Copyright © 1999
Armsman Pym admitted Ekaterin to the grand front hall of
Vorkosigan House. Belatedly, she wondered if she ought to be using the
utility entrance, but in his tour of a couple of weeks ago Vorkosigan hadn't
shown her where it was. Pym was smiling at her in his usual very friendly
way, so perhaps it was all right for the moment.
"Madame Vorsoisson. Welcome, welcome. How may I serve you?"
"I had a question for Lord Vorkosigan. It's rather trivial, but I thought, if he was right here, and not busy…" she trailed off.
"I believe he's still upstairs, Madame. If you would be pleased to wait in the library, I'll fetch him at once."
"I can find my way, thank you," she fended off his proffered escort. "Oh, wait -- if he's still asleep, please don't --" But Pym was already ascending the stairs.
She shook her head, and wandered through the antechamber to the left toward the library. Vorkosigan's Armsmen seemed impressively enthusiastic, energetic, and attached to their lord, she had to concede. And astonishingly cordial to visitors.
She wondered if the library harbored any of those wonderful old hand-painted herbals from the Time of Isolation, and whether she might borrow -- she came to a halt. The chamber had an occupant: a short, fat, dark-haired young man who crouched at the comconsole which sat so incongruously among the fabulous antiques. It was displaying a collection of colored graphs of some kind. He glanced up at the sound of her step on the parquet.
Ekaterin's eyes widened. At my height, Lord Vorkosigan had complained, the effect is damned startling. But it wasn't the soft obesity that startled nearly so much as the resemblance to, what did they call it for a clone, to his progenitor, which was half-buried beneath the…why did she instantly think of it as a barrier of flesh? His eyes were the same intense gray as Miles's -- as Lord Vorkosigan's, but their expression was closed and wary. He wore black trousers and a black shirt; his belly burgeoned from an open backcountry-style vest which conceded the spring weather outside only by being a green so dark as to be almost black.
"Oh. You must be Lord Mark. I'm sorry," she spoke to that wariness.
He sat back, his finger touching his lips in a gesture very like one of Lord Vorkosigan's, but then going on to trace his doubled chin, pinching it between thumb and finger in an emphatic variation clearly all his own. "I, on the other hand, am tolerably pleased."
Ekaterin flushed in confusion. "I didn't mean -- I didn't mean to intrude."
His eyebrows flicked up. "You have the advantage of me, milady." The timbre of his voice was very like his brother's, perhaps a trifle deeper; his accent was an odd amalgam, neither wholly Barrayaran nor wholly galactic.
"Not milady, merely Madame. Ekaterin Vorsoisson. Excuse me. I'm, um, your brother's landscape consultant. I just came in to check what he wants done with the maple tree we're taking down. Compost, firewood --" she gestured at the cold carved white marble fireplace. "Or if he just wants me to sell the chippings to the arbor service."
"Maple tree, ah. That would be Earth-descended botanical matter, wouldn't it?"
"I'll take any chopped-up bits he doesn't want."
"Where… would you want it put?"
"In the garage, I suppose. That would be handy."
She pictured the heap dumped in the middle of Pym's immaculate garage. "It's a rather large tree."
"Do you garden… Lord Mark?"
"Not at all."
The decidedly disjointed conversation was interrupted by a booted tread, and Armsman Pym leaning around the doorframe to announce, "M'lord will be down in a few minutes, Madame Vorsoisson. He says, please don't go away." He added in a more confiding tone, "He had one of his seizures last night, so he's a little slow this morning."
"Oh, dear. And they give him such a headache. I shouldn't trouble him till he's had his painkillers and black coffee." She turned for the door.
"No, no! Sit down, Madame, sit, please. M'lord would be right upset with me if I botched his orders." Pym, smiling anxiously, motioned her urgently toward a chair; reluctantly, she sat. "There now. Good. Don't move." He watched her a moment as if to make sure she wasn't going to bolt, then hurried off again. Lord Mark stared after him.
She hadn't thought Lord Vorkosigan was the sort of Old Vor who threw his boots at his servants' heads when he was displeased, but Pym did seem edgy, so who knew? She looked around again to find Lord Mark leaning back in his chair, steepling his fingers and watching her curiously.
"Seizures…?" he said invitingly.
She stared back at him, not at all sure what he was asking. "They leave him with the most dreadful hangover the next day, you see."
"I'd understood they were practically cured. Is this not, in fact, the case?"
"Cured? Not if the one I witnessed was a sample. Controlled, he says."
His eyes narrowed. "So, ah… where did you see this show?"
"The seizure? It was on my living room floor, actually. In my old apartment on Komarr," she felt compelled to explain at his look. "I met him during his recent Auditorial case there."
"Oh." His gaze flicked up and down, taking in her widow's garb. Construing… what?
"He has this little headset device his doctors made for him, which is supposed to trigger them when he chooses, instead of randomly." She wondered if the one he'd had last night was medically induced, or if he'd left it for too long again and suffered the more severe, spontaneous version. He'd claimed to have learned his lesson, but --
"He neglected to supply me with all those complicating details, for some reason," Lord Mark murmured. An oddly un-humorous grin flashed over his face, and was gone. "Did he explain to you how he came by them in the first place?"
His attention upon her had grown intent. She groped for the right balance between truth and discretion. "Cryo-revival damage, he told me. I once saw the scars on his chest from the needle grenade. He's lucky he's alive."
"Huh. Did he also mention that at the time he encountered the grenade, he was trying to save my sorry ass?"
"No…" she hesitated, taking in his defiantly lifted chin. "I don't think he's supposed to talk much about his, his former career."
He smiled thinly, and drummed his fingers on the comconsole. "My brother has this bad little habit of editing his version of reality to fit his audience, y'see."
She could understand why Lord Vorkosigan was loath to display any weakness. But was Lord Mark angry about something? Why? She sought to find some more neutral topic. "Do you call him your brother, then, and not your progenitor?"
"Depends on my mood."
The subject of their discussion arrived then, curtailing the conversation. Lord Vorkosigan wore one of his fine gray suits and polished half-boots, his hair was neatly combed but still damp, and the faint scent of his cologne carried from his shower-warmed skin. This dapper impression of greet-the-morning energy was unfortunately belied by his gray-toned face and puffy eyes; the general effect was of a corpse re-animated and dressed for a party. He managed a macabre smile in Ekaterin's direction, and a suspicious squint at his clone-brother, and lowered himself stiffly into an armchair between them. "Uh," he observed.
He looked appallingly just like that morning-after on Komarr, minus the bloodstains and scabs. "Lord Vorkosigan, you should not have gotten up!" He gave her a little wave of his fingers which might have been either agreement or denial, then Pym arrived in his wake bearing a tray with coffeepot, cups, and a basket covered with a bright cloth from which wafted an enticing aroma of warm spiced bread. Ekaterin watched with fascination as Pym poured out the first cup and folded his lord's hand around it; Lord Vorkosigan sipped, inhaled -- it looked like his first breath of the day -- sipped again, and looked up and blinked. "Good morning, Madame Vorsoisson." His voice only sounded a little under-water.
"Good morning -- oh --" Pym poured her a cup too before she could forestall him. Lord Mark shut off his comconsole graphs and added sugar and cream to his, and studied his progenitor-brother with obvious interest. "Thank you," Ekaterin said to Pym. She hoped Vorkosigan had ingested his painkillers upstairs, first thing; by his rapidly-improving color and easing movement, she was fairly sure he had.
"You're up early," Vorkosigan said to her.
She almost pointed out the time, in denial of this, then decided that might be impolitic. "I was excited to be starting my first professional garden. The sod crew are out rolling up the grass in the park this morning, and collecting the terraformed topsoil. The tree crew will be along shortly to transplant the oak. It occurred to me to ask if you wanted the maple for firewood, or compost."
"Firewood. Sure. We burn wood now and then, when we're being deliberately archaic for show -- it impresses the hell out of my mother's Betan visitors -- and there're always the Winterfair bonfires. There's a pile out back behind some bushes. Pym can show you."
Pym nodded genial confirmation.
"I've laid claim to the leaves and chippings," Lord Mark put in, "for Enrique."
Lord Vorkosigan shrugged, and held a hand palm-out in a warding gesture. "That's between you and your eight thousand little friends."
Lord Mark appeared to find no mystery in this obscure remark; he nodded thanks. Having, apparently, accidentally routed her employer out of bed, Ekaterin wondered if it would be too rude to dash out again immediately. She ought probably to stay long enough to drink at least one cup of Pym's coffee. "If all goes well, the excavation can start tomorrow," she added.
"Ah, good. Did Tsipis put you in the way of collecting all your water and power connection permits?"
"Yes, that's all under control. And I've learned more than I expected about Vorbarr Sultana's infrastructure."
"It's a lot older and stranger than you'd think. You should hear Drou Koudelka's war stories some time, about how they escaped through the sewers after collecting the Pretender's head. I'll see if I can get her going at the dinner party."
Lord Mark leaned his elbow on the comconsole, nibbled gently on his knuckle, and idly rubbed his throat.
"A week from tomorrow night seems to be the date I can round up everyone," Lord Vorkosigan added. "Will that work for you?"
"Yes, I think so."
"Good." He shifted around, and Pym hastened to pour him more coffee. "I'm sorry I missed the garden groundbreaking. I really meant to come out and watch that with you. Gregor sent me out-country a couple of days ago on what turned out to be a fairly bizarre errand, and I didn't get back till late last night."
"Yes, what was that all about?" Lord Mark put in. "Or is it an Imperial secret?"
"No, unfortunately. In fact, it's already gossip all over town. Maybe it will divert attention from the Vorbretten case. Though I'm not sure if you can call it a sex scandal, exactly." A tilted grimace. "Gregor told me, ‘You're half-Betan, Miles, you're just the Auditor to handle this one.' I said, ‘Thanks, Sire.'"
He paused for his first bite of sweet spiced bread, washed down with another swallow of coffee, and warmed to his theme. "Count Vormuir came up with this wonderful idea how to solve his District's under-population problem. Or so he imagined. Are you up on the latest hot demographic squabbles among the Districts, Mark?"
Lord Mark waved a negating hand, and reached for the bread basket. "I haven't been following Barrayaran politics for the past year."
"This one goes back further than that. Among our father's early reforms, when he was Regent, was that he managed to impose uniform simplified rules for ordinary subjects who wanted to change Districts, and switch their oaths to their new District Count. Since every one of the sixty Counts was trying to attract population to his District at the expense of his brother Counts, Da somehow greased this through the Council, even though everyone was also trying to prevent their own liege people from leaving them. Now, each Count has a lot of discretion, about how he runs his District, how he structures his District government, how he imposes his taxes, supports his economy, what services he provides his people, whether Progressive or Conservative or a party of his own invention like that loon Vorfolse down on the south coast, and on and on. Mother describes the Districts as sixty socio-political culture dishes. I'd add, economic, too."
"That part, I've been studying," Lord Mark allowed. "It matters to where I place my investments."
Vorkosigan nodded. "Effectively, the new law gave every Imperial subject the right to vote local government with their feet. Our parents drank champagne with dinner the night the vote slipped through, and Mother grinned for days. I must have been about six, because we were living here by then, I remember. The long-term effect, as you can imagine, has been a downright biological competition. Count Vorenlightened makes it good for his people, his District grows, his revenues increase. His neighbor Count Vorstodgy makes it too tough, and he leaks people like a sieve, and his revenues drop. And he gets no sympathy from his brother Counts, because his loss is their gain."
"Ah, ha," said Mark. "And is the Vorkosigan's District winning or losing?"
"We're just treading water, I think. We've been losing people to the Vorbarr Sultana economy since forever. And a hell of a lot of loyalists followed the Viceroy to Sergyar last year. On the other hand, the District University and new colleges and medical complexes in Hassadar have been a big draw. Anyway, Count Vormuir has been a long-time loser in this demographic game. So, he implemented what he fondly imagined to be a wildly Progressive personal -- I might say, very personal -- solution."
Ekaterin's cup was empty, but she'd lost all desire to leave. She could listen to Lord Vorkosigan by the hour, she thought, when he was on like this. He was entirely awake and alive now, engrossed in his story.
"Vormuir," Vorkosigan went on, "bought himself thirty uterine replicators and imported some techs to run them, and started, ah, manufacturing his own liege people. His own personal crèche, as it were, but with only one sperm donor. Guess who."
"Vormuir?" Mark hazarded.
"None other. It's the same principle as a harem, I guess. Only different. Oh, and he's only making little girls, at present. The first batch of them are almost two years old. I saw them. Appallingly cute, en mass."
Ekaterin's eyes widened at this vision of a whole thundering cadre of little girls. The impact must be something like a child-garden -- or, depending on the decibel level, a girl-grenade. I always wanted daughters. Not just one, lots -- sisters, the like of which she had never had. Too late now. None for her, dozens for Vormuir -- the pig, it wasn't fair! She was bemusedly aware that she ought to be feeling outrage, but what she really felt was outraged envy. What had Vormuir's wife -- wait. Her brows lowered. "Where is he getting the eggs? His Countess?"
"That's the next little legal wrinkle in this mess," Vorkosigan went on enthusiastically. "His Countess, who has four half-grown children of her -- and his -- own, wants nothing to do with this. In fact, she isn't talking to him, and has moved out. One of his Armsmen told Pym, very privately, that the last time he attempted to impose a, um, conjugal visit upon her, and threatened to batter down her door, she dumped a bucket of water out the window on him -- this was mid-winter -- and then threatened to personally warm him with her plasma arc. And then threw down the bucket and screamed at him that if he was that much in love with plastic tubes, he could use that one. Do I have that right, Pym?"
"Not the precise quote I was given, but close enough, m'lord."
"Did she hit him?" Mark asked, sounding quite interested.
"Yes," said Pym, "both times. I understand her aim is superior."
"I suppose that made the plasma arc threat convincing."
"Speaking professionally, when one is standing next to the target, an assailant with bad aim is actually more alarming. Nevertheless, the Count's Armsmen persuaded him to come away."
"But we digress." Vorkosigan grinned. "Ah, thank you, Pym." The attentive Armsman, blandly, poured his lord more coffee, and refilled Mark's and Ekaterin's cups.
Vorkosigan went on, "There is a commercial replicator crèche in Vormuir's District capital, which has been growing babies for the well-to-do for several years now. When a couple present themselves for this service, the techs routinely harvest more than one egg from the wife, that being the more complex and expensive part of the proceedings. The back-up eggs are kept frozen for a certain length of time, and if not claimed by then, are discarded. Or they are supposed to be. Count Vormuir hit upon a clever economy. He had his techs collect all the viable discards. He was very proud of this angle, when he was explaining it all to me."
Now that was appalling. Nikki had been, to her cost, a body-birth, but it might well have been different. If Tien had had sense, or if she'd stood up for simple prudence instead of letting herself be seduced by the romantic drama of it all, they might have chosen a replicator-gestation. Imagine learning that her longed-for daughter was now the property of an eccentric like Vormuir… "Do any of the women know?" asked Ekaterin. "The ones whose egg cells were… can you call it stolen?"
"Ah, not at first. Rumors, however, had begun to leak out, hence the Emperor was moved to dispatch his newest Imperial Auditor to investigate." He bowed at her, sitting. "As for whether it can be called theft -- Vormuir claims to have violated no Barrayaran law whatsoever. He claims it quite smugly. I shall be consulting with several of Gregor's Imperial lawyers over the next few days, and trying to figure out if that is in fact true. On Beta Colony, they could hang him out to dry for this, and his techs with him, but of course on Beta Colony, he'd never have got this far."
Lord Mark shifted in his station chair. "So how many little girls does Vormuir have by now?"
"Eight-eight live births, plus thirty more coming along in the replicators. Plus his first four. A hundred and twenty-two children for that idiot, not one for -- anyway, I gave him an order in the Emperor's Voice to start no more until Gregor had ruled on his ingenious scheme. He was inclined to protest, but I pointed out that since all his replicators were full anyway, and would be for the next seven or so months, he wasn't really much discommoded by this. He shut up, and went off to consult with his lawyers. And I flew back to Vorbarr Sultana and gave Gregor my verbal report, and went home to bed."
He'd left out confession of his seizure in this description, Ekaterin noted. What was Pym about, to have so pointedly mentioned it?
"There ought to be a law," Lord Mark said.
"There ought to be," his brother replied, "but there isn't. This is Barrayar. Lifting the Betan legal model wholesale strikes me as a recipe for revolution, and besides, a lot of their particular conditions don't apply here. There are a dozen galactic codes which address these issues in addition to the Betan. I left Gregor last night muttering about appointing a select committee to study them all and recommend a Joint Council ruling. And me on it, for my sins. I hate committees. I much prefer a nice clean chain of command."
"Only if you're at the top of it," Lord Mark observed dryly.
Lord Vorkosigan conceded this with a sardonic wave. "Well, yes."
Ekaterin asked, "But will you be able to corner Vormuir with a new law? Surely his situation would have to be, um… grandfathered."
Lord Vorkosigan grinned briefly. "Exactly the problem. We've got to nail Vormuir under some existing rule, bent to fit, to discourage imitators, while shoving the new law, in whatever form it finally takes, through the Counts and Ministers. We can't use a rape charge; I looked up all the technical definitions, and they just don't stretch that way."
Lord Mark asked, in a worried voice, "Did the little girls seem abused or neglected?"
Lord Vorkosigan glanced up at him rather sharply. "I'm not the expert on crèche care you are, but they seemed all right to me. Healthy… noisy… they screeched and giggled a lot. Vormuir told me he had two full-time nurturers for every six children, in shifts. He also went on about his frugal plans for having the older ones care for the younger ones, later on, which gave an unsettling hint of just how far he's thinking of expanding this genetic enterprise. Oh, and we can't get him for slavery, either, because they all really are actually his daughters. And the theft-of-the-eggs angle is extremely ambiguous under current rules." In a peculiarly exasperated tone he added, "Barrayarans!" His clone-brother gave him an odd look.
Ekaterin said slowly, "In Barrayaran customary law, when Vor-caste families split because of death or other reasons, the girls are supposed to go to their mothers or mother's kin, and the boys to their fathers. Don't these girls belong to their mothers?"
"I looked at that one, too. Leaving aside the fact that Vormuir isn't married to any of them, I suspect very few of the mothers would actually want the girls, and all of them would be pretty upset."
Ekaterin wasn't altogether sure about the first part of this, but he certainly had the second dead-to-rights.
"And if we forced them into their mothers' families, what punishment would there be in it to Vormuir? His District would still be richer by a hundred and eighteen girls, and he wouldn't even have to feed them." He set aside his half-eaten piece of spice bread, and frowned. Lord Mark selected a second, no, third slice, and nibbled on it. A glum silence fell.
Ekaterin's brows drew down in thought. "By your account, Vormuir is much taken with economies, of scale and otherwise." Only long after Nikki's birth had she wondered if Tien had pushed for the old-fashioned way because it had seemed much cheaper. We won't have to wait until we can afford it had been a potent argument, in her eager ears. Vormuir's motivation seemed as much economic as genetic: ultimately, wealth for his District and therefore for him. This techno-harem was intended to become future taxpayers, along with the husbands he no doubt assumed they would draw in, to support him in his old age. "In effect, the girls are the Count's acknowledged bastards. I'm sure I read somewhere… in the Time of Isolation, weren't Imperial and count-palatine female bastards entitled to a dowry, from their high-born father? And it required some sort of Imperial permission… the dowry almost was the sign of legal acknowledgment. I'll bet the Professora would know all the historical details, including the cases where the dowries had to be dragged out by force. Isn't an Imperial permission effectively an Imperial order? Couldn't Emperor Gregor set Count Vormuir's dowries for the girls…high?"
"Oh." Lord Vorkosigan sat back, his eyes widening with delight. "Ah." An evil grin leaked between his lips. "Arbitrarily high, in fact. Oh… my." He looked across at her. "Madame Vorsoisson, I believe you have hit on a possible solution. I will certainly pass the idea along as soon as I may."
Her heart lifted in response to his obvious pleasure -- well, all right, actually it was a sort of razor-edged glee; anyway, he smiled at her smile at his smile. She could only hope she'd done some little bit to ease his morning-after headache. A chiming clock began sounding in the antechamber. Ekaterin glanced at her chrono. Wait, how could it possibly be this late? "Oh, my word, the time. My tree crew will be here any moment. Lord Vorkosigan, I must excuse myself."
She jumped to her feet, and made polite farewells to Lord Mark. Both Pym and Lord Vorkosigan escorted her personally to the front door. Vorkosigan was still very stiff; she wondered how much pain his forced motion denied, or defied. He encouraged her to stop in again, any time she had the least question, or needed anything at all, and dispatched Pym to show her where to have the crew stack the maple wood, and stood in the doorway and watched them both till they turned the corner of the great house.
Ekaterin glanced back over her shoulder. "He didn't look very well this morning, Pym. You really shouldn't have let him get out of bed."
"Oh, I know it, ma'am," Pym agreed morosely. "But what's a mere Armsman to do? I haven't the authority to countermand his orders. What he really needs, is looking after by someone who won't stand his nonsense. A proper Lady Vorkosigan would do the trick. Not one of those shy, simpering ingenues all the young lords seem to be looking to these days, he'd just ride right over her. He needs a woman of experience, to stand up to him." He smiled apologetically down at her.
"I suppose so," sighed Ekaterin. She hadn't really thought about the Vor mating scene from the Armsmen's point of view. Was Pym hinting that his lord had such an ingenue in his eye, and his staff was worried it was some sort of mis-match?
Pym showed her the wood cache, and made a sensible suggestion for placing Lord Mark's compost heap near it rather than in the underground garage, assuring her it would be just fine there. Ekaterin thanked him and headed back toward the front gates.
Ingenues. Well, if a Vor wanted to marry within his caste, he almost had to look to the younger cohort, these days. Vorkosigan did not strike her as a man who would be happy with a woman who was not up to his intellectual weight, but how much choice did he have? Presumably any woman with brains enough to be interesting to him in the first place would not be so foolish as to reject him for his physical… it was no business of hers, she told herself firmly. And it was absurd to allow the vision of this imaginary ingenue, offering him an imaginary devastating insult about his disabilities, to raise one's real blood pressure. Completely absurd. She marched off to oversee the dismantling of the bad tree.
* * *
Mark was just reaching to reactivate the comconsole when Miles wandered back into the library, smiling absently. Mark turned to watch his progenitor-brother start to fling himself back into his armchair, only to hesitate, and lower himself more carefully. Miles stretched his shoulders as if to loosen knotted muscles, leaned back, and stuck his feet out. He picked up his half-eaten piece of bread, remarked cheerfully, "That went well, don't you think?" and bit into it.
Mark eyed him doubtfully. "What went well?"
"The co'versation." Miles chased his bite with the last of his cold coffee. "So, you've met Ekaterin. Good. What did you two find to talk about, before I got downstairs?"
"Ah?" Miles's face lit, and he sat up a little straighter. "What did she say about me?"
"We mainly discussed your seizures," Mark said grimly. "She seemed to know a great deal more about them than you had seen fit to confide to me."
Miles subsided, frowning. "Hm. That's not the aspect of me I'm really anxious to have her dwell on. Still, it's good she knows. I wouldn't want to be tempted to conceal a problem of that magnitude again. I've learned my lesson."
"Oh, really." Mark glowered at him.
"I sent you the basic facts," his brother protested in response to this look. "You didn't need to dwell on all the gory medical details. You were on Beta Colony; there was nothing you could do about it anyway."
"They're my fault."
"Rubbish." Miles really did do a very good offended snort; Mark decided it was a touch of his -- their -- Aunt Vorpatril in it that gave it that nice upper-class edge. Miles waved a dismissive hand. "It was the sniper's doing, followed by more medical random factors than I can calculate. Done's done; I'm alive again, and I mean to stay that way this time."
Mark sighed, realizing reluctantly that if he wanted to wallow in guilt, he'd get no cooperation from his big brother. Who, it appeared, had other things on his mind.
"So what did you think of her?" Miles asked anxiously.
"Ekaterin, who else?"
"As a landscape designer? I'd have to see her work."
"No, no, no! Not as a landscape designer, though she's good at that too. As the next Lady Vorkosigan."
Mark blinked. "What?"
"What do you mean, what? She's beautiful, she's smart -- dowries, ye gods, how perfect, Vormuir will split -- she's incredibly level-headed in emergencies. Calm, y'know? a lovely calm. I adore her calm. I could swim in it. Guts and wit, in one package."
"I wasn't questioning her fitness. That was a merely a random noise of surprise."
"She's Lord Auditor Vorthys's niece. She has a son, Nikki, almost ten. Cute kid. Wants to be a jump-pilot, and I think he has the determination to make it. Ekaterin wants to be a garden designer, but I think she could go on to be a terraformer. She's a little too quiet, sometimes -- she needs to build up her self-confidence."
"Perhaps she was just waiting to get a word in edgewise," Mark suggested.
Miles paused, stricken -- briefly -- by doubt. "Do you think I talked too much, just now?"
Mark waved his fingers in a little perish-the-thought gesture, and poked through the bread basket for any lurking spice bread crumbs. Miles stared at the ceiling, stretched his legs, and counter-rotated his feet.
Mark thought back over the woman he had just seen here. Pretty enough, in that elegant brainy-brunette style Miles liked. Calm? Perhaps. Guarded, certainly. Not very expressive. Round blondes were much sexier. Kareen was wonderfully expressive; she'd even managed to rub some of those human skills off on him, he thought in his more optimistic moments. Miles was plenty expressive too, in his own unreliable way. Half of it was horseshit, but you were never sure which half.
Kareen, Kareen, Kareen. He must not take her attack of nerves as a rejection of him. She's met someone she likes better, and is dumping us, whispered someone from the Black Gang in the back of his head, and it wasn't the lustful Grunt. I know a few ways to get rid of excess fellows like that. They'd never even find the body. Mark ignored the vile suggestion. You have no place in this, Killer.
Even if she had met someone else, say, on the way home, all lonely by herself because he'd insisted on taking that other route, she had the compulsive honesty to tell him so if it were so. Her honesty was at the root of their present contretemps. She was constitutionally incapable of walking around pretending to be a chaste Barrayaran maiden unless she was. It was her unconscious solution to the cognitive dissonance of having one foot planted on Barrayar, the other on Beta Colony.
All Mark knew was that if it came down to a choice between Kareen and oxygen, he'd prefer to give up oxygen, thanks. Mark considered, briefly, laying his sexual frustrations open to his brother for advice. Now would be the perfect opportunity, trading on Miles's newly-revealed infatuation. Trouble was, Mark was by no means sure which side Miles would be on. Commodore Koudelka had been Miles's mentor and friend, back when Miles had been a fragile youth hopelessly wild for a military career. Would Miles be sympathetic, or would he lead, Barrayaran-style, the posse seeking Mark's head? Miles was being terrifically Vorish these days.
Yes, and so after all his exotic galactic romances, Miles had finally settled on the Vor next door. If settled was the term -- the man mouthed certainties that the twitching of his body belied. Mark's brow wrinkled in puzzlement. "Does Madame Vorsoisson know this?" he asked at last.
"That you're, um…hustling her for the next Lady Vorkosigan." And what an odd way to say, I love her, and I want to marry her. It was very Miles, though.
"Ah." Miles touched his lips. "That's the tricky part. She's very recently widowed. Tien Vorsoisson was killed rather horribly less than two months ago, on Komarr."
"And you had what, to do with this?"
Miles grimaced. "Can't give you the details, they're classified. The public explanation is a breath-mask accident. But in effect, I was standing next to him. You know how that one feels."
Mark flipped up a hand, in sign of surrender; Miles nodded, and went on. "But she's still pretty shaken up. By no means ready to be courted. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop the competition around here. No money, but she's beautiful, and her bloodlines are impeccable."
"Are you choosing a wife, or buying a horse?"
"I am describing how my Vor rivals think, thank you. Some of them, anyway." His frown deepened. "Major Zamori, I don't trust. He may be smarter."
"You have rivals already?" Down, Killer. He didn't ask for your help.
"God, yes. And I have a theory about where they came from… never mind. The important thing is for me to make friends with her, get close to her, without setting off her alarms, without offending her. Then, when the time is right -- well, then."
"And, ah, when are you planning to spring this stunning surprise on her?" Mark asked, fascinated.
Miles stared at his boots. "I don't know. I'll recognize the tactical moment when I see it, I suppose. If my sense of timing hasn't totally deserted me. Penetrate the perimeter, set the trip lines, plant the suggestion -- strike. Total victory! Maybe." He counter-rotated his feet the other way.
"You have your campaign all plotted out, I see," said Mark neutrally, rising. Enrique would be glad to hear the good news about the free bug fodder. And Kareen would be here for work soon -- her organizational skills had already had notable effect on the zone of chaos surrounding the Escobaran.
"Yes, exactly. So take care not to foul it up by tipping my hand, if you please. Just play along."
"Mm, I wouldn't dream of interfering." Mark made for the door. "Though I'm not at all sure I'd choose to structure my most intimate relationship as a war. Is she the enemy, then?"
His timing was perfect; Miles's feet had come down and he was still sputtering just as Mark passed the door. Mark stuck his head back through the frame to add, "I hope her aim is as good as Countess Vormuir's."
Last word: I win. Grinning, he exited.