Lois McMaster Bujold, "Barrayar"

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CHAPTER Five

The Emperor's Birthday was a traditional Barrayaran holiday, celebrated with feasting, dancing, drinking, veterans' parades, and an incredible amount of apparently totally unregulated fireworks. It would make a great day for a surprise attack on the capital, Cordelia decided; an artillery barrage could be well under way before anybody noticed it in the general din. The uproar began at dawn.

The duty guards, who had a natural tendency to jump at sudden noises anyway, were twitchy and miserable, except for a couple more youthful types who attempted to celebrate with a few crackers let off inside the walls. They were taken aside by the guard commander, and emerged much later, pale and shrunken, to slink off. Cordelia later saw them hauling rubbish under the command of a sardonic housemaid, while a scullery girl and the second cook galloped happily out of the house for a surprise day off. The Emperor's Birthday was a moveable feast. The Barrayarans' enthusiasm for the holiday seemed, undaunted by the fact that, due to Ezar's death and; Gregor's ascension, this was the second time they would' celebrate it this year.

Cordelia passed up an invitation to attend a major military review that gobbled Aral's morning in favor of staying fresh for the event of the evening—the event of the year, she was given to understand—personal attendence upon the Emperor's birthday dinner at the Imperial Residence. She looked forward to seeing Kareen and Gregor again, however briefly. At least she was certain that her clothing was all right. Lady Vorpatril, who had both excellent taste and an advance line on Barrayaran-style maternity wear, had taken pity on Cordelia's cultural bafflement and offered herself as an expert native guide.

As a result, Cordelia confidently wore an impeccably cut forest green silk dress that swirled from shoulder to floor, with an open overvest of thick ivory velvet. Live flowers in matching colors were arranged in her copper hair by the live human hairdresser Alys also sent on. Like their public events, the Barrayarans made of their clothes a sort of folk-art, as elaborate as Betan body paint. Cordelia couldn't be sure from Aral—his face always lit when he saw her—but judging from the delighted "Oohs" of Count Piotr's female staff, Cordelia's sartorial art team had outdone themselves.

Waiting at the foot of the spiral stairs in the front hall, she smoothed the panel of green silk surreptitiously down over her belly. A little over three months of metabolic overdrive, and all she had to show for it was this grape-fruit-sized lump—so much had happened since midsummer, it seemed like her pregnancy ought to be progressing faster to keep up. She purred an encouraging mental mantra bellywards. Crow, grow, grow. ... At least she was actually beginning to look pregnant, instead of just feel exhausted. Aral shared her nightly fascination with their progress, gently feeling with spread fingers, so far without success, for the butterfly-wing flutters of movement through her skin.

Aral himself now appeared, with Lieutenant Koudelka. They were both thoroughly scrubbed, shaved, cut, combed, and chromatically blinding in their formal red-and-blue Imperial parade uniforms. Count Piotr joined them wearing the uniform Cordelia had seen him in at the Joint Council sessions, brown and silver, a more glittery version of his armsmen's livery. All twenty of Piotr's armsmen had some sort of formal function tonight, and had been driven to meticulous preparation all week by their frenzied commander. Droushnakovi, accompanying Cordelia, wore a simplified garment in Cordelia's colors, carefully cut to facilitate rapid movement and conceal weaponry and comm links.

After a moment for everyone to admire each other, they herded through the front doors to the waiting groundcars. Aral handed Cordelia into her vehicle personally, then stepped back. "See you there, love."

"What?" Her head swiveled. "Oh. Then that second car ... isn't just for the size of the group?"

Aral's mouth tightened fractionally. "No. It seems... prudent, to me, that we should travel in separate vehicles from now on."

"Yes," she said faintly. "Quite."

He nodded, and turned away. Damn this place. Taking yet another bite out of their lives, out of her heart. They had so little time together anymore, losing even a little more hurt.

Count Piotr, apparently, was to be Aral's stand-in, at least for tonight; he slid in beside her. Droushnakovi sat across from them, and the canopy was sealed. The car turned smoothly into the street. Cordelia craned over her shoulder, trying to see Aral's car, but it followed too far back for her even to catch a glimpse. She straightened, sighing.

The sun was sinking yellowly in a grey bank of clouds, and lights were beginning to glow in the cool damp autumn evening, giving the city a somber, melancholy atmosphere. Maybe a raucous street party—they drove around several—wasn't such a bad idea. The celebrators reminded Cordelia of primitive Earth men banging pots and firing guns to drive off the dragon that was eating the eclipsing moon. This strange autumn sadness could consume an unwary soul. Gregor's birthday was well timed.

Piotr's knobby hands fiddled with a brown silk bag embroidered with the Vorkosigan crest in silver. Cordelia eyed it with interest. "What's that?"

Piotr smiled slightly, and handed it to her. "Gold coins." More folk-art; the bag and its contents were a tactile treat. She caressed the silk, admired the needlework, and shook a few gleaming sculptured disks out into her hand. "Pretty." Prior to the end of the Time of Isolation, gold had had great value on Barrayar, Cordelia recalled reading. Cold to her Betan mind called up something like, Sometimes-useful metal to the electronics industry, but ancient peoples had waxed mystical about it. "Does this mean something?" "Ha! Indeed. It's the Emperor's birthday present."

Cordelia pictured five-year-old Gregor playing with a bag of gold. Besides building towers and maybe practicing counting, it was hard to figure what the boy could do with it. She hoped he was past the age of putting everything in his mouth; those disks were just the right size for a child to swallow or choke on. "I'm sure he'll like it," she said a little doubtfully.

Piotr chuckled. "You don't know what's going on, do you?"

Cordelia sighed. "I almost never do. Cue me." She settled back, smiling. Piotr had gradually become an enthusiast in explaining Barrayar to her, always seeming pleased to discover some new pocket of her ignorance and fill it with information and opinion. She had the feeling he could be lecturing her for the next twenty years and not run out of baffling topics.

"The Emperor's birthday is the traditional end of the fiscal year, for each count's district in relation to the Imperial government. In other words, it's tax day, except— the Vor are not taxed. That would imply too subordinate a relationship to the Imperium. Instead, we give the Emperor a present."

"Ah ..." said Cordelia. "You don't run this place for a year on sixty little bags of gold, sir."

"Of course not. The real funds went from Hassadar to Vorbarr Sultana by comm link transfer earlier today. The gold is merely symbolic."

Cordelia frowned. "Wait. Haven't you done this once this year?"

"In the spring for Ezar, yes. So we've just changed the date of our fiscal year."

"Isn't that disruptive to your banking system?"

He shrugged. "We manage." He grinned suddenly. "Where do you think the term 'Count' came from, anyway?"

"Earth, I thought. A pre-atomic — late Roman, actually — term for a nobleman who ran a county. Or maybe the district was named after the rank."

"On Barrayar, it is in fact a contraction of the term 'accountant.' The first 'counts were Varadar Tau's—an amazing bandit, you should read up on him sometime— Varadar Tau's tax collectors."

"All this time I thought it was a military rank! Aping medieval history."

"Oh, the military part came immediately thereafter, the first time the old goons tried to shake down somebody who didn't want to contribute. The rank acquired more glamour later."

"I never knew." She regarded him with sudden suspicion. "You're not pulling my leg, sir, are you?"

He spread his hands in denial.

Check your assumptions, Cordelia thought to herself in amusement. In fact, check your assumptions at the door.

They arrived at the Imperial Residence's great gate. The ambiance was much changed tonight from some of Cordelia's earlier, more morbid visits to the dying Ezar and to the funeral ceremonies. Colored lights picked out architectural details on the stone pile. The gardens glowed, fountains glittered. Beautifully dressed people warmed the landscape, spilling out from the formal rooms of the north wing onto the terraces. The guard checks, however, were no less meticulous, and the guards' numbers were vastly multiplied. Cordelia had the feeling this was going to be a much less rowdy party than some they'd passed in the city streets.

Aral's car pulled up behind theirs as they disembarked at a western portico, and Cordelia reattached herself gratefully to his arm. He smiled proudly at her, and in a relatively unobserved moment sneaked a kiss onto the back of her neck while stealing a whiff of the flowers perfuming her hair. She squeezed his hand secretly in return. They passed through the doors, and a corridor. A majordomo in Vorbarra House livery loudly announced them, and then they were pinned by the gaze of what to Cordelia for a moment seemed several thousand pairs of critical Barrayaran Vor-class eyes. Actually there were only a couple hundred people in the room. Better than, say, looking down the throat of a fully charged nerve disrupter any day. Really.

They circulated, exchanging greetings, making courtesies. Why can't these people wear nametags? Cordelia thought hopelessly. As usual, everyone but her seemed to know everyone else. She pictured herself opening a conversation, Hey you, Vor-guy—. She clutched Aral more firmly, and tried to look mysterious and exotic rather than tongue-tied and mislaid.

They found the little ceremony with the bags of coins going on in another chamber, the counts or their representatives lining up to discharge their obligation with a few formal words each. Emperor Gregor, whom Cordelia suspected was up past his bedtime, sat on a raised bench with his mother, looking small and trapped, manfully trying to suppress his yawns. It occurred to Cordelia to wonder if he even got to keep the bags of coins, or if they were simply re-circulated to present again next year. Hell of a birthday party. There wasn't another child in sight. But they were running the counts through pretty efficiently, maybe the kid could escape soon.

An offerer in red-and-blues knelt before Gregor and Kareen, and presented his bag of maroon and gold silk. Cordelia recognized Count Vidal Vordarian, the dish-faced man whom Aral had politely described as of the "next-, host-conservative party," i.e., of roughly the same political I views as Count Piotr, in a tone of voice that had made Cordelia wonder if it was a code-phrase for "Isolationist fanatic." He did not look a fanatic. Freed of its distorting anger, his face was much more attractive; he turned it now to Princess Kareen, and said something which made her lift her chin and laugh. His hand rested a moment familiarly upon her robed knee, and her hand briefly covered his, before he clambered back to his feet and bowed, and made way for the next man. Kareen's smile faded as Vordarian turned his back.

Gregor's sad glance crossed Aral, Cordelia, and Droushnakovi; he spoke earnestly up to his mother. Kareen motioned a guard over, and a few minutes later a guard commander approached them, for permission to carry off Drou. She was replaced by an unobtrusive young man who trailed them out of earshot, a mere flicker at the corner of the eye, a neat trick for a fellow that large.

Happily, Cordelia and Aral soon ran across Lord and Lady Vorpatril, someone- Cordelia dared talk to without a politico-social pre-briefing. Captain Lord Vorpatril's parade red-and-blues set off his dark-haired good looks to perfection. Lady Vorpatril barely outshone him in a camelian dress with matching roses woven into her cloud of black hair, stunning against her velvety white skin. They made, Cordelia thought, an archetypal Vor couple, sophisticated and serene, the effect only slightly spoiled by the gradual awareness from his disjointed conversation that Captain Vorpatril was drunk. He was a cheerful drunk, though, his personality merely stretched a bit, not unpleasantly transformed.

Vorkosigan, drawn away by some men who bore down on him with Purpose in their eyes, handed Cordelia off to Lady Vorpatril. The two women cruised the elegant hors d'oeuvre trays being offered around by yet more human servants, and compared obstetrical reports. Lord Vorpatril hastily excused himself to pursue a tray bearing wine. Alys plotted the colors and cut of Cordelia's next gown. "Black and white, for you, for Winterfair," she asserted with authority. Cordelia nodded meekly, pondering if they were actually going to sit down for a meal soon, or if they were expected to keep grazing off the passing trays.

Alys guided her to the ladies' lavatory, an object of hourly interest to their pregnancy-crowded bladders, and introduced her on the return journey to several more women of her rarified social circle. Alys then fell into an animated discussion with a long-standing crony regarding an upcoming party for the woman's daughter, and Cordelia drifted to the edge of the group.

She stepped back quietly, separating herself (she tried not to think, from the herd) for a moment of quiet contemplation. What a strange mix Barrayar was, at one moment homey and familiar, in the next terrifying and alien . . . they put on a good show, though ... ah! That's what was missing from the scene, Cordelia realized. On Beta Colony a ceremony of this magnitude would be fully covered by holovid, to be shared real-time planet-wide. Every move would be a carefully choreographed dance around the vid angles and commentators' timing, almost to the point of annihilating the event being recorded. Here, there wasn't a holovid in sight. The only recordings were made by ImpSec, for their own purposes, which did not include choreography. The people in this room danced only for each other, all their glittering show tossed blithely away in time, which carried it off forever; the event would exist tomorrow only in their memories.

"Lady Vorkosigan?"

Cordelia started from her meditations at the urbane voice at her elbow. She turned to find Commodore Count Vordarian. His wearing of red-and-blues, rather than his personal House livery colors, marked him as being on active service, ornamenting Imperial Headquarters no doubt—in what department? Yes, Ops, Aral had said. He had a drink in his hand, and smiled cordially.

"Count Vordarian," she offered in return, smiling, too. They'd seen each other in passing often enough, Cordelia decided to take him as introduced. This Regency business wasn't going to go away, however much she might wish it to; it was time and past time for her to star; making connections of her own, and quit pestering Aral for guidance at every new step.

"Are you enjoying the party?" he inquired.

"Oh, yes." She tried to think of something more to say. "It's extremely beautiful."

"As are you. Milady." He raised his glass to her in a gesture of toast, and sipped.

Her heart lurched, but she identified the reason why before her eyes did more than widen slightly. The last Barrayaran officer to toast her had been the late Admiral Vorrutyer, under rather different social circumstances. Vordarian had accidently mimicked his precise gesture. This was no time for torture-flashbacks. Cordelia blinked. "Lady Vorpatril helped me a lot. She's very generous."

Vordarian nodded delicately toward her torso. "I understand you also are to be congratulated. Is it a boy or a girl?"

"Uh? Oh. Yes, a boy, thank you. He's to be named Piotr Miles, I'm told."

"I'm surprised. I should have thought the Lord Regent would have sought a daughter first."

Cordelia cocked her head, puzzled by his ironic tone. "We started this before Aral became Regent."

"But you knew he was to receive the appointment, surely."

"I didn't. But I thought all you Barrayaran militarists were mad after sons. Why did you think a daughter?" I want a daughter...

"I assumed Lord Vorkosigan would be thinking ahead to his long-term, ah, employment, of course. What better way to maintain the continuity of his power after the Regency is over than to slip neatly into position as the Emperor's father-in-law?"

Cordelia boggled. "You think he'd bet the continuity of a planetary government on the chance of a couple of teenagers falling in love, a decade and a half from now?"

"Love?" Now he looked baffled.

"You Barrayarans are — " she bit her tongue on the crazy. Impolite. "Aral is certainly more . . . practical." Though she could hardly call him unromantic.

"That's extremely interesting," he breathed. His eyes flicked to and away from her abdomen. "Do you fancy de contemplates something more direct?"

Her mind was running tangential to this twisting conversation, somehow. "Beg pardon?"

He smiled and shrugged.

Cordelia frowned. "Do you mean to say, if we were having a girl, that's what everyone would be thinking?"

"Certainly."

She blew out her breath. "God. That's ... I can't imagine anyone in their right mind wanting to get near the Barrayaran Imperium. It just makes you a target for every maniac with a grievance, as far as I can see." An image of Lieutenant Koudelka, bloody-faced and deafened, flashed in her mind. "Also hard on the poor fellow who's unlucky enough to be standing next to you."

His attention sharpened. "Ah, yes, that unfortunate incident the other day. Has anything come of the investigation, do you know?"

"Nothing that I've heard. Negri and Illyan are talking Cetagandans, mostly. But the guy who launched the grenade got away clean."

"Too bad." He drained his glass, and exchanged it for a freshly charged one presented immediately by a passing Vorbarra-liveried servant. Cordelia eyed the wineglasses wistfully. But she was off metabolic poisons for the duration. Yet another advantage of Betan-style gestation in uterine replicators, none of this blasted enforced clean living. At home she could have poisoned and endangered herself freely, while her child grew, fully monitored round-the-clock by sober techs, safe and protected in the replicator banks. Suppose she had been under that sonic grenade . . . She longed for a drink.

Well, she did not need the mind-numbing buzz of ethanol; conversation with Barrayarans was mind-numbing enough. Her eyes sought Aral in the crowd—there he was, Kou at his shoulder, talking with Piotr and two other grizzled old men in counts' liveries. As Aral had predicted, his hearing had returned to normal within a couple of days. Yet still his eyes shifted from face to face, drinking in cues of gesture and inflection, his glass a mere untasted ornament in his hand. On duty, no question. Was he ever off-duty, anymore?

"Was he much disturbed by the attack?" Vordarian inquired, following her gaze to Aral.

"Wouldn't you be?" said Cordelia. "I don't know . . he's seen so much violence in his life, almost more than I can imagine. It may be almost like . . . white noise. Tuned out." I wish I could tune it out.

"You have not known him that long, though. Just since Escobar."

"We met once before the war. Briefly."

"Oh?" His brows rose. "I didn't know that. How little one truly knows of people." He paused, watching Aral, watching her watch Aral. One comer of his mouth crooked up, then the quirk vanished in a thoughtful pursing of his lips. "He's bisexual, you know." He took a delicate sip of his wine.

"Was bisexual," she corrected absently, looking fondly across the room. "Now he's monogamous."

Vordarian choked, sputtering. Cordelia watched him with concern, wondering if she ought to pat him on the back or something, but he regained his breath and balance. "He told you that?" he wheezed in astonishment.

"No, Vorrutyer did. Just before he met his, um, fatal accident." Vordarian was standing frozen; she felt a certain malicious glee at having at last baffled a Barrayaran as much as they sometimes baffled her. Now, if she could just figure out what she'd said that had thrown him... She went on seriously, "The more I look back on Vorrutyer, the more he seems a tragic figure. Still obsessed with a love affair that was over eighteen years ago. Yet I sometimes wonder, if he could have had what he wanted then—kept Aral—if Aral might have kept that sadistic streak that ultimately consumed Vorrutyer's sanity under control. It's as if the two of them were on some kind of weird see-saw, each one's survival entailing the other's destruction."

'A Betan." His stunned look was gradually fading to one Cordelia mentally dubbed as Awful Realization. "I should have guessed. You are, after all, the people who bioengineered hermaphrodites. . . ." He paused. "How long did you know Vorrutyer?"

"About twenty minutes. But it was a very intense twenty minutes." She decided to let him wonder what the hell that meant.

"Their, ah, affair, as you call it, was a great secret scandal, at the time."

She wrinkled her nose. "Great secret scandal? Isn't that an oxymoron? Like 'military intelligence,' or 'friendly fire.' Also typical Barrayaranisms, now that I think on it."

Vordarian had the strangest look on his face. He looked, she realized, exactly like a man who had thrown a bomb, had it go fizz instead of BOOM! and was now trying to decide whether to stick his hand in and tap the firing mechanism to test it.

Then it was her turn for Awful Realization. This man just tried to blow up my marriage. No—Aral's marriage. She fixed a bright, sunny, innocent smile on her face, her brain kicking—at last!—into overdrive. Vordarian couldn't be of Vorrutyer's old war party; their leaders had all met with their fatal accidents before Ezar had bowed out, and the rest were scattered and lying low. What did he want? She fiddled with a flower from her hair, and considered simpering. "I didn't imagine I was marrying a forty-four-year-old virgin. Count Vordarian."

"So it seems." He knocked back another gulp of wine. "You galactics are all degenerate . . . what perversions does he tolerate in return, I wonder?" His eyes glinted in sudden open malice. "Do you know how Lord Vorkosigan's first wife died?"

"Suicide. Plasma arc to the head," she replied promptly.

"It was rumored he'd murdered her. For adultery. Betan, beware." His smile had turned wholly acid.

"Yes, I knew that, too. In this case, an untrue rumor." All pretense of cordiality had evaporated from their exchange. Cordelia had a bad sense of all control escaping with it. She leaned forward, and lowered her voice. "Do you know why Vorrutyer died?"

He couldn't help it; he tilted toward her, drawn in "No ..."

"He tried to hurt Aral through me. I found that annoying. I wish you would cease trying to annoy me, Count Vordarian, I'm afraid you might succeed." Her voice fell further, almost to a whisper. "You should fear it, too."

His initial patronizing tone had certainly given way to wariness. He made a smooth, openhanded gesture that seemed to symbolize a bow of farewell, and backed away "Milady." The glance over his shoulder as he moved off was thoroughly spooked.

She frowned after him. Whew. What an odd exchange What had the man expected, dropping that obsolete datum on her as if it were some shocking surprise? Did Vordarian actually imagine she would go off and tax her husband with his poor taste in companions two decades ago? Would a naive young Barrayaran bride have gone into hysterics? Not Lady Vorpatril, whose social enthusiasms concealed an acid judgment; not Princess Kareen, whose naiveté had surely been burned out long ago by that expert sadist Serg. He fired, but he missed.

And, more coldly, Has he fired and missed once before? That had not been a normal social interaction, not even by Barrayaran standards of one-upsmanship. Or maybe he was just drunk. She suddenly wanted to talk to Illyan. She closed her eyes, trying to clear her fogged head.

"Are you well, love?" Aral's concerned voice murmured in her ear. "Do you need your nausea medication?"

Her eyes flew open. There he was, safe and sound beside her. "Oh, I'm fine." She attached herself to his arm, lightly, not a panicked limpet-like clamp. "Just thinking."

"They're seating us for dinner."

"Good. It will be nice to sit down, my feet are swelling."

He looked as if he wanted to pick her up and carry her, but they paraded in normally, joining the other formal pairs. They sat at a raised table set a little apart from the others, with Gregor, Kareen, Piotr, the Lord Guardian of the Speaker's Circle and his wife, and Prime Minister Vortala. At Gregor's insistance, Droushnakovi was seated with them; the boy seemed painfully glad to see his old bodyguard. Did I take away your playmate, child? Cordelia wondered apologetically. It seemed so; Gregor engaged in a negotiation with Kareen for Drou's weekly return "for judo lessons." Drou, used to the Residence atmosphere, was not so overawed as Koudelka, who was stiff with exaggerated care against betrayal by his own clumsiness.

Cordelia found herself seated between Vortala and the Speaker, and carried on conversations with reasonable ease; Vortala was charming, in his blunt way. Cordelia managed nibbles of all the elegantly served food except a slice off the carcass of a roast bovine, carried in whole. Usually she was able to put out of her mind the fact that Barrayaran protein was not grown in vats, but taken from the bodies of real dead animals. She'd known about their primitive culinary practices before she'd chosen to come here, after all, and had tasted animal muscle before on Survey missions, in the interests of science, survival, or potential new product development for the homeworld. The Barrayarans applauded the fruit- and flower-decked beast, seeming to actually find it attractive and not horrific, and the cook, who'd followed it anxiously out, took a bow. The primitive olfactory circuits of her brain had to agree, it smelled great. Vorkosigan had his portion bloody-rare. Cordelia sipped water.

After dessert, and some brief formal toasts offered by Vortala and Vorkosigan, the boy Gregor was at last taken off to bed by his mother. Kareen motioned Cordelia and Droushnakovi to join her. The tension eased in Cordelia's shoulders as they left the big public assembly and climbed to the Emperor's quiet, private quarters.

Gregor was peeled out of his little uniform and dove into pajamas, becoming boy and not icon once again. Drou supervised his teeth-brushing, and was inveigled into "just one round" of some game they'd used to play with a board and pieces, as a bedtime treat. This Kareen indulgently permitted, and after a lass for and from her son, she and Cordelia withdrew to a softly lit sitting room nearby. A night breeze from the open windows cooled the upper chamber. Both women sat with a sigh, unwinding; Cordelia kicked off her shoes immediately after Kareen did so. Distance-muffled voices and laughter drifted through the windows from the gardens below.

"How long does this party go on?" Cordelia asked. "Dawn, for those with more endurance than myself. I shall retire at midnight, after which the serious drinkers will take over."

"Some of them looked pretty serious already." "Unfortunately." Kareen smiled. "You will be able to see the Vor class at both its best and its worst, before the night is over."

"I can imagine. I'm surprised you don't import less lethal mood-altering drugs."

Kareen's smile sharpened. "But drunken brawls are traditional." She allowed the cutting edge of her voice to soften, "In fact, such things are coming in, at least in the shuttleport cities. As usual, we seem to be adding to rather than replacing our own customs."

"Perhaps that's the best way." Cordelia frowned. How best to probe delicately... ? "Is Count Vidal Vordarian one of those in the habit of getting publicly potted?"

"No." Kareen glanced up, narrowing her eyes. "Why do you ask?"

"I had a peculiar conversation with him. I thought an overdose of ethanol might account for it." She remembered Vordarian's hand resting lightly upon the Princess's knee, just short of an intimate caress. "Do you know him well? How would you estimate him?"

Kareen said judiciously, "He's rich... proud... He was loyal to Ezar during Serg's late machinations against his father. Loyal to the Imperium, to the Vor class. There are four major manufacturing cities in Vordarian's District, plus military bases, supply depots, the biggest military shuttleport. . . . Vidal's is certainly the most economically important area on Barrayar today. The war barely touched the Vordarians' District; it's one of the few the Cetagandans pulled out of by treaty. We sited our first space bases there because we took over facilities the Cetagandans had built and abandoned, and a good deal of economic development followed from that."

"That's... interesting," said Cordelia, "but I was wondering about the man personally. His, ah, likes and dislikes, for example. Do you like him?"

"At one time," said Kareen slowly, "I wondered if Vidal might be powerful enough to protect me from Serg. After Ezar died. As Ezar grew more ill, I was thinking, I had better look to my own defense. Nothing appeared to be happening, and no one told me anything."

"If Serg had become emperor, how could a mere count have protected you?" asked Cordelia.

"He would have had to become... more. Vidal had ambition, if it were properly encouraged—and patriotism, God knows if Serg had lived he might have destroyed Barrayar — Vidal might have saved us all. But Ezar promised I'd have nothing to fear, and Ezar delivered. Serg died before Ezar and... and I have been trying to let things cool, with Vidal, since."

Cordelia abstractedly rubbed her lower lip. "Oh. But do you, personally — I mean, do you like him? Would becoming Countess Vordarian be a nice retirement from the dowager-princess business, someday?"

"Oh! Not now. The Emperor's stepfather would be too powerful a man, to set up opposite the Regent. A dangerous polarity, if they were not allied or exactly balanced. Or were not combined in one person."

"Like being the Emperor's father-in-law?"

"Yes, exactly."

"I'm having trouble understanding this . . . venereal transmission of power. Do you have some claim to the Imperium in your own right, or not?"

"That would be for the military to decide," she shrugged. Her voice lowered. "It is like a disease, isn't it? I'm too close, I'm touched, infected. . . . Gregor is my hope of survival. And my prison."

"Don't you want a life of your own?"

"No. I just want to live."

Cordelia sat back, disturbed. Did Serg teach you not to give offense? "Does Vordarian see it that way? I mean power isn't the only thing you have to offer. I think you underestimate your personal attractiveness."

"On Barrayar . . . power is the only thing." Her expression grew distant. "I admit... I did once ask Captain Negri to get me a report on Vidal. He uses his courtesans normally."

This wistful approval was not exactly Cordelia's idea of a declaration of boundless love. Yet that hadn't been just desire for power she'd seen in Vordarian's eyes at the ceremony, she would swear. Had Aral's appointment as Regent accidently messed up the man's courtship? Might that very well account for the sex-tinged animosity in his speech to her ... ?

Droushnakovi returned on tiptoe. "He fell asleep," she whispered fondly. Kareen nodded, and tilted her head back in an unguarded moment of rest, until a Vorbarra-liveried messenger arrived and addressed her: "Will you open the dancing with my lord Regent, Milady? They're waiting."

Request, or order? It sounded more sinister-mandatory than fun, in the servant's flat voice.

"Last duty for the night," Kareen assured Cordelia, as they both shoved their shoes back on. Cordelia's footgear seemed to have shrunk two sizes since the start of the evening. She hobbled after Kareen, Drou trailing.

A large downstairs room was floored in multi-toned wood marquetry in patterns of flowers, vines, and animals. The polished surface would have been put on a museum wall on Beta Colony; these incredible people danced across it. A live orchestra — selected by cutthroat competition from the Imperial Service Band, Cordelia was informed — provided music, in the Barrayaran style. Even the waltzes sounded faintly like marches. Aral and the princess were presented to each other, and he led her off for a couple of good-natured turns around the room, a formal dance that involved each mirroring the other's steps and slides, hands raised but never quite touching. Cordelia was fascinated. She'd never guessed that Aral could dance. This seemed to complete the social requirements, and other couples filtered out onto the floor. Aral returned to her side, looking stimulated. "Dance, Milady?"

After that dinner, more like a nap. How did he keep up that alarming hyperactivity? Secret terror, probably. She shook her head, smiling. "I don't know how."

"Ah." They strolled, instead. "I could show you how," he offered as they exited the room onto a bank of terraces that wound off into the gardens, pleasantly cool and dark but for a few colored lights to prevent stumbles on the pathways.

"Mm," she said doubtfully. "If you can find a private spot." If they could find a private spot, she could think of better things to do than dance, though.

"Well, here we — shh." His scimitar grin winked in the dark, and his grip tightened warningly on her hand. They both stood still, at the entrance to a little open space screened from eyes above by yews and some pink feathery non-Earth plant. The music floated clearly down.

"Try, Kou," urged Droushnakovi's voice. Drou and Kou stood facing each other on the far side of the terrace-nook. Doubtfully, Koudelka set his stick down on the stone balustrade, and held up his hands to hers. They began to step, slide, and dip, Drou counting earnestly, "One-two-three, one-two-three . . ."

Koudelka tripped, and she caught him; his grip found her waist. "It's no damned good, Drou." He shook his head in frustration.

"Sh ..." Her hand touched his lips. "Try again. I'm for it. You said you had to practice that hand-coordination thing, how long, before you got it? More than once, I bet."

"The old man wouldn't let me give up."

"Well, maybe I won't let you give up either."

"I'm tired," complained Koudelka.

So, switch to kissing, Cordelia urged silently, muffling a laugh. That you can do sitting down. Droushnakovi was determined, however, and they began again. "One-two-three, one-two-three . . ." Once again the effort ended in what seemed to Cordelia a very good start on a clinch if only one party or the other would gather the wit and nerve to follow through.

Aral shook his head, and they backed silently away around the shrubbery. Apparently a little inspired, his lips found hers to muffle his own chuckle. Alas, their delicacy was futile; an anonymous Vor lord wandered blindly past them, stumbled across the terrace nook, freezing Kou and Drou in mid-step, and hung over the stone balustrade to be very traditionally sick into the defenseless bushes below. Sudden swearing, in new voices, one male, one female, rose up from the dark and shaded target zone. Koudelka retrieved his stick, and the two would-be dancers hastily retreated. The Vor lord was sick again, and his male victim started climbing up after him, slipping on the beslimed stonework and promising violent retribution. Vorkosigan guided Cordelia prudently away.

Later, while waiting by one of the Residence's entrances for the groundcars to be brought round, Cordelia found herself standing next to the lieutenant. Koudelka gazed pensively back over his shoulder at the Residence, from which music and party-noises wafted almost unabated.

"Good party, Kou?" she inquired genially.

"What? Oh, yes, astonishing. When I joined the Service, I never dreamed I'd end up here." He blinked. "Time was, I never thought I'd end up anywhere." And then he added, giving Cordelia a slight case of mental whiplash, "I sure wish women came with operating manuals."

Cordelia laughed aloud. "I could say the same for men."

"But you and Admiral Vorkosigan—you're different." "Not . . . really. We've learned from experience, maybe. A lot of people fail to."

"Do you think I have a chance at a normal life?" He gazed, not at her, but into the dark.

"You make your own chances, Kou. And your own dances."

"You sound just like the Admiral."

 

Cordelia cornered Illyan the next morning, when he stopped in to Vorkosigan House for the daily report from his guard commander.

"Tell me, Simon. Is Vidal Vordarian on your short list, or your long list?"

"Everybody's on my long list," Illyan sighed.

"I want you to move him to your short list."

His head cocked. "Why?"

She hesitated. She wasn't about to reply. Intuition, though that was exactly what those subliminal cues added up to. "He seems to me to have an assassin s mind. The sort that fires from cover into the back of his enemy."

Illyan smiled quizzically. "Beg pardon. Milady, but that doesn't sound like the Vordarian I know. I've always found him more the openly bullheaded type."

How badly must he hurt, how ardently desire, for a bullheaded man to turn subtle? She was unsure. Perhaps, not knowing how deeply Aral's happiness with her ran, Vordarian did not recognize how vicious his attack upon it was? And did personal and political animosity necessarily run together? No. The man's hatred had been profound, his blow precisely, if mistakenly, aimed.

"Move him to your short list," she said.

Illyan opened his hand; not mere placation, by his expression some chain of thought was engaged. "Very well, Milady"

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