Copyright © 1999
Miles stared at his reflection in the long antique mirror on his grandfather's former bedroom wall, now his own room, and frowned. His best Vorkosigan House uniform of brown and silver was much too formal for this dinner party. He would surely have an opportunity to squire Ekaterin to some venue for which it was actually appropriate, such as the Imperial Residence or the Council of Counts, and she could see and, he hoped, admire him in it then. Regretfully, he shucked the polished brown boots back off and prepared to return to the clothing he'd started with forty-five minutes before, one of his plain gray Auditor's suits, very clean and pressed. Well, slightly less pressed, now, with another House uniform and two Imperial uniforms from his late service tossed atop it on the bed.
He necessarily cycled back through naked, and frowned uneasily at himself again. Someday, if things went well, he must stand before her in his skin, in this very room and place, with no disguise at all.
A moment of panicked longing for Admiral Naismith's gray-and-whites, put away in the closet one floor above, passed over him. No. Ivan would be certain to hoot at him. Worse, Illyan might say something… dry. And it wasn't as though he wanted to explain the little Admiral to his other guests. He sighed, and re-donned the gray suit.
Pym stuck his head back through the bedroom door, and smiled in approval, or perhaps relief. "Ah, are you ready now, m'lord? I'll just get these out of your way again, shall I?" The speed with which Pym whipped away the other garments assured Miles he'd made the right choice, or at least, the best choice available to him.
Miles adjusted the thin strip of white shirt collar above the jacket's neck with military precision. He leaned forward to peer suspiciously for gray in his scalp, relocated the couple of strands he'd noted recently, suppressed an impulse to pluck them out, and then combed his hair again. Enough of this madness.
He hurried downstairs to re-check the table arrangements in the grand dining room. The table glittered with Vorkosigan cutlery, china, and a forest of wineglasses. The linen was graced with no less than three strategically low, elegant flower arrangements, over which he could see, and which he hoped Ekaterin would enjoy. He'd spent an hour debating with Ma Kosti and Pym over how to properly seat ten women and nine men. Ekaterin would be seated at Miles's right hand, off the head of the table, and Kareen at Mark's, off the foot; that hadn't been negotiable. Ivan would be seated next to his lady guest, in the middle as far from Ekaterin and Kareen as possible, the better to block any possible move of his on anyone else's partner -- though Miles trusted Ivan would be fully occupied.
Miles had been an envious bystander to Ivan's brief, meteoric affair with Lady Donna Vorrutyer. In retrospect, he thought perhaps Lady Donna had been more charitable and Ivan less suave than it had seemed to his then-twenty-year-old perspective, but Ivan had certainly made the most of his good luck. Lady Alys, still full of plans for her son's marriage to some more eligible Vor bud, had been a bit rigid about it all; but with all those years of frustrated matchmaking behind her Lady Alys might find Lady Donna looking much better now. After all, with the advent of the uterine replicator and associated galactic biotech, being forty-something was no bar to a woman's reproductive plans at all. Nor being sixty-something, or eighty-something… Miles wondered if Ivan had mustered the nerve to ask Lady Alys and Illyan if they had any plans for providing him with a half-sib, or if the possibility hadn't crossed his mind yet. Miles decided he would have to point it out to his cousin at some appropriate moment, preferably when Ivan's mouth was full.
But not tonight. Tonight, everything had to be perfect.
Mark wandered in to the dining room, also frowning. He too was showered and slicked, and dressed in a suit tailored and layered, black on black with black. It lent his short bulk a surprisingly authoritative air. He strolled up the table's side, reading place cards, and reached for a pair.
"Don't even touch them," Miles told him firmly.
"But if I just switch Duv and Delia with Count and Countess Vorbretten, Duv will be as far away from me as we can get him," Mark pleaded. "I can't believe he wouldn't prefer that himself. I mean, as long as he's still next to Delia…"
"No. I have to put René next to Lady Alys. It's a favor. He's politicking. Or he damn well should be." Miles cocked his head. "If you're serious about Kareen, you and Duv are going to have to deal, you know. He's going to be one of the family."
"I can't help thinking his feelings about me must be… mixed."
"Come now, you saved his life." Among other things. "Have you seen him, since you got back from Beta?"
"Once, for about thirty seconds, when I was dropping off Kareen at her home, and he was coming out with Delia."
Miles grinned briefly. And just how serious was Mark about Kareen? He was attentive to her to the point of obsession, and the sense of sexual frustration rising from them both was like heat off a pavement in high summer. Who knew what had passed between them on Beta Colony? My mother does, probably. Countess Vorkosigan had better spies than ImpSec did. But if they were sleeping together, it wasn't in Vorkosigan House, according to Pym's informal security reports.
Pym himself entered at this point, to announce, "Lady Alys and Captain Illyan have arrived, m'lord."
This formality was scarcely necessary, as Aunt Alys was right at Pym's elbow, though she nodded brief approval at the Armsman as she passed into the dining room. Illyan strolled in after her, and favored the room with a benign smile. The retired ImpSec chief looked downright dapper, in a dark tunic and trousers that set off the gray at his temples; since their late-life romance had bloomed, Lady Alys had taken a firm hand in improving his somewhat dire civilian wardrobe. The sharp clothes did a lot to camouflage the disturbing vague look that clouded his eyes now and then, damn the enemy who'd so disabled him.
Aunt Alys swept down the table, inspecting the arrangements with a cool air that would have daunted a drill sergeant. "Very good, Miles," she said at last. The Better than I would have expected of you was unspoken, but understood. "Though your numbers are uneven."
"Yes, I know."
"Hm. Well, it can't be helped now. I want a word with Ma Kosti. Thank you, Pym, I'll find my way." She bustled out the server's door. Miles let her go, trusting that she would find all in order below, and that she would refrain from prosecuting her on-going campaign to hire away his cook in the middle of the most important dinner party of his life.
"Good evening, Simon," Miles greeted his former boss. Illyan shook his hand cordially, and Mark's without hesitation. "I'm glad you could make it tonight. Did Aunt Alys explain to you about Eka -- about Madame Vorsoisson?"
"Yes, and Ivan had a few comments as well. Something on the theme of fellows who fall into the muck-hole and return with the gold ring."
"I haven't got to the gold ring part yet," said Miles ruefully. "But that's certainly my plan. I'm looking forward to you all meeting her."
"She's the one, is she?"
"I hope so."
Illyan's smile sharpened at Miles's fervent tone. "Good luck, son."
"Thanks. Oh, one word of warning. She's still in her mourning year, you see. Did Alys or Ivan explain --"
He was interrupted by the return of Pym, who announced that the Koudelka party had arrived, and he had conveyed them to the library, as planned. It was time to go play host in earnest.
Mark, who trod on Miles's heels all the way across the house, paused in the antechamber to the great library to give himself a desperate look in the mirror there, and smooth his jacket down over his paunch. In the library, Kou and Drou waited, all smiles; the Koudelka girls were raiding the shelves. Duv and Delia were seated together bent over an old book already.
Greetings were exchanged all around, and Armsman Roic, on-cue, began bringing out the hors d'oeuvres and drinks. Over the years Miles had watched Count and Countess Vorkosigan host what seemed a thousand parties and receptions here in Vorkosigan House, scarcely one without some hidden or overt political agenda. Surely he could manage this little one in style. Mark, across the room, made himself properly attentive to Kareen's parents. Lady Alys arrived from her inspection tour, gave her nephew a short nod, and went to hang on Illyan's arm. Miles listened for the door.
His heart beat faster at the sound of Pym's voice and steps, but the next guests the Armsman ushered in were only René and Tatya Vorbretten. The Koudelka girls instantly made Tatya welcome. Things were certainly starting well. At the sound of action at the distant front door again, Miles abandoned René to make what he could of his opportunity with Lady Alys, and slipped out to check for the new arrivals. This time it was Lord Auditor Vorthys and his wife, and Ekaterin at last, yes!
The Professor and the Professora were gray blurs in his eyes, but Ekaterin glowed like a flame. She wore a sedate evening dress in some silky charcoal gray fabric, but she was happily handing off a pair of dirty garden gloves to Pym. Her eyes were bright, and her cheeks bore a faint, exquisite flush. Miles concealed in a welcoming smile his thrill to see the pendant model Barrayar he'd given her lying skin-warmed against her creamy breast.
"Good evening, Lord Vorkosigan," she greeted him. "I'm pleased to report the first native Barrayaran plant is now growing in your garden."
"Clearly, I'll have to inspect it." He grinned at her. What a great excuse to nip out for a quiet moment together. Perhaps it might finally give him occasion to declare… no. No. Still much too premature. "Just as soon as I get everyone introduced, here." He offered her his arm, and she took it. Her warm scent made him a little dizzy.
Ekaterin hesitated at the party noise already pouring from the library as they approached, her hand tightening on his arm, but she took a breath, and plunged in with him. Since she already knew Mark and the Koudelka girls, whom Miles trusted would soon make her comfortable again, he made her known first to Tatya, who eyed her with interest and exchanged shy pleasantries. He then took her over to the long doors, took a slight breath himself, and introduced her to René, Illyan and Lady Alys.
Miles was watching so anxiously for the signs of approval in Illyan's expression that he almost missed the blink of terror in Ekaterin's, as she found herself shaking the hand of the legend who'd run the dreaded Imperial Security for thirty iron years. But she rose to the occasion with scarcely a tremor. Illyan, who seemed blithely unconscious of his sinister effect, smiled upon her with all the admiration Miles could have hoped for.
There. Now people could mill about and drink and talk till it was time to herd them all in to be seated for dinner. Were they all in? No, he was still missing Ivan. And one other -- should he send Mark to check --?
Ah, not necessary. Here came Dr. Borgos, all on his own. He poked his head around the door and entered diffidently. To Miles's surprise, he was all washed and combed and dressed in a perfectly respectable suit, if in the Escobaran style, that was entirely free of lab stains. Enrique smiled, and came up to Miles and Ekaterin. He reeked not of chemicals, but of cologne.
"Ekaterin, good evening!" he said happily. "Did you get my dissertation?"
"Yes, thank you."
His smile grew shyer still, and he stared down at his shoe. "Did you like it?"
"It was very impressive. Though it was a bit over my head, I'm afraid."
"I don't believe that. I'm sure you got the gist of it…"
"You flatter me, Enrique." She shook her head, but her smile said, … and you may flatter me some more.
Miles went slightly stiff. Enrique? Ekaterin? She doesn't even call me by my first name yet! And she would never have accepted a comment on her physical beauty without flinching; had Enrique stumbled on an unguarded route to her heart that Miles had missed?
She added, "I think I followed the introductory sonnet, almost. Is that the usual style, for Escobaran academic papers? It seems very challenging."
"No, I made it up especially." He glanced up at her again, then down at his other shoe.
"It, um, scanned quite perfectly. Some of the rhymes seemed quite unusual."
Enrique brightened visibly.
Good God, Enrique was writing poetry to her? Yes, and why hadn't he thought of poetry? Besides the obvious reason of his absence of talent in that direction. He wondered if she'd like to read a really clever combat-drop mission plan, instead. Sonnets, damn. All he'd ever come up with in that line were limericks.
He stared at Enrique, who was now responding to her smile by twisting himself into something resembling a tall knotted bread-stick, with dawning horror. Another rival? And insinuated into his own household…! He's a guest. Your brother's guest, anyway. You can't have him assassinated. Besides, the Escobaran was only twenty-four standard years old; she must see him as a mere puppy. But maybe she likes puppies…
"Lord Ivan Vorpatril," Pym's voice announced from the doorway. "Lord Dono Vorrutyer." The odd timbre in Pym's voice jerked Miles's head around even before his brain caught up with the unauthorized name accompanying Ivan. Who?
Ivan stood well clear of his new companion, but it was obvious by some remark the other was making that they'd come in together. Lord Dono was an intense-looking fellow of middle height with a close-trimmed black spade-beard, wearing Vor-style mourning garb, a black suit edged with gray which set off his athletic body. Had Ivan made a substitution in Miles's guest list without telling him? He should know better than to violate House Vorkosigan's security procedures like that…!
Miles strolled up to his cousin, Ekaterin still beside him -- well, he hadn't exactly let go of her hand on his arm, but she hadn't tried to draw it from under his hand, either. Miles thought he knew on sight all his Vorrutyer relatives who could claim a lord's rank. Was this a more distant descendant of Pierre Le Sanguinaire, or some by-blow? The man was not young. Damn, where had he seen those electric brown eyes before…?
"Lord Dono. How do you do." Miles proffered his hand, and the lithe man took it in a cheerful grip. Between one breath and the next the clue dropped, brick-like, and Miles added suavely, "You have been to Beta Colony, I perceive."
"Indeed, Lord Vorkosigan." Lord Dono's -- Lady Donna who was, yes -- white grin broadened in his black beard.
Ivan looked on with betrayed disappointment at this lack of a double-take.
"Or should I say, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan," Lord Dono went on. "I don't believe I've had the chance to congratulate you upon your new appointment.'
"Thank you," said Miles. "Permit me to introduce my friend, Madame Ekaterin Vorsoisson…"
Lord Dono kissed Ekaterin's hand with slightly too enthusiastic panache, bordering on a mockery of the gesture; Ekaterin returned an uncertain smile. They gavotted through the social niceties, while Miles's wits went on overdrive. Right. Clearly, the former Lady Donna did not have a clone of brother Pierre tucked away in a uterine replicator after all. It was breathtakingly plain what his legal tactic against Pierre's putative heir Richars was going to be instead. Well, somebody had to try it, sooner or later. And it would be a privilege to watch. "May I wish you the best of luck in your upcoming suit, Lord Dono?"
"Thank you." Lord Dono met his gaze directly. "Luck, of course, has nothing to do with it. May I discuss it in more detail with you, later on?"
Caution tempered his delight; Miles sidestepped. "I am, of course, but my father's proxy in the Council. As an Auditor, I am obliged to avoid party politics on my own behalf."
"I quite understand."
"But, ah… perhaps Ivan could re-introduce you to Count Vorbretten over there. He's dealing with a suit in the Council as well; you could compare valuable notes. And Lady Alys and Captain Illyan, of course. Professora Vorthys would also be extremely interested, I think; don't overlook any comments she might have. She's a noted expert on Barrayaran political history. Carry on, Ivan." Miles nodded demurely disinterested dismissal.
"Thank you, Lord Vorkosigan." Lord Dono's eyes were alight with appreciation of all the nuances, as he passed cordially on.
Miles wondered if he could sneak out to the next room and have a laughing fit. Or if he'd better make a vid call… He grabbed Ivan in passing, and stood on tiptoe to whisper, "Does Gregor know about this yet?"
"Yes," Ivan returned out of the corner of his mouth. "I made sure of that, first thing."
"Good man. What did he say?"
"Let's see what happens?"
"Got it in one."
"Heh." Relieved, Miles let Lord Dono tow Ivan off.
"Why are you laughing?" Ekaterin asked him.
"I am not laughing."
"Your eyes are laughing. I can tell."
He glanced around. Lord Dono had buttonholed René, and Lady Alys and Illyan were circling in curiously. The Professor and Commodore Koudelka were off in a corner discussing, from the snatches of words Miles could over-hear, quality control problems in military procurement. He motioned Roic to bring wine, led Ekaterin into the remaining free corner, and brought her up to speed on Lady Donna/Lord Dono and the impending motion of impediment in as few words as he could manage.
"Goodness." Ekaterin's eyes widened, and her left hand stole to touch the back of her right, as if the pressure of Lord Dono's kiss still lingered there. But she managed to keep her other reactions to no more than a quick glance down the room, where Lord Dono was now attracting a crowd including all the Koudelka girls and their mother. "Did you know about this?"
"Not at all. That is, everyone knew she'd spiked Richars and gone to Beta Colony, but not why. It makes perfect sense now, in an absurd kind of way."
"Absurd?" said Ekaterin doubtfully. "I should think it would have taken a great deal of courage." She took a sip of her drink, then added in a thoughtful tone, "And anger."
Miles back-pedaled quickly. "Lady Donna never suffered fools gladly."
"Really?" Ekaterin, an odd look in her eyes, drifted away down the room toward this new show.
Before he could follow her, Ivan appeared at his elbow, a glass of wine already half-empty in his hand. Miles didn't want to talk with Ivan. He wanted to talk with Ekaterin. He murmured nonetheless, "That's quite a date you brought. I would never have suspected you of such Betan breadth of taste, Ivan."
Ivan glowered at him. "I might have known I'd get no sympathy from you."
"Bit of a shock, was it?"
"I damn near passed out right there in the shuttleport. Byerly Vorrutyer set me up for it, the little sneak."
"Sure did. In on it from the beginning, I gather."
Duv Galeni too drifted up, in time to hear this; seeing Duv detached from Delia at last, his future father-in-law Commodore Koudelka and the Professor joined them. Miles let Ivan explain the new arrival, in his own words. Miles's guess was confirmed that Ivan hadn't had any hint of this at the time he'd asked his host's permission to bring Donna to the dinner, smugly plotting his welcome-home campaign upon her, well, not virtue; oh, oh, oh, to have been the invisible eye at the moment Ivan discovered the change…!
"Did this catch ImpSec by surprise too?" Commodore Koudelka inquired blandly of Commodore Galeni.
"Wouldn't know. Not my department." Galeni took a firm sip of his wine. "Domestic Affairs' problem."
Both officers glanced around at a peal of laughter from the group at the far end of the room; it was Madame Koudelka's laugh. An echoing cascade of giggles hushed conspiratorially, and Olivia Koudelka glanced over her shoulder at the men.
"What are they laughing at?" said Galeni doubtfully.
"Us, probably," growled Ivan, and slouched off to find more wine for his empty glass.
Koudelka stared down the room, and shook his head. "Donna Vorrutyer, good God."
Every woman in the party including Lady Alys was now clustered in evident fascination around Lord Dono, who was gesturing and holding forth to them in lowered tones. Enrique was grazing the hors d'oeuvres, and staring at Ekaterin in bovine rapture. Illyan, abandoned by Alys, was leafing absently through a book, one of the illustrated herbals Miles had laid out earlier.
It was time to serve dinner, Miles decided firmly. Where Ivan and Lord Dono would be barricaded behind a wall of older, married ladies and their spouses. He broke away for a quiet word with Pym, who departed to pass the word below-stairs, and returned shortly to formally announce the meal.
The couples re-sorted themselves and shuffled out of the great library, across the anteroom and the paved hall, and through the intervening series of chambers. Miles, in the lead with Ekaterin recaptured on his arm, encountered Mark and Ivan conspiratorially exiting the formal dining room. They turned around and re-joined the throng. Miles's sudden suspicion was horribly confirmed, out of the corner of his eye, as he passed up the table; his hour of strategic planning with the place-cards had just been disarranged.
All his carefully rehearsed conversational gambits were for people now on the other end of the table. Seating was utterly randomized -- no, not randomized, he realized. Re-prioritized. Ivan's goal had clearly been to get Lord Dono as far away from himself as possible; Ivan now was taking his chair at the far end of the table by Mark, while Lord Dono seated himself in the place Miles had intended for René Vorbretten. Duv, Drou, and Kou had somehow all migrated Miles-ward, farther from Mark. Mark still kept Kareen at his right hand, but Ekaterin had been bumped down the other side of the table, beyond Illyan, who was still on Miles's immediate left. It seemed no one had quite dared touch Illyan's card. Miles would now have to speak across Illyan to converse with her, no sotto voce remarks possible.
Aunt Alys, looking a little confused, seated herself at Miles's honored right, directly across from Illyan. She'd clearly noticed the switches, but failed Miles's last hope of help by saying nothing, merely letting her eyebrows flick up. Duv Galeni found his future mother-in-law Drou between himself and Delia. Illyan glanced at the cards and seated Ekaterin between himself and Duv, and the accompli was fait.
Miles kept smiling; Mark, ten places distant, was too far away to catch the I-will-get-you-for-this-later edge to it. Maybe it was just as well.
Conversations, though not the ones Miles had anticipated, began anew around the table as Pym, Roic, and Jankowski, playing butler and footmen, bustled about and began to serve. Miles watched Ekaterin with some concern for signs of stress, trapped as she was between her formidable ImpSec seatmates, but her expression remained calm and pleasant as the Armsmen plied her with excellent food and wine.
It wasn't until the second course appeared that Miles realized what was bothering him about the food. He had confidently left the details to Ma Kosti, but this wasn't the quite menu they'd discussed. Certain items were… different. The hot consommé was now an exquisite cold creamy fruit soup, decorated with edible flowers. In honor of Ekaterin, maybe? The vinegar-and-herb salad dressing had been replaced by something with a pale, creamy base. The aromatic herb spread, passed around with the bread, bore no relation to butter…
Bug vomit. They've slipped in that damned bug vomit.
Ekaterin twigged to it, too, about the time Pym brought round the bread; Miles spotted it by her slight hesitation, glance through her lashes at Enrique and Mark, and completely dead-pan continuation in spreading her piece and taking a firm bite. By not the smallest other sign did she reveal that she knew what she was swallowing.
Miles tried to indicate to her that she didn't have to eat it by pointing surreptitiously at the little herbed bug-butter crock and desperately raising his eyebrows; she merely smiled and shrugged.
"Hm?" Illyan, between them, murmured with his mouth full.
"Nothing, sir," Miles said hastily. "Nothing at all." Leaping up and screaming Stop, stop, you're all eating hideous bug stuff! to his high-powered guests, would be… startling. Bug vomit wasn't, after all, poisonous. If nobody told them, they'd never know. He bit into dry bread, and chased it with a large gulp of wine.
The salad plates were removed. Three-quarters of the way down the table, Enrique dinged on his wine glass with his knife, cleared his throat, and stood up.
"Thank you for your attention…" he cleared his throat again. "I've enjoyed the hospitality of Vorkosigan House, as I'm sure we all have tonight --" agreeing murmurs rose around the table; Enrique brightened and burbled on. "I have a gift of thanks I would like to present to Lord -- to Miles, Lord Vorkosigan," he smiled at his successful precision, "and I thought that now would be a good time."
Miles was seized with certainty that whatever it was, now would be a terrible time. He stared down-table at Mark with an inquiring glower, Do you know what the hell this is all about? Mark returned an un-reassuring No clue, sorry, shrug, and eyed Enrique with growing concern.
Enrique removed a box from his jacket and trod up the room to lay it between Miles and Lady Alys. Illyan and Galeni, across the table, tensed in ImpSec-trained paranoia; Galeni's chair slid back slightly. Miles wanted to reassure them that it wasn't likely to be explosive, but with Enrique, how could one be sure? It was bigger than the last box the butter-bug crew had presented to him. Miles prayed for maybe one of those tacky sets of gold-plated dress spurs that had been a brief rage a year ago, mostly among young men who'd never crossed a horse in their lives, anything but…
Enrique proudly lifted the lid. It wasn't a bigger butter bug; it was three butter bugs. Three butter bugs whose carapaces flashed brown and silver as they scrabbled over one another, feelers waving… Lady Alys recoiled, and strangled a squeak; Illyan jerked upright in alarm for her. Lord Dono leaned forward around her in curiosity, and his black brows shot up.
Miles, mouth slightly open, bent to stare in paralyzed fascination. Yes, it was indeed the Vorkosigan crest stenciled in bright silver on each tiny, repulsive brown back; a lace-edge of silver outlined the vestigial wings in exact imitation of the decorations on the sleeves of his Armsmen's uniforms. The replication of his House colors was precise. You could identify the famous crest at a glance. You could probably identify it at a glance from two meters away. Dinner service ground to a halt as Pym, Jankowski, and Roic gathered to look over his shoulder into the box.
Lord Dono glanced from the butter bugs to Miles's face, and back. "Are they… are they perhaps a weapon?" he ventured cautiously.
Enrique laughed, and launched into an enthusiastic explanation of his new model butter bugs, complete with the totally unnecessary information that they were the source of the very fine improved bug butter base underlying the soup, salad dressing, and bread spread recipes. Miles's mental picture of Enrique bent over a magnifying glass with a teeny, tiny paintbrush shredded into vapor as Enrique explained that the patterns weren't, oh no, of course not, applied, but rather, genetically created, and would breed true with each succeeding generation.
Pym looked at the bugs, glanced at the sleeve of his proud uniform, stared again at the deadly parody of his insignia the creatures now bore, and shot Miles a look of heartbreaking despair, a silent cry which Miles had no trouble interpreting as, Please, m'lord, please, can we take him out and kill him now?
From the far end of the table he heard Kareen's worried voice whisper, "What's going on? Why isn't he saying anything? Mark, go look…"
Miles leaned back, and grated through his teeth to Pym at the lowest possible volume, "He didn't intend it as an insult." It just came out that way. My father's, my grandfather's, my House's sigil on those pullulating cockroaches…!
Pym returned him a fixed smile over eyes blazing with fury. Aunt Alys remained rather frozen in place. Duv Galeni had his head cocked to one side, his eyes crinkling and his lips parted in who-knew-what inner reflections, and Miles wasn't about to ask, either. Lord Dono was even worse; he now had his napkin half stuffed into his mouth, and his face was flushed as he snorted through his nose. Illyan watched with his finger to his lips, and almost no expression at all, except for a faint delight in his eyes that made Miles writhe inside. Mark arrived, and bent to look. His face paled, and he glanced sideways at Miles in alarm. Ekaterin had her hand over her mouth; her eyes upon him were dark and wide.
Of all his riveted audience, only one's opinion mattered.
This was the woman whose late unlamented husband had been given over to… what displays of temper? What public or private rages? Miles swallowed his gibbering opinion of Enrique, Escobarans, bioengineering, his brother Mark's insane notions of entrepreneurship, and Liveried Vorkosigan Vomit Bugs, blinked, took a deep breath, and smiled.
"Thank you, Enrique. Your talent leaves me speechless. But perhaps you ought to put the girls away now. You wouldn't want them to get… tired." Gently, he replaced the lid of the box, and handed it back to the Escobaran. Across from him, Ekaterin softly exhaled. Lady Alys's brows rose in impressed surprise. Enrique marched back happily to his place. Where he proceeded to explain and demonstrate his Vorkosigan butter bugs to everyone who had been seated too far away to see the show, including Count and Countess Vorbretten opposite him. It was a real conversation-stopper, except for an unfortunate crack of laughter from Ivan, quickly choked down at a sharp reproof from Martya.
Miles realized that food had ceased to appear in the previous smooth stream. He motioned the still-transfixed Pym over, and murmured, "Will you bring the next course now, please?" He added in a grim undertone, "Check it first."
Pym, jerked back to attention to his duties, muttered, "Yes, m'lord. I understand."
The next course proved to be poached chilled Vorkosigan District lake salmon, without bug butter sauce, just some hastily-cut lemon slices. Good. Miles breathed temporary relief.
Ekaterin at last worked up the nerve to attempt a conversational gambit upon one of her seatmates. One couldn't very well ask an ImpSec officer, So, how was work today? so she fell back on what she clearly thought was a more generalized opener. "It's unusual to meet a Komarran in the Imperial Service," she said to Galeni. "Does your family support your career choice?"
Galeni's eyes widened just slightly, and narrowed again at Miles, who realized belatedly that his pre-dinner briefing to Ekaterin, designed to accentuate the positive, hadn't included the fact that most of Galeni's family had died in various Komarran revolts and their aftermaths. And the peculiar relation between Duv and Mark was something he hadn't even begun to figure out how to broach to her. He was frantically trying to guess how to telepathically convey this to Duv, when Galeni replied merely, "My new one does." Delia, who had stiffened in alarm, melted in a smile.
"Oh." It was instantly apparent from Ekaterin's face that she knew she'd mis-stepped, but not how. She glanced at Lady Alys, who, perhaps still stunned by the butter bugs, was bemusedly studying her plate and missed the silent plea.
Never one to let a damsel flounder in distress, Commodore Koudelka cut in heartily, "So, Miles, speaking of Komarr, do you think their solar mirror repair appropriations are going to fly in Council?"
Oh, perfect segue. Miles flashed his old mentor a brief smile of gratitude. "Yes, I think so. Gregor's thrown his weight behind it, as I'd hoped he would."
"Good," said Galeni judiciously. "That will help on all sides." He gave Ekaterin a short, forgiving nod.
The difficult moment passed; in the relieved pause while people marshaled their contributory bits of political gossip to follow up this welcome lead, Enrique Borgos's cheerful voice floated up the table, disastrously clear:
" -- will make so much profit, Kareen, you and Mark can buy yourselves another one of those amazing trips to the Orb when you get back to Beta. As many as you want, in fact." He sighed enviously. "I wish I had somebody to go there with."
The Orb of Unearthly Delights was one of Beta Colony's most famous, or notorious, pleasure domes; it had a galactic reputation. If your tastes weren't quite vile enough to direct you on to Jackson's Whole, the range of licensed, medically supervised pleasures which could be purchased at the Orb was enough to boggle most minds. Miles entertained a brief, soaring hope that Kareen's parents had never heard of it. Mark could pretend it was a Betan science museum, anything but --
Commodore Koudelka had just taken a mouthful of wine to chase his last bite of salmon. The atomized spray arced nearly to Delia, seated across from her father. A lung-full of wine in a man that age was an alarming event in any case; Olivia patted his back in hesitant worry, as he buried his reddening face in his napkin and gasped. Drou half-pushed her chair back, as she hesitated between going up around the table to assist her husband or, possibly, down the table to strangle Mark. Mark was no help at all; guilty terror drained his fat cheeks of blood, producing a suety, unflattering effect.
Kou got just enough breath back to gasp at Mark, "You took my daughter to the Orb?"
Kareen, utterly panicked, blurted, "It was part of his therapy!"
Mark, panicked worse, added in desperate exculpation, "We got a Clinic discount…"
Miles had often thought that he wanted to be there to see the look on Duv Galeni's face when he learned that Mark was his potential brother-in-law. Miles now took the wish back, but it was too late. He'd seen Galeni look frozen before, but never so… stuffed. Kou was breathing again, which would be reassuring if it weren't for the slight tinge of hyperventilation. Olivia stifled a nervous giggle. Lord Dono's eyes were bright with appreciation; he surely knew all about the Orb, possibly in both his current and former sexual incarnations. The Professora, next to Enrique, leaned forward to take a curious look up and down the table.
Ekaterin looked terribly worried, but not, Miles noted, surprised. Had Mark confided history to her that he hadn't seen fit to trust to his own brother? Or had she and Kareen already become close enough friends to share such secrets, one of those women-things? And if so, what had Ekaterin seen fit to confide to Kareen in return about him, and was there any way he could find out…?
Drou, after a notable hesitation, sank back down. An ominous, blighted we-will-discuss-this-later silence fell.
Lady Alys was alive to every nuance; her social self-control was such that only Miles and Illyan were close enough to her to detect her wince. Well able to set a tone no one dared ignore, she weighed in at last with, "The presentation of the mirror repair as a wedding gift has proven most popular with -- Miles, what has that animal got in its mouth?"
Miles's confused query of What animal? was answered before he even voiced it by the thump of multiple little feet across the dining room's polished floor. The half-grown black-and-white kitten was being chased by its all-black litter mate; for a catlet with its mouth stuffed full, it managed to emit an astonishingly loud mrowr of possession. It scrabbled across the wide oak boards, and then gained traction on the priceless antique hand-woven carpet, till it caught a claw and flipped itself over. Its rival promptly pounced upon it, but failed to force it to give up its prize. A couple of insectoid legs waved feebly among the quivering white whiskers, and a brown-and-silver wing carapace gave a dying shudder.
"My butter bug!" cried Enrique in horror, shoved back his chair, and pounced, rather more effectively, on the feline culprit. "Give it up, you murderess!" He retrieved the mangled bug, much the worse for wear, from the jaws of death. The black kitten stretched itself up his leg, and waved a frantic paw, Me, me, give me one too!
Excellent! thought Miles, smiling fondly at the kittens, the vomit bugs have a natural predator after all! He was just evolving a rapid-deployment plan for Vorkosigan House's guardcats when his brain caught up with itself. The kitten had already had the butter bug in its mouth when it had scampered into the dining room. Therefore --
"Dr. Borgos, where did that cat find that bug?" Miles asked. "I thought you had them all locked down. In fact," he glanced down the table at Mark, "you promised me they would be."
"Ah…" Enrique said. Miles didn't know what chain of thought the Escobaran was thumbing down, but he could see the jerk when he got to the end. "Oh. Excuse me. There's something I have to check in the lab." Enrique smiled unreassuringly, dropped the kitten on his vacated chair, spun on his heel, and hurried out of the dining room toward the back stairs.
Mark said hastily, "I think I'd better go with him," and followed.
Filled with foreboding, Miles set his napkin down, and murmured quietly, "Aunt Alys, Simon, take over for me, would you?" He joined the parade, pausing only long enough to direct Pym to serve more wine. Lots more. Immediately.
Miles caught up with Enrique and Mark at the door of the laundry-cum-laboratory one floor below just in time to hear the Escobaran's cry of Oh, no! Grimly, he shouldered past Mark to find Enrique kneeling by a large tray, one of the butter bug houses, which now lay at an angle between the box upon which it had been perched, and the floor. Its screen top was knocked askew. Inside, a single Vorkosigan-liveried butter bug, which was missing two legs on one side, scrambled about in forlorn circles but failed to escape over the side-wall.
"What happened?" Miles hissed to Enrique.
"They're gone," Enrique replied, and began to crawl around the floor, looking under things. "Those cursed cats must have knocked the tray over. I'd pulled it out to select your presentation bugs. I wanted the biggest and best. It was all right when I left it…"
"How many bugs were in this tray?"
"All of them, the entire genetic grouping. About two hundred individuals."
Miles stared around the lab. No Vorkosigan-liveried bugs were visible anywhere. He thought about what a large, old, creaky structure Vorkosigan House really was. Cracks in the floors, cracks in the walls, tiny fissures of access everywhere; spaces under the floorboards, behind the wainscoting, up in the attics, inside the old plastered walls…
The worker bugs, Mark had said, would just wander about till they died, end of story… "You still have the queen, presumably? You can, ah, recover your genetic resource, eh?" Miles began to walk slowly along the walls, staring down intently. No brown-and-silver flashes caught his straining eye.
"Um," said Enrique.
Miles chose his words carefully. "You assured me the queens couldn't move."
"Mature queens can't move, that's true," Enrique explained, climbing to his feet again, and shaking his head. "Immature queens, however, can scuttle like lightning."
Miles thought it through; it took only a split-second. Vorkosigan-liveried vomit bugs. Vorkosigan-liveried vomit bugs all over Vorbarr Sultana.
There was an ImpSec trick, which involved grabbing a man by the collar and giving it a little half-twist, and doing a thing with the knuckles; applied correctly, it cut off both blood circulation and breath. Miles was absently pleased to see that he hadn't lost his touch, despite his new civilian vocation. He drew Enrique's darkening face down toward his own. Kareen, breathless, arrived at the lab door.
"Borgos. You will have every one of those god-damned vomit bugs, and especially their queen, retrieved and accounted for at least six hours before Count and Countess Vorkosigan are due to walk in the door tomorrow afternoon. Because five hours and fifty-nine minutes before my parents arrive here, I am calling in a professional exterminator to take care of the infestation, that means any and all vomit bugs left outstanding, do you understand? No exceptions, no mercy."
"No, no!" Enrique managed to wail, despite his lack of oxygen. "You mustn't…"
"Lord Vorkosigan!" Ekaterin's shocked voice came from the door. It had some of the surprise effect of being hit from ambush by a stunner beam. Miles's hand sprang guiltily open, and Enrique staggered upright again, drawing breath in a huge strangled wheeze.
"Don't stop on my account, Miles," said Kareen coldly. She stalked into the lab, Ekaterin behind her. "Enrique, you idiot, how could you mention the Orb in front of my parents! Have you no sense?"
"You've known him for this long, and you have to ask?" said Mark direfully.
"And how did you --" her angry gaze swung to Mark, "how did he find out about it anyway -- Mark?"
Mark shrank slightly.
"Mark never said it was a secret -- I thought it sounded romantic. Lord Vorkosigan, please! Don't call an exterminator! I'll get the girls all back, I promise! Somehow --" Tears welled in Enrique's eyes.
"Calm down, Enrique!" Ekaterin said soothingly. "I'm sure," she cast Miles a doubtful look, "Lord Vorkosigan won't order your poor bugs killed. You'll find them again."
"I have a time limit here…" Miles muttered through his teeth. He could just picture the scene, tomorrow afternoon or evening, of himself explaining to the returning Viceroy and Vicereine just what those tiny retching noises coming from their walls were. Maybe he could shove the task of apprising them onto Mark --
"If you like, Enrique, I'll stay and help you hunt," Ekaterin volunteered sturdily. She frowned at Miles.
The sensation was like an arrow through his heart, Urk. Now there was a scenario: Ekaterin and Enrique with their heads heroically, and closely, bent together to save the Poor Bugs from the evil threats of the villainous Lord Vorkosigan… Grudgingly, he back-pedaled. "After dinner," he suggested. "We'll all come back after dinner and help." Yes, if anyone was going to crawl around on the floor hunting bugs alongside Ekaterin, it would be him, dammit. "The Armsmen too." He pictured Pym's joy at the news of this task, and cringed inside. "For now, perhaps we had better return and make polite conversation and all that," Miles went on. "Except Dr. Borgos, who will be busy."
"I'll stay and help him," Mark offered brightly.
"What?" cried Kareen. "And send me back up there with my parents all alone? And my sisters -- I'll never hear the end of this from them…"
Miles shook his head in exasperation. "Why in God's name did you take Kareen to the Orb in the first place, Mark?"
Mark stared at him in disbelief. "Why d'you think?"
"Well… yes… but surely you knew it wasn't, um, wasn't, um… proper for a young Barrayaran la --"
"Miles, you howling hypocrite!" said Kareen indignantly. "When Gran' Tante Naismith told us you'd been there yourself -- several times…!"
"That was duty," Miles said primly. "It's astounding how much interstellar military and industrial espionage gets filtered through the Orb. You'd better believe Betan security tracks it, too."
"Oh, yeah?" said Mark. "And are we also supposed to believe you never once sampled the services while you were waiting for your contacts --?"
Miles could recognize the moment for a strategic retreat when he saw it. "I think we should all go eat dinner now. Or it will burn up or dry out or something, and Ma Kosti will be very angry with us for spoiling her presentation. And she'll go work for Aunt Alys instead, and we'll all have to go back to eating Reddi-Meals."
This hideous threat reached both Mark and Kareen. Yes, and who had inspired his cook to come up with all those tasty bug butter recipes? Ma Kosti surely hadn't volunteered on her own. It reeked of conspiracy.
He exhaled, and offered his arm to Ekaterin. After a moment of hesitation, and a worried glance back at Enrique, she took it, and Miles managed to get them all marshaled out of the lab and back upstairs to the dining room again without anyone bolting off.
"Was all well, belowstairs, m'lord?" Pym inquired in a concerned undervoice.
"We'll talk about it later," Miles returned, equally sotto voce. "Start the next course. And offer more wine."
"Should we wait for Dr. Borgos?"
"No. He'll be occupied."
Pym gave a disquieted twitch, but moved off about his duties. Aunt Alys, bless her etiquette, didn't ask for enlargement, but led the conversation immediately onto neutral topics; her mention of the Emperor's wedding diverted most people's thoughts at once. Possibly excepted were the thoughts of Mark and Commodore Koudelka, who eyed each other in wary silence. Miles wondered if he ought to privately warn Kou what a bad idea it would be to pull his swordstick on Mark, or whether that might do more harm than good. Pym topped up Miles's own wineglass before Miles could explain that his whispered instructions hadn't been meant to apply to himself. What the hell. A certain… numbness, was beginning to seem like an attractive state.
He was not at all sure if Ekaterin was having a good time; she'd gone all quiet again, and glanced occasionally toward Dr. Borgos's empty place. Though Lord Dono's remarks made her laugh, twice. The former Lady Donna made a startlingly good-looking man, Miles realized on closer study. Witty, exotic, and just possibly heir to a Countship… and, come to think of it, with the most appalling unfair advantage in love-making expertise.
The Armsmen cleared away the plates for the main course, which had been grilled vat beef fillet with a very quick pepper garnish, accompanied by a powerful deep red wine. Dessert appeared: sculpted mounds of frozen creamy ivory substance bejeweled with a gorgeous arrangement of glazed fresh fruit. Miles caught Pym, who had been avoiding his eye, by the sleeve in passing, and leaned over for a word behind his hand.
"Pym, is that what I think it is?"
"Couldn't be helped, m'lord," Pym muttered back in wary self-exculpation. "Ma Kosti said it was that or nothing. She's still right furious about the sauces, and says she wants a word with you after this."
"Oh. I see. Well. Carry on."
He picked up his spoon, and took a valiant bite. His guests followed suit doubtfully, except for Ekaterin, who regarded her portion with every evidence of surprised delight, and leaned forward to exchange a smile with Kareen, down-table; Kareen returned her a mysterious but triumphant high-sign. To make it even worse, the stuff was meltingly delicious, seeming to lock into every primitive pleasure-receptor in Miles's mouth at once. The sweet and potent golden dessert wine followed it with an aromatic shell-burst on his palate that complemented the frozen bug stuff perfectly. He could have cried. He smiled tightly, and drank, instead. His dinner party limped on somehow.
Talk of Gregor and Laisa's wedding allowed Miles to supply a nice, light, amusing anecdote about his duties in obtaining, and transporting, a wedding gift from the people of his District, a life-sized sculpture of a guerilla soldier on horseback done in maple sugar. This won a brief smile from Ekaterin at last, this time toward the right fellow. He mentally marshaled a leading question about gardens to draw her out; she could sparkle, he was sure, if only she had the right straight line. He briefly regretted not priming Aunt Alys for this ploy, which would have been more subtle, but in his original plan, she hadn't been going to be seated right there --
Miles's pause had lasted just a little too long. Genially taking his turn to fill it, Illyan turned to Ekaterin.
"Speaking of weddings, Madame Vorsoisson, how long has Miles been courting you? Have you awarded him a date yet? Personally, I think you ought to string him along and make him work for it."
A chill flush plunged to the pit of Miles's stomach. Alys bit her lip. Even Galeni winced.
Olivia looked up in confusion. "I thought we weren't supposed to mention that yet."
Kou, next to her, muttered, "Hush, lovie."
Lord Dono, with malicious Vorrutyer innocence, turned to her and inquired, "What weren't we supposed to mention?"
"Oh, but if Captain Illyan said it, it must be all right," Olivia concluded.
Captain Illyan had his brains blown out last year, thought Miles. He is not all right. All right is precisely what he is not…
Her gaze crossed Miles's. "Or maybe…"
Not, Miles finished silently for her.
Ekaterin's face, animate and amused moments ago, was turning to sculpted marble. It was not an instantaneous process; but it was relentless, implacable, geologic. The weight of it, pressing on Miles's heart, was crushing. Pygmalion in reverse; I turn breathing women to white stone… He knew that bleak and desert look; he'd seen it one bad day on Komarr, and had hoped never to see it in her lovely face again.
Miles's sinking heart collided with his drunken panic. I can't afford to lose this one, I can't, I can't. Forward momentum, forward momentum and bluff, those had won battles for him before.
"Yes, ah, heh, quite, well, so, that reminds me, Madame Vorsoisson, I'd been meaning to ask you -- will you marry me?"
Dead silence reigned all along the table.
Ekaterin made no response at all, at first. For a moment, it seemed as though she had not even heard his words, and Miles almost yielded to a suicidal impulse to repeat himself more loudly. Aunt Alys buried her face in her hands. Miles could feel his breathless grin grow sickly, and slide down his face. No, no. What I should have said -- what I meant to say was… please pass the bug butter? Too late…
She visibly unlocked her throat, and spoke. Her words fell from her lips like ice chips, singly and shattering. "How strange. And here I thought you were interested in gardens. Or so you told me."
You lied to me hung in the air between them, unspoken, thunderously loud.
So yell. Scream. Throw something. Stomp on me all up and down, it'll be all right, it'll hurt good -- I can deal with that --
Ekaterin took a breath, and Miles's soul rocketed in hope, but it was only to push back her chair, set her napkin down by her half-eaten dessert, turn, and walk away up the table. She paused by the Professora only long enough to bend down and murmur, "Aunt Vorthys, I'll see you at home."
"But dear, will you be all right…?" The Professora found herself addressing empty air, as Ekaterin strode on. Her steps quickened as she neared the door, till she was almost running. The Professora glanced back and made a helpless, how-could-you-do-this, or maybe that was, how-could-you-do-this-you-idiot, gesture at Miles.
The rest of your life is walking out the door. Do something. Miles's chair fell backwards with a bang as he scrambled out of it. "Ekaterin, wait, we have to talk --"
He didn't run till he passed the doorway, pausing only long enough to slam it, and a couple of intervening ones, shut between the dinner party and themselves. He caught up with her in the entry hall, as she tried the door and fell back; it was, of course, security-locked.
"Ekaterin, wait, listen to me, I can explain," he panted.
She turned to give him a disbelieving stare, as though he were a Vorkosigan-liveried butter bug she'd just found floating in her soup.
"I have to talk to you. You have to talk to me," he demanded desperately.
"Indeed," she said after a moment, white about the lips. "There is something I need to say. Lord Vorkosigan, I resign my commission as your landscape designer. As of this moment, you no longer employ me. I will send the designs and planting schedules on to you tomorrow, to pass on to my successor."
"What good will those do me?!"
"If a garden was what you really wanted from me, then they are all you'll need. Right?"
He tested the possible answers on his tongue. Yes was right out. So was no. Wait a minute --
"Couldn't I have wanted both?" he suggested hopefully. He continued more strongly, "I wasn't lying to you. I just wasn't saying everything that was on my mind, because, dammit, you weren't ready to hear it, because you aren't half-healed yet from being worked over for ten years by that ass Tien, and I could see it, and you could see it, and even your Aunt Vorthys could see it, and that's the truth."
By the jerk of her head, that one had hit home, but she only said, in a dead-level voice, "Please open your door now, Lord Vorkosigan."
"Wait, listen --"
"You have manipulated me enough," she said. "You've played on my… my vanity --"
"Not vanity," he protested. "Skill, pride, drive -- anyone could see you just needed scope, opportunity --"
"You are used to getting your own way, aren't you, Lord Vorkosigan. Any way you can." Now her voice was horribly dispassionate. "Trapping me in front of everyone like that."
"That was an accident. Illyan didn't get the word, see, and --"
"Unlike everyone else? You're worse than Vormoncrief! I might just as well have accepted his offer!"
"Huh? What did Alexi -- I mean, no, but, but -- whatever you want, I want to give it to you, Ekaterin. Whatever you need. Whatever it is."
"You can't give me my own soul." She stared, not at him, but inward, on what vista he could not imagine. "The garden could have been my gift. You took that away too."
Her last words arrested his gibbering. What? Wait, now they were getting down to something, elusive, but utterly vital --
A large ground-car was pulling up outside, under the porte cochère. No more visitors were due; how had they got past the ImpSec gate guard without notification of Pym? Dammit, no interruptions, not now, when she was just beginning to open up, or at least open fire --
On the heels of this thought, Pym hurtled through the side doors into the foyer. "Sorry, m'lord -- sorry to intrude, but --"
"Pym." Ekaterin's voice was nearly a shout, cracking, defying the tears lacing it. "Open the damned door and let me out."
"Yes milady!" Pym snapped to attention, and his hand spasmed to the security pad.
The doors swung wide. Ekaterin stormed blindly through, head-down, into the chest of a startled, stocky, white-haired man wearing a colorful shirt and a pair of disreputable, worn black trousers. Ekaterin bounced off him, and had her hands caught up by the, to her, inexplicable stranger. A tall, tired-looking woman in rumpled travel-skirts, with long roan-red hair tied back at the nape of her neck, stepped up beside them, saying, "What in the world…?"
"Excuse me, miss, are you all right?" the white-haired man rumbled in a raspy baritone. He stared piercingly at Miles, lurching out of the light of the foyer in Ekaterin's wake.
"No," she choked. "I need -- I want an auto-cab, please."
"Ekaterin, no, wait," Miles gasped.
"I want an auto-cab right now."
"The gate guard will be happy to call one for you," the red-haired woman said soothingly. Countess Cordelia Vorkosigan, Vicereine of Sergyar, Mother -- stared even more ominously at her wheezing son. "And see you safely into it. Miles, why are you harrying this young lady?" And more doubtfully, "Are we interrupting business, or pleasure?"
From thirty years of familiarity, Miles had no trouble unraveling this cryptic shorthand to be a serious query of, Have we walked in on, perhaps, an official Auditorial interrogation gone wrong, or is this one of your personal screw-ups again? God knew what Ekaterin made of it. One bright note: if Ekaterin never spoke to him again, he'd never be put to explain the Countess's peculiar Betan sense of humor to her.
"My dinner party," Miles grated. "It's just breaking up." And sinking. All souls feared lost. It was redundant to ask, What are you doing here? His parents' jumpship had obviously made orbit early, and they had left the bulk of their entourage to follow on tomorrow, while they came straight downside to sleep in their own bed. How had he rehearsed this vitally-important, utterly-critical meeting, again? "Mother, Father, let me introduce -- she's getting away!"
As a new distraction rose from the hallway at Miles's back, Ekaterin slipped through the shadows all the way to the gate. The Koudelkas, having perhaps intelligently concluded that this party was over, were decamping en masse, but the wait-till-we-get-home conversation had undergone a jump-start. Kareen's voice was protesting; the Commodore's over-rode it, saying, "You will come home now. You're not staying another minute in this house."
"I have to come back. I work here."
"Not any more, you don't --"
Mark's harried voice dogged along, "Please, sir, Commodore, Madame Koudelka, you mustn't blame Kareen --"
"You can't stop me!" Kareen declaimed.
Commodore Koudelka's eye fell on the returnees as the rolling altercation piled up in the hallway. "Ha -- Aral!" he snarled. "Do you realize what your son has been up to?"
The Count blinked. "Which one?" he asked mildly.
The chance of the light caught Mark's face, as he heard this off-hand affirmation of his identity. Even in the chaos of his hopes pinwheeling to destruction, Miles was glad to have seen the brief awed look that passed over those fat-distorted features. Oh, Brother. Yeah. This is why men follow this man --
Olivia tugged her mother's sleeve. "Mama," she whispered urgently, "can I go home with Tatya?"
"Yes, dear, I think that might be a good idea," said Drou distractedly, clearly looking ahead; Miles wasn't sure if she was cutting down Kareen's potential allies in the brewing battle, or just the anticipated noise level.
René and Tatya looked as though they would have been glad to sneak out quietly under the covering fire, but Lord Dono, who had somehow attached himself to their party, paused just long enough to say cheerily, "Thank you, Lord Vorkosigan, for a most memorable evening." He nodded cordially to Count and Countess Vorkosigan, as he followed the Vorbrettens to their ground-car. Well, the operation hadn't changed Donna/Dono's vile grip on irony any, unfortunately…
"Who was that?" asked Count Vorkosigan. "Looks familiar, somehow…"
A distracted-looking Enrique, his wiry hair half on-end, prowled into the great hall from the back entry. He had a jar in one hand, and what Miles could only dub Stink-on-a-Stick in the other: a wand with a wad of sickly-sweet scent-soaked fiber attached to its end, which he waved along the baseboards. "Here, buggy, buggy," he cooed plaintively. "Come to Papa, that's the good girls…" He paused, and peered worriedly under a side-table. "Buggy-buggy…?"
"Now… that cries out for an explanation," murmured the Count, watching him in arrested fascination.
Out by the front gate, an auto-cab's door slammed; its fans whirred as it pulled away into the night forever. Miles stood still, listening amid the uproar, till the last whisper of it was gone.
"Pym!" The Countess spotted a new victim, and her voice went a little dangerous. "I seconded you to look after Miles. Would you care to explain this scene?"
There was a thoughtful pause. In a voice of simple honesty, Pym replied, "No, Milady."
"Ask Mark," Miles said callously. "He'll explain everything." Head down, he started for the stairs.
"You rat-coward --!" Mark hissed at him in passing.
The rest of his guests were shuffling uncertainly into the hallway.
The Count asked cautiously, "Miles, are you drunk?"
Miles paused on the third step. "Not yet, sir," he replied. He didn't look back. "Not nearly enough yet. Pym, see me."
He took the steps two at a time to his chambers, and oblivion.