugged, and smiled a little bitterly. "They mean well, I guess. Maybe I was naïve to think this," she gestured down her black dress, "would be enough to relieve me of having to deal with the nonsense. Thanks for trying to ship them to Komarr for me, though I'm not sure it took. My hints don't seem to be working. I don't wish to be rude."
"Why not?" said Miles, hoping to encourage this trend of thought. Though rudeness might not work on By; it would be just as likely to excite him into making it a contest. Miles suppressed a morbid urge to inquire if there'd been any more unattached gentlemen turn up on her front step this week, or if he'd just viewed the whole inventory. He really didn't want to hear the answer. "But enough of this, as you say, nonsense. Let's talk about my garden."
"Yes, lets," she said gratefully, and set up the two vid models, which they'd dubbed the backcountry garden and the urban garden respectively, on her aunt's comconsole. Their heads bent together side by side, just as Miles had pictured. He could smell the dusky perfume of her hair.
The backcountry garden was a naturalistic display, with bark pathways curling through thickly planted native species on contoured banks, a winding stream, and scattered wooden benches. The urban garden had strong rectangular terraces of poured plascrete, which were walks and benches and channels for the water all together. In a series of skillful, penetrating questions, Ekaterin managed to elicit from him that his heart really favored the backcountry garden, however much his eye was seduced by the plascrete fountains. As he watched in fascination, she modified the backcountry design to give the ground more slope and the stream more prominence, winding in an s-curve that originated in a rock fall and ended in a small grotto. The central circle where the paths intersected was transformed to traditional patterned brick, with the Vorkosigan crest, the stylized maple leaf backed by the three overlapping triangles representing the mountains, picked out in contrasting paler brick. The whole was dropped further below street level, to give the banks more room to climb, and to muffle the city noise.
"Yes," he said at last, in considerable satisfaction. "That's the plan. Go with it. You can start lining up your contractors and bids."
"Are you sure you really want to go on?" said Ekaterin. "I'm now out of my experience, I'm afraid. All my designs have been virtual ones, till this."
"Ah," said Miles smugly, having anticipated this last-minute waffle. "Now is the moment to put you in direct touch with my man of business, Tsipis. He's had to arrange every sort of maintenance and building work on the Vorkosigan properties in the last thirty years. He knows who all the reputable and reliable people are, and where we can draw labor or materials from the Vorkosigan estates. He'll be delighted to walk you through the whole thing." In fact, I've let him know I'll have his head if he's not delighted every minute. Not that Miles had had to lean very hard; Tsipis found all aspects of business management utterly fascinating, and would drone on for hours about them. It made Miles laugh, if painfully, to realize how often in his space mercenary command he'd saved a day by drawing not on his ImpSec training, but on one of old Tsipis's scorned lessons. "If you're willing to be his pupil, he'll be your slave."
Tsipis, carefully primed, answered the comconsole in his office in Hassadar himself, and Miles made the necessary introductions. The new acquaintance went well; Tsipis was elderly, long married, and genuinely interested in the project at hand. He drew Ekaterin almost instantly out of her wary shyness. By the time he'd finished his first lengthy conversation with her, she'd shifted from I can't possibly mode to possession of a flow-chart checklist and a coherent plan which would, with luck, result in groundbreaking as early as the following week. Oh yes. This was going to do well. If there was one thing Tsipis appreciated, it was a quick study. Ekaterin was one of those show once people whom Miles, in his mercenary days, had found more precious than unexpected oxygen in the emergency reserve. And she didn't even know she was unusual.
"Good heavens," she remarked, organizing her notes after Tsipis had cut the com. "What an education that man is. I think I should be paying you."
"Payment," said Miles, reminded. "Yes." He drew a credit chit from his pocket. "Tsipis has set up the account for you to pay all expenses incurred. This is your own fee for the accepted design."
She checked it in the comconsole. "Lord Vorkosigan, this is too much!"
"No, it's not. I had Tsipis scout the prices for similar design work from three different professional companies." They happened to be the top three in the business, but would he have hired anything less for Vorkosigan House? "This is an average of their bids. He can show them to you."
"But I'm an amateur."
"Not for damn long."
Wonder of wonders, this actually won a smile of increasing self-confidence. "All I did was assemble some pretty standard design elements."
"So, ten percent of that is for the design elements. The other ninety percent is for knowing how to arrange them."
Hah, she didn't argue with that. You couldn't be that good and not know it, somewhere in your secret heart, however much you'd been abused into affecting public humility.
This was, he recognized, a good bright note on which to end. He didn't want to linger to the point of boring her, as Vormoncrief had evidently done. Was it too early to… no, he'd try. "By the way, I'm putting together a dinner party for some old friends of mine -- the Koudelka family. Kareen Koudelka, who is a sort of protégé of my mother's, is just back from a school year on Beta Colony. She's hit the ground running, but as soon as I can determine a date when everyone's free, I'd like to have you come too, and meet them."
"I wouldn't want to intrude --"
"Four daughters," he over-rode this smoothly, "Kareen's the youngest. And their mother, Drou. And Commodore Koudelka, of course. I've known them all my life. And Delia's fiancé Duv Galeni."
"A family with five women in it? All at once?" An envious note sounded plainly in her voice.
"I'd think you'd enjoy them a lot. And vice versa."
"I haven't met many women in Vorbarr Sultana… they're all so busy…" She glanced down at her black skirt. "I really ought not to go to parties just yet."
"A family party," he emphasized, tacking handily into this wind. "Of course I mean to invite the Professor and the Professora." Why not? He had, after all, ninety-six chairs.
"Perhaps… that would be unexceptionable."
"Excellent! I'll get back to you on the dates. Oh, and be sure to call Pym to notify the House guards when your workmen are due, so he can add them to his security schedule."
And on that carefully-balanced note, warm yet not too personal, he made his excuses and decamped.
So, the enemy was now thronging her gates. Don't panic, boy. By the time of the dinner party, he might have her up to the pitch of accepting some of his wedding-week engagements. And by the time they'd been seen publicly paired at half a dozen of those, well, who knew.
Not me, unfortunately.
He sighed, and sprinted off through the rain to his waiting car.
* * *
Ekaterin wandered back to the kitchen, to see if her aunt needed any more help with the clean up. She was guiltily afraid she was too late, and indeed she found the Professora sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and stack of, judging by the bemused look on her face, undergraduate essays.
Her aunt frowned fiercely, and scribbled with her stylus, then looked up and smiled. "All done, dear?"
"More like, just started. Lord Vorkosigan chose the backcountry garden. He really wants me to go ahead."
"I never doubted it. He's a decisive man."
"I'm sorry for all the interruptions this morning." Ekaterin made a gesture in the direction of the parlor.
"I don't see why you're apologizing. You didn't invite them."
"Indeed, I didn't." Ekaterin held up her new credit chit, and smiled. "But Lord Vorkosigan has already paid me for the design! I can give you rent for Nikki and me now."
"Good heavens, you don't owe us rent. It doesn't cost us anything to let you have the use of those empty rooms."
Ekaterin hesitated. "You can't say the food we eat comes free."
"If you wish to buy some groceries, go ahead. But I'd much prefer you saved it toward your schooling in the fall."
"I'll do both." Ekaterin nodded firmly. Carefully managed, the credit chit would spare her having to beg her father for spending money for the next several months. Da was not un-generous, but she didn't want to hand him the right to give her reams of unwanted advice and suggestions as to how to run her life. He'd made it plain at Tien's funeral that he was unhappy she hadn't chosen to come home, as befit a Vor widow, or gone to live with her late husband's mother, though the senior Madame Vorsoisson hadn't invited them.
And how had he imagined Ekaterin and Nikki could fit in his modest flat, or find any educational opportunities in the small South Continent town to which he'd retired? Sasha Vorvane seemed a man oddly defeated by his life, at times. He'd always made the conservative choices. Mama had been the daring one, but only in the little ways she could fit into the interstices of her role as a bureaucrat's wife. Had the defeat become contagious, toward the end? Ekaterin sometimes wondered if her parents' marriage had been, in some subtler way, almost as much of a secret mis-match as her own.
A white-haired head passed the window; a rattle, and the back door opened to reveal her Uncle Vorthys, Nikki in tow. The Professor stuck his head inside, and whispered dramatically, "Are they gone? Is it safe to come back?"
"All clear," reported his wife, and he lumbered into the kitchen.
He was burdened with a large bag, which he dumped on the table. It proved to contain replacements, several times over, for the pastries that had been consumed earlier.
"Do you think we have enough now?" the Professora inquired dryly.
"No artificial shortages," declaimed her husband. "I remember when the girls were going through that phase. Up to our elbows in young men at all hours, and not a crumb left in the house at the end of the day. I never understood your generous strategy." He explained aside to Ekaterin, "I wanted to cut their numbers by offering them spotty vegetables, and chores. The ones who came back after that, we would know were serious. Eh, Nikki? But for some reason, the women wouldn't let me."
"Feel free to offer them all the rotten vegetables and chores you can think of," Ekaterin told him. Alternately, we could lock the doors and pretend no one is home… She sat down glumly beside her aunt, and helped herself to a pastry. "Did you and Nikki get your share, finally?"
"We had coffee and cookies and milk at the bakery," her uncle assured her.
Nikki licked his lips happily, and nodded confirmation. "Uncle Vorthys says all those fellows want to marry you," he added in apparent disbelief. "Is that really true?"
Thank you, dear Uncle, Ekaterin thought wryly. She'd been wondering how to explain it all to a nine-year old boy. Though Nikki didn't seem to find the idea nearly as horrifying as she did. "That would be illegal," she murmured. "Outré, even." She smiled faintly at By Vorrutyer's jibe.
Nikki scorned the joke. "You know what I mean! Are you going to pick one of ‘em?"
"No, dear," she assured him.
"Good." He added after a moment of silence, "Though if you did, a major would be better than a lieutenant."
Ekaterin watched with interest as Nikki struggled to evolve Vormoncrief is a patronizing Vor bore, but to her relief, the vocabulary escaped him. He finally fell back on, "Majors make more money."
"A very practical point." Uncle Vorthys observed, and, perhaps still mistrusting his wife's generosity, packed up about half of his new stock of pastries to carry off and hide in his basement laboratory. Nikki tagged along.
Ekaterin leaned her elbows on the kitchen table, rested her chin on her hands, and sighed. "Uncle Vorthys's strategy might not be such a bad idea, at that. The threat of chores might get rid of Vormoncrief, and would certainly repel Vorrutyer. I'm not so sure it would work on Major Zamori, though. The spotty vegetables might be good all round."
Aunt Vorthys sat back, and regarded her with a quizzical smile. "So what do you want me to do, Ekaterin? Start telling your potential suitors you're not at home to visitors?"
"Could you? With my work on the garden starting, it would be the truth," said Ekaterin, considering this.
"Poor boys. I almost feel sorry for them."
Ekaterin smiled briefly. She could feel the pull of that sympathy, like a clutching hand, drawing her back into the dark. It made her skin crawl.
Every night now, lying down alone without Tien, was like a taste of some solitary heaven. She could stretch her arms and legs out all the way to the sides of the bed, reveling in the smooth space, free of compromise, confusion, oppression, negotiation, deference, placation. Free of Tien. Through the long years of their marriage she had become almost numb to the ties that had bound her to him, the promises and the fear, his desperate needs, his secrets and lies. When the straps of her vows had been released at last by his death, it was as if her whole soul had come awake, tingling painfully, like a limb when circulation was restored. I did not know what a prison I was in, till I was freed. The thought of voluntarily walking back into such a marital cell again, and locking the door with another oath, made her want to run screaming.
She shook her head. "I don't need another dependent."
Her aunt's brows quirked. "You don't need another Tien, that's certain. But not all men are like Tien."
Ekaterin's fist tightened, thoughtfully. "But I'm still like me. I don't know if I can be intimate, and not fall back into the bad old ways. Not give myself away down to the very bottom, and then complain I'm empty. The most horrible thought I have, looking back on it all, is that it wasn't all Tien's fault. I let him get worse and worse. If he'd chanced to marry a woman who would have stood up to him, who would have insisted…"
"Your line of logic makes my head ache," her aunt observed mildly.
Ekaterin shrugged. "It's all moot now."
After a long moment of silence, the Professora asked curiously, "So what do you think of Miles Vorkosigan?"
"He's all right. He doesn't make me cringe."
"I thought -- back on Komarr -- he seemed a bit interested in you himself."
"Oh, that was just a joke," Ekaterin said sturdily. Their joke had gone a little beyond the line, perhaps, but they had both been tired, and punchy at their release from those days and hours of fearsome strain… his flashing smile, and the brilliant eyes in his weary face, blazed in her memory. It had to have been a joke. Because if it weren't a joke… she would have to run screaming. And she was much too tired to get up. "But it's been nice to find someone genuinely interested in gardens."
"Mmm," said her aunt, and turned over another essay.
* * *
The afternoon sun of the Vorbarr Sultana spring warmed the gray stone of Vorkosigan House into something almost mellow, as Mark's hired ground car turned in to the drive. The ImpSec gate guard at the kiosk was not one of the men Mark had met last year. The guard was respectful but meticulous, going as far as checking Mark's palm print and retina scan before waving them through with a mumbled grunt that might have been an apologetic "M'lord." Mark stared up through the car's canopy as they wound up the drive to the front portico.
Vorkosigan House again. Home? His cozy student apartment back on Beta Colony seemed more like home now than did this vast stone pile. But although he was hungry, horny, tired, tense, and jump-lagged, at least he wasn't throwing up in a paroxysm of anticipated terror this time. It was just Vorkosigan House. He could handle it. And as soon as he got inside, he could call Kareen, yes! He released the canopy the instant the car sighed to the pavement, and turned to help Enrique unload.
Mark's feet had barely hit the concrete when Armsman Pym popped out of the front doors, and gave him a snappy, yet somehow reproachful, salute. "My Lord Mark! You should have called us from the shuttleport, m'lord. We'd have picked you up properly."
"That's all right, Pym. I don't think all our gear would have fit in the armored car anyway. Don't worry, there's still plenty for you to do." The hired freight van which had followed them from the shuttleport cleared the gate guard and chuffed up the drive to wheeze to a halt behind them.
"Holy saints," murmured Enrique out of the corner of his mouth, as Mark hurried to help him hoist the delicate crate, which had ridden between them in the ground car, out to the pavement. "You really are Lord Vorkosigan. I'm not sure I totally believed you, till now."
"I really am Lord Mark," Mark corrected this. "Get it straight. It matters, here. I am not now, nor do I ever aspire to be, the heir to the Countship." Mark nodded toward the new short figure exiting the mansion through the carved double doors, now swung welcoming-wide. "He's Lord Vorkosigan."
Miles didn't look half-bad, despite the peculiar rumors about his health which had leaked back to Beta Colony. Someone had taken a hand in improving his civilian wardrobe, judging by the sharp gray suit he wore, and he filled it properly, not so sickly-thin as he'd still been when Mark had last seen him here almost a year ago. He advanced on Mark with a grin, his hand held out. They managed to exchange a firm, brotherly handshake. Mark was desperate for a hug, but not from Miles.
"Mark, dammit, you took us by surprise. You're supposed to call from orbit when you get in. Pym would have been there to pick you up."
"So I've been advised."
Miles stood back and looked him over, and Mark flushed in self-consciousness. The meds Lilly Durona had given him had permitted him to piss away more fat in less time than was humanly natural, and he'd stuck religiously to the strict regimen of diet and liquids to combat the corrosive side effects. She'd said the drug-complex wasn't addictive, and Mark believed her; he couldn't wait to get off the loathsome stuff. He now weighed very little more than when he'd last set foot on Barrayar, just as planned. Killer was released from his fleshly cage, able to defend them again if he absolutely had to…. But Mark hadn't anticipated how flabby and gray he was going to look, as though he were melting and slumping like a candle in the sun.
And indeed, the next words out of his brother's mouth were, "Are you feeling all right? You don't look so good."
"Jump lag. It will pass." He grinned tightly. He wasn't sure if it was the drugs, Barrayar, or missing Kareen that put him more on edge, but he was sure of the cure. "Have you heard from Kareen? Did she get in all right?"
"Yes, she got here fine, last week. What's that peculiar crate with all the layers?"
Mark wanted to see Kareen more than anything in the universe, but first things first. He turned to Enrique, who was goggling in open fascination at him and his progenitor-twin.
"I brought a guest. Miles, I'd like you to meet Dr. Enrique Borgos. Enrique, my brother Miles, Lord Vorkosigan."
"Welcome to Vorkosigan House, Dr. Borgos," Miles said, and shook hands in automatic politeness. "Your name sounds Escobaran, yes?"
"Er, yes, er, Lord Vorkosigan."
Wonders, Enrique managed to get it right this time. Mark had only been coaching him on Barrayaran etiquette for ten straight days…
"And what are you a doctor of?" Miles glanced again, worriedly, at Mark; Mark guessed he was evolving alarmed theories about his clone-brother's health.
"Not medicine," Mark assured Miles. "Dr. Borgos is a biochemist and genetic entomologist."
"Words…? No, that's etymologist. Bugs, that's right." Miles's eye was drawn again to the big steel-wound shock-cushioned crate at their feet. "Mark, why does that crate have air holes?"
"Lord Mark and I are going to be working together," the gangling scientist told Miles earnestly.
"I assume we have some room to spare for him," Mark added.
"God, yes, help yourselves. The House is yours. I moved last winter to the big suite on the second floor of the east wing, so the whole of the north wing is unoccupied now above the ground floor. Except for the room on the fourth floor that Armsman Roic has. He sleeps days, so you might want to give him some margin. Father and Mother will bring their usual army with them when they get here towards Midsummer, but we can re-arrange things then if necessary."
"Enrique hopes to set up a little temporary laboratory, if you don't mind," Mark said.
"Nothing explosive, I trust? Or toxic?"
"Oh, no, no, Lord Vorkosigan," Enrique assured him. "It's not like that at all."
"Then I don't see why not." He glanced down, and added in a fainter tone, "Mark… why do the air-holes have screens in them?"
"I'll explain everything," Mark assured him airily, "as soon as we get unloaded and I pay off these hired drivers." Armsman Jankowski had appeared at Pym's elbow while the introductions had been going forth. "The big blue valise is mine, Pym. Everything else goes with Dr. Borgos."
By press-ganging the drivers, the van was unloaded quickly to the staging area of the black-and-white tiled entry hall. A moment of alarm occurred when Armsman Jankowski, tottering along under a load of what Mark knew to be hastily-packed laboratory glassware, stepped on a black-and-white kitten, well-camouflaged by the tiles. The outraged creature emitted an ear-splitting yowl, spat, and shot off between Enrique's feet, nearly tripping the Escobaran, who was just then balancing the very expensive molecular analyzer. It was saved by a grab from Pym.
They'd almost been caught, during their midnight raid on the padlocked lab that had liberated the all-important notes and irreplaceable specimens, when Enrique had insisted on going back for the damned analyzer. Mark would have taken it as some sort of cosmic I-told-you-so if Enrique had dropped it now. I'll buy you a whole new lab when we get to Barrayar, he'd kept trying to convince the Escobaran. Enrique had seemed to think Barrayar was still stuck in the Time of Isolation, and he wasn't going to be able to obtain anything here more scientifically complex than an alembic, a still, and maybe a trepanning chisel.
Settling in their digs took still more time, as the ideal spot Enrique immediately tried to select for his new lab was the mammoth, modernized, brilliantly-lit, and abundantly-powered kitchen. Upon Pym's inquiry Miles hastily arrived to defend this turf for his cook, a formidable woman whom he seemed to regard as essential to the smooth running not only of his household but also of his new political career. After a low-voiced explanation from Mark that the phrase The House is yours was a mere polite locution, and not meant to be taken literally, Enrique was persuaded to settle for a secondary laundry room in the half-basement of the north wing, not nearly so spacious, but with running water and waste disposal facilities. Mark promised a shopping trip for whatever toys and tools and benches and hoods and lighting Enrique's heart desired just as soon as possible, and left him to start arranging his treasures. The scientist showed no interest whatsoever in the selection of a bedroom. Mark figured he'd probably end up dragging a cot into his new lab, and settling there like a brooding hen defending her nest.
Mark threw his valise into the same room he'd occupied last year, and returned to the laundry to make ready to pitch his proposal to his big brother. It had all seemed to make such splendid sense, back on Escobar, but Mark hadn't known Enrique so well then. The man was a genius, but God Almighty he needed a keeper. Mark thought he understood the whole mess with the bankruptcy proceedings and the fraud suits perfectly, now. "Let me do the talking, understand?" Mark told Enrique firmly. "Miles is an important man here, an Imperial Auditor, and he has the ear of the Emperor himself. His support could give us a big boost." More importantly, his active opposition could be fatal to the scheme; he could kill it with a word. "I know how to work him. Just agree with everything I say, and don't try to add any embellishments of your own."
Enrique nodded eagerly, and followed him like an over-sized puppy through the maze of the house till they tracked Miles down in the great library. Pym was just setting out a spread of tea, coffee, Vorkosigan wines, two varieties of District-brewed beer, and a tray of assorted hors d'oeuvres that looked like a stained-glass window done in food. The Armsman gave Mark a cordial welcome-home nod, and withdrew to leave the two brothers to their reunion.
"How handy," Mark said, pulling up a chair next to the low table. "Snacks. It just so happens I have a new product for you to taste-test, Miles. I think it could prove very profitable."
Miles flicked up an interested eyebrow, and leaned forward as Mark unwrapped a square of attractive red foil to reveal a soft white cube. "Some sort of cheese, is it?"
"Not exactly, though it is an animal product, in a sense. This is the unflavored base version. Flavors and colors can be added as desired, and I'll show you some of those later when we've had time to mix them up. It's nutritious as hell, though -- a perfectly balanced blend of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, with all the essential vitamins in their proper proportions. You could live on a diet of this stuff alone, and water, if you had to."
"I lived on it for three months straight!" Enrique put in proudly. Mark shot him a slight frown, and he subsided.
Mark seized one of the silver knives on the tray, cut the cube into four parts, and popped a portion into his mouth. "Try it!" he said around his chewing. He stopped short of a dramatic mumble of Yum, yum! or other convincing sound effects. Enrique too reached for a piece. More cautiously, so did Miles. He hesitated, with the fragment at his lips, to find both his watchers hanging on his gesture. His brows twitched up; he chewed. A breathless silence fell. He swallowed.
Enrique, scarcely able to contain himself, said, "How d'you like it?"
Miles shrugged. "It's… all right. Bland, but you said it was unflavored. Tastes better than a lot of military rations I've eaten."
"Oh, military rations," said Enrique. "Now, there's an application I hadn't thought of --"
"We'll get to that phase later," said Mark.
"So what makes it so potentially profitable?" asked Miles curiously.
"Because, through the miracle of modern bioengineering, it can be made practically for free. Once the customer has purchased, or perhaps licensed, his initial supply of butter bugs, that is."
A slight but noticeable silence. "His what?"
Mark pulled out the little box from his jacket pocket, and carefully lifted the lid. Enrique sat up expectantly. "This," said Mark, and held the box out toward his brother, "is a butter bug."
Miles glanced down into the box, and recoiled. "Yuk! That is the most disgusting thing I've seen in my life!"
Inside the box, the thumb-sized worker butter bug scrabbled about on its six stubby legs, waved its antennae frantically, and tried to escape. Mark gently pushed its tiny claws back from the edges. It chittered its dull brown vestigial wing carapaces, and crouched to drag its white, soft, squishy-looking abdomen to the safety of one corner.
Miles leaned forward again, to peer in revolted fascination. "It looks like a cross between a cockroach, a termite, and a… and a… and a pustule."
"We have to admit, its physical appearance is not its main selling point."
Enrique looked indignant, but refrained from denying this last statement out loud.
"Its great value lies in its efficiency," Mark went on. It was a good thing they hadn't started out by showing Miles a whole colony of butter bugs. Or worse, a queen butter bug. They could work up to the queen butter bugs much later, once they'd dragged their prospective patron over the first few psychological humps. "These things eat almost any kind of low-grade organic feedstocks. Corn stalks, grass clippings, seaweed, you name it. Then, inside their gut, the organic matter is processed by a carefully-orchestrated array of symbiotic bacteria into… bug butter curds. Which the butter bugs regur -- return through their mouths and pack into special cells, in their hive, all ready for humans to harvest. The raw butter curds --"
Enrique, unnecessarily, pointed to the last fragment still sitting on the foil.
"Are perfectly edible at this point," Mark went on more loudly, "though they can be flavored or processed further. We're considering more sophisticated product development by adding bacteria to provide desirable flavors to the curds right in the bug's guts, so even that processing step won't be necessary."
"Bug vomit," said Miles, working through the implications. "You fed me bug vomit." He touched his hand to his lips, and hastily poured himself some wine. He looked at the butter bug, looked at the remaining fragment of curd, and drank deeply. "You're insane," he said with conviction. He drank once more, carefully swishing the wine around in his mouth for a long time before swallowing.
"It's just like honey," Mark said valiantly, "only different."
Miles's brow wrinkled, as he considered this argument. "Very different. Wait. Is that what was in that crate you brought in, these vomit bugs?"
"Butter bugs," Enrique corrected frostily. "They pack most efficiently --"
"How many… butter bugs?"
"We rescued twenty queen-lines in various stages of development before we left Escobar, each supported by about two hundred worker bugs," Enrique explained. "They did very well on the trip -- I was so proud of the girls -- they more than doubled their numbers en route. Busy, busy! Ha, ha!"
Miles's lips moved in calculation. "You've carted upwards of eight thousand of those revolting things into my house?"
"I can see what you're worried about," Mark cut in quickly, "and I assure you, it won't be a problem."
"I don't think you can, but what won't be a problem?"
"Butter bugs are highly controllable, ecologically speaking. The worker bugs are sterile; only the queens can reproduce, and they're parthenogenetic -- they don't become fertile till treated with special hormones. Mature queens can't even move, unless their human keeper moves them. Any worker bug that might chance to get out would just wander about till it died, end of story."
Enrique made a face of distress at this sad vision. "Poor thing," he muttered.
"The sooner, the better," said Miles coldly. "Yuk!"
Enrique looked reproachfully at Mark, and began in a low voice, "You promised he'd help us. But he's just like all the others. Short-sighted, emotional, unreasoning --"
Mark held up a restraining hand. "Calm down. We haven't even gotten to the main part yet." He turned to Miles. "Here's the real pitch. We think Enrique can develop a strain of butter bugs to eat native Barrayaran vegetation, and convert it into humanly-digestible food."
Miles mouth opened, then shut again. His gaze sharpened. "Go on…"
"Picture it. Every farmer or settler out in the backcountry could keep a hive of these butter bugs, which would crawl around eating all that free alien food that you folks go to so much trouble to eradicate with all the burning and terraforming treatments. And not only would the farmers get free food, they would get free fertilizer as well. Butter bug guano is terrific for plants -- they just sop it up, and grow like crazy."
"Oh." Miles sat back, an arrested look in his eyes. "I know someone who is very interested in fertilizers…"
Mark went on, "I want to put together a development company, here on Barrayar, to both market the existing butter bugs, and create the new strains. I figure with a science genius like Enrique and a business genius like me," and let us not get the two mixed up, "well, there's no limit to what we can get."
Miles frowned thoughtfully. "And what did you get on Escobar, if I may ask? Why bring this genius and his product all the way here?"
Enrique would have got about ten years in jail, if I hadn't come along, but let's not go into that. "He didn't have me to handle the business, then. And the Barrayaran application is just absolutely compelling, don't you think?"
"If it can be made to work."
"The bugs can work to process Earth-descended organic matter right now. We'll market that as soon as we can, and use the proceeds to finance the basic research on the other. I can't set a timetable for that till Enrique has had more time to study Barrayaran biochemistry. Maybe a year or two, to, ah, get all the bugs out." Mark grinned briefly.
"Mark…" Miles frowned at the butter bug box, now sitting closed on the table. Tiny scratching noises arose from it. "It sounds logical, but I don't know if logic is going to sell to the proles. Nobody will want to eat food that comes out of something that looks like that. Hell, they won't want to eat anything it touches."
"People eat honey," argued Mark. "And that comes out of bugs."
"Honeybees are… sort of cute. They're furry, and they have those classy striped uniforms. And they're armed with their stings, just like little swords, which makes people respect them."
"Ah, I see -- the insect version of the Vor class," Mark murmured sweetly. He and Miles exchanged edged smiles.
Enrique said, in a bewildered tone, "So do you think if I put stings on my butter bugs, Barrayarans would like them better?"
"No!" said Miles and Mark together.
Enrique sat back, looking rather hurt.
"So." Mark cleared his throat. "That's the plan. I'll be setting up Enrique in a proper facility as soon as I have time to find something suitable. I'm not sure whether here in Vorbarr Sultana or out in Hassadar would be better -- if this takes off, it could bring in a lot of business, which you might like for the District."
"True…" allowed Miles. "Talk to Tsipis."
"I plan to. Do you begin to see why I think of them as money bugs? And do you think you might want to invest? Nothing like getting in on the ground floor, and all that."
"Not… at this time. Thanks all the same," said Miles neutrally.
"We, ah, do appreciate the temporary space, you know."
"No problem. Or at least…" his eye chilled, "it had better not be."
In the conversational lull that followed, Miles was apparently recalled to his place as a host, and he offered up the food and drinks. Enrique chose beer, and treated them to a dissertation on the history of yeast in human food production, going back to Louis Pasteur, with side comments on parallels between yeast organisms and the butter bugs' symbiotes. Miles drank more wine and didn't say much. Mark nibbled from the grand platter of delectable hors d'oeuvres, and calculated the day when he would come to the end of his weight-loss drugs. Or maybe he would just flush the rest tonight.
Eventually Pym, who was apparently playing butler in Miles's reduced bachelor household, came in to collect the plates and glasses. Enrique eyed his brown uniform with interest, and asked about the meaning and history of the silver decorations on the collar and cuffs. This actually drew Miles out briefly, as he supplied Enrique with a few highlights of family history (politely omitting their prominent place in the aborted Barrayaran invasion of Escobar a generation ago), the past of Vorkosigan House, and the story of the Vorkosigan crest. The Escobaran seemed fascinated by the fact that the mountains-and-leaf design had originated as a Count's mark to seal the bags of District tax revenues. Mark was encouraged to believe Enrique was developing a social grace after all. Perhaps he would develop another one soon. One could hope.
When enough time had passed that, Mark calculated, he and Miles could feel they'd accomplished their unaccustomed and still awkward fraternal bonding ritual, he made noises about finishing unpacking, and the welcome-home party broke up. Mark guided Enrique back to his new lab, just to be sure he got there all right.
"Well," he said heartily to the scientist. "That went better than I expected."
"Oh, yes," said Enrique vaguely. He had that foggy look in his eyes that betokened visions of long-chain molecules dancing in his head: a good sign. The Escobaran was apparently going to survive his traumatic transplant. "And I've had this wonderful idea how to get your brother to like my butter bugs."
"Great," said Mark, somewhat at random, and left him to it. He headed up the back stairs two at a time to his bedroom and its waiting comconsole, to call Kareen, Kareen, Kareen.