Copyright © 1999
Ivan had finished his mission of delivering one hundred hand-calligraphed Imperial wedding invitations to Ops HQ for subsequent off-world distribution to select serving officers, when he encountered Alexi Vormoncrief, also passing out through the security scanners in the building's lobby.
"Ivan!" Alexi hailed him. "Just the man! Wait up."
Ivan paused by the automated doors, mentally composing a likely mission order from She Who Must Be Obeyed Till After The Wedding in case he needed to effect an escape. Alexi was not the most stultifying bore in Vorbarr Sultana -- several gentlemen of the older generation currently vied for that title -- but he certainly qualified as an understudy. On the other hand, Ivan was extremely curious to know if the seeds he'd dropped in Alexi's ear a few weeks back had borne any amusing fruit.
Alexi finished negotiating security and bustled over, a little breathless. "I'm just off-duty, are you? Can I treat you to a round, Ivan? I have a bit of news, and you deserve to be the first to know." He rocked on his heels.
If Alexi was buying, why not? "Sure."
Ivan accompanied Alexi across the street to the convenient tavern that the Ops officers regarded as their collective property. The place was something of an institution, having gone into business some ten or fifteen minutes after Ops had opened its then-new building soon after the Pretender's War. The decor was calculatedly dingy, tacitly preserving it as a male bastion.
They slid into a table toward the back; a man in well-cut civvies lounging at the bar turned his head as they passed. Ivan recognized By Vorrutyer. Most town clowns didn't frequent the officers' bars, but By could turn up anywhere. He had the damnedest connections. By raised a hand in mock-salute to Vormoncrief, who, expansively, beckoned him over to join them. Ivan raised a brow. Byerly was on record as despising the company of his fellows who, as he put it, came unarmed to the battle of wits. Ivan couldn't imagine why he was cultivating Vormoncrief. Opposites attracting?
"Sit, sit," Vormoncrief told By. "I'm buying."
"In that case, certainly," said By, and settled in smoothly. He gave Ivan a cordial nod; Ivan returned it a trifle warily. He didn't have Miles present as a verbal shield-wall. By never baited Ivan while Miles was around. Ivan wasn't quite sure if it was because his cousin ran subtle interference, or because By preferred the more challenging target. Maybe Miles ran interference by being the more challenging target. On the other hand, maybe his cousin regarded Ivan as his own personal archery butt, and just didn't want to share. Family solidarity, or mere Milesian possessiveness?
They punched their orders into the server, and Alexi tapped in his credit chit. "Oh, my sincere condolences, by the way, on the death of your cousin Pierre," he said to Byerly. "I kept forgetting to mention that, because you don't wear your House blacks. You really should, you know. You have the right, your blood ties are close enough. Did they finally determine the cause of death?"
"Oh, yes. Heart failure, dropped him like a stone."
"As far as anyone could tell. Being a ruling Count, his autopsy was thorough. Well, if the man hadn't been such an anti-social recluse, someone might have come across the body before his brain spoiled."
"So young, hardly fifty. It's a shame he died without issue."
"It's a greater shame that rather more of my Vorrutyer uncles didn't die without issue," By sighed. "I'd have a new job."
"I didn't know you hankered after the Vorrutyers' District, By," said Ivan. "Count Byerly? A political career?"
"God forfend. I have no desire whatsoever to join that hall full of fossils arguing in Vorhartung Castle, and the District bores me to tears. Dreary place. If only my fecund cousin Richars were not such a very complete son-of-a-bitch -- no insult intended to my late aunt -- I would wish him joy of his prospects. If he can obtain them. Unfortunately, he does take joy in them, which quite takes the joy out of it all for me."
"What's wrong with Richars?" asked Alexi blankly. "Seemed a solid enough fellow to me, the few times I've met him. Politically sound."
"Never mind, Alexi."
Alexi shook his head in wonderment. "By, don't you have any proper family feeling?"
By dismissed this with an airy what-would-you? gesture. "I haven't any proper family. My principal feeling is revulsion. With perhaps one or two exceptions."
Ivan's brow wrinkled, as he unraveled By's patter. "If he can obtain them? What impediment would Richars have?" Richars was eldest son of the eldest uncle, adult, and as far as Ivan knew, in his right mind. Historically, being a son-of-a-bitch had never been considered a valid excuse for exclusion from the Council of Counts, else it would have been a much thinner body. It was only being a bastard that eliminated one. "No one's discovered he's a secret Cetagandan, like poor René Vorbretten, have they?"
"Unfortunately, no." By glanced across at Ivan, an oddly calculating look starting in his eyes. "But Lady Donna -- I believe you know her, Ivan -- lodged a formal declaration of impediment with the Council the day after Pierre died, which has temporarily blocked Richars's confirmation."
"I'd heard something. Wasn't paying attention." Ivan hadn't seen Pierre's younger sister Lady Donna in the flesh -- and what delicious flesh it had once been -- since she'd divested her third spouse and semi-retired to the Vorrutyer's District to become her brother's official hostess and unofficial District deputy. It was said she had more clout in the day-to-day running of the District than Pierre. Ivan could believe it. She must be almost forty now; he wondered if she'd started to run to fat yet. On her, it might look good. Ivory skin, wicked black hair to her hips, and smoldering brown eyes like embers…
"Oh, I'd wondered why Richar's confirmation was taking so long," said Alexi.
By shrugged. "We'll see if Lady Donna can make her case stick when she gets back from Beta Colony."
"My mother thought it odd she left before the funeral," said Ivan. "She hadn't heard of any bad blood between Donna and Pierre."
"Actually, they got along rather well, for my family. But the need was urgent."
Ivan's own fling with Donna had been memorable. He'd been a callow new officer, she'd been ten years older and temporarily between spouses. They hadn't talked much about their relatives. He'd never told her, he realized, how her mind-melting lessons had saved his ass a few years later, during that near-disastrous diplomatic mission to Cetaganda. He really ought to call on her, when she got back from Beta Colony. Yes, she might be depressed about those accumulating birthdays, and need cheering up…
"So what's the substance of her declaration of impediment?" asked Vormoncrief. "And what's Beta Colony got to do with it?"
"Ah, we shall have to see how that plays out when Donna gets back. It will be a surprise. I wish her every success." A peculiar smile quirked By's lips.
Their drinks arrived. "Oh, very good." Vormoncrief raised his glass high. "Gentlemen, to matrimony. I have sent the Baba!"
Ivan paused with his glass halfway to his lips. "Beg pardon?"
"I've met a woman," said Alexi smugly. "In fact, I might say I have met the woman. For which I thank you, Ivan. I would never have known of her existence but for your little hint. By's seen her once -- she's suitable in every way to be Madame Vormoncrief, don't you think, By? Great connections -- she's Lord Auditor Vorthys's niece -- how did you find out about her, Ivan?"
"I… met her at my cousin Miles's. She's designing a garden for him." How did Alexi get so far, so fast?
"I didn't know Lord Vorkosigan had any interest in gardens. No accounting for taste. In any case, I managed to get her father's name and address through this casual conversation about family trees. South Continent. I had to buy a round-trip ticket for the Baba, but she's one of the most exclusive go-betweens -- not that there are many left -- in Vorbarr Sultana. Hire the best, I say."
"Madame Vorsoisson has accepted you?" said Ivan, stunned. I never intended it to go to this…
"Well, I assume she will. When the offer arrives. Almost no one uses the old formal system anymore. She'll take it as a romantic surprise, I hope. Bowl her right over." His smugness was tinged with anxiety, which he soothed with a large gulp of his beer. By Vorrutyer swallowed a sip of wine and whatever words he'd been about to utter.
"Think she'll accept?" Ivan said cautiously.
"A woman in her situation, why should she refuse? It will give her a household of her own again, which she must be used to, and how else can she get one? She's true Vor, she will surely appreciate the nicety. And it steals a march on Major Zamori."
She hadn't accepted yet. There was still hope. This wasn't celebration, this was nervous babbling seeking the sedation of drink. Sound idea -- Ivan took a long gulp. Wait… "Zamori? I didn't tell Zamori about the widow."
Ivan had selected Vormoncrief with care, as a plausible enough threat to put the wind up Miles without actually posing a real danger to his suit. For status, a mere no-lord Vor surely couldn't compete with a Count's heir and Imperial Auditor. Physically… hm. Maybe he hadn't thought enough about that one. Vormoncrief was a well-enough looking man. Once Madame Vorsoisson was outside of Miles's charismatic jamming-field, the comparison might be… rather painful. But Vormoncrief was a blockhead -- surely she couldn't pick him over… and how many married blockheads do you know? Somebody picked ‘em. It can't be that much of an impediment. But Zamori -- Zamori was a serious man, and no fool.
"Something I let slip, I fear." Vormoncrief shrugged. "No matter. He's not Vor. It gives me an edge with her family Zamori can't touch. She married Vor before, after all. And she must know a woman alone has no business raising a son. It'll be a financial stretch, but I think if I take a firm hand I can convince her to fire him off to a real Vor school soon after the knot is tied. Make a man of him, knock that little obnoxious streak right out of him before it becomes a habit."
They finished their beer; Ivan ordered the next round. Vormoncrief went off to find the head.
Ivan chewed on his knuckle, and stared at By.
"Problems, Ivan?" By inquired easily.
"My cousin Miles is courting Madame Vorsoisson. He told me to back off her under pain of his ingenuity."
By's brows twitched up. "Then watching him annihilate Vormoncrief should amuse you. Or would it be the other way around that would charm?"
"He's going to eviscerate me out my ass when he finds out I tipped Vormoncrief onto the widow. And Zamori, oh God."
By smiled briefly with one side of his mouth. "Now, now. I was there. Vormoncrief bored her to tears."
"Yes, but… maybe her situation isn't comfortable. Maybe she would take the first ticket out that was offered… wait, you? How did you come there?"
"Alexi… leaks. It's a habit of his."
"Didn't know you were wife-hunting."
"I'm not. Don't panic. Nor am I about to inflict a Baba -- good lord, what an anachronism -- on the poor woman. Though I may note that I did not bore her. She was even a little intrigued, I fancy. Not bad for a first reconnaissance. I may take Vormoncrief along on my future amorous starts, for flattering contrast." By glanced up, to be sure the object of their analysis was not on the way back, and leaned forward and lowered his voice to a more confidential tone. But he did not go on to carve the block further or more wittily. Instead he murmured, "You know, I think my cousin Lady Donna would be very glad of your support in her upcoming case. You could be of real use to her. You have the ear of a Lord Auditor -- short, but surprisingly convincing in his new role, I was impressed -- Lady Alys, Gregor himself. Important people."
"They're important. I'm not." Why the hell was By flattering him? He must want something -- badly.
"Would you be willing to meet with Lady Donna, when she returns?"
"Oh." Ivan blinked. "That, gladly. But…" He thought it though. "I'm not quite sure what she expects to accomplish. Even if she blocks Richars, the Countship can only go to one of his sons or younger brothers. Unless you're planning mass murder at the next family reunion, which is more exertion than I'd expect of you, I don't see how it delivers any benefit to you."
By smiled briefly. "I said I don't want the Countship. Meet with Donna. She will explain it all to you."
"Well... all right. Good luck to her, anyway."
By sat back. "Good."
Vormoncrief returned, to dither about his Vor mating ploys into his second beer. Ivan tried without success to change the subject. Byerly drifted off just before it was his turn to buy the next round. Ivan made excuses involving obscure Imperial duties, and escaped at last.
How to avoid Miles? He couldn't put in for transfer to some distant embassy till this damned wedding was over. That would be too late. Desertion was a possibility, he thought morosely -- maybe he could go off and join the Kshatryan Foreign Legion. No, with all Miles's galactic connections, there wasn't a cranny of the wormhole nexus, no matter how obscure, sure to be safe from his wrath. And ingenuity. Ivan would have to trust to luck, Vormoncrief's stultifying personality, and for Zamori -- kidnapping? Assassination? Maybe introduce him to more women? Ah, yes! Not to Lady Donna, though. That one, Ivan proposed to keep for himself.
Lady Donna. She was no pubescent prole. Any husband who dared to trumpet in her presence risked being sliced off at the knees. Elegant, sophisticated, assured… a woman who knew what she wanted, and how to ask for it. A woman of his own class, who understood the game. A little older, yes, but with lifespans extending so much these days, what of that? Look at the Betans; Miles's Betan grandmother, who must be ninety if she was a day, was reported to have a gentleman-friend of eighty. Why hadn't he thought of Donna earlier?
Donna. Donna, Donna, Donna. Mmm. This was one meeting he wouldn't miss for worlds.
* * *
"I set her to wait in the antechamber to the library, m'lord," Pym's familiar rumble came to Kareen's ears. "Would you like me to bring you anything, or ah, anything?"
"No. Thank you," came Lord Mark's lighter voice in reply from the front hall. "Nothing, that will be all, thank you."
Mark's footsteps echoed off the stone paving: three rapid strides, two skips, a slight hesitation, and a more measured footfall to the archway into the antechamber. Skips? Mark? Kareen bounced to her feet as he rounded the corner. Oh, my, surely it could not have been good for him to lose that much weight that quickly -- instead of the familiar excessively round solidity, he looked all saggy, except for his grin, and his blazing eyes --
"Ah! Stand right there!" he ordered her, seized a footstool, placed it before her knees, climbed up, and flung his arms around her. She wrapped her arms around him in turn, and the conversation was buried for a moment in frantic kisses given and received and returned redoubled.
He came up for air long enough to inquire, "How did you get here?" then didn't let her answer for another minute.
"Walked," she said breathlessly.
"Walked! It must be a kilometer and a half!"
She put her hands on his shoulders, and backed off far enough to focus her eyes on his face. He was too pale, she thought disapprovingly, almost pasty. Worse, his buried resemblance to Miles was edging toward the surface with his bones, an observation she knew would horrify him. She kept it to herself. "So? My father used to walk to work here every day in good weather, stick and all, when he was the Lord Regent's aide."
"If you'd called, I would have sent Pym with the car -- hell, better, I'd have come myself. Miles says I can use his lightflyer whenever I want."
"A lightflyer, for six blocks?" she cried indignantly, between a couple more kisses. "On a beautiful spring morning like this?"
"Well, they don't have slidewalks here… mmm…. Oh, that's good…" he nuzzled her ear, inhaled her tickling curls, and planted a spiral line of kisses from her earlobe to her collarbone. She hugged him tight. The kisses seemed to burn across her skin like little fiery footprints. "Missed you, missed you, missed you…"
"Missed you missed you missed you too." Though they could have traveled home together, if he hadn't insisted on his Escobaran detour.
"At least the walk made you all warm… you could come up to my room, and take off all those hot clothes... can Grunt come out to play, hmm…?"
"Here? In Vorkosigan House? With all the Armsmen
"Worse. It's full of parents. And sisters. Gossipy sisters."
"Rent a room?" he offered after a puzzled moment.
She shook her head, groping for an explanation of muddled feelings she hardly understood herself.
"We could borrow Miles's lightflyer…"
This brought an involuntary giggle to her lips. "There's really not enough room. Even if we both took your nasty meds."
"Yes, he can't have been thinking, when he purchased that thing. Better a huge aircar, with vast comfortable upholstered seats. That you can fold down. Like that armored groundcar he has, left over from the Regency -- hey! We could crawl in the back, mirror the canopy…"
Kareen shook her head, helplessly.
"Anywhere on Barrayar?"
"That's the trouble," she said. "Barrayar."
"In orbit…?" he pointed skyward in hope.
She laughed, painfully. "I don't know, I don't know…"
"Kareen, what's wrong?" He was looking very alarmed, now. "Is it something I've done? Something I said? What have I --- are you still mad about the drugs? I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'll stop them. I'll, I'll gain the weight back. Whatever you want."
"It's not that." She stepped back half a pace further, though neither let go of the other's hands. She cocked her head. "Though I don't understand why being a body narrower should make you suddenly look half a head shorter. What a bizarre optical illusion. Why should mass translate to height, psychologically? But no. It's not you. It's me."
He clutched her hands and stared in earnest dismay. "I don't understand."
"I've been thinking about it the whole ten days, waiting for you to get home here. About you, about us, about me. All week, I've been feeling stranger and stranger. On Beta Colony, it seemed so right, so logical. Open, official, approved. Here… I haven't been able to tell my parents about us. I tried to work up to it. I haven't even been able to tell my sisters. Maybe, if we'd come home together, I wouldn't have lost my nerve, but… but I did."
"Were… are you thinking about that Barrayaran folktale where the girl's lover ended up with his head in a pot of basil, when her relatives caught up with him?"
"Pot of basil? No!"
"I thought about it… I think your sisters could, y'know, if they teamed up. Hand me my head, I mean. And I know your mother could, she trained you all."
"How I wish Tante Cordelia were here!" Wait, that was perhaps an unfortunate remark, in the context. Pots of basil, good God. Mark was so paranoid… quite. Never mind. "I wasn't thinking of you, at all."
"Oh." His voice went rather flat.
"That's not what I mean! I was thinking of you day and night. Of us. But I've been so uncomfortable, since I got back. It's like I can just feel myself, folding back up into my old place in this Barrayaran culture-box. I can feel it, but I can't stop it. It's horrible."
"Protective coloration?" His tone suggested he could understand a desire for camouflage. His fingers noodled back along her collarbone, crept around her neck. One of his wonderful neck rubs would feel so good, just now… He'd worked so hard, to learn to touch and be touched, to overcome the panic and the flinching and the hyperventilation. He was breathing faster now.
"Something like that. But I hate secrets and lies."
"Can't you just… tell your family?"
"I tried. I just couldn't. Could you?"
He looked nonplused. "You want me to? It would be the basil for sure."
"No, no, I mean hypothetically."
"I could tell my mother."
"I could tell your mother. She's Betan. She's another world, the other world, the one where we were so right. It's my mother I can't talk to. And I always could, before." She found she was trembling, a little. Mark could feel it through her hands; she could tell by the stricken look in his eyes as he raised his face to hers.
"I don't understand how it can feel so right there, and so wrong here," Kareen said. "It should be not wrong here. Or not right there. Or something."
"That makes no sense. Here or there, what's the difference?"
"If there's no difference, why did you go to so much trouble to lose all that weight before you would set foot on Barrayar again?"
His mouth opened, and closed. He finally got out, "Well, so. It's only for a couple of months. I can take a couple of months."
"It gets worse. Oh, Mark! I can't go back to Beta Colony."
"What? Why not? We'd planned -- you'd planned -- is it that your parents suspect, about us? Have they forbidden you --"
"It's not that. At least, I don't think it is. It's just money. Or just no money. I couldn't have gone, last year, without the Countess's scholarship. Mama and Da say they're strapped, and I don't know how I can earn so much in just the few months." She bit her lip in renewed determination. "But I mean to think of something."
"But if you can't -- but I'm not done yet, on Beta Colony," he said plaintively. "I have another year of school, and another year of therapy."
Or more. "But you do mean to come back to Barrayar, after, don't you?"
"Yes, I think. But a whole year apart --" He gripped her tighter, as though looming parents were bearing down upon them to rip her from his grasp on the spot. "It would be… excessively stressful, without you," he mumbled in muffled understatement into her flesh.
After a moment, he took a deep breath, and peeled himself away from her. He kissed her hands. "There's no need to panic," he addressed her knuckles earnestly. "There's months to figure something out. Anything could happen." He looked up, and feigned a normal smile. "I'm glad you're here anyway. You have to come see my butter bugs." He hopped down from the footstool.
"Why does everyone seem to have so much trouble with that name? I thought it was simple enough. Butter bugs. And if I hadn't gone by Escobar, I would never have run across ‘em, so that much good has come of it all. Lilly Durona tipped me on to them, or rather, onto Enrique, who was in a spot of trouble. Great biochemist, no financial sense. I bailed him out of jail, and helped him rescue his experimental stocks from the idiot creditors who'd confiscated ‘em. You'd have laughed, to watch us blundering around in that raid on his lab. Come on, come see."
As he towed her by the hand through the great house, Kareen asked dubiously, "Raid? On Escobar?"
"Maybe raid is the wrong word. It was entirely peaceful, miraculously enough. Burglary, perhaps. I actually got to dust off some of my old training, believe it or not."
"It doesn't sound very… legal."
"No, but it was moral. They were Enrique's bugs -- he'd made ‘em, after all. And he loves them like pets. He cried when one of his favorite queens died. It was very affecting, in a bizarre sort of way. If I hadn't been wanting to strangle him at just that moment, I'd have been very moved."
Kareen was just starting to wonder if those cursed weight-loss meds had any psychological side-effects Mark hadn't seen fit to confide to her, when they arrived at what she recognized as one of Vorkosigan House's basement laundry rooms. She hadn't been back in this part of the house since she'd played hide-and-seek here with her sisters as children. The windows high in the stone walls let in a few strips of sunlight. A lanky fellow with crisp dark hair, who looked no older than his early twenties at the outside, was puttering distractedly about among piles of half-unpacked boxes.
"Mark," he greeted them. "I must have more shelving. And benches. And lighting. And more heat. The girls are sluggish. You promised."
"Check the attics first, before you go running out to buy stuff new," Kareen suggested practically.
"Oh, good idea. Kareen, this is Dr. Enrique Borgos, from Escobar. Enrique, this is my… my friend, Kareen Koudelka. My best friend." Mark held tightly and possessively to her hand as he announced this. But Enrique merely nodded vaguely at her.
Mark turned to a broad covered metal tray, balanced precariously on a crate. "Don't look yet," he said over his shoulder to her.
A memory of life with her older sisters whispered through Kareen's mind -- Open your mouth and close your eyes, and you will get a big surprise… Prudently, she ignored his directive and advanced to see what he was doing.
He lifted the tray's cover to reveal a writhing mass of brown and white shapes, chittering faintly and crawling over one another. Her startled eye sorted out the details -- insectoid, big, lots of legs and waving feelers --
Mark plunged his hand in amongst the heaving masses, and she blurted, "Eck!"
"It's all right. They don't bite or sting," he assured her with a grin. "Here, see? Kareen, meet butter bug. Bug, Kareen."
He held out a single bug, the size of her thumb, in his palm.
Does he really want me to touch that thing? Well, she'd got through Betan sex education, after all. What the hell. Torn between curiosity and revulsion, she held out her hand, and Mark tipped the bug into it.
Its little clawed feet tickled her skin, and she laughed nervously. It was quite the most incredibly ugly live thing she'd ever seen in her life. Though she had perhaps dissected nastier items in her Betan xenozoology course last year; nothing looked its best after pickling. The bugs didn't smell too bad, just sort of green, like mown hay. It was the scientist who needed to wash his shirt.
Mark embarked on an explanation of how the bugs reprocessed organic matter in their really disgusting-looking abdomens, complicated by pedantic technical corrections about the biochemical details from his new friend Enrique. It all made sense biologically, as far as Kareen could tell.
Enrique pulled a single petal from a pink rose which lay piled with half a dozen others in box. The box, also balanced on a stack of crates, bore the mark of one of Vorbarr Sultana's premier florists. He set the petal in her palm next to the bug; the bug clutched it in its front claws, and began nibbling off the tender edge. He smiled fondly at the creature. "Oh, and Mark," he added, "the girls need more food as soon as possible. I got these this morning, but they won't last the day." He waved at the florist's box.
Mark, who had been anxiously watching Kareen contemplate the bug in her hand, seemed to notice the roses for the first time. "Where did you get the flowers? Wait, you bought roses for bug fodder?"
"I asked your brother how to get some Earth-descended botanical matter that the girls would like. He said, call there and order it. Who is Ivan? But it was terribly expensive. We're going to have to re-think the budget, I'm afraid."
Mark smiled thinly, and seemed to count to five before answering. "I see. A slight mis-communication, I fear. Ivan is our cousin. You will doubtless not be able to avoid meeting him sooner or later. There is Earth-descended botanical matter available much more cheaply. I believe you can collect some outside -- no, maybe I'd better not send you out alone…" He stared at Enrique with an expression of deeply mixed emotion, rather the way Kareen stared at the butter bug in her palm. It was about halfway through munching down the rose petal now.
"Oh, and I must have a lab assistant as soon as possible," Enrique added, "if I am to plunge unimpeded into my new studies. And access to whatever the natives here may know about their local biochemistry. Mustn't waste precious time re-inventing the wheel, you know."
"I believe my brother has some contacts at Vorbarr Sultana University. And at the Imperial Science Institute. I'm sure he could get you access to anything that isn't security-related." Mark chewed gently on his lip, his brows drawn down in a momentarily downright Milesian expression of furious thought. "Kareen… didn't you say you were looking for a job?"
"Would you like a job as an assistant? You had those couple of Betan biology courses last year --"
"Betan training?" Enrique perked up. "Someone with Betan training, in this benighted place?"
"Only a couple of undergraduate courses," Kareen explained hastily. "And there are lots of folks on Barrayar with galactic training of all sorts." What does he think this is, the Time of Isolation?
"It's a start," said Enrique, in a tone of judicious approval. "But I was going to ask, Mark, do we have enough money to hire anyone yet?"
"Mm," said Mark.
"You, out of money?" said Kareen to Mark, startled. "What did you do on Escobar?"
"I'm not out. It's just tied up in a lot of non-liquid ways right now, and I spent quite a bit more than I'd budgeted -- it's only a temporary cash-flow problem. I'll get it sorted out at the end of the next period. But I have to confess, I was really glad I could put Enrique and his project up here free for a little while."
"We could sell shares again," Enrique suggested. "That's what I did before," he added in an aside to Kareen.
Mark winced. "I think not. I know I explained to you about closely-held."
"People do raise venture capital that way," Kareen observed.
Mark informed her under his breath, "But they don't normally sell shares to five-hundred-and-eighty percent of their company."
"I was going to pay them all back," Enrique protested indignantly. "I was so close to break-through, I couldn't stop then!"
"Um… excuse us a moment, Enrique." Mark took Kareen by her free hand, led her into the corridor outside the laundry room, and shut the door firmly. He turned to her. "He doesn't need an assistant. He needs a mother. Oh, God, Kareen, you have no idea what a boon it would be if you could help me ride herd on the man. I could give you the credit chits with a quiet mind, and you could keep the records and dole out his pocket-money, and keep him out of dark alleys and not let him pick the Emperor's flowers or talk back to ImpSec guards or whatever suicidal thing he comes up with next. The thing is, um…" he hesitated. "Would you be willing to take shares as collateral against your salary, at least till the end of the period? Doesn't give you much spending-money, I know, but you said you meant to save…"
She stared dubiously at the butter bug, still tickling her palm as it finished off the last of its rose-petal. "Can you really give me shares? Shares of what? But… if this doesn't work out as you hope, I wouldn't have anything else to fall back on."
"It will work," he promised urgently. "I'll make it work. I own fifty-one percent of the enterprise. I'm having Tsipis help me officially register us as a research and development company, out of Hassadar."
She would be betting their future together on Mark's odd foray into bio-entrepreneurship, and she wasn't even sure he was in his right mind. "What, ah, does your Black Gang think of all this?"
"It's not their department in any way."
Well, that was reassuring. This was apparently the work of his dominant personality, Lord Mark, serving the whole man, and not a ploy of one of his sub-personas for its own narrow ends. "Do you really think Enrique is that much of a genius? Mark, I thought that smell back in the lab was the bugs at first, but it was him. When was his last bath?"
"He probably forgot to take one. Feel free to remind him. He won't be offended. In fact, think of it as part of your job. Make him wash and eat, take charge of his credit chit, organize the lab, make him look both ways before crossing the street. And it would give you an excuse to hang out here at Vorkosigan House."
Put like that… besides, Mark was giving her that pleading-puppy-eyes look… in his own strange way Mark was almost as good as Miles at drawing one into doing things one suspected one would later regret deeply. Infectious obsession, a Vorkosigan family trait.
"Well…" A little chittering burp made her look down. "Oh, no, Mark! Your bug is sick." Several milliliters of thick white liquid dripped from the bug's mandibles onto her palm.
"What?" Mark surged forward in alarm. "How can you tell?"
"It's throwing up. Ick! Could it be jump-lag? That makes some people nauseous for days." She looked around frantically for a place to deposit the creature before it exploded or something. Would bug diarrhea be next?
"Oh. No, that's all right. They're supposed to do that. It's just producing its bug butter. Good girl," he crooned to the bug. At least, Kareen trusted he was addressing the bug.
Firmly, Kareen took his hand, turned it palm-up, and dumped the now-slimy bug into it. She wiped her hand on his shirt. "Your bug. You hold it."
"Our bugs…?" he suggested, though he accepted it without demur. "Please…?"
The goop didn't smell bad, actually. In fact, it had a scent rather like roses, roses and ice cream. She nevertheless found the impulse to lick the stickiness off her hand to be quite resistible. Mark…was less so. "Oh, very well." I don't know how he talks me into things like this. "It's a deal."