Copyright © 1999
Kareen Koudelka slid eagerly into the window seat of the orbital shuttle, and pressed her nose to the port. All she could see so far was the transfer station, and its starry background. After endless minutes, the usual clanks and yanks signaled undocking, and the shuttle spun away from the station. The thrilling colored arc of Barrayar's terminator slid past her view as the shuttle began its descent. The western three-quarters of North Continent still glowed in its afternoon. She could see the seas. Home again, after nearly a year. Kareen settled back in her seat, and considered her mixed feelings.
She wished Mark were with her, to compare notes. And how did people like Miles, who had been off world maybe fifty times, handle the cognitive dissonance? He'd had a student year on Beta Colony too, when even younger than she. She realized she had a lot more questions to ask him about it now, if she could work up the nerve.
So Miles Vorkosigan really was an Imperial Auditor now. It was hard to imagine him as one of those stiff old sticks. Mark had expended considerable nervous wit at the news, before sending off a congratulatory message by tight-beam, but then, Mark had a Thing about Miles. Thing was not accepted psycho-scientific terminology, she'd been informed by his twinkling therapist, but there was scarcely another term with the scope and flexibility to take in the whole complexity of the… thing.
Her hand drifted down in an inventory, tugging her shirt and smoothing her trousers. The eclectic mix of garb -- Komarran-style pants, Barrayaran bolero, a syntha-silk shirt from Escobar -- wasn't going to shock her family. She pulled an ash-blonde curl out straight, and looked up at it cross-eyed. Her hair was almost grown out again to the length and style she'd had when she'd left. Yes, all the important changes were on the inside, privately; she might reveal them or not, in her own time, as seemed right or safe. Safe? she queried herself in bemusement. She was letting Mark's paranoias rub off on her. Still…
With a reluctant frown, she drew her Betan earrings from her ears, and tucked them into her bolero pocket. Mama had hung around with Countess Cordelia enough; she might well be able to decode their Betan meaning. This was the style that said: Yes, I'm a consenting and contraceptive-protected adult, but I am presently in an exclusive relationship, so please do not embarrass us both by asking. Which was rather a lot to encrypt in a few twists of metal, and the Betans had a dozen more styles for other nuances; she'd graduated through a couple of them. The contraceptive implant the earrings advertised could now just ride along in secret, no one's business but her own.
Kareen considered briefly the comparison of Betan earrings with related social signals in other cultures: the wedding ring, certain styles of clothing or hats or veils or facial hair or tattoos. All such signals could be subverted, as with unfaithful spouses whose behavior belied their outward statement of monogamy, but really the Betans seemed very good about keeping congruent to theirs. Of course, they had so many choices. Wearing a false signal was highly disapproved, socially. It screws it up for the rest of us, a Betan had once explained to her. The whole idea is to eliminate the weird guessing-games. You had to admire their honesty. No wonder they did so well at the sciences. In all, Kareen decided, there was a lot about the sometimes appallingly-sensible Betan-born Countess Cordelia Vorkosigan that she thought she might understand much better now. But Tante Cordelia wouldn't be back home to talk with till nearly the Emperor's wedding at Midsummer, sigh.
She set the ambiguities of the flesh abruptly aside as Vorbarr Sultana drew into view below. It was evening, and a glorious sunset painted the clouds as the shuttle made its final descent. City lights in the dusk made the groundscape magical. She could pick out dear, familiar landmarks, the winding river, a real river after a year of those measly fountains the Betans put in their underground world, the famous bridges -- the folk song in four languages about them rippled through her mind -- the main monorail lines… then the rush of landing, and the final whine to a true stop at the shuttleport. Home, home, I'm home! It was all she could do to keep from stampeding over the bodies of all the slow old people ahead of her. But at last she was through the flex-tube ramp and the last maze of tube and corridor. Will they be waiting? Will they all be there?
They did not disappoint her. They were all there, every one, standing in their own little squad, staking out the best space by the pillars closest to the exit doors: Mama clutching a huge bouquet of flowers, and Olivia, holding up a big decorated sign with rainbow ribbons streaming that said Welcome Home Kareen!, and Martya, jumping up and down as she saw her, and Delia looking very cool and grown-up, and Da himself, still wearing his Imperial undress greens from the day's work at HQ, leaning on his stick and grinning. The group-hug was all that Kareen's homesick heart had ever imagined, bending the sign and squashing the flowers. Olivia giggled and Martya shrieked and even Da rubbed water from his eyes. Passers-by stared; male passers-by stared longingly, and tended to blunder into walls. Commodore Koudelka's all-blonde commando team, the junior officers from HQ joked. Kareen wondered if Martya and Olivia still tormented them on purpose. The poor boys kept trying to surrender, but so far, none of the sisters had taken prisoners except Delia, who'd apparently conquered that Komarran friend of Miles's at Winterfair -- an ImpSec commodore, no less. Kareen could hardly wait to get home and hear all the details of the engagement.
All talking at once, except for Da who'd given up years ago and now just listened benignly, they herded off to collect Kareen's luggage and meet the groundcar. Da and Mama had evidently borrowed the big one from Lord Vorkosigan for the occasion, along with Armsman Pym to drive it, so that they all might fit in the rear compartment. Pym greeted her with a hearty welcome-home from his liege-lord and himself, piled her modest valises in beside him, and they were off.
"I thought you would come home wearing one of those topless Betan sarongs," Martya teased her, as the groundcar pulled away from the shuttleport and headed toward town.
"I thought about it." Kareen buried her grin in her armload of flowers. "It's just not warm enough here."
"You didn't actually wear one there, did you?"
Fortunately, before Kareen was forced to either answer or evade this, Olivia piped up, "When I saw Lord Vorkosigan's car I thought Lord Mark might have come home with you after all, but Mama said not. Won't he be coming back to Barrayar for the wedding?"
"Oh, yes. He actually left Beta Colony before I did, but he stopped on the way at Escobar to…" she hesitated, "to attend to some business of his." Actually, Mark had gone to cadge weight-loss drugs, more powerful than those his Betan therapist would prescribe for him, from a clinic of refugee Jacksonian doctors in which he had a financial interest. He would doubtless check out the business health of the clinic at the same time, so it wasn't an outright lie.
Kareen and Mark had come close to having their first real argument over this dubious choice of his, but it was, Kareen recognized, indeed his choice. Body-control issues lay near the core of his deepest troubles; she was developing an instinct -- if she didn't flatter herself, close to a real understanding -- of when she could push for his good. And when she just had to wait, and let Mark wrestle with Mark. It had been a somewhat terrifying privilege to watch and listen, this past year, as his therapist coached him; and an exhilarating experience to participate, under the therapist's supervision, in the partial healing he was achieving. And to learn there were more important aspects to love than a mad rush for connection: confidentiality, for one. Patience for another. And, paradoxically and most urgently in Mark's case, a certain cool and distant autonomy. It had taken her months to figure that one out. She wasn't about to try to explain it to her noisy, teasing, loving family in the back of a groundcar.
"You've become good friends…" her mother trailed off invitingly.
"He needed one." Desperately.
"Yes, but is he your boyfriend?" Martya had no patience with subtlety, preferring clarity.
"He seemed sweet on you when he was here last year," Delia observed. "And you've been running around with him all year on Beta Colony. Is he slow off the gun?"
Olivia added, "I suppose he's bright enough to be interesting -- I mean, he's Miles's twin, he has to be -- but I thought he was a bit creepy."
Kareen stiffened. If you'd been cloned a slave, raised by terrorists to be a murderer, trained by methods tantamount to physical and psychological torture, and had to kill people to escape, you'd likely seem a little creepy too. If you weren't a twitching puddle. Mark was no puddle, more power to him. Mark was creating himself anew with an all-out effort no less heroic for being largely invisible to the outside observer. She pictured herself trying to explain this to Olivia or Martya, and gave up instantly. Delia… no, not even Delia. She needed only to mention Mark's four semi-autonomous sub-personalities, each with his own nickname, for the conversation to slide downhill permanently. Describing the fascinating way they all worked together to support the fragile economy of his personality would not thrill a family of Barrayarans obviously testing for an acceptable in-law.
"Down, girls," Da put in, smiling in the dimness of the groundcar compartment, and earning Kareen's gratitude. But then he added, "Still, if we are about to receive a go-between from the Vorkosigans, I'd like some warning to prepare my mind for the shock. I've known Miles all his life. Mark… is another matter."
Could they picture no other role for a man in her life than potential husband? Kareen was by no means sure Mark was a potential husband. He was still working his heart out on becoming a potential human being. On Beta Colony, it had all seemed so clear. She could almost feel the murky doubt rising around her. She was glad now she'd ditched her earrings. "I shouldn't think so," she said honestly.
"Ah." He settled back, clearly relieved.
"Did he really get hugely fat on Beta Colony?" asked Olivia brightly. "I shouldn't think his Betan therapist would have let him. I thought they were supposed to fix that. I mean, he was fat when he left here."
Kareen suppressed an urge to tear her hair, or better still, Olivia's. "Where did you hear that?"
"Mama said Lady Cordelia said her mother said," Olivia recited the links of the gossip-chain, "when she was back here at Winterfair for Gregor's betrothal."
Mark's grandmother had been a good Betan godmother to both bewildered Barrayaran students this past year. Kareen had known that she was a pipeline of information to her concerned daughter about the progress of her strange clone-son, with the sort of frankness only two Betans could have; Gran'tante Naismith often talked about the messages she'd sent or received, and passed on news and greetings. The possibility of Tante Cordelia talking to Mama was the one she hadn't considered, Kareen realized. After all, Tante Cordelia had been on Sergyar, Mama was here.… She found herself frantically calculating backward, comparing two planetary calendars. Had she and Mark become lovers yet, by Barrayaran Winterfair when the Vorkosigans had last been home? No, whew. Whatever Tante Cordelia knew now, she hadn't known it then.
"I thought the Betans could tweak your brain chemistry around any way they wanted," said Martya. "Couldn't they just normalize him, blip, like that? Why's it take so long?"
"That's just the point," Kareen said. "Mark spent most of his life having his body and mind forcibly jerked around by other people. He needs the time to figure out who he is when people aren't pumping him full of stuff from the outside. Time to establish a baseline, his therapist says. He has a Thing about drugs, you see." Though not, evidently, the ones he got himself from refugee Jacksonians. "When he's ready -- well, never mind."
"Did his therapy make any progress, then?" Mama asked dubiously.
"Oh, yes, lots," said Kareen, glad to be able to say something unequivocally positive about Mark at last.
"What kind?" asked her puzzled mother.
Kareen pictured herself gibbering, Well, he's gotten completely over his torture-induced impotence, and been trained how to be a gentle and attentive lover. His therapist says she's terribly proud of him, and Grunt is just ecstatic. Gorge would be a reasonable gourmand, if it weren't for his being co-opted by Howl to meet Howl's needs, and it was me who figured out that was what was really going on with the eating binges. Mark's therapist congratulated me for my observation and insight, and loaded me down with catalogs for five different Betan therapist training programs, and told me she'd help me find scholarships if I was interested. She doesn't quite know what to do about Killer yet, but Killer doesn't bother me. I can't deal with Howl. And that's one year's progress. And oh yes, through all this private stress and strain Mark maintained top standing in his high-powered finance school, does anybody care? "It's pretty complicated to explain," she managed at last.
Time to change the subject. Surely someone else's love interest could be publicly dissected. "Delia! Does your Komarran commodore know Gregor's Komarran fiancee? Have you met her yet?"
Delia perked up. "Yes, Duv knew Laisa back on Komarr. They shared some, um, academic interests."
Martya chimed in, "She's cute, short, and plump. She has the most striking blue-green eyes, and she's going to set a fashion in padded bras. You'll be right in. Did you gain weight this year?"
"We've all met Laisa," Mama intervened before this theme could be developed into acrimony. "She seems very nice. Very intelligent."
"Yes," said Delia, shooting Martya a look of scorn. "Duv and I hope Gregor doesn't waste her in public relations, though she'll have to do some, of course. She has Komarran training in economics. She could run Ministerial committees, Duv says, if they'd let her. At least the Old Vor can't shuffle her off to be a brood mare. Gregor and Laisa have already let it be quietly known they plan to use uterine replicators for their babies."
"Are they getting any argument about that from the high traditionalists?" Kareen asked.
"If they do, Gregor's said he'll send ‘em to argue with Lady Cordelia." Martya giggled. "If they dare."
"She'll hand them back their heads on a plate if they try," Da said cheerfully. "And they know she can. Besides, we can always help out by pointing to Kareen and Olivia as proof positive that replicators give fine results."
Kareen grinned. Olivia smiled more faintly. Their family's own demographics marked the arrival of that galactic technology on Barrayar; the Koudelkas had been among the first ordinary Barrayarans to chance the new gestation method, for their two younger daughters. Being presented to all and sundry like a prize agricultural exhibit at a District Fair got to be a weary pain after a while, but Kareen supposed it was a public service. There'd been much less of that lately, as the technology became widely accepted, at least in the cities, and by those who could afford it. For the first time, she wondered how the Control Sisters, Delia and Martya, had felt about it.
"What do the Komarrans think of the marriage, does your Duv say?" Kareen asked Delia.
"It's a mixed reception, but what else do you expect from a conquered world? The Imperial Household means to put all the positive propaganda spin on it they can, of course. Right down to doing the wedding over again on Komarr in the Komarran style, poor Gregor and Laisa. All ImpSec leaves are canceled from now till after the second ceremony, so that means Duv and my wedding plans are on hold till then." She heaved a large sigh. "Well, I'd rather have his undivided attention when I do finally get it. He's scrambling to get on top of his new job, and as the first Komarran to head Komarran Affairs he knows every eye in the Imperium is on him. Especially if anything goes wrong." She grimaced. "Speaking of people's heads on plates."
Delia had changed, this past year. Last time she'd spoken of Imperial events, the conversation had revolved around what to wear, not that color-coordinating the Koudelkas wasn't a challenge in its own right. Kareen began to think she might like this Duv Galeni fellow. A brother-in-law, hm. It was a concept to get used to.
And then the groundcar rounded the last corner, and home loomed up. The Koudelkas' residence was the end house in a block-row, a capacious three stories high and with a greedy share of windows overlooking a crescent-shaped park, smack in the middle of the capital and not half a dozen blocks from Vorkosigan House itself. The young couple had purchased it twenty-five years ago, when Da had been personal military aide to the Regent, and Mama had quit her ImpSec post as bodyguard to Gregor and his foster-mother Lady Cordelia in order to have Delia. Kareen couldn't begin to calculate how much its value must have appreciated since then, though she bet Mark could. An academic exercise -- who could bear to sell the dear old place, creaky as it was? She bounded out of the car, wild with joy.
* * *
It was late in the evening before Kareen had a chance to talk privately with her parents. First there had to be the unpacking, and the distribution of presents, and the reclaiming of her room from the stowage her sisters had ruthlessly dumped there during her absence. Then there was the big family dinner, with all three of her best old girlfriends invited. Everybody talked and talked, except Da of course, who sipped wine and looked smug to be sitting down to dinner with eight women. In all the camouflaging chatter Kareen only gradually become aware that she was wrapping away in private silence the things that mattered most intensely to her. That felt very strange.
Now she perched on the bed in her parents' room as they readied for sleep. Mama was running through her set series of isometric exercises, as she'd done every night for as long as Kareen could remember. Even after two body-births and all those years, she still maintained an athlete's muscle tone. Da limped across the room and set his swordstick up by his side of the bed, sat awkwardly, and watched Mama with a little smile. His hair was all gray now, Kareen noticed; Mama's braided mane still maintained her tawny blonde without cosmetic assistance, though it was getting a silvery sheen to it. Da's clumsy hands began the task of removing his half-boots. Kareen's eye was having trouble re-adjusting. Barrayarans in their mid-fifties looked like Betans in their mid-seventies, or even mid-eighties; and her parents had lived hard in their youth, through war and service. Kareen cleared her throat.
"About next year's," she began with a bright smile, "school."
"You are planning on the District University, aren't you?" said Mama, chinning herself gently on the bar hung from the ceiling joists, swinging her legs out horizontally, and holding them there for a silent count of twenty. "We didn't pinch marks to provide you with a galactic education to have you quit halfway. That would be heartbreaking."
"Oh, yes, I want to keep going. I want to go back to Beta Colony." There.
A brief silence. Then Da, plaintively: "But you just got home, lovie."
"And I wanted to come home," she assured him. "I wanted to see you all. I just thought… it wasn't too soon to begin planning. Knowing it's a big thing."
"Campaigning?" Da raised an eyebrow.
She controlled irritation. It wasn't as though she were a little girl begging for a pony. This was her whole life on the line, here. "Planning. Seriously."
Mama said slowly, perhaps because she was thinking or perhaps because she was folding herself upside-down, "Do you know what you would study this time? The work you selected last year seemed a trifle… eclectic."
"I did well in all my classes," Kareen defended herself.
"All fourteen completely unrelated courses," murmured Da. "This is true."
"There was so much to choose from."
"There is much to choose from at Vorbarr Sultana District," Mama pointed out. "More than you could learn in a couple of lifetimes, even Betan lifetimes. And the commute is much less costly."
But Mark won't be at Vorbarr Sultana. He'll be back on Beta. "Mark's therapist was telling me about some scholarships in her field."
"Is that your latest interest?" asked Da. "Psycho-engineering?"
"I'm not sure," she said honestly. "It is interesting, the way they do it on Beta." But was it psychology in general that entranced her, or just Mark's psychology? She couldn't really say. Well… maybe she could. She just didn't entirely like how the answer sounded.
"No doubt," said Mama, "any practical galactic medical or technical training would be welcome back here. If you could focus on one long enough to… The problem is money, love. Without Lady Cordelia's scholarship, we couldn't have dreamed of sending you off world. And as far as I know, her next year's grant has already been awarded to another girl."
"I didn't expect to ask her for anything more. She's done so much for me already. But there is the possibility of a Betan scholarship. And I could work this summer. That, plus what you would have spent on anyway on the District University… you wouldn't expect a little thing like money to stop, say, Lord Miles?"
"I wouldn't expect plasma arc fire to stop Miles." Da grinned. "But he is, shall we say, a special case."
Kareen wondered momentarily what fueled Miles's famous drive. Was it frustrated anger, like the kind now heating her determination? How much anger? Did Mark, in his exaggerated wariness of his progenitor and twin, realize something about Miles that had eluded her? "Surely we can come up with some solution. If we all try."
Mama and Da exchanged a look. Da said, "I'm afraid things are a bit in the hole to start with. Between schooling for all of you, and your late grandmother Koudelka's illness… we mortgaged the house by the sea two years ago."
Mama chimed in, "We'll be renting it out this summer, all but a week. We figure with all the events at Midsummer we'll hardly have time to get out of the capital anyway."
"And your Mama is now teaching self-defense and security classes for Ministerial employees," Da added. "So she's doing all she can. I'm afraid there aren't too many sources of cash left that haven't already been pressed into service."
"I enjoy the teaching," Mama said. Reassuring him? She added to Kareen, "And it's better than selling the summer place to clear the debt, which for a time we were afraid we'd have to do."
Lose the house by the sea, focus of her childhood? Kareen was horrified. Lady Alys Vorpatril herself had given the house on the eastern shore to the Koudelkas for a wedding present, all those years ago; something about saving her and baby Lord Ivan's lives in the War of Vordarian's Pretendership. Kareen hadn't known finances were so tight. Until she counted up the number of sisters ahead of her, and multiplied their needs… um.
"It could be worse," Da said cheerfully. "Think of what floating this harem would have been like back in the days of dowries!"
Kareen smiled dutifully -- he'd been making that joke for at least fifteen years -- and fled. She was going to have to come up with another solution. By herself.
* * *
The decor of the Green Room in the Imperial Residence was superior to that of any other conference chamber in which Miles had ever been trapped. Antique silk wall coverings, heavy drapes and thick carpeting gave it a hushed, serious, and somewhat submarine air, and the elegant tea laid out in elaborate service on the inlaid sideboard beat the extruded-food-in-plastic of the average military meeting all hollow. Spring sunshine streamed through the windows to make warm golden bars across the floor. Miles had been watching them hypnotically shift as the morning stretched.
An inescapable military tone was lent to the proceedings by the presence of three men in uniform: Colonel Lord Vortala the younger, head of the ImpSec task force assigned to provide security for the Emperor's wedding; Captain Ivan Vorpatril, dutifully keeping notes for Lady Alys Vorpatril, just as he would have done as aide to his commander at any military HQ conference; and Commodore Duv Galeni, chief of Komarran Affairs for ImpSec, preparing for the day when the whole show would be re-played on Komarr. Miles wondered if Galeni, forty and saturnine, was picking up ideas for his own wedding with Delia Koudelka, or whether he had enough sense of self-preservation to hide out and leave it all to the highly competent, not to mention assertive, Koudelka women. All five of them. Miles would offer Vorkosigan House to Duv as a sanctuary, except the girls would certainly track him there.
Gregor and Laisa seemed to be holding up well so far. Emperor Gregor in his mid-thirties was tall and thin, dark and dry. Dr. Laisa Toscane was short, with ash-blonde curls and blue-green eyes that narrowed often in amusement, and a figure that made Miles, for one, just want to sort of fall over on top of her and burrow in for the winter. No treason implied; he did not begrudge Gregor his good fortune. In fact, Miles regarded the months of public ceremony which were keeping Gregor from that consummation as a cruelty little short of sadistic. Assuming, of course, that they were keeping…
The voices droned on; Miles's thoughts drifted further. Dreamily, he wondered where he and Ekaterin might hold their future wedding. In the ballroom of Vorkosigan House, in the eye of the empire? The place might not hold a big enough mob. He wanted witnesses, for this. Or did he, as heir to his father's Countship, have a political obligation to stage it at the Vorkosigan's District capital of Hassadar? The modern Count's Residence at Hassadar had always seemed more like a hotel than a home, attached as it was to all those District bureaucratic offices lining the city's main square. The most romantic site would be the house at Vorkosigan Surleau, in the gardens overlooking the Long Lake. An outdoor wedding, yes, he bet Ekaterin would like that. In a sense, it would give Sergeant Bothari a chance to attend, and General Piotr too. Did you ever believe such a day would come for me, Grandfather? The attraction of that venue would depend on the time of year, of course -- high summer would be glorious, but it wouldn't seem so romantic in a mid-winter sleet storm. He wasn't at all sure he could bring Ekaterin up to the matrimonial fence before fall, and delaying the ceremony till next spring would be as agonizing as what was being done to Gregor…
Laisa, across the conference table from Miles, flipped over the next page of her stack of flimsies, read down it for a few seconds, and said, "You people can't be serious!" Gregor, seated beside her, looked alarmed, and leaned to peer over her shoulder.
Oh, we must have got to Page Twelve already. Quickly, Miles found his place again on the agenda, and sat up and tried to look attentive.
Lady Alys gave him a dry glance, before turning her attention to Laisa. This half-year-long nuptial ordeal, from the betrothal ceremonies this past Winterfair to the wedding upcoming at Midsummer, was the cap and crown of Lady Alys's career as Gregor's official hostess. She'd made it clear that Things Would Be Done Properly.
The problem came in defining the term Properly. The most recent wedding of a ruling emperor had been the scrambling mid-war union of Gregor's grandfather Emperor Ezar to the sister of the soon-to-be-late Mad Emperor Yuri, which for a number of sound historical and aesthetic reasons Alys was loath to take as a model. Most other emperors had been safely married for years before they landed on the throne. Prior to Ezar one had to go back almost two hundred years, to the marriage of Vlad Vorbarra le Savante and Lady Vorlightly, in the most gaudily archaic period of the Time of Isolation.
"They didn't really make the poor bride strip to the buff in front of all their wedding guests, did they?" Laisa asked, pointing out the offending passage of historical quotation to Gregor.
"Oh, Vlad had to strip too," Gregor assured her earnestly. "The in-laws would have insisted. It was in the nature of a warranty inspection. Just in case any mutations turned up in future offspring, each side wanted to be able to assert it wasn't their kin's fault."
"The custom has largely died out in recent years," Lady Alys remarked, "except in some of the backcountry districts in certain language groups."
"She means the Greekie hicks," Ivan helpfully interpreted this for offworld-born Laisa. His mother frowned at this bluntness.
Miles cleared his throat. "The Emperor's wedding may be counted on to re-invigorate any old customs it takes up and displays. Personally, I'd prefer that this not be one of them."
"Spoilsport," said Ivan. "I think it would re-introduce a lot of excitement to wedding parties. It could be a better draw than the competitive toasting."
"Followed later in the evening by the competitive vomiting," Miles murmured. "Not to mention the thrilling, if erratic, Vor crawling races. I think you won one of those once, didn't you, Ivan?"
"I'm surprised you remember. Aren't you usually the first to pass out?"
"Gentlemen," said Lady Alys coldly. "We have a great deal of material yet to get through in this meeting. And neither of you are leaving till we are finished." She let that hang quellingly in the air for a moment, for emphasis, then went on. "I wouldn't expect to exactly reproduce that old custom, Laisa, but I put it on the list because it does represent something of cultural importance to the more conservative Barrayarans. I was hoping we might come up with an updated version which would serve the same psychological purpose."
Duv Galeni's dark brows lowered in a thoughtful frown. "Publish their gene scans?" he suggested.
Gregor grimaced, but then took his fiancee's hand and gripped it, and smiled at her. "I'm sure Laisa's would be just fine."
"Well, of course it is," she began. "My parents had it checked before I ever went into the uterine replicator --"
Gregor kissed her palm. "Yes, and I'll bet you were a darling blastosphere."
She grinned giddily at him. Alys smiled faintly, in brief indulgence. Ivan looked mildly nauseated. Colonel Vortala, ImpSec trained and with years of experience on the Vorbarr Sultana scene, managed to look pleasantly blank. Galeni, nearly as good, appeared only a little stiff.
Miles took this strategic moment to lean across and ask Galeni in an undertone, "Kareen's home, has Delia told you?"
Galeni brightened. "Yes. I expect I'll see her tonight."
"I want to do something for a welcome-home. I was thinking of inviting the whole Koudelka clan for dinner soon. Interested?"
Gregor tore his besotted gaze from Laisa's, leaned back, and said mildly, "Thank you, Duv. And what other ideas does anyone have?"
Gregor was clearly not interested in making his gene-scan public knowledge. Miles thought through several regional variants of the old custom. "You could make it a sort of a levee. Each set of parental in-laws, or whoever you think ought to have the right and the voice, plus a physician of their choice gets to visit the opposite member of the couple on the morning of the wedding, for a brief physical. Each delegation publicly announces itself satisfied at some appropriate point of the ceremony. Private inspection, public assurance. Modesty, honor, and paranoia all get served."
"And you could be given your tranquilizers at the same time," Ivan pointed out, with gruesome cheer. "Bet you'll both need ‘em by then."
"Thank you, Ivan," murmured Gregor. "So thoughtful." Laisa could only nod in amused agreement.
Lady Alys's eyes narrowed in calculation. "Gregor, Laisa? Is that idea mutually acceptable?"
"It works for me," said Gregor.
"I don't think my parents would mind going along with it," said Laisa. "Um… who would stand in for your parents, Gregor?"
"Count and Countess Vorkosigan will be taking their place on the wedding circle, of course," said Gregor. "I'd assume it would be them… ah, Miles?"
"Mother wouldn't blink," said Miles, "though I can't guarantee she wouldn't make rude comments about Barrayarans. Father…"
A more politically-guarded silence fell around the table. More than one eye drifted to Duv Galeni, whose jaw tightened slightly.
"Duv, Laisa." Lady Alys tapped one perfectly enameled fingernail on the polished tabletop. "Komarran socio-political response on this one. Frankly, please."
"I have no personal objection to Count Vorkosigan," said Laisa.
Galeni sighed. "Any… ambiguity that we can sidestep, I believe we should."
Nicely put, Duv. You'll be a politician yet. "In other words, sending the Butcher of Komarr to ogle their nekkid sacrificial maiden would be about as popular as plague with the Komarrans back home," Miles put in, since no one else could. Well, Ivan maybe. Lady Alys would have had to grope for several more moments to come up with a polite locution for the problem. Galeni shot him a medium-grateful glower. "Perfectly understandable," Miles went on. "If the lack of symmetry isn't too obvious, send Mother and Aunt Alys as the delegation from Gregor's side, with maybe one of the female cousins from his mother Princess Kareen's family. It'll fly for the Barrayaran conservatives because guarding the genome always was women's work."
The Barrayarans around the table grunted agreement. Lady Alys smiled shortly, and ticked off the item.
A complicated, and lengthy, debate ensued over whether the couple should repeat their vows in all four of Barrayar's languages. After that came thirty minutes of discussion on how to handle domestic and galactic newsfeeds, in which Miles adroitly, and with Galeni's strong support, managed to avoid collecting any more tasks requiring his personal handling. Lady Alys flipped to the next page, and frowned. "By the way, Gregor, have you decided what you're going to do about the Vorbretten case yet?"
Gregor shook his head. "I'm trying to avoid making any public utterance on that one for the moment. At least till the Council of Counts gets done trampling about in it. Whichever way they fall out, the loser's appeal will doubtless land in my lap within minutes of their decision."
Miles glanced at his agenda in confusion. The next item read Meal Schedules. "Vorbretten case?"
"Surely you've heard the scandal --" began Lady Alys. "Oh, that's right, you were on Komarr when it broke. Didn't Ivan fill you in? Poor René. The whole family's in an uproar."
"Has something happened to René Vorbretten?" Miles asked, alarmed. René had been a couple of years ahead of Miles at the Academy, and looked to be following in his brilliant father's footsteps. Commodore Lord Vorbretten had been a star protégé of Miles's father on the General Staff, until his untimely, if heroic, death by Cetagandan fire in the war of the Hegen Hub a decade past. Less than a year later old Count Vorbretten had died, some said in grief for the loss of his beloved eldest son; René had been forced to give up his promising military career, and take up his duties as Count of his family's District. Three years ago, in a whirlwind romance that had been the delight of Vorbarr Sultana, he'd married the gorgeous eighteen-year-old daughter of the wealthy Lord Vorkeres. Them what has, gets, as they said in the backcountry.
"Well…" said Gregor, "yes and no. Um…"
Lady Alys sighed. "Count and Countess Vorbretten, having decided it was time to start carrying out their family duties, very sensibly decided to use the uterine replicator for their first-born son, and have any detected defects repaired in the zygote. For which, of course, they both had complete gene scans."
"René found he was a mutie?" Miles asked, astonished. Tall, handsome, athletic René? René, who spoke four languages in a modulated baritone that melted female hearts and male resistance, played three musical instruments entrancingly, and had perfect singing pitch to boot? René, who could make Ivan grind his teeth in sheer physical jealousy?
"Not exactly," said Lady Alys, "unless you count being one-eighth Cetagandan ghem as a defect."
Miles sat back. "Whoops." He took this in. "When did this happen?"
"Surely you can do the math," murmured Ivan.
"Depends on which line it came through."
"The male," said Lady Alys. "Unfortunately."
Right. René's grandfather, the seventh Count-Vorbretten-to-be, had indeed been born in the middle of the Cetagandan occupation. The Vorbrettens, like many Barrayarans, had done what they needed to survive… "So René's great-grandma was a collaborator. Or… was it something nastier?"
"For what it's worth," said Gregor, "what little surviving documentation ImpSec has unearthed suggests it was probably a voluntary and rather extended liaison, with one -- or more -- of the high-ranking ghem-officers occupying their District. At this range, one can't tell if it was love, self-interest, or an attempt to buy protection for her family in the only coin she had."
"It could have been all three," said Lady Alys. "Life in a war zone isn't simple."
"In any case," said Gregor, "it seems not to have been a matter of rape."
"Good God. So, ah, do they know which ghem-lord was René's ancestor?"
"They could in theory send his gene scan to Cetaganda and find out, but as far as I know they haven't elected to do so yet. It's rather academic. What is… something other than academic is the apparent fact that the seventh Count Vorbretten was not the son of the sixth Count."
"They were calling him René Ghembretten last week at HQ," Ivan volunteered. Gregor grimaced.
"I'm astounded the Vorbrettens let this leak out," said Miles. "Or was it the doctor or the medtechs who betrayed them?"
"Mm, therein hangs yet more of the tale," said Gregor. "They had no intention of doing so. But René told his sisters and his brother, thinking they had a right to know, and the young Countess told her parents. And from there, well, who knows. But the rumor eventually came to the ears of Sigur Vorbretten, who is the direct descendant of the sixth Count's younger brother, and incidentally the son-in-law of Count Boriz Vormoncrief. Sigur has somehow -- and there's a counter-suit pending about his methods -- obtained a copy of René's gene scan. And Count Vormoncrief has brought suit before the Council of Counts, on his son-in-law's behalf, to claim the Vorbretten descent and District for Sigur. And there it sits."
"Ow. Ow! So… is René still Count, or not? He was presented and confirmed in his person by the Council, with all the due forms -- hell, I was there, come to think of it. A count doesn't have to be the previous count's son -- there've been nephews, cousins, skips to other lines, complete breaks due to treason or war -- has anyone mentioned Lord Midnight, the fifth Count Vortala's horse, yet? If a horse can inherit a countship, I don't see what's the theoretical objection to a Cetagandan. Part-Cetagandan."
"I doubt Lord Midnight's father was married to his mother, either," Ivan observed brightly.
"Both sides were claiming that case as a precedent, last I heard," Lord Vortala, himself a descendant of the infamous fifth Count, put in. "One because the horse was confirmed as heir, t' other because the confirmation was later revoked."
Galeni, listening in fascination, shook his head in wonder, or something like that. Laisa sat back and gnawed gently on her knuckle, and kept her mouth straight. Her eyes only crinkled slightly.
"How's René taking it all?" asked Miles.
"He seems to have become rather reclusive lately," said Alys, in a worried tone.
"I… maybe I'll call on him."
"That would be a good thing," said Gregor gravely. "Sigur is attempting in his suit to attach everything René inherited, but he's let it be known he'd be willing to settle for just the countship and its entailments. Too, I suppose there are some trifles of property inherited through the female lines which aren't under question."
"In the meanwhile," Alys said, "Sigur has sent a note to my office requesting his rightful place in the wedding procession and the oath-takings as Count Vorbretten. And René has sent a note requesting Sigur be barred from the ceremonies if the case has not yet been settled in his favor. So, Gregor? Which one lays his hands between Laisa's when she's confirmed as Empress, if the Council of Counts hasn't made up what passes for its collective mind by then?"
Gregor rubbed the bridge of his nose, and squeezed his eyes shut briefly. "I don't know. We may have to have both of them. Provisionally."
"Together?" said Lady Alys, her lip curling in dismay. "Tempers are running high, I heard." She glowered at Ivan. "Exacerbated by the humor certain low-minded persons seem to find in what is actually an exquisitely painful situation."
Ivan began to smile, then apparently thought better of it.
"One trusts they will not choose to mar the dignity of the occasion," said Gregor. "Especially if their appeal to me is still hanging fire. I suppose I should find some way to let them know that, gently. I am presently constrained to avoid them…" his eye fell on Miles. "Ah, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan. This sounds like a task very much within your purview. Would you be so kind as to remind them both of the delicacy of their positions, if things look to be getting out of hand at any point?"
Since the official job description of an Imperial Auditor was, in effect, Whatever You Say, Gregor, Miles could hardly argue with this. Well, it could have been worse. He shuddered to think of how many chores he might have been assigned by now if he'd been so stupid as to not show up for this meeting. "Yes, Sire," he sighed. "I'll do my best."
"The formal invitations begin to go out soon," Lady Alys said. "Let me know if there are any changes." She turned over the last page. "Oh, and have your parents said yet exactly when they'll be arriving, Miles?"
"I've assumed you would know before I did. Gregor?"
"Two Imperial ships are assigned to the Viceroy's pleasure," said Gregor. "If there are no crises on Sergyar to impede him, Count Vorkosigan implied he'd like to be here in better time than last Winterfair."
"Are they coming together? I thought Mother might come early again, to support Aunt Alys," said Miles.
"I love your mother dearly, Miles," Lady Alys sighed, "but after the betrothal, when I suggested she come home to help me with these preparations, she suggested Gregor and Laisa ought to elope."
Gregor and Laisa both looked quite wistful at the thought, and held hands under the table. Lady Alys frowned uneasily at this dangerous breath of mutiny.
Miles grinned. "Well, of course. That's what she did. After all, it worked for her."
"I don't think she was serious, but with Cordelia, one can never quite tell. It's just appalling how this whole subject brings out the Betan in her. I can only be grateful she's on Sergyar just now." Lady Alys glowered at her flimsy, and added, "Fireworks."
Miles blinked, then realized this wasn't a prediction of the probable result of the clash in social views between his Betan mother and his Barrayaran aunt, but rather, the last -- thank God -- item on today's agenda.
"Yes!" said Gregor, smiling eagerly. All the Barrayarans round the table, including Lady Alys, perked up at this. An inherent cultural passion for things that went boom, perhaps.
"On what schedule?" Lady Alys asked. "There will of course be the traditional display on Midsummer Day, the evening after the Imperial Military Review. Do you want displays every night on the three days intervening till the wedding, as well as on the wedding night?"
"Let me see that budget," Gregor said to Ivan. Ivan called it up for him. "Hm. We wouldn't want the people to become jaded. Let other organizations, such as the city of Vorbarr Sultana or the Council of Counts, foot the displays on the intervening nights. And up the budget for the post-wedding display by fifty percent, from my personal purse as Count Vorbarra."
"Ooh," said Ivan appreciatively, and entered the changes. "Nice."
Miles stretched. Done at last.
"Oh, yes, I almost forgot," added Lady Alys. "Here is your meal schedule, Miles."
"My what?" Without thinking, he accepted the flimsy from her hand.
"Gregor and Laisa have dozens of invitations during the week between the Review and the Wedding from assorted organizations which wish to honor them -- and themselves -- ranging from the Imperial Veterans' Corps to the Honorable Order of City Bakers. And Bankers. And Brewers. And Barristers. Not to mention the rest of the alphabet. Far more than they can possibly accept, of course. They will do as many of the most critical ones as they can fit in, but after that, you will have to take the next tier, as Gregor's Second."
"Did any of these people actually invite me, in my own person?" Miles asked, scanning down the list. There were at least thirteen meals or ceremonies in three days on it. "Or are they getting a horrible surprise? I can't eat all this!"
"Throw yourself on that unexploded dessert, boy!" Ivan grinned. "It's your duty to save the Emperor from indigestion."
"Of course they'll know. You may expect to be called upon to make a number of thank-you speeches appropriate to the various venues. And here," his mother added, "is your schedule, Ivan."
Ivan's grin faded into a look of dismay, as he stared at his own list. "I didn't know there were that many guilds in this damned town…"
A wonderful thought occurred to Miles -- he might be able to take Ekaterin along to a sedate selection of these. Yes, let her see Lord Auditor Vorkosigan in action. And her serene and sober elegance would add no little validation to his consequence. He sat up straighter, suddenly consoled, and folded the flimsy and slipped it into his tunic.
"Can't we send Mark to some of these?" asked Ivan plaintively. "He'll be back in town for this bash. And he's a Vorkosigan too. Outranks a Vorpatril, surely. And if there's one thing the lad can do, it's eat."
Galeni's brows rose in reluctant agreement with this last assessment, though the look on his face was a study in grim bemusement. Miles wondered if Galeni too was reflecting that Mark's other notable talent was assassination. At least he doesn't eat what he kills.
Miles began to glower at Ivan, but Aunt Alys beat him to it. "Control your wit, if you please, Ivan. Lord Mark is neither the Emperor's Second, nor an Imperial Auditor, nor of any great experience in delicate social situations. And despite all Aral and Cordelia could do for him last year, most people still regard his position within the family as rather ambiguous. Nor is he, I'm given to understand, stable enough yet to be safely subjected to stress in very public arenas. Despite his therapy."
"It was a joke," Ivan muttered defensively. "How do you expect us to all get through this alive if we're not allowed to have a sense of humor?"
"Exert yourself," his mother advised him brutally.
On these daunting words, the meeting broke up.