Copyright © 1999
"Good afternoon, Mark." Countess Vorkosigan's bracing voice spiked Mark's last futile attempts to maintain unconsciousness. He groaned, pulled his pillow from his face, and opened one bleary eye.
He tested responses on his furry tongue. Countess. Vicereine. Mother. Strangely enough, Mother seemed to work best. "G'fertn'n, m'thur."
She studied him for a moment further, then nodded, and waved at the maid who'd followed in her wake. The girl set down a tea tray on the bedside table and stared curiously at Mark, who had an urge to pull his covers up over himself even though he was still wearing most of last night's clothing. The maid trundled obediently out of Mark's room again at the Countess's firm, "Thank you, that will be all."
Countess Vorkosigan opened the curtains, letting in blinding light, and pulled up a chair. "Tea?" she inquired, pouring without waiting for an answer.
"Yeah, I guess." Mark struggled upright, and re-arranged his pillows enough to accept the mug without spilling it. The tea was strong and dark, with cream, the way he liked it, and it scalded the glue out of his mouth.
The Countess poked doubtfully at the empty butter bug tubs piled on the table. Counting them up, perhaps, because she winced. "I didn't think you'd want breakfast yet."
"No. Thank you." Though his excruciating stomach-ache was calming down. The tea actually soothed it.
"Neither does your brother. Miles, possibly driven by his new-found need to uphold Vor tradition, sought his anesthetic in wine. Achieved it, too, according to Pym. At present, we're letting him enjoy his spectacular hangover without commentary."
"Ah." Fortunate son.
"Well, he'll have to come out of his rooms eventually. Though Aral advises not to look for him before tonight." Countess Vorkosigan poured herself a mug of tea too, and stirred in cream. "Lady Alys was very peeved at Miles for abandoning the field before his guests had all departed. She considered it a shameful lapse of manners on his part."
"It was a shambles." One that, it appeared, they were all going to live through. Unfortunately. Mark took another sluicing swallow. "What happened after… after the Koudelkas left?" Miles had bailed out early; Mark's own courage had broken when the Commodore had lost his grip to the point of referring to the Countess's mother a damned Betan pimp, and Kareen had flung out the door proclaiming that she would sooner walk home, or possibly to the other side of the continent, before riding one meter in a car with a pair of such hopelessly uncultured, ignorant, benighted Barrayaran savages. Mark had fled to his bedroom with a stack of bug butter tubs and a spoon, and locked the door; Gorge and Howl had done their best to salve his shaken nerves.
Reversion under stress, his therapist would no doubt have dubbed it. He'd half-hated, half-exulted in the sense of not being in charge in his own body, but letting Gorge run to his limit had blocked the far more dangerous Other. It was a bad sign when Killer became nameless. He had managed to pass out before he ruptured, but only just. He felt spent now, his head foggy and quiet like a landscape after a storm.
The Countess continued, "Aral and I had an extremely enlightening talk with Professor and Professora Vorthys -- now, there's a woman who has her head screwed on straight. I wish I'd made her acquaintance before this. They then left to see after their niece, and we had a longer talk with Alys and Simon." She took a slow sip. "Do I understand correctly that the dark-haired young lady who bolted past us last night was my potential daughter-in-law?"
"Not any more, I don't think," said Mark morosely.
"Damn." The Countess frowned into her cup. "Miles told us practically nothing about her in his, I think I'm justified in calling them briefs, to us on Sergyar. If I'd known then half the things the Professora told me later, I'd have intercepted her myself."
"It wasn't my fault she ran off," Mark hastened to point out. "Miles opened his mouth and jammed his boot in there all by himself." He conceded reluctantly after a moment, "Well, I suppose Illyan helped."
"Yes. Simon was pretty distraught, once Alys explained it all to him. He was afraid he'd been told Miles's big secret and then forgot. I'm quite peeved at Miles for setting him up like that." A dangerous spark glinted in her eye.
Mark was considerably less interested in Miles's problems than in his own. He said cautiously, "Has, ah… Enrique found his missing queen, yet?"
"Not so far." The Countess hitched around in her chair and looked bemusedly at him. "I had a nice long talk with Dr. Borgos, too, once Alys and Illyan left. He showed me your lab. Kareen's work, I understand. I promised him a stay of Miles's execution order upon his girls, after which he calmed down considerably. I will say, his science seems sound."
"Oh, he's brilliant about the things that get his attention. His interests are a little, um, narrow, is all."
The Countess shrugged. "I've been living with obsessed men for the better part of my life. I think your Enrique will fit right in here."
"So… you've met our butter bugs?"
She seemed unfazed; Betan, you know. He could wish Miles had inherited more of her traits. "And, um… has the Count seen them yet?"
"Yes, in fact. We found one wandering about on our bedside table when we woke up this morning."
Mark flinched. "What did you do?"
"We turned a glass over her and left her to be collected by her papa. Sadly, Aral did not spot the bug exploring his shoe before he put it on. That one, we disposed of quietly. What was left of her."
After a daunted silence, Mark asked hopefully, "It wasn't the queen, was it?"
"We couldn't tell, I'm afraid. It appeared to have been about the same size as the first one."
"Mm, then not. The queen would have been noticeably bigger."
Silence fell again, for a time.
"I will grant Kou one point," said the Countess finally. "I do have some responsibility toward Kareen. And toward you. I was perfectly aware of the array of choices that would be available to you both on Beta Colony. Including, happily, each other." She hesitated. "Having Kareen Koudelka as a daughter-in-law would give Aral and me great pleasure, in case you had any doubt."
"I never imagined otherwise. Are you asking me if my intentions are honorable?"
"I trust your honor, whether it fits in the narrowest Barrayaran definition or encompasses something broader," the Countess said equably.
Mark sighed. "Somehow, I don't think the Commodore and Madame Koudelka are ready to greet me with reciprocal joy."
"You are a Vorkosigan."
"A clone. An imitation. A cheap Jacksonian knock-off." And crazy to boot.
"A bloody expensive Jacksonian knock-off."
"Ha," Mark agreed darkly.
She shook her head, her smile growing more rueful. "Mark, I'm more than willing to help you and Kareen reach for your goals, whatever the obstacles. But you have to give me some clue of what your goals are."
Be careful how you aim this woman. The Countess was to obstacles as a laser cannon was to flies. Mark studied his stubby, plump hands in covert dismay. Hope, and its attendant, fear, began to stir again in his heart. "I want… whatever Kareen wants. On Beta, I thought I knew. Since we got back here, it's been all confused."
"It's not just the culture clash, though that's part of it." Mark groped for words, trying to articulate his sense of the wholeness of Kareen. "I think… I think she wants time. Time to be herself, to be where she is, who she is. Without being hurried or stampeded to take up one role or another, to the exclusion of all the rest of her possibilities. Wife is a pretty damned exclusive role, the way they do it here. She says Barrayar wants to put her in a box."
The Countess tilted her head, taking this in. "She may be wiser than she knows."
He brooded. "On the other hand, maybe I was her secret vice, back on Beta. And here I'm a horrible embarrassment to her. Maybe she'd like me to just shove off and leave her alone."
The Countess raised a brow. "Didn't sound like it last night. Kou and Drou practically had to pry her nails out of our door jamb."
Mark brightened slightly. "There is that."
"And how have your goals changed, in your year on Beta? In addition to adding Kareen's heart's desire to your own, that is."
"Not changed, exactly," he responded slowly. "Honed, maybe. Focused. Modified… I achieved some things in my therapy I'd despaired of, of ever making come right in my life. It made me think maybe the rest isn't so impossible after all."
She nodded encouragement.
"School… economics school was good. I'm getting quite a tool-kit of skills and knowledge, you know. I'm really starting to know what I'm doing, not just faking it all the time." He glanced sideways at her. "I haven't forgotten Jackson's Whole. I've been thinking about indirect ways to shut down the damned butcher cloning lords there. Lilly Durona has some ideas for life-extension therapies that might be able to compete with their clone-brain transplants. Safer, nearly as effective, and cheaper. Draw off their customers, disrupt them economically even if I can't touch them physically. Every scrap of spare cash I've been able to amass, I've been dumping into the Durona Group, to support their R & D. I'm going to own a controlling share of them, if this goes on." He smiled wryly. "And I still want enough money left that no one has power over me. I'm beginning to see how I can get it, not overnight, but steadily, bit by bit. I, um… wouldn't mind starting a new agribusiness here on Barrayar."
"And Sergyar, too. Aral was very interested in possible applications for your bugs among our colonists and homesteaders."
"Was he?" Mark's lips parted in astonishment. "Even with the Vorkosigan crest on them?"
"Mm, it would perhaps be wise to lose the House livery before pitching them seriously to Aral," the Countess said, suppressing a smile.
"I didn't know Enrique was going to do that," Mark offered by way of apology. "Though you should have seen the look on Miles's face, when Enrique presented them to him. It almost made it worth it…." He sighed at the memory, but then shook his head in renewed despair. "But what good is it all, if Kareen and I can't get back to Beta Colony? She's stuck for money, if her parents won't support her. I could offer to pay her way, but… but I don't know if that's a good idea."
"Ah," said the Countess. "Interesting. Are you afraid Kareen would feel you had purchased her loyalty?"
"I'm… not sure. She's very conscientious about obligations. I want a lover. Not a debtor. I think it would be a bad mistake to accidentally… put her in another kind of box. I want to give her everything. But I don't know how!"
An odd smile turned the Countess's lip. "When you give each other everything, it becomes an even trade. Each wins all."
Mark shook his head, baffled. "An odd sort of Deal."
"The best." The Countess finished her tea and put down her cup, "Well. I don't wish to invade your privacy. But do remember, you're allowed to ask for help. It's part of what families are all about."
"I owe you too much already, milady."
Her smile tilted. "Mark, you don't pay back your parents. You can't. The debt you owe them gets collected by your children, who hand it down in turn. It's a sort of entailment. Or if you don't have children of the body, it's left as a debt to your common humanity. Or to your God, if you possess or are possessed by one."
"I'm not sure that seems fair."
"The family economy evades calculation in the gross planetary product. It's the only deal I know where, when you give more than you get, you aren't bankrupted -- but rather, vastly enriched."
Mark took this in. And what kind of parent to him was his progenitor-brother? More than a sibling, but most certainly not his mother… "Can you help Miles?"
"That's more of a puzzle." The Countess smoothed her skirts, and rose. "I haven't known this Madame Vorsoisson all her life the way I've known Kareen. It's not at all clear what I can do for Miles -- I would say poor boy, but from everything I've heard he dug his very own pit and jumped in. I'm afraid he's going to have to dig himself back out. Likely it will be good for him." She gave a firm nod, as though a supplicant Miles were already being sent on his way to achieve salvation alone, write when you find good works. The Countess's idea of maternal concern was damned unnerving, sometimes, Mark reflected as she made her way out.
He was conscious that he was sticky, and itchy, and needed to pee and wash. And he had a pressing obligation to go help Enrique hunt for his missing queen, before she and her offspring built a nest in the walls and started making more Vorkosigan butter bugs. Instead, he lurched to his comconsole, sat gingerly, and tried the code for the Koudelkas' residence.
He desperately aligned an array of fast talk in four flavors, depending on whether the Commodore, Madame Koudelka, Kareen, or one of her sisters answered the vid. Kareen hadn't called him this morning: was she sleeping, sulking, locked in? Had her parents bricked her up in the walls? Or worse, thrown her out on the street? Wait, no, that would be all right -- she could come live here --
His sub-vocalized rehearsals were wasted. Call Not Accepted blinked at him in malignant red letters, like a scrawl of blood hovering over the vid plate. The voice-recognition program had been set to screen him out.
Ekaterin had a splitting headache.
It was all that wine last night, she decided. An appalling amount had been served, including the sparkling wine in the library and the different wines with each of the four courses of dinner. She had no idea how much she'd actually drunk. Pym had assiduously topped up her glass whenever the level had dropped below two-thirds. More than five glasses, anyway. Seven? Ten? Her usual limit was two.
It was a wonder she'd been able to stalk out of that over-heated grand dining room without falling over; but then, if she'd been stone sober, could she ever have found the nerve -- or was that, the ill-manners -- to do so? Pot-valiant, were you?
She ran her hands through her hair, rubbed her neck, opened her eyes, and lifted her forehead again from the cool surface of her aunt's comconsole. All the plans and notes for Lord Vorkosigan's Barrayaran garden were now neatly and logically organized, and indexed. Anyone -- well, any gardener who knew what they were doing in the first place -- could follow them and complete the job in good order. The final tally of all expenses was appended. The working credit account had been balanced, closed, and signed off. She had only to hit the send pad on the comconsole for it all to be gone from her life forever.
She groped for the exquisite little model Barrayar on its gold chain heaped by the vid plate, held it up, and let it spin before her eyes. Leaning back in the comconsole chair, she contemplated it, and all the memories attached to it like invisible chains. Gold and lead, hope and fear, triumph and pain… She squinted it to a blur.
She remembered the day he'd bought it, on their absurd and ultimately very wet shopping trip in the Komarran dome, his face alive with the humor of it all. She remembered the day he'd given it to her, in her hospital room on the transfer station, after the defeat of the conspirators. The Lord Auditor Vorkosigan Award for Making His Job Easier, he'd dubbed it, his gray eyes glinting. He'd apologized that it was not the real medal any soldier might have earned for doing rather less than what she'd done that awful night-cycle. It wasn't a gift. Or if it was, she'd been very wrong to accept it from his hand, because it was much too expensive a bauble to be proper. Though he had grinned like a fool, Aunt Vorthys, watching, hadn't batted an eye. It was, therefore, a prize. She'd won it herself, paid for it with bruises and terror and panicked action.
This is mine. I will not give it up. With a frown, she drew the chain back over her head and tucked the pendant planet inside her black blouse, trying not to feel like a guilty child hiding a stolen cookie.
Her flaming desire to return to Vorkosigan House and rip her skellytum rootling, so carefully and proudly planted mere hours ago, back out of the ground, had burned out sometime after midnight. For one thing, she would certainly have run afoul of Vorkosigan House's security, if she'd gone blundering about in its garden in the dark. Pym, or Roic, might have stunned her, and been very upset, poor fellows. And then carried her back inside, where… Her fury, her wine, and her over-wrought imagination had all worn off near dawn, running out at last in secret, muffled tears in her pillow, when the household was long quiet and she could hope for a scrap of privacy.
Why should she even bother? Miles didn't care about the skellytum -- he hadn't even gone out to look at it last evening. She'd been lugging the awkward thing around in her life for fifteen years, in one form or another, since inheriting the seventy-year-old bonsai from her great-aunt. It had survived death, marriage, a dozen moves, interstellar travel, being flung off a balcony and shattered, more death, another five wormhole jumps, and two subsequent transplantations. It had to be as exhausted as she was. Let it sit there and rot, or dry up and blow away, or whatever its neglected fate was to be. At least she had dragged it back to Barrayar to finish dying. Enough. She was done with it. Forever.
She called her garden-instructions back up on the comconsole, and added an appendix about the skellytum's rather tricky post-transplant watering and feeding requirements.
"Mama!" Nikki's sharp, excited voice made her flinch.
"Don't… don't thump so, dear." She turned in her station chair, and smiled bleakly at her son. She was inwardly grateful she hadn't dragged him along to last night's debacle, though she could've pictured him enthusiastically joining poor Enrique on the butter bug hunt. But if Nikki had been present, she could not have left, and abandoned him. Nor yanked him along with her, halfway through his dessert and doubtless protesting in bewilderment. She'd have been mother-bound to her chair, there to endure whatever ghastly, awkward social torment might have subsequently played out.
He stood by her elbow, and bounced. "Last night, did you work out with Lord Vorkosigan when he's gonna take me down to Vorkosigan Surleau and learn to ride his horse? You said you would."
She'd brought Nikki along to the garden work-site several times, when neither her aunt nor uncle could be home with him. Lord Vorkosigan had generously offered to let him have the run of Vorkosigan House on such days, and they'd even hustled up Pym's youngest boy Arthur from his nearby home for a playmate. Ma Kosti had captured Nikki's stomach, heart, and slavish loyalty in very short order, Armsman Roic had played games with him, and Kareen Koudelka had let him help in the lab. Ekaterin had almost forgotten this off-hand invitation, issued by Lord Vorkosigan when he'd turned Nikki back over to her at the end of one work-day. She'd made polite-doubtful noises at the time. Miles had assured her the horse in question was very old and gentle, which hadn't exactly been the doubt that had concerned her.
"I…" Ekaterin rubbed her temple, which seemed to anchor a lacework of shooting pain inside her head. Generously…? Or just more of Miles's campaign of subtle manipulation, now revealed? "I really don't think we ought to impose on him like that. It's such a long way down to his District. If you're really interested in horses, I'm sure we can get you riding lessons somewhere much nearer Vorbarr Sultana."
Nikki frowned in obvious disappointment. "I dunno about horses. But he said he might let me try his lightflyer, on the way down."
"Nikki, you're much too young to fly a lightflyer."
"Lord Vorkosigan said his father let him fly, when he was younger than me. He said his Da said he needed to know how to take over the controls in an emergency just as soon as he was physically able. He said he sat him on his lap, and let him take off and land all by himself and everything."
"You're much too big to sit on Lord Vorkosigan's lap!" So was she, she supposed. But if he and she were to -- stop that.
"Well," Nikki considered this, and allowed, "anyway, he's too little. It'd look goofy. But his lightflyer seat's just right! Pym let me sit in it, when I was helping him polish the cars." Nikki bounced some more. "Can you ask Lord Vorkosigan when you go to work?"
"No. I don't think so."
"Why not?" He looked at her, his brow wrinkling slightly. "Why didn't you go today?"
"I'm… not feeling very well."
"Oh. Tomorrow, then? Come on, Mama, please?" He hung on her arm, and twisted himself up, and made big eyes at her, grinning.
She rested her throbbing forehead in her hand. "No, Nikki. I don't think so."
"Aw, why not? You said. Come on, it'll be so great. You don't have to come if you don't want, I s'pose. Why not, why not, why not? Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow?"
"I'm not going to work tomorrow, either."
"Are you that sick? You don't look that sick." He stared at her in startled worry.
"No." She hastened to address that worry, before he started making up dire medical theories in his head. He'd lost one parent this year. "It's just… I'm not going to be going back to Lord Vorkosigan's house. I quit."
"Huh?" Now his stare grew entirely bewildered. "Why? I thought you liked making that garden thing."
"Then why'd you quit?"
"Lord Vorkosigan and I… had a falling-out. Over, over an ethical issue."
"What? What issue?" His voice was laced with confusion and disbelief. He twisted himself around the other way.
"I found he'd… lied to me about something." He promised he'd never lie to me. He'd feigned that he was very interested in gardens. He'd arranged her life by subterfuge -- and then told everyone else in Vorbarr Sultana. He'd pretended he didn't love her. He'd as much as promised he'd never ask her to marry him. He'd lied. Try explaining that to a nine-year-old boy. Or to any other rational human being of any age or gender, her honesty added bitterly. Am I insane yet? Anyway, Miles hadn't actually said he wasn't in love with her, he'd just… implied it. Avoided saying much on the subject at all, in fact. Prevarication by misdirection.
"Oh," said Nikki, eyes wide, daunted at last.
The Professora's blessed voice interrupted from the archway. "Now, Nikki, don't be pestering your mother. She has a very bad hangover."
"A hangover?" Nikki clearly had trouble fitting the words mother and hangover into the same conceptual space. "She said she was sick."
"Wait till you're older, dear. You'll doubtless discover the distinction, or lack of it, for yourself. Run along now." His smiling great-aunt guided him firmly away. "Out, out. Go see what your Uncle Vorthys is up to downstairs. I heard some very odd noises a bit ago."
Nikki let himself be chivvied out, with a disturbed backward glance over his shoulder.
Ekaterin put her head back down on the comconsole, and shut her eyes.
A clink by her head made her open them again; her aunt was setting down a large glass of cool water, and holding out two painkiller tablets.
"I had some of those this morning," said Ekaterin dully.
"They appear to have worn off. Drink all the water, now. You clearly need to re-hydrate."
Dutifully, Ekaterin did so. She set the glass down, and squeezed her eyes open and shut a few times. "That really was the Count and Countess Vorkosigan last night, wasn't it." It wasn't really a question, more a plea for denial. After nearly stampeding over them in her desperate flight out the door, she'd been halfway home in the auto-cab before her belated realization of their identity had dawned so horribly. The great and famous Viceroy and Vicereine of Sergyar. What business had they, to look so like ordinary people at a moment like that? Ow, ow, ow.
"Yes. I'd never met them to speak to at any length before."
"Did you… speak to them at length last night?" Her aunt and uncle had been almost an hour behind her, arriving home.
"Yes, we had quite a nice chat. I was impressed. Miles's mother is a very sensible woman."
"Then why is her son such a… never mind." Ow. "They must think I'm some sort of hysteric. How did I get the nerve to just stand up and walk out of a formal dinner in front of all those… and Lady Alys Vorpatril… and at Vorkosigan House. I can't believe I did that." After a brooding moment, she added, "I can't believe he did that."
Aunt Vorthys did not ask, What?, or Which he? She did purse her lips, and look quizzically at her niece. "Well, I don't suppose you had much choice."
"After all, if you hadn't left, you'd have had to answer Lord Vorkosigan's question."
"I…didn't…?" Ekaterin blinked. Hadn't her actions been answer enough? "Under those circumstances? Are you mad?"
"He knew it was a mistake the moment the words were out of his mouth, I daresay, at least judging from that ghastly expression on his face. You could see everything just drain right out of it. Extraordinary. But I can't help wondering, dear -- if you'd wanted to say no, why didn't you? It was the perfect opportunity to do so."
"I… I…" Ekaterin tried to collect her wits, which seemed to be scattering like sheep. "It wouldn't have been… polite."
After a thoughtful pause, her aunt murmured, "You might have said, ‘No, thank you'."
Ekaterin rubbed her numb face. "Aunt Vorthys," she sighed, "I love you dearly. But please go away now."
Her aunt smiled, and kissed her on the top of her head, and drifted out.
Ekaterin returned to her twice-interrupted brooding. Her aunt was right, she realized. Ekaterin hadn't answered Miles's question. And she hadn't even noticed she hadn't answered.
She recognized this headache, and the knotted stomach that went with it, and it had nothing to do with too much wine. Her arguments with her late husband Tien had never involved physical violence directed against her, though the walls had suffered from his clenched fists a few times. The rows had always petered out into days of frozen, silent rage, filled with unbearable tension and a sort of grief, of two people trapped together in the same always-too-small space walking wide around each other. She had almost always broken first, backed down, apologized, placated, anything to make the pain stop. Heartsick, perhaps, was the name of the emotion
I don't want to go back there again. Please don't ever make me go back there again.
Where am I, when I am at home in myself? Not here, for all the increasing burden of her aunt's and uncle's charity. Not, certainly, with Tien. Not with her own father. With… Miles? She had felt flashes of profound ease in his company, it was true, brief perhaps, but calm like deep water. There had also been moments when she'd wanted to whack him with a brick. Which was the real Miles? Which was the real Ekaterin, for that matter?
The answer hovered, and it scared her breathless. But she'd picked wrong before. She had no judgment in these man-and-woman matters, she'd proved that.
She turned back to the comconsole. A note. She should write some sort of cover-note to go with the returned garden plans.
I think they will be self-explanatory, don't you?
She pressed the send pad on the comconsole, and stumbled back upstairs to pull the curtains and lie down fully dressed on her bed until dinner.
Miles slouched into the library of Vorkosigan House, a mug of weak tea clutched in his faintly trembling hand. The light in here was still too bright this evening. Perhaps he ought to seek refuge in a corner of the garage instead. Or the cellar. Not the wine cellar -- he shuddered at the thought. But he'd grown entirely bored with his bed, covers pulled over his head or not. A day of that was enough.
He stopped abruptly, and lukewarm tea sloshed onto his hand. His father was at the secured comconsole, and his mother was at the broad inlaid table with three or four books and a mess of flimsies spread out before her. They both looked up at him, and smiled in tentative greeting. It would probably seem surly of him to back out and flee.
"G'evening," he managed, and shambled past them to find his favorite chair, and lower himself carefully into it.
"Good evening, Miles," his mother returned. His father put his console on hold, and regarded him with bland interest.
"How was your trip home from Sergyar?" Miles went on, after about a minute of silence.
"Entirely without incident, happily enough," his mother said. "Till the very end."
"Ah," said Miles. "That." He brooded into his tea mug.
His parents humanely ignored him for several minutes, but whatever they'd been separately working on seemed to not hold their attention any more. Still nobody left.
"We missed you at breakfast," the Countess said finally. "And lunch. And dinner."
"I was still throwing up at breakfast," said Miles. "I wouldn't have been much fun."
"So Pym reported," said the Count.
The Countess added astringently, "Are you done with that now?"
"Yeh. It didn't help." Miles slumped a little further, and stretched his legs out before him. "A life in ruins with vomiting is still a life in ruins."
"Mm," said the Count in a judicious tone, "though it does make it easy to be a recluse. If you're repulsive enough, people spontaneously avoid you."
His wife twinkled at him. "Speaking from experience, love?"
"Naturally." His eyes grinned back at her.
More silence fell. His parents did not decamp. Obviously, Miles concluded, he wasn't repulsive enough. Perhaps he should emit a menacing belch.
He finally started, "Mother -- you're a woman --"
She sat up, and gave him a bright, encouraging Betan smile. "Yes…?"
"Never mind," he sighed. He slumped again.
The Count rubbed his lips, and regarded him thoughtfully. "Do you have anything to do? Any miscreants to go Imperially Audit, or anything?"
"Not at present," Miles replied. After a contemplative moment he added, "Fortunately for them."
"Hm." The Count tamped down a smile. "Perhaps you are wise." He hesitated. "Your Aunt Alys gave us a blow-by-blow account of your dinner party. With editorials. She was particularly insistent that I tell you she trusts," Miles could hear his aunt's cadences mimicked in his father's voice, "you would not have fled the scene of any other losing battle the way you deserted last night."
Ah. Yes. His parents had been left with the mopping up, hadn't they. "But there was no hope of being shot dead in the dining room if I stayed with the rear guard."
His father flicked up an eyebrow. "And so avoid the subsequent court martial?"
"Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all," Miles intoned.
"I am sufficiently your partisan," said the Countess, "that the sight of a pretty woman running screaming, or at least swearing, into the night from your marriage proposal rather disturbs me. Though your Aunt Alys says you scarcely left the young lady any other choice. It's hard to say what else she could have done but walk out. Except squash you like a bug, I suppose."
Miles cringed at the word, bug.
"Just how bad --" the Countess began.
"Did I offend her? Badly enough, it seems."
"Actually, I was about to ask, just how bad was Madame Vorsoisson's prior marriage?"
Miles shrugged. "I only saw a little of it. I gather from the pattern of her flinches that the late unlamented Tien Vorsoisson was one of those subtle feral parasites who leave their mates scratching their heads and asking, Am I crazy? Am I crazy?" She wouldn't have those doubts if she married him, ha.
"Aah," said his mother, in a tone of much enlightenment. "One of those. Yes. I know the type of old. They come in all gender-flavors, by the way. It can take years to fight your way out of the mental mess they leave in their wake."
"I don't have years," Miles protested. "I've never had years." And then pressed his lips shut, at the little flicker of pain in his father's eyes. Well, who knew what Miles's second life expectancy was, anyway. Maybe he'd started his clock all over, after the cryo-revival. Miles slumped lower. "The hell of it is, I knew better. I'd had way too much to drink, I panicked when Simon… I never meant to ambush Ekaterin like that. It was friendly fire…"
He went on after a little, "I had this great plan, see. I thought it could solve everything in one brilliant swoop. She has this real passion for gardens, and her husband had left her effectively destitute. So I figured, I could help her jump-start the career of her dreams, slip her some financial support, and get an excuse to see her nearly every day, and get in ahead of the competition. I had to practically wade through the fellows panting after her in the Vorthys's parlor, the times I went over there --"
"For the purpose of panting after her in her parlor, I take it?" his mother inquired sweetly.
"No!" said Miles, stung. "To consult about the garden I'd hired her to make in the lot next door."
"Is that what that crater is," said his father. "In the dark, from the groundcar, it looked as though someone tried to shell Vorkosigan House and missed, and I'd wondered why no one had reported it to us."
"It is not a crater. It's a sunken garden. There's just… just no plants in it yet."
"It has a very nice shape, Miles," his mother said soothingly. "I went out and walked through it this afternoon. The little stream is very pretty indeed. It reminds me of the mountains."
"That was the idea," said Miles, primly ignoring his father's mutter of …after a Cetagandan bombing raid on a guerilla position…
Then Miles sat bolt upright in sudden horror. Not quite no plants. "Oh, God! I never went out to look at her skellytum! Lord Dono came in with Ivan -- did Aunt Alys explain to you about Lord Dono? -- and I was distracted, and then it was time for dinner, and I never had the chance afterwards. Has anyone watered --? Oh, shit, no wonder she was angry. I'm dead meat twice over --!" He melted back into his puddle of despair.
"So, let me get this straight," said the Countess slowly, studying him dispassionately. "You took this destitute widow, struggling to get on her own feet for the first time in her life, and dangled a golden career opportunity before her as bait, just to tie her to you and cut her off from other romantic possibilities."
That seemed an uncharitably bald way of putting it. "Not… not just," Miles choked. "I was trying to do her a good turn. I never imagined she'd quit -- the garden was everything to her."
The Countess sat back, and regarded him with a horribly thoughtful expression, the one she acquired when you'd made the mistake of getting her full, undivided attention. "Miles… do you remember that unfortunate incident with Armsman Esterhazy and the game of cross-ball, when you were about twelve years old?"
He hadn't thought of it in years, but at her words, the memory came flooding back, still tinged with shame and fury. The Armsmen used to play cross-ball with him, and sometimes Elena and Ivan, in the back garden of Vorkosigan House: a low-impact game, of minimum threat to his then-fragile bones, but requiring quick reflexes and good timing. He'd been elated the first time he'd won a match against an actual adult, in this case Armsman Esterhazy. He'd been shaken with rage, when a not-meant-to-be-overheard remark had revealed to him that the game had been a set-up. Forgotten. But not forgiven.
"Poor Esterhazy had thought it would cheer you up, because you were depressed at the time about some, I forget which, slight you'd suffered at school," the Countess said. "I still remember how furious you were when you figured out he'd let you win. Did you ever carry on about that one. We thought you'd do yourself a harm."
"He stole my victory from me," grated Miles, "as surely as if he'd cheated to win. And he poisoned every subsequent real victory with doubt. I had a right to be mad."
His mother sat quietly, expectantly.
The light dawned. Even with his eyes squeezed shut, the intensity of the glare hurt his head.
"Oh. Noooo," groaned Miles, muffled into the cushion he jammed over his face. "I did that to her?"
His remorseless parent let him stew in it, a silence sharper-edged than words.
"I did that to her…" he moaned, pitifully.
Pity did not seem to be forthcoming. He clutched the cushion to his chest. "Oh. God. That's exactly what I did. She said it herself. She said the garden could have been her gift. And I'd taken it away from her. Too. Which made no sense, since it was she who'd just quit… I thought she was starting to argue with me. I was so pleased, because I thought, if only she would argue with me…"
"You could win?" the Count supplied dryly.
"Oh, son." The Count shook his head. "Oh, poor son." Miles did not mistake this for an expression of sympathy. "The only way you win that war is to start with unconditional surrender."
"That you is plural, note," the Countess put in.
"I tried to surrender!" Miles protested frantically. "The woman was taking no prisoners! I tried to get her to stomp me, but she wouldn't. She's too dignified, too, over-socialized, too, too…"
"Too smart to lower herself to your level?" the Countess suggested. "Dear me. I think I'm beginning to like this Ekaterin. And I haven't even finished being properly introduced to her yet. I'd like you to meet -- she's getting away! seemed a little… truncated."
Miles glared at her. But he couldn't keep it up. In a smaller voice, he said, "She sent all the garden plans back to me this afternoon, on the comconsole. Just like she'd said she would. I'd set it to code-buzz me if any call originating from her came in. I damn near killed myself, getting over to the machine. But it was just a data packet. Not even a personal note. Die, you rat would have been better than this… this nothing." After a fraught pause, he burst out, "What do I do now?"
"Is that a rhetorical question, for dramatic effect, or are you actually asking my advice?" his mother inquired tartly. "Because I'm not going to waste my breath on you unless you're finally paying attention."
He opened his mouth for an angry reply, then closed it. He glanced for support to his father. His father opened his hand blandly in the direction of his mother. Miles wondered what it would be like, to be in such practiced teamwork with someone that it was as though you coordinated your one-two punches telepathically. I'll never get the chance to find out. Unless.
"I'm paying attention," he said humbly.
"The… the kindest word I can come up with for it is blunder -- was yours. You owe the apology. Make it."
"How? She's made it abundantly clear she doesn't want to speak to me!"
"Not in person, good God, Miles. For one thing, I can't imagine you could resist the urge to babble, and blow yourself up. Again."
What is it about all my relatives, that they have so little faith in --
"Even a live comconsole call is too invasive," she continued. "Going over to the Vorthys's in person would be much too invasive."
"The way he's been going about it, certainly," murmured the Count. "General Romeo Vorkosigan, the one-man strike force."
The Countess gave him a faintly quelling flick of her eyelash. "Something rather more controlled, I think," she continued to Miles. "About all you can do is write her a note, I suppose. A short, succinct note. I realize you don't do abject very well, but I suggest you exert yourself."
"D'you think it would work?" Faint hope glimmered at the bottom of a deep, deep well.
"Working is not what this is about. You can't still be plotting to make love and war on the poor woman. You'll send an apology because you owe it, to her and to your own honor. Period. Or else don't bother."
"Oh," said Miles, in a very small voice.
"Cross-ball," said his father. Reminiscently. "Huh."
"The knife is in the target," sighed Miles. "To the hilt. You don't have to twist." He glanced across at his mother. "Should the note be handwritten? Or should I just send it on the comconsole?"
"I think your just just answered your own question. If your execrable handwriting has improved, it would perhaps be a nice touch."
"Proves it wasn't dictated to your secretary, for one thing," put in the Count. "Or worse, composed by him at your order."
"Haven't got a secretary yet," sighed Miles. "Gregor hasn't given me enough work to justify one."
"Since work for an Auditor hinges on awkward crises arising in the Empire, I can't very well wish more for you," the Count said. "But no doubt things will pick up after the wedding. Which will have one less crisis because of the good work you just did on Komarr, I might say."
He glanced up, and his father gave him an understanding nod; yes, the Viceroy and Vicereine of Sergyar were most definitely in the need-to-know pool about the late events on Komarr. Gregor had undoubtedly sent on a copy of Miles's eyes-only Auditor's report for the Viceroy's perusal. "Well… yes. At the very least, if the conspirators had maintained their original schedule, there'd have been several thousand innocent people killed that day. It would have marred the festivities, I think."
"Then you've earned some time off."
The Countess looked momentarily introspective. "And what did Madame Vorsoisson earn? We had her aunt give us her eyewitness description of their involvement. It sounded like a frightening experience."
"The public gratitude of the Empire, is what she should have earned," said Miles, in reminded aggravation. "Instead, it's all been buried deep-deep under the ImpSec security cap. No one will ever know. All her courage, all her cool and clever moves, all her bloody heroism, dammit, was just… made to disappear. It's not fair."
"One does what one has to, in a crisis," said the Countess.
"No." Miles glanced up at her. "Some people do. Others just fold. I've seen them. I know the difference. Ekaterin -- she'll never fold. She can go the distance, she can find the speed. She'll…. she'll do."
"Leaving aside whether we are discussing a woman or a horse," said the Countess -- dammit, Mark had said practically the same thing, what was with all Miles's nearest and dearest -- "everyone has their folding-point, Miles. Their mortal vulnerability. Some just keep it in a non-standard location."
The Count and Countess gave each other one of those Telepathic Looks again. It was extremely annoying. Miles squirmed with envy.
He drew the tattered shreds of his dignity around him, and rose. "Excuse me. I have to go… water a plant."
It took him thirty minutes of wandering around the bare, crusted garden in the dark, with his hand-light wavering and the water from his mug dribbling over his fingers, to even find the blasted thing. In its pot, the skellytum rootling had looked sturdy enough, but out here, it looked lost and lonely: a scrap of life the size of his thumb in an acre of sterility. It also looked disturbingly limp. Was it wilting? He emptied the cup over it; the water made a dark spot in the reddish soil that began to evaporate and fade all too quickly.
He tried to imagine the plant full grown, five meters high, its central barrel the size, and shape, of a sumo wrestler, its tendril-like branches gracing the space with distinctive corkscrew curves. Then he tried to imagine himself forty-five or fifty years old, which was the age to which he'd have to survive to see that sight. Would he be a reclusive, gnarled bachelor, eccentric, shrunken, invalidish, tended only by his bored Armsmen? Or a proud, if stressed, paterfamilias with a serene, elegant, dark-haired woman on his arm and half a dozen hyperactive progeny in tow? Maybe… maybe the hyperactivity could be toned down in the gene-cleaning, though he was sure his parents would accuse him of cheating…
He went back inside Vorkosigan House to his study, where he sat himself down to attempt, through a dozen drafts, the best damned abject anybody'd ever seen.