Copyright © 1999
Ekaterin sat before the comconsole in her aunt's study, and ran again through the seasonal succession of Barrayaran plants bordering the branching pathways of Lord Vorkosigan's garden. The one sensory effect the design program could not help her model was odor. For that most subtle and emotionally profound effect, she had to rely on her own experience and memory.
On a soft summer evening, a border of scrubwire would emit a spicy redolence that would fill the air for meters around, but its color was muted and its shape low and round. Intermittent stands of chuffgrass would break up the lines, and reach full growth at the right time, but its sickly citrus scent would clash with the scrubwire, and besides, it was on the proscribed list of plants to which Lord Vorkosigan was allergic. Ah -- zipweed! Its blond and maroon stripes would provide excellent vertical visual interest, and its faint sweet fragrance would combine well, appetizingly even, with the scrubwire. Put a clump there by the little bridge, and there and there. She altered the program, and ran the succession again. Much better. She took a sip of her cooling tea, and glanced at the time.
She could hear her Aunt Vorthys moving about in the kitchen. Late-sleeper Uncle Vorthys would be down soon, and shortly afterwards Nikki, and aesthetic concentration would be a lost cause. She had only a few days for any last design refinements before she began working with real plants in quantity. And less than two hours before she needed to be showered and dressed and on-site to watch the crew hook up and test the creek's water circulation.
If all went well, she could start laying her supply of Dendarii rocks today, and tuning the gentle burble of the water flow around and over and among them. The sound of the creek was another subtlety the design program could not help her with, though it had addressed environmental noise abatement. The walls and curving terraces were up on-site, and satisfactory; the city-noise-baffling effects were all she'd hoped for. Even in winter the garden would be hushed and restful. Blanketed with snow broken only by the bare up-reaching lines of the woodier scrub, the shape of the space would still please the eye and soothe the mind and heart.
By tonight, the bones of the thing would be complete. Tomorrow, the flesh, in the form of trucked-in, un-terraformed native soils from remote corners of the Vorkosigan's District, would arrive. And tomorrow evening before Lord Vorkosigan's dinner party, just for promise, she would put the first plant into the soil: a certain spare rootling from an ancient South Continent skellytum tree. It would be fifteen years or more before it would grow to fill the space allotted for it, but what of that? Vorkosigans had held this ground for two hundred years. Chances were good Vorkosigans would still be there to see it in its maturity. Continuity. With continuity like that, you could grow a real garden. Or a real family…
The front door chimed, and Ekaterin jumped, abruptly aware she was still dressed in an old set of her uncle's ship knits for pajamas, with her hair escaping the tie at the nape of her neck. Her aunt's step sounded from the kitchen into the tiled hall, and Ekaterin tensed to duck out of the line of sight should it prove some formal visitor. Oh, dear, what if it was Lord Vorkosigan? She'd waked at dawn with garden revisions rioting through her head, sneaked quietly downstairs to work, and hadn't even brushed her teeth yet -- but the voice greeting her aunt was a woman's, and a familiar one at that. Rosalie, here? Why?
A dark-haired, fortyish woman leaned around the edge of the archway and smiled. Ekaterin waved back in surprise, and rose to go to the hallway and greet her. It was indeed Rosalie Vorvayne, the wife of Ekaterin's eldest brother. Ekaterin hadn't seen her since Tien's funeral. She wore conservative day-wear, skirt and jacket in a bronze-green that flattered her olive skin, though the cut was a little dowdy and provincial. She had her daughter Edie in tow, to whom she said, "Run along upstairs and find your cousin Nikki. I have to talk to your Aunt Kat for a while." Edie had not quite reached the adolescent slouch stage, and thumped off willingly enough.
"What brings you to the capital at this hour?" Aunt Vorthys asked Rosalie.
"Is Hugo and everyone all right?" Ekaterin added.
"Oh, yes, we're all fine." Rosalie assured them. "Hugo couldn't get away from work, so I was dispatched. I plan to take Edie shopping later, but getting her up to catch the morning monorail was a real chore, believe me."
Hugo Vorvayne held a post in the Imperial Bureau of Mines northern regional headquarters in Vordarian's District, two hours away from Vorbarr Sultana by the express. Rosalie must have risen before light for this outing. Her two older sons, grown almost past the surly stage, presumably had been left to their own devices for the day.
"Have you had breakfast, Rosalie?" Aunt Vorthys asked. "Do you want any tea or coffee?"
"We ate on the monorail, but tea would be lovely, thank you, Aunt Vorthys."
Rosalie and Ekaterin both followed their aunt into her kitchen to offer assistance, and as a result all ended up seated around the kitchen table with their steaming cups. Rosalie brought them up to date upon the health of her husband, the events of her household, and the accomplishments of her sons since Tien's funeral. Her eyes narrowed with good humor, and she leaned forward confidingly. "But to answer your question, what brings me here is you, Kat."
"Me?" said Ekaterin blankly.
"Can't you imagine why?"
Ekaterin wondered if it would be rude to say, No, how should I? She compromised with an inquiring gesture, and raised eyebrows.
"Your father had a visitor a couple of days ago."
Rosalie's arch tone invited a guessing-game, but Ekaterin could only think of how soon she might finish the social niceties and get away to her work-site. She continued to smile dimly.
Rosalie shook her head in amused exasperation, leaned forward, and tapped her finger on the table beside her cup. "You, my dear, have a very eligible offer."
"Offer of what?" Rosalie wasn't likely to be bringing her a new garden design contract. But surely she couldn't mean --
"Marriage, what else? And from a proper Vor gentleman, too, I'm pleased to report. So old-fashioned of the man, he sent a Baba all the way from Vorbarr Sultana to your Da in South Continent -- it quite bowled the old man over. Your Da called Hugo to pass on the particulars. We decided that after all that baba-ing rather than do it over the comconsole someone ought to tell you the good news in person. We're all so pleased, to think you might be settled again so soon."
Aunt Vorthys sat up, looking considerably startled. She put a finger to her lips.
A Vor gentleman from the capital, old-fashioned and highly conscious of etiquette, Da bowled over, who else could it be but -- Ekaterin's heart seemed to stop, then explode. Lord Vorkosigan? Miles, you rat, how could you do this without asking me first! Her lips parted in a dizzying mixture of fury and elation.
The arrogant little --! But… he to pick her, to be his Lady Vorkosigan, chatelaine of that magnificent house and of his ancestral District -- there was so much to be done in that beautiful District, so daunting and exciting -- and Miles himself, oh, my. That fascinating scarred short body, that burning intensity, to come to her bed? His hands had touched her perhaps twice; they might as well have left scorch marks on her skin, so clearly did her body remember those brief pressures. She had not, had not dared, let herself think about him in that way, but now her carnal consciousness of him wrenched loose from its careful suppression and soared. Those humorous gray eyes, that alert, mobile, kissable mouth with its extraordinary range of expression… could be hers, all hers. But how dare he ambush her like this, in front of all her relatives?
"You're pleased?" Rosalie, watching her face closely, sat back and smiled. "Or should I say, thrilled? Good! And not completely surprised, I daresay."
"Not…completely." I just didn't believe it. I chose not to believe it, because… because it would have ruined everything…
"We were afraid you might find it early days, after Tien and all. But the Baba said he meant to steal a march on all his rivals, your Da told Hugo."
"He doesn't have any rivals." Ekaterin swallowed, feeling decidedly faint, thinking of the remembered scent of him. But how could he imagine that she --
"He has good hopes for his post-military career," Rosalie went on.
"Indeed, he's said so." It's all kinds of hubris, Miles had told her once, describing his ambitions for fame to exceed his father's. She'd gathered he didn't expect that fact to slow him down in the least.
"Good family connections."
Ekaterin couldn't help smiling. "A slight understatement, Rosalie."
"Not as rich as others of his rank, but well-enough to do, and I never thought you were one to hold out for the money. Though I always did think you needed to look a bit more to your own needs, Kat."
Well, yes, Ekaterin had been dimly aware that the Vorkosigans were not as wealthy as many other families of Count's rank, but Miles had riches enough to drown in by her old straitened standards. She would never have to pinch and scrape again. All her energy, all her thought, could be freed for higher goals -- Nikki would have every opportunity -- "Plenty enough for me, good heavens!"
But how bizarre of him, to send a Baba all the way to South Continent to talk to her Da… was he that shy? Ekaterin's heart was almost touched, but for the reflection that it might simply be that Miles gave no thought to how much his wants inconvenienced others. Shy, or arrogant? Or both at once? He could be a most ambiguous man sometimes -- charming as… as no one she'd ever met before, but elusive as water.
Not just elusive; slippery. Borderline trickster, even. A chill stole over her. Had his garden proposal been nothing more than a trick, a ploy to keep her close under his eye? The full implications began to sink in at last. Maybe he didn't admire her work. Maybe he didn't care about his garden at all. Maybe he was merely manipulating her. She knew herself to be hideously vulnerable to the faintest flattery. Her starvation for the slightest scrap of interest or affection was part of what had kept her self-prisoned in her marriage for so long. A kind of Tien-shaped box seemed to loom darkly before her, like a pitfall trap baited with poisoned love.
Had she betrayed herself again? She'd so much wanted it to be true, wanted to take her first steps into independence, to have the chance to display her prowess. She'd imagined not just Miles, but all the people of the city, amazed and delighted by her garden, and new orders pouring in, the launch of a career….
You can't cheat an honest man, the saying went. Or woman. If Lord Vorkosigan had manipulated her, he'd done so with her full cooperation. Her hot rage was douched with cold shame.
Rosalie was burbling on, "… want to tell Lieutenant Vormoncrief the good news yourself, or should we go round through his Baba again?"
Ekaterin blinked her back into focus. "What? Wait, who did you say?"
Rosalie stared back. "Lieutenant Vormoncrief. Alexi."
"That block?" cried Ekaterin in dawning horror. "Rosalie, never tell me you've been talking about Alexi Vormoncrief this whole time!"
"Why, yes," said Rosalie in dismay. "Who did you think, Kat?"
The Professora blew out her breath and sat back.
Ekaterin was so upset the words escaped her mouth without thought. "I thought you were talking about Miles Vorkosigan!"
The Professora's brows shot up; it was Rosalie's turn to stare. "Who? Oh, good heavens, you don't mean the Imperial Auditor fellow, do you? That grotesque little man who came to Tien's funeral and hardly said a word to anyone? No wonder you looked so odd. No, no, no." She paused to peer more closely at her sister-in-law. "You don't mean to tell me he's been courting you too? How embarrassing!"
Ekaterin took a breath, for balance. "Apparently not."
"Well, that's a relief."
"I mean, he's a mutie, isn't he? High Vor or no, the family would never urge you to match with a mutie just for money, Kat. Put that right out of your mind." She paused thoughtfully. "Still… they're not handing out too many chances to be a Countess. I suppose, with the uterine replicators these days, you wouldn't actually have to have any physical contact. To have children, I mean. And they could be gene-cleaned. These galactic technologies give the idea of a marriage of convenience a whole new twist. But it's not as though you were that desperate."
"No," Ekaterin agreed hollowly. Just desperately distracted. She was furious with the man; why should the notion of never ever having to have any physical contact with him make her suddenly want to burst into tears? Wait, no -- if Vorkosigan wasn't the man who'd sent the Baba, her whole case against him, which had bloomed so violently in her mind just now, collapsed like a house of cards. He was innocent. She was crazy, or headed that way fast.
"I mean," Rosalie went on in a tone of renewed encouragement, "here's Vormoncrief, for instance."
"Here is not Vormoncrief," Ekaterin said firmly, grasping for the one certain anchor in this whirlwind of confusion. "Absolutely not. You've never met the man, Rosalie, but take it from me, he's a twittering idiot. Aunt Vorthys, am I right or not?"
The Professora smiled fondly at her. "I would not put it so bluntly, dear, but really, Rosalie, shall we say, I think Ekaterin can do better. There's plenty of time yet."
"Do you think so?" Rosalie took in this assurance doubtfully, but accepted her elder aunt's authority. "It's true Vormoncrief's only a lieutenant, and the descendant of a younger son at that. Oh, dear. What are we to tell the poor man?"
"Diplomacy's the Baba's job," Ekaterin pointed out. "All we have to supply is a straight no. She'll have to take it from there."
"That's true." Rosalie allowed, looking relieved. "One of the advantages of the old system, I suppose. Well… if Vormoncrief is not the one, he's not the one. You're old enough to know your own mind. Still, Kat, I don't think you ought to be too choosy, or wait too long past your mourning time. Nikki needs a Da. And you're not getting any younger. You don't want to end up as one of those odd old women who eke out their lives in their relatives' attics."
Your attic is safe from me under any circumstances, Rosalie. Ekaterin smiled a bit grimly, but did not speak this thought aloud. "No, only the third floor."
The Professora's eyes flicked at her, reprovingly, and Ekaterin flushed. She was not ungrateful, she wasn't. It was just… oh, hell. She pushed back her chair.
"Excuse me. I have to go get my shower and get dressed. I'm due at work soon."
"Work?" said Rosalie. "Must you go? I'd hoped to take you out to lunch, and shopping. To celebrate, and look for bride clothes, in the original plan, but I suppose we could convert it to a consolation day instead. What do you say, Kat? I think you could use a little fun. You haven't had much, lately."
"No shopping," said Ekaterin. She remembered the last time she'd been shopping, on Komarr with Lord Vorkosigan in one of his more lunatic moods, before Tien's death had turned her life inside-out. She didn't think a day with Rosalie could match it. At Rosalie's look of distressed disappointment, she relented. The woman had got up before dawn for this fool's errand, after all. "But I suppose you and Edie could pick me up for lunch, and then bring me back."
"All right… where? Whatever are you doing these days, anyway? Weren't you talking about going back to school? You haven't exactly communicated with the rest of the family much lately, you know."
"I've been busy. I have a commission to design and implement a display garden for a Count's townhouse." She hesitated. "Lord Auditor Vorkosigan's, actually. I'll give you directions how to get there before you and Edie go out."
"Vorkosigan is employing you, too?" Rosalie looked surprised,
then suddenly militantly suspicious. "He hasn't been… you know…
pushing himself on you at all, has he? I don't care whose son he is, he
has no right to impose on you. Remember, you have a brother to stand up
for you if you need it." She paused, perhaps to reflect upon a vision
of Hugo's probable appalled recoil at being volunteered for this duty.
"Or I'd be willing to give him a piece of my mind myself, if you
need help." She nodded, now on firmer ground.
In the shower, she tried to recover from the seething chaos Rosalie's misunderstood mission had generated in her brain. Her physical attraction for Miles -- Lord Vorkosigan -- Miles, was no news, really. She'd felt and ignored the pull of it before. It was by no means in despite of his odd body; his size, his scars, his energy, his differences fascinated her in their own right. She wondered if people would think her perverse, if they knew the strange way her tastes seemed to be drifting these days. Firmly, she turned the water temperature down to pure cold.
But flatline suppression of all erotic speculation was a legacy of her years with Tien. She owned herself now, owned her own sexuality at last. Free and clear. She could dare to dream. To look. To feel, even. Action was another matter altogether, but drat it, she could want, in the solitude of her own skull, and possess that wanting whole.
And he liked her, he did. It was no crime to like her, even if it was inexplicable. And she liked him back, yes. A little too much, even, but that was no one's business but her own. They could go on like this. The garden project wouldn't last forever. By midsummer, fall at the latest, she could turn it and a schedule of instructions over to Vorkosigan House's usual groundskeepers. She might drop by to check on it from time to time. They might even meet. From time to time.
She was starting to shiver. She turned the water temperature back up to as hot as she could stand, so the steam billowed in clouds.
Would it do any harm, to make of him a dream-lover? It seemed invasive. How would she like it, after all, if she discovered she was starring in someone else's pornographic daydreams? Horrified, yes? Disgusted, to be pawed over in some untrusted stranger's thoughts. She imagined herself so portrayed in Miles's thoughts, and checked her horror quotient. It was a little… weak.
The obvious solution was to bring dreams and reality into honest congruence. If deleting the dreams wasn't possible, what about making them real? She tried to imagine having a lover. How did people go about such things, anyway? She could barely nerve herself to ask for directions on a street corner. How in the world did you ask someone to… But reality -- reality was too great a risk, ever again. To lose herself and all her free dreams in another long nightmare like her life with Tien, a slow, sucking, suffocating bog closing over her head forever…
She jerked the temperature down again, and adjusted the spray so the droplets struck her skin like spicules of ice. Miles was not Tien. He wasn't trying to own her, for heaven's sake, or destroy her; he'd only hired her to make him a garden. Entirely benign. She must be going insane. She trusted it was a temporary insanity. Maybe her hormones had spiked this month. She would just ride it out, and all these… unusual thoughts, would just go away on their own. She would look back on herself and laugh.
She laughed, experimentally. The hollow echoes were due to being in the shower, no doubt. She shut off the freezing water, and stepped out.
There was no reason she would have to see him today. He sometimes came out and sat on the wall a while and watched the crew's progress, but he never interrupted. She wouldn't have to talk with him, not till his dinner tomorrow night, and there would be lots of other people to talk with then. She had plenty of time to settle her mind again. In the meanwhile, she had a creek to tune.
* * *
Lady Alys Vorpatril's office at the Imperial Residence, which handled all matters of social protocol for the Emperor, had expanded of late from three rooms to half of a third-floor wing. There Ivan found himself at the disposal of the fleet of secretaries and assistants Lady Alys had laid on to help handle the wedding. It had sounded a treat, to be working in an office with dozens of women, till he'd discovered they were mostly steely-eyed middle-aged Vor ladies who brooked even less nonsense from him than his mother did. Fortunately, he'd only dated two of their daughters, and both those ventures had ended without acrimony. It could have been much worse.
To Ivan's concealed dismay, Lord Dono and By Vorrutyer were in such good time for their Imperial appointment they stopped up to see him on the way in. Lady Alys's secretary summoned him curtly into the department's outer office, where he found the pair refraining from sitting down and making themselves comfortable. By was dressed in his usual taste, in a maroon suit conservative only by town clown standards. Lord Dono wore his neat Vor-style black tunic and trousers with gray piping and decoration, clearly mourning garb, which not co-incidentally set off his newly masculinized good looks. The middle-aged secretary was giving him approving glances from under her eyelashes. Armsman Szabo, in full Vorrutyer House uniform, had taken up that I-am-furniture guard stance by the door, as if covertly declaring there were some kinds of lines of fire it wasn't his job to be in.
No one not on-Staff wandered the halls of the Imperial Residence by themselves; Dono and By had an escort, in the person of Gregor's senior major-domo. This gentleman turned from some conversation with the secretary as Ivan entered, and eyed him with new appraisal.
"Good morning, Ivan," said Lord Dono cordially.
"Morning, Dono, By." Ivan managed a brief, reasonably impersonal nod. "You, ah, made it, I see."
"Yes, thank you." Dono glanced around. "Is Lady Alys here this morning?"
"Gone off to inspect florists with Colonel Vortala," said Ivan, happy to be able to both tell the truth and avoid being drawn further into whatever schemes Lord Dono might have.
"I must chat with her sometime soon," mused Dono.
"Mm," said Ivan. Lady Donna had not been one of Alys Vorpatril's intimates, being half a generation younger and involved with a different social set than the politically active crowd over which Lady Alys presided. Lady Donna had discarded, along with her first husband, a chance to be a future Countess; though having met that lordling, Ivan thought he could understand the sacrifice. In any case, Ivan had not had any trouble controlling his urge to gossip about this new twist of events with either his mother or any of the sedate Vor matrons she employed. And fascinating as it would be to witness the first meeting of Lady Alys with Lord Dono and all the protocol puzzles he trailed, on the whole Ivan thought he would rather be safely out of range.
"Ready, gentlemen?" said the major-domo.
"Good luck, Dono," said Ivan, and prepared to retreat.
"Yes," said By, "good luck. I'll just stay here and chat with Ivan till you're done, shall I?"
"My list," said the major-domo, "has all of you on it. Vorrutyer, Lord Vorrutyer, Lord Vorpatril. Armsman Szabo."
"Oh, that's an error," said Ivan helpfully. "Only Lord Dono actually needs to see Gregor." By nodded confirmation.
"The list," said the major-domo, "is in the Emperor's own hand. This way, please."
The normally saturnine By swallowed a little, but they all dutifully followed the major-domo down two floors and around the corner to the north wing and Gregor's private office. The major-domo had not demanded Ivan vouch for Dono's identity, Ivan noted, by which he deduced the Residence had caught up with events overnight. Ivan was almost disappointed. He'd so wanted to see somebody else be as boggled as he'd been.
The major-domo touched the palm pad by the door, announced his party, and was bid to enter. Gregor shut down his comconsole desk and looked up as they all trod within. He rose and walked around to lean against it, cross his arms, and eye the group. "Good morning, gentlemen. Lord Dono. Armsman."
They returned a mumble averaging out to Good morning, Sire, except for Dono, who stepped forward with his chin up and said in a clear voice, "Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Sire."
"Ah," said Gregor. "Short notice. Yes." He cast an odd look at By, who blinked demurely. "Please be seated," Gregor went on. He gestured to the leather sofas at the end of the room, and the major-domo hurried to pull around a couple of extra armchairs. Gregor took his usual seat on one of the sofas, turned a little sideways, that he might have full view of his guests' faces in the bright diffuse light from the north-facing windows overlooking his garden.
"I should be pleased to stand, Sire," Armsman Szabo murmured suggestively, but he was not to be permitted to hug the doorway and potential escape; Gregor merely smiled briefly, and pointed at a chair, and Szabo perforce sat, though on the edge. By took a second chair and managed a good simulation of his usual cross-legged ease. Dono sat straight, alert, knees and elbows apart, claiming a space no one disputed; he had the second couch entirely to himself, until Gregor opened an ironic palm, and Ivan was forced to take the place next to him. As far toward the end as possible.
Gregor's face wasn't giving much away, except the obvious fact that the chance of Donna/Dono taking him by surprise had passed sometime in the intervening hours since Ivan's call. Gregor broke the ensuing silence just before Ivan could panic and blurt something.
"So, whose idea was this?"
"Mine, Sire," Lord Dono answered steadily. "My late brother expressed himself forcibly many times -- as Szabo and others of the household can witness -- that he abhorred the idea of Richars stepping into his place as Count Vorrutyer. If Pierre had not died so suddenly and unexpectedly, he would surely have found a substitute heir. I feel I am carrying out his verbal will."
"So you, ah, claim his posthumous approval."
"Yes. If he had thought of it. Granted, he had no reason to entertain such an extreme solution while he lived."
"I see. Go on." This was Gregor in his classic give-them-enough-rope-to-hang-themselves mode, Ivan recognized. "What support did you assure yourself of, before you left?" He glanced rather pointedly at Armsman Szabo.
"I secured the approval of my Arms -- of my late brother's Armsmen, of course," said Dono. "Since it was their duty to guard the disputed property until my return."
"You took their oaths?" Gregor's voice was suddenly very mild.
Ivan cringed. To receive an Armsman's oath before one was confirmed as a Count or Count's heir was a serious crime, a violation of one of the sub-clauses of Vorlopulous's Law which, among other things, had restricted a Count's Armsmen to a mere squad of twenty. Lord Dono gave Szabo the barest nod.
"We gave our personal words," Szabo put in smoothly. "Any man may freely give his personal word for his personal acts, Sire."
"Hm," said Gregor.
"Beyond the Vorrutyer Armsmen, the only two people I informed were my attorney, and my cousin By," Lord Dono continued. "I needed my attorney to put certain legal arrangements into motion, check all the details, and prepare the necessary documents. She and all her records are entirely at your disposal, of course, Sire. I'm sure you understand the tactical necessity for surprise. I told no one else before I left, lest Richars take warning and also prepare."
"Except for Byerly," Gregor prompted.
"Except for By," Dono agreed. "I needed someone I could trust in the capital to keep an eye on Richars's moves while I was out of range and incapacitated."
"Your loyalty to your cousin is most… notable, Byerly," murmured Gregor.
By eyed him warily. "Thank you, Sire."
"And your remarkable discretion. I do take note of it."
"It seemed a personal matter, Sire."
"I see. Do go on, Lord Dono."
Dono hesitated fractionally. "Has ImpSec passed you my Betan medical files yet?"
"Just this morning. They were apparently a little delayed."
"You mustn't blame that nice ImpSec boy who was following me. I'm afraid he found Beta Colony a trifle overwhelming. And I'm sure the Betans didn't offer them up voluntarily, especially since I told them not to." Dono smiled blandly. "I'm glad to see he rose to the challenge. One would hate to think ImpSec was losing its old edge, after Illyan's retirement."
Gregor, listening with his chin in his hand, gave a little wave of his fingers in acknowledgement of this, on all its levels.
"If you've had a chance to glance over the records," Dono went on, "you will know I am now fully functional as a male, capable of carrying out my social and biological duty of siring the next Vorrutyer heir. Now that the requirement of male primogeniture has been met, I claim the nearest right by blood to the Countship of the Vorrutyer's District, and in light of my late brother's expressed views, I claim Count's choice as well. Peripherally, I also assert that I will make a better Count than my cousin Richars, and that I will serve my District, the Imperium, and you more competently than he ever could. For evidence, I submit my work in the District on Pierre's behalf over the last five years."
"Are you proposing other charges against Richars?" asked Gregor.
"Not at present. The one charge of sufficient seriousness lacked sufficient proof to bring to trial at the time --" Dono and Szabo exchanged a glance.
"Pierre requested an ImpSec investigation of his fiancée's flyer accident. I remember reading the synopsis of the report. You are correct. There was no proof."
Dono managed to shrug acknowledgement without agreement. "As for Richars's lesser offenses, well, no one cared before, and I doubt they'll start caring now. I will not be charging that he is unfit -- though I think he is unfit -- but rather, maintaining that I am more fit and have the better right. And so I will lay it before the Counts."
"And do you expect to obtain any votes?"
"I would expect a certain small number of votes against Richars from his personal enemies even if I were a horse. For the rest, I propose to offer myself to the Progressive party as a future voting member."
"Ah?" Gregor glanced up at this. "The Vorrutyers were traditionally mainstays of the Conservatives. Richars was expected to maintain that tradition."
"Yes. My heart goes out to the old guard; they were my father's party, and his father's before him. But I doubt many of their hearts will go out to me. Besides, they are a present minority. One must be practical."
Right. And while Gregor was careful to maintain a façade of Imperial even-handedness, no one had any doubt the Progressives were the party he privately favored. Ivan chewed on his lip.
"Your case is going to create an uproar in the Council at an awkward time, Lord Dono," said Gregor. "My credit with the Counts is fully extended right now in pushing through the appropriations for the Komarran solar mirror repairs."
Dono answered earnestly, "I ask nothing of you, Sire, but your neutrality. Don't quash my motion of impediment. And don't permit the Counts to dismiss me unheard, or hear me only in secret. I want a public debate and a public vote."
Gregor's lips twisted, contemplating this vision. "Your case could set a most peculiar precedent, Lord Dono. With which I would then have to live."
"Perhaps. I would point out that I am playing exactly by the old rules."
"Well… perhaps not exactly," murmured Gregor.
By put in, "May I suggest, Sire, that if in fact dozens of Counts' sisters were itching to stampede out to galactic medical facilities and return to Barrayar to attempt to step into their brothers' boots, it would have likely happened before now? As a precedent, I doubt it would be all that popular, once the novelty wore off."
Dono shrugged. "Prior to our conquest of Komarr, access to that sort of medicine was scarcely available. Someone had to be the first. It wouldn't even have been me if things had gone differently for poor Pierre.'" He glanced across at Gregor, eye to eye. "Though I will certainly not be the last. Quashing my case, or brushing it aside, won't settle anything. If nothing else, taking it through the full legal process will force the Counts to explicitly examine their assumptions, and rationalize a set of laws which have managed to ignore the changing times for far too long. You cannot expect to run a galactic empire with rules that haven't been revised or even reviewed since the Time of Isolation." That awful cheerful leer ignited Lord Dono's face suddenly. "In other words, it will be good for them."
A very slight smile escaped Gregor in return, not entirely voluntarily, Ivan thought. Lord Dono was playing Gregor just right -- frank, fearless, and up-front. But then, Lady Donna had always been observant.
Gregor looked Lord Dono over, and pressed his hand to the bridge of his nose, briefly. After a moment he said ironically, "And will you be wanting a wedding invitation too?"
Dono's brows flicked up. "If I am Count Vorrutyer by then, my attendance will be both my right and my duty. If I'm not -- well, then." After a slight silence, he added wistfully, "Though I always did like a good wedding. I had three. Two were disasters. It's so much nicer to watch, saying over and over to yourself, It's not me! It's not me! One can be happy all day afterward on that alone."
Gregor said dryly, "Perhaps your next one will be different."
Dono's chin lifted. "Almost certainly, Sire."
Gregor sat back, and stared thoughtfully at the crew arrayed before him. He tapped his fingers on the sofa arm. Dono waited gallantly, By nervously, Szabo stolidly. Ivan spent the time wishing he were invisible, or that he'd never run across By in that damned bar, or that he'd never met Donna, or that he'd never been born. He waited for the ax, whatever it was going to be, to fall, and wondered which way he ought to dodge.
Instead what Gregor said at last was, "So… what's it like?"
Dono's white grin flashed in his beard. "From the inside? My energy's up. My libido's up. I would say it makes me feel ten years younger, except I didn't feel like this when I was thirty, either. My temper's shorter. Otherwise, only the world has changed."
"On Beta Colony, I scarcely noticed a thing. By the time I got to Komarr, well, the personal space people gave me had approximately doubled, and their response time to me had been cut in half. By the time I hit the Vorbarr Sultana Shuttleport, the change was phenomenal. Somehow, I don't think I got all that result just from my exercise program."
"Huh. So… if your motion of impediment fails, will you change back?"
"Not any time soon. I must say, the view from the top of the food chain promises to be downright panoramic. I propose to have my blood and money's worth of it."
Another silence fell. Ivan wasn't sure if everyone was digesting this declaration, or if their minds had all simply shorted out.
"All right…" said Gregor slowly at last.
The look of growing curiosity in his eyes made Ivan's skin crawl. He's going to say it, I just know he is…
"Let's see what happens." Gregor sat back, and gave another little wave of his fingers, as if to speed them on their way. "Carry on, Lord Dono."
"Thank you, Sire," said Dono sincerely.
No one waited around for the Gregor to reiterate this dismissal. They all beat a prudent retreat to the corridor before the Emperor could change his mind. Ivan thought he could feel Gregor's eyes boring wonderingly into his back all the way out the door.
"Well," By exhaled brightly, as the major-domo led them down the corridor once more. "That went better than I'd expected."
Dono gave him a sidelong look. "What, was your faith failing, By? I think things went quite as well as I'd hoped for."
By shrugged. "Let's say, I was feeling a bit out of my usual depth."
"That's why we asked Ivan for help. For which I thank you once more, Ivan."
"It was nothing," Ivan denied. "I didn't do anything." It's not my fault. He didn't know why Gregor had put him on his short list for this meeting; the Emperor hadn't even asked him anything. Though Gregor was as bad as Miles for plucking clues out of, as far as Ivan could tell, thin air. He couldn't imagine what Gregor had construed from all this. He didn't want to imagine what Gregor had construed from all this.
The syncopated clomp of all their boots echoed as they rounded the corner into the East Wing. A calculating look entered Lord Dono's eyes, which put Ivan briefly in mind of Lady Donna, in the least reassuring way. "So what's your Mama doing in the next few days, Ivan?"
"She's busy. Very busy. All this wedding stuff, you know. Long hours. I scarcely see her except at work, anymore. Where we are all very busy."
"I have no wish to interrupt her work. I need something more… casual. When were you going to see her again not at work?"
"Tomorrow night, at my cousin Miles's dinner party for Kareen and Mark. He told me to bring a date. I said I'd be bringing you as my guest. He was delighted." Ivan brooded on this lost scenario.
"Why, thank you, Ivan!" said Dono promptly. "How thoughtful of you. I accept."
"Wait, no, but that was before -- before you -- before I knew you --" Ivan sputtered, and gestured at Lord Dono in his new morphology. "I don't think he'll be so delighted now. It will mess up his seating arrangements."
"What, with all the Koudelka girls coming? I don't see how. Though I suppose some of them have taken young men in tow by now."
"I don't know about that, except for Delia and Duv Galeni. And if Kareen and Mark aren't -- never mind. But I think Miles is trying to slant the sex ratio, to be on the safe side. It's really a party to introduce everyone to his gardener."
"I beg your pardon?" said Dono. They fetched up in the vestibule by the Residence's east doors. The major-domo waited patiently to see the visitors out, in that invisible and unpressing way he could project so well. Ivan was sure he was taking in every word to report to Gregor later.
"His gardener. Madame Vorsoisson. She's this Vor widow he's gone and lost his mind over. He hired her to put a garden in that lot next to Vorkosigan House. She's Lord Auditor Vorthys's niece, if you must know."
"Ah. Quite eligible, then. But how unexpected. Miles Vorkosigan, in love at last? I'd always thought Miles would fancy a galactic. He always gave one the feeling most of the women around here bored him to death. One was never quite certain it wasn't sour grapes, though. Unless it was self-fulfilling prophecy." Lord Dono's smile was briefly feline.
"It was getting a galactic to fancy Barrayar that was the hang-up, I gather," said Ivan stiffly. "Anyway, Lord Auditor Vorthys and his wife will be there, and Illyan with my mother, and the Vorbrettens, as well as all the Koudelkas and Galeni and Mark."
"René Vorbretten?" Dono's eyes narrowed with interest, and he exchanged a glance with Szabo, who gave a tiny nod in return. "I'd like to talk to him. He's a pipeline into the Progressives."
"Not this week, he's not." By smirked. "Didn't you hear what Vorbretten found dangling in his family tree?"
"Yes." Lord Dono waved this away. "We all have our little genetic handicaps. I think it would be fascinating to compare notes with him just now. Oh, yes, Ivan, you must bring me. It will be perfect."
For whom? With all that Betan education, Miles was about as personally liberal as it was possible for a Barrayaran Vor male to be, but Ivan still couldn't imagine that he would be thrilled to find Lord Dono Vorrutyer at his dining table.
On the other hand… so what? If Miles had something else to be irritated about, perhaps it would distract him from that little problem with Vormoncrief and Major Zamori. What better way to confuse the enemy than to multiply the targets? It wasn't as though Ivan would have any obligation to protect Lord Dono from Miles.
Or Miles from Lord Dono, for that matter. If Dono and By considered Ivan, a mere HQ captain, a valuable consultant on the social and political terrain of the capital, how much better a one was a real Imperial Auditor? If Ivan could, as it were, transfer Dono's affections to this new target, he might be able to crawl away entirely unobserved. Yes.
"Yes, yes, all right. But this is the last favor I'm going to do for you, Dono, is it understood?" Ivan tried to look stern.
"Thank you," said Lord Dono.