/ Language: English / Genre:romance_sf, / Series: Barrayar

A Civil Campaign

Lois Bujold


The big groundcar jerked to a stop centimeters fromthe vehicle ahead of it, and Armsman Pym, driving, swore under his breath. Miles settled back again in his seat beside him, wincing at a vision of the acrimonious street scene from which Pym's reflexes had delivered them. Miles wondered if he could have persuaded the feckless prole in front of them that being rear-ended by an Imperial Auditor was a privilege to be treasured. Likely not. The Vorbarr Sultana University student darting across the boulevard on foot, who had been the cause of the quick stop, scampered off through the jam without a backward glance. The line of groundcars started up once more.

"Have you heard if the municipal traffic control system will be coming on line soon?" Pym asked, apropos of what Miles counted as their third near-miss this week.

"Nope. Delayed in development again, Lord Vorbohn the Younger reports. Due to the increase in fatal lightflyer incidents, they're concentrating on getting the automated air system up first."

Pym nodded, and returned his attention to the crowded road. The Armsman was a habitually fit man, his graying temples seeming merely an accent to his brown-and-silver uniform. He'd served the Vorkosigans as a liege-sworn guard since Miles had been an Academy cadet, and would doubtless go on doing so till either he died of old age, or they were all killed in traffic.

So much for short cuts. Next time they'd go around the campus. Miles watched through the canopy as the taller new buildings of the University fell behind, and they passed through its spiked iron gates into the pleasant old residential streets favored by the families of senior professors and staff. The distinctive architecture dated from the last un-electrified decade before the end of the Time of Isolation. This area had been reclaimed from decay in the past generation, and now featured shady green Earth trees, and bright flower boxes under the tall narrow windows of the tall narrow houses. Miles rebalanced the flower arrangement between his feet. Would it be seen as redundant by its intended recipient?

Pym glanced aside at his slight movement, following his eye to the foliage on the floor. "The lady you met on Komarr seems to have made a strong impression on you, m'lord . . ." He trailed off invitingly.

"Yes," said Miles, uninvitingly.

"Your lady mother had high hopes of that very attractive Miss Captain Quinn you brought home those times." Was that a wistful note in Pym's voice?

"Miss Admiral Quinn, now," Miles corrected with a sigh. "So had I. But she made the right choice for her." He grimaced out the canopy. "I've sworn off falling in love with galactic women and then trying to persuade them to immigrate to Barrayar. I've concluded my only hope is to find a woman who can already stand Barrayar, and persuade her to like me."

"And does Madame Vorsoisson like Barrayar?"

"About as well as I do." He smiled grimly.

"And, ah . . . the second part?"

"We'll see, Pym." Or not, as the case may be. At least the spectacle of a man of thirty-plus, going courting seriously for the first time in his life—the first time in the Barrayaran style, anyway—promised to provide hours of entertainment for his interested staff.

Miles let his breath and his nervous irritation trickle out through his nostrils as Pym found a place to park near Lord Auditor Vorthys's doorstep, and expertly wedged the polished old armored groundcar into the inadequate space. Pym popped the canopy; Miles climbed out, and stared up at the three-story patterned tile front of his colleague's home.

Georg Vorthys had been a professor of engineering failure analysis at the Imperial University for thirty years. He and his wife had lived in this house for most of their married life, raising three children and two academic careers, before Emperor Gregor had appointed Vorthys as one of his hand-picked Imperial Auditors. Neither of the Professors Vorthys had seen any reason to change their comfortable lifestyle merely because the awesome powers of an Emperor's Voice had been conferred upon the retired engineer; Madame Dr. Vorthys still walked every day to her classes. Dear no, Miles! the Professora had said to him, when he'd once wondered aloud at their passing up this opportunity for social display. Can you imagine moving all those books? Not to mention the laboratory and workshop jamming the entire basement.

Their cheery inertia proved a happy chance, when they invited their recently-widowed niece and her young son to live with them while she completed her own education. Plenty of room, the Professor had boomed jovially, the top floor is so empty since the children left. So close to classes, the Professora had pointed out practically. Less than six kilometers from Vorkosigan House! Miles had exulted in his mind, adding a polite murmur of encouragement aloud. And so Ekaterin Nile Vorvayne Vorsoisson had arrived. She's here, she's here! Might she be looking down at him from the shadows of some upstairs window even now?

Miles glanced anxiously down the all-too-short length of his body. If his dwarfish stature bothered her, she'd shown no signs of it so far. Well and good. Going on to the aspects of his appearance he could control: no food stains spattered his plain gray tunic, no unfortunate street detritus clung to the soles of his polished half-boots. He checked his distorted reflection in the groundcar's rear canopy. Its convex mirroring widened his lean, if slightly hunched, body to something resembling his obese clone-brother Mark, a comparison he primly ignored. Mark was, thank God, not here. He essayed a smile, for practice; in the canopy, it came out twisted and repellent. No dark hair sticking out in odd directions, anyway.

"You look just fine, my lord," Pym said in a bracing tone from the front compartment. Miles's face heated, and he flinched away from his reflection. He recovered himself enough to take the flower arrangement and rolled-up flimsy Pym handed out to him with, he hoped, a tolerably bland expression. He balanced the load in his arms, turned to face the front steps, and took a deep breath.

After about a minute, Pym inquired helpfully from behind him, "Would you like me to carry anything?"

"No. Thank you." Miles trod up the steps and wiggled a finger free to press the chime-pad. Pym pulled out a reader, and settled comfortably in the groundcar to await his lord's pleasure.

Footsteps sounded from within, and the door swung open on the smiling pink face of the Professora. Her gray hair was wound up on her head in her usual style. She wore a dark rose dress with a light rose bolero, embroidered with green vines in the manner of her home District. This somewhat formal Vor mode, which suggested she was just on her way either in or out, was belied by the soft buskins on her feet. "Hello, Miles. Goodness, you're prompt."

"Professora." Miles ducked a nod to her, and smiled in turn. "Is she here? Is she in? Is she well? You said this would be a good time. I'm not too early, am I? I thought I'd be late. The traffic was miserable. You're going to be around, aren't you? I brought these. Do you think she'll like them?" The sticking-up red flowers tickled his nose as he displayed his gift while still clutching the rolled-up flimsy, which had a tendency to try to unroll and escape whenever his grip loosened.

"Come in, yes, all's well. She's here, she's fine, and the flowers are very nice—" The Professora rescued the bouquet and ushered him into her tiled hallway, closing the door firmly behind them with her foot. The house was dim and cool after the spring sunshine outside, and had a fine aroma of wood wax, old books, and a touch of academic dust.

"She looked pretty pale and fatigued at Tien's funeral. Surrounded by all those relatives. We really didn't get a chance to say more than two words each." I'm sorry and Thank you , to be precise. Not that he'd wanted to talk much to the late Tien Vorsoisson's family.

"It was an immense strain for her, I think," said the Professora judiciously. "She'd been through so much horror, and except for Georg and myself—and you—there wasn't a soul there to whom she could talk truth about it. Of course, her first concern was getting Nikki through it all. But she held together without a crack from first to last. I was very proud of her."

"Indeed. And she is . . . ?" Miles craned his neck, glancing into the rooms off the entry hall: a cluttered study lined with bookshelves, and a cluttered parlor lined with bookshelves. No young widows.

"Right this way." The Professora conducted him down the hall and out through her kitchen to the little urban back garden. A couple of tall trees and a brick wall made a private nook of it. Beyond a tiny circle of green grass, at a table in the shade, a woman sat with flimsies and a reader spread before her. She was chewing gently on the end of a stylus, and her dark brows were drawn down in her absorption. She wore a calf-length dress in much the same style as the Professora's, but solid black, with the high collar buttoned up to her neck. Her bolero was gray, trimmed with simple black braid running around its edge. Her dark hair was drawn back to a thick braided knot at the nape of her neck. She looked up at the sound of the door opening; her brows flew up and her lips parted in a flashing smile that made Miles blink. Ekaterin .

"Mil—my Lord Auditor!" She rose in a flare of skirt; he bowed over her hand.

"Madame Vorsoisson. You look well." She looked wonderful, if still much too pale. Part of that might be the effect of all that severe black, which also made her eyes show a brilliant blue-gray. "Welcome to Vorbarr Sultana. I brought these . . ." He gestured, and the Professora set the flower arrangement down on the table. "Though they hardly seem needed, out here."

"They're lovely," Ekaterin assured him, sniffing them in approval. "I'll take them up to my room later, where they will be very welcome. Since the weather has brightened up, I find I spend as much time as possible out here, under the real sky."

She'd spent nearly a year sealed in a Komarran dome. "I can understand that," Miles said. The conversation hiccuped to a brief stop, while they smiled at each other.

Ekaterin recovered first. "Thank you for coming to Tien's funeral. It meant so much to me."

"It was the least I could do, under the circumstances. I'm only sorry I couldn't do more."

"But you've already done so much for me and Nikki—" She broke off at his gesture of embarrassed denial and instead said, "But won't you sit down? Aunt Vorthys—?" She drew back one of the spindly garden chairs.

The Professora shook her head. "I have a few things to attend to inside. Carry on." She added a little cryptically, "You'll do fine."

She went back into her house, and Miles sat across from Ekaterin, placing his flimsy on the table to await its strategic moment. It half-unrolled, eagerly.

"Is your case all wound up?" she asked.

"That case will have ramifications for years to come, but I'm done with it for now," Miles replied. "I just turned in my last reports yesterday, or I would have been here to welcome you earlier." Well, that and a vestigial sense that he'd ought to let the poor woman at least get her bags unpacked, before descending in force.

"Will you be sent out on another assignment now?"

"I don't think Gregor will let me risk getting tied up elsewhere till after his marriage. For the next couple of months, I'm afraid all my duties will be social ones."

"I'm sure you'll do them with your usual flair."

God, I hope not. "I don't think flair is exactly what my Aunt Vorpatril—she's in charge of all the Emperor's wedding arrangements—would wish from me. More like, shut up and do what you're told, Miles. But speaking of paperwork, how's your own? Is Tien's estate settled? Did you manage to recapture Nikki's guardianship from that cousin of his?"

"Vassily Vorsoisson? Yes, thank heavens, there was no problem with that part."

"So, ah, what's all this, then?" Miles nodded at the cluttered table.

"I'm planning my course work for the next session at university. I was too late to start this summer, so I'll begin in the fall. There's so much to choose from. I feel so ignorant."

"Educated is what you aim to be coming out, not going in."

"I suppose so."

"And what will you choose?"

"Oh, I'll start with basics—biology, chemistry . . ." She brightened. "One real horticulture course." She gestured at her flimsies. "For the rest of the season, I'm trying to find some sort of paying work. I'd like to feel I'm not totally dependent on the charity of my relatives, even if it's only my pocket money."

That seemed almost the opening he was looking for, but Miles's eye caught sight of a red ceramic basin, sitting on the wooden planks forming a seat bordering a raised garden bed. In the middle of the pot a red-brown blob, with a fuzzy fringe like a rooster's crest growing out of it, pushed up through the dirt. If it was what he thought . . . He pointed to the basin. "Is that by chance your old bonsai'd skellytum? Is it going to live?"

She smiled. "Well, at least it's the start of a new skellytum. Most of the fragments of the old one died on the way home from Komarr, but that one took."

"You have a—for native Barrayaran plants, I don't suppose you can call it a green thumb, can you?"

"Not unless they're suffering from some pretty serious plant diseases, no."

"Speaking of gardens." Now, how to do this without jamming his foot in his mouth too deeply. "I don't think, in all the other uproar, I ever had a chance to tell you how impressed I was with your garden designs that I saw on your comconsole."

"Oh." Her smile fled, and she shrugged. "They were no great thing. Just twiddling."

Right. Let them not bring up any more of the recent past than absolutely necessary, till time had a chance to blunt memory's razor edges. "It was your Barrayaran garden, the one with all the native species, which caught my eye. I'd never seen anything like it."

"There are a dozen of them around. Several of the District universities keep them, as living libraries for their biology students. It's not really an original idea."

"Well," he persevered, feeling like a fish swimming upstream against this current of self-deprecation, "I thought it was very fine, and deserved better than just being a ghost garden on the holovid. I have this spare lot, you see . . ."

He flattened out his flimsy, which was a ground plot of the block occupied by Vorkosigan House. He tapped his finger on the bare square at the end. "There used to be another great house, next to ours, which was torn down during the Regency. ImpSec wouldn't let us build anything else—they wanted it as a security zone. There's nothing there but some scraggly grass, and a couple of trees that somehow survived ImpSec's enthusiasm for clear lines of fire. And a criss-cross of walks, where people made mud paths by taking short cuts, and they finally gave up and put some gravel down. It's an extremely boring piece of ground." So boring he had completely ignored it, till now.

She tilted her head, to follow his hand as it blocked out the space on the ground plan. Her own long finger made to trace a delicate curve, but then shyly withdrew. He wondered what possibility her mind's eye had just seen, there.

"Now, I think," he went on valiantly, "that it would be a splendid thing to install a Barrayaran garden—all native species—open to the public, in this space. A sort of gift from the Vorkosigan family to the city of Vorbarr Sultana. With running water, like in your design, and walks and benches and all those civilized things. And those discreet little name tags on all the plants, so more people could learn about the old ecology and all that." There: art, public service, education—was there any bait he'd left off his hook? Oh yes, money. "It's a happy chance that you're looking for a summer job," chance, hah, watch and see if I leave anything to chance, "because I think you'd be the ideal person to take this on. Design and oversee the installation of the thing. I could give you an unlimited, um, generous budget, and a salary, of course. You could hire workmen, bring in whatever you needed."

And she would have to visit Vorkosigan House practically every day , and consult frequently with its resident lord. And by the time the shock of her husband's death had worn away, and she was ready to put off her forbidding formal mourning garb, and every unattached Vor bachelor in the capital showed up on her doorstep, Miles could have a lock on her affections that would permit him to fend off the most glittering competition. It was too soon, wildly too soon, to suggest courtship to her crippled heart; he had that clear in his head, even if his own heart howled in frustration. But a straightforward business friendship just might get past her guard. . . .

Her eyebrows had flown up; she touched an uncertain finger to those exquisite, pale unpainted lips. "This is exactly the sort of thing I wish to train to do. I don't know how to do it yet ."

"On-the-job training," Miles responded instantly. "Apprenticeship. Learning by doing. You have to start sometime. You can't start sooner than now."

"But what if I make some dreadful mistake?"

"I do intend this be an ongoing project. People who are enthusiasts about this sort of thing always seem to be changing their gardens around. They get bored with the same view all the time, I guess. If you come up with better ideas later, you can always revise the plan. It will provide variety."

"I don't want to waste your money."

If she ever became Lady Vorkosigan, she would have to get over that quirk, Miles decided firmly.

"You don't have to decide here on the spot," he purred, and cleared his throat. Watch that tone, boy. Business. "Why don't you come to Vorkosigan House tomorrow, and walk over the site in person, and see what ideas it stirs up in your mind. You really can't tell anything by looking at a flimsy. We can have lunch, afterward, and talk about what you see as the problems and possibilities then. Logical?"

She blinked. "Yes, very." Her hand crept back curiously toward the flimsy.

"What time may I pick you up?"

"Whatever is convenient for you, Lord Vorkosigan. Oh, I take that back. If it's after twelve hundred, my aunt will be back from her morning class, and Nikki can stay with her."

"Excellent!" Yes, much as he liked Ekaterin's son, Miles thought he could do without the assistance of an active nine-year-old in this delicate dance. "Twelve hundred it will be. Consider it a deal." Only a little belatedly, he added, "And how does Nikki like Vorbarr Sultana, so far?"

"He seems to like his room, and this house. I think he's going to get a little bored, if he has to wait until his school starts to locate boys his own age."

It would not do to leave Nikolai Vorsoisson out of his calculations. "I gather then that the retro-genes took, and he's in no more danger of developing the symptoms of Vorzohn's Dystrophy?"

A smile of deep maternal satisfaction softened her face. "That's right. I'm so pleased. The doctors in the clinic here in Vorbarr Sultana report he had a very clean and complete cellular uptake. Developmentally, it should be just as if he'd never inherited the mutation at all." She glanced across at him. "It's as if I'd had a five-hundred-kilo weight lifted from me. I could fly, I think."

So you should.

Nikki himself emerged from the house at this moment, carrying a plate of cookies with an air of consequence, followed by the Professora with a tea tray and cups. Miles and Ekaterin hastened to clear a place on the table.

"Hello, Nikki," said Miles.

"Hi, Lord Vorkosigan. Is that your groundcar out front?"


"It's a barge." This observation was delivered without scorn, as a point of interest.

"I know. It's a relic of my father's time as Regent. It's armored, in fact—has a massive momentum."

"Oh yeah?" Nikki's interest soared. "Did it ever get shot at?"

"I don't believe that particular car ever did, no."


When Miles had last seen Nikki, the boy had been wooden-faced and pale with concentration, carrying the taper to light his father's funeral offering, obviously anxious to get his part of the ceremony right. He looked much better now, his brown eyes quick and his face mobile again. The Professora settled and poured tea, and the conversation became general for a time.

It became clear shortly that Nikki's interest was more in the food than in his mother's visitor; he declined a flatteringly grownup offer of tea, and with his great-aunt's permission snagged several cookies and dodged back indoors to whatever he'd been occupying himself with before. Miles tried to remember what age he'd been when his own parents' friends had stopped seeming part of the furniture. Well, except for the military men in his father's train, of course, who'd always riveted his attention. But then, Miles had been military-mad from the time he could walk. Nikki was jump-ship mad, and would probably light up for a jump pilot. Perhaps Miles could provide one sometime, for Nikki's delectation. A happily married one, he corrected this thought.

He'd laid his bait on the table, Ekaterin had taken it; it was time to quit while he was winning. But he knew for a fact that she'd already turned down one premature offer of remarriage from a completely unexpected quarter. Had any of Vorbarr Sultana's excess Vor males found her yet? The capital was crawling with young officers, rising bureaucrats, aggressive entrepreneurs, men of ambition and wealth and rank drawn to the empire's heart. But not, by a ratio of almost five to three, with their sisters. The parents of the preceding generation had taken galactic sex-selection technologies much too far in their foolish passion for male heirs, and the very sons they'd so cherished—Miles's contemporaries—had inherited the resulting mating mess. Go to any formal party in Vorbarr Sultana these days, and you could practically taste the damned testosterone in the air, volatilized by the alcohol no doubt.

"So, ah . . . have you had any other callers yet, Ekaterin?"

"I only arrived a week ago."

That was neither yes nor no. "I'd think you'd have the bachelors out in force in no time." Wait, he hadn't meant to point that out . . .

"Surely," she gestured down her black dress, "this will keep them away. If they have any manners at all."

"Mm, I'm not so sure. The social scene is pretty intense just now."

She shook her head and smiled bleakly. "It makes no difference to me. I had a decade of . . . of marriage. I don't need to repeat the experience. The other women are welcome to the bachelors; they can have my share, in fact." The conviction in her face was backed by an uncharacteristic hint of steel in her voice. "That's one mistake I don't have to make twice. I'll never remarry."

Miles controlled his flinch, and managed a sympathetic, interested smile at this confidence. We're just friends. I'm not hustling you, no, no. No need to fling up your defenses, milady, not for me.

He couldn't make this go faster by pushing harder; all he could do was screw it up worse. Forced to be satisfied with his one day's progress, Miles finished his tea, exchanged a few more pleasantries with the two women, and took his leave.

Pym hurried to open the groundcar door as Miles skipped down the last three steps in one jump. He flung himself into the passenger seat, and as Pym slipped back into the driver's side and closed the canopy, waved grandly. "Home, Pym."

Pym eased the groundcar into the street, and inquired mildly, "Go well, did it, m'lord?"

"Just exactly as I had planned. She's coming to Vorkosigan House tomorrow for lunch. As soon as we get home, I want you to call that gardening service—get them to get a crew out tonight and give the grounds an extra going-over. And talk to—no, I'll talk to Ma Kosti. Lunch must be . . . exquisite, yes. Ivan always says women like food. But not too heavy. Wine—does she drink wine in the daytime, I wonder? I'll offer it, anyway. Something from the estate. And tea if she doesn't choose the wine, I know she drinks tea. Scratch the wine. And get the house cleaning crew in, get all those covers off the first floor furniture—off all the furniture. I want to give her a tour of the house while she still doesn't realize . . . No, wait. I wonder . . . if the place was a dreadful bachelor mess, perhaps it would stir up her pity. Maybe instead I ought to clutter it up some more, used glasses strategically piled up, the odd fruit peel under the sofa—a silent appeal, Help us! Move in and straighten this poor fellow out— or would that be more likely to frighten her off? What do you think, Pym?"

Pym pursed his lips judiciously, as if considering whether it was within his Armsman's duties to spike his lord's taste for street theater. He finally said in a cautious tone, "If I may presume to speak for the household, I think we should prefer to put our best foot forward. Under the circumstances."

"Oh. All right."

Miles fell silent for a few moments, staring out the canopy as they threaded through the crowded city streets, out of the University district and across a mazelike corner of the Old Town, angling back toward Vorkosigan House. When he spoke again, the manic humor had drained from his voice, leaving it cooler and bleaker.

"We'll be picking her up tomorrow at twelve hundred. You'll drive. You will always drive, when Madame Vorsoisson or her son are aboard. Figure it in to your duty schedule from now on."

"Yes, m'lord." Pym added a carefully laconic, "My pleasure."

The seizure disorder was the last souvenir that ImpSec Captain Miles Vorkosigan had brought home from his decade of military missions. He'd been lucky to get out of the cryo-chamber alive and with his mind intact; Miles was fully aware that many did not fare nearly so well. Lucky to be merely medically discharged from the Emperor's Service, not buried with honors, the last of his glorious line, or reduced to some animal or vegetative existence. The seizure-stimulator the military doctors had issued him to bleed off his convulsions was very far from being a cure, though it was supposed to keep them from happening at random times. Miles drove, and flew his lightflyer—but only alone. He never took passengers anymore. Pym's batman's duties had been expanded to include medical assistance; he had by now witnessed enough of Miles's disturbing seizures to be grateful for this unusual burst of level-headedness.

One corner of Miles's mouth crooked up. After a moment, he asked, "And how did you ever capture Ma Pym, back in the old days, Pym? Did you put your best foot forward?"

"It's been almost eighteen years ago. The details have gone a bit fuzzy." Pym smiled a little. "I was a senior sergeant at the time. I'd taken the ImpSec advanced course, and was assigned to security duty at Vorhartung Castle. She had a clerk's job in the archives there. I thought, I wasn't some boy anymore, it was time I got serious . . . though I'm not just sure that wasn't an idea she put into my head, because she claims she spotted me first."

"Ah, a handsome fellow in uniform, I see. Does it every time. So why'd you decide to quit the Imperial Service and apply to the Count-my-father?"

"Eh, it seemed the right progression. Our little daughter'd come along by then, I was just finishing my twenty-years hitch, and I was facing whether or not to continue my enlistment. My wife's family was here, and her roots, and she didn't particularly fancy following the flag with children in tow. Captain Illyan, who knew I was District-born, was kind enough to give me a tip, that your father had a place open in his Armsmen's score. And a recommendation, when I nerved up to apply. I figured a Count's Armsman would be a more settled job, for a family man."

The groundcar arrived at Vorkosigan House; the ImpSec corporal on duty opened the gates for them, and Pym pulled around to the porte coch?re and popped the canopy.

"Thank you, Pym," Miles said, and hesitated. "A word in your ear. Two words."

Pym made to look attentive.

"When you chance to socialize with the Armsmen of other Houses . . . I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't mention Madame Vorsoisson. I wouldn't want her to be the subject of invasive gossip, and, um . . . she's no business of everyone and his younger brother anyway, eh?"

"A loyal Armsman does not gossip, m'lord," said Pym stiffly.

"No, of course not. Sorry, I didn't mean to imply . . . um, sorry. Anyway. The other thing. I'm maybe guilty of saying a little too much myself, you see. I'm not actually courting Madame Vorsoisson."

Pym tried to look properly blank, but a confused expression leaked into his face. Miles added hastily, "I mean, not formally . Not yet . She's . . . she's had a difficult time, recently, and she's a touch . . . skittish. Any premature declaration on my part is likely to be disastrous, I'm afraid. It's a timing problem. Discreet is the watchword, if you see what I mean?"

Pym attempted a discreet but supportive-looking smile.

"We're just good friends," Miles reiterated. "Anyway, we're going to be."

"Yes, m'lord. I understand."

"Ah. Good. Thank you." Miles climbed out of the groundcar, and added over his shoulder as he headed into the house, "Find me in the kitchen when you've put the car away."

* * *

Ekaterin stood in the middle of the blank square of grass with gardens boiling up in her head.

"If you excavated there," she pointed, "and piled it up on that side, you'd gain enough slope for the water flow. A bit of a wall there, too, to block off the street noise and to heighten the effect. And the walkway curving down—" She wheeled, to encounter Lord Vorkosigan watching her, smiling, his hands stuffed in his gray trouser pockets. "Or would you prefer something more geometrical?"

"Beg pardon?" He blinked.

"It's an aesthetic question."

"I, uh . . . aesthetics are not exactly my area of expertise." He said this in a tone of sad confession, as though it might be something of which she was previously unaware.

Her hands sketched the bones of the projected piece, trying to call structure out of the air. "Do you want an illusion of a natural space, Barrayar before it was touched by man, with the water seeming like rocks and a creek, a slice of backcountry in the city—or something more in the nature of a metaphor, with the Barrayaran plants in the interstices of these strong human lines—probably in concrete. You can do really wonderful things with water and concrete."

"Which is better?"

"It's not a question of better. It's a question of what you are trying to say."

"I hadn't thought of it as a political statement. I'd thought of it as a gift."

"If it's your garden, it will be seen as a political statement whether you intended it or not."

The corner of his lip quirked as he took this in. "I'll have to think about that. But there's no doubt in your mind something could be done with the area?"

"Oh, none." The two Earth trees, seemingly stuck in the flat ground at random, would have to go. That silver maple was punky in the heartwood and would be no loss, but the young oak was sound—perhaps it could be moved. The terraformed topsoil must also be salvaged. Her hands twitched with the desire to start digging into the dirt then and there. "It's an extraordinary space to find preserved in the middle of Vorbarr Sultana." Across the street, a commercial office building rose a dozen stories high. Fortunately, it angled to the north and did not block out much light. The hiss and huff of groundcar fans made continuous counterpoint along the busy thoroughfare crossing the top end of the block, where she'd mentally placed her wall. Across the park on the opposite side, a high gray stone wall topped with iron spikes was already in place; treetops rising beyond it half-screened from view the great house holding down the center of the block.

"I'd invite you to sit while I think about it," said Lord Vorkosigan, "but ImpSec never put in benches—they didn't want to encourage loitering around the Regent's residence. Suppose you run up both contrasting designs on your comconsole, and bring them to me for review. Meanwhile, shall we walk round to the house? I think my cook will have lunch ready soon."

"Oh . . . all right . . ." With only one backward glance at the entrancing possibilities, Ekaterin let him lead her away.

They angled across the park. Around the corner of the gray wall at Vorkosigan House's front entrance, a concrete kiosk sheltered a guard in Imperial Security undress greens. He coded open the iron gate for the little Lord Auditor and his guest, and watched them pass through it, exchanging a short formal nod for Vorkosigan's thank-you half-salute, and smiling pleasantly at Ekaterin.

The somber stone of the mansion rose before them, four stories high in two major wings. What seemed dozens of windows frowned down. The short semicircle of drive curled around a brilliantly healthy patch of green grass and under a portico, which sheltered carved double doors flanked by tall narrow windows.

"Vorkosigan House is about two hundred years old, now. It was built by my great-great-great grandfather, the seventh Count, in a moment of historically unusual family prosperity ended by, among other things, the building of Vorkosigan House," Lord Vorkosigan told her cheerfully. "It replaced some decaying clan fortress down in the old Caravanserai area, and not before time, I gather."

He started to hold his hand to a palm-lock, but the doors eased soundlessly open before he could even touch it. His brows twitched up, and he bowed her inside.

Two guardsmen in Vorkosigan brown-and-silver livery stood at attention, flanking the entrance to the black-and-white stone-paved foyer. A third liveried man, Pym, the tall driver whom she'd met when Vorkosigan had picked her up earlier, was just turning away from the door security control panel; he too braced before his lord. Ekaterin was daunted. She had not received the impression when she'd seen him on Komarr that Vorkosigan maintained the old Vor formalities to quite this extent. Though not totally formal—instead of being sternly expressionless, the large guardsmen all smiled down at them, in a friendly and most welcoming manner.

"Thank you, Pym," said Vorkosigan automatically, and paused. After a moment regarding them back with a quizzical bent to his brows, he added, "I thought you were on night shift, Roic. Shouldn't you be asleep?"

The largest and youngest of the guards stood more stiffly to attention, and murmured, "M'lord."

"M'lord is not an answer. M'lord is an evasion," Vorkosigan said, in a tone more of observation than censure. The guard ventured a subdued smile. Vorkosigan sighed, and turned from him. "Madame Vorsoisson, permit me to introduce the rest of the Vorkosigan Armsmen presently seconded to me—Armsman Jankowski, Armsman Roic. Madame Vorsoisson."

She ducked her head, and they both nodded back, murmuring, "Madame Vorsoisson," and "My pleasure, Madame."

"Pym, you can let Ma Kosti know we're here. Thank you, gentlemen, that will be all," Vorkosigan added, with peculiar emphasis.

With more subdued smiles, they melted away down the back passage. Pym's voice drifted back, "See, what did I tell you—" His further explication to his comrades, whatever it was, was quickly muffled by distance into an unintelligible mutter.

Vorkosigan rubbed his lips, recovered his hostly cordiality, and turned back to her again. "Would you like to take a walk around the house before lunch? Many people find it of historical interest."

Personally, she thought it would be utterly fascinating, but she didn't want to come on like some goggling backcountry tourist. "I don't wish to trouble you, Lord Vorkosigan."

His mouth flickered to dismay and back again to earnest welcome. "No trouble. A pleasure, in fact." His gaze at her grew oddly intent.

Did he want her to say yes? Perhaps he was very proud of his possessions. "Then thank you. I should like that very much."

It was the right answer. His cheer returned in force, and he immediately motioned her to the left. A formal antechamber gave way to a wonderful library running the length of the end of the wing; she had to tuck her hands in her bolero pockets to keep them from diving at the old printed books with leather bindings which lined parts of the room from floor to ceiling. He bowed her out glass doors at the end of the library and across a back garden where several generations of servitors had clearly left very little room for any improvements. She thought she might plunge her arm to the elbow into the soil of the perennial beds. Apparently determined to be thorough, he led on into the cross-wing and down to an enormous wine cellar stocked with produce of various Vorkosigan District country farms. They passed through a subbasement garage. The gleaming armored groundcar was there, and a red enameled lightflyer tucked into a corner.

"Is that yours?" Ekaterin said brightly, nodding to the lightflyer.

His answer was unusually brief. "Yes. But I don't fly it much any more."

Oh. Yes. His seizures . She could have kicked herself. Fearing that some tangled attempt to apologize could only make it worse, she followed his shortcut up through a huge and redolent kitchen complex. There Vorkosigan formally introduced her to his famous cook, a plump middle-aged woman named Ma Kosti, who smiled broadly at Ekaterin and thwarted her lord's attempt to sample his lunch-in-preparation. Ma Kosti made it plain she felt her vast domain was underutilized—but how much could one short man eat, after all? He should be encouraged to bring in more company; hope you will come again soon, and often, Madame Vorsoisson.

Ma Kosti benignly shooed them on their way again, and Vorkosigan conducted Ekaterin through a bewildering succession of formal receiving rooms and back to the paved foyer. "Those are the public areas," he told her. "The second floor is all my own territory." With an infectious enthusiasm, he hustled her up the curving staircase to show off a suite of rooms he assured her had once been occupied by the famous General Count Piotr himself, and which were now his own. He made sure to point out the excellent view of the back gardens from the suite's sitting room.

"There are two more floors, plus the attics. The attics of Vorkosigan House are something to behold. Would you like to see them? Is there anything you'd particularly like to see?"

"I don't know," she said, feeling a little overwhelmed. "Did you grow up here?" She stared around the well-appointed sitting room, trying to picture the child-Miles therein, and decide whether she was grateful he'd stopped short of hauling her through his bedroom, just visible through the end door.

"In fact, for the first five or six years of my life, we lived at the Imperial Residence with Gregor," he replied. "My parents and my grandfather had some little, um, disagreement in the early years of the Regency, but then they were reconciled, and Gregor went off to the preparatory academy. My parents moved back here; they claimed the third floor the way I've marked off the second. Heir's privilege. Several generations in one house works best if it's a very large house. My grandfather had these rooms till he died, when I was about seventeen. I had a room on my parents' floor, though not in the same wing. They chose it for me because Illyan said it had the worst angle of fire from . . . um, it has a good view of the garden too. Would you care to . . . ?" He turned, gestured, smiled over his shoulder, and led her out and up another flight, around a corner, and part way down a long hall.

The room into which they turned did have a good window on the garden, but any traces of the boy Miles had been were erased. It was now done up as a bland guest room, with scant personality beyond what was lent it by the fabulous house itself. "How long were you here?" she asked, staring around.

"Till last winter, actually. I moved downstairs after I was medically discharged." He jerked up his chin in his habitual nervous tic. "During the decade I served in ImpSec, I was home so seldom, I never thought to need more."

"At least you had your own bath. These houses from the Time of Isolation are sometimes—" She broke off, as the door she casually opened proved instead to be a closet. The door next to it must lead into the bath. A soft glow of light came on automatically.

The closet was stuffed with uniforms—Lord Vorkosigan's old military uniforms, she realized from the size of them, and the superior tailoring. He wouldn't have been able to use standard-issue gear, after all. She recognized black fatigues, Imperial dress and undress greens, and the glittering brilliance of the formal parade red-and-blues. An array of boots stood guard along the floor from side to side. They'd all been put away clean, but the close concentrated aroma of him still permeated the warm dry air that puffed against her face like a caress. She inhaled, stunned by the military-masculine patchouli. It seemed to flow from her nose to her body directly, circumventing her brain. He stepped anxiously to her side, watching her face; the well-chosen scent he wore that she'd noticed in the cool air of his groundcar, a flattering spicy-citrus overlying clean male, was suddenly intensified by his proximity.

It was the first moment of spontaneous sensuality she'd felt since Tien's death. Oh, since years before Tien's death . It was embarrassing, yet oddly comforting too. Am I alive below the neck after all? She was abruptly aware that this was a bedroom.

"What's this one?" She kept her voice from squeaking upward much, and reached to pull out an unfamiliar gray uniform on its hanger, a heavy short jacket with epaulettes, many closed pockets, and white trim, with matching trousers. The stripes on the sleeves and assorted collar-pins encoding rank were a mystery to her, but there seemed to be a lot of them. The fabric had that odd fire-proof feel one found only in seriously expensive field gear.

His smile softened. "Well, now." He slipped the jacket off the hanger she clutched, and held it up briefly. "You've never met Admiral Naismith, have you. He was my favorite covert ops persona. He—I—ran the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet for ImpSec for years."

"You pretended to be a galactic admiral?"

"—Lieutenant Vorkosigan?" he finished wryly. "It started as a pretense. I made it real." One corner of his mouth zigged up, and with a murmur of Why not? , he hung the jacket over the doorknob and slipped out of his gray tunic, revealing a fine white shirt. A shoulder holster she'd not guessed he wore held a hand-weapon flat to his left side. Even here, he goes armed? It was only a heavy-duty stunner, but he seemed to wear it as unselfconsciously as he wore his shirt. I suppose if you are a Vorkosigan, that's how you dress every day.

He traded the tunic for the jacket and pulled it on; his suit trousers were so close a color match, he hardly needed to don the uniform pants to present his effect, or effect his presentation. He stretched, and on the return came to a posture totally unlike anything she'd seen in him before: relaxed, extended, somehow filling the space beyond his undersized body. One arm came out to prop him casually against the doorframe, and his tilted smile turned into something blazing. In a deadpan-perfect flat Betan accent that seemed never to have heard of the concept of the Vor caste, he said, "Aw, don't let that dull dirt-sucking Barrayaran bring you down. Stick with me, lady, and I'll show you the galaxy." Ekaterin, startled, stepped back a pace.

He jerked up his chin, still grinning dementedly, and began fastening the clasps. His hands reached the jacket waist, straightened the band, and paused. The ends were a couple of centimeters short of meeting at the middle, and the clasp notably failed to seat itself even when he gave it a covert tug. He stared down in such obvious dismay at this treasonous shrinkage, Ekaterin choked on a giggle.

He glanced up at her, and a rueful smile lit his eyes in response to the crinkle of her own. His voice returned to Barrayaran-normal. "I haven't had this on for over a year. Seems we outgrow our past in more ways than one." He hitched back out of the uniform jacket. "Hm. Well, you met my cook. Food's not a job for her, it's a sacred calling."

"Maybe it shrank in the wash," she offered in attempted consolation.

"Bless you. No." He sighed. "The Admiral's deep cover was fraying badly even before he was killed. Naismith's days were numbered anyway."

His voice made light of this loss, but she'd seen the scars on his chest left by the needle-grenade. Her mind circled back to the seizure she'd witnessed, on the living room floor of her and Tien's cramped apartment on Komarr. She remembered the look in his eyes after the epileptic storm had passed: mental confusion, shame, helpless rage. The man had driven his body far past its limits, in the belief, apparently, that unsupported will could conquer anything.

So it can. For a time . Then time ran out—no. Time ran on. There was no end to time. But you come to the end of yourself, and time runs on, and leaves you . Her years with Tien had taught her that, if nothing else.

"I suppose I ought to give these to Nikki to play with." He gestured casually at the row of uniforms. But his hands carefully straightened the gray jacket again on its hanger, brushed invisible lint, and hooked it back into its place in the bar. "While he still can, and is young enough to want to. He'll outgrow them in another year or so, I think."

Her breath drew in. I think that would be obscene. These relics had clearly been life and death to him. What possessed him, to make-believe they were no more than a child's playthings? She couldn't think how to discourage him from this horrifying notion without sounding as though she scorned his offer. Instead, after the moment's silence threatened to stretch unbearably, she blurted, "Would you go back? If you could?"

His gaze grew distant. "Well, now . . . now that's the strangest thing. I think I would feel like a snake trying to crawl back into its shed dead skin. I miss it every minute, and I have no wish at all to go back." He looked up, and twinkled at her. "Needle grenades are a learning experience, that way."

This was his idea of a joke, apparently. She wasn't sure if she wanted to kiss him and make it well, or run away screaming. She managed a faint smile.

He shrugged on his plain civilian tunic, and the sinister shoulder holster disappeared from view again. Closing the closet door firmly, he took her on a spin around the rest of the third floor; he pointed out his absent parents' suite, but to Ekaterin's secret relief did not offer to take her inside the succession of rooms. It would have felt very odd to wander through the famous Count and Countess Vorkosigan's intimate space, as though she were some voyeur.

They finally fetched up back on "his" floor, at the end of the main wing in a bright room he called the Yellow Parlor, which he apparently used as a dining room. A small table was elegantly set up for lunch for two. Good, they were not expected to dine downstairs in that elaborately-paneled cavern with the table that extended to seat forty-eight; ninety-six in a squeeze, if a second table, cleverly secreted behind the wainscoting, was brought out in parallel. At some unseen signal, Ma Kosti appeared with luncheon on a cart: soup, tea, an exquisite salad involving cultured shrimp and fruit and nuts. She left her lord and his guest discreetly alone after the initial flourishing serving, though a large silver tray with a domed cover which she left sitting atop the cart at Lord Vorkosigan's elbow promised more delights to come.

"It's a great house," Lord Vorkosigan told Ekaterin between bites, "but it gets really quiet at night. Lonely. It's not meant to be this empty. It needs to be filled up with life again, the way it used to be in my father's heyday." His tone was almost disconsolate.

"The Viceroy and Vicereine will be returning for the Emperor's wedding, won't they? It should be full again at Midsummer," she pointed out helpfully.

"Oh, yes, and their whole entourage. Everyone will be back on planet for the wedding." He hesitated. "Including my brother Mark, come to think of it. I suppose I should warn you about Mark."

"My uncle once mentioned you had a clone. Is that him, um . . . it?"

"It is the preferred Betan pronoun for a hermaphrodite; definitely him. Yes."

"Uncle Vorthys didn't say why you—or was it your parents?—had a clone made, except that it was complicated, and I should ask you." The explanation that leapt most readily to mind was that Count Vorkosigan had wanted an undeformed replacement for his soltoxin-damaged heir, but that obviously wasn't the case.

"That's the complicated part. We didn't. Some Komarran expatriates exiled to Earth did, as part of a much-too-baroque plot against my father. I guess when they couldn't get up a military revolution, they thought they'd try some biological warfare on a budget. They got an agent to filch a tissue sample from me—it couldn't have been that hard, I'd had hundreds of medical treatments and tests and biopsies as a child—and farmed it out to one of the less savory clone lords on Jackson's Whole."

"My word. But Uncle Vorthys said your clone didn't look like you—did he grow up without your, um, prenatal damage, then?" She gave him a short nod, but kept her eyes politely on his face. She'd already encountered his somewhat erratic sensitivity about his birth defects. Teratogenic, not genetic , he'd made sure she understood.

"If it had been that simple . . . He actually started to grow as he should, so they had to body-sculpt him down to my size. And shape. It was pretty gruesome. They'd intended him to pass close inspection as my replacement, so when I did things like have my busted leg bones replaced with synthetics, his got surgically replaced too. I know exactly how much that must have hurt. And they forced him to study to pass for me. All the years I thought I was an only child, he was developing the worst case of sibling rivalry you ever saw. I mean, think about it. Never allowed to be yourself, constantly—under threat of torture, in fact—compared with your older brother . . . By the time the plot fell through, he was on a fair way to being driven crazy."

"I should think so! But . . . how did you rescue him from the Komarrans?"

He was silent for a little, then said, "He kind of turned up on his own, at the last. As soon as he came within my Betan mother's orbit—well, you can imagine. Betans have very strict and clear convictions about parental responsibilities to clones. It surprised the hell out of him, I think. He knew he had a brother, God knows he'd had his face ground into that fact, but he wasn't expecting parents. He certainly wasn't expecting Cordelia Vorkosigan. The family has adopted him, I suppose is the simplest way of thinking about it. He was here on Barrayar for a while, then last year my mother sent him off to Beta Colony, to attend university and get therapy under the supervision of my Betan grandmother."

"That sounds good," she said, pleased with the bizarre tale's happy ending. The Vorkosigans stood by their own, it seemed.

"Mm, maybe. Reports leaking back from my grandmother suggest it's been pretty rocky for him. You see, he's got this obsession—perfectly understandable—about differentiating himself from me, so's no one could ever mistake one of us for the other ever again. Which is fine by me, don't get me wrong. I think it's a great idea. But . . . but he could have gotten a facial mod, or body sculpture, or growth hormones, or changed his eye color or bleached his hair, or anything but . . . instead what he decided to do was gain a great deal of weight. At my height, the effect is damned startling. I think he likes it that way. Does it on purpose." He stared rather broodingly at his plate. "I thought his Betan therapy might do something about that, but apparently not."

A scrabble at the edge of the tablecloth made Ekaterin start; a determined-looking half-grown black-and-white kitten hauled itself up over the side, tiny claws like pitons, and made for Vorkosigan's plate. He smiled absently, picked a couple of remaining shrimp from his salad, and deposited them before the little beast; it growled and purred through its enthusiastic chewing. "The gate guard's cat keeps having these kittens," he explained. "I admire their approach to life, but they do turn up . . ." He picked the large cover off the tray, and deposited it over the creature, trapping it. The undaunted purr resonated against the silver hemisphere like some small machine stripping its gears. "Dessert?"

The silver tray was loaded with eight different dessert pastries, so alarmingly beautiful Ekaterin thought it an aesthetic crime to eat them without making a vid recording for posterity first. "Oh, my." After a long pause, she pointed at one with thick cream and glazed fruit like jewels. Vorkosigan slipped it onto a waiting plate, and handed it across. He stared at the array longingly, but did not select one for himself, Ekaterin noticed. He was not in the least fat, she thought indignantly; when he'd played Admiral Naismith he must have been practically emaciated. The pastry tasted as wonderful as it looked, and Ekaterin's contribution to the conversation ceased for a short time. Vorkosigan watched her, smiling in, apparently, vicarious pleasure.

As she was scraping up the last molecules of cream from her plate with her fork, footsteps sounded in the hall, and men's voices. She recognized Pym's rumble, saying, " . . . no, m'lord's in conference with his new landscape designer. I really don't think he wishes to be disturbed."

A drawling baritone replied, "Yeah, yeah, Pym. Nor did I. It's official business from m'mother."

A look of extreme annoyance flashed over Vorkosigan's face, and he bit off an expletive too muffled to quite make out. As his visitor loomed in the doorway to the Yellow Parlor, his expression went very bland.

The man Pym was failing to impede was a young officer, a tall and startlingly handsome captain in undress greens. He had dark hair, laughing brown eyes, and a lazy smile. He paused to sweep Vorkosigan a mocking half-bow, saying, "Hail, O Lord Auditor coz. My God, is that a Ma Kosti lunch I spy? Tell me I'm not too late. Is there anything left? Can I lick your crumbs?" He stepped inside, and his eye swept over Ekaterin. "Oh ho! Introduce me to your landscape designer , Miles!"

Lord Vorkosigan said, somewhat through his teeth, "Madame Vorsoisson, may I make you known to my feckless cousin, Captain Ivan Vorpatril. Ivan, Madame Vorsoisson."

Undaunted by this disapproving editorial, Vorpatril grinned, bowed deeply over her hand, and kissed it. His lips lingered an appreciative second too long, but at least they were dry and warm; she didn't have to overcome an impolite impulse to wipe her hand on her skirt, when he at last released it. "And are you taking commissions, Madame Vorsoisson?"

Ekaterin was not quite sure whether to be amused or offended at his cheerful leer, but amused seemed safer. She permitted herself a small smile. "I'm only just starting."

Lord Vorkosigan put in, "Ivan lives in an apartment. I believe there is a flowerpot on his balcony, but the last time I looked, its contents were dead."

"It was winter , Miles." A faint mewing from the silver dome at his elbow distracted him. He stared at the cover, curiously tilted it up on one side, said, "Ah. One of you," and let it back down. He wandered around the table, spied the unused dessert plate, smiled beatifically, and helped himself to two of the pastries and the leftover fork at his cousin's plate. Returning to the empty place opposite, he settled his spoils, dragged up a chair, and seated himself between Lord Vorkosigan and Ekaterin. He regarded the mews of protest rising in volume from the dome, sighed, retrieved the feline prisoner, and settled it on his lap atop the fine cloth napkin, occupying it with a liberal smear of cream on its paws and face. "Don't let me interrupt you," he added around his first bite.

"We were just finishing," said Vorkosigan. "Why are you here , Ivan?" He added under his breath, "And why couldn't three bodyguards keep you out? Do I have to give orders to shoot to kill?"

"My strength is great because my cause is just," Vorpatril informed him. "My mother has sent me with a list of chores for you as long as my arm. With footnotes." He drew a roll of folded flimsies from his tunic, and waved them at his cousin; the kitten rolled on its back and batted at them, and he amused himself briefly, batting back. "Tik-tik-tik!"

"Your determination is relentless because you're more afraid of your mother than you are of my guardsmen."

"So are you. So are your guardsmen," observed Lord Vorpatril, downing another bite of dessert.

Vorkosigan swallowed an involuntary laugh, then recovered his severe look again. "Ah . . . Madame Vorsoisson, I can see I'm going to have to deal with this. Perhaps we'd best break off for today." He smiled apologetically at her, and pushed back his chair.

Lord Vorkosigan doubtless had important security matters to discuss with the young officer. "Of course. Um, it was good to meet you, Lord Vorpatril."

Impeded by the kitten, the captain didn't rise, but he nodded a most cordial farewell. "Madame Vorsoisson, a pleasure. I hope we'll see each other again soon."

Vorkosigan's smile went thin; she rose with him, and he shepherded her out into the hall, raising his wristcom to his lips and murmuring, "Pym, please bring the car around front." He gestured onward, and fell into step beside her down the corridor. "Sorry about Ivan."

She didn't quite see what he felt the need to apologize for, so concealed her bewilderment in a shrug.

"So do we have a deal?" he went on. "Will you take on my project?"

"Maybe you'd better see a few possible designs, first."

"Yes, of course. Tomorrow . . . or you can call me whenever you're ready. You have my number?"

"Yes, you gave me several of them back on Komarr. I still have them."

"Ah. Good." They turned down the great stairway, and his face went thoughtful. At the bottom, he looked up at her and added, "And do you still have that little memento?"

He meant the tiny model Barrayar, pendant on a chain, souvenir of the grim events they couldn't talk about in any public forum. "Oh, yes."

He paused hopefully, and she was stricken that she couldn't pull the jewelry out of her black blouse and demonstrate it on the spot, but she'd thought it too valuable to wear everyday; it was put away, carefully wrapped, in a drawer in her aunt's house. After a moment, the sound of the groundcar came from the porte coch?re, and he ushered her back out the double doors.

"Good day, then, Madame Vorsoisson." He shook her hand, firmly and without holding it for too long, and saw her into the groundcar's rear compartment. "I guess I'd better go straighten out Ivan." As the canopy closed and the car pulled away, he turned to stalk back indoors. By the time the car bore her smoothly out the gates, he'd vanished from view.

* * *

Ivan set one of the used salad plates down on the floor, and plunked the kitten next to it. He had to admit, a young animal of almost any kind made an excellent prop; he'd noted the way Madame Vorsoisson's cool expression had softened as he'd noodled with the furry little verminoid. Where had Miles found that astonishing widow? He sat back, and watched the kitten's pink tongue flash over the sauce, and reflected glumly on his own last night's outing.

His date had seemed such a possible young woman: University student, away from home for the first time, bound to be impressed with an Imperial Vor officer. Bold of gaze and not a bit shy; she'd picked him up in her lightflyer. Ivan was expert in the uses of a lightflyer for breaking down psychological barriers and creating the proper mood. A few gentle swoops and you could almost always evoke some of those cute little shrieks where the young lady clung closer, her chest rising and falling as her breath came faster through parted and increasingly-kissable lips. This girl, however . . . he hadn't come so near to losing his last meal in a lightflyer since being trapped by Miles in one of his manic phases for an updraft demonstration over Hassadar. She'd laughed, fiendishly, while Ivan had smiled helplessly through clenched teeth, his knuckles whitening on the seat straps.

Then, in the restaurant she'd picked, they'd met up oh-so-casually with that surly pup of a graduate student, and the playlet began to fall into place. She'd been using him, dammit, to test the pup's devotion to her cause; and the cur had rolled over and snarled right on cue. How do you do, sir. Oh, isn't this your uncle you said was in the Service? I beg your pardon. . . . The smooth way he'd managed to turn the overly respectful offer of a chair into a subtle insult had been worthy of, of Ivan's shortest relative, practically. Ivan had escaped early, silently wishing them joy of each other. Let the punishment fit the crime. He didn't know what was happening with young Barrayaran girls these days. They were turning almost . . . almost galactic , as if they'd been taking lessons from Miles's formidable friend Quinn. His mother's acerbic recommendation that he stick to women of his own age and class seemed almost to begin to make sense.

Light footsteps echoed from the hall, and his cousin appeared in the doorway. Ivan considered, and dismissed, an impulse to favor Miles with a vivid account of last night's debacle. Whatever emotion was tightening Miles's lips and pulling his head down into that bulldog-with-a-hair-up-its-butt look, it was very far from promising sympathy.

"Rotten timing, Ivan," Miles bit out.

"What, did I spoil your t?te-?-t?te? Landscape designer , eh? I could develop a sudden interest in a landscape like that, too. What a profile."

"Exquisite," Miles breathed, temporarily distracted by some inner vision.

"And her face isn't bad, either," Ivan added, watching him.

Miles almost took the bait right then, but he muffled his initial response in a grimace. "Don't get greedy. Weren't you telling me you have that sweetheart deal with Madame Vor-what's-her-name?" He pulled back his chair and slumped into it, crossing his arms and his ankles and watching Ivan through narrowed eyes.

"Ah. Yes. Well. That seems to have fallen through."

"You amaze me. Was the compliant husband not so compliant after all?"

"It was all so unreasonable. I mean, they're cooking up their kid in a uterine replicator. It's not like someone even can graft a little bastard onto the family tree these days. In any case, he's nailed down a post in the colonial administration, and is whisking her off to Sergyar. He scarcely even let us make a civil good-bye." It had been an unpleasant scene with oblique death threats, actually. It might have been mitigated by the slightest sign of regret, or even concern for Ivan's health and safety, on her part, but instead she'd spent the moment hanging on her husband's arm and looking impressed by his territorial trumpeting. As for the pubescent prole terrorist with the lightflyer whom he'd next tried to persuade to mend his broken heart . . . he suppressed a shudder.

Ivan shrugged off his retrospective moment of depression, and went on, "But a widow, a real live young widow! Do you know how hard they are to find these days? I know fellows in HQ who'd give their right hands for a friendly widow, except they have to save them for those long, lonely nights. However did you luck onto this honey-pot?"

His cousin didn't deign to answer. After a moment, he gestured to the flimsy, rolled up beside Ivan's empty plate. "So what's all this?"

"Ah." Ivan flattened it out, and handed it across the table. "It's the agenda for your upcoming meeting with the Emperor, the Empress-to-be, and my mother. She's pinning Gregor to the wall on all the final details about the wedding. Since you are to be Gregor's Second, your presence is requested and required."

"Oh." Miles glanced down the contents. A puzzled line appeared between his brows, and he looked up again at Ivan. "Not that this isn't important, but shouldn't you be on duty at Ops right now?"

"Ha," said Ivan glumly. "Do you know what those bastards have done to me?"

Miles shook his head, brows rising inquisitively.

"I have been formally seconded to my mother—my mother —as aide-de-camp till the wedding's over. I joined the Service to get away from my mother, blast it. And now she's suddenly my chain of command!"

His cousin's brief grin was entirely without sympathy. "Until Laisa is safely hitched to Gregor, and can take over her duties as his political hostess, your mother may be the most important person in Vorbarr Sultana. Don't underestimate her. I've seen planetary invasion plans less complex than what's being booted about for this Imperial Wedding. It's going to take all Aunt Alys's generalship to bring it off."

Ivan shook his head. "I knew I should have put in for off-planet duty while I still could. Komarr, Sergyar, some dismal embassy, anywhere but Vorbarr Sultana."

Miles's face sobered. "I don't know, Ivan. Short of a surprise attack, this is the most politically important event of—I was about to say, of the year, but I really think, of our lifetimes. The more little heirs Gregor and Laisa can put between you and me and the Imperium, the safer we'll be. Us and our families."

"We don't have families yet," Ivan pointed out. So, is that what's on his mind with the pretty widow? Oh ho!

"Would we have dared? I sure thought about the issue, every time I got close enough to a woman to . . . never mind. But this wedding needs to run on rails, Ivan."

"I'm not arguing with that," said Ivan sincerely. He reached down to dissuade the kitten, who had licked the plate clean, from trying to sharpen its claws on his polished boots. A few moments spent petting it in his lap bought it off from that enthusiasm, and it settled down, purring, to the serious business of digesting and growing more hairs to shed on Imperial uniforms. "So what's your widow's first name, say again?" Miles hadn't actually imparted that bit of information, yet.

"Ekaterin," Miles sighed. His mouth seemed to caress all four syllables before reluctantly parting with them.

Oh, yeah. Ivan thought back over every bit of chaff his cousin had ever inflicted upon him for his numerous love affairs. Did you think I was a stone, for you to sharpen your wits upon? Opportunities to even the score seemed to hover on the horizon like rain clouds after a long drought. "Grief-stricken, is she, you say? Seems to me she could use someone with a sense of humor, to cheer her up. Not you, you're clearly in one of your funks. Maybe I ought to volunteer to show her the town."

Miles had poured himself more tea and been just about to put his feet up on a neighboring chair; at this, they came back down with a thump. "Don't even think about it. This one is mine ."

"Really? You secretly betrothed already? Quick work, coz."

"No," he admitted grudgingly.

"You have some sort of an understanding?"

"Not yet."

"So she is not, in point of fact, anyone's but her own. At present."

Uncharacteristically, Miles took a slow sip of tea before responding. "I mean to change that. When the time is right, which it surely is not yet."

"Hey, all's fair in love and war. Why can't I try?"

Miles snapped back, "If you step in this, it will be war."

"Don't let your exalted new status go to your head, coz. Even an Imperial Auditor can't order a woman to sleep with him."

"Marry him," Miles corrected frostily.

Ivan tilted his head, his grin spreading. "My God, you are gone completely over the edge. Who'd have guessed it?"

Miles bared his teeth. "Unlike you, I have never pretended to not be interested in that fate. I have no brave bachelor speeches to eat. Nor a juvenile reputation as a local stud to maintain. Or live down, as the case may be."

"My, we are snarky today."

Miles took a deep breath; before he could speak, Ivan put in, "Y'know, that head-down hostile scrunch makes you look more hunch-backed. You ought to watch that."

After a long, chill silence, Miles said softly, "Are you challenging my ingenuity . . . Ivan?"

"Ah . . ." It didn't take long to grope for the right answer. "No."

"Good," Miles breathed, settling back. "Good . . ." Another long and increasingly disturbing silence followed this, during which his cousin studied Ivan through narrowed eyes. At last, he seemed to come to some internal decision. "Ivan, I'm asking for your word as Vorpatril—just between you and me—that you will leave Ekaterin alone."

Ivan's brows flew up. "That's a little pushy, isn't it? I mean, doesn't she get a vote?"

Miles's nostrils flared. "You have no real interest in her."

"How do you know? How do I know? I barely had a chance to say hello before you hustled her out."

"I know you. For you, she's interchangeable with the next ten women you chance to meet. Well, she's not interchangeable for me. I propose a treaty. You can have all the rest of the women in the universe. I just want this one. I think that's fair."

It was one of those Miles-arguments again, which always seemed to result oh-so-logically in Miles getting whatever Miles wanted. Ivan recognized the pattern; it hadn't changed since they were five years old. Only the content had evolved. "The problem is, the rest of the women in the universe are not yours to dispense, either," Ivan pointed out triumphantly. After a couple of decades practice, he was getting quicker at this. "You're trying to trade something you don't have for—something you don't have."

Thwarted, Miles settled back in his chair and glowered at him.

"Seriously," said Ivan, "isn't your passion a trifle sudden, for a man who just parted company with the estimable Quinn at Winterfair? Where have you been hiding this Kat, till now?"

"Ekaterin. I met her on Komarr," Miles replied shortly.

"During your case? This is recent, then. Hey, you haven't told me all about your first case, Lord Auditor coz. I must say, all that uproar about their solar mirror sure seems to have petered out into nothing." He waited expectantly, but Miles did not pick up on this invitation. He must not be in one of his voluble moods. Either you can't turn him on, or you can't turn him off. Well, if there was a choice, taciturn was probably safer for the innocent bystanders than spring-wound. Ivan added after a moment, "So does she have a sister?"


"They never do." Ivan heaved a sigh. "Who is she, really? Where does she live?"

"She is Lord Auditor Vorthys's niece, and her husband suffered a ghastly death barely two months ago. I doubt she's in the mood for your humor."

She wasn't the only one so disinclined, it appeared. Damn, but Miles seemed stuck in prick-mode today. "Eh, he got mixed up in one of your affairs, did he? That'll teach him." Ivan leaned back, and grinned sourly. "That's one way to solve the widow shortage, I suppose. Make your own."

All the latent amusement which had parried Ivan's sallies till now was abruptly wiped from his cousin's face. His back straightened as much as it could, and he leaned forward, his hands gripping his chair arms. His voice dropped to an arctic pitch. "I will thank you, Lord Vorpatril, to take care not to repeat that slander. Ever."

Ivan's stomach lurched in surprise. He had seen Miles come the Lord Auditor a couple of times now, but never before at him. The freezing gray eyes suddenly had all the expression of a pair of gun barrels. Ivan opened his mouth, then closed it, more carefully. What the hell was going on here? And how did someone so short manage to project that much menace? Years of practice, Ivan supposed. And conditioning. "It was a joke , Miles."

"I don't find it very damned amusing." Miles rubbed his wrists, and frowned into the middle distance. A muscle jumped in his jaw; he jerked up his chin. After a moment, he added more bleakly, "I won't be telling you about the Komarran case, Ivan. It's slit-your-throat-before-reading stuff, and no horseshit. I will tell you this, and I expect it to go no further. Etienne Vorsoisson's death was a mess and a murder, and I surely failed to prevent it. But I did not cause it."

"For God's sake Miles, I didn't really think you—"

"However," his cousin raised his voice to override this, "all the evidence which proves this is now as classified as it's possible to be. It follows, that should such an accusation be made against me, I can't publicly access the facts or testimony to disprove it. Think about the consequences of that for one minute, if you please. Especially if . . . if my suit prospers."

Ivan sucked on his tongue for a moment, quelled. Then he brightened. "But . . . Gregor has access. Who could argue with him? Gregor could pronounce you clear."

"My foster-brother the Emperor, who appointed me Auditor as a favor to my father? Or so everyone says?"

Ivan shifted uncomfortably. So, Miles had heard that one, had he? "The people who count know better. Where do you pick this stuff up, Miles?"

A dry shrug, and a little hand-gesture, was the only reply he got. Miles was growing unnervingly political, these days. Ivan had slightly less interest in becoming involved with Imperial politics than in holding a plasma arc to his head and pulling the trigger. It wasn't that he ran away screaming whenever the loaded topics arose; that would draw too much attention. Saunter off slowly, that was the ticket. Miles . . . Miles the maniacal maybe had the nerve for a political career. The dwarf always did have that little suicidal streak. Better you than me, boy.

Miles, who had fallen into a study of his half-boots, looked up again. "I know I have no right to demand a damned thing from you, Ivan. I still owe you for . . . for the events of last fall. And the dozen other times you saved my neck, or tried to. All I can do is ask. Please. I don't get many chances, and this one matters the world to me." A crooked smile.

Damn that smile . Was it Ivan's fault, that he had been born undamaged while his cousin had been born crippled? No, blast it. It was bloody bungled politics that had wrecked him, and you'd think it would be a lesson to him, but no. Demonstrably, even sniper fire couldn't stop the hyperactive little git. In between inspiring you to strangle him with your bare hands, he could make you proud enough to cry. At least, Ivan had taken care no one could see his face, when he'd watched from the Council floor as Miles had taken his Auditor's oath with that terrifying intensity, before all the assembled panoply of Barrayar last Winterfair. So small, so wrecked, so obnoxious. So incandescent. Give the people a light, and they'll follow it anywhere. Did Miles know how dangerous he was?

And the little paranoid actually believed Ivan had the magic to entice any woman Miles really wanted away from him. His fears were more flattering to Ivan than he would ever let on. But Miles had so few humilities, it seemed almost a sin to take this one away from him. Bad for his soul, eh.

"All right." Ivan sighed. "But I'm only giving you first shot, mind. If she tells you to take a hike, I think I should have just as much right to be next in line as the other fellow."

Miles half relaxed. "That's all I'm asking." Then tensed again. "Your word as Vorpatril, mind."

"My word as Vorpatril," Ivan allowed grudgingly, after a very long moment.

Miles relaxed altogether, looking much more cheerful. A few minutes of desultory conversation about the agenda for Lady Alys's planning session segued into an enumeration of Madame Vorsoisson's manifold virtues. If there was one thing worse than enduring his cousin's preemptive jealousy, Ivan decided, it was listening to his romantically hopefulburbling . Clearly, Vorkosigan House was not going to be a good place to hide out from Lady Alys this afternoon, nor, he suspected, for many afternoons to come. Miles wasn't even interested in a spot of recreational drinking; when he started to explain to Ivan his several new plans for gardens, Ivan pleaded duty, and escaped.

As he found his way down the front stairs, it dawned on Ivan that Miles had done him again . He'd obtained exactly what he wanted, and Ivan wasn't even sure how it had happened. Ivan hadn't had any intention of giving up his name's word on this one. The very suggestion had been quite offensive, when you looked at it from a certain angle. He frowned in frustration.

It was all wrong. If this Ekaterin woman was indeed that fine, she deserved a man who'd hustle for her. And if the widow's love for Miles was to be tested, it would certainly be better done sooner than later. Miles had no sense of proportion, of restraint, of . . . of self-preservation. How devastating it would be, if she decided to throw him back. It would be the ice-water bath therapy all over again. Next time, I should hold his head under longer. I let him up too soon, that was my mistake . . .

It would be almost a public service, to dangle the alternatives in front of the widow before Miles got her mind all turned inside out like he did everyone else's. But . . . Miles had extracted his word from Ivan, with downright ruthless determination. Forced it, practically, and a forced oath was no oath at all.

The way around this dilemma occurred to Ivan between one step and the next; his lips pursed in a sudden whistle. The scheme was nearly . . . Milesian. Cosmic justice, to serve the dwarf a dish with his own sauce. By the time Pym let him out the front door, Ivan was smiling again.


Kareen Koudelka slid eagerly into the window seat of the orbital shuttle, and pressed her nose to the port. All she could see so far was the transfer station and its starry background. After endless minutes, the usual clanks and yanks signaled undocking, and the shuttle spun away from the station. The thrilling colored arc of Barrayar's terminator slid past her view as the shuttle began its descent. The western three-quarters of North Continent still glowed in its afternoon. She could see the seas . Home again, after nearly a year. Kareen settled back in her seat, and considered her mixed feelings.

She wished Mark were with her, to compare notes. And how did people like Miles, who had been off-world maybe fifty times, handle the cognitive dissonance? He'd had a student year on Beta Colony too, when even younger than she. She realized she had a lot more questions to ask him about it now, if she could work up the nerve.

So Miles Vorkosigan really was an Imperial Auditor now. It was hard to imagine him as one of those stiff old sticks. Mark had expended considerable nervous wit at the news, before sending off a congratulatory message by tight-beam, but then, Mark had a Thing about Miles. Thing was not accepted psychoscientific terminology, she'd been informed by his twinkling therapist, but there was scarcely another term with the scope and flexibility to take in the whole complexity of the . . . Thing.

Her hand drifted down in an inventory, tugging her shirt and smoothing her trousers. The eclectic mix of garb—Komarran-style pants, Barrayaran bolero, a syntha-silk shirt from Escobar—wasn't going to shock her family. She pulled an ash-blond curl out straight and looked up at it cross-eyed. Her hair was almost grown out again to the length and style she'd had when she'd left. Yes, all the important changes were on the inside, privately; she might reveal them or not, in her own time, as seemed right or safe. Safe? she queried herself in bemusement. She was letting Mark's paranoias rub off on her. Still . . .

With a reluctant frown, she drew her Betan earrings from her ears, and tucked them into her bolero pocket. Mama had hung around with Countess Cordelia enough; she might well be able to decode their Betan meaning. This was the style that said: Yes, I'm a consenting and contraceptive-protected adult, but I am presently in an exclusive relationship, so please do not embarrass us both by asking. Which was rather a lot to encrypt in a few twists of metal, and the Betans had a dozen more styles for other nuances; she'd graduated through a couple of them. The contraceptive implant the earrings advertised could now just ride along in secret, no one's business but her own.

Kareen considered briefly the comparison of Betan earrings with related social signals in other cultures: the wedding ring, certain styles of clothing or hats or veils or facial hair or tattoos. All such signals could be subverted, as with unfaithful spouses whose behavior belied their outward statement of monogamy, but really the Betans seemed very good about keeping congruent to theirs. Of course, they had so many choices. Wearing a false signal was highly disapproved, socially. It screws it up for the rest of us, a Betan had once explained to her. The whole idea is to eliminate the weird guessing-games . You had to admire their honesty. No wonder they did so well at the sciences. In all, Kareen decided, there was a lot about the sometimes appallingly sensible Betan-born Countess Cordelia Vorkosigan that she thought she might understand much better now. But Tante Cordelia wouldn't be back home to talk with till nearly the Emperor's wedding at Midsummer, sigh.

She set the ambiguities of the flesh abruptly aside as Vorbarr Sultana drew into view below. It was evening, and a glorious sunset painted the clouds as the shuttle made its final descent. City lights in the dusk made the groundscape magical. She could pick out dear, familiar landmarks, the winding river, a real river after a year of those measly fountains the Betans put in their underground world, the famous bridges—the folk song in four languages about them rippled through her mind—the main monorail lines . . . then the rush of landing, and the final whine to a true stop at the shuttleport. Home, home, I'm home! It was all she could do to keep from stampeding over the bodies of all the slow old people ahead of her. But at last she was through the flex-tube ramp and the last maze of tube and corridor. Will they be waiting? Will they all be there?

They did not disappoint her. They were all there, every one, standing in their own little squad, staking out the best space by the pillars closest to the exit doors: Mama clutching a huge bouquet of flowers, and Olivia, holding up a big decorated sign with rainbow ribbons streaming that said WELCOME HOME KAREEN!, and Martya, jumping up and down as she saw her, and Delia looking very cool and grownup, and Da himself, still wearing his Imperial undress greens from the day's work at HQ, leaning on his stick and grinning. The group-hug was all that Kareen's homesick heart had ever imagined, bending the sign and squashing the flowers. Olivia giggled and Martya shrieked and even Da rubbed water from his eyes. Passers-by stared; male passers-by stared longingly, and tended to blunder into walls. Commodore Koudelka's all-blond commando team, the junior officers from HQ joked. Kareen wondered if Martya and Olivia still tormented them on purpose. The poor boys kept trying to surrender, but so far, none of the sisters had taken prisoners except Delia, who'd apparently conquered that Komarran friend of Miles's at Winterfair—an ImpSec commodore, no less. Kareen could hardly wait to get home and hear all the details of the engagement.

All talking at once, except for Da, who'd given up years ago and now just listened benignly, they herded off to collect Kareen's luggage and meet the groundcar. Da and Mama had evidently borrowed the big one from Lord Vorkosigan for the occasion, along with Armsman Pym to drive it, so that they all might fit in the rear compartment. Pym greeted her with a hearty welcome-home from his liege-lord and himself, piled her modest valises in beside him, and they were off.

"I thought you would come home wearing one of those topless Betan sarongs," Martya teased her, as the groundcar pulled away from the shuttleport and headed toward town.

"I thought about it." Kareen buried her grin in her armload of flowers. "It's just not warm enough here."

"You didn't actually wear one there , did you?"

Fortunately, before Kareen was forced to either answer or evade this, Olivia piped up, "When I saw Lord Vorkosigan's car I thought Lord Mark might have come home with you after all, but Mama said not. Won't he be coming back to Barrayar for the wedding?"

"Oh, yes. He actually left Beta Colony before I did, but he stopped on the way at Escobar to . . ." she hesitated, "to attend to some business of his." Actually, Mark had gone to cadge weight-loss drugs, more powerful than those his Betan therapist would prescribe for him, from a clinic of refugee Jacksonian doctors in which he had a financial interest. He would doubtless check out the business health of the clinic at the same time, so it wasn't an outright lie.

Kareen and Mark had come close to having their first real argument over this dubious choice of his, but it was, Kareen recognized, indeed his choice. Body-control issues lay near the core of his deepest troubles; she was developing an instinct—if she didn't flatter herself, close to a real understanding—of when she could push for his good. And when she just had to wait, and let Mark wrestle with Mark. It had been a somewhat terrifying privilege to watch and listen, this past year, as his therapist coached him; and an exhilarating experience to participate, under the therapist's supervision, in the partial healing he was achieving. And to learn there were more important aspects to love than a mad rush for connection: confidentiality, for one. Patience for another. And, paradoxically and most urgently in Mark's case, a certain cool and distant autonomy. It had taken her months to figure that one out. She wasn't about to try to explain it to her noisy, teasing, loving family in the back of a groundcar.

"You've become good friends . . ." her mother trailed off invitingly.

"He needed one." Desperately .

"Yes, but is he your boy friend?" Martya had no patience with subtlety, preferring clarity.

"He seemed sweet on you when he was here last year," Delia observed. "And you've been running around with him all year on Beta Colony. Is he slow off the gun?"

Olivia added, "I suppose he's bright enough to be interesting—I mean, he's Miles's twin, he has to be—but I thought he was a bit creepy."

Kareen stiffened. If you'd been cloned a slave, raised by terrorists to be a murderer, trained by methods tantamount to physical and psychological torture, and had to kill people to escape, you'd likely seem a little creepy too. If you weren't a twitching puddle. Mark was no puddle, more power to him. Mark was creating himself anew with an all-out effort no less heroic for being largely invisible to the outside observer. She pictured herself trying to explain this to Olivia or Martya, and gave up instantly. Delia . . . no, not even Delia. She needed only to mention Mark's four semiautonomous subpersonalities, each with his own nickname, for the conversation to slide downhill permanently. Describing the fascinating way they all worked together to support the fragile economy of his personality would not thrill a family of Barrayarans obviously testing for an acceptable in-law.

"Down, girls," Da put in, smiling in the dimness of the groundcar compartment, and earning Kareen's gratitude. But then he added, "Still, if we are about to receive a go-between from the Vorkosigans, I'd like some warning to prepare my mind for the shock. I've known Miles all his life. Mark . . . is another matter."

Could they picture no other role for a man in her life than potential husband? Kareen was by no means sure Mark was a potential husband. He was still working his heart out on becoming a potential human being. On Beta Colony, it had all seemed so clear. She could almost feel the murky doubt rising around her. She was glad now she'd ditched her earrings. "I shouldn't think so," she said honestly.

"Ah." He settled back, clearly relieved.

"Did he really get hugely fat on Beta Colony?" asked Olivia brightly. "I shouldn't think his Betan therapist would have let him. I thought they were supposed to fix that. I mean, he was fat when he left here ."

Kareen suppressed an urge to tear her hair, or better still, Olivia's. "Where did you hear that?"

"Mama said Lady Cordelia said her mother said," Olivia recited the links of the gossip-chain, "when she was back here at Winterfair for Gregor's betrothal."

Mark's grandmother had been a good Betan godmother to both bewildered Barrayaran students this past year. Kareen had known that she was a pipeline of information to her concerned daughter about the progress of her strange clone-son, with the sort of frankness only two Betans could have; Gran'tante Naismith often talked about the messages she'd sent or received, and passed on news and greetings. The possibility of Tante Cordelia talking to Mama was the one she hadn't considered, Kareen realized. After all, Tante Cordelia had been on Sergyar, Mama was here. . . . She found herself frantically calculating backward, comparing two planetary calendars. Had she and Mark become lovers yet, by Barrayaran Winterfair when the Vorkosigans had last been home? No, whew. Whatever Tante Cordelia knew now, she hadn't known it then.

"I thought the Betans could tweak your brain chemistry around any way they wanted," said Martya. "Couldn't they just normalize him, blip, like that? Why's it take so long?"

"That's just the point," Kareen said. "Mark spent most of his life having his body and mind forcibly jerked around by other people. He needs the time to figure out who he is when people aren't pumping him full of stuff from the outside. Time to establish a baseline, his therapist says. He has a Thing about drugs, you see." Though not, evidently, the ones he got himself from refugee Jacksonians. "When he's ready—well, never mind."

"Did his therapy make any progress, then?" Mama asked dubiously.

"Oh, yes, lots," said Kareen, glad to be able to say something unequivocally positive about Mark at last.

"What kind?" asked her puzzled mother.

Kareen pictured herself gibbering, Well, he's gotten completely over his torture-induced impotence, and been trained how to be a gentle and attentive lover. His therapist says she's terribly proud of him, and Grunt is just ecstatic. Gorge would be a reasonable gourmand, if it weren't for his being co-opted by Howl to meet Howl's needs, and it was me who figured out that was what was really going on with the eating binges. Mark's therapist congratulated me for my observation and insight, and loaded me down with catalogs for five different Betan therapist training programs, and told me she'd help me find scholarships if I was interested. She doesn't quite know what to do about Killer yet, but Killer doesn't bother me. I can't deal with Howl. And that's one year's progress. And oh yes, through all this private stress and strain Mark maintained top standing in his high-powered finance school, does anybody care? "It's pretty complicated to explain," she managed at last.

Time to change the subject. Surely someone else's love interest could be publicly dissected. "Delia! Does your Komarran commodore know Gregor's Komarran fianc?e? Have you met her yet?"

Delia perked up. "Yes, Duv knew Laisa back on Komarr. They shared some, um, academic interests."

Martya chimed in, "She's cute, short, and plump. She has the most striking blue-green eyes, and she's going to set a fashion in padded bras. You'll be right in. Did you gain weight this year?"

"We've all met Laisa," Mama intervened before this theme could be developed into acrimony. "She seems very nice. Very intelligent."

"Yes," said Delia, shooting Martya a look of scorn. "Duv and I hope Gregor doesn't waste her in public relations, though she'll have to do some, of course. She has Komarran training in economics. She could run Ministerial committees, Duv says, if they'd let her. At least the Old Vor can't shuffle her off to be a brood mare. Gregor and Laisa have already let it be quietly known they plan to use uterine replicators for their babies."

"Are they getting any argument about that from the high traditionalists?" Kareen asked.

"If they do, Gregor's said he'll send 'em to argue with Lady Cordelia." Martya giggled. "If they dare."

"She'll hand them back their heads on a plate if they try," Da said cheerfully. "And they know she can. Besides, we can always help out by pointing to Kareen and Olivia as proof positive that replicators give fine results."

Kareen grinned. Olivia smiled more faintly. Their family's own demographics marked the arrival of that galactic technology on Barrayar; the Koudelkas had been among the first ordinary Barrayarans to chance the new gestation method, for their two younger daughters. Being presented to all and sundry like a prize agricultural exhibit at a District Fair got to be a weary pain after a while, but Kareen supposed it was a public service. There'd been much less of that lately, as the technology became widely accepted, at least in the cities and by those who could afford it. For the first time, she wondered how the Control Sisters, Delia and Martya, had felt about it.

"What do the Komarrans think of the marriage, does your Duv say?" Kareen asked Delia.

"It's a mixed reception, but what else do you expect from a conquered world? The Imperial Household means to put all the positive propaganda spin on it they can, of course. Right down to doing the wedding over again on Komarr in the Komarran style, poor Gregor and Laisa. All ImpSec leaves are canceled from now till after the second ceremony, so that means Duv's and my wedding plans are on hold till then." She heaved a large sigh. "Well, I'd rather have his undivided attention when I do finally get it. He's scrambling to get on top of his new job, and as the first Komarran to head Komarran Affairs he knows every eye in the Imperium is on him. Especially if anything goes wrong." She grimaced. "Speaking of people's heads on plates."

Delia had changed, this past year. Last time she'd spoken of Imperial events, the conversation had revolved around what to wear, not that color-coordinating the Koudelkas wasn't a challenge in its own right. Kareen began to think she might like this Duv Galeni fellow. A brother-in-law, hm. It was a concept to get used to.

And then the groundcar rounded the last corner, and home loomed up. The Koudelkas' residence was the end house in a block-row, a capacious three stories high and with a greedy share of windows overlooking a crescent-shaped park, smack in the middle of the capital and not half a dozen blocks from Vorkosigan House itself. The young couple had purchased it twenty-five years ago, when Da had been personal military aide to the Regent, and Mama had quit her ImpSec post as bodyguard to Gregor and his foster-mother Lady Cordelia in order to have Delia. Kareen couldn't begin to calculate how much its value must have appreciated since then, though she bet Mark could. An academic exercise—who could bear to sell the dear old place, creaky as it was? She bounded out of the car, wild with joy.

It was late in the evening before Kareen had a chance to talk privately with her parents. First there had to be the unpacking, and the distribution of presents, and the reclaiming of her room from the stowage her sisters had ruthlessly dumped there during her absence. Then there was the big family dinner, with all three of her best old girlfriends invited. Everybody talked and talked, except Da of course, who sipped wine and looked smug to be sitting down to dinner with eight women. In all the camouflaging chatter Kareen only gradually became aware that she was wrapping away in private silence the things that mattered most intensely to her. That felt very strange.

Now she perched on the bed in her parents' room as they readied for sleep. Mama was running through her set series of isometric exercises, as she'd done every night for as long as Kareen could remember. Even after two body-births and all those years, she still maintained an athlete's muscle tone. Da limped across the room and set his swordstick up by his side of the bed, sat awkwardly, and watched Mama with a little smile. His hair was all gray now, Kareen noticed; Mama's braided mane still maintained her tawny blond without cosmetic assistance, though it was getting a silvery sheen to it. Da's clumsy hands began the task of removing his half-boots. Kareen's eye was having trouble readjusting. Barrayarans in their mid-fifties looked like Betans in their mid-seventies, or even mid-eighties; and her parents had lived hard in their youth, through war and service. Kareen cleared her throat.

"About next year's," she began with a bright smile, "school."

"You are planning on the District University, aren't you?" said Mama, chinning herself gently on the bar hung from the ceiling joists, swinging her legs out horizontally, and holding them there for a silent count of twenty. "We didn't pinch marks to provide you with a galactic education to have you quit halfway. That would be heartbreaking."

"Oh, yes, I want to keep going. I want to go back to Beta Colony." There.

A brief silence. Then Da, plaintively: "But you just got home , lovie."

"And I wanted to come home," she assured him. "I wanted to see you all. I just thought . . . it wasn't too soon to begin planning. Knowing it's a big thing."

"Campaigning?" Da raised an eyebrow.

She controlled irritation. It wasn't as though she were a little girl begging for a pony. This was her whole life on the line, here. "Planning. Seriously."

Mama said slowly, perhaps because she was thinking or perhaps because she was folding herself upside-down, "Do you know what you would study this time? The work you selected last year seemed a trifle . . . eclectic."

"I did well in all my classes," Kareen defended herself.

"All fourteen completely unrelated courses," murmured Da. "This is true."

"There was so much to choose from."

"There is much to choose from at Vorbarr Sultana District," Mama pointed out. "More than you could learn in a couple of lifetimes, even Betan lifetimes. And the commute is much less costly."

But Mark won't be at Vorbarr Sultana. He'll be back on Beta. "Mark's therapist was telling me about some scholarships in her field."

"Is that your latest interest?" asked Da. "Psycho-engineering?"

"I'm not sure," she said honestly. "Itis interesting, the way they do it on Beta." But was it psychology in general that entranced her, or just Mark's psychology? She couldn't really say. Well . . . maybe she could. She just didn't entirely like how the answer sounded.

"No doubt," said Mama, "any practical galactic medical or technical training would be welcome back here. If you could focus on one long enough to . . . The problem is money, love. Without Lady Cordelia's scholarship, we couldn't have dreamed of sending you off world. And as far as I know, her next year's grant has already been awarded to another girl."

"I didn't expect to ask her for anything more. She's done so much for me already. But there is the possibility of a Betan scholarship. And I could work this summer. That, plus what you would have spent anyway on the District University . . . you wouldn't expect a little thing like money to stop, say, Lord Miles?"

"I wouldn't expect plasma arc fire to stop Miles." Da grinned. "But he is, shall we say, a special case."

Kareen wondered momentarily what fueled Miles's famous drive. Was it frustrated anger, like the kind now heating her determination? How much anger? Did Mark, in his exaggerated wariness of his progenitor and twin, realize something about Miles that had eluded her? "Surely we can come up with some solution. If we all try."

Mama and Da exchanged a look. Da said, "I'm afraid things are a bit in the hole to start with. Between schooling for all of you, and your late grandmother Koudelka's illness . . . we mortgaged the house by the sea two years ago."

Mama chimed in, "We'll be renting it out this summer, all but a week. We figure with all the events at Midsummer we'll hardly have time to get out of the capital anyway."

"And your mama is now teaching self-defense and security classes for Ministerial employees," Da added. "So she's doing all she can. I'm afraid there aren't too many sources of cash left that haven't already been pressed into service."

"I enjoy the teaching," Mama said. Reassuring him? She added to Kareen, "And it's better than selling the summer place to clear the debt, which for a time we were afraid we'd have to do."

Lose the house by the sea, focus of her childhood? Kareen was horrified. Lady Alys Vorpatril herself had given the house on the eastern shore to the Koudelkas for a wedding present, all those years ago; something about saving her and baby Lord Ivan's lives in the War of Vordarian's Pretendership. Kareen hadn't known finances were so tight. Until she counted up the number of sisters ahead of her, and multiplied their needs . . . um.

"It could be worse," Da said cheerfully. "Think of what floating this harem would have been like back in the days of dowries!"

Kareen smiled dutifully—he'd been making that joke for at least fifteen years—and fled. She was going to have to come up with another solution. By herself.

* * *

The decor of the Green Room in the Imperial Residence was superior to that of any other conference chamber in which Miles had ever been trapped. Antique silk wall coverings, heavy drapes and thick carpeting gave it a hushed, serious, and somewhat submarine air, and the elegant tea laid out in elaborate service on the inlaid sideboard beat the extruded-food-in-plastic of the average military meeting all hollow. Spring sunshine streamed through the windows to make warm golden bars across the floor. Miles had been watching them hypnotically shift as the morning stretched.

An inescapable military tone was lent to the proceedings by the presence of three men in uniform: Colonel Lord Vortala the Younger, head of the ImpSec task force assigned to provide security for the Emperor's wedding; Captain Ivan Vorpatril, dutifully keeping notes for Lady Alys Vorpatril, just as he would have done as aide to his commander at any military HQ conference; and Commodore Duv Galeni, chief of Komarran Affairs for ImpSec, preparing for the day when the whole show would be replayed on Komarr. Miles wondered if Galeni, forty and saturnine, was picking up ideas for his own wedding with Delia Koudelka, or whether he had enough sense of self-preservation to hide out and leave it all to the highly competent, not to mention assertive, Koudelka women. All five of them. Miles would offer Vorkosigan House to Duv as a sanctuary, except the girls would certainly track him there.

Gregor and Laisa seemed to be holding up well so far. Emperor Gregor in his mid-thirties was tall and thin, dark and dry. Dr. Laisa Toscane was short, with ash-blond curls and blue-green eyes that narrowed often in amusement, and a figure that made Miles, for one, just want to sort of fall over on top of her and burrow in for the winter. No treason implied; he did not begrudge Gregor his good fortune. In fact, Miles regarded the months of public ceremony which were keeping Gregor from that consummation as a cruelty little short of sadistic. Assuming, of course, that they were keeping . . .

The voices droned on; Miles's thoughts drifted further. Dreamily, he wondered where he and Ekaterin might hold their future wedding. In the ballroom of Vorkosigan House, in the eye of the Empire? The place might not hold a big enough mob. He wanted witnesses, for this. Or did he, as heir to his father's Countship, have a political obligation to stage it at the Vorkosigan's District capital of Hassadar? The modern Count's Residence at Hassadar had always seemed more like a hotel than a home, attached as it was to all those District bureaucratic offices lining the city's main square. The most romantic site would be the house at Vorkosigan Surleau, in the gardens overlooking the Long Lake. An outdoor wedding, yes, he bet Ekaterin would like that. In a sense, it would give Sergeant Bothari a chance to attend, and General Piotr too. Did you ever believe such a day would come for me, Grandfather? The attraction of that venue would depend on the time of year, of course—high summer would be glorious, but it wouldn't seem so romantic in a mid-winter sleet storm. He wasn't at all sure he could bring Ekaterin up to the matrimonial fence before fall, and delaying the ceremony till next spring would be as agonizing as what was being done to Gregor. . . .

Laisa, across the conference table from Miles, flipped over the next page of her stack of flimsies, read down it for a few seconds, and said, "You people can't be serious !" Gregor, seated beside her, looked alarmed, and leaned to peer over her shoulder.

Oh, we must have got to page twelve already. Quickly, Miles found his place again on the agenda, and sat up and tried to look attentive.

Lady Alys gave him a dry glance, before turning her attention to Laisa. This half-year-long nuptial ordeal, from the betrothal ceremonies this past Winterfair to the wedding upcoming at Midsummer, was the cap and crown of Lady Alys's career as Gregor's official hostess. She'd made it clear that Things Would Be Done Properly.

The problem came in defining the term Properly . The most recent wedding of a ruling emperor had been the scrambling mid-war union of Gregor's grandfather Emperor Ezar to the sister of the soon-to-be-late Mad Emperor Yuri, which for a number of sound historical and aesthetic reasons Alys was loath to take as a model. Most other emperors had been safely married for years before they landed on the throne. Prior to Ezar one had to go back almost two hundred years, to the marriage of Vlad Vorbarra le Savante and Lady Vorlightly, in the most gaudily archaic period of the Time of Isolation.

"They didn't really make the poor bride strip to the buff in front of all their wedding guests, did they?" Laisa asked, pointing out the offending passage of historical quotation to Gregor.

"Oh, Vlad had to strip too," Gregor assured her earnestly. "The in-laws would have insisted. It was in the nature of a warranty inspection. Just in case any mutations turned up in future offspring, each side wanted to be able to assert it wasn't their kin's fault."

"The custom has largely died out in recent years," Lady Alys remarked, "except in some of the backcountry districts in certain language groups."

"She means the Greekie hicks," Ivan helpfully interpreted this for offworld-born Laisa. His mother frowned at this bluntness.

Miles cleared his throat. "The Emperor's wedding may be counted on to reinvigorate any old customs it takes up and displays. Personally, I'd prefer that this not be one of them."

"Spoilsport," said Ivan. "I think it would reintroduce a lot of excitement to wedding parties. It could be a better draw than the competitive toasting."

"Followed later in the evening by the competitive vomiting," Miles murmured. "Not to mention the thrilling, if erratic, Vor crawling races. I think you won one of those once, didn't you, Ivan?"

"I'm surprised you remember. Aren't you usually the first to pass out?"

"Gentlemen," said Lady Alys coldly. "We have a great deal of material yet to get through in this meeting. And neither of you is leaving till we are finished." She let that hang quellingly in the air for a moment, for emphasis, then went on. "I wouldn't expect to exactly reproduce that old custom, Laisa, but I put it on the list because it does represent something of cultural importance to the more conservative Barrayarans. I was hoping we might come up with an updated version which would serve the same psychological purpose."

Duv Galeni's dark brows lowered in a thoughtful frown. "Publish their gene scans?" he suggested.

Gregor grimaced, but then took his fianc?e's hand and gripped it, and smiled at her. "I'm sure Laisa's would be just fine."

"Well, of course it is," she began. "My parents had it checked before I ever went into the uterine replicator—"

Gregor kissed her palm. "Yes, and I'll bet you were a darling blastocyst."

She grinned giddily at him. Alys smiled faintly, in brief indulgence. Ivan looked mildly nauseated. Colonel Vortala, ImpSec trained and with years of experience on the Vorbarr Sultana scene, managed to look pleasantly blank. Galeni, nearly as good, appeared only a little stiff.

Miles took this strategic moment to lean across and ask Galeni in an undertone, "Kareen's home, has Delia told you?"

Galeni brightened. "Yes. I expect I'll see her tonight."

"I want to do something for a welcome-home. I was thinking of inviting the whole Koudelka clan for dinner soon. Interested?"


Gregor tore his besotted gaze from Laisa's, leaned back, and said mildly, "Thank you, Duv. And what other ideas does anyone have?"

Gregor was clearly not interested in making his gene-scan public knowledge. Miles thought through several regional variants of the old custom. "You could make it a sort of a levee. Each set of parental in-laws, or whoever you think ought to have the right and the voice, plus a physician of their choice gets to visit the opposite member of the couple on the morning of the wedding, for a brief physical. Each delegation publicly announces itself satisfied at some appropriate point of the ceremony. Private inspection, public assurance. Modesty, honor, and paranoia all get served."

"And you could be given your tranquilizers at the same time," Ivan pointed out, with gruesome cheer. "Bet you'll both need 'em by then."

"Thank you, Ivan," murmured Gregor. "So thoughtful." Laisa could only nod in amused agreement.

Lady Alys's eyes narrowed in calculation. "Gregor, Laisa? Is that idea mutually acceptable?"

"It works for me," said Gregor.

"I don't think my parents would mind going along with it," said Laisa. "Um . . . who would stand in for your parents, Gregor?"

"Count and Countess Vorkosigan will be taking their place on the wedding circle, of course," said Gregor. "I'd assume it would be them . . . ah, Miles?"

"Mother wouldn't blink," said Miles, "though I can't guarantee she wouldn't make rude comments about Barrayarans. Father . . ."

A more politically-guarded silence fell around the table. More than one eye drifted to Duv Galeni, whose jaw tightened slightly.

"Duv, Laisa." Lady Alys tapped one perfectly enameled fingernail on the polished tabletop. "Komarran socio-political response on this one. Frankly, please."

"I have no personal objection to Count Vorkosigan," said Laisa.

Galeni sighed. "Any . . . ambiguity that we can sidestep, I believe we should."

Nicely put, Duv. You'll be a politician yet. "In other words, sending the Butcher of Komarr to ogle their nekkid sacrificial maiden would be about as popular as plague with the Komarrans back home," Miles put in, since no one else could. Well, Ivan maybe. Lady Alys would have had to grope for several more moments to come up with a polite locution for the problem. Galeni shot him a medium-grateful glower. "Perfectly understandable," Miles went on. "If the lack of symmetry isn't too obvious, send Mother and Aunt Alys as the delegation from Gregor's side, with maybe one of the female cousins from his mother Princess Kareen's family. It'll fly for the Barrayaran conservatives because guarding the genome always was women's work."

The Barrayarans around the table grunted agreement. Lady Alys smiled shortly, and ticked off the item.

A complicated, and lengthy, debate ensued over whether the couple should repeat their vows in all four of Barrayar's languages. After that came thirty minutes of discussion on how to handle domestic and galactic newsfeeds, in which Miles adroitly, and with Galeni's strong support, managed to avoid collecting any more tasks requiring his personal handling. Lady Alys flipped to the next page, and frowned. "By the way, Gregor, have you decided what you're going to do about the Vorbretten case yet?"

Gregor shook his head. "I'm trying to avoid making any public utterance on that one for the moment. At least till the Council of Counts gets done trampling about in it. Whichever way they fall out, the loser's appeal will doubtless land in my lap within minutes of their decision."

Miles glanced at his agenda in confusion. The next item read Meal Schedules . "Vorbretten case?"

"Surely you've heard the scandal—" began Lady Alys. "Oh, that's right, you were on Komarr when it broke. Didn't Ivan fill you in? Poor Ren?. The whole family's in an uproar."

"Has something happened to Ren? Vorbretten?" Miles asked, alarmed. Ren? had been a couple of years ahead of Miles at the Academy, and looked to be following in his brilliant father's footsteps. Commodore Lord Vorbretten had been a star prot?g? of Miles's father on the General Staff, until his untimely, if heroic, death by Cetagandan fire in the war of the Hegen Hub a decade past. Less than a year later, old Count Vorbretten had died, some said in grief for the loss of his beloved eldest son; Ren? had been forced to give up his promising military career and take up his duties as Count of his family's District. Three years ago, in a whirlwind romance that had been the delight of Vorbarr Sultana, he'd married the gorgeous eighteen-year-old daughter of the wealthy Lord Vorkeres. Them what has, gets , as they said in the backcountry.

"Well . . ." said Gregor, "yes and no. Um . . ."

"Um what ?"

Lady Alys sighed. "Count and Countess Vorbretten, having decided it was time to start carrying out their family duties, very sensibly decided to use the uterine replicator for their first-born son, and have any detected defects repaired in the zygote. For which, of course, they both had complete gene scans."

"Ren? found he was a mutie?" Miles asked, astonished. Tall, handsome, athletic Ren?? Ren?, who spoke four languages in a modulated baritone that melted female hearts and male resistance, played three musical instruments entrancingly, and had perfect singing pitch to boot? Ren?, who could make Ivan grind his teeth in sheer physical jealousy?

"Not exactly," said Lady Alys, "unless you count being one-eighth Cetagandan ghem as a defect."

Miles sat back. "Whoops." He took this in. "When did this happen?"

"Surely you can do the math," murmured Ivan.

"Depends on which line it came through."

"The male," said Lady Alys. "Unfortunately."

Right. Ren?'s grandfather, the seventh Count-Vorbretten-to-be, had indeed been born in the middle of the Cetagandan occupation. The Vorbrettens, like many Barrayarans, had done what they needed to survive. . . . "So Ren?'s great-grandma was a collaborator. Or . . . was it something nastier?"

"For what it's worth," said Gregor, "what little surviving documentation ImpSec has unearthed suggests it was probably a voluntary and rather extended liaison, with one—or more—of the high-ranking ghem-officers occupying their District. At this range, one can't tell if it was love, self-interest, or an attempt to buy protection for her family in the only coin she had."

"It could have been all three," said Lady Alys. "Life in a war zone isn't simple."

"In any case," said Gregor, "it seems not to have been a matter of rape."

"Good God. So, ah, do they know which ghem-lord was Ren?'s ancestor?"

"They could in theory send his gene scan to Cetaganda and find out, but as far as I know they haven't elected to do so yet. It's rather academic. What is . . . something other than academic is the apparent fact that the seventh Count Vorbretten was not the son of the sixth Count."

"They were calling him Ren? Ghembretten last week at HQ," Ivan volunteered. Gregor grimaced.

"I'm astounded the Vorbrettens let this leak out," said Miles. "Or was it the doctor or the medtechs who betrayed them?"

"Mm, therein hangs yet more of the tale," said Gregor. "They had no intention of doing so. But Ren? told his sisters and his brother, thinking they had a right to know, and the young Countess told her parents. And from there, well, who knows. But the rumor eventually came to the ears of Sigur Vorbretten, who is the direct descendant of the sixth Count's younger brother, and incidentally the son-in-law of Count Boriz Vormoncrief. Sigur has somehow—and there's a counter-suit pending about his methods—obtained a copy of Ren?'s gene scan. And Count Vormoncrief has brought suit before the Council of Counts, on his son-in-law's behalf, to claim the Vorbretten descent and District for Sigur. And there it sits."

"Ow. Ow! So . . . is Ren? still Count, or not? He was presented and confirmed in his person by the Council, with all the due forms—hell, I was there, come to think of it. A Count doesn't have to be the previous Count's son—there've been nephews, cousins, skips to other lines, complete breaks due to treason or war—has anyone mentioned Lord Midnight, the fifth Count Vortala's horse, yet? If a horse can inherit a Countship, I don't see what's the theoretical objection to a Cetagandan. Part-Cetagandan."

"I doubt Lord Midnight's father was married to his mother, either," Ivan observed brightly.

"Both sides were claiming that case as a precedent, last I heard," Lord Vortala, himself a descendant of the infamous fifth Count, put in. "One because the horse was confirmed as heir, t' other because the confirmation was later revoked."

Galeni, listening in fascination, shook his head in wonder, or something like that. Laisa sat back and gnawed gently on her knuckle, and kept her mouth straight. Her eyes only crinkled slightly.

"How's Ren? taking it all?" asked Miles.

"He seems to have become rather reclusive lately," said Alys, in a worried tone.

"I . . . maybe I'll call on him."

"That would be a good thing," said Gregor gravely. "Sigur is attempting in his suit to attach everything Ren? inherited, but he's let it be known he'd be willing to settle for just the Countship and its entailments. Too, I suppose there are some trifles of property inherited through the female lines which aren't under question."

"In the meanwhile," Alys said, "Sigur has sent a note to my office requesting his rightful place in the wedding procession and the oath-takings as Count Vorbretten. And Ren? has sent a note requesting Sigur be barred from the ceremonies if the case has not yet been settled in his favor. So, Gregor? Which one lays his hands between Laisa's when she's confirmed as Empress, if the Council of Counts hasn't made up what passes for its collective mind by then?"

Gregor rubbed the bridge of his nose, and squeezed his eyes shut briefly. "I don't know. We may have to have both of them. Provisionally."

"Together?" said Lady Alys, her lip curling in dismay. "Tempers are running high, I heard." She glowered at Ivan. "Exacerbated by the humor certain low-minded persons seem to find in what is actually an exquisitely painful situation."

Ivan began to smile, then apparently thought better of it.

"One trusts they will not choose to mar the dignity of the occasion," said Gregor. "Especially if their appeal to me is still hanging fire. I suppose I should find some way to let them know that, gently. I am presently constrained to avoid them . . ." His eye fell on Miles. "Ah, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan. This sounds like a task very much within your purview. Would you be so kind as to remind them both of the delicacy of their positions, if things look to be getting out of hand at any point?"

Since the official job description of an Imperial Auditor was, in effect, Whatever You Say, Gregor, Miles could hardly argue with this. Well, it could have been worse. He shuddered to think of how many chores he might have been assigned by now if he'd been so stupid as to not show up for this meeting. "Yes, Sire," he sighed. "I'll do my best."

"The formal invitations begin to go out soon," Lady Alys said. "Let me know if there are any changes." She turned over the last page. "Oh, and have your parents said yet exactly when they'll be arriving, Miles?"

"I've assumed you would know before I did. Gregor?"

"Two Imperial ships are assigned to the Viceroy's pleasure," said Gregor. "If there are no crises on Sergyar to impede him, Count Vorkosigan implied he'd like to be here in better time than last Winterfair."

"Are they coming together? I thought Mother might come early again, to support Aunt Alys," said Miles.

"I love your mother dearly, Miles," Lady Alys sighed, "but after the betrothal, when I suggested she come home to help me with these preparations, she suggested Gregor and Laisa ought to elope."

Gregor and Laisa both looked quite wistful at the thought, and held hands under the table. Lady Alys frowned uneasily at this dangerous breath of mutiny.

Miles grinned. "Well, of course. That's what she did. After all, it worked for her."

"I don't think she was serious, but with Cordelia, one can never quite tell. It's just appalling how this whole subject brings out the Betan in her. I can only be grateful she's on Sergyar just now." Lady Alys glowered at her flimsy, and added, "Fireworks."

Miles blinked, then realized this wasn't a prediction of the probable result of the clash in social views between his Betan mother and his Barrayaran aunt, but rather, the last—thank God—item on today's agenda.

"Yes!" said Gregor, smiling eagerly. All the Barrayarans round the table, including Lady Alys, perked up at this. An inherent cultural passion for things that went boom, perhaps.

"On what schedule?" Lady Alys asked. "There will of course be the traditional display on Midsummer Day, the evening after the Imperial Military Review. Do you want displays every night on the three days intervening till the wedding, as well as on the wedding night?"

"Let me see that budget," Gregor said to Ivan. Ivan called it up for him. "Hm. We wouldn't want the people to become jaded. Let other organizations, such as the city of Vorbarr Sultana or the Council of Counts, foot the displays on the intervening nights. And up the budget for the post-wedding display by fifty percent, from my personal purse as Count Vorbarra."

"Ooh," said Ivan appreciatively, and entered the changes. "Nice."

Miles stretched. Done at last.

"Oh, yes, I almost forgot," added Lady Alys. "Here is your meal schedule, Miles."

"My what?" Without thinking, he accepted the flimsy from her hand.

"Gregor and Laisa have dozens of invitations during the week between the Review and the Wedding from assorted organizations which wish to honor them—and themselves—ranging from the Imperial Veterans' Corps to the Honorable Order of City Bakers. And Bankers. And Brewers. And Barristers. Not to mention the rest of the alphabet. Far more than they can possibly accept, of course. They will do as many of the most critical ones as they can fit in, but after that, you will have to take the next tier, as Gregor's Second."

"Did any of these people actually invite me, in my own person?" Miles asked, scanning down the list. There were at least thirteen meals or ceremonies in three days on it. "Or are they getting a horrible surprise? I can't eat all this!"

"Throw yourself on that unexploded dessert, boy!" Ivan grinned. "It's your duty to save the Emperor from indigestion."

"Of course they'll know. You may expect to be called upon to make a number of thank-you speeches appropriate to the various venues. And here," his mother added, "is your schedule, Ivan."

Ivan's grin faded into a look of dismay, as he stared at his own list. "I didn't know there were that many guilds in this damned town . . ."

A wonderful thought occurred to Miles—he might be able to take Ekaterin along to a sedate selection of these. Yes, let her see Lord Auditor Vorkosigan in action. And her serene and sober elegance would add no little validation to his consequence. He sat up straighter, suddenly consoled, and folded the flimsy and slipped it into his tunic.

"Can't we send Mark to some of these?" asked Ivan plaintively. "He'll be back in town for this bash. And he's a Vorkosigan too. Outranks a Vorpatril, surely. And if there's one thing the lad can do, it's eat."

Galeni's brows rose in reluctant agreement with this last assessment, though the look on his face was a study in grim bemusement. Miles wondered if Galeni too was reflecting that Mark's other notable talent was assassination. At least he doesn't eat what he kills.

Miles began to glower at Ivan, but Aunt Alys beat him to it. "Control your wit, if you please, Ivan. Lord Mark is neither the Emperor's Second, nor an Imperial Auditor, nor of any great experience in delicate social situations. And despite all Aral and Cordelia could do for him last year, most people still regard his position within the family as rather ambiguous. Nor is he, I'm given to understand, stable enough yet to be safely subjected to stress in very public arenas. Despite his therapy."

"It was a joke ," Ivan muttered defensively. "How do you expect us to all get through this alive if we're not allowed to have a sense of humor?"

"Exert yourself," his mother advised him brutally.

On these daunting words, the meeting broke up.


A cool spring drizzle misted onto Miles's hair as he stepped into the shelter of the Vorthys's doorway. In the gray air, the gaudy tile front of the house was subdued, becoming a patterned subtlety. Ekaterin had inadvertently delayed this meeting by sending him her proposed garden designs over the comconsole. Fortunately, he hadn't had to feign indecision over the choice; both layouts were very fine. He trusted they would still be able to spend hours this afternoon, heads bent together over the vid display, comparing and discussing the fine points.

A fleeting memory of the erotic dream from which he'd awoken this morning warmed his face. It had been a replay of his and Ekaterin's first meeting in the garden here, but in this version her welcome had taken a much more, um, exciting and unexpected turn. Except why had his stupid unconscious spent so much worry about tell-tale grass-stains on the knees of his trousers, when it could have been manufacturing even more fabulous moments of abundance for his dream-self? And then he'd woken up too damned soon. . . .

The Professora opened the door to him, and smiled a welcome. "Come in, Miles." She added, as he entered her hallway, "Have I ever mentioned before how much I appreciate the fact that you call before you visit?"

Her house did not have its usual hushed, librarylike quiet. There seemed to be a party going on. Startled, Miles swiveled his head toward the archway on his left. A clink of plates and glassware and the scent of tea and apricot pastries wafted from the parlor.

Ekaterin, smiling politely but with two little parallel lines of tension between her brows, sat enthroned in her uncle's overstuffed chair in the corner, holding a teacup. Ranged around the room, perched on more decorative chairs, were three men, two in Imperial undress greens and one in a civilian tunic and trousers.

Miles didn't recognize the heavy-set fellow who wore major's tabs, along with Ops pins, on his high collar. The other officer was Lieutenant Alexi Vormoncrief, whom Miles knew slightly. His pins, too, indicated he now worked in Ops. The third man, in the finely-cut civilian togs, was highly adept at avoiding work of any kind, as far as Miles knew. Byerly Vorrutyer had never joined the Service; he'd been a town clown for as long as Miles had been acquainted with him. Byerly had impeccable taste in everything but his vices. Miles would have been loath to introduce Ekaterin to him even after she was safely betrothed.

"Where did they come from?" Miles asked the Professora in an undertone.

"Major Zamori I had as an undergraduate student, fifteen years ago," the Professora murmured back. "He brought me a book he said he thought I would like. Which is true; I already had a copy. Young Vormoncrief came to compare pedigrees with Ekaterin. He thought they might be related, he said, as his grandmother was a Vorvane. Aunt to the Minister for Heavy Industries, you know."

"I know that branch, yes."

"They have spent the past hour establishing that, while the Vorvanes and the Vorvaynes are indeed of the same root stock, the families split off at least five generations back. I don't know why By Vorrutyer is here. He neglected to supply me with an excuse."

"There is no excuse for By." But Miles thought he could see exactly why the three of them were there, lame stories and all, and she was clutching her teacup in the corner and looking trapped. Couldn't they do better than those palpably transparent tales? "Is my cousin Ivan here?" he added dangerously. Ivan worked in Ops, come to think of it. Once was happenstance, twice was coincidence . . .

"Ivan Vorpatril? No. Oh, dear, is he likely to turn up? I'm out of pastries. I had bought them for the Professor's dessert tonight. . . ."

"I trust not," muttered Miles. He fixed a polite smile on his face, and swung into the Professora's parlor. She followed after him.

Ekaterin's chin came up, and she smiled and put down her cup-shield. "Oh, Lord Vorkosigan! I'm so glad you're here. Um . . . do you know these gentlemen?"

"Two out of three, Madame. Good morning, Vormoncrief. Hello, Byerly."

The three acquaintances exchanged guarded nods. Vormoncrief said politely, "Good morning, my Lord Auditor."

"Major Zamori, this is Lord Auditor Miles Vorkosigan," the Professora supplied.

"Good day, sir," said Zamori. "I've heard of you." His gaze was direct and fearless, despite his being so heavily outnumbered by Vor lords. But then, Vormoncrief was a mere stripling of a lieutenant, and Byerly Vorrutyer didn't rank at all. "Did you come to see Lord Auditor Vorthys? He just stepped out."

Ekaterin nodded. "He went for a walk."

"In the rain?"

The Professora rolled her eyes slightly, by which Miles guessed her husband had skipped off and left her to play duenna to her niece by herself.

"No matter," Miles went on. "In fact, I have some little business with Madame Vorsoisson." And if they took that to mean a Lord Auditor's Imperial business, and not merely Lord Vorkosigan's private business, who was he to correct them?

"Yes," Ekaterin nodded in confirmation of this.

"My apologies for interrupting you all," Miles added, by way of a broad hint. He did not sit down, but leaned against the frame of the archway, and crossed his arms. No one moved.

"We were just discussing family trees," Vormoncrief explained.

"At some length," murmured Ekaterin.

"Speaking of strange pedigrees, Alexi, Lord Vorkosigan and I were almost related much more closely," Byerly remarked. "I feel quite a familial attachment to him."

"Really?" said Vormoncrief, looking puzzled.

"Oh, yes. One of my aunts on the Vorrutyer side was once married to his father. So Aral Vorkosigan is actually some sort of virtual, if not virtuous, uncle to me. But she died young, alas—ruthlessly pruned from the tree—without bearing me a cousin to cut the future Miles out of his inheritance." Byerly cocked a brow at Miles. "Was she fondly remembered, in your family dinner conversations?"

"We never much discussed the Vorrutyers," said Miles.

"How odd. We never much discussed the Vorkosigans, either. Hardly at all, in fact. Such a resounding silence, one feels."

Miles smiled, and let just such a silence stretch between them, curious to see who would flinch first. By's eye began to glint appreciation, but the first whose nerve broke was one of the innocent bystanders.

Major Zamori cleared his throat. "So, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan. What's the final word on the Komarr accident, really? Was it sabotage?"

Miles shrugged, and let By and his habitual needling drop from his attention. "After six weeks of sifting through the data, Lord Auditor Vorthys and I returned a probable cause of pilot error. We debated the possibility of pilot suicide, but finally discarded the idea."

"And which was your opinion?" asked Zamori, sounding interested. "Accident or suicide?"

"Mm. I felt suicide would explain a lot about certain physical aspects of the collision," Miles replied, sending up a silent prayer of apology to the soul of the slandered pilot. "But since the dead pilot neglected to supply us with any supporting evidence, such as notes or messages or therapy records, we couldn't make it an official verdict. Don't quote me," he added, for verisimilitude.

Ekaterin, sheltered in her uncle's chair, nodded understanding to him of this official lie, perhaps adding it to her own repertoire of deflections.

"So what do you think of this Komarran marriage of the Emperor's?" Vormoncrief added. "I suppose you must approve of it—you're in it."

Miles took note of his dubious tone. Ah yes, Vormoncrief's uncle Count Boriz Vormoncrief, being just outside the spatter-zone, had inherited the leadership of the shrinking Conservative Party after the fall of Count Vortrifrani. The Conservative party's response to future-Empress Laisa had been lukewarm at best, though, prudently, no overt hostility had been permitted to leak into their public stances where someone—i.e., ImpSec—would have been compelled to take notice of it. Still, just because Boriz and Alexi were related didn't by any means guarantee they shared the same political views. "I think it's great," said Miles. "Dr. Toscane is brilliant and beautiful, and Gregor, well, it's high time he produced an heir. And you have to figure, if nothing else it leaves one more Barrayaran woman for the rest of us."

"Well, it leaves one more Barrayaran woman for one of us," Byerly Vorrutyer corrected this sweetly. "Unless you are proposing something delightfully outr?."

Miles's smile thinned as he contemplated By. Ivan's wit, wearing as it could sometimes grow, was saved from being offensive by a certain ingenuousness. Unlike Ivan, Byerly never insulted anyone unintentionally.

"You gentlemen should all pay a visit to Komarr," Miles recommended genially. "Their domes are just chock full of lovely women, all with clean gene scans and galactic educations. And the Toscanes aren't the only clan fielding an heiress. Many of the Komarran ladies are rich—Byerly." He restrained himself from helpfully explaining to all present that Madame Vorsoisson's feckless late husband had left her destitute, first because Ekaterin was sitting right there, with her eyebrows tilted at him, and secondly because he couldn't imagine that By, for one, didn't already know it.

Byerly smiled faintly. "Money isn't everything, they say."

Check . "Still, I'm sure you could make yourself pleasant, if you ever chose to try."

By's lip quirked. "Your faith in me is touching, Vorkosigan."

Alexi Vormoncrief said sturdily, "A daughter of the Vor is good enough for me, thanks. I've no need or taste for off-world exotica."

While Miles was still trying to work out if this was an intended slur on his Betan mother—with By, he would have been sure, but Vormoncrief had never struck him as over-supplied with subtlety—Ekaterin said brightly, "I'll just step up to my room and get those data disks, shall I?"

"If you please, Madame." Miles trusted By had not made her the object of any of his guerrilla conversational techniques. If so, Miles might have a little private word with his ersatz cousin. Or maybe even send his Armsmen to do so, just like the good old days. . . .

She rose, and made her way to the hall and up the stairs. She did not return. Vormoncrief and Zamori eventually exchanged disappointed looks, and noises about time to be going , and made to rise. The military raincoat Vormoncrief shrugged on had had time to dry since his arrival, Miles noted with disapproval. The gentlemen courteously took their leave of their putative hostess, the Professora.

"Tell Madame Vorsoisson I'll bring that disk of jumpship designs around for Nikki as soon as I may," Major Zamori assured the Professora, glancing up the stairway.

Zamori's been here often enough to know Nikki already? Miles regarded his regular profile uneasily. He seemed tall, too, though not as tall as Vormoncrief; it was his bulk that helped make his presence loom like that. Byerly was slim enough that his height was not so apparent.

They lingered a moment in an awkward crowded gaggle in the tiled hall, but Ekaterin did not descend again, and at last they gave up and let themselves be shepherded out the front door. It was raining harder now, Miles saw with some satisfaction. Zamori plunged off into the shower, head-down. The Professora closed the door on them with a grimace of relief.

"You and Ekaterin can use the comconsole in my study," she directed Miles, and turned to start collecting the plates and cups left derelict in her parlor.

Miles trod across the hall into her office-cum-library, and looked around. Yes, this would be a fine and cozy spot for his conference. The front window was propped open to catch a fresh draft. Voices from the porch carried through the damp air with unfortunate clarity.

"By, you don't think Vorkosigan is dangling after Madame Vorsoisson, is he?" That was Vormoncrief.

Byerly Vorrutyer replied indifferently, "Why not?"

"You'd think she'd be revolted. No, it must be just some leftover business from his case."

"I wouldn't wager on that. I know women enough who would hold their noses and take the plunge for a Count's heir even if he came covered in green fur."

Miles's fist clenched, then carefully unclenched. Oh, yeah? So why didn't you ever supply me with that list, By? Not that Miles cared now . . .

"I don't claim to understand women, but Ivan's the catch I could see them going for," Vormoncrief said. "If the assassins had been a little more competent, way back when, he might have inherited the Vorkosigans' Countship. Too bad. My uncle says he'd be an ornament to our party, if he didn't have that family alliance with Aral Vorkosigan's damned Progressives."

"Ivan Vorpatril?" Byerly snorted. "Wrong type of party for him, Alexi. He only goes to the kind where the wine flows freely."

Ekaterin appeared in the archway and smiled crookedly at Miles. He considered slamming the window shut, hard. There were technical difficulties with that idea; it had a crank-latch. Ekaterin too had caught the voices—how soon? She drifted in, and cocked her head, and lifted an inquiring and unrepentant brow at him, as if to say, At it again, are you? Miles managed a brief embarrassed smile.

"Ah, here's your driver at last," Byerly added. "Lend me your coat, Alexi; I don't wish to damp my lovely new suit. What do you think of it? The color flatters my skin tone, no?"

"Hang your skin tone, By."

"Oh, but my tailor assured me it does. Thank you. Good, he's opening the canopy. Now for the dash through the wet; well, you can dash. I shall saunter with dignity, in this ugly but inarguably waterproof Imperial garment. Off we go now . . ." Two sets of footsteps faded into the drizzle.

"He is a character, isn't he?" said Ekaterin, half-laughing.

"Who? Byerly?"

"Yes. He's very snarky. I could scarcely believe the things he dared to say. Or keep my face straight."

"I scarcely believe the things By says either," said Miles shortly. He pulled a second chair around in front of the comconsole as close to the first as he dared, and settled her. "Where did they all come from?" Besides the Ops department of Imperial Headquarters, apparently. Ivan, you rat, you and I are going to have a talk about what sort of gossip you sprinkle around at work. . . .

"Major Zamori called on the Professora last week," said Ekaterin. "He seems a pleasant enough fellow. He had a long chat with Nikki—I was impressed with his patience."

Miles was impressed with his brains . Damn the man, for spotting Nikki as one of the few chinks in Ekaterin's armor.

"Vormoncrief first turned up a few days ago. I'm afraid he's a bit of a bore, poor man. Vorrutyer just came in with him this morning; I'm not sure he was exactly invited."

"He's found a new victim to sponge off, I suppose," said Miles. Vorrutyers seemed to come in two flavors, flamboyant and reclusive; By's father, the youngest son of his generation, was a misanthropic pinchmark of the second category, and never came near the capital if he could help it. "By's notoriously without visible means of support."

"He puts up a good front, if so," said Ekaterin judiciously.

Upper-class poverty was a dilemma with which Ekaterin could identify, Miles realized. He hadn't intended his remark as a ploy to gain sympathy for Byerly Vorrutyer. Blast.

"I think Major Zamori was a bit put out when they arrived on top of his visit," Ekaterin went on. She added fretfully, "I don't know why they're here ."

Check your mirror , Miles refrained from advising her. He let his brows rise. "Truly?"

She shrugged, and smiled a little bitterly. "They mean well, I guess. Maybe I was na?ve to think this," she gestured down her black dress, "would be enough to relieve me of having to deal with the nonsense. Thanks for trying to ship them to Komarr for me, though I'm not sure it took. My hints don't seem to be working. I don't wish to be rude."

"Why not?" said Miles, hoping to encourage this trend of thought. Though rudeness might not work on By; it would be just as likely to excite him into making it a contest. Miles suppressed a morbid urge to inquire if there'd been any more unattached gentlemen turn up on her front step this week, or if he'd just viewed the whole inventory. He really didn't want to hear the answer. "But enough of this, as you say, nonsense. Let's talk about my garden."

"Yes, let's," she said gratefully, and set up the two vid models, which they'd dubbed the backcountry garden and the urban garden respectively, on her aunt's comconsole. Their heads bent together side by side, just as Miles had pictured. He could smell the dusky perfume of her hair.

The backcountry garden was a naturalistic display, with bark pathways curling through thickly planted native species on contoured banks, a winding stream, and scattered wooden benches. The urban garden had strong rectangular terraces of poured plascrete, which were walks and benches and channels for the water all together. In a series of skillful, penetrating questions, Ekaterin managed to elicit from him that his heart really favored the backcountry garden, however much his eye was seduced by the plascrete fountains. As he watched in fascination, she modified the backcountry design to give the ground more slope and the stream more prominence, winding in an S-curve that originated in a rock fall and ended in a small grotto. The central circle where the paths intersected was transformed to traditional patterned brick, with the Vorkosigan crest, the stylized maple leaf backed by the three overlapping triangles representing the mountains, picked out in contrasting paler brick. The whole was dropped further below street level, to give the banks more room to climb, and to muffle the city noise.

"Yes," he said at last, in considerable satisfaction. "That's the plan. Go with it. You can start lining up your contractors and bids."

"Are you sure you really want to go on?" said Ekaterin. "I'm now out of my experience, I'm afraid. All my designs have been virtual ones, till this."

"Ah," said Miles smugly, having anticipated this last-minute waffle. "Now is the moment to put you in direct touch with my man of business, Tsipis. He's had to arrange every sort of maintenance and building work on the Vorkosigan properties in the last thirty years. He knows who all the reputable and reliable people are, and where we can draw labor or materials from the Vorkosigan estates. He'll be delighted to walk you through the whole thing." In fact, I've let him know I'll have his head if he's not delighted every minute. Not that Miles had had to lean very hard; Tsipis found all aspects of business management utterly fascinating, and would drone on for hours about them. It made Miles laugh, if painfully, to realize how often in his space mercenary command he'd saved a day by drawing not on his ImpSec training, but on one of old Tsipis's scorned lessons. "If you're willing to be his pupil, he'll be your slave."

Tsipis, carefully primed, answered the comconsole in his office in Hassadar himself, and Miles made the necessary introductions. The new acquaintance went well; Tsipis was elderly, long married, and genuinely interested in the project at hand. He drew Ekaterin almost instantly out of her wary shyness. By the time he'd finished his first lengthy conversation with her, she'd shifted from I can't possibly mode to possession of a flow-chart checklist and a coherent plan which would, with luck, result in groundbreaking as early as the following week. Oh yes. This was going to do well. If there was one thing Tsipis appreciated, it was a quick study. Ekaterin was one of those show once people whom Miles, in his mercenary days, had found more precious than unexpected oxygen in the emergency reserve. And she didn't even know she was unusual.

"Good heavens," she remarked, organizing her notes after Tsipis had cut the com. "What an education that man is. I think I should be paying you."

"Payment," said Miles, reminded. "Yes." He drew a credit chit from his pocket. "Tsipis has set up the account for you to pay all expenses incurred. This is your own fee for the accepted design."

She checked it in the comconsole. "Lord Vorkosigan, this is too much!"

"No, it's not. I had Tsipis scout the prices for similar design work from three different professional companies." They happened to be the top three in the business, but would he have hired anything less for Vorkosigan House? "This is an average of their bids. He can show them to you."

"But I'm an amateur."

"Not for damn long."

Wonder of wonders, this actually won a smile of increasing self-confidence. "All I did was assemble some pretty standard design elements."

"So, ten percent of that is for the design elements. The other ninety percent is for knowing how to arrange them."

Hah, she didn't argue with that . You couldn't be that good and not know it, somewhere in your secret heart, however much you'd been abused into affecting public humility.

This was, he recognized, a good bright note on which to end. He didn't want to linger to the point of boring her, as Vormoncrief had evidently done. Was it too early to . . . no, he'd try. "By the way, I'm putting together a dinner party for some old friends of mine—the Koudelka family. Kareen Koudelka, who is a sort of prot?g? of my mother's, is just back from a school year on Beta Colony. She's hit the ground running, but as soon as I can determine a date when everyone's free, I'd like to have you come too, and meet them."

"I wouldn't want to intrude—"

"Four daughters," he overrode this smoothly, "Kareen's the youngest. And their mother, Drou. And Commodore Koudelka, of course. I've known them all my life. And Delia's fianc?, Duv Galeni."

"A family with five women in it? All at once?" An envious note sounded plainly in her voice.

"I'd think you'd enjoy them a lot. And vice versa."

"I haven't met many women in Vorbarr Sultana . . . they're all so busy . . ." She glanced down at her black skirt. "I really ought not to go to parties just yet."

"A family party," he emphasized, tacking handily into this wind. "Of course I mean to invite the Professor and the Professora." Why not? He had, after all, ninety-six chairs.

"Perhaps . . . that would be unexceptionable."

"Excellent! I'll get back to you on the dates. Oh, and be sure to call Pym to notify the House guards when your workmen are due, so he can add them to his security schedule."


And on that carefully-balanced note, warm yet not too personal, he made his excuses and decamped.

So, the enemy was now thronging her gates. Don't panic, boy. By the time of the dinner party, he might have her up to the pitch of accepting some of his wedding-week engagements. And by the time they'd been seen publicly paired at half a dozen of those, well, who knew.

Not me, unfortunately.

He sighed, and sprinted off through the rain to his waiting car.

* * *

Ekaterin wandered back to the kitchen, to see if her aunt needed any more help with the clean up. She was guiltily afraid she was too late, and indeed she found the Professora sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and stack of, judging by the bemused look on her face, undergraduate essays.

Her aunt frowned fiercely, and scribbled with her stylus, then looked up and smiled. "All done, dear?"

"More like, just started. Lord Vorkosigan chose the backcountry garden. He really wants me to go ahead."

"I never doubted it. He's a decisive man."

"I'm sorry for all the interruptions this morning." Ekaterin made a gesture in the direction of the parlor.

"I don't see why you're apologizing. You didn't invite them."

"Indeed, I didn't." Ekaterin held up her new credit chit, and smiled. "But Lord Vorkosigan has already paid me for the design! I can give you rent for Nikki and me now."

"Good heavens, you don't owe us rent. It doesn't cost us anything to let you have the use of those empty rooms."

Ekaterin hesitated. "You can't say the food we eat comes free."

"If you wish to buy some groceries, go ahead. But I'd much prefer you saved it toward your schooling in the fall."

"I'll do both." Ekaterin nodded firmly. Carefully managed, the credit chit would spare her having to beg her father for spending money for the next several months. Da was not ungenerous, but she didn't want to hand him the right to give her reams of unwanted advice and suggestions as to how to run her life. He'd made it plain at Tien's funeral that he was unhappy she hadn't chosen to come home, as befit a Vor widow, or gone to live with her late husband's mother, though the senior Madame Vorsoisson hadn't invited them.

And how had he imagined Ekaterin and Nikki could fit in his modest flat, or find any educational opportunities in the small South Continent town to which he'd retired? Sasha Vorvayne seemed a man oddly defeated by his life, at times. He'd always made the conservative choices. Mama had been the daring one, but only in the little ways she could fit into the interstices of her role as a bureaucrat's wife. Had the defeat become contagious, toward the end? Ekaterin sometimes wondered if her parents' marriage had been, in some subtler way, almost as much of a secret mismatch as her own.

A white-haired head passed the window; a rattle, and the back door opened to reveal her Uncle Vorthys, Nikki in tow. The Professor stuck his head inside, and whispered dramatically, "Are they gone? Is it safe to come back?"

"All clear," reported his wife, and he lumbered into the kitchen.

He was burdened with a large bag, which he dumped on the table. It proved to contain replacements, several times over, for the pastries that had been consumed earlier.

"Do you think we have enough now?" the Professora inquired dryly.

"No artificial shortages," declaimed her husband. "I remember when the girls were going through that phase. Up to our elbows in young men at all hours, and not a crumb left in the house at the end of the day. I never understood your generous strategy." He explained aside to Ekaterin, "I wanted to cut their numbers by offering them spotty vegetables, and chores. The ones who came back after that , we would know were serious. Eh, Nikki? But for some reason, the women wouldn't let me."

"Feel free to offer them all the rotten vegetables and chores you can think of," Ekaterin told him. Alternately, we could lock the doors and pretend no one is home. . . . She sat down glumly beside her aunt, and helped herself to a pastry. "Did you and Nikki get your share, finally?"

"We had coffee and cookies and milk at the bakery," her uncle assured her.

Nikki licked his lips happily, and nodded confirmation. "Uncle Vorthys says all those fellows want to marry you," he added in apparent disbelief. "Is that really true?"

Thank you, dear Uncle , Ekaterin thought wryly. She'd been wondering how to explain it all to a nine-year-old boy. Though Nikki didn't seem to find the idea nearly as horrifying as she did. "That would be illegal," she murmured. "Outr?, even." She smiled faintly at By Vorrutyer's jibe.

Nikki scorned the joke. "You know what I mean! Are you going to pick one of 'em?"

"No, dear," she assured him.

"Good." He added after a moment of silence, "Though if you did , a major would be better than a lieutenant."

"Ah . . . why?"

Ekaterin watched with interest as Nikki struggled to evolve Vormoncrief is a patronizing Vor bore , but to her relief, the vocabulary escaped him. He finally fell back on, "Majors make more money."

"A very practical point," Uncle Vorthys observed, and, perhaps still mistrusting his wife's generosity, packed up about half of his new stock of pastries to carry off and hide in his basement laboratory. Nikki tagged along.

Ekaterin leaned her elbows on the kitchen table, rested her chin on her hands, and sighed. "Uncle Vorthys's strategy might not be such a bad idea, at that. The threat of chores might get rid of Vormoncrief, and would certainly repel Vorrutyer. I'm not so sure it would work on Major Zamori, though. The spotty vegetables might be good all round."

Aunt Vorthys sat back, and regarded her with a quizzical smile. "So what do you want me to do, Ekaterin? Start telling your potential suitors you're not at home to visitors?"

"Could you? With my work on the garden starting, it would be the truth," said Ekaterin, considering this.

"Poor boys. I almost feel sorry for them."

Ekaterin smiled briefly. She could feel the pull of that sympathy, like a clutching hand, drawing her back into the dark. It made her skin crawl.

Every night now, lying down alone without Tien, was like a taste of some solitary heaven. She could stretch her arms and legs out all the way to the sides of the bed, reveling in the smooth space, free of compromise, confusion, oppression, negotiation, deference, placation. Free of Tien. Through the long years of their marriage she had become almost numb to the ties that had bound her to him, the promises and the fear, his desperate needs, his secrets and lies. When the straps of her vows had been released at last by his death, it was as if her whole soul had come awake, tingling painfully, like a limb when circulation was restored. I did not know what a prison I was in, till I was freed. The thought of voluntarily walking back into such a marital cell again, and locking the door with another oath, made her want to run screaming.

She shook her head. "I don't need another dependent."

Her aunt's brows quirked. "You don't need another Tien, that's certain. But not all men are like Tien."

Ekaterin's fist tightened, thoughtfully. "But I'm still like me. I don't know if I can be intimate, and not fall back into the bad old ways. Not give myself away down to the very bottom, and then complain I'm empty. The most horrible thought I have, looking back on it all, is that it wasn't all Tien's fault. I let him get worse and worse. If he'd chanced to marry a woman who would have stood up to him, who would have insisted . . ."

"Your line of logic makes my head ache," her aunt observed mildly.

Ekaterin shrugged. "It's all moot now."

After a long moment of silence, the Professora asked curiously, "So what do you think of Miles Vorkosigan?"

"He's all right. He doesn't make me cringe."

"I thought—back on Komarr—he seemed a bit interested in you himself."

"Oh, that was just a joke," Ekaterin said sturdily. Their joke had gone a little beyond the line, perhaps, but they had both been tired, and punchy at their release from those days and hours of fearsome strain . . . his flashing smile, and the brilliant eyes in his weary face, blazed in her memory. It had to have been a joke. Because if it weren't a joke . . . she would have to run screaming. And she was much too tired to get up. "But it's been nice to find someone genuinely interested in gardens."

"Mmm," said her aunt, and turned over another essay.

* * *

The afternoon sun of the Vorbarr Sultana spring warmed the gray stone of Vorkosigan House into something almost mellow, as Mark's hired groundcar turned in to the drive. The ImpSec gate guard at the kiosk was not one of the men Mark had met last year. The guard was respectful but meticulous, going as far as checking Mark's palm print and retina scan before waving them through with a mumbled grunt that might have been an apologetic "M'lord." Mark stared up through the car's canopy as they wound up the drive to the front portico.

Vorkosigan House again. Home? His cozy student apartment back on Beta Colony seemed more like home now than did this vast stone pile. But although he was hungry, horny, tired, tense, and jump-lagged, at least he wasn't throwing up in a paroxysm of anticipated terror this time. It was just Vorkosigan House. He could handle it. And as soon as he got inside, he could call Kareen, yes! He released the canopy the instant the car sighed to the pavement, and turned to help Enrique unload.

Mark's feet had barely hit the concrete when Armsman Pym popped out of the front doors, and gave him a snappy, yet somehow reproachful, salute. "My Lord Mark! You should have called us from the shuttleport, m'lord. We'd have picked you up properly."

"That's all right, Pym. I don't think all our gear would have fit in the armored car anyway. Don't worry, there's still plenty for you to do." The hired freight van which had followed them from the shuttleport cleared the gate guard and chuffed up the drive to wheeze to a halt behind them.

"Holy saints," murmured Enrique out of the corner of his mouth, as Mark hurried to help him hoist the DELICATE crate, which had ridden between them in the ground car, out to the pavement. "You really are Lord Vorkosigan. I'm not sure I totally believed you, till now."

"I really am Lord Mark ," Mark corrected this. "Get it straight. It matters, here. I am not now, nor do I ever aspire to be, the heir to the Countship." Mark nodded toward the new short figure exiting the mansion through the carved double doors, now swung welcoming-wide. "He's Lord Vorkosigan."

Miles didn't look half-bad, despite the peculiar rumors about his health which had leaked back to Beta Colony. Someone had taken a hand in improving his civilian wardrobe, judging by the sharp gray suit he wore, and he filled it properly, not so sickly-thin as he'd still been when Mark had last seen him here almost a year ago. He advanced on Mark with a grin, his hand held out. They managed to exchange a firm, brotherly handshake. Mark was desperate for a hug, but not from Miles.

"Mark, dammit, you took us by surprise. You're supposed to call from orbit when you get in. Pym would have been there to pick you up."

"So I've been advised."

Miles stood back and looked him over, and Mark flushed in self-consciousness. The meds Lilly Durona had given him had permitted him to piss away more fat in less time than was humanly natural, and he'd stuck religiously to the strict regimen of diet and liquids to combat the corrosive side effects. She'd said the drug-complex wasn't addictive, and Mark believed her; he couldn't wait to get off the loathsome stuff. He now weighed very little more than when he'd last set foot on Barrayar, just as planned. Killer was released from his fleshly cage, able to defend them again if he absolutely had to. . . . But Mark hadn't anticipated how flabby and gray he was going to look, as though he were melting and slumping like a candle in the sun.

And indeed, the next words out of his brother's mouth were, "Are you feeling all right? You don't look so good."

"Jump lag. It will pass." He grinned tightly. He wasn't sure if it was the drugs, Barrayar, or missing Kareen that put him more on edge, but he was sure of the cure. "Have you heard from Kareen? Did she get in all right?"

"Yes, she got here fine, last week. What's that peculiar crate with all the layers?"

Mark wanted to see Kareen more than anything in the universe, but first things first. He turned to Enrique, who was goggling in open fascination at him and his progenitor-twin.

"I brought a guest. Miles, I'd like you to meet Dr. Enrique Borgos. Enrique, my brother Miles, Lord Vorkosigan."

"Welcome to Vorkosigan House, Dr. Borgos," Miles said, and shook hands in automatic politeness. "Your name sounds Escobaran, yes?"

"Er, yes, er, Lord Vorkosigan."

Wonders, Enrique managed to get it right this time. Mark had only been coaching him on Barrayaran etiquette for ten straight days. . . .

"And what are you a doctor of?" Miles glanced again, worriedly, at Mark; Mark guessed he was evolving alarmed theories about his clone-brother's health.

"Not medicine," Mark assured Miles. "Dr. Borgos is a biochemist and genetic entomologist."

"Words . . . ? No, that's etymologist. Bugs, that's right." Miles's eye was drawn again to the big steel-wound shock-cushioned crate at their feet. "Mark, why does that crate have air holes?"

"Lord Mark and I are going to be working together," the gangling scientist told Miles earnestly.

"I assume we have some room to spare for him," Mark added.

"God, yes, help yourselves. The House is yours. I moved last winter to the big suite on the second floor of the east wing, so the whole of the north wing is unoccupied now above the ground floor. Except for the room on the fourth floor that Armsman Roic has. He sleeps days, so you might want to give him some margin. Father and Mother will bring their usual army with them when they get here towards Midsummer, but we can rearrange things then if necessary."

"Enrique hopes to set up a little temporary laboratory, if you don't mind," Mark said.

"Nothing explosive, I trust? Or toxic?"

"Oh, no, no, Lord Vorkosigan," Enrique assured him. "It's not like that at all."

"Then I don't see why not." He glanced down, and added in a fainter tone, "Mark . . . why do the air holes have screens in them?"

"I'll explain everything," Mark assured him airily, "as soon as we get unloaded and I pay off these hired drivers." Armsman Jankowski had appeared at Pym's elbow while the introductions had been going forth. "The big blue valise is mine, Pym. Everything else goes with Dr. Borgos."

By press-ganging the drivers, the van was unloaded quickly to the staging area of the black-and-white tiled entry hall. A moment of alarm occurred when Armsman Jankowski, tottering along under a load of what Mark knew to be hastily-packed laboratory glassware, stepped on a black-and-white kitten, well-camouflaged by the tiles. The outraged creature emitted an ear-splitting yowl, spat, and shot off between Enrique's feet, nearly tripping the Escobaran, who was just then balancing the very expensive molecular analyzer. It was saved by a grab from Pym.

They'd almost been caught, during their midnight raid on the padlocked lab that had liberated the all-important notes and irreplaceable specimens, when Enrique had insisted on going back for the damned analyzer. Mark would have taken it as some sort of cosmic I-told-you-so if Enrique had dropped it now. I'll buy you a whole new lab when we get to Barrayar , he'd kept trying to convince the Escobaran. Enrique had seemed to think Barrayar was still stuck in the Time of Isolation, and he wasn't going to be able to obtain anything here more scientifically complex than an alembic, a still, and maybe a trepanning chisel.

Settling in their digs took still more time, as the ideal spot Enrique immediately tried to select for his new lab was the mammoth, modernized, brilliantly-lit, and abundantly-powered kitchen. Upon Pym's inquiry, Miles hastily arrived to defend this turf for his cook, a formidable woman whom he seemed to regard as essential to the smooth running not only of his household but also of his new political career. After a low-voiced explanation from Mark that the phrase The House is yours was a mere polite locution, and not meant to be taken literally, Enrique was persuaded to settle for a secondary laundry room in the half-basement of the north wing, not nearly so spacious, but with running water and waste disposal facilities. Mark promised a shopping trip for whatever toys and tools and benches and hoods and lighting Enrique's heart desired just as soon as possible, and left him to start arranging his treasures. The scientist showed no interest whatsoever in the selection of a bedroom. Mark figured he'd probably end up dragging a cot into his new lab, and settling there like a brooding hen defending her nest.

Mark threw his valise into the same room he'd occupied last year, and returned to the laundry to make ready to pitch his proposal to his big brother. It had all seemed to make such splendid sense, back on Escobar, but Mark hadn't known Enrique so well then. The man was a genius, but God Almighty he needed a keeper. Mark thought he understood the whole mess with the bankruptcy proceedings and the fraud suits perfectly, now. "Let me do the talking, understand?" Mark told Enrique firmly. "Miles is an important man here, an Imperial Auditor, and he has the ear of the Emperor himself. His support could give us a big boost." More importantly, his active opposition could be fatal to the scheme; he could kill it with a word. "I know how to work him. Just agree with everything I say, and don't try to add any embellishments of your own."

Enrique nodded eagerly, and followed him like an over-sized puppy through the maze of the house till they tracked Miles down in the great library. Pym was just setting out a spread of tea, coffee, Vorkosigan wines, two varieties of District-brewed beer, and a tray of assorted hors d'oeuvres that looked like a stained-glass window done in food. The Armsman gave Mark a cordial welcome-home nod, and withdrew to leave the two brothers to their reunion.

"How handy," Mark said, pulling up a chair next to the low table. "Snacks. It just so happens I have a new product for you to taste-test, Miles. I think it could prove very profitable."

Miles flicked up an interested eyebrow, and leaned forward as Mark unwrapped a square of attractive red foil to reveal a soft white cube. "Some sort of cheese, is it?"

"Not exactly, though it is an animal product, in a sense. This is the unflavored base version. Flavors and colors can be added as desired, and I'll show you some of those later when we've had time to mix them up. It's nutritious as hell, though—a perfectly balanced blend of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, with all the essential vitamins in their proper proportions. You could live on a diet of this stuff alone, and water, if you had to."

"I lived on it for three months straight!" Enrique put in proudly. Mark shot him a slight frown, and he subsided.

Mark seized one of the silver knives on the tray, cut the cube into four parts, and popped a portion into his mouth. "Try it!" he said around his chewing. He stopped short of a dramatic mumble of yum, yum! or other convincing sound effects. Enrique too reached for a piece. More cautiously, so did Miles. He hesitated, with the fragment at his lips, to find both his watchers hanging on his gesture. His brows twitched up; he chewed. A breathless silence fell. He swallowed.

Enrique, scarcely able to contain himself, said, "How d'you like it?"

Miles shrugged. "It's . . . all right. Bland, but you said it was unflavored. Tastes better than a lot of military rations I've eaten."

"Oh, military rations," said Enrique. "Now, there's an application I hadn't thought of—"

"We'll get to that phase later," said Mark.

"So what makes it so potentially profitable?" asked Miles curiously.

"Because, through the miracle of modern bioengineering, it can be made practically for free. Once the customer has purchased, or perhaps licensed, his initial supply of butter bugs, that is."

A slight but noticeable silence. "His what?"

Mark pulled out the little box from his jacket pocket, and carefully lifted the lid. Enrique sat up expectantly. "This," said Mark, and held the box out toward his brother, "is a butter bug."

Miles glanced down into the box, and recoiled. "Yuk! That is the most disgusting thing I've seen in my life!"

Inside the box, the thumb-sized worker butter bug scrabbled about on its six stubby legs, waved its antennae frantically, and tried to escape. Mark gently pushed its tiny claws back from the edges. It chittered its dull brown vestigial wing carapaces, and crouched to drag its white, soft, squishy-looking abdomen to the safety of one corner.

Miles leaned forward again, to peer in revolted fascination. "It looks like a cross between a cockroach, a termite, and a . . . and a . . . and a pustule."

"We have to admit, its physical appearance is not its main selling point."

Enrique looked indignant, but refrained from denying this last statement out loud.

"Its great value lies in its efficiency," Mark went on. It was a good thing they hadn't started out by showing Miles a whole colony of butter bugs. Or worse, a queen butter bug. They could work up to the queen butter bugs much later, once they'd dragged their prospective patron over the first few psychological humps. "These things eat almost any kind of low-grade organic feedstocks. Corn stalks, grass clippings, seaweed, you name it. Then, inside their gut, the organic matter is processed by a carefully-orchestrated array of symbiotic bacteria into . . . bug butter curds. Which the butter bugs regur—return through their mouths and pack into special cells, in their hive, all ready for humans to harvest. The raw butter curds—"

Enrique, unnecessarily, pointed to the last fragment still sitting on the foil.

"Are perfectly edible at this point," Mark went on more loudly, "though they can be flavored or processed further. We're considering more sophisticated product development by adding bacteria to provide desirable flavors to the curds right in the bug's guts, so even that processing step won't be necessary."

"Bug vomit," said Miles, working through the implications. "You fed me bug vomit." He touched his hand to his lips, and hastily poured himself some wine. He looked at the butter bug, looked at the remaining fragment of curd, and drank deeply. "You're insane," he said with conviction. He drank once more, carefully swishing the wine around in his mouth for a long time before swallowing.

"It's just like honey," Mark said valiantly, "only different."

Miles's brow wrinkled, as he considered this argument. "Very different. Wait. Is that what was in that crate you brought in, these vomit bugs?"

"Butter bugs," Enrique corrected frostily. "They pack most efficiently—"

"How many . . . butter bugs?"

"We rescued twenty queen-lines in various stages of development before we left Escobar, each supported by about two hundred worker bugs," Enrique explained. "They did very well on the trip—I was so proud of the girls—they more than doubled their numbers en route. Busy, busy! Ha, ha!"

Miles's lips moved in calculation. "You've carted upwards of eight thousand of those revolting things into my house ?"

"I can see what you're worried about," Mark cut in quickly, "and I assure you, it won't be a problem."

"I don't think you can, but what won't be a problem?"

"Butter bugs are highly controllable, ecologically speaking. The worker bugs are sterile; only the queens can reproduce, and they're parthenogenetic—they don't become fertile till treated with special hormones. Mature queens can't even move, unless their human keeper moves them. Any worker bug that might chance to get out would just wander about till it died, end of story."

Enrique made a face of distress at this sad vision. "Poor thing," he muttered.

"The sooner, the better," said Miles coldly. "Yuk!"

Enrique looked reproachfully at Mark, and began in a low voice, "You promised he'd help us. But he's just like all the others. Short-sighted, emotional, unreasoning—"

Mark held up a restraining hand. "Calm down. We haven't even gotten to the main part yet." He turned to Miles. "Here's the real pitch. We think Enrique can develop a strain of butter bugs to eat native Barrayaran vegetation, and convert it into humanly-digestible food."

Miles's mouth opened, then shut again. His gaze sharpened. "Go on . . ."

"Picture it. Every farmer or settler out in the backcountry could keep a hive of these butter bugs, which would crawl around eating all that free alien food that you folks go to so much trouble to eradicate with all the burning and terraforming treatments. And not only would the farmers get free food, they would get free fertilizer as well. Butter bug guano is terrific for plants—they just sop it up, and grow like crazy."

"Oh." Miles sat back, an arrested look in his eyes. "I know someone who is very interested in fertilizers . . ."

Mark went on, "I want to put together a development company, here on Barrayar, to both market the existing butter bugs, and create the new strains. I figure with a science genius like Enrique and a business genius like me," and let us not get the two mixed up , "well, there's no limit to what we can get."

Miles frowned thoughtfully. "And what did you get on Escobar, if I may ask? Why bring this genius and his product all the way here?"

Enrique would have got about ten years in jail, if I hadn't come along, but let's not go into that . "He didn't have me to handle the business, then. And the Barrayaran application is just absolutely compelling, don't you think?"

"If it can be made to work."

"The bugs can work to process Earth-descended organic matter right now. We'll market that as soon as we can, and use the proceeds to finance the basic research on the other. I can't set a timetable for that till Enrique has had more time to study Barrayaran biochemistry. Maybe a year or two, to, ah, get all the bugs out." Mark grinned briefly.

"Mark . . ." Miles frowned at the butter bug box, now sitting closed on the table. Tiny scratching noises arose from it. "It sounds logical, but I don't know if logic is going to sell to the proles. Nobody will want to eat food that comes out of something that looks like that . Hell, they won't want to eat anything it touches ."

"People eat honey," argued Mark. "And that comes out of bugs."

"Honeybees are . . . sort of cute. They're furry, and they have those classy striped uniforms. And they're armed with their stings, just like little swords, which makes people respect them."

"Ah, I see—the insect version of the Vor class," Mark murmured sweetly. He and Miles exchanged edged smiles.

Enrique said, in a bewildered tone, "So do you think if I put stings on my butter bugs, Barrayarans would like them better?"

"No!" said Miles and Mark together.

Enrique sat back, looking rather hurt.

"So." Mark cleared his throat. "That's the plan. I'll be setting up Enrique in a proper facility as soon as I have time to find something suitable. I'm not sure whether here in Vorbarr Sultana or out in Hassadar would be better—if this takes off, it could bring in a lot of business, which you might like for the District."

"True . . ." allowed Miles. "Talk to Tsipis."

"I plan to. Do you begin to see why I think of them as money bugs? And do you think you might want to invest? Nothing like getting in on the ground floor, and all that."

"Not . . . at this time. Thanks all the same," said Miles neutrally.

"We, ah, do appreciate the temporary space, you know."

"No problem. Or at least . . ." his eye chilled, "it had better not be."

In the conversational lull that followed, Miles was apparently recalled to his place as a host, and he offered up the food and drinks. Enrique chose beer, and treated them to a dissertation on the history of yeast in human food production, going back to Louis Pasteur, with side comments on parallels between yeast organisms and the butter bugs' symbiotes. Miles drank more wine and didn't say much. Mark nibbled from the grand platter of delectable hors d'oeuvres and calculated the day when he would come to the end of his weight-loss drugs. Or maybe he would just flush the rest tonight.

Eventually Pym, who was apparently playing butler in Miles's reduced bachelor household, came in to collect the plates and glasses. Enrique eyed his brown uniform with interest, and asked about the meaning and history of the silver decorations on the collar and cuffs. This actually drew Miles out briefly, as he supplied Enrique with a few highlights of family history (politely omitting their prominent place in the aborted Barrayaran invasion of Escobar a generation ago), the past of Vorkosigan House, and the story of the Vorkosigan crest. The Escobaran seemed fascinated by the fact that the mountains-and-leaf design had originated as a Count's mark to seal the bags of District tax revenues. Mark was encouraged to believe Enrique was developing a social grace after all. Perhaps he would develop another one soon. One could hope.

When enough time had passed that, Mark calculated, he and Miles could feel they'd accomplished their unaccustomed and still awkward fraternal bonding ritual, he made noises about finishing unpacking , and the welcome-home party broke up. Mark guided Enrique back to his new lab, just to be sure he got there all right.

"Well," he said heartily to the scientist. "That went better than I expected."

"Oh, yes," said Enrique vaguely. He had that foggy look in his eyes that betokened visions of long-chain molecules dancing in his head: a good sign. The Escobaran was apparently going to survive his traumatic transplant. "And I've had this wonderful idea how to get your brother to like my butter bugs."

"Great," said Mark, somewhat at random, and left him to it. He headed up the back stairs two at a time to his bedroom and its waiting comconsole, to call Kareen, Kareen, Kareen .


Ivan had finished his mission of delivering one hundred hand– calligraphed Imperial wedding invitations to Ops HQ for subsequent off-world distribution to select serving officers, when he encountered Alexi Vormoncrief, also passing out through the security scanners in the building's lobby.

"Ivan!" Alexi hailed him. "Just the man! Wait up."

Ivan paused by the automated doors, mentally composing a likely mission order from She Who Must Be Obeyed Till After The Wedding in case he needed to effect an escape. Alexi was not the most stultifying bore in Vorbarr Sultana—several gentlemen of the older generation currently vied for that title—but he certainly qualified as an understudy. On the other hand, Ivan was extremely curious to know if the seeds he'd dropped in Alexi's ear a few weeks back had borne any amusing fruit.

Alexi finished negotiating security and bustled over, a little breathless. "I'm just off duty, are you? Can I treat you to a round, Ivan? I have a bit of news, and you deserve to be the first to know." He rocked on his heels.

If Alexi was buying, why not? "Sure."

Ivan accompanied Alexi across the street to the convenient tavern that the Ops officers regarded as their collective property. The place was something of an institution, having gone into business some ten or fifteen minutes after Ops had opened its then-new building soon after the Pretender's War. The decor was calculatedly dingy, tacitly preserving it as a male bastion.

They slid into a table toward the back; a man in well-cut civvies lounging at the bar turned his head as they passed. Ivan recognized By Vorrutyer. Most town clowns didn't frequent the officers' bars, but By could turn up anywhere. He had the damnedest connections. By raised a hand in mock-salute to Vormoncrief, who, expansively, beckoned him over to join them. Ivan raised a brow. Byerly was on record as despising the company of his fellows who, as he put it, came unarmed to the battle of wits. Ivan couldn't imagine why he was cultivating Vormoncrief. Opposites attracting?

"Sit, sit," Vormoncrief told By. "I'm buying."

"In that case, certainly," said By, and settled in smoothly. He gave Ivan a cordial nod; Ivan returned it a trifle warily. He didn't have Miles present as a verbal shield-wall. By never baited Ivan while Miles was around. Ivan wasn't quite sure if it was because his cousin ran subtle interference, or because By preferred the more challenging target. Maybe Miles ran interference by being the more challenging target. On the other hand, maybe his cousin regarded Ivan as his own personal archery butt, and just didn't want to share. Family solidarity, or mere Milesian possessiveness?

They punched their orders into the server, and Alexi tapped in his credit chit. "Oh, my sincere condolences, by the way, on the death of your cousin Pierre," he said to Byerly. "I kept forgetting to mention that, because you don't wear your House blacks. You really should, you know. You have the right, your blood ties are close enough. Did they finally determine the cause of death?"

"Oh, yes. Heart failure, dropped him like a stone."


"As far as anyone could tell. Being a ruling Count, his autopsy was thorough. Well, if the man hadn't been such an antisocial recluse, someone might have come across the body before his brain spoiled."

"So young, hardly fifty. It's a shame he died without issue."

"It's a greater shame that rather more of my Vorrutyer uncles didn't die without issue." By sighed. "I'd have a new job."

"I didn't know you hankered after the Vorrutyers' District, By," said Ivan. "Count Byerly? A political career?"

"God forfend. I have no desire whatsoever to join that hall full of fossils arguing in Vorhartung Castle, and the District bores me to tears. Dreary place. If only my fecund cousin Richars were not such a very complete son-of-a-bitch—no insult intended to my late aunt—I would wish him joy of his prospects. If he can obtain them. Unfortunately, he does take joy in them, which quite takes the joy out of it all for me."

"What's wrong with Richars?" asked Alexi blankly. "Seemed a solid enough fellow to me, the few times I've met him. Politically sound."

"Never mind, Alexi."

Alexi shook his head in wonderment. "By, don't you have any proper family feeling?"

By dismissed this with an airy what-would-you? gesture. "I haven't any proper family. My principal feeling is revulsion. With perhaps one or two exceptions."

Ivan's brow wrinkled, as he unraveled By's patter. "If he can obtain them? What impediment would Richars have?" Richars was eldest son of the eldest uncle, adult, and as far as Ivan knew, in his right mind. Historically, being a son-of-a-bitch had never been considered a valid excuse for exclusion from the Council of Counts, else it would have been a much thinner body. It was only being a bastard that eliminated one. "No one's discovered he's a secret Cetagandan, like poor Ren? Vorbretten, have they?"

"Unfortunately, no." By glanced across at Ivan, an oddly calculating look starting in his eyes. "But Lady Donna—I believe you know her, Ivan—lodged a formal declaration of impediment with the Council the day after Pierre died, which has temporarily blocked Richars's confirmation."

"I'd heard something. Wasn't paying attention." Ivan hadn't seen Pierre's younger sister Lady Donna in the flesh—and what delicious flesh it had once been—since she'd divested her third spouse and semiretired to the Vorrutyer's District to become her brother's official hostess and unofficial District deputy. It was said she had more clout in the day-to-day running of the District than Pierre. Ivan could believe it. She must be almost forty now; he wondered if she'd started to run to fat yet. On her, it might look good. Ivory skin, wicked black hair to her hips, and smoldering brown eyes like embers. . . .

"Oh, I'd wondered why Richars's confirmation was taking so long," said Alexi.

By shrugged. "We'll see if Lady Donna can make her case stick when she gets back from Beta Colony."

"My mother thought it odd she left before the funeral," said Ivan. "She hadn't heard of any bad blood between Donna and Pierre."

"Actually, they got along rather well, for my family. But the need was urgent."

Ivan's own fling with Donna had been memorable. He'd been a callow new officer, she'd been ten years older and temporarily between spouses. They hadn't talked much about their relatives. He'd never told her, he realized, how her mind-melting lessons had saved his ass a few years later, during that near-disastrous diplomatic mission to Cetaganda. He really ought to call on her, when she got back from Beta Colony. Yes, she might be depressed about those accumulating birthdays, and need cheering up . . .

"So what's the substance of her declaration of impediment?" asked Vormoncrief. "And what's Beta Colony got to do with it?"

"Ah, we shall have to see how that plays out when Donna gets back. It will be a surprise. I wish her every success." A peculiar smile quirked By's lips.

Their drinks arrived. "Oh, very good." Vormoncrief raised his glass high. "Gentlemen, to matrimony. I have sent the Baba!"

Ivan paused with his glass halfway to his lips. "Beg pardon?"

"I've met a woman," said Alexi smugly. "In fact, I might say I have met the woman. For which I thank you, Ivan. I would never have known of her existence but for your little hint. By's seen her once—she's suitable in every way to be Madame Vormoncrief, don't you think, By? Great connections—she's Lord Auditor Vorthys's niece—how did you find out about her, Ivan?"

"I . . . met her at my cousin Miles's. She's designing a garden for him." How did Alexi get so far, so fast?

"I didn't know Lord Vorkosigan had any interest in gardens. No accounting for taste. In any case, I managed to get her father's name and address through this casual conversation about family trees. South Continent. I had to buy a round-trip ticket for the Baba, but she's one of the most exclusive go-betweens—not that there are many left—in Vorbarr Sultana. Hire the best, I say."

"Madame Vorsoisson has accepted you?" said Ivan, stunned. I never intended it to go to this. . . .

"Well, I assume she will. When the offer arrives. Almost no one uses the old formal system anymore. She'll take it as a romantic surprise, I hope. Bowl her right over." His smugness was tinged with anxiety, which he soothed with a large gulp of his beer. By Vorrutyer swallowed a sip of wine and whatever words he'd been about to utter.

"Think she'll accept?" Ivan said cautiously.

"A woman in her situation, why should she refuse? It will give her a household of her own again, which she must be used to, and how else can she get one? She's true Vor, she will surely appreciate the nicety. And it steals a march on Major Zamori."

She hadn't accepted yet. There was still hope. This wasn't celebration, this was nervous babbling seeking the sedation of drink. Sound idea—Ivan took a long gulp. Wait . . . "Zamori? I didn't tell Zamori about the widow."

Ivan had selected Vormoncrief with care, as a plausible enough threat to put the wind up Miles without actually posing a real danger to his suit. For status, a mere no-lord Vor surely couldn't compete with a Count's heir and Imperial Auditor. Physically . . . hm. Maybe he hadn't thought enough about that one. Vormoncrief was a well-enough looking man. Once Madame Vorsoisson was outside of Miles's charismatic jamming-field, the comparison might be . . . rather painful. But Vormoncrief was a blockhead—surely she couldn't pick him over . . . and how many married blockheads do you know? Somebody picked 'em. It can't be that much of an impediment. But Zamori—Zamori was a serious man, and no fool.

"Something I let slip, I fear." Vormoncrief shrugged. "No matter. He's not Vor. It gives me an edge with her family Zamori can't touch. She married Vor before, after all. And she must know a woman alone has no business raising a son. It'll be a financial stretch, but I think if I take a firm hand I can convince her to fire him off to a real Vor school soon after the knot is tied. Make a man of him, knock that little obnoxious streak right out of him before it becomes a habit."

They finished their beer; Ivan ordered the next round. Vormoncrief went off to find the head.

Ivan chewed on his knuckle, and stared at By.

"Problems, Ivan?" By inquired easily.

"My cousin Miles is courting Madame Vorsoisson. He told me to back off her under pain of his ingenuity."

By's brows twitched up. "Then watching him annihilate Vormoncrief should amuse you. Or would it be the other way around that would charm?"

"He's going to eviscerate me out my ass when he finds out I tipped Vormoncrief onto the widow. And Zamori, oh God."

By smiled briefly with one side of his mouth. "Now, now. I was there. Vormoncrief bored her to tears."

"Yes, but . . . maybe her situation isn't comfortable. Maybe she would take the first ticket out that was offered . . . wait, you? How did you come there?"

"Alexi . . . leaks. It's a habit of his."

"Didn't know you were wife-hunting."

"I'm not. Don't panic. Nor am I about to inflict a Baba—good lord, what an anachronism—on the poor woman. Though I may note that I did not bore her. She was even a little intrigued, I fancy. Not bad for a first reconnaissance. I may take Vormoncrief along on my future amorous starts, for flattering contrast." By glanced up, to be sure the object of their analysis was not on the way back, and leaned forward and lowered his voice to a more confidential tone. But he did not go on to carve the block further or more wittily. Instead he murmured, "You know, I think my cousin Lady Donna would be very glad of your support in her upcoming case. You could be of real use to her. You have the ear of a Lord Auditor—short, but surprisingly convincing in his new role, I was impressed—Lady Alys, Gregor himself. Important people."

"They're important. I'm not." Why the hell was By flattering him ? He must want something—badly.

"Would you be willing to meet with Lady Donna, when she returns?"

"Oh." Ivan blinked. "That, gladly. But . . ." He thought it through. "I'm not quite sure what she expects to accomplish. Even if she blocks Richars, the Countship can only go to one of his sons or younger brothers. Unless you're planning mass murder at the next family reunion, which is more exertion than I'd expect of you, I don't see how it delivers any benefit to you."

By smiled briefly. "I said I don't want the Countship. Meet with Donna. She will explain it all to you."

"Well . . . all right. Good luck to her, anyway."

By sat back. "Good."

Vormoncrief returned, to dither about his Vor mating ploys into his second beer. Ivan tried without success to change the subject. Byerly drifted off just before it was his turn to buy the next round. Ivan made excuses involving obscure Imperial duties, and escaped at last.

How to avoid Miles? He couldn't put in for transfer to some distant embassy till this damned wedding was over. That would be too late. Desertion was a possibility, he thought morosely—maybe he could go off and join the Kshatryan Foreign Legion. No, with all Miles's galactic connections, there wasn't a cranny of the wormhole nexus, no matter how obscure, sure to be safe from his wrath. And ingenuity. Ivan would have to trust to luck, Vormoncrief's stultifying personality, and for Zamori—kidnapping? Assassination? Maybe introduce him to more women? Ah, yes! Not to Lady Donna, though. That one, Ivan proposed to keep for himself.

Lady Donna. She was no pubescent prole. Any husband who dared to trumpet in her presence risked being sliced off at the knees. Elegant, sophisticated, assured . . . a woman who knew what she wanted, and how to ask for it. A woman of his own class, who understood the game. A little older, yes, but with lifespans extending so much these days, what of that? Look at the Betans; Miles's Betan grandmother, who must be ninety if she was a day, was reported to have a gentleman-friend of eighty. Why hadn't he thought of Donna earlier?

Donna. Donna, Donna, Donna. Mmm. This was one meeting he wouldn't miss for worlds.

* * *

"I set her to wait in the antechamber to the library, m'lord," Pym's familiar rumble came to Kareen's ears. "Would you like me to bring you anything, or ah, anything?"

"No. Thank you," came Lord Mark's lighter voice in reply from the front hall. "Nothing, that will be all, thank you."

Mark's footsteps echoed off the stone paving: three rapid strides, two skips, a slight hesitation, and a more measured footfall to the archway into the antechamber. Skips? Mark? Kareen bounced to her feet as he rounded the corner. Oh, my, surely it could not have been good for him to lose that much weight that quickly—instead of the familiar excessively round solidity, he looked all saggy , except for his grin, and his blazing eyes—

"Ah! Stand right there!" he ordered her, seized a footstool, placed it before her knees, climbed up, and flung his arms around her. She wrapped her arms around him in turn, and the conversation was buried for a moment in frantic kisses given and received and returned redoubled.

He came up for air long enough to inquire, "How did you get here?" then didn't let her answer for another minute.

"Walked," she said breathlessly.

"Walked! It must be a kilometer and a half!"

She put her hands on his shoulders, and backed off far enough to focus her eyes on his face. He was too pale, she thought disapprovingly, almost pasty. Worse, his buried resemblance to Miles was edging toward the surface with his bones, an observation she knew would horrify him. She kept it to herself. "So? My father used to walk to work here every day in good weather, stick and all, when he was the Lord Regent's aide."

"If you'd called, I would have sent Pym with the car—hell, better, I'd have come myself. Miles says I can use his lightflyer whenever I want."

"A lightflyer, for six blocks?" she cried indignantly, between a couple more kisses. "On a beautiful spring morning like this?"

"Well, they don't have slidewalks here . . . mmm. . . . Oh, that's good . . ." He nuzzled her ear, inhaled her tickling curls, and planted a spiral line of kisses from her earlobe to her collarbone. She hugged him tight. The kisses seemed to burn across her skin like little fiery footprints. "Missed you, missed you, missed you . . ."

"Missed you missed you missed you too." Though they could have traveled home together, if he hadn't insisted on his Escobaran detour.

"At least the walk made you all warm . . . you could come up to my room, and take off all those hot clothes . . . can Grunt come out to play, hmm . . . ?"

"Here ? In Vorkosigan House ? With all the Armsmen around?"

"It's where I live, presently." This time, he broke off and leaned back to eye-focusing distance. "And there's only three Armsmen, and one sleeps in the daytime." A worried frown started between his eyes. "Your house . . . ?" he ventured.

"Worse. It's full of parents. And sisters.Gossipy sisters."

"Rent a room?" he offered after a puzzled moment.

She shook her head, groping for an explanation of muddled feelings she hardly understood herself.

"We could borrow Miles's lightflyer . . ."

This brought an involuntary giggle to her lips. "There's really not enough room. Even if we both took your nasty meds."

"Yes, he can't have been thinking, when he purchased that thing. Better a huge aircar, with vast comfortable upholstered seats. That you can fold down. Like that armored groundcar he has, left over from the Regency—hey! We could crawl in the back, mirror the canopy . . ."

Kareen shook her head, helplessly.

"Anywhere on Barrayar?"

"That's the trouble," she said. "Barrayar."

"In orbit . . . ?" He pointed skyward in hope.

She laughed, painfully. "I don't know , I don't know . . ."

"Kareen, what's wrong?" He was looking very alarmed, now. "Is it something I've done? Something I said? What have I—are you still mad about the drugs? I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'll stop them. I'll, I'll gain the weight back. Whatever you want."

"It's not that ." She stepped back half a pace further, though neither let go of the other's hands. She cocked her head. "Though I don't understand why being a body narrower should make you suddenly look half a head shorter. What a bizarre optical illusion. Why should mass translate to height, psychologically? But no. It's not you. It's me."

He clutched her hands and stared in earnest dismay. "I don't understand."

"I've been thinking about it the whole ten days, waiting for you to get home here. About you, about us, about me. All week, I've been feeling stranger and stranger. On Beta Colony, it seemed so right, so logical. Open, official, approved. Here . . . I haven't been able to tell my parents about us. I tried to work up to it. I haven't even been able to tell my sisters. Maybe, if we'd come home together, I wouldn't have lost my nerve, but . . . but I did."

"Were . . . are you thinking about that Barrayaran folktale where the girl's lover ended up with his head in a pot of basil, when her relatives caught up with him?"

"Pot of basil? No!"

"I thought about it . . . I think your sisters could, y'know, if they teamed up. Hand me my head, I mean. And I know your mother could; she trained you all."

"How I wish Tante Cordelia were here!" Wait, that was perhaps an unfortunate remark, in the context. Pots of basil, good God. Mark was so paranoid . . . quite . Never mind. "I wasn't thinking of you, at all."

"Oh." His voice went rather flat.

"That's not what I mean! I was thinking of you day and night. Of us. But I've been so uncomfortable, since I got back. It's like I can just feel myself, folding back up into my old place in this Barrayaran culture-box. I can feel it, but I can't stop it. It's horrible."

"Protective coloration?" His tone suggested he could understand a desire for camouflage. His fingers noodled back along her collarbone, crept around her neck. One of his wonderful neck rubs would feel so good, just now . . . He'd worked so hard, to learn to touch and be touched, to overcome the panic and the flinching and the hyperventilation. He was breathing faster now.

"Something like that. But I hate secrets and lies."

"Can't you just . . . tell your family?"

"I tried. I just couldn't. Could you?"

He looked nonplused. "You want me to? It would be the basil for sure."

"No, no, I mean hypothetically."

"I could tell my mother."

"I could tell your mother. She's Betan. She's another world, the other world, the one where we were so right. It'smy mother I can't talk to. And I always could, before." She found she was trembling, a little. Mark could feel it through her hands; she could tell by the stricken look in his eyes as he raised his face to hers.

"I don't understand how it can feel so right there, and so wrong here," Kareen said. "It should be not wrong here. Or not right there. Or something."

"That makes no sense. Here or there, what's the difference?"

"If there's no difference, why did you go to so much trouble to lose all that weight before you would set foot on Barrayar again?"

His mouth opened, and closed. He finally got out, "Well, so. It's only for a couple of months. I can take a couple of months."

"It gets worse. Oh, Mark! I can't go back to Beta Colony."

"What? Why not? We'd planned—you'd planned—is it that your parents suspect, about us? Have they forbidden you—"

"It's not that. At least, I don't think it is. It's just money. Or just no money. I couldn't have gone, last year, without the Countess's scholarship. Mama and Da say they're strapped, and I don't know how I can earn so much in just the few months." She bit her lip in renewed determination. "But I mean to think of something."

"But if you can't—but I'm not done yet, on Beta Colony," he said plaintively. "I have another year of school, and another year of therapy."

Or more . "But you do mean to come back to Barrayar, after, don't you?"

"Yes, I think. But a whole year apart—" He gripped her tighter, as though looming parents were bearing down upon them to rip her from his grasp on the spot. "It would be . . . excessively stressful, without you," he mumbled in muffled understatement into her flesh.

After a moment, he took a deep breath, and peeled himself away from her. He kissed her hands. "There's no need to panic," he addressed her knuckles earnestly. "There's months to figure something out. Anything could happen." He looked up, and feigned a normal smile. "I'm glad you're here anyway. You have to come see my butter bugs." He hopped down from the footstool.

"Your what?"

"Why does everyone seem to have so much trouble with that name? I thought it was simple enough. Butter bugs. And if I hadn't gone by Escobar, I would never have run across 'em, so that much good has come of it all. Lilly Durona tipped me on to them, or rather, onto Enrique, who was in a spot of trouble. Great biochemist, no financial sense. I bailed him out of jail, and helped him rescue his experimental stocks from the idiot creditors who'd confiscated 'em. You'd have laughed, to watch us blundering around in that raid on his lab. Come on, come see."

As he towed her by the hand through the great house, Kareen asked dubiously, "Raid? On Escobar?"

"Maybe raid is the wrong word. It was entirely peaceful, miraculously enough. Burglary , perhaps. I actually got to dust off some of my old training, believe it or not."

"It doesn't sound very . . . legal."

"No, but it was moral. They were Enrique's bugs—he'd made 'em, after all. And he loves them like pets. He cried when one of his favorite queens died. It was very affecting, in a bizarre sort of way. If I hadn't been wanting to strangle him at just that moment, I'd have been very moved."

Kareen was just starting to wonder if those cursed weight-loss meds had any psychological side-effects Mark hadn't seen fit to confide to her, when they arrived at what she recognized as one of Vorkosigan House's basement laundry rooms. She hadn't been back in this part of the house since she'd played hide-and-seek here with her sisters as children. The windows high in the stone walls let in a few strips of sunlight. A lanky fellow with crisp dark hair, who looked no older than his early twenties at the outside, was puttering distractedly about among piles of half-unpacked boxes.

"Mark," he greeted them. "I must have more shelving. And benches. And lighting. And more heat. The girls are sluggish. You promised."

"Check the attics first, before you go running out to buy stuff new," Kareen suggested practically.

"Oh, good idea. Kareen, this is Dr. Enrique Borgos, from Escobar. Enrique, this is my . . . my friend , Kareen Koudelka. My best friend." Mark held tightly and possessively to her hand as he announced this. But Enrique merely nodded vaguely at her.

Mark turned to a broad covered metal tray, balanced precariously on a crate. "Don't look yet," he said over his shoulder to her.

A memory of life with her older sisters whispered through Kareen's mind—Open your mouth and close your eyes, and you will get a big surprise . . . Prudently, she ignored his directive and advanced to see what he was doing.

He lifted the tray's cover to reveal a writhing mass of brown-and-white shapes, chittering faintly and crawling over one another. Her startled eye sorted out the details—insectoid, big, lots of legs and waving feelers—

Mark plunged his hand in amongst the heaving masses, and she blurted, "Eck!"

"It's all right. They don't bite or sting," he assured her with a grin. "Here, see? Kareen, meet butter bug. Bug, Kareen."

He held out a single bug, the size of her thumb, in his palm.

Does he really want me to touch that thing? Well, she'd got through Betan sex education, after all. What the hell. Torn between curiosity and revulsion, she held out her hand, and Mark tipped the bug into it.

Its little clawed feet tickled her skin, and she laughed nervously. It was quite the most incredibly ugly live thing she'd ever seen in her life. Though she had perhaps dissected nastier items in her Betan xenozoology course last year; nothing looked its best after pickling. The bugs didn't smell too bad, just sort of green, like mown hay. It was the scientist who needed to wash his shirt.

Mark embarked on an explanation of how the bugs reprocessed organic matter in their really disgusting-looking abdomens, complicated by pedantic technical corrections about the biochemical details from his new friend Enrique. It all made sense biologically, as far as Kareen could tell.

Enrique pulled a single petal from a pink rose which lay piled with half a dozen others in a box. The box, also balanced on a stack of crates, bore the mark of one of Vorbarr Sultana's premier florists. He set the petal in her palm next to the bug; the bug clutched it in its front claws, and began nibbling off the tender edge. He smiled fondly at the creature. "Oh, and Mark," he added, "the girls need more food as soon as possible. I got these this morning, but they won't last the day." He waved at the florist's box.

Mark, who had been anxiously watching Kareen contemplate the bug in her hand, seemed to notice the roses for the first time. "Where did you get the flowers? Wait, you bought roses for bug fodder ?"

"I asked your brother how to get some Earth-descended botanical matter that the girls would like. He said, call there and order it. Who is Ivan? But it was terribly expensive. We're going to have to rethink the budget, I'm afraid."

Mark smiled thinly, and seemed to count to five before answering. "I see. A slight miscommunication, I fear. Ivan is our cousin. You will doubtless not be able to avoid meeting him sooner or later. There is Earth-descended botanical matter available much more cheaply. I believe you can collect some outside—no, maybe I'd better not send you out alone. . . ." He stared at Enrique with an expression of deeply mixed emotion, rather the way Kareen stared at the butter bug in her palm. It was about halfway through munching down the rose petal now.

"Oh, and I must have a lab assistant as soon as possible," Enrique added, "if I am to plunge unimpeded into my new studies. And access to whatever the natives here may know about their local biochemistry. Mustn't waste precious time reinventing the wheel, you know."

"I believe my brother has some contacts at Vorbarr Sultana University. And at the Imperial Science Institute. I'm sure he could get you access to anything that isn't security-related." Mark chewed gently on his lip, his brows drawn down in a momentarily downright Milesian expression of furious thought. "Kareen . . . didn't you say you were looking for a job?"

"Yes . . ."

"Would you like a job as an assistant? You had those couple of Betan biology courses last year—"

"Betan training?" Enrique perked up. "Someone with Betan training, in this benighted place?"

"Only a couple of undergraduate courses," Kareen explained hastily. "And there are lots of folks on Barrayar with galactic training of all sorts." What does he think this is, the Time of Isolation?

"It's a start," said Enrique, in a tone of judicious approval. "But I was going to ask, Mark, do we have enough money to hire anyone yet?"

"Mm," said Mark.

"You, out of money?" said Kareen to Mark, startled. "What did you do on Escobar?"

"I'm not out . It's just tied up in a lot of nonliquid ways right now, and I spent quite a bit more than I'd budgeted—it's only a temporary cash-flow problem. I'll get it sorted out at the end of the next period. But I have to confess, I was really glad I could put Enrique and his project up here free for a little while."

"We could sell shares again," Enrique suggested. "That's what I did before," he added in an aside to Kareen.

Mark winced. "I think not. I know I explained to you about closely-held ."

"People do raise venture capital that way," Kareen observed.

Mark informed her under his breath, "But they don't normally sell shares to five hundred and eighty percent of their company."


"I was going to pay them all back," Enrique protested indignantly. "I was so close to breakthrough, I couldn't stop then!"

"Um . . . excuse us a moment, Enrique." Mark took Kareen by her free hand, led her into the corridor outside the laundry room, and shut the door firmly. He turned to her. "He doesn't need an assistant. He needs a mother . Oh, God, Kareen, you have no idea what a boon it would be if you could help me ride herd on the man. I could give you the credit chits with a quiet mind, and you could keep the records and dole out his pocket-money, and keep him out of dark alleys and not let him pick the Emperor's flowers or talk back to ImpSec guards or whatever suicidal thing he comes up with next. The thing is, um . . ." He hesitated. "Would you be willing to take shares as collateral against your salary, at least till the end of the period? Doesn't give you much spending money, I know, but you said you meant to save . . ."

She stared dubiously at the butter bug, still tickling her palm as it finished off the last of its rose petal. "Can you really give me shares? Shares of what? But . . . if this doesn't work out as you hope, I wouldn't have anything else to fall back on."

"It will work," he promised urgently. "I'll make it work. I own fifty-one percent of the enterprise. I'm having Tsipis help me officially register us as a research and development company, out of Hassadar."

She would be betting their future together on Mark's odd foray into bioentrepreneurship, and she wasn't even sure he was in his right mind. "What, ah, does your Black Gang think of all this?"

"It's not their department in any way."

Well, that was reassuring. This was apparently the work of his dominant personality, Lord Mark, serving the whole man, and not a ploy of one of his sub-personas for its own narrow ends. "Do you really think Enrique is that much of a genius? Mark, I thought that smell back in the lab was the bugs at first, but it was him. When was his last bath?"

"He probably forgot to take one. Feel free to remind him. He won't be offended. In fact, think of it as part of your job. Make him wash and eat, take charge of his credit chit, organize the lab, make him look both ways before crossing the street. And it would give you an excuse to hang out here at Vorkosigan House."

Put like that . . . besides, Mark was giving her that pleading-puppy-eyes look. In his own strange way Mark was almost as good as Miles at drawing one into doing things one suspected one would later regret deeply. Infectious obsession, a Vorkosigan family trait.

"Well . . ." A little chittering burp made her look down. "Oh, no, Mark! Your bug is sick." Several milliliters of thick white liquid dripped from the bug's mandibles onto her palm.

"What?" Mark surged forward in alarm. "How can you tell?"

"It's throwing up. Ick! Could it be jump-lag? That makes some people nauseous for days." She looked around frantically for a place to deposit the creature before it exploded or something. Would bug diarrhea be next?

"Oh. No, that's all right. They're supposed to do that. It's just producing its bug butter. Good girl," he crooned to the bug. At least, Kareen trusted he was addressing the bug.

Firmly, Kareen took his hand, turned it palm-up, and dumped the now-slimy bug into it. She wiped her hand on his shirt. "Your bug. You hold it."

"Our bugs . . . ?" he suggested, though he accepted it without demur. "Please . . . ?"

The goop didn't smell bad, actually. In fact, it had a scent rather like roses, roses and ice cream. She nevertheless found the impulse to lick the stickiness off her hand to be quite resistible. Mark . . . was less so. "Oh, very well." I don't know how he talks me into things like this. "It's a deal."


Armsman Pym admitted Ekaterin to the grand front hall of Vorkosigan House. Belatedly, she wondered if she ought to be using the utility entrance, but in his tour of a couple of weeks ago Vorkosigan hadn't shown her where it was. Pym was smiling at her in his usual very friendly way, so perhaps it was all right for the moment.

"Madame Vorsoisson. Welcome, welcome. How may I serve you?"

"I had a question for Lord Vorkosigan. It's rather trivial, but I thought, if he was right here, and not busy . . ." She trailed off.

"I believe he's still upstairs, madame. If you would be pleased to wait in the library, I'll fetch him at once."

"I can find my way, thank you," she fended off his proffered escort. "Oh, wait—if he's still asleep, please don't—" But Pym was already ascending the stairs.

She shook her head, and wandered through the antechamber to the left toward the library. Vorkosigan's Armsmen seemed impressively enthusiastic, energetic, and attached to their lord, she had to concede. And astonishingly cordial to visitors.

She wondered if the library harbored any of those wonderful old hand-painted herbals from the Time of Isolation, and whether she might borrow—she came to a halt. The chamber had an occupant: a short, fat, dark-haired young man who crouched at a comconsole that sat so incongruously among the fabulous antiques. It was displaying a collection of colored graphs of some kind. He glanced up at the sound of her step on the parquet.

Ekaterin's eyes widened. At my height, Lord Vorkosigan had complained, the effect is damned startling. But it wasn't the soft obesity that startled nearly so much as the resemblance to, what did they call it for a clone, to his progenitor, which was half-buried beneath the . . . why did she instantly think of it as a barrier of flesh? His eyes were the same intense gray as Miles's—as Lord Vorkosigan's, but their expression was closed and wary. He wore black trousers and a black shirt; his belly burgeoned from an open backcountry-style vest which conceded the spring weather outside only by being a green so dark as to be almost black.

"Oh. You must be Lord Mark. I'm sorry," she spoke to that wariness.

He sat back, his finger touching his lips in a gesture very like one of Lord Vorkosigan's, but then going on to trace his doubled chin, pinching it between thumb and finger in an emphatic variation clearly all his own. "I, on the other hand, am tolerably pleased."

Ekaterin flushed in confusion. "I didn't mean—I didn't mean to intrude."

His eyebrows flicked up. "You have the advantage of me, milady." The timbre of his voice was very like his brother's, perhaps a trifle deeper; his accent was an odd amalgam, neither wholly Barrayaran nor wholly galactic.

"Not milady, merely Madame. Ekaterin Vorsoisson. Excuse me. I'm, um, your brother's landscape consultant. I just came in to check what he wants done with the maple tree we're taking down. Compost, firewood—" She gestured at the cold carved white marble fireplace. "Or if he just wants me to sell the chippings to the arbor service."

"Maple tree, ah. That would be Earth-descended botanical matter, wouldn't it?"

"Why, yes."

"I'll take any chopped-up bits he doesn't want."

"Where . . . would you want it put?"

"In the garage, I suppose. That would be handy."

She pictured the heap dumped in the middle of Pym's immaculate garage. "It's a rather large tree."


"Do you garden . . . Lord Mark?"

"Not at all."

The decidedly disjointed conversation was interrupted by a booted tread, and Armsman Pym leaning around the doorframe to announce, "M'lord will be down in a few minutes, Madame Vorsoisson. He says, please don't go away." He added in a more confiding tone, "He had one of his seizures last night, so he's a little slow this morning."

"Oh, dear. And they give him such a headache. I shouldn't trouble him till he's had his painkillers and black coffee." She turned for the door.

"No, no! Sit down, madame, sit, please. M'lord would be right upset with me if I botched his orders." Pym, smiling anxiously, motioned her urgently toward a chair; reluctantly, she sat. "There now. Good. Don't move." He watched her a moment as if to make sure she wasn't going to bolt, then hurried off again. Lord Mark stared after him.

She hadn't thought Lord Vorkosigan was the sort of Old Vor who threw his boots at his servants' heads when he was displeased, but Pym did seem edgy, so who knew? She looked around again to find Lord Mark leaning back in his chair, steepling his fingers and watching her curiously.

"Seizures . . . ?" he said invitingly.

She stared back at him, not at all sure what he was asking. "They leave him with the most dreadful hangover the next day, you see."

"I'd understood they were practically cured. Is this not, in fact, the case?"

"Cured? Not if the one I witnessed was a sample. Controlled, he says."

His eyes narrowed. "So, ah . . . where did you see this show?"

"The seizure? It was on my living room floor, actually. In my old apartment on Komarr," she felt compelled to explain at his look. "I met him during his recent Auditorial case there."

"Oh." His gaze flicked up and down, taking in her widow's garb. Construing . . . what?

"He has this little headset device his doctors made for him, which is supposed to trigger them when he chooses, instead of randomly." She wondered if the one he'd had last night was medically induced, or if he'd left it for too long again and suffered the more severe, spontaneous version. He'd claimed to have learned his lesson, but—

"He neglected to supply me with all those complicating details, for some reason," Lord Mark murmured. An oddly unhumorous grin flashed over his face and was gone. "Did he explain to you how he came by them in the first place?"

His attention upon her had grown intent. She groped for the right balance between truth and discretion. "Cryo-revival damage, he told me. I once saw the scars on his chest from the needle grenade. He's lucky he's alive."

"Huh. Did he also mention that at the time he encountered the grenade, he was trying to save my sorry ass?"

"No . . ." She hesitated, taking in his defiantly lifted chin. "I don't think he's supposed to talk much about his, his former career."

He smiled thinly, and drummed his fingers on the comconsole. "My brother has this bad little habit of editing his version of reality to fit his audience, y'see."

She could understand why Lord Vorkosigan was loath to display any weakness. But was Lord Mark angry about something? Why? She sought to find some more neutral topic. "Do you call him your brother, then, and not your progenitor?"

"Depends on my mood."

The subject of their discussion arrived then, curtailing the conversation. Lord Vorkosigan wore one of his fine gray suits and polished half-boots, his hair was neatly combed but still damp, and the faint scent of his cologne carried from his shower-warmed skin. This dapper impression of greet-the-morning energy was unfortunately belied by his gray-toned face and puffy eyes; the general effect was of a corpse reanimated and dressed for a party. He managed a macabre smile in Ekaterin's direction, and a suspicious squint at his clone-brother, and lowered himself stiffly into an armchair between them. "Uh," he observed.

He looked appallingly just like that morning-after on Komarr, minus the bloodstains and scabs. "Lord Vorkosigan, you should not have gotten up!"

He gave her a little wave of his fingers which might have been either agreement or denial, then Pym arrived in his wake bearing a tray with coffeepot, cups, and a basket covered with a bright cloth from which wafted an enticing aroma of warm spiced bread. Ekaterin watched with fascination as Pym poured out the first cup and folded his lord's hand around it; Lord Vorkosigan sipped, inhaled—it looked like his first breath of the day—sipped again, and looked up and blinked. "Good morning, Madame Vorsoisson." His voice only sounded a little underwater.

"Good morning—oh—" Pym poured her a cup too before she could forestall him. Lord Mark shut off his comconsole graphs and added sugar and cream to his, and studied his progenitor-brother with obvious interest. "Thank you," Ekaterin said to Pym. She hoped Vorkosigan had ingested his painkillers upstairs, first thing; by his rapidly-improving color and easing movement, she was fairly sure he had.

"You're up early," Vorkosigan said to her.

She almost pointed out the time, in denial of this, then decided that might be impolitic. "I was excited to be starting my first professional garden. The sod crew are out rolling up the grass in the park this morning, and collecting the terraformed topsoil. The tree crew will be along shortly to transplant the oak. It occurred to me to ask if you wanted the maple for firewood, or compost."

"Firewood. Sure. We burn wood now and then, when we're being deliberately archaic for show—it impresses the hell out of my mother's Betan visitors—and there're always the Winterfair bonfires. There's a pile out back behind some bushes. Pym can show you."

Pym nodded genial confirmation.

"I've laid claim to the leaves and chippings," Lord Mark put in, "for Enrique."

Lord Vorkosigan shrugged, and held a hand palm-out in a warding gesture. "That's between you and your eight thousand little friends."

Lord Mark appeared to find no mystery in this obscure remark; he nodded thanks. Having, apparently, accidentally routed her employer out of bed, Ekaterin wondered if it would be too rude to dash out again immediately. She ought probably to stay long enough to drink at least one cup of Pym's coffee. "If all goes well, the excavation can start tomorrow," she added.

"Ah, good. Did Tsipis put you in the way of collecting all your water and power connection permits?"

"Yes, that's all under control. And I've learned more than I expected about Vorbarr Sultana's infrastructure."

"It's a lot older and stranger than you'd think. You should hear Drou Koudelka's war stories some time, about how they escaped through the sewers after collecting the Pretender's head. I'll see if I can get her going at the dinner party."

Lord Mark leaned his elbow on the comconsole, nibbled gently on his knuckle, and idly rubbed his throat.

"A week from tomorrow night seems to be the date I can round up everyone," Lord Vorkosigan added. "Will that work for you?"

"Yes, I think so."

"Good." He shifted around, and Pym hastened to pour him more coffee. "I'm sorry I missed the garden groundbreaking. I really meant to come out and watch that with you. Gregor sent me out-country a couple of days ago on what turned out to be a fairly bizarre errand, and I didn't get back till late last night."

"Yes, what was that all about?" Lord Mark put in. "Or is it an Imperial secret?"

"No, unfortunately. In fact, it's already gossip all over town. Maybe it will divert attention from the Vorbretten case. Though I'm not sure if you can call it a sex scandal, exactly." A tilted grimace. "Gregor told me, `You're half-Betan, Miles, you're just the Auditor to handle this one.' I said, `Thanks, Sire.'"

He paused for his first bite of sweet spiced bread, washed down with another swallow of coffee, and warmed to his theme. "Count Vormuir came up with this wonderful idea how to solve his District's underpopulation problem. Or so he imagined. Are you up on the latest hot demographic squabbles among the Districts, Mark?"

Lord Mark waved a negating hand, and reached for the bread basket. "I haven't been following Barrayaran politics for the past year."

"This one goes back further than that. Among our father's early reforms, when he was Regent, was that he managed to impose uniform simplified rules for ordinary subjects who wanted to change Districts, and switch their oaths to their new District Count. Since every one of the sixty Counts was trying to attract population to his District at the expense of his brother Counts, Da somehow greased this through the Council, even though everyone was also trying to prevent their own liege people from leaving them. Now, each Count has a lot of discretion about how he runs his District, how he structures his District government, how he imposes his taxes, supports his economy, what services he provides his people, whether Progressive or Conservative or a party of his own invention like that loon Vorfolse down on the south coast, and on and on. Mother describes the Districts as sixty sociopolitical culture dishes. I'd add, economic, too."

"That part, I've been studying," Lord Mark allowed. "It matters to where I place my investments."

Vorkosigan nodded. "Effectively, the new law gave every Imperial subject the right to vote local government with their feet. Our parents drank champagne with dinner the night the vote slipped through, and Mother grinned for days. I must have been about six, because we were living here by then, I remember. The long-term effect, as you can imagine, has been a downright biological competition. Count Vorenlightened makes it good for his people, his District grows, his revenues increase. His neighbor Count Vorstodgy makes it too tough, and he leaks people like a sieve, and his revenues drop. And he gets no sympathy from his brother Counts, because his loss is their gain."

"Ah, ha," said Mark. "And is the Vorkosigan's District winning or losing?"

"We're just treading water, I think. We've been losing people to the Vorbarr Sultana economy since forever. And a hell of a lot of loyalists followed the Viceroy to Sergyar last year. On the other hand, the District University and new colleges and medical complexes in Hassadar have been a big draw. Anyway, Count Vormuir has been a long-time loser in this demographic game. So, he implemented what he fondly imagined to be a wildly Progressive personal—I might say, very personal—solution."

Ekaterin's cup was empty, but she'd lost all desire to leave. She could listen to Lord Vorkosigan by the hour, she thought, when he was on like this. He was entirely awake and alive now, engrossed in his story.

"Vormuir," Vorkosigan went on, "bought himself thirty uterine replicators and imported some techs to run them, and started, ah, manufacturing his own liege people. His own personal cr?che, as it were, but with only one sperm donor. Guess who."

"Vormuir?" Mark hazarded.

"None other. It's the same principle as a harem, I guess. Only different. Oh, and he's only making little girls, at present. The first batch of them are almost two years old. I saw them. Appallingly cute, en masse."

Ekaterin's eyes widened at this vision of a whole thundering cadre of little girls. The impact must be something like a child-garden—or, depending on the decibel level, a girl-grenade. I always wanted daughters. Not just one, lots—sisters, the like of which she had never had. Too late now. None for her, dozens for Vormuir—the pig, it wasn't fair! She was bemusedly aware that she ought to be feeling outrage, but what she really felt was outraged envy. What had Vormuir's wife—wait. Her brows lowered. "Where is he getting the eggs? His Countess?"

"That's the next little legal wrinkle in this mess," Vorkosigan went on enthusiastically. "His Countess, who has four half-grown children of her—and his—own, wants nothing to do with this. In fact, she isn't talking to him, and has moved out. One of his Armsmen told Pym, very privately, that the last time he attempted to impose a, um, conjugal visit upon her, and threatened to batter down her door, she dumped a bucket of water out the window on him—this was mid-winter—and then threatened to personally warm him with her plasma arc. And then threw down the bucket and screamed at him that if he was that much in love with plastic tubes, he could use that one. Do I have that right, Pym?"

"Not the precise quote I was given, but close enough, m'lord."

"Did she hit him?" Mark asked, sounding quite interested.

"Yes," said Pym, "both times. I understand her aim is superior."

"I suppose that made the plasma arc threat convincing."

"Speaking professionally, when one is standing next to the target, an assailant with bad aim is actually more alarming. Nevertheless, the Count's Armsmen persuaded him to come away."

"But we digress." Vorkosigan grinned. "Ah, thank you, Pym." The attentive Armsman, blandly, poured his lord more coffee, and refilled Mark and Ekaterin's cups.

Vorkosigan went on, "There is a commercial replicator cr?che in Vormuir's District capital, which has been growing babies for the well-to-do for several years now. When a couple present themselves for this service, the techs routinely harvest more than one egg from the wife, that being the more complex and expensive part of the proceedings. The backup eggs are kept frozen for a certain length of time, and if not claimed by then, are discarded. Or they are supposed to be. Count Vormuir hit upon a clever economy. He had his techs collect all the viable discards. He was very proud of this angle, when he was explaining it all to me."

Now that was appalling. Nikki had been, to her cost, a body-birth, but it might well have been different. If Tien had had sense, or if she'd stood up for simple prudence instead of letting herself be seduced by the romantic drama of it all, they might have chosen a replicator-gestation. Imagine learning that her longed-for daughter was now the property of an eccentric like Vormuir . . . "Do any of the women know?" asked Ekaterin. "The ones whose egg cells were . . . can you call it stolen?"

"Ah, not at first. Rumors, however, had begun to leak out, hence the Emperor was moved to dispatch his newest Imperial Auditor to investigate." He bowed at her, sitting. "As for whether it can be called theft– Vormuir claims to have violated no Barrayaran law whatsoever. He claims it quite smugly. I shall be consulting with several of Gregor's Imperial lawyers over the next few days, and trying to figure out if that is in fact true. On Beta Colony, they could hang him out to dry for this, and his techs with him, but of course on Beta Colony, he'd never have got this far."

Lord Mark shifted in his station chair. "So how many little girls does Vormuir have by now?"

"Eighty-eight live births, plus thirty more coming along in the replicators. Plus his first four. A hundred and twenty-two children for that idiot, not one for—anyway, I gave him an order in the Emperor's Voice to start no more until Gregor had ruled on his ingenious scheme. He was inclined to protest, but I pointed out that since all his replicators were full anyway, and would be for the next seven or so months, he wasn't really much discommoded by this. He shut up, and went off to consult with his lawyers. And I flew back to Vorbarr Sultana and gave Gregor my verbal report, and went home to bed."

He'd left out confession of his seizure in this description, Ekaterin noted. What was Pym about, to have so pointedly mentioned it?

"There ought to be a law," Lord Mark said.

"There ought to be," his brother replied, "but there isn't. This is Barrayar. Lifting the Betan legal model wholesale strikes me as a recipe for revolution, and besides, a lot of their particular conditions don't apply here. There are a dozen galactic codes which address these issues in addition to the Betan. I left Gregor last night muttering about appointing a select committee to study them all and recommend a Joint Council ruling. And me on it, for my sins. I hate committees. I much prefer a nice clean chain of command."

"Only if you're at the top of it," Lord Mark observed dryly.

Lord Vorkosigan conceded this with a sardonic wave. "Well, yes."

Ekaterin asked, "But will you be able to corner Vormuir with a new law? Surely his situation would have to be, um . . . grandfathered."

Lord Vorkosigan grinned briefly. "Exactly the problem. We've got to nail Vormuir under some existing rule, bent to fit, to discourage imitators, while shoving the new law, in whatever form it finally takes, through the Counts and Ministers. We can't use a rape charge; I looked up all the technical definitions, and they just don't stretch that way."

Lord Mark asked, in a worried voice, "Did the little girls seem abused or neglected?"

Lord Vorkosigan glanced up at him rather sharply. "I'm not the expert on cr?che care you are, but they seemed all right to me. Healthy . . . noisy . . . they screeched and giggled a lot. Vormuir told me he had two full-time nurturers for every six children, in shifts. He also went on about his frugal plans for having the older ones care for the younger ones, later on, which gave an unsettling hint of just how far he's thinking of expanding this genetic enterprise. Oh, and we can't get him for slavery, either, because they all really are actually his daughters. And the theft-of-the-eggs angle is extremely ambiguous under current rules." In a peculiarly exasperated tone he added, "Barrayarans!" His clone-brother gave him an odd look.

Ekaterin said slowly, "In Barrayaran customary law, when Vor-caste families split because of death or other reasons, the girls are supposed to go to their mothers or mother's kin, and the boys to their fathers. Don't these girls belong to their mothers?"

"I looked at that one, too. Leaving aside the fact that Vormuir isn't married to any of them, I suspect very few of the mothers would actually want the girls, and all of them would be pretty upset."

Ekaterin wasn't altogether sure about the first part of this, but he certainly had the second dead-to-rights.

"And if we forced them into their mothers' families, what punishment would there be in it to Vormuir? His District would still be richer by a hundred and eighteen girls, and he wouldn't even have to feed them." He set aside his half-eaten piece of spice bread, and frowned. Lord Mark selected a second, no, third slice, and nibbled on it. A glum silence fell.

Ekaterin's brows drew down in thought. "By your account, Vormuir is much taken with economies, of scale and otherwise." Only long after Nikki's birth had she wondered if Tien had pushed for the old-fashioned way because it had seemed much cheaper. We won't have to wait until we can afford it had been a potent argument, in her eager ears. Vormuir's motivation seemed as much economic as genetic: ultimately, wealth for his District and therefore for him. This techno-harem was intended to become future taxpayers, along with the husbands he no doubt assumed they would draw in, to support him in his old age. "In effect, the girls are the Count's acknowledged bastards. I'm sure I read somewhere . . . in the Time of Isolation, weren't Imperial and count-palatine female bastards entitled to a dowry, from their high-born father? And it required some sort of Imperial permission . . . the dowry almost was the sign of legal acknowledgment. I'll bet the Professora would know all the historical details, including the cases where the dowries had to be dragged out by force. Isn't an Imperial permission effectively an Imperial order? Couldn't Emperor Gregor set Count Vormuir's dowries for the girls . . . high?"

"Oh." Lord Vorkosigan sat back, his eyes widening with delight. "Ah." An evil grin leaked between his lips. "Arbitrarily high, in fact. Oh . . . my ." He looked across at her. "Madame Vorsoisson, I believe you have hit on a possible solution. I will certainly pass the idea along as soon as I may."

Her heart lifted in response to his obvious pleasure—well, all right, actually it was a sort of razor-edged glee; anyway, he smiled at her smile at his smile. She could only hope she'd done some little bit to ease his morning-after headache. A chiming clock began sounding in the antechamber. Ekaterin glanced at her chrono. Wait, how could it possibly be this late? "Oh, my word, the time. My tree crew will be here any moment. Lord Vorkosigan, I must excuse myself."

She jumped to her feet, and made polite farewells to Lord Mark. Both Pym and Lord Vorkosigan escorted her personally to the front door. Vorkosigan was still very stiff; she wondered how much pain his forced motion denied, or defied. He encouraged her to stop in again, any time she had the least question, or needed anything at all, and dispatched Pym to show her where to have the crew stack the maple wood, and stood in the doorway and watched them both till they turned the corner of the great house.

Ekaterin glanced back over her shoulder. "He didn't look very well this morning, Pym. You really shouldn't have let him get out of bed."

"Oh, I know it, ma'am," Pym agreed morosely. "But what's a mere Armsman to do? I haven't the authority to countermand his orders. What he really needs, is looking after by someone who won't stand his nonsense. A proper Lady Vorkosigan would do the trick. Not one of those shy, simpering ingenues all the young lords seem to be looking to these days, he'd just ride right over her. He needs a woman of experience, to stand up to him." He smiled apologetically down at her.

"I suppose so," sighed Ekaterin. She hadn't really thought about the Vor mating scene from the Armsmen's point of view. Was Pym hinting that his lord had such an ingenue in his eye, and his staff was worried it was some sort of mismatch?

Pym showed her the wood cache, and made a sensible suggestion for placing Lord Mark's compost heap near it rather than in the underground garage, assuring her it would be just fine there. Ekaterin thanked him and headed back toward the front gates.

Ingenues. Well, if a Vor wanted to marry within his caste, he almost had to look to the younger cohort, these days. Vorkosigan did not strike her as a man who would be happy with a woman who was not up to his intellectual weight, but how much choice did he have? Presumably any woman with brains enough to be interesting to him in the first place would not be so foolish as to reject him for his physical . . . it was no business of hers, she told herself firmly. And it was absurd to allow the vision of this imaginary ingenue, offering him an imaginary devastating insult about his disabilities, to raise one's real blood pressure. Completely absurd. She marched off to oversee the dismantling of the bad tree.

* * *

Mark was just reaching to reactivate the comconsole when Miles wandered back into the library, smiling absently. Mark turned to watch his progenitor-brother start to fling himself back into his armchair, only to hesitate, and lower himself more carefully. Miles stretched his shoulders as if to loosen knotted muscles, leaned back, and stuck his feet out. He picked up his half-eaten piece of bread, remarked cheerfully, "That went well, don't you think?" and bit into it.

Mark eyed him doubtfully. "What went well?"

"The co'versation." Miles chased his bite with the last of his cold coffee. "So, you've met Ekaterin. Good. What did you two find to talk about, before I got downstairs?"

"You. Actually."

"Ah?" Miles's face lit, and he sat up a little straighter. "What did she say about me?"

"We mainly discussed your seizures," Mark said grimly. "She seemed to know a great deal more about them than you had seen fit to confide to me."

Miles subsided, frowning. "Hm. That's not the aspect of me I'm really anxious to have her dwell on. Still, it's good she knows. I wouldn't want to be tempted to conceal a problem of that magnitude again. I've learned my lesson."

"Oh, really." Mark glowered at him.

"I sent you the basic facts," his brother protested in response to this look. "You didn't need to dwell on all the gory medical details. You were on Beta Colony; there was nothing you could do about it anyway."

"They're my fault."

"Rubbish." Miles really did do a very good offended snort; Mark decided it was a touch of his—their—Aunt Vorpatril in it that gave it that nice upper-class edge. Miles waved a dismissive hand. "It was the sniper's doing, followed by more medical random factors than I can calculate. Done's done; I'm alive again, and I mean to stay that way this time."

Mark sighed, realizing reluctantly that if he wanted to wallow in guilt, he'd get no cooperation from his big brother. Who, it appeared, had other things on his mind.

"So what did you think of her?" Miles asked anxiously.


"Ekaterin , who else?"

"As a landscape designer? I'd have to see her work."

"No, no, no! Not as a landscape designer, though she's good at that too . As the next Lady Vorkosigan."

Mark blinked. "What?"

"What do you mean, what ? She's beautiful, she's smart—dowries, ye gods, how perfect, Vormuir will split—she's incredibly level-headed in emergencies. Calm, y'know? A lovely calm. I adore her calm. I could swim in it. Guts and wit, in one package."

"I wasn't questioning her fitness. That was a merely a random noise of surprise."

"She's Lord Auditor Vorthys's niece. She has a son, Nikki, almost ten. Cute kid. Wants to be a jump-pilot, and I think he has the determination to make it. Ekaterin wants to be a garden designer, but I think she could go on to be a terraformer. She's a little too quiet, sometimes—she needs to build up her self-confidence."

"Perhaps she was just waiting to get a word in edgewise," Mark suggested.

Miles paused, stricken—briefly—by doubt. "Do you think I talked too much, just now?"

Mark waved his fingers in a little perish-the-thought gesture, and poked through the bread basket for any lurking spice bread crumbs. Miles stared at the ceiling, stretched his legs, and counter-rotated his feet.

Mark thought back over the woman he had just seen here. Pretty enough, in that elegant brainy-brunette style Miles liked. Calm? Perhaps. Guarded, certainly. Not very expressive. Round blondes were much sexier. Kareen was wonderfully expressive; she'd even managed to rub some of those human skills off on him, he thought in his more optimistic moments. Miles was plenty expressive too, in his own unreliable way. Half of it was horseshit, but you were never sure which half.

Kareen, Kareen, Kareen . He must not take her attack of nerves as a rejection of him. She's met someone she likes better, and is dumping us , whispered someone from the Black Gang in the back of his head, and it wasn't the lustful Grunt. I know a few ways to get rid of excess fellows like that. They'd never even find the body. Mark ignored the vile suggestion. You have no place in this, Killer.

Even if she had met someone else, say, on the way home, all lonely by herself because he'd insisted on taking that other route, she had the compulsive honesty to tell him so if it were so. Her honesty was at the root of their present contretemps. She was constitutionally incapable of walking around pretending to be a chaste Barrayaran maiden unless she was. It was her unconscious solution to the cognitive dissonance of having one foot planted on Barrayar, the other on Beta Colony.

All Mark knew was that if it came down to a choice between Kareen and oxygen, he'd prefer to give up oxygen, thanks. Mark considered, briefly, laying his sexual frustrations open to his brother for advice. Now would be the perfect opportunity, trading on Miles's newly-revealed infatuation. Trouble was, Mark was by no means sure which side Miles would be on . Commodore Koudelka had been Miles's mentor and friend, back when Miles had been a fragile youth hopelessly wild for a military career. Would Miles be sympathetic, or would he lead, Barrayaran-style, the posse seeking Mark's head? Miles was being terrifically Vorish these days.

Yes, and so after all his exotic galactic romances, Miles had finally settled on the Vor next door. If settled was the term—the man mouthed certainties that the twitching of his body belied. Mark's brow wrinkled in puzzlement. "Does Madame Vorsoisson know this?" he asked at last.

"Know what?"

"That you're, um . . . hustling her for the next Lady Vorkosigan." And what an odd way to say, I love her, and I want to marry her . It was very Miles, though.

"Ah." Miles touched his lips. "That's the tricky part. She's very recently widowed. Tien Vorsoisson was killed rather horribly less than two months ago, on Komarr."

"And you had what, to do with this?"

Miles grimaced. "Can't give you the details, they're classified. The public explanation is a breath-mask accident. But in effect, I was standing next to him. You know how that one feels."

Mark flipped up a hand, in sign of surrender; Miles nodded, and went on. "But she's still pretty shaken up. By no means ready to be courted. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop the competition around here. No money, but she's beautiful, and her bloodlines are impeccable."

"Are you choosing a wife, or buying a horse?"

"I am describing how my Vor rivals think, thank you. Some of them, anyway." His frown deepened. "Major Zamori, I don't trust. He may be smarter."

"You have rivals already?" Down, Killer. He didn't ask for your help.

"God, yes. And I have a theory about where they came from . . . never mind. The important thing is for me to make friends with her, get close to her, without setting off her alarms, without offending her. Then, when the time is right—well, then."

"And, ah, when are you planning to spring this stunning surprise on her?" Mark asked, fascinated.

Miles stared at his boots. "I don't know. I'll recognize the tactical moment when I see it, I suppose. If my sense of timing hasn't totally deserted me. Penetrate the perimeter, set the trip lines, plant the suggestion—strike. Total victory! Maybe." He counter-rotated his feet the other way.

"You have your campaign all plotted out, I see," said Mark neutrally, rising. Enrique would be glad to hear the good news about the free bug fodder. And Kareen would be here for work soon—her organizational skills had already had notable effect on the zone of chaos surrounding the Escobaran.

"Yes, exactly. So take care not to foul it up by tipping my hand, if you please. Just play along."

"Mm, I wouldn't dream of interfering." Mark made for the door. "Though I'm not at all sure I'd choose to structure my most intimate relationship as a war. Is she the enemy, then?"

His timing was perfect; Miles's feet had come down and he was still sputtering just as Mark passed the door. Mark stuck his head back through the frame to add, "I hope her aim is as good as Countess Vormuir's."

Last word: I win. Grinning, he exited.


"Hello?" came a soft alto voice from the door of the laundry room-cum-laboratory. "Is Lord Mark here?"

Kareen looked up from assembling a new stainless steel rack on wheels to see a dark-haired woman leaning diffidently through the doorway. She wore very conservative widow's garb, a long-sleeved black shirt and skirt set off only by a somber gray bolero, but her pale face was unexpectedly young.

Kareen put down her tools and scrambled to her feet. "He'll be back soon. I'm Kareen Koudelka. Can I help you?"

A smile illuminated the woman's eyes, all too briefly. "Oh, you must be the student friend who is just back from Beta Colony. I'm glad to meet you. I'm Ekaterin Vorsoisson, the garden designer. My crew took out that row of amelanchier bushes on the north side this morning, and I wondered if Lord Mark wanted any more compost."

So that's what those scrubby things had been called. "I'll ask. Enrique, can we use any um, amel-whatsit bush chippings?"

Enrique leaned around his comconsole display and peered at the newcomer. "Is it Earth-descended organic matter?"

"Yes," replied the woman.


"I suppose. They were Lord Vorkosigan's bushes."

"We'll try some." He disappeared once more behind the churning colored displays of what Kareen had been assured were enzymatic reactions.

The woman stared curiously around the new lab. Kareen followed her gaze proudly. It was all beginning to look quite orderly and scientific and attractive to future customers. They'd painted the walls cream white; Enrique had picked the color because it was the exact shade of bug butter. Enrique and his comconsole occupied a niche in one end of the room. The wet-bench was fully plumbed, set up with drainage into what had once been the washtub. The dry-bench, with its neat array of instruments and brilliant lighting, ran along the wall all the way to the other end. The far end was occupied by racks each holding a quartet of meter-square custom-designed new bughouses. As soon as Kareen had the last set assembled, they could release the remaining queen-lines from their cramped travel box into their spacious and sanitary new homes. Tall shelves on both sides of the door held their proliferating array of supplies. A big plastic waste bin brimmed with a handy supply of bug fodder; a second provided temporary storage for bug guano. The bugshit had not proved nearly as smelly or abundant as Kareen had expected, which was nice, as the task of cleaning the bughouses daily had fallen to her. Not half bad for a first week's work.

"I must ask," said the woman, her eye falling on the heaped-up maple bits in the first bin. "What does he want all those chippings for ?"

"Oh, come in, and I'll show you," said Kareen enthusiastically. The dark-haired woman responded to Kareen's friendly smile, drawn in despite her apparent reserve.

"I'm the Head Bug Wrangler of this outfit," Kareen went on. "They were going to call me the lab assistant, but I figured as a shareholder I ought to at least be able to pick my own job title. I admit, I don't have any other wranglers to be the head of, yet, but it never hurts to be optimistic."

"Indeed." The woman's faint smile was not in the least Vor-supercilious; drat it, she hadn't said if it was Lady or Madame Vorsoisson. Some Vor could get quite huffy about their correct title, especially if it was their chief accomplishment in life so far. No, if this Ekaterin were that sort, she would have made a point of the Lady at the first possible instant.

Kareen unlatched the steel-screen top of one of the bug hutches, reached in, and retrieved a single worker-bug. She was getting quite good at handling the little beasties without wanting to puke by now, as long as she didn't look too closely at their pale pulsing abdomens. Kareen held out the bug to the gardener, and began a tolerably close copy of Mark's Better Butter Bugs for a Brighter Barrayar sales talk.

Though Madame Vorsoisson's eyebrows went up, she didn't shriek, faint, or run away at her first sight of a butter bug. She followed Kareen's explanation with interest, and was even willing to hold the bug and feed it a maple leaf. There was something very bonding about feeding live things, Kareen had to admit; she would have to keep that ploy in mind for future presentations. Enrique, his interest piqued by the voices drifting past his comconsole discussing his favorite subject, wandered over and did his best to queer her pitch by adding long, tedious technical footnotes to Kareen's streamlined explanations. The garden designer's interest soared visibly when Kareen got to the part about future R&D to create a Barrayaran-vegetation-consuming bug.

"If you could teach them to eat strangle-vines, South Continent farmers would buy and keep colonies for that alone," Madame Vorsoisson told Enrique, "whether they produced edible food as well or not."

"Really?" said Enrique. "I didn't know that. Are you familiar with the local planetary botany?"

"I'm not a fully-trained botanist—yet—but I have some practical experience, yes."

"Practical," echoed Kareen. A week of Enrique had given her a new appreciation for the quality.

"So let's see this bug manure," the gardener said.

Kareen led her to the bin and unsealed the lid. The woman peered in at the heap of dark, crumbly matter, leaned over, sniffed, ran her hand through it, and let some sift out through her fingers. "Good heavens."

"What?" asked Enrique anxiously.

"This looks, feels, and smells like the finest compost I've ever seen. What kind of chemical analysis are you getting off it?"

"Well, it depends on what the girls have been eating, but—" Enrique burst into a kind of riff on the periodic table of the elements. Kareen followed the significance of about half of it.

Madame Vorsoisson, however, looked impressed. "Could I have some to try on my plants at home?" she asked.

"Oh, yes," said Kareen gratefully. "Carry away all you want. There's getting to be rather a lot of it, and I'm really beginning to wonder where would be a safe place to dispose of it."

"Dispose of it? If this is half as good as it looks, put it up in ten-liter bags and sell it! Everyone who's trying to grow Earth plants here will be willing to try it."

"Do you think so?" said Enrique, anxious and pleased. "I couldn't get anyone interested, back on Escobar."

"This is Barrayar. For a long time, burning and composting was the only way to terraform the soil, and it's still the cheapest. There was never enough Earth-life based compost to both keep old ground fertile and break in new lands. Back in the Time of Isolation they even had a war over horse manure."

"Oh, yeah, I remember that one from my history class." Kareen grinned. "A little war, but still, very . . . symbolic."

"Who fought who?" asked Enrique. "And why?"

"I suppose the war was really over money and traditional Vor privilege," Madame Vorsoisson explained to him. "It had been the custom, in the Districts where the Imperial cavalry troops were quartered, to distribute the products of the stables free to any prole who showed up to cart it away, first-come first-served. One of the more financially pressed Emperors decided to keep it all for Imperial lands or sell it. This issue somehow got attached to a District inheritance squabble, and the fight was on."

"What finally happened?"

"In that generation, the rights fell to the District Counts. In the following generation, the Emperor took them back. And in the generation after that—well, we didn't have much horse cavalry anymore." She went to the sink to wash, adding over her shoulder, "There is still a customary distribution every week from the Imperial Stables here in Vorbarr Sultana, where the ceremonial cavalry squad is kept. People come in their groundcars, and carry off a bag or two for their flower beds, just for old time's sake."

"Madame Vorsoisson, I've lived for four years in butter bug guts," Enrique told her earnestly as she dried her hands.

"Mm," she said, and won Kareen's heart on the spot by receiving this declaration with no more risibility than a slight helpless widening of her eyes.

"We really need someone on the macro-level as a native guide to the native vegetation," Enrique went on. "Do you think you could help us out?"

"I suppose I could give you some sort of quick overview, and some ideas about where to go to next. But you'd really need a District agronomy officer—Lord Mark can surely access the one in the Vorkosigan's District for you."

"There, you see already," cried Enrique. "I didn't even know there was such a thing as a District agronomy officer."

"I'm not sure Mark does, either," Kareen added doubtfully.

"I'll bet the Vorkosigans' manager, Tsipis, could guide you," Madame Vorsoisson said.

"Oh, do you know Tsipis? Isn't he a lovely man?" said Kareen.

Madame Vorsoisson nodded instant agreement. "I've not met him in person yet, but he's given me ever so much help over the comconsole with Lord Vorkosigan's garden project. I mean to ask him if I could come down to the District to collect stones and boulders from the Dendarii Mountains to line the stream bed—the water in the garden is going to take the form of a mountain stream, you see, and I fancied Lord Vorkosigan would appreciate the home touch."

"Miles? Yes, he loves those mountains. He used to ride up into them all the time when he was younger."

"Really? He hasn't talked much to me about that part of his life—"

Mark appeared at the door at that moment, tottering along under a large box of laboratory supplies. Enrique relieved him of it with a glad cry, and carried it off to the dry bench, and began unpacking the awaited reagents.

"Ah, Madame Vorsoisson," Mark greeted her, catching his breath. "Thank you for the maple chippings. They seem to be a hit. Have you met everyone?"

"Just now," Kareen assured him.

"She likes our bugs," said Enrique happily.

"Have you tried the bug butter yet?" Mark asked.

"Not yet," Madame Vorsoisson said.

"Would you be willing to? I mean, you did see the bugs, yes?" Mark smiled uncertainly at this new potential customer/test subject.

"Oh . . . all right." The gardener's return smile was a trifle crooked. "A small bite. Why not."

"Give her a taste test, Kareen."

Kareen pulled one of the liter tubs of bug butter from the stack on the shelf, and pried it open. Sterilized and sealed, the stuff would keep indefinitely at room temperature. She'd harvested this batch just this morning; the bugs had responded most enthusiastically to their new fodder. "Mark, we're going to need more of these containers. Bigger ones. A liter of bug butter per bughouse per day is going to add up to a lot of bug butter after a while." Pretty soon, actually. Especially when they hadn't been able to persuade anyone in the household to eat more than a mouthful apiece. The Armsmen had taken to avoiding this corridor.

"Oh, the girls will make more than that, now they're fully fed," Enrique informed them cheerfully over his shoulder from the bench.

Kareen stared thoughtfully at the twenty tubs she'd put up this morning, atop the small mountain from the last week. Fortunately, there was a lot of storage space in Vorkosigan House. She scrounged up one of the disposable spoons kept ready for sampling, and offered it to Madame Vorsoisson. Madame Vorsoisson accepted it, blinked uncertainly, scooped a sample from the tub, and took a brave bite. Kareen and Mark anxiously watched her swallow.

"Interesting," she said politely after a moment.

Mark slumped.

Her brows knotted in sympathy; she glanced at the stack of tubs. After a moment she offered, "How does it respond to freezing? Have you tried running it through an ice cream freezer, with some sugar and flavoring?"

"Actually, not yet," said Mark. His head tilted in consideration. "Hm. D'you think that would work, Enrique?"

"Don't see why not," responded the scientist. "The colloidal viscosity doesn't break down when exposed to subzero temperatures. It's thermal acceleration which alters the protein microstructure and hence texture."

"Gets kind of rubbery when you cook it," Mark translated this. "We're working on it, though."

"Try freezing," Madame Vorsoisson suggested. "With, um, perhaps a more dessert-sounding name?"

"Ah, marketing," Mark sighed. "That's the next step now, isn't it?"

"Madame Vorsoisson said she would test out the bug shit on her plants for us," Kareen consoled him.

"Oh, great!" Mark smiled again at the gardener. "Hey, Kareen, you want to fly down to the District with me day after tomorrow, and help me scout sites for the future facility?"

Enrique paused in his unpacking to unfocus his gaze into the air, and sigh, "Borgos Research Park ."

"Actually, I was thinking of calling it Mark Vorkosigan Enterprises ," Mark said. "D'you suppose I ought to spell it out in full? MVK Enterprises might have some potential for confusion with Miles."

"Kareen's Butter Bug Ranch ," Kareen put in sturdily.

"We'll obviously have to have a shareholder's vote." Mark smirked.

"But you'd win automatically," Enrique said blankly.

"Not necessarily," Kareen told him, and shot Mark a mock-glower. "Anyway, Mark, we were just talking about the District. Madame Vorsoisson has to go down there and collect rocks. And she told Enrique she could help him with figuring out Barrayaran native botany. What if we all go together? Madame Vorsoisson says she's never met Tsipis except over the comconsole. We could introduce her and make a sort of picnic out of it all."

And she wouldn't end up alone with Mark, and exposed to all sorts of . . . temptation, and confusion, and resolve-melting neck rubs, and back rubs, and ear-nibbling, and . . . she didn't want to think about it. They'd got on very professionally all week here at Vorkosigan House, very comfortably. Very busily. Busy was good. Company was good. Alone together was . . . um.

Mark muttered under his breath to her, "But then we'd have to take Enrique, and . . ." By the look on his face, alone together had been just what he'd had in mind.

"Oh, c'mon, it'll be fun." Kareen took the project firmly in hand. A very few minutes of persuasion and schedule-checking and she had the quartet committed, with an early start set and everything. She made a mental note to arrive at Vorkosigan House in plenty of time to make sure Enrique was bathed, dressed, and ready for public display.

Quick, light footsteps sounded from the corridor, and Miles rounded the doorjamb like a trooper swinging himself through a shuttle hatch. "Ah! Madame Vorsoisson," he panted. "Armsman Jankowski only just told me you were here." His gaze swept the room, taking in the demonstration in progress. "You didn't let them feed you that bug vom—bug stuff, did you? Mark—!"

"It's not half bad, actually," Madame Vorsoisson assured him, earning a relieved look from Mark, followed by a see-what-did-I-tell you jerk of his chin at his brother. "It may possibly need a little product development before it's ready to market."

Miles rolled his eyes. "Just a tad, yes."

Madame Vorsoisson glanced at her chrono. "My excavation crew will be back from lunch any minute. It was nice to meet you, Miss Koudelka, Dr. Borgos. Until day after tomorrow, then?" She picked up the bag of tubs packed with bug manure Kareen had put up for her, smiled, and excused herself. Miles followed her out.

He was back in a couple of minutes, having evidently seen her to the door at the end of the corridor. "Good God, Mark! I can't believe you fed her that bug vomit. How could you!"

"Madame Vorsoisson," said Mark with dignity, "is a very sensible woman. When presented with compelling facts, she doesn't let a thoughtless emotional response overcome her clear reason."

Miles ran his hands through his hair. "Yeah, I know."

Enrique said, "Impressive, actually. She seemed to understand what I wanted to say even before I spoke."

"And after you spoke, too," said Kareen mischievously. "That's even more impressive."

Enrique grinned sheepishly. "Was I too technical, do you think?"

"Evidently not in this case."

Miles's brows drew down. "What's going on the day after tomorrow?"

Kareen answered sunnily, "We're all going down to the District together to visit Tsipis and look around for various things we need. Madame Vorsoisson's promised to introduce Enrique to Barrayaran native botany on site, so he can start to design what modifications he'll need to make to the new bugs later."

"I was going to take her on her first tour of the District. I have it all planned out. Hassadar, Vorkosigan Surleau, the Dendarii Gorge—I have to make exactly the right first impression."

"Too bad," said Mark unsympathetically. "Relax. We're only going to have lunch in Hassadar and scout around a bit. It's a big District, Miles, there'll be plenty left for you to show off later."

"Wait, I know! I'll go with you. Expedite things, yeah."

"There are only four seats in the lightflyer," Mark pointed out. "I'm flying, Enrique needs Madame Vorsoisson, and I'm damned if I'm going to leave Kareen behind in order to packyou ." He somehow smiled fondly at her and glowered at his brother simultaneously.

"Yeah, Miles, you're not even a stockholder," Kareen supported this.

With a driven glare, Miles decamped, going off up the corridor muttering, " . . . can't believe he fed her bug vomit. If only I'd gotten here before—Jankowski, dammit, you and I are going to have a little—"

Mark and Kareen followed him out the door. They stood in the corridor watching this retreat. "What in the world's bit him?" Kareen asked in wonder.

Mark grinned evilly. "He's in love."

"With his gardener?" Kareen's brows rose.

"Causality's the other way around, I gather. He met her on Komarr during his recent case. He hired her as his gardener to create a little propinquity. He's courting her in secret."

"In secret? Why? She seems perfectly eligible to me—she's Vor, even—or is her rank only by marriage? But I shouldn't think that would matter to Miles. Or—are her relatives against it, because of his—?" A vague gesture down her body implied Miles's putative mutations. She frowned in outrage at the scent of this romantically doleful scenario. How dare they look down on Miles for—

"Ah, secret from her, as I understand it."

Kareen wrinkled her nose. "Wait, what?"

"You'll have to get him to explain it. It made no sense to me. Not even by Miles's standards of sense." Mark frowned thoughtfully. "Unless he's having a major outbreak of sexual shyness."

"Sexually shy, Miles?" Kareen scoffed. "You met that Captain Quinn he had in tow, didn't you?"

"Oh, yes. I've met several of his girlfriends, in fact. The most appalling bunch of bloodthirsty amazons you ever saw. God, they were frightening." Mark shuddered in memory. "Of course, they were all pissed as hell at me at the time for getting him killed, which I suppose accounts for some of it. But I was just thinking . . . you know, I really wonder if he picked them—or if they picked him? Maybe, instead of being such a great seducer, he's just a man who can't say no. It would certainly explain why they were all tall aggressive women who were used to getting what they wanted. But now—maybe for the first time—he's up against trying to pick for himself. And he doesn't know how . He hasn't had any practice." A slow grin spread across Mark's broad face at this vision. "Ooh. I wanna watch."

Kareen punched his shoulder. "Mark, that's not nice. Miles deserves to meet the right woman. I mean, he's not getting any younger, is he?"

"Some of us get what they deserve. Others of us get luckier than that." He captured her hand, and nuzzled the inside of her wrist, making the hairs stand up on her arm.

"Miles always says you make your own luck. Stop that." She repossessed her hand. "If sweat-equity is going to pay my way back to Beta Colony, I need to get back to work." She retreated into the lab; Mark followed.

"Was Lord Vorkosigan very upset?" Enrique asked anxiously as they reappeared. "But Madame Vorsoisson said she didn't mind trying our bug butter—"

"Don't worry about it, Enrique," Mark told him jovially. "My brother is just being a prick because he has something on his mind. If we're lucky, he'll go take it out on his Armsmen."

"Oh," said Enrique. "That's all right, then. I have a plan to bring him around."

"Yeah?" said Mark skeptically. "What plan?"

"It's a surprise," said the scientist, with a sly grin, or at any rate, as sly as he could bring off, which really wasn't very. "If it works, that is. I'll know in a few more days."

Mark shrugged, and glanced at Kareen. "You know what he's got up his sleeve?"

She shook her head, and settled herself on the floor once more with her rack-assembly project. "You might try pulling an ice cream freezer out of yours, though. Ask Ma Kosti first. Miles seems to have showered her with every piece of food service equipment imaginable. I think he was trying to bribe her into resisting the employment offers from all his friends." Kareen blinked, seized by inspiration.

Product development, too right. Never mind the appliances, the resource they had right here in Vorkosigan House was human genius. Frustrated human genius; Ma Kosti pressed the hard-working entrepreneurs to come to a special lunch in her kitchen every day, and sent trays of snacks to the lab betimes. And the cook was already soft on Mark, even after just a week; he so obviously appreciated her art. They were well on their way to bonding.

She jumped up and handed Mark the screwdriver. "Here. Finish this."

Grabbing six tubs of bug butter, she headed for the kitchen.

* * *

Miles climbed from the old armored groundcar, and paused a moment on the flower-bordered curving walkway to stare enviously at Ren? Vorbretten's entirely modern townhouse. Vorbretten House perched on the bluff overlooking the river, nearly opposite to Vorhartung Castle. Civil war as urban renewal: the creaky old fortified mansion which had formerly occupied the space had been so damaged in the Pretender's War that the previous Count and his son, when they'd returned to the city with Aral Vorkosigan's victorious forces, had decided to knock it flat and start over. In place of dank, forbidding, and defensively useless old stone walls, truly effective protection was now supplied by optional force-fields. The new mansion was light and open and airy, and took full advantage of the excellent views of the Vorbarr Sultana cityscape up and down stream. It doubtless had enough bathrooms for all the Vorbretten Armsmen. And Miles bet Ren? didn't have troubles with his drains.

And if Sigur Vorbretten wins his case, Ren? will lose it all. Miles shook his head, and advanced to the arched doorway, where an alert Vorbretten Armsman stood ready to lead Miles to his liege-lord's presence, and Pym, no doubt, to a good gossip downstairs.

The Armsman brought Miles to the splendid sitting room with the window-wall looking across the Star Bridge toward the castle. This morning, however, the wall was polarized to near-darkness, and the Armsman had to wave on lights as they entered. Ren? was sitting in a big chair with his back to the view. He sprang to his feet as the Armsman announced, "Lord Auditor Vorkosigan, m'lord."

Ren? swallowed, and nodded dismissal to his Armsman, who withdrew silently. At least Ren? appeared sober, well-dressed, and depilated, but his handsome face was dead pale as he nodded formally to his visitor. "My Lord Auditor. How may I serve you?"

"Relax, Ren?, this isn't an official visit. I just dropped by to say hello."

"Oh." Ren? exhaled visible relief, the sudden stiffness in his face reverting to mere tiredness. "I thought you were . . . I thought Gregor might have dispatched you with the bad news."

"No, no, no. After all, the Council can't very well vote without telling you." Miles nodded vaguely toward the river, and the Council's seat beyond it; Ren?, recalled to his hostly duties, depolarized the window and pulled chairs around for himself and Miles to take in the view while they talked. Miles settled himself across from the young Count. Ren? had thought quickly enough to drag up a rather low chair for his august visitor, so Miles's feet didn't dangle in air.

"But you might have been—well, I don't know what you might have been," said Ren? ruefully, sitting down and rubbing his neck. "I wasn't expecting you. Or anyone. Our social life has evaporated with amazing speed. Count and Countess Ghembretten are apparently not good people to know."

"Ouch. You've heard that one, have you?"

"My Armsmen heard it first. The joke's all over town, isn't it?"

"Eh, yeah, sort of." Miles cleared his throat. "Sorry I wasn't by earlier. I was on Komarr when your case broke, and I only heard about it when I got back, and then Gregor sent me up-country, and, well, screw the excuses. I'm sorry as hell this thing has happened to you. I can flat guarantee the Progressives don't want to lose you."

"Can you? I thought I had become a deep embarrassment to them."

"A vote's a vote. With turnover among the Counts literally a once-in-a-lifetime event—"

"Usually," Ren? put in dryly.

Miles shrugged this off. "Embarrassment is a passing emotion. If the Progressives lose you to Sigur, they lose that vote for the next generation. They'll back you." Miles hesitated. "They are backing you, aren't they?"

"More or less. Mostly. Some." Ren? waved an ironic hand. "Some are thinking that if they vote against Sigur and lose, they'll have made a permanent enemy in the Council. And a vote, as you say, is a vote."

"What do the numbers look like, can you tell yet?"

Ren? shrugged. "A dozen certain for me, a dozen certain for Sigur. My fate will be decided by the men in the middle. Most of whom aren't speaking with the Ghembrettens this month. I don't think it looks good, Miles." He glanced across at his visitor, his expression an odd mix of sharpness and hesitancy. In a neutral tone he added, "And do you know how Vorkosigan's District is going to vote yet?"

Miles had realized he would have to answer that question if he saw Ren?. So, no doubt, did every other Count or Count's Deputy, which also explained the sudden dip in Ren?'s social life lately; those who weren't avoiding him were avoiding the issue. With a couple of weeks to think it through behind him, Miles had his answer ready. "We're for you. Could you doubt it?"

Ren? managed a rueful smile. "I had been almost certain, but then there is that large radioactive hole the Cetagandans once put in the middle of your District."

"History, man. Do I help your vote-count?"

"No," sighed Ren?. "I'd already factored you in."

"Sometimes, one vote makes all the difference."

"It makes me crazy to think it might be that close," Ren? confessed. "I hate this. I wish it were over."

"Patience, Ren?," Miles counseled. "Don't throw away any advantage just because of an attack of nerves." He frowned thoughtfully. "Seems to me what we have here are two coequal legal precedents, jostling each other for primacy. A Count chooses his own successor, with the consent of the Council by their vote of approval, which is how Lord Midnight got in."

Ren?'s smile twisted. "If a horse's ass can be a Count, why not the whole horse?"

"I think that was one of the fifth Count Vortala's arguments, actually. I wonder if any transcripts of those sessions still exist in the archives? I must read them someday, if they do. Anyway, Midnight clearly established that direct blood relationship, though customary, was not required, and even if Midnight's case is rejected, there are dozens of other less memorable precedents on that score anyway. Count's choice before Count's blood, unless the Count has neglected to make a choice. Only then does male primogeniture come into play. Your grandfather was confirmed as heir in his . . . his mother's husband's lifetime, wasn't he?" Miles had been confirmed as his own father's heir during the Regency, while his father had been at the height of his power to ram it through the Council.

"Yes, but fraudulently, according to Sigur's suit. And a fraudulent result is no result."

"I don't suppose the old man might have known? And is there any way to prove it, if he did? Because if he knew your grandfather was not his son, his confirmation was legal, and Sigur's case evaporates."

"If the sixth Count knew, we haven't been able to find a scrap of evidence. And we've been turning the family archives inside out for weeks. I shouldn't think he could have known, or he would surely have killed the boy. And the boy's mother."

"I'm not so sure. The Occupation was a strange time. I'm thinking about how the bastard war played out in the Dendarii region." Miles blew out his breath. "Ordinary known Cetagandan by-blows were usually aborted or killed as soon as possible. Occasionally, the guerrillas used to make a sort of gruesome game of planting the little corpses for the occupying soldiers to find. Used to unnerve the hell out of the Cetagandan rank and file. First was their normal human reaction, and second, even the ones who were so brutalized by then as not to care realized anywhere we slipped in a dead baby, we could just as well have slipped in a bomb."

Ren? grimaced distaste, and Miles realized belatedly that the lurid historical example might have acquired a new personal edge for him. He hurried on, "The Cetagandans weren't the only people to object to that game. Some Barrayarans hated it too, and took it as a blot on our honor—Prince Xav, for example. I know he argued vehemently with my grandfather against it. Your great—the sixth Count could well have been in agreement with Xav, and what he did for your grandfather a sort of silent answer."

Ren? tilted his head, looking struck. "I never thought of that. He was a friend of old Xav's, I believe. But there's still no proof. Who knows what a dead man knew, but never spoke of?"

"If you have no proof, neither does Sigur."

Ren? brightened slightly. "That's true."

Miles gazed again at the magnificent view along the urbanized river valley. A few small boats chugged up and down the narrowing stream. In former eras, Vorbarr Sultana had been as far inland as navigation from the sea could get, as the rapids and falls here blocked further commercial transport. Since the end of the Time of Isolation, the dam and locks just upstream from the Star Bridge had been destroyed and rebuilt three times.

Across from where they sat in Vorbretten House, Vorhartung Castle's crenellations loomed up through the spring-green treetops, gray and archaic. The traditional meeting-place of the Council of Counts had overlooked—in both senses of the word, Miles thought dryly—all these transformations. When there wasn't a war on, waiting for old Counts to die in order to effect change could be a slow process. One or two popped off a year, on average these days, but the pace of generational turnover was slowing still further as life spans extended. Having two seats open at once, and both up for grabs by either a Progressive or a Conservative heir, was fairly unusual. Or rather, Ren?'s seat was up for grabs between the two main parties. The other was more mysterious.

Miles asked Ren?, "Do you have any idea what was the substance of Lady Donna Vorrutyer's motion of impediment against her cousin Richars taking the Vorrutyer Countship? Have you heard any talk?"

Ren? waved a hand. "Not much, but then, who's talking to me, these days? Present company excepted." He shot Miles a covertly grateful look. "Adversity does teach who your real friends are."

Miles was embarrassed, thinking of how long it had taken him to get over here. "Don't take me for more virtuous than I am, Ren?. I would have to be the last person on Barrayar to argue that carrying a bit of off-planet blood in one's veins should disqualify one for a Countship."

"Oh. Yes. You're half-Betan, that's right. But in your case, at least it's the correct half."

"Five-eighths Betan, technically. Less than half a Barrayaran." Miles realized he'd just left himself open for a pot shot about his height, but Ren? didn't take aim. Byerly Vorrutyer would never have let a straight-line like that pass unexploited, and Ivan would have at least dared to grin. "I usually try to avoid bringing people's attention to the math."

"Actually, I did have a few thoughts on Lady Donna," Ren? said. "Her case just might end up impinging on you Vorkosigans after all."


Ren?, drawn out of his bleak contemplation of his own dilemma, grew more animated. "She placed her motion of impediment and took off immediately for Beta Colony. What does that suggest to you?"

"I've been to Beta Colony. There are so many possibilities I can scarcely begin to sort them out. The first and simplest thought is that she's gone to collect some sort of obscure evidence about her cousin Richars's ancestry, genes, or crimes."

"Have you ever met Lady Donna? Simple isn't how I'd describe her."

"Mm, there's that. I should ask Ivan for a guess, I suppose. I believe he slept with her for a time."

"I don't think I was around town then. I was out on active duty during that period." A faint regret for his abandoned military career crept into Ren?'s voice, or maybe Miles was projecting. "But I'm not surprised. She had a reputation for collecting men."

Miles cocked an interested eyebrow at his host. "Did she ever collect you?"

Ren? grinned. "I somehow missed that honor." He returned the ironic glance. "And did she ever collect you?"

"What, with Ivan available? I doubt she ever looked down far enough to notice me."

Ren? opened his hand, as if to deflect Miles's little flash of self-deprecation, and Miles bit his tongue. He was an Imperial Auditor now; public whining about his physical lot in life sat oddly on the ear. He had survived. No man could challenge him now. But would even an Auditorship be enough to induce the average Barrayaran woman to overlook the rest of the package? So it's a good thing you're not in love with an average woman, eh, boy?

Ren? went on, "I was thinking about your clone Lord Mark, and your family's push to get him recognized as your brother."

"He is my brother, Ren?. My legal heir and everything."

"Yes, yes, so your family has argued. But what if Lady Donna has been following that controversy, and how you made it come out? I'll bet she's gone off to Beta Colony to have a clone made of poor old Pierre, and is going to bring it back to offer as his heir in place of Richars. Somebody had to try that, sooner or later."

"It's . . . certainly possible. I'm not sure how it would fly with the fossils. They damn near choked on Mark, year before last." Miles frowned in thought. Could this damage Mark's position? "I heard she was practically running the District for Pierre these last five years. If she could get herself appointed the clone's legal guardian, she could continue to run it for the next twenty. It's unusual to have a female relative be a Count's guardian, but there are some historical precedents."

"Including that Countess who was legally declared a male in order to inherit," Ren? put in. "And then had that bizarre suit later about her marriage."

"Oh, yeah, I remember reading about that one. But there was a civil war on, at the time, which broke down the barriers for her. Nothing like being on the side of the right battalions. No civil war here except for whatever lies between Donna and Richars, and I've never heard an inside story on that feud. I wonder . . . if you're right—would she use a uterine replicator for the clone, or would she have the embryo implanted as a body-birth?"

"Body-birth seems weirdly incestuous," Ren? said, with a grimace of distaste. "You do wonder about the Vorrutyers, sometimes. I hope she uses a replicator."

"Mm, but she never had a child of her own. She's what, forty or so . . . and if the clone were growing inside her own body, she'd at least be sure to have it—excuse me, him—as thoroughly personally guarded as possible. Much harder to take away from her, that way, or to argue that someone else should be his guardian. Richars, for example. Now that would be a sharp turn of events."

"With Richars as guardian, how long do you think the child would live?"

"Not past his majority, I suspect." Miles frowned at this scenario. "Not that his death wouldn't be impeccable."

"Well, we'll find out Lady Donna's plan soon," said Ren?. "Or else her case will collapse by default. Her three months to bring her evidence are almost up. It seems a generous allotment of time, but I suppose in the old days they had to allow everyone a chance to get around on horseback."

"Yes, it's not good for a District to leave its Countship empty for so long." One corner of Miles's mouth turned up. "After all, you wouldn't want the proles to figure out they could live without us."

Ren?'s brows twitched acknowledgment of the jibe. "Your Betan blood is showing, Miles."

"No, only my Betan upbringing."

"Biology isn't destiny?"

"Not anymore, it's not."

The light music of women's voices echoed up the curving staircase into the sitting room. A low alto burble Miles thought he recognized was answered by a silvery peal of laughter.

Ren? sat up, and turned around; his lips parted in a half smile. "They're back. And she's laughing. I haven't heard Tatya laugh in weeks. Bless Martya."

Had that been Martya Koudelka's voice? The thump of a surprising number of feminine feet rippled up the stairs, and three women burst into Miles's appreciative view. Yes . The two blond Koudelka sisters, Martya and Olivia, set off the dark good looks of the shorter third woman. The young Countess Tatya Vorbretten had bright hazel eyes, wide-set in a heart-shaped face with a foxy chin. And dimples. The whole delightful composition was framed by ringlets of ebony hair that bounced as she now did.

"Hooray, Ren?!" said Martya, the owner of the alto voice. "You're not still sitting alone here in the dark and gloom. Hi, Miles! Did you finally come to cheer Ren? up? Good for you!"

"More or less," said Miles. "I didn't realize you all knew each other so well."

Martya tossed her head. "Olivia and Tatya were in school together. I just came along for the ride, and to boot them into motion. Can you believe, on this beautiful morning, they wanted to stay in ?"

Olivia smiled shyly, and she and Countess Tatya clung together for a brief supportive moment. Ah, yes. Tatya Vorkeres had not been a countess back in those private-school days, though she had certainly already been a beauty, and an heiress.

"Where all did you go?" asked Ren?, smiling at his wife.

"Just shopping in the Caravanserai. We stopped for tea and pastries at a caf? in the Great Square, and caught the changing of the guard at the Ministry." The Countess turned to Miles. "My cousin Stannis is a directing officer in the fife and drum corps of the City Guard now. We waved at him, but of course he couldn't wave back. He was on duty."

"I was sorry we hadn't made you come out with us," said Olivia to Ren?, "but now I'm glad. You would have missed Miles."

"It's all right, ladies," said Martya stoutly. "Instead I vote we make Ren? escort us all to the Vorbarr Sultana Hall tomorrow night. I happen to know where I can get four tickets."

This was seconded and voted in without reference to the Count, but Miles couldn't see him offering much resistance to a proposal that he escort three beautiful women to hear music that he adored. And indeed, with a somewhat sheepish glance at Miles, he allowed himself to be persuaded. Miles wondered how Martya had cornered the tickets, which were generally sold out a year or two in advance, on such short notice. Was she drawing on her sister Delia's ImpSec connections, perhaps? This whole thing smelled of Team Koudelka in action.

The Countess smiled and held up a hand-calligraphed envelope. "Look, Ren?! Armsman Kelso handed this to me as we came in. It's from Countess Vorgarin."

"Looks like an invitation to me," said Martya in a tone of vast satisfaction. "See, things aren't so bad as you feared."

"Open it," urged Olivia.

Tatya did so; her eyes raced down the handwriting. Her face fell. "Oh," she said in a flattened tone. The delicate paper half-crumpled in her tight fist.

"What?" said Olivia anxiously.

Martya retrieved the paper, and read down it in turn. "The cat! It's an un –invitation! To her baby daughter's naming party. ` . . . afraid you would not be comfortable,' my eye! The coward. The cat!"

Countess Tatya blinked rapidly. "That's all right," she said in a muffled voice. "I hadn't been planning to go anyway."

"But you said you were going to wear—" Ren? began, then closed his mouth abruptly. A muscle jumped in his jaw.

"All the women—and their mothers—who missed catching Ren? these last ten years are being just . . . just . . ." Martya sputtered to Miles, "feline ."

"That's an insult to cats," said Olivia. "Zap has better character."

Ren? glanced across at Miles. "I couldn't help noticing . . ." he said in an extremely neutral voice, "we haven't received a wedding invitation from Gregor and Dr. Toscane as yet."

Miles held up a reassuring hand. "Local invitations haven't been sent out yet. I know that for a fact." This was not the moment to mention that inconclusive little political discussion on the subject he'd sat in on a few weeks ago at the Imperial Residence, Miles decided.

He stared around the tableau, Martya fuming, Olivia stricken, the Countess chilled, Ren? flushed and stiff. Inspiration struck. Ninety-six chairs. "I'm giving a little private dinner party in two nights time. It's in honor of Kareen Koudelka and my brother Mark getting home from Beta Colony. Olivia will be there, and all the Koudelkas, and Lady Alys Vorpatril and Simon Illyan, and my cousin Ivan and several other valued friends. I'd be honored if you both would join us."

Ren? managed a pained smile at this palpable charity. "Thank you, Miles. But I don't think—"

"Oh, Tatya, yes, you've got to come," Olivia broke in, squeezing her old friend's arm. "Miles is finally unveiling his lady-love for us all to meet. Only Kareen's seen her so far. We're all just dying of curiosity."

Ren?'s brows went up. "You, Miles? I thought you were as confirmed a bachelor as your cousin Ivan. Married to your career."

Miles grimaced furiously at Olivia, and twitched at Ren?'s last words. "I had this little medical divorce from my career. Olivia, where did you ever get the idea that Madame Vorsoisson—she's my landscape designer, you see, Ren?, but she's Lord Auditor Vorthys's niece, I met her on Komarr, she's just recently widowed and certainly not—not ready to be anybody's lady-love. Lord Auditor Vorthys and the Professora will be there too, you see, a family party, nothing inappropriate for her."

"For who?" asked Martya.

"Ekaterin," escaped his mouth before he could stop it. All four lovely syllables.

Martya grinned unrepentantly at him. Ren? and his wife looked at each other—Tatya's dimple flashed, and Ren? pursed his lips thoughtfully.

"Kareen said Lord Mark said you said," Olivia said innocently. "Who was lying, then?"

"Nobody, dammit, but—but—" He swallowed, and prepared to run down the drill one more time. "Madame Vorsoisson is . . . is . . ." Why was this getting harder to explain with practice, instead of easier? "Is in formal mourning for her late husband. I have every intention of declaring myself to her when the time is right. The time is not right. So I have to wait." He gritted his teeth. Ren? was now leaning his chin on his hand, his finger across his lips, and his eyes alight. "And I hate waiting ," Miles burst out.

"Oh," said Ren?. "I see."

"Is she in love with you too?" asked Tatya, with a furtive fond glance at her husband.

God, the Vorbrettens were as gooey as Gregor and Laisa, and after three years, too. This marital enthusiasm was a damned contagious disease. "I don't know," Miles confessed in a smaller voice.

"He told Mark he's courting her in secret," Martya put in to the Vorbrettens. "It's a secret from her. We're all still trying to figure that one out."

"Is the entire city party to my private conversations?" Miles snarled. "I'm going to strangle Mark."

Martya blinked at him with manufactured innocence. "Kareen had it from Mark. I had it from Ivan. Mama had it from Gregor. And Da had it from Pym. If you're trying to keep a secret, Miles, why are you going around telling everyone?"

Miles took a deep breath.

Countess Vorbretten said demurely, "Thank you, Lord Vorkosigan. My husband and I would be pleased to come to your dinner party." She dimpled at him.

His breath blew out in a, "You're welcome."

"Will the Viceroy and Vicereine be back from Sergyar?" Ren? asked Miles. His voice was tinged with political curiosity.

"No. In fact. Though they're due quite soon. This is my party. My last chance to have Vorkosigan House to myself before it fills up with the traveling circus." Not that he didn't look forward to his parents' return, but his head-of-the-House role had been rather . . . pleasant, these past few months. Besides, introducing Ekaterin to Count and Countess Vorkosigan, her prospective future parents-in-law, was something he wished to choreograph with the utmost care.

He'd surely done his social duty by now. Miles rose with some dignity, and bid everyone farewell, and politely offered Martya and Olivia a ride, if they wished it. Olivia was staying on with her friend the Countess, but Martya took him up on it.

Miles gave Pym a fishy look as the Armsman opened the groundcar canopy for them to enter the rear compartment. Miles had always put down Pym's extraordinary ability to collect gossip, a most valuable skill to Miles in his new post, to Pym's old ImpSec training. He hadn't quite realized Pym might be trading . Pym, catching the look but not its cause, went a bit blander than usual, but seemed otherwise unaffected by his liege-lord's displeasure.

In the rear compartment with Martya as they pulled away from Vorbretten House and swung down toward the Star Bridge, Miles seriously considered dressing her down for roasting him about Ekaterin in front of the Vorbrettens. He was an Imperial Auditor now, by God—or at least by Gregor. But then he'd get no further information out of her. He controlled his temper.

"How do the Vorbrettens seem to be holding up, from your view?" he asked her.

She shrugged. "They're putting up a good front, but I think they're pretty shaken. Ren? thinks he's going to lose the case, and his District, and everything."

"So I gathered. And he might, if he doesn't make more push to keep it." Miles frowned.

"He's hated the Cetagandans ever since they killed his da in the war for the Hegen Hub. Tatya says it just spooks him, to think the Cetagandans are in him." She added after a moment, "I think it spooks her a little, too. I mean . . . now we know why that branch of the Vorbrettens suddenly acquired that extraordinary musical talent, after the Occupation."

"I'd made that connection too. But she seems to be standing by him." Unpleasant, to think this mischance might cost Ren? his marriage as well as his career.

"It's been hard on her too. She likes being a Countess. Olivia says, back in their school days, envy sometimes made the other girls mean to Tatya. Being picked out by Ren? was kind of a boost for her, not that the rest of them couldn't see it coming, with her glorious soprano. She does adore him."

"So you think their marriage will weather this?" he asked hopefully.

"Mm . . ."

"Mm . . . ?"

"This whole thing began when they were going to start their baby. And they haven't gone ahead. Tatya . . . doesn't talk about that part of things. She'll talk about everything else, but not that."

"Oh." Miles tried to figure out what that might mean. It didn't sound very encouraging.

"Olivia is almost the only one of Tatya's old friends who've shown up, after all this blew up. Even Ren?'s sisters have kind of gone to ground, though for the opposite reason I suppose. It's like nobody wants to look her in the eye."

"If you go back far enough, we're all descended from off-worlders, dammit," Miles growled in frustration. "What's one-eighth? A tinge. Why should it disqualify one of the best people we have? Competence should count for something."

Martya's grin twisted. "If you want sympathy, you've come to the wrong store, Miles. If my da were a Count, it wouldn't matter how competent I was, I still wouldn't inherit. All the brilliance in the world wouldn't matter a bit. If you're just now finding out that this world is unjust, well, you're behind the times."

Miles grimaced. "It's not news to me, Martya." The car pulled up outside Commodore Koudelka's townhouse. "But justice wasn't my job, before." And power isn't nearly as all-powerful as it looks from the outside. He added, "But that's probably the one issue I can't help you on. I have the strongest personal reasons for not wanting to reintroduce inheritance through the female line into Barrayaran law. Like, my survival. I like my job very well. I don't want Gregor's."

He popped the canopy, and she climbed out, and gave him a sort of acknowledging salaam for both this last point and the ride. "See you at your dinner party."

"Give my best to the Commodore and Drou," he called after her.

She shot him a bright Team Koudelka smile over her shoulder, and bounced away.


Mark gently banked the lightflyer, to give the rear-seat passengers, Kareen and Madame Vorsoisson, a better view of the Vorkosigan's District capital of Hassadar glittering on the horizon. The weather was cooperating, a beautiful sunny day that breathed promise of imminent summer. Miles's lightflyer was a delight: sleek, fast, and maneuverable, knifing through the soft warm air, and best of all with the controls precisely aligned to be ergonomically perfect for a man just Mark's height. So what if the seat was a little on the narrow side. You couldn't have everything. For example, Miles can't have this anymore. Mark grimaced at the thought, and shunted it aside.

"It's lovely land," Madame Vorsoisson remarked, pressing her face to the canopy to take it all in.

"Miles would be flattered to hear you say so," Mark carefully encouraged this trend of thought. "He's pretty stuck on this place."

They were certainly viewing it in the best possible light, literally, this morning. A patchwork of spring verdure in the farms and woods—the woods no less a product of back-breaking human cultivation than the fields—rippled across the landscape. The green was broken up and set off by irregular slashes of Barrayaran native red-brown, in the ravines and creek bottoms and along uncultivable slopes.

Enrique, his nose also pressed to the canopy, said, "It's not at all what I was expecting, from Barrayar."

"What were you expecting?" asked Madame Vorsoisson curiously.

"Kilometers of flat gray concrete, I suppose. Military barracks and people in uniform marching around in lockstep."

"Economically unlikely for an entire planetary surface. Though uniforms, we do have," Mark admitted.

"But once it gets up to several hundred different kinds, the effect isn't so uniform anymore. And some of the colors are a little . . . unexpected."

"Yes, I feel sorry for those Counts who ended up having to pick their House colors last," Mark agreed. "I think the Vorkosigans must have fallen somewhere in the middle. I mean, brown and silver isn't bad , but I can't help feeling that the fellows with the blue and gold—or the black and silver—do have a sartorial edge." He could fancy himself in black and silver, with Kareen all blond and tall on his arm.

"It could be worse," Kareen put in cheerfully. "How do you think you'd look in a House cadet's uniform of chartreuse and scarlet, like poor Vorharopulos, Mark?"

"Like a traffic signal in boots." Mark made a wry face. "The lockstep is lacking too, I've gradually come to realize. More like, milling around in a confused herd. It was . . . almost disappointing, at first. I mean, even disregarding enemy propaganda, it's not the image Barrayar itself tries to project, now is it? Though I've learned to kind of like it this way."

They banked again. "Where is the infamous radioactive area?" Madame Vorsoisson asked, scanning the changing scene.

The Cetagandan destruction of the old capital of Vorkosigan Vashnoi had torn the heart out of the Vorkosigan's District, three generations ago. "Southeast of Hassadar. Downwind and downstream," Mark replied. "We won't pass it today. You'll have to get Miles to show it to you sometime." He suppressed a slightly snarky grin. Betan dollars to sand the blighted lands hadn't been on Miles's projected itinerary.

"Barrayar doesn't all look like this," Madame Vorsoisson told Enrique. "The part of South Continent where I grew up was flat as a griddlecake, even though the highest mountain range on the planet—the Black Escarpment—was just over the horizon."

"Was it dull, being so flat?" asked Enrique.

"No, because the horizon was boundless. Stepping outdoors was like stepping into the sky. The clouds, the light, the storms—we had the best sunrises and sunsets ever."

They passed the invisible barrier of Hassadar's air traffic control system, and Mark gave over navigation to the city computers. After a few more minutes and some brief coded transmissions, they were brought gently down on a very private and highly restricted landing pad atop the Count's Residence. The Residence was a large modern building faced with polished Dendarii mountain stone. With its connections to the municipal and District offices, it occupied most of one side of the city's central square.

Tsipis stood waiting by the landing ring, neat and gray and spare as ever, to receive them. He shook hands with Madame Vorsoisson as though they were old friends, and greeted off-worlder Enrique with the grace and ease of a natural diplomat. Kareen gave, and got, a familial hug.

They switched vehicles to a waiting aircar, and Tsipis shepherded them off for a quick tour of three possible sites for their future facility, whatever it was to be named, including an underutilized city warehouse, and two nearby farms. Both farm sites were untenanted because their former inhabitants had followed the Count to his new post on Sergyar, and no one else had wanted to take on the challenge of wrestling profit from their decidedly marginal land, one being swampy and the other rocky and dry. Mark checked the radioactivity plats carefully. They were all Vorkosigan properties already, so there was nothing to negotiate with respect to their use.

"You might even persuade your brother to forgo the rent, if you ask," Tsipis pointed out with enthusiastic frugality about the two rural sites. "He can; your father assigned him full legal powers in the District when he left for Sergyar. After all, the family's not getting any income from the properties now. It would conserve more of your capital for your other startup costs."

Tsipis knew precisely what budget Mark had to work with; they'd gone over his plans via comconsole earlier in the week. The thought of asking Miles for a favor made Mark twitch a little, but . . . was he not a Vorkosigan too? He stared around the dilapidated farm, trying to feel entitled.

He put his head together with Kareen, and they ran over the choices. Enrique was permitted to wander about with Madame Vorsoisson, being introduced to various native Barrayaran weeds. The condition of the buildings, plumbing, and power-grid connections won over condition of the land, and they settled at last on the site with the newer—relatively—and more spacious outbuildings. After one more thoughtful tour around the premises, Tsipis whisked them back to Hassadar.

For lunch, Tsipis led them to Hassadar's most exclusive locale—the official dining room of the Count's Residence, overlooking the Square. The remarkable spread which the staff laid on hinted that Miles had sent down a few urgent behind-the-scenes instructions for the care and feeding of his . . . gardener. Mark confirmed this after dessert when Kareen led Enrique and the widow off to see the garden and fountain in the Residence's inner courtyard, and he and Tsipis lingered over the exquisite vintage of Vorkosigan estate-bottled wine usually reserved for visits from Emperor Gregor.

"So, Lord Mark," said Tsipis, after a reverent sip. "What do you think of this Madame Vorsoisson of your brother's?"

"I think . . . she is not my brother's yet."

"Mm, yes, I'd understood that part. Or should I say, it has been explained to me."

"What all has he been telling you about her?"

"It is not so much what he says, as how he says it. And how often he repeats himself."

"Well, that too. If it were anyone but Miles, it would be hilarious. Actually, it's still hilarious. But it's also . . . hm."

Tsipis blinked and smiled in perfect understanding. "Heart-stopping . . . I think . . . is the word I should choose." And Tsipis's vocabulary was always as precise as his haircut. He stared out over the square through the room's tall windows. "I used to see him as a youngster rather often, when I was in company with your parents. He was constantly overmatching his physical powers. But he never cried much when he broke a bone. He was almost frighteningly self-controlled, for a child that age. But once, at the Hassadar District Fair it was, I chanced to see him rather brutally rejected by a group of other children whom he'd attempted to join." Tsipis took another sip of wine.

"Did he cry then?" asked Mark.

"No. Though his face looked very odd when he turned away. Bothari was watching with me—there was nothing the Sergeant could do either, there wasn't any physical threat about it all. But the next day Miles had a riding accident, one of his worst ever. Jumping, which he had been forbidden to do, on a green horse he'd been told not to ride . . . Count Piotr was so infuriated—and frightened—I thought he was going to have a stroke on the spot. I came later to wonder how much of an accident that accident was." Tsipis hesitated. "I always imagined Miles would choose a galactic wife, like his father before him. Not a Barrayaran woman. I'm not at all sure what Miles thinks he's doing with this young lady. Is he setting himself up to go smash again?"

"He claims he has a Strategy."

Tsipis's thin lips curved, and he murmured, "And doesn't he always . . ."

Mark shrugged helplessly. "To tell the truth, I've barely met the woman myself. You've been working with her—what do you think?"

Tsipis tilted his head shrewdly. "She's a quick study, and meticulously honest."

That sounded like faint praise, unless one happened to know those were Tsipis's two highest encomiums.

"Quite well-looking, in person," he added as an afterthought. "Not, ah, nearly as over-tall as I was expecting."

Mark grinned.

"I think she could do the job of a future Countess."

"Miles thinks so too," Mark noted. "And picking personnel was supposed to have been one of his major military talents." And the better he got to know Tsipis, the more Mark thought that might be a talent Miles had inherited from his—their —father.

"It's not before time, that's certain," Tsipis sighed. "One does wish for Count Aral to have grandchildren while he's still alive to see them."

Was that remark addressed to me?

"You will keep an eye on things, won't you?" Tsipis added.

"I don't know what you think I could do. It's not like I could make her fall in love with him. If I had that kind of power over women, I'd use it for myself!"

Tsipis smiled vaguely at the place Kareen had vacated, and back, speculatively, to Mark. "What, and here I was under the impression you had."

Mark twitched. His new-won Betan rationality had been losing ground on the subject of Kareen, this past week, his subpersonas growing restive with his rising tension. But Tsipis was his financial advisor, not his therapist. Nor even—this was Barrayar, after all—his Baba.

"So have you seen any sign at all that Madame Vorsoisson returns your brother's regard?" Tsipis went on rather plaintively.

"No," Mark confessed. "But she's very reserved." And was this lack of feeling, or just frightening self-control? Who could tell from this angle? "Wait, ha, I know! I'll set Kareen onto it. Women gossip to each other about that sort of thing. That's why they go off so long to the ladies' room together, to dissect their dates. Or so Kareen once told me, when I'd complained about being left bereft too long . . ."

"I do like that girl's sense of humor. I've always liked all the Koudelkas." Tsipis's eye grew glinty for a moment. "You will treat her properly, I trust?"

Basil alert, basil alert! "Oh, yes," Mark said fervently. Grunt, in fact, was aching to treat her properly to the limit of his Betan-trained skills and powers right now, if only she'd let him. Gorge, who made a hobby of feeding her gourmet meals, had had a good day today. Killer lurked ready to assassinate any enemy she cared to name, except that Kareen didn't make enemies, she just made friends. Even Howl was strangely satisfied, this week, everyone else's pain being his gain. On this subject, the Black Gang voted as one man.

That lovely, warm, open woman . . . In her presence he felt like some sluggish cold-blooded creature crawling from under a rock where it had crept to die, meeting the unexpected miracle of the sun. He might trail around after her all day, meeping piteously, hoping she would light him again for just one more glorious moment. His therapist had had a few stern words to him on the subject of this addiction—It's not fair to Kareen to lay such a burden on her, now is it? You must learn to give, from sufficiency, not only take, from neediness. Quite right, quite right. But dammit, even his therapist liked Kareen, and was trying to recruit her for the profession. Everyone liked Kareen, because Kareen liked everyone. They wanted to be around her; she made them feel good inside. They would do anything for her. She had in abundance everything Mark most lacked, and most longed for: good cheer, infectious enthusiasm, empathy, sanity. The woman had the most tremendous future in sales—what a team the two of them might make, Mark for analysis, Kareen for the interface with the rest of humanity . . . The mere thought of losing her, for any reason, made Mark frantic.

His incipient panic attack vanished and his breathing steadied as she reappeared safely, with Enrique and Madame Vorsoisson still in tow. Despite the loss of ambition on everyone's part due to lunch, Kareen got them all up and moving again for the second of the day's tasks, collecting the rocks for Miles's garden. Tsipis had rustled them up a holo-map, directions, and two large, amiable young men with hand tractors and a lift van; the lift van followed the lightflyer as Mark headed them south toward the looming gray spine of the Dendarii Mountains.

Mark brought them down in a mountain vale bordered by a rocky ravine. The area was still more Vorkosigan family property, entirely undeveloped. Mark could see why. The virgin patch of native Barrayaran—well, you couldn't call it forest, quite, though scrub summed it up fairly well—extended for kilometers along the forbidding slopes.

Madame Vorsoisson exited the lightflyer, and turned to take in the view to the north, out over the peopled lowlands of the Vorkosigan's District. The warm air softened the farthest horizon into a magical blue haze, but the eye could still see for a hundred kilometers. Cumulous clouds puffed white and, in three widely separated arcs, towered up over silver-gray bases like rival castles.

"Oh," she said, her mouth melting in a smile. "Now that's a proper sky. That's the way it should be. I can see why you said Lord Vorkosigan likes it up here, Kareen." Her arms stretched out, half-unconsciously, to their fullest extent, her fingers reaching into free space. "Usually hills feel like walls around me, but this—this is very fine."

The oxlike beings with the lift van landed beside the lightflyer. Madame Vorsoisson led them and their equipment scrambling down into the ravine, there to pick out her supply of aesthetically-pleasing genuine Dendarii rocks and stones for the minions to haul away to Vorbarr Sultana. Enrique followed after like a lanky and particularly clumsy puppy. Since what went down would have to puff and wheeze back up, Mark limited himself to a peek over the edge, and then a stroll around the less daunting grade of the vale, holding hands with Kareen.

When he slipped his arm around her waist and cuddled in close, she melted around him, but when he tried to slip in a subliminal sexual suggestion by nuzzling her breast, she stiffened unhappily and pulled away. Damn.

"Kareen . . ." he protested plaintively.

She shook her head. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

"Don't . . . apologize to me. It makes me feel very weird. I want you to want me too, or it's no damn good. I thought you did."

"I did. I do. I'm—" She bit off her words, and tried again. "I thought I was a real adult, a real person, back on Beta Colony. Then I came back here . . . I realize I'm dependent for every bite of food I put in my mouth, for every stitch of clothing, for everything, on my family, and this place. And I always was, even when I was on Beta. Maybe it was all . . . fake."

He clutched her hand; that at least he might not let go of. "You want to be good. All right, I can understand that. But you have to be careful who you let define your good . My terrorist creators taught me that one, for damn sure."

She clutched him back, at that feared memory, and managed a sympathetic grimace. She hesitated, and went on, "It's the mutually exclusive definitions that are driving me crazy. I can't be good for both places at the same time. I learned how to be a good girl on Beta Colony, and in its own way, it was just as hard as being a good girl here. And a lot scarier, sometimes. But . . . I felt like I was getting bigger inside, if you can see what I mean."

"I think so." He hoped he hadn't provided any of that scary, but suspected he had. All right, he knew he had. There had been some dark times, last year. Yet she had stuck with him. "But you have to choose Kareen's good, not Barrayar's . . ." he took a deep breath, for honesty, "Not even Beta's." Not even mine?

"Since I got back, it's like I can't even find myself to ask."

For her, this was a metaphor, he reminded himself. Though maybe he was a metaphor too, inside his head with the Black Gang. A metaphor gone metastatic. Metaphors could do that, under enough pressure.

"I want to go back to Beta Colony," she said in a low, passionate voice, staring out unseeing into the breath-taking space below. "I want to stay there till I'm a real grownup, and can be myself wherever I am. Like Countess Vorkosigan."

Mark's brows rose at this idea of a role model for gentle Kareen. But you had to say this for his mother, she didn't take any shit from any one for any reason. It would be preferable, though, if one could catch a bit of that quality without having to walk through war and fire barefoot to get it.

Kareen in distress was like the sun going dark. Apprehensively, he hugged her around the waist again. Fortunately, she read it as support, as intended, and not importunity again, and leaned into him in return.

The Black Gang had their place as emergency shock troops, but they made piss-poor commanders. Grunt would just have to wait some more. He could damn well set up a date with Mark's right hand or something. This one was too important to screw up, oh yeah.

But what if she finally became herself in a way that left no room for him . . . ?

There was nothing to eat, here. Change the subject, quick. "Tsipis seems to like Madame Vorsoisson."

Her face lightened with instant gratitude at this release. Therefore, I must have been pressuring her . Howl whimpered, from deep inside; Mark stifled him.

"Ekaterin? I do too."

So she was Ekaterin now: first names, good. He would have to send them off to the ladies' room some more. "Can you tell if she likes Miles?"

Kareen shrugged. "She seems to. She's working really hard on his garden and all."

"I mean, is she in love at all? I've never even heard her call him by his first name. How can you be in love with someone you're not on a first-name basis with?"

"Oh, that's a Vor thing."

"Huh." Mark took in this reassurance dubiously. "It's true Miles is being very Vor. I think this Imperial Auditor thing has gone to his head. But do you suppose you could kind of hang around her, and try to pick up some clues?"

"Spy on her?" Kareen frowned disapproval. "Did Miles set you on me for this?"

"Actually, no. It was Tsipis. He's a bit worried for Miles. And—I am too."

"I would like to be friends with her . . ."


"She doesn't seem to have very many. She's had to move a lot. And I think whatever happened to her husband on Komarr was more ghastly than she lets on. The woman is so full of silences, they spill over."

"But will she do for Miles? Will she be good for him?"

Kareen cocked an eyebrow down at him. "Is anyone bothering to ask if Miles will be good for her?"

"Um . . . um . . . why not? Count's heir. Well-to-do. An Imperial Auditor, for God's sake. What more could a Vor desire?"

"I don't know, Mark. It likely depends on the Vor. I do know I'd take you and every one of the Black Gang at their most obstreperous for a hundred years before I'd let myself get locked up for a week with Miles. He . . . takes you over ."

"Only if you let him." But he warmed inside with the thought that she could really, truly prefer him to the glorious Miles, and suddenly felt less hungry.

"Do you have any idea what it takes to stop him? I still remember being kids, me and my sisters, visiting Lady Cordelia with Mama, and Miles told off to keep us occupied. Which was a really cruel thing to do to a fourteen-year-old boy, but what did I know? He decided the four of us should be an all-girl precision drill team, and made us march around in the back garden of Vorkosigan House, or in the ballroom when it was raining. I think I was four." She frowned into the past. "What Miles needs is a woman who will tell him to go soak his head, or it'll be a disaster. For her, not him." After a moment, she added sapiently, "Though if for her, for him too, sooner or later."


The amiable young men came panting back up out of the ravine then, and took the lift van back down into it. With clanks and thumps, they finished loading, and their van lumbered into the air and headed north. Some time later, Enrique and Madame Vorsoisson appeared, breathless. Enrique, who clutched a huge bundle of native Barrayaran plants, looked quite cheerful. In fact, he actually looked as if he had blood circulation. The scientist probably hadn't been outdoors for years; it was doubtless good for him, despite the fact that he was dripping wet from having fallen in the creek.

They managed to get the plants stuffed in the back, and Enrique half-dried, and everyone loaded up again as the sun slanted west. Mark took pleasure in trying the lightflyer's speed, as they circled the vale one last time and banked northward, back toward the capital. The machine hummed like an arrow, sweet beneath his feet and fingertips, and they reached the outskirts of Vorbarr Sultana again before dusk.

They dropped off Madame Vorsoisson first, at her aunt and uncle's home near the University, with many promises that she would stop in at Vorkosigan House on the morrow and help Enrique look up the scientific names of all his new botanical samples. Kareen hopped out at the corner in front of her family's townhouse, and gave Mark a little farewell kiss on the cheek. Down, Grunt. That wasn't to your address .

Mark slipped the lightflyer back into its corner in the subbasement garage of Vorkosigan House, and followed Enrique into the lab to help him give the butter bugs their evening feed and checkup. Enrique did stop short of singing lullabies to the little creepy-crawlies, though he was in the habit of talking, half to them and half to himself, under his breath as he puttered around the lab. The man had worked all alone for too damned long, in Mark's view. Tonight, though, Enrique hummed as he separated his new supply of plants according to a hierarchy known only to himself and Madame Vorsoisson, some into beakers of water and some spread to dry on paper on the lab bench.

Mark turned from weighing, recording, and scattering a few generous scoops of tree bits into the butter bug hutches to find Enrique settling at his comconsole and firing it up. Ah, good. Perhaps the Escobaran was about to commit some more futurely-profitable science. Mark wandered over, preparing to kibitz approvingly. Enrique was busying himself not with a vertigo-inducing molecular display, but with an array of closely-written text.

"What's that?" Mark asked.

"I promised to send Ekaterin a copy of my doctoral thesis. She asked ," Enrique explained proudly, and in a tone of some wonder. "Toward Bacterial and Fungal Suite-Synthesis of Extra-cellular Energy Storage Compounds . It was the basis of all my later work with the butter bugs, when I finally hit upon them as the perfect vehicle for the microbial suite."

"Ah." Mark hesitated. It's Ekaterin for you too, now? Well, if Kareen had got on a first-name basis with the widow, Enrique, also present, couldn't very well have been excluded, could he? "Will she be able to read it?" Enrique wrote just the same way he talked, as far as Mark had seen.

"Oh, I don't expect her to follow the molecular energy-flow mathematics—my faculty advisors had a struggle with those—but she'll get the gist of it, I'm sure, from the animations. Still . . . perhaps I could do something about this abstract, to make it more attractive at first glance. I have to admit, it's a trifle dry." He bit his lip, and bent over his comconsole. After a minute he asked, "Can you think of a word to rhyme with glyoxylate ?"

"Not . . . off-hand. Try orange . Orsilver ."

"Those don't rhyme with anything. If you can't be helpful, Mark, go away."

"What are you doing ?"

"Isocitrate , of course, but that doesn't quite scan . . . I'm trying to see if I can produce a more striking effect by casting the abstract in sonnet form."

"That sounds downright . . . stunning."

"Do you think?" Enrique brightened, and started humming again. "Threonine, serine, polar, molar . . ."

"Dolor," Mark supplied at random. "Bowler." Enrique waved him off irritably. Dammit, Enrique wasn't supposed to be wasting his valuable brain-time writing poetry; he was supposed to be designing long-chain molecule interactions with favorable energy-flows or something. Mark stared at the Escobaran, bent like a pretzel in his comconsole station chair in his concentration, and his brows drew down in sudden worry.

Even Enrique couldn't imagine he might attract a woman with his dissertation, could he? Or was that, only Enrique could imagine . . . ? It was, after all, his sole signal success in his short life. Mark had to grant, any woman he could attract that way was the right sort for him, but . . . but not this one. Not the one Miles had fallen in love with. Madame Vorsoisson was excessively polite, though. She would doubtless say something kind no matter how appalled she was by the offering. And Enrique, who was as starved for kindness as . . . as someone else Mark knew all too well, would build upon it . . .

Expediting the removal of the Bugworks to its new permanent site in the District seemed suddenly a much more urgent task. Lips pursed, Mark tiptoed quietly out of the lab.

Padding up the hall, he could still hear Enrique's happy murmur, "Mucopolysaccharide, hm, there's a good one, like the rhythm, mu –co-pol –ee-sacc –a-ride . . ."

* * *

The Vorbarr Sultana shuttleport was enjoying a mid-evening lull in traffic. Ivan stared impatiently around the concourse, and shifted his welcome-home bouquet of musky-scented orchids from his right hand to his left. He trusted Lady Donna would not arrive too jump-lagged and exhausted for a little socialization later. The flowers should strike just the right opening note in this renewal of their acquaintance; not so grand and gaudy as to suggest desperation on his part, but sufficiently elegant and expensive to indicate serious interest to anyone as cognizant of the nuances as Donna was.

Beside Ivan, Byerly Vorrutyer leaned comfortably against a pillar and crossed his arms. He glanced at the bouquet and smiled a little By smile, which Ivan noted but ignored. Byerly might be a source of witty, or half-witty, editorial comment, but he certainly wasn't competition for his cousin's amorous attentions.

A few elusive wisps of the erotic dream he'd had about Donna last night tantalized Ivan's memory. He would offer to carry her luggage, he decided, or rather, some of it, whatever she had in her hand for which he might trade the flowers. Lady Donna did not travel light, as he recalled.

Unless she came back lugging a uterine replicator with Pierre's clone in it. That, By could handle all by himself; Ivan wasn't touching it with a stick. By had remained maddeningly closed-mouthed about what Lady Donna had gone to obtain on Beta Colony that she thought would thwart her cousin Richars's inheritance, but really, somebody had to try the clone-ploy sooner or later. The political complications might land in his Vorkosigan cousins' laps, but as a Vorpatril of a mere junior line, he could steer clear. He didn't have a vote in the Council of Counts, thank God.

"Ah." By pushed off from the pillar and gazed up the concourse, and raised a hand in brief greeting. "Here we go."

Ivan followed his glance. Three men were approaching them. The white-haired, grim-looking fellow on the right, returning By's wave, he recognized even out of uniform as the late Count Pierre's tough senior Armsman—what was his name?—Szabo. Good, Lady Donna had taken help and protection on her long journey. The tall fellow on the left, also in civvies, was one of Pierre's other guardsmen. His junior status was discernible both by his age and by the fact that he was the one towing the float pallet with the three valises aboard. He had an expression on his face with which Ivan could identify, a sort of covert crogglement common to Barrayarans just back from their first visit to Beta Colony, as if he wasn't sure whether to fall to the ground and kiss the concrete or turn around and run back to the shuttle.

The man in the center Ivan had never seen before. He was an athletic-looking fellow of middle height, more lithe than muscular, though his shoulders filled his civilian tunic quite well. He was soberly dressed in black, with the barest pale gray piping making salute to the Barrayaran style of pseudo-military ornamentation in men's wear. The subtle clothes set off his lean good looks: pale skin, thick dark brows, close-cropped black hair, and trim, glossy black beard and mustache. His step was energetic. His eyes were an electric brown, and seemed to dart all around as if seeing the place for the first time, and liking what they saw.

Oh, hell, had Donna picked up a Betan paramour? This could be annoying. The fellow wasn't a mere boy, either, Ivan saw as they came up to him and By; he was at least in his mid-thirties. There was something oddly familiar about him. Damned if he didn't look a true Vorrutyer—that hair, those eyes, that smirking swagger. An unknown son of Pierre's? The secret reason, revealed at last, why the Count had never married? Pierre would've had to have been about fifteen when he'd sired the fellow, but it was possible.

By exchanged a cordial nod with the smiling stranger, and turned to Ivan. "You two, I think, need no introduction."

"I think we do," Ivan protested.

The fellow's white grin broadened, and he stuck out a hand, which Ivan automatically took. His grip was firm and dry. "Lord Dono Vorrutyer, at your service, Lord Vorpatril." His voice was a pleasant tenor, his accent not Betan at all, but educated Barrayaran Vor-class.

It was the smiling eyes that did it at last, bright like embers.

"Aw, shit ," hissed Ivan, recoiling, and snatching back his hand. "Donna, you didn't ." Betan medicine, oh, yeah. And Betan surgery. They could, and would, do anything on Beta Colony, if you had the money and could convince them you were a freely consenting adult.

"If I have my way with the Council of Counts, soon to be Count Dono Vorrutyer," Donna—Dono—whoever—went on smoothly.

"Or killed on sight." Ivan stared at . . . him, in draining disbelief. "You don't seriously think you can make this fly, do you?"

He—she—twitched a brow at Armsman Szabo, who raised his chin a centimeter. Donna/Dono said, "Oh, believe me, we went over the risks in detail before starting out." She/he, whatever, spotted the orchids clutched forgotten in Ivan's left hand. "Why, Ivan, are those for me ? How sweet of you!" she cooed, wrested them from him, and raised them to her nose. Beard occluded, she blinked demure black eyelashes at him over the bouquet, suddenly and horribly Lady Donna again.

"Don't do that in public," said Armsman Szabo through his teeth.

"Sorry Szabo." The voice's pitch plunged again to its initial masculine depth. "Couldn't resist. I mean, it's Ivan ."

Szabo's shrug conceded the point, but not the issue.

"I'll control myself from now on, I promise." Lord Dono reversed the flowers in his grip and swept them down to his side as though holding a spear, and came to a shoulders-back, feet-apart posture of quasimilitary attention.

"Better," said Szabo judiciously.

Ivan stared in horrified fascination. "Did the Betan doctors make you taller, too?" He glanced down; Lord Dono's half-boot heels were not especially thick.

"I'm the same height I always was, Ivan. Other things have changed, but not my height."

"No, you are taller, dammit. At least ten centimeters."

"Only in your mind. One of the many fascinating psychological side effects of testosterone I am discovering, along with the amazing mood-swings. When we get home we can measure me, and I'll prove it to you."

"Yes," said By, glancing around, "I do suggest we continue this conversation in a more private place. Your groundcar is waiting as you instructed, Lord Dono, with your driver." He offered his cousin a little ironic bow.

"You . . . don't need me, to intrude on this family reunion," Ivan excused himself. He began to sidle away.

"Oh, yes we do," said By. With matching evil grins, the two Vorrutyers each took Ivan by an arm, and began to march him toward the exit. Dono's grip was convincingly muscular. The Armsmen followed.

They found the late Count Pierre's official groundcar where By had left it. The alert Armsman-driver in the Vorrutyers' famous blue-and-gray livery hurried to raise the rear canopy for Lord Dono and his party. The driver looked sidelong at the new lord, but appeared entirely unsurprised by the transformation. The younger Armsman finished stowing the limited luggage and slid into the front compartment with the driver, saying, "Damn, I'm glad to be home. Joris, you would not believe what I saw on Beta—"

The canopy lowered on Dono, By, Szabo, and Ivan in the rear compartment, cutting off his words. The car pulled smoothly away from the shuttleport. Ivan twisted his neck, and asked plaintively, "Was that all your luggage?" Lady Donna used to require a second car to carry it all. "Where is the rest of it?"

Lord Dono leaned back in his seat, raised his chin, and stretched his legs out before him. "I dumped it all back on Beta Colony. One case is all my Armsmen are expected to travel with, Ivan. Live and learn."

Ivan noted the possessive, my Armsmen. "Are they—" he nodded at Szabo, listening, "are you all in on this?"

"Of course," said Dono easily. "Had to be. We all met together the night after Pierre died, Szabo and I presented the plan, and they swore themselves to me then."

"Very, um . . . loyal of them."

Szabo said, "We've all had a number of years to watch Lady Donna help run the District. Even my men who were less than, mm, personally taken with the plan are District men bred and true. No one wanted to see it fall to Richars."

"I suppose you all have had opportunities to watch him, too, over time," allowed Ivan. He added after a moment, "How'd he manage to piss you all off?"

"He didn't do it overnight," said By. "Richars isn't that heroic. It's taken him years of persistent effort."

"I doubt," said Dono in a suddenly clinical tone, "that anyone would care, at this late date, that he tried to rape me when I was twelve, and when I fought him off, drowned my new puppy in retaliation. After all, no one cared at the time."

"Er," said Ivan.

"Give your family credit," By put in, "Richars convinced them all the puppy's death had been your fault. He's always been very good at that sort of thing."

"You believed my version," said Dono to By. "Almost the only person to do so."

"Ah, but I'd had my own experiences with Richars by then," said By. He did not volunteer further details.

"I was not yet in your father's service," Szabo pointed out, possibly in self-exculpation.

"Count yourself lucky," sighed Dono. "To describe that household as lax would be overly kind. And no one else could impose order till the old man finally stroked out."

"Richars Vorrutyer," Armsman Szabo continued to Ivan, "observing Count Pierre's, er, nervous problems, has counted the Vorrutyer Countship and District as his property anytime these last twenty years. It was never in his interest to see poor Pierre get better, or form a family of his own. I know for a fact that he bribed the relatives of the first young lady to whom Pierre was engaged to break it off, and sell her elsewhere. Pierre's second effort at courtship, Richars thwarted by smuggling the girl's family certain of Pierre's private medical records. The third fianc?e's death in that flyer wreck was never proved to be anything but an accident. But Pierre didn't believe it was an accident."

"Pierre . . . believed a lot of strange things," Ivan noted nervously.

"I didn't think it was an accident either," said Szabo dryly. "One of my best men was driving. He was killed too."

"Oh. Um. But Pierre's own death is not suspected . . . ?"

Szabo shrugged. "I believe the family tendency to those circulatory diseases would not have killed Pierre if he hadn't been too depressed to take proper care of himself."

"I tried , Szabo," said Dono—Donna—bleakly. "After that episode with the medical records, he was so incredibly paranoid about his doctors."

"Yes, I know." Szabo began to pat her hand, caught himself, and gave him a soft consoling punch in the shoulder instead. Dono's smile twisted in appreciation.

"In any case," Szabo went on, "it was abundantly plain that no Armsman who was loyal to Pierre—and we all were, God help the poor man—would last five minutes in Richars's service. His first step—and we'd all heard him say so—would be to make a clean sweep of everything and everyone loyal to Pierre, and install his own creatures. Pierre's sister being the first to go, of course."

"If Richars had a gram of self-preservation," murmured Dono fiercely.

"Could he do that?" asked Ivan doubtfully. "Evict you from your home? Have you no rights under Pierre's will?"

"Home, District, and all." Dono smiled grimly. "Pierre made no will, Ivan. He didn't want to name Richars as his successor, wasn't all that fond of Richars's brothers or sons either, and was still, I think, even to the last, hoping to cut him out with an heir of his own body. Hell, Pierre might have expected to live forty more years, with modern medicine. All I would have had as Lady Donna was the pittance from my own dowries. The estate's in the most incredible mess."

"I'm not surprised," said Ivan. "But do you really think you can make this work? I mean, Richars is heir-presumptive. And whatever you are now, you weren't Pierre's younger brother at the moment Pierre died."

"That's the most important legal point in the plan. A Count's heir only inherits at the moment of his predecessor's death if he's already been sworn in before the Council. Otherwise, the District isn't inherited till the moment the Counts confirm it. And at that moment—some time in the next couple of weeks—I will be, demonstrably, Pierre's brother."

Ivan's mouth screwed up, as he tried to work this through. Judging by the smooth fit of the black tunic, the lovely great breasts in which he'd once . . . never mind—anyway, they were clearly all gone now. "You've really had surgery for . . . what did you do with . . . you didn't do that hermaphrodite thing, did you? Or where is . . . everything?"

"If you mean my former female organs, I jettisoned 'em with the rest of my luggage back on Beta. You can scarcely find the scars, the surgeon was so clever. They'd put in their time, God knows—can't say as I miss 'em."

Ivan missed them already. Desperately. "I wondered if you might have had them frozen. In case things don't work out, or you change your mind." Ivan tried to keep the hopeful tone out of his voice. "I know there are Betans who switch sexes back and forth three or four times in their lives."

"Yes, I met some of them at the clinic. They were most helpful and friendly, I must say."

Szabo rolled his eyes only slightly. Was Szabo acting as Lord Dono's personal valet now? It was customary for a Count's senior Armsman to do so. Szabo must have witnessed it all, in detail. Two witnesses. She took two witnesses, I see.

"No," Dono went on, "if I ever change back—which I have no plans to do, forty years were enough—I'd start all over with fresh cloned organs, just as I've done for this. I could be a virgin again. What a dreadful thought."

Ivan hesitated. He finally asked, "Didn't you need to add a Y chromosome from somewhere? Where'd you get it? Did the Betans supply it?" He glanced helplessly at Dono's crotch, and quickly away. "Can Richars argue that the—the inheriting bit is part-Betan?"

"I thought of that. So I got it from Pierre."

"You didn't have, um, your new male organs cloned from him?" Ivan boggled at this grotesque idea. It made his mind hurt. Was it some kind of techno-incest, or what?

"No, no! I admit, I did borrow a tiny tissue sample from my brother—he didn't need it, by then—and the Betan doctors did use part of a chromosome from it, just for my new cloned parts. My new testicles are a little less than two percent Pierre, I suppose, depending on how you calculate it. If I ever decide to give my prick a nickname, the way some fellows do, I suppose I ought to call it after him. I don't feel much inclined to do so, though. It feels very all-me."

"But are the chromosomes of your body still double-X?"

"Well, yes." Dono frowned uneasily, and scratched his beard. "I expect Richars to try to make a point with that, if he thinks of it. I did look into the retrogenetic treatment for complete somatic transformation. I didn't have time for it, the complications can be strange, and for a gene splice this large the result is usually no better than a partial cellular mosaic, a chimera, hit-or-miss. Sufficient for treating some genetic diseases, but not the legal disease of being some-little-cell-female. But the portion of my tissues responsible for fathering the next little Vorrutyer heir is certifiably XY, and incidentally, made free of genetic disease, damage, and mutation while we were about it. The next Count Vorrutyer won't have a bad heart. Among other things. The prick's always been the most important qualification for a Countship anyway. History says so."

By chuckled. "Maybe they'll just let the prick vote." He made an X gesture down by his crotch, and intoned sonorously, "Dono, his mark ."

Lord Dono grinned. "While it wouldn't be the first time a real prick has held a seat in the Council of Counts, I'm hoping for a more complete victory. That's where you come in, Ivan."

"Me? I don't have anything to do with this! I don't want anything to do with this." Ivan's startled protests were cut short by the car slowing in front of the Vorrutyers' townhouse and turning in.

Vorrutyer House was a generation older than Vorkosigan House and correspondingly notably more fortresslike. Its severe stone walls threw projections out to the sidewalk in a blunted star pattern, giving crossfire onto what had been a mud street decorated with horse dung in the great house's heyday. It had no windows on the ground floor at all, just a few gun-slits. Thick iron-bound planks, scorning carving or any other decorative effect, formed the double doors into its inner courtyard; they now swung aside at an automated signal, and the groundcar squeezed through the passage. The walls were marked with smears of vehicle enamel from less careful drivers. Ivan wondered if the murder-holes in the dark arched roof, above, were still functional. Probably.

The place had been restored with an eye to defense by the great general Count Pierre "Le Sanguinaire" Vorrutyer himself, who was principally famous as Emperor Dorca's trusted right arm/head thug in the civil war that had broken the power of the independent Counts just before the end of the Time of Isolation. Pierre had made serious enemies, all of whom he had survived into a foul-tongued old age. It had taken the invading Cetagandans and all their techno-weaponry to finally put an end to him, with great difficulty, after an infamous and costly siege—not of this place, of course. Old Pierre's eldest daughter had married an earlier Count Vorkosigan, which was where the Pierre of Mark's middle name had come down from. Ivan wondered what old Pierre would think of his offshoots now. Maybe he would like Richars best. Maybe his ghost still walked here. Ivan shuddered, stepping out onto the dark cobblestones.

The driver took the car off to its garage, and Lord Dono led the way, two steps at a time, up the green-black granite staircase out of the courtyard and into the house. He paused to sweep a glance back over the stony expanse. "First thing is, I'm going to get some more light out here," he remarked to Szabo.

"First thing is, get the title deed in your name," Szabo returned blandly.

"My new name." Dono gave him a short nod, and pushed onward.

The interior of the house was so ill-lit, one couldn't make out the mess, but apparently all had been left exactly as it had been dropped when Count Pierre had last gone down to his District some months ago. The echoing chambers had a derelict, musty odor. They fetched up finally, after laboring up two more gloomy staircases, in the late Count's abandoned bedroom.

"Guess I'll sleep here tonight," said Lord Dono, staring around dubiously. "I want clean sheets on the bed first, though."

"Yes, m'lord," said Szabo.

Byerly cleared a pile of plastic flimsies, dirty clothes, dried fruit rinds, and other detritus from an armchair, and settled himself comfortably, legs crossed. Dono prowled the room, staring rather sadly at his dead brother's few and forlorn personal effects, picking up and putting down a set of hairbrushes—Pierre had been balding—dried-up cologne bottles, small coins. "Starting tomorrow, I want this place cleaned up. I'm not waiting for the title deed for that, if I have to live here."

"I know a good commercial service," Ivan couldn't help volunteering. "They clean Vorkosigan House for Miles when the Count and Countess aren't in residence, I know."

"Ah? Good." Lord Dono made a gesture at Szabo. The Armsman nodded, and promptly collected the particulars from Ivan, noting them down on his pocket audiofiler.

"Richars made two attempts to take possession of the old pile while you were gone," Byerly reported. "The first time, your Armsmen stood firm and wouldn't let him in."

"Good men," muttered Szabo.

"Second time, he came round with a squad of municipal guardsmen and an order he'd conned out of Lord Vorbohn. Your officer of the watch called me, and I was able to get a counter-order from the Lord Guardian of the Speaker's Circle with which to conjure them away. It was quite exciting, for a little while. Pushing and shoving in the doorways . . . no one drew weapons, or was seriously injured, though, more's the pity. We might have been able to sue Richars."

"We've lawsuits enough." Dono sighed, sat on the edge of the bed, and crossed his legs. "But thanks for what you did, By."

By waved this away.

"Below the knees, if you must," said Szabo. "Knees apart is better."

Dono immediately rearranged his pose, crossing his ankles instead, but noted, "By sits that way."

"By is not a good male model to copy."

By made a moue at Szabo, and flipped one wrist out limply. "Really, Szabo, how can you be so cruel? And after I saved your old homestead, too."

Everyone ignored him. "How about Ivan?" Dono asked Szabo, eyeing Ivan speculatively. Ivan was suddenly unsure of where to put his feet, or his hands.

"Mm, fair. The very best model, if you can remember exactly how he moved, would be Aral Vorkosigan. Now, that was power in motion. His son doesn't do too badly, either, projecting beyond his real space. Young Lord Vorkosigan is just a bit studied, though. Count Vorkosigan just is."

Lord Dono's thick black brows snapped up, and he rose to stalk across the room, flip a desk chair around, and straddle it, arms crossed along its back. He rested his chin on his arms and glowered.

"Huh! I recognize that one," said Szabo. "Not bad, keep working on it. Try to take up more space with your elbows."

Dono grinned, and leaned one hand on his thigh, elbow cocked out. After a moment, he jumped up again, and went to Pierre's closet, flung the doors wide, and began rooting within. A Vorrutyer House uniform tunic sailed out to land on the bed, followed by trousers and a shirt; then one tall boot after another thumped to the bed's end. Dono reemerged, dusty and bright-eyed.

"Pierre wasn't that much taller than me, and I always could wear his shoes, if I had thick socks. Get a seamstress in here tomorrow—"

"Tailor," Szabo corrected.

"Tailor, and we'll see how much of this I can use in a hurry."

"Very good, m'lord."

Dono began unfastening his black tunic.

"I think it's time for me to go now," said Ivan.

"Please sit down, Lord Vorpatril," said Armsman Szabo.

"Yes, come sit by me, Ivan." Byerly patted his upholstered chair arm invitingly.

"Sit down, Ivan," Lord Dono growled. His burning eyes suddenly crinkled, and he murmured, "For old time's sake, if nothing else. You used to run into my bedroom to watch me undress, not out of it. Must I lock the door and make you play hunt the key again?"

Ivan opened his mouth, raised a furious admonishing finger in protest, thought better of it, and sank to a seat on the edge of the bed. You wouldn't dare seemed suddenly a really unwise thing to say to the former Lady Donna Vorrutyer. He crossed his ankles, then hastily uncrossed them again and set his feet apart, then crossed them again, and twined his hands together in vast discomfort. "I don't see what you need me for," he said plaintively.

"So you can witness," said Szabo.

"So you can testify," said Dono. The tunic hit the bed beside Ivan, making him jump, followed by a black T-shirt.

Well, Dono had spoken truly about the Betan surgeon; there weren't any visible scars. His chest sprouted a faint nest of black hairs; his musculature tended to the wiry. The shoulders of the tunic hadn't been padded.

"So you can gossip , of course," said By, lips parted in either some bizarre prurient interest, or keen enjoyment of Ivan's embarrassment, or more likely both at once.

"If you think I'm going to say one word about being here tonight to anyone —"

With a smooth motion, Dono kicked his black trousers onto the bed atop the tunic. His briefs followed.

"Well?" Dono stood before Ivan with an utterly cheerful leer on his face. "What do you think? Do they do good work on Beta, or what?"

Ivan glanced sidelong at him, and away. "You look . . . normal," he admitted reluctantly.

"Well, show me while you're at it," By said.

Dono turned before him.

"Not bad," said By judiciously, "but aren't you a trifle, ah, juvenile?"

Dono sighed. "It was a rush job. Quality, but rush. I went from the hospital straight to the jumpship for home. The organs are going to have to finish growing in situ , the doctors tell me. A few months yet to fully adult morphology. The incisions don't hurt anymore, though."

"Ooh," said By, "puberty. What fun for you."

"On fast-forward, at that. But the Betans have smoothed that out a lot for me. You have to give them credit, they're a people in control of their hormones."

Ivan conceded reluctantly, "My cousin Miles, when he had his heart and lungs and guts replaced, said it took almost a full year for his breathing and energy to be completely back to normal. They had to finish growing back to adult size after they were installed too. I'm sure . . . it will be all right." He added after a helpless moment, "So does it work?"

"I can piss standing up, yeah." Dono reached over and retrieved his briefs, and slid them back on. "As for the other, well, real soon now, I understand. I can hardly wait for my first wet dream."

"But will any woman want to . . . it's not like you're going to be keeping it a secret, who and what you were before . . . how will you, um . . . That's one place Armsman Pygmalion over there," Ivan waved at Szabo, "won't be able to coach you."

Szabo smiled faintly, the most expression Ivan had seen on his face tonight.

"Ivan, Ivan, Ivan." Dono shook his head, and scooped up the House uniform trousers. "I taught you how, didn't I? Of all the problems I expect to have . . . puzzling how to lose my male virginity isn't one of them. Really."

"It . . . doesn't seem fair," said Ivan in a smaller voice. "I mean, we had to figure all this stuff out when we were thirteen."

"As opposed to, say, twelve?" Dono inquired tightly.


Dono buckled the trousers—they were not too snug across the hips after all—hitched into the tunic, and frowned at his reflection in the mirror. He bunched handfuls of extra fabric at the sides. "Yeah, that'll do. The tailor should have it ready by tomorrow night. I want to wear this when I go present my evidence of impediment at Vorhartung Castle."

The blue-and-gray Vorrutyer House uniform was going to look exceptionally good on Lord Dono, Ivan had to concede. Maybe that would be a good day to call in his Vor rights and get a ticket, and take a discreet back seat in the visitor's gallery at the Council of Counts. Just to see what happened, to use one of Gregor's favorite phrases.

Gregor . . .

"Does Gregor know about this?" Ivan asked suddenly. "Did you tell him your plan, before you left for Beta?"

"No, of course not," said Dono. He sat on the bed's edge, and began pulling on the boots.

Ivan could feel his teeth clench. "Are you out of your minds?"

"As somebody or another is fond of quoting—I think it was your cousin Miles—it is always easier to get forgiveness than permission." Dono rose, and went to the mirror to check the effect of the boots.

Ivan clutched his hair. "All right. You two—you three—dragged me up here because you claimed you wanted my help. I'm going to hand you a hint. Free." He took a deep breath. "You can blindside me, and laugh your heads off if you want to. It won't be the first time I've been the butt. You can blindside Richars with my good will. You can blindside the whole Council of Counts. Blindside my cousin Miles—please. I want to watch. But do not, if you value your chances, if you mean this to be anything other than a big, short joke, do not blindside Gregor."

Byerly grimaced uncertainly; Dono, turning before the mirror, shot Ivan a penetrating look. "Go to him, you mean?"

"Yes. I can't make you," Ivan went on sternly, "but if you don't, I categorically refuse to have anything more to do with you."

"Gregor can kill it all with a word," said Dono warily. "Before it even launches."

"He can," said Ivan, "but he won't, without strong motivation. Don't give him that motivation. Gregor does not like political surprises."

"I thought Gregor was fairly easy-going," said By, "for an emperor."

"No," said Ivan firmly. "He is not. He is merely rather quiet. It's not the same thing at all. You don't want to see what he's like pissed."

"What does he look like, pissed?" asked By curiously.

"Identical to what he looks like the rest of the time. That's the scary part."

Dono held up a hand, as By opened his mouth again. "By, aside from the chance to amuse yourself, you pulled Ivan in on this tonight because of his connections, or so you claimed. In my experience, it's a bad idea to ignore your expert consultants."

By shrugged. "It's not like we're paying him anything."

"I am calling in some old favors. This costs me. And it's not from a fund I can replace." Dono's glance swept to Ivan. "So what exactly do you suggest we do?"

"Ask Gregor for a brief interview. Before you talk to or see anyone else at all, even over the comconsole. Chin up, look him in the eye—" An ungodly thought occurred to Ivan then. "Wait, you didn't ever sleep with him , did you?"

Dono's lips, and mustache, twitched up with amusement. "No, unfortunately. A missed opportunity I now regret deeply, I assure you."

"Ah." Ivan breathed relief. "All right. Then just tell him what you plan to do. Claim your rights. He'll either decide to let you run, or he'll impound you. If he cuts you off, well, the worst will be over, and quickly. If he decides to let you run . . . you'll have a silent backer even Richars at his most vicious can't top."

Dono leaned against Pierre's bureau, and drummed his fingers in the dust atop it. The orchids now lay there in a forlorn heap. Wilted, like Ivan's dreams. Dono's lips pursed. "Can you get us in?" he asked at last.

"I, uh . . . I, uh . . ."

His gaze became more urgent, piercing. "Tomorrow?"

"Ah . . ."


"Not morning ," By protested faintly.

"Early," insisted Dono.

"I'll . . . seewhatIcando," Ivan managed at last.

Dono's face lit. "Thank you!"

The extraction of this reluctant promise had one beneficial side-effect: the Vorrutyers proved willing to let their captive audience go, the better for Ivan to hurry home and call Emperor Gregor. Lord Dono insisted on detailing his car and a driver to take Ivan the short distance to his apartment, thwarting Ivan's faint hope of being mugged and murdered in a Vorbarr Sultana alleyway on the way home and thus avoiding the consequences of this evening's revelations.

Blessedly alone in the back of the groundcar, Ivan entertained a brief prayer that Gregor's schedule would be too packed to admit the proposed interview. But it was more likely he'd be so shocked at Ivan breaking his rule of a low profile, he'd make room at once. In Ivan's experience, the only thing more dangerous to such innocent bystanders as himself than arousing Gregor's wrath was arousing his curiosity.

Once back safely in his little apartment, Ivan locked the door against all Vorrutyers past and present. He'd beguiled his time yesterday imagining entertaining the voluptuous Lady Donna here . . . what a waste. Not that Lord Dono didn't make a passable man, but Barrayar didn't need more men. Though Ivan supposed they might reverse Donna's ploy, and send the excess male population to Beta Colony to be altered into the more pleasing form . . . he shuddered at the vision.

With a reluctant sigh, he dug out the security card he'd managed to avoid using for the past several years, and ran it through his comconsole's read-slot.

Gregor's gatekeeper, a man in bland civilian dress who did not identify himself—if you had this access, you were supposed to know—answered at once. "Yes? Ah. Ivan."

"I would like to speak to Gregor, please."

"Excuse me, Lord Vorpatril, but did you mean to use this channel?"


The gatekeeper's brows rose in surprise, but his hand moved to one side, and his image blinked out. The comconsole chimed. Several times.

Gregor's image came up at last. He was still dressed for the day, relieving Ivan's alarmed visions of dragging him out of bed or the shower. The background showed one of the Imperial Residence's cozier sitting rooms. Ivan could just make out a fuzzy view of Dr. Toscane, in the background. She seemed to be adjusting her blouse. Ulp. Keep it brief. Gregor clearly has better things to do tonight.

I wish I did.

Gregor's blank expression changed to one of annoyance as he recognized Ivan. "Oh. It's you." The irritated look faded slightly. "You never call me on this channel, Ivan. Thought it had to be Miles. What's up?"

Ivan took a deep breath. "I just came from meeting . . . Donna Vorrutyer at the shuttleport. Back from Beta. You two need to see each other."

Gregor's brows rose. "Why?"

"I'm sure she'd much rather explain it all herself. I have nothing to do with this."

"You do now. Lady Donna's calling in old favors, is she?" Gregor frowned, and added a bit dangerously, "I am not a coin to be bartered in your love affairs, Ivan."

"No, Sire," Ivan agreed fervently. "But you want to see her. Really and truly. As soon as possible. Sooner. Tomorrow. Morning. Early."

Gregor cocked his head. Curiously. "Just how important is this?"

"That's entirely for you to judge. Sire."

"If you want nothing to do with it . . ." Gregor trailed off, and stared unnervingly at Ivan. His hand at last tapped on his comconsole control, and he glanced aside at some display Ivan could not see. "I could move . . . hm. How about eleven sharp, in my office."

"Thank you, Sire." You won't regret this seemed a much too optimistic statement to add. In fact, adding anything at all had all the appeal of stepping over a cliff without a grav-suit. Ivan smiled instead, and ducked his head in a little half-bow.

Gregor's frown grew more thoughtful still, but after a moment of further contemplation, he returned Ivan's nod, and cut the com.


Ekaterin sat before the comconsole in her aunt's study, and ran again through the seasonal succession of Barrayaran plants bordering the branching pathways of Lord Vorkosigan's garden. The one sensory effect the design program could not help her model was odor. For that most subtle and emotionally profound effect, she had to rely on her own experience and memory.

On a soft summer evening, a border of scrubwire would emit a spicy redolence that would fill the air for meters around, but its color was muted and its shape low and round. Intermittent stands of chuffgrass would break up the lines, and reach full growth at the right time, but its sickly citrus scent would clash with the scrubwire, and besides, it was on the proscribed list of plants to which Lord Vorkosigan was allergic. Ah—zipweed! Its blond and maroon stripes would provide excellent vertical visual interest, and its faint sweet fragrance would combine well, appetizingly even, with the scrubwire. Put a clump there by the little bridge, and there and there. She altered the program, and ran the succession again. Much better . She took a sip of her cooling tea, and glanced at the time.

She could hear her Aunt Vorthys moving about in the kitchen. Late-sleeper Uncle Vorthys would be down soon, and shortly afterwards Nikki, and aesthetic concentration would be a lost cause. She had only a few days for any last design refinements before she began working with real plants in quantity. And less than two hours before she needed to be showered and dressed and onsite to watch the crew hook up and test the creek's water circulation.

If all went well, she could start laying her supply of Dendarii rocks today, and tuning the gentle burble of the water flow around and over and among them. The sound of the creek was another subtlety the design program could not help her with, though it had addressed environmental noise abatement. The walls and curving terraces were up onsite, and satisfactory; the city-noise-baffling effects were all she'd hoped for. Even in winter the garden would be hushed and restful. Blanketed with snow broken only by the bare up-reaching lines of the woodier scrub, the shape of the space would still please the eye and soothe the mind and heart.

By tonight, the bones of the thing would be complete. Tomorrow, the flesh, in the form of trucked-in, unterraformed native soils from remote corners of the Vorkosigan's District, would arrive. And tomorrow evening before Lord Vorkosigan's dinner party, just for promise, she would put the first plant into the soil: a certain spare rootling from an ancient South Continent skellytum tree. It would be fifteen years or more before it would grow to fill the space allotted for it, but what of that? Vorkosigans had held this ground for two hundred years. Chances were good Vorkosigans would still be there to see it in its maturity. Continuity. With continuity like that, you could grow a real garden. Or a real family . . .

The front door chimed, and Ekaterin jumped, abruptly aware she was still dressed in an old set of her uncle's ship knits for pajamas, with her hair escaping the tie at the nape of her neck. Her aunt's step sounded from the kitchen into the tiled hall, and Ekaterin tensed to duck out of the line of sight should it prove some formal visitor. Oh, dear, what if it was Lord Vorkosigan? She'd waked at dawn with garden revisions rioting through her head, sneaked quietly downstairs to work, and hadn't even brushed her teeth yet—but the voice greeting her aunt was a woman's, and a familiar one at that. Rosalie, here? Why?

A dark-haired, fortyish woman leaned around the edge of the archway and smiled. Ekaterin waved back in surprise, and rose to go to the hallway and greet her. It was indeed Rosalie Vorvayne, the wife of Ekaterin's eldest brother. Ekaterin hadn't seen her since Tien's funeral. She wore conservative day-wear, skirt and jacket in a bronze green that flattered her olive skin, though the cut was a little dowdy and provincial. She had her daughter Edie in tow, to whom she said, "Run along upstairs and find your cousin Nikki. I have to talk to your Aunt Kat for a while." Edie had not quite reached the adolescent slouch stage, and thumped off willingly enough.

"What brings you to the capital at this hour?" Aunt Vorthys asked Rosalie.

"Is Hugo and everyone all right?" Ekaterin added.

"Oh, yes, we're all fine," Rosalie assured them. "Hugo couldn't get away from work, so I was dispatched. I plan to take Edie shopping later, but getting her up to catch the morning monorail was a real chore, believe me."

Hugo Vorvayne held a post in the Imperial Bureau of Mines northern regional headquarters in Vordarian's District, two hours away from Vorbarr Sultana by the express. Rosalie must have risen before light for this outing. Her two older sons, grown almost past the surly stage, presumably had been left to their own devices for the day.

"Have you had breakfast, Rosalie?" Aunt Vorthys asked. "Do you want any tea or coffee?"

"We ate on the monorail, but tea would be lovely, thank you, Aunt Vorthys."

Rosalie and Ekaterin both followed their aunt into her kitchen to offer assistance, and as a result all ended up seated around the kitchen table with their steaming cups. Rosalie brought them up to date upon the health of her husband, the events of her household, and the accomplishments of her sons since Tien's funeral. Her eyes narrowed with good humor, and she leaned forward confidingly. "But to answer your question, what brings me here is you, Kat."

"Me?" said Ekaterin blankly.

"Can't you imagine why?"

Ekaterin wondered if it would be rude to say, No, how should I? She compromised with an inquiring gesture, and raised eyebrows.

"Your father had a visitor a couple of days ago."

Rosalie's arch tone invited a guessing-game, but Ekaterin could only think of how soon she might finish the social niceties and get away to her work-site. She continued to smile dimly.

Rosalie shook her head in amused exasperation, leaned forward, and tapped her finger on the table beside her cup. "You, my dear, have a very eligible offer."

"Offer of what?" Rosalie wasn't likely to be bringing her a new garden design contract. But surely she couldn't mean—

"Marriage, what else? And from a proper Vor gentleman, too, I'm pleased to report. So old-fashioned of the man, he sent a Baba all the way from Vorbarr Sultana to your da in South Continent—it quite bowled the old man over. Your da called Hugo to pass on the particulars. We decided that after all that baba-ing rather than do it over the comconsole someone ought to tell you the good news in person. We're all so pleased, to think you might be settled again so soon."

Aunt Vorthys sat up, looking considerably startled. She put a finger to her lips.

A Vor gentleman from the capital, old-fashioned and highly conscious of etiquette, Da bowled over, who else could it be but—Ekaterin's heart seemed to stop, then explode. Lord Vorkosigan? Miles, you rat, how could you do this without asking me first! Her lips parted in a dizzying mixture of fury and elation.

The arrogant little—! But . . . he to pick her , to be his Lady Vorkosigan, chatelaine of that magnificent house and of his ancestral District—there was so much to be done in that beautiful District, so daunting and exciting—and Miles himself, oh, my. That fascinating scarred short body, that burning intensity, to come to her bed? His hands had touched her perhaps twice; they might as well have left scorch marks on her skin, so clearly did her body remember those brief pressures. She had not, had not dared, let herself think about him in that way, but now her carnal consciousness of him wrenched loose from its careful suppression and soared. Those humorous gray eyes, that alert, mobile, kissable mouth with its extraordinary range of expression . . . could be hers, all hers. But how dare he ambush her like this, in front of all her relatives?

"You're pleased?" Rosalie, watching her face closely, sat back and smiled. "Or should I say, thrilled? Good! And not completely surprised, I daresay."

"Not . . . completely." I just didn't believe it. I chose not to believe it, because . . . because it would have ruined everything . . .

"We were afraid you might find it early days, after Tien and all. But the Baba said he meant to steal a march on all his rivals, your da told Hugo."

"He doesn't have any rivals." Ekaterin swallowed, feeling decidedly faint, thinking of the remembered scent of him. But how could he imagine that she—

"He has good hopes for his postmilitary career," Rosalie went on.

"Indeed, he's said so." It's all kinds of hubris , Miles had told her once, describing his ambitions for fame to exceed his father's. She'd gathered he didn't expect that fact to slow him down in the least.

"Good family connections."

Ekaterin couldn't help smiling. "A slight understatement, Rosalie."

"Not as rich as others of his rank, but well-enough to do, and I never thought you were one to hold out for the money. Though I always did think you needed to look a bit more to your own needs, Kat."

Well, yes, Ekaterin had been dimly aware that the Vorkosigans were not as wealthy as many other families of Count's rank, but Miles had riches enough to drown in by her old straitened standards. She would never have to pinch and scrape again. All her energy, all her thought, could be freed for higher goals—Nikki would have every opportunity—"Plenty enough for me, good heavens!"

But how bizarre of him, to send a Baba all the way to South Continent to talk to her da . . . was he that shy? Ekaterin's heart was almost touched, but for the reflection that it might simply be that Miles gave no thought to how much his wants inconvenienced others. Shy, or arrogant? Or both at once? He could be a most ambiguous man sometimes—charming as . . . as no one she'd ever met before, but elusive as water.

Not just elusive; slippery. Borderline trickster, even. A chill stole over her. Had his garden proposal been nothing more than a trick, a ploy to keep her close under his eye? The full implications began to sink in at last. Maybe he didn't admire her work. Maybe he didn't care about his garden at all. Maybe he was merely manipulating her. She knew herself to be hideously vulnerable to the faintest flattery. Her starvation for the slightest scrap of interest or affection was part of what had kept her self-prisoned in her marriage for so long. A kind of Tien-shaped box seemed to loom darkly before her, like a pitfall trap baited with poisoned love.

Had she betrayed herself again? She'd so much wanted it to be true, wanted to take her first steps into independence, to have the chance to display her prowess. She'd imagined not just Miles, but all the people of the city, amazed and delighted by her garden, and new orders pouring in, the launch of a career. . . .

You can't cheat an honest man , the saying went. Or woman. If Lord Vorkosigan had manipulated her, he'd done so with her full cooperation. Her hot rage was douched with cold shame.

Rosalie was burbling on, " . . . want to tell Lieutenant Vormoncrief the good news yourself, or should we go round through his Baba again?"

Ekaterin blinked her back into focus. "What? Wait, who did you say?"

Rosalie stared back. "Lieutenant Vormoncrief. Alexi."

"That block?" cried Ekaterin in dawning horror. "Rosalie, never tell me you've been talking about Alexi Vormoncrief this whole time!"

"Why, yes," said Rosalie in dismay. "Who did you think, Kat?"

The Professora blew out her breath and sat back.

Ekaterin was so upset the words escaped her mouth without thought. "I thought you were talking about Miles Vorkosigan!"

The Professora's brows shot up; it was Rosalie's turn to stare. "Who? Oh, good heavens, you don't mean the Imperial Auditor fellow, do you? That grotesque little man who came to Tien's funeral and hardly said a word to anyone? No wonder you looked so odd. No, no, no." She paused to peer more closely at her sister-in-law. "You don't mean to tell me he's been courting you too? How embarrassing!"

Ekaterin took a breath, for balance. "Apparently not."

"Well, that's a relief."

"Um . . . yes."

"I mean, he's a mutie, isn't he? High Vor or no, the family would never urge you to match with a mutie just for money, Kat. Put that right out of your mind." She paused thoughtfully. "Still . . . they're not handing out too many chances to be a Countess. I suppose, with the uterine replicators these days, you wouldn't actually have to have any physical contact. To have children, I mean. And they could be gene-cleaned. These galactic technologies give the idea of a marriage of convenience a whole new twist. But it's not as though you were that desperate."

"No," Ekaterin agreed hollowly. Just desperately distracted . She was furious with the man; why should the notion of never ever having to have any physical contact with him make her suddenly want to burst into tears? Wait, no—if Vorkosigan wasn't the man who'd sent the Baba, her whole case against him, which had bloomed so violently in her mind just now, collapsed like a house of cards. He was innocent. She was crazy, or headed that way fast.

"I mean," Rosalie went on in a tone of renewed encouragement, "here's Vormoncrief, for instance."

"Here is not Vormoncrief," Ekaterin said firmly, grasping for the one certain anchor in this whirlwind of confusion. "Absolutely not. You've never met the man, Rosalie, but take it from me, he's a twittering idiot. Aunt Vorthys, am I right or not?"

The Professora smiled fondly at her. "I would not put it so bluntly, dear, but really, Rosalie, shall we say, I think Ekaterin can do better. There's plenty of time yet."

"Do you think so?" Rosalie took in this assurance doubtfully, but accepted her elder aunt's authority. "It's true Vormoncrief's only a lieutenant, and the descendant of a younger son at that. Oh, dear. What are we to tell the poor man?"

"Diplomacy's the Baba's job," Ekaterin pointed out. "All we have to supply is a straight no . She'll have to take it from there."

"That's true," Rosalie allowed, looking relieved. "One of the advantages of the old system, I suppose. Well . . . if Vormoncrief is not the one, he's not the one. You're old enough to know your own mind. Still, Kat, I don't think you ought to be too choosy, or wait too long past your mourning time. Nikki needs a da. And you're not getting any younger. You don't want to end up as one of those odd old women who eke out their lives in their relatives' attics."

Your attic is safe from me under any circumstances, Rosalie. Ekaterin smiled a bit grimly, but did not speak this thought aloud. "No, only the third floor."

The Professora's eyes flicked at her, reprovingly, and Ekaterin flushed. She was not ungrateful, she wasn't. It was just . . . oh, hell. She pushed back her chair.

"Excuse me. I have to go get my shower and get dressed. I'm due at work soon."

"Work?" said Rosalie. "Must you go? I'd hoped to take you out to lunch, and shopping. To celebrate, and look for bride clothes, in the original plan, but I suppose we could convert it to a consolation day instead. What do you say, Kat? I think you could use a little fun. You haven't had much, lately."

"No shopping," said Ekaterin. She remembered the last time she'd been shopping, on Komarr with Lord Vorkosigan in one of his more lunatic moods, before Tien's death had turned her life inside-out. She didn't think a day with Rosalie could match it. At Rosalie's look of distressed disappointment, she relented. The woman had got up before dawn for this fool's errand, after all. "But I suppose you and Edie could pick me up for lunch, and then bring me back."

"All right . . . where? Whatever are you doing these days, anyway? Weren't you talking about going back to school? You haven't exactly communicated with the rest of the family much lately, you know."

"I've been busy. I have a commission to design and implement a display garden for a Count's townhouse." She hesitated. "Lord Auditor Vorkosigan's, actually. I'll give you directions how to get there before you and Edie go out."

"Vorkosigan is employing you, too?" Rosalie looked surprised, then suddenly militantly suspicious. "He hasn't been . . . you know . . . pushing himself on you at all, has he? I don't care whose son he is, he has no right to impose on you. Remember, you have a brother to stand up for you if you need it." She paused, perhaps to reflect upon a vision of Hugo's probable appalled recoil at being volunteered for this duty. "Or I'd be willing to give him a piece of my mind myself, if you need help." She nodded, now on firmer ground.

"Thank you," choked Ekaterin, beginning to evolve plans for keeping Rosalie and Lord Vorkosigan as far apart as possible. "I'll keep you in mind, if it ever becomes necessary." She escaped upstairs.

In the shower, she tried to recover from the seething chaos Rosalie's misunderstood mission had generated in her brain. Her physical attraction for Miles—Lord Vorkosigan—Miles , was no news, really. She'd felt and ignored the pull of it before. It was by no means in despite of his odd body; his size, his scars, his energy, his differences fascinated her in their own right. She wondered if people would think her perverse, if they knew the strange way her tastes seemed to be drifting these days. Firmly, she turned the water temperature down to pure cold.

But flatline suppression of all erotic speculation was a legacy of her years with Tien. She owned herself now, owned her own sexuality at last. Free and clear. She could dare to dream. To look. To feel, even. Action was another matter altogether, but drat it, she could want , in the solitude of her own skull, and possess that wanting whole.

And he liked her, he did. It was no crime to like her, even if it was inexplicable. And she liked him back, yes. A little too much, even, but that was no one's business but her own. They could go on like this. The garden project wouldn't last forever. By midsummer, fall at the latest, she could turn it and a schedule of instructions over to Vorkosigan House's usual groundskeepers. She might drop by to check on it from time to time. They might even meet. From time to time.

She was starting to shiver. She turned the water temperature back up to as hot as she could stand, so the steam billowed in clouds.

Would it do any harm, to make of him a dream-lover? It seemed invasive. How would she like it, after all, if she discovered she was starring in someone else's pornographic daydreams? Horrified, yes? Disgusted, to be pawed over in some untrusted stranger's thoughts. She imagined herself so portrayed in Miles's thoughts, and checked her horror quotient. It was a little . . . weak.

The obvious solution was to bring dreams and reality into honest congruence. If deleting the dreams wasn't possible, what about making them real? She tried to imagine having a lover. How did people go about such things, anyway? She could barely nerve herself to ask for directions on a street corner. How in the world did you ask someone to . . . But reality—reality was too great a risk, ever again. To lose herself and all her free dreams in another long nightmare like her life with Tien, a slow, sucking, suffocating bog closing over her head forever . . .

She jerked the temperature down again, and adjusted the spray so the droplets struck her skin like spicules of ice. Miles was not Tien. He wasn't trying to own her, for heaven's sake, or destroy her; he'd only hired her to make him a garden. Entirely benign. She must be going insane. She trusted it was a temporary insanity. Maybe her hormones had spiked this month. She would just ride it out, and all these . . . unusual thoughts, would just go away on their own. She would look back on herself and laugh.

She laughed, experimentally. The hollow echoes were due to being in the shower, no doubt. She shut off the freezing water, and stepped out.

There was no reason she would have to see him today. He sometimes came out and sat on the wall a while and watched the crew's progress, but he never interrupted. She wouldn't have to talk with him, not till his dinner tomorrow night, and there would be lots of other people to talk with then. She had plenty of time to settle her mind again. In the meanwhile, she had a creek to tune.

Lady Alys Vorpatril's office at the Imperial Residence, which handled all matters of social protocol for the Emperor, had expanded of late from three rooms to half of a third-floor wing. There Ivan found himself at the disposal of the fleet of secretaries and assistants Lady Alys had laid on to help handle the wedding. It had sounded a treat, to be working in an office with dozens of women, till he'd discovered they were mostly steely-eyed middle-aged Vor ladies who brooked even less nonsense from him than his mother did. Fortunately, he'd only dated two of their daughters, and both those ventures had ended without acrimony. It could have been much worse.

To Ivan's concealed dismay, Lord Dono and By Vorrutyer were in such good time for their Imperial appointment they stopped up to see him on the way in. Lady Alys's secretary summoned him curtly into the department's outer office, where he found the pair refraining from sitting down and making themselves comfortable. By was dressed in his usual taste, in a maroon suit conservative only by town clown standards. Lord Dono wore his neat Vor-style black tunic and trousers with gray piping and decoration, clearly mourning garb, which not coincidentally set off his newly masculinized good looks. The middle-aged secretary was giving him approving glances from under her eyelashes. Armsman Szabo, in full Vorrutyer House uniform, had taken up that I-am-furniture guard stance by the door, as if covertly declaring there were some kinds of lines of fire it wasn't his job to be in.

No one not on staff wandered the halls of the Imperial Residence by themselves; Dono and By had an escort, in the person of Gregor's senior major-domo. This gentleman turned from some conversation with the secretary as Ivan entered, and eyed him with new appraisal.

"Good morning, Ivan," said Lord Dono cordially.

"Morning, Dono, By." Ivan managed a brief, reasonably impersonal nod. "You, ah, made it, I see."

"Yes, thank you." Dono glanced around. "Is Lady Alys here this morning?"

"Gone off to inspect florists with Colonel Vortala," said Ivan, happy to be able to both tell the truth and avoid being drawn further into whatever schemes Lord Dono might have.

"I must chat with her sometime soon," mused Dono.

"Mm," said Ivan. Lady Donna had not been one of Alys Vorpatril's intimates, being half a generation younger and involved with a different social set than the politically active crowd over which Lady Alys presided. Lady Donna had discarded, along with her first husband, a chance to be a future Countess; though having met that lordling, Ivan thought he could understand the sacrifice. In any case, Ivan had not had any trouble controlling his urge to gossip about this new twist of events with either his mother or any of the sedate Vor matrons she employed. And fascinating as it would be to witness the first meeting of Lady Alys with Lord Dono and all the protocol puzzles he trailed, on the whole Ivan thought he would rather be safely out of range.

"Ready, gentlemen?" said the major-domo.

"Good luck, Dono," said Ivan, and prepared to retreat.

"Yes," said By, "good luck. I'll just stay here and chat with Ivan till you're done, shall I?"

"My list," said the major-domo, "has all of you on it. Vorrutyer, Lord Vorrutyer, Lord Vorpatril, Armsman Szabo."

"Oh, that's an error," said Ivan helpfully. "Only Lord Dono actually needs to see Gregor." By nodded confirmation.

"The list," said the major-domo, "is in the Emperor's own hand. This way, please."

The normally saturnine By swallowed a little, but they all dutifully followed the major-domo down two floors and around the corner to the north wing and Gregor's private office. The major-domo had not demanded Ivan vouch for Dono's identity, Ivan noted, by which he deduced the Residence had caught up with events overnight. Ivan was almost disappointed. He'd so wanted to see somebody else be as boggled as he'd been.

The major-domo touched the palm pad by the door, announced his party, and was bid to enter. Gregor shut down his comconsole desk and looked up as they all trod within. He rose and walked around to lean against it, cross his arms, and eye the group. "Good morning, gentlemen. Lord Dono. Armsman."

They returned a mumble averaging out to Good morning, Sire , except for Dono, who stepped forward with his chin up and said in a clear voice, "Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Sire."

"Ah," said Gregor. "Short notice. Yes." He cast an odd look at By, who blinked demurely. "Please be seated," Gregor went on. He gestured to the leather sofas at the end of the room, and the major-domo hurried to pull around a couple of extra armchairs. Gregor took his usual seat on one of the sofas, turned a little sideways, that he might have full view of his guests' faces in the bright diffuse light from the north-facing windows overlooking his garden.

"I should be pleased to stand, Sire," Armsman Szabo murmured suggestively, but he was not to be permitted to hug the doorway and potential escape; Gregor merely smiled briefly, and pointed at a chair, and Szabo perforce sat, though on the edge. By took a second chair and managed a good simulation of his usual cross-legged ease. Dono sat straight, alert, knees and elbows apart, claiming a space no one disputed; he had the second couch entirely to himself, until Gregor opened an ironic palm, and Ivan was forced to take the place next to him. As far toward the end as possible.

Gregor's face wasn't giving much away, except the obvious fact that the chance of Donna/Dono taking him by surprise had passed sometime in the intervening hours since Ivan's call. Gregor broke the ensuing silence just before Ivan could panic and blurt something.

"So, whose idea was this?"

"Mine, Sire," Lord Dono answered steadily. "My late brother expressed himself forcibly many times—as Szabo and others of the household can witness—that he abhorred the idea of Richars stepping into his place as Count Vorrutyer. If Pierre had not died so suddenly and unexpectedly, he would surely have found a substitute heir. I feel I am carrying out his verbal will."

"So you, ah, claim his posthumous approval."

"Yes. If he had thought of it. Granted, he had no reason to entertain such an extreme solution while he lived."

"I see. Go on." This was Gregor in his classic give-them-enough-rope-to-hang-themselves mode, Ivan recognized. "What support did you assure yourself of, before you left?" He glanced rather pointedly at Armsman Szabo.

"I secured the approval of my Arms—of my late brother's Armsmen, of course," said Dono. "Since it was their duty to guard the disputed property until my return."

"You took their oaths?" Gregor's voice was suddenly very mild.

Ivan cringed. To receive an Armsman's oath before one was confirmed as a Count or Count's heir was a serious crime, a violation of one of the subclauses of Vorlopulous's Law which, among other things, had restricted a Count's Armsmen to a mere squad of twenty. Lord Dono gave Szabo the barest nod.

"We gave our personal words," Szabo put in smoothly. "Any man may freely give his personal word for his personal acts, Sire."

"Hm," said Gregor.

"Beyond the Vorrutyer Armsmen, the only two people I informed were my attorney, and my cousin By," Lord Dono continued. "I needed my attorney to put certain legal arrangements into motion, check all the details, and prepare the necessary documents. She and all her records are entirely at your disposal, of course, Sire. I'm sure you understand the tactical necessity for surprise. I told no one else before I left, lest Richars take warning and also prepare."

"Except for Byerly," Gregor prompted.

"Except for By," Dono agreed. "I needed someone I could trust in the capital to keep an eye on Richars's moves while I was out of range and incapacitated."

"Your loyalty to your cousin is most . . . notable, Byerly," murmured Gregor.

By eyed him warily. "Thank you, Sire."

"And your remarkable discretion. I do take note of it."

"It seemed a personal matter, Sire."

"I see. Do go on, Lord Dono."

Dono hesitated fractionally. "Has ImpSec passed you my Betan medical files yet?"

"Just this morning. They were apparently a little delayed."

"You mustn't blame that nice ImpSec boy who was following me. I'm afraid he found Beta Colony a trifle overwhelming. And I'm sure the Betans didn't offer them up voluntarily, especially since I told them not to." Dono smiled blandly. "I'm glad to see he rose to the challenge. One would hate to think ImpSec was losing its old edge, after Illyan's retirement."

Gregor, listening with his chin in his hand, gave a little wave of his fingers in acknowledgement of this, on all its levels.

"If you've had a chance to glance over the records," Dono went on, "you will know I am now fully functional as a male, capable of carrying out my social and biological duty of siring the next Vorrutyer heir. Now that the requirement of male primogeniture has been met, I claim the nearest right by blood to the Countship of the Vorrutyer's District, and in light of my late brother's expressed views, I claim Count's choice as well. Peripherally, I also assert that I will make a better Count than my cousin Richars, and that I will serve my District, the Imperium, and you more competently than he ever could. For evidence, I submit my work in the District on Pierre's behalf over the last five years."

"Are you proposing other charges against Richars?" asked Gregor.

"Not at present. The one charge of sufficient seriousness lacked sufficient proof to bring to trial at the time—" Dono and Szabo exchanged a glance.

"Pierre requested an ImpSec investigation of his fianc?e's flyer accident. I remember reading the synopsis of the report. You are correct. There was no proof."

Dono managed to shrug acknowledgement without agreement. "As for Richars's lesser offenses, well, no one cared before, and I doubt they'll start caring now. I will not be charging that he is unfit—though I think he is unfit—but rather, maintaining that I am more fit and have the better right. And so I will lay it before the Counts."

"And do you expect to obtain any votes?"

"I would expect a certain small number of votes against Richars from his personal enemies even if I were a horse. For the rest, I propose to offer myself to the Progressive party as a future voting member."

"Ah?" Gregor glanced up at this. "The Vorrutyers were traditionally mainstays of the Conservatives. Richars was expected to maintain that tradition."

"Yes. My heart goes out to the old guard; they were my father's party, and his father's before him. But I doubt many of their hearts will go out to me. Besides, they are a present minority. One must be practical."

Right. And while Gregor was careful to maintain a fa?ade of Imperial even-handedness, no one had any doubt the Progressives were the party he privately favored. Ivan chewed on his lip.

"Your case is going to create an uproar in the Council at an awkward time, Lord Dono," said Gregor. "My credit with the Counts is fully extended right now in pushing through the appropriations for the Komarran solar mirror repairs."

Dono answered earnestly, "I ask nothing of you, Sire, but your neutrality. Don't quash my motion of impediment. And don't permit the Counts to dismiss me unheard, or hear me only in secret. I want a public debate and a public vote."

Gregor's lips twisted, contemplating this vision. "Your case could set a most peculiar precedent, Lord Dono. With which I would then have to live."

"Perhaps. I would point out that I am playing exactly by the old rules."

"Well . . . perhaps not exactly ," murmured Gregor.

By put in, "May I suggest, Sire, that if in fact dozens of Counts' sisters were itching to stampede out to galactic medical facilities and return to Barrayar to attempt to step into their brothers' boots, it would have likely happened before now? As a precedent, I doubt it would be all that popular, once the novelty wore off."

Dono shrugged. "Prior to our conquest of Komarr, access to that sort of medicine was scarcely available. Someone had to be the first. It wouldn't even have been me if things had gone differently for poor Pierre." He glanced across at Gregor, eye to eye. "Though I will certainly not be the last. Quashing my case, or brushing it aside, won't settle anything. If nothing else, taking it through the full legal process will force the Counts to explicitly examine their assumptions, and rationalize a set of laws which have managed to ignore the changing times for far too long. You cannot expect to run a galactic empire with rules that haven't been revised or even reviewed since the Time of Isolation." That awful cheerful leer ignited Lord Dono's face suddenly. "In other words, it will be good for them."

A very slight smile escaped Gregor in return, not entirely voluntarily, Ivan thought. Lord Dono was playing Gregor just right—frank, fearless, and up front. But then, Lady Donna had always been observant.

Gregor looked Lord Dono over, and pressed his hand to the bridge of his nose, briefly. After a moment he said ironically, "And will you be wanting a wedding invitation too?"

Dono's brows flicked up. "If I am Count Vorrutyer by then, my attendance will be both my right and my duty. If I'm not—well, then." After a slight silence, he added wistfully, "Though I always did like a good wedding. I had three. Two were disasters. It's so much nicer to watch, saying over and over to yourself, It's not me! It's not me! One can be happy all day afterward on that alone."

Gregor said dryly, "Perhaps your next one will be different."

Dono's chin lifted. "Almost certainly, Sire."

Gregor sat back, and stared thoughtfully at the crew arrayed before him. He tapped his fingers on the sofa arm. Dono waited gallantly, By nervously, Szabo stolidly. Ivan spent the time wishing he were invisible, or that he'd never run across By in that damned bar, or that he'd never met Donna, or that he'd never been born. He waited for the ax, whatever it was going to be, to fall, and wondered which way he ought to dodge.

Instead what Gregor said at last was, "So . . . what's it like?"

Dono's white grin flashed in his beard. "From the inside? My energy's up. My libido's up. I would say it makes me feel ten years younger, except I didn't feel like this when I was thirty, either. My temper's shorter. Otherwise, only the world has changed."


"On Beta Colony, I scarcely noticed a thing. By the time I got to Komarr, well, the personal space people gave me had approximately doubled, and their response time to me had been cut in half. By the time I hit the Vorbarr Sultana Shuttleport, the change was phenomenal. Somehow, I don't think I got all that result just from my exercise program."

"Huh. So . . . if your motion of impediment fails, will you change back?"

"Not any time soon. I must say, the view from the top of the food chain promises to be downright panoramic. I propose to have my blood and money's worth of it."

Another silence fell. Ivan wasn't sure if everyone was digesting this declaration, or if their minds had all simply shorted out.

"All right . . ." said Gregor slowly at last.

The look of growing curiosity in his eyes made Ivan's skin crawl. He's going to say it, I just know he is . . .

"Let's see what happens." Gregor sat back, and gave another little wave of his fingers, as if to speed them on their way. "Carry on, Lord Dono."

"Thank you, Sire," said Dono sincerely.

No one waited around for Gregor to reiterate this dismissal. They all beat a prudent retreat to the corridor before the Emperor could change his mind. Ivan thought he could feel Gregor's eyes boring wonderingly into his back all the way out the door.

"Well," By exhaled brightly, as the major-domo led them down the corridor once more. "That went better than I'd expected."

Dono gave him a sidelong look. "What, was your faith failing, By? I think things went quite as well as I'd hoped for."

By shrugged. "Let's say, I was feeling a bit out of my usual depth."

"That's why we asked Ivan for help. For which I thank you once more, Ivan."

"It was nothing," Ivan denied. "I didn't do anything." It's not my fault. He didn't know why Gregor had put him on his short list for this meeting; the Emperor hadn't even asked him anything. Though Gregor was as bad as Miles for plucking clues out of, as far as Ivan could tell, thin air. He couldn't imagine what Gregor had construed from all this. He didn't want to imagine what Gregor had construed from all this.

The syncopated clomp of all their boots echoed as they rounded the corner into the East Wing. A calculating look entered Lord Dono's eyes, which put Ivan briefly in mind of Lady Donna, in the least reassuring way. "So what's your mama doing in the next few days, Ivan?"

"She's busy. Very busy. All this wedding stuff, you know. Long hours. I scarcely see her except at work, anymore. Where we are all very busy."

"I have no wish to interrupt her work. I need something more . . . casual. When were you going to see her again not at work?"

"Tomorrow night, at my cousin Miles's dinner party for Kareen and Mark. He told me to bring a date. I said I'd be bringing you as my guest. He was delighted." Ivan brooded on this lost scenario.

"Why, thank you, Ivan!" said Dono promptly. "How thoughtful of you. I accept."

"Wait, no, but that was before—before you—before I knew you—" Ivan sputtered, and gestured at Lord Dono in his new morphology. "I don't think he'll be so delighted now. It will mess up his seating arrangements."

"What, with all the Koudelka girls coming? I don't see how. Though I suppose some of them have taken young men in tow by now."

"I don't know about that, except for Delia and Duv Galeni. And if Kareen and Mark aren't—never mind. But I think Miles is trying to slant the sex ratio, to be on the safe side. It's really a party to introduce everyone to his gardener."

"I beg your pardon?" said Dono. They fetched up in the vestibule by the Residence's east doors. The major-domo waited patiently to see the visitors out, in that invisible and unpressing way he could project so well. Ivan was sure he was taking in every word to report to Gregor later.

"His gardener. Madame Vorsoisson. She's this Vor widow he's gone and lost his mind over. He hired her to put a garden in that lot next to Vorkosigan House. She's Lord Auditor Vorthys's niece, if you must know."

"Ah. Quite eligible, then. But how unexpected. Miles Vorkosigan, in love at last? I'd always thought Miles would fancy a galactic. He always gave one the feeling most of the women around here bored him to death. One was never quite certain it wasn't sour grapes, though. Unless it was self-fulfilling prophecy." Lord Dono's smile was briefly feline.

"It was getting a galactic to fancy Barrayar that was the hang-up, I gather," said Ivan stiffly. "Anyway, Lord Auditor Vorthys and his wife will be there, and Illyan with my mother, and the Vorbrettens, as well as all the Koudelkas and Galeni and Mark."

"Ren? Vorbretten?" Dono's eyes narrowed with interest, and he exchanged a glance with Szabo, who gave a tiny nod in return. "I'd like to talk to him . He's a pipeline into the Progressives."

"Not this week, he's not." By smirked. "Didn't you hear what Vorbretten found dangling in his family tree?"

"Yes." Lord Dono waved this away. "We all have our little genetic handicaps. I think it would be fascinating to compare notes with him just now. Oh, yes, Ivan, you must bring me. It will be perfect."

For whom? With all that Betan education, Miles was about as personally liberal as it was possible for a Barrayaran Vor male to be, but Ivan still couldn't imagine that he would be thrilled to find Lord Dono Vorrutyer at his dining table.

On the other hand . . . so what? If Miles had something else to be irritated about, perhaps it would distract him from that little problem with Vormoncrief and Major Zamori. What better way to confuse the enemy than to multiply the targets? It wasn't as though Ivan would have any obligation to protect Lord Dono from Miles.

Or Miles from Lord Dono, for that matter. If Dono and By considered Ivan, a mere HQ captain, a valuable consultant on the social and political terrain of the capital, how much better a one was a real Imperial Auditor? If Ivan could, as it were, transfer Dono's affections to this new target, he might be able to crawl away entirely unobserved. Yes .

"Yes, yes, all right. But this is the last favor I'm going to do for you, Dono, is it understood?" Ivan tried to look stern.

"Thank you," said Lord Dono.


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 redonned 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 recheck 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 Ren? 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."

"So what did he say?"

"He said, Hello, Mark ."

"That sounds pretty unexceptionable."

"It was his tone of voice. That dead-level thing he does, y'know?"

"Well, yes, but you can't deduce anything from that."

"Exactly my point."

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 ongoing 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 Ren? 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 Ren? 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 Ren?, 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, bricklike, 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 reintroduce 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 Ren?, 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 overhear, 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."

"By knew?"

"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 belowstairs, and returned shortly to formally announce the meal.

The couples resorted 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 rejoined 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. Reprioritized. 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 Ren? 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 quite the menu they'd discussed. Certain items were . . . different. The hot consomm? 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 wineglass 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 unreassuring 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 predinner 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 misstepped, 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 lungful 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, 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, downtable; 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 shellburst 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 groundcar was pulling up outside, under the porte coch?re. 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 overrode 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.

Ren? 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 groundcar. Well, the operation hadn't changed Donna/Dono's vile grip on irony, 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.


"Good afternoon, Mark." Countess Vorkosigan's bracing voice spiked Mark's last futile attempts to maintain unconsciousness. He groaned, pulled his pillow from his face, and opened one bleary eye.

He tested responses on his furry tongue. Countess. Vicereine. Mother. Strangely enough, Mother seemed to work best. "G'fertn'n, M'thur."

She studied him for a moment further, then nodded, and waved at the maid who'd followed in her wake. The girl set down a tea tray on the bedside table and stared curiously at Mark, who had an urge to pull his covers up over himself even though he was still wearing most of last night's clothing. The maid trundled obediently out of Mark's room again at the Countess's firm, "Thank you, that will be all."

Countess Vorkosigan opened the curtains, letting in blinding light, and pulled up a chair. "Tea?" she inquired, pouring without waiting for an answer.

"Yeah, I guess." Mark struggled upright, and rearranged his pillows enough to accept the mug without spilling it. The tea was strong and dark, with cream, the way he liked it, and it scalded the glue out of his mouth.

The Countess poked doubtfully at the empty butter bug tubs piled on the table. Counting them up, perhaps, because she winced. "I didn't think you'd want breakfast yet."

"No. Thank you." Though his excruciating stomach-ache was calming down. The tea actually soothed it.

"Neither does your brother. Miles, possibly driven by his new-found need to uphold Vor tradition, sought his anesthetic in wine. Achieved it, too, according to Pym. At present, we're letting him enjoy his spectacular hangover without commentary."

"Ah." Fortunate son.

"Well, he'll have to come out of his rooms eventually. Though Aral advises not to look for him before tonight." Countess Vorkosigan poured herself a mug of tea too, and stirred in cream. "Lady Alys was very peeved at Miles for abandoning the field before his guests had all departed. She considered it a shameful lapse of manners on his part."

"It was a shambles." One that, it appeared, they were all going to live through. Unfortunately. Mark took another sluicing swallow. "What happened after . . . after the Koudelkas left?" Miles had bailed out early; Mark's own courage had broken when the Commodore had lost his grip to the point of referring to the Countess's mother as a damned Betan pimp , and Kareen had flung out the door proclaiming that she would sooner walk home, or possibly to the other side of the continent, before riding one meter in a car with a pair of such hopelessly uncultured, ignorant, benighted Barrayaran savages . Mark had fled to his bedroom with a stack of bug butter tubs and a spoon, and locked the door; Gorge and Howl had done their best to salve his shaken nerves.

Reversion under stress, his therapist would no doubt have dubbed it. He'd half hated, half exulted in the sense of not being in charge in his own body, but letting Gorge run to his limit had blocked the far more dangerous Other . It was a bad sign when Killer became nameless. He had managed to pass out before he ruptured, but only just. He felt spent now, his head foggy and quiet like a landscape after a storm.

The Countess continued, "Aral and I had an extremely enlightening talk with Professor and Professora Vorthys—now, there's a woman who has her head screwed on straight. I wish I'd made her acquaintance before this. They then left to see after their niece, and we had a longer talk with Alys and Simon." She took a slow sip. "Do I understand correctly that the dark-haired young lady who bolted past us last night was my potential daughter-in-law?"

"Not anymore, I don't think," said Mark morosely.

"Damn." The Countess frowned into her cup. "Miles told us practically nothing about her in his, I think I'm justified in calling them briefs , to us on Sergyar. If I'd known then half the things the Professora told me later, I'd have intercepted her myself."

"It wasn't my fault she ran off," Mark hastened to point out. "Miles opened his mouth and jammed his boot in there all by himself." He conceded reluctantly after a moment, "Well, I suppose Illyan helped."

"Yes. Simon was pretty distraught, once Alys explained it all to him. He was afraid he'd been told Miles's big secret and then forgot. I'm quite peeved at Miles for setting him up like that." A dangerous spark glinted in her eye.

Mark was considerably less interested in Miles's problems than in his own. He said cautiously, "Has, ah . . . Enrique found his missing queen, yet?"

"Not so far." The Countess hitched around in her chair and looked bemusedly at him. "I had a nice long talk with Dr. Borgos, too, once Alys and Illyan left. He showed me your lab. Kareen's work, I understand. I promised him a stay of Miles's execution order upon his girls, after which he calmed down considerably. I will say, his science seems sound."

"Oh, he's brilliant about the things that get his attention. His interests are a little, um, narrow, is all."

The Countess shrugged. "I've been living with obsessed men for the better part of my life. I think your Enrique will fit right in here."

"So . . . you've met our butter bugs?"


She seemed unfazed; Betan, you know . He could wish Miles had inherited more of her traits. "And, um . . . has the Count seen them yet?"

"Yes, in fact. We found one wandering about on our bedside table when we woke up this morning."

Mark flinched. "What did you do?"

"We turned a glass over her and left her to be collected by her papa. Sadly, Aral did not spot the bug exploring his shoe before he put it on. That one we disposed of quietly. What was left of her."

After a daunted silence, Mark asked hopefully, "It wasn't the queen, was it?"

"We couldn't tell, I'm afraid. It appeared to have been about the same size as the first one."

"Mm, then not. The queen would have been noticeably bigger."

Silence fell again, for a time.

"I will grant Kou one point," said the Countess finally. "I do have some responsibility toward Kareen. And toward you. I was perfectly aware of the array of choices that would be available to you both on Beta Colony. Including, happily, each other." She hesitated. "Having Kareen Koudelka as a daughter-in-law would give Aral and me great pleasure, in case you had any doubt."

"I never imagined otherwise. Are you asking me if my intentions are honorable?"

"I trust your honor, whether it fits in the narrowest Barrayaran definition or encompasses something broader," the Countess said equably.

Mark sighed. "Somehow, I don't think the Commodore and Madame Koudelka are ready to greet me with reciprocal joy."

"You are a Vorkosigan."

"A clone. An imitation. A cheap Jacksonian knock-off." And crazy to boot.

"A bloody expensive Jacksonian knock-off."

"Ha," Mark agreed darkly.

She shook her head, her smile growing more rueful. "Mark, I'm more than willing to help you and Kareen reach for your goals, whatever the obstacles. But you have to give me some clue of what your goals are ."

Be careful how you aim this woman. The Countess was to obstacles as a laser cannon was to flies. Mark studied his stubby, plump hands in covert dismay. Hope, and its attendant, fear, began to stir again in his heart. "I want . . . whatever Kareen wants. On Beta, I thought I knew. Since we got back here, it's been all confused."

"Culture clash?"

"It's not just the culture clash, though that's part of it." Mark groped for words, trying to articulate his sense of the wholeness of Kareen. "I think . . . I think she wants time . Time to be herself, to be where she is, who she is. Without being hurried or stampeded to take up one role or another, to the exclusion of all the rest of her possibilities. Wife is a pretty damned exclusive role, the way they do it here. She says Barrayar wants to put her in a box."

The Countess tilted her head, taking this in. "She may be wiser than she knows."

He brooded. "On the other hand, maybe I was her secret vice, back on Beta. And here I'm a horrible embarrassment to her. Maybe she'd like me to just shove off and leave her alone."

The Countess raised a brow. "Didn't sound like it last night. Kou and Drou practically had to pry her nails out of our door jamb."

Mark brightened slightly. "There is that."

"And how have your goals changed, in your year on Beta? In addition to adding Kareen's heart's desire to your own, that is."

"Not changed, exactly," he responded slowly. "Honed, maybe. Focused. Modified . . . I achieved some things in my therapy I'd despaired of, of ever making come right in my life. It made me think maybe the rest isn't so impossible after all."

She nodded encouragement.

"School . . . economics school was good. I'm getting quite a tool-kit of skills and knowledge, you know. I'm really starting to know what I'm doing, not just faking it all the time." He glanced sideways at her. "I haven't forgotten Jackson's Whole. I've been thinking about indirect ways to shut down the damned butcher cloning lords there. Lilly Durona has some ideas for life-extension therapies that might be able to compete with their clone-brain transplants. Safer, nearly as effective, and cheaper. Draw off their customers, disrupt them economically even if I can't touch them physically. Every scrap of spare cash I've been able to amass, I've been dumping into the Durona Group, to support their R and D. I'm going to own a controlling share of them, if this goes on." He smiled wryly. "And I still want enough money left that no one has power over me. I'm beginning to see how I can get it, not overnight, but steadily, bit by bit. I, um . . . wouldn't mind starting a new agribusiness here on Barrayar."

"And Sergyar, too. Aral was very interested in possible applications for your bugs among our colonists and homesteaders."

"Was he?" Mark's lips parted in astonishment. "Even with the Vorkosigan crest on them?"

"Mm, it would perhaps be wise to lose the House livery before pitching them seriously to Aral," the Countess said, suppressing a smile.

"I didn't know Enrique was going to do that," Mark offered by way of apology. "Though you should have seen the look on Miles's face, when Enrique presented them to him. It almost made it worth it. . . ." He sighed at the memory, but then shook his head in renewed despair. "But what good is it all, if Kareen and I can't get back to Beta Colony? She's stuck for money, if her parents won't support her. I could offer to pay her way, but . . . but I don't know if that's a good idea."

"Ah," said the Countess. "Interesting. Are you afraid Kareen would feel you had purchased her loyalty?"

"I'm . . . not sure. She's very conscientious about obligations. I want a lover. Not a debtor. I think it would be a bad mistake to accidentally . . . put her in another kind of box. I want to give her everything. But I don't know how!"

An odd smile turned the Countess's lip. "When you give each other everything, it becomes an even trade. Each wins all."

Mark shook his head, baffled. "An odd sort of Deal."

"The best." The Countess finished her tea and put down her cup, "Well. I don't wish to invade your privacy. But do remember, you're allowed to ask for help. It's part of what families are all about."

"I owe you too much already, milady."

Her smile tilted. "Mark, you don't pay back your parents. You can't. The debt you owe them gets collected by your children, who hand it down in turn. It's a sort of entailment. Or if you don't have children of the body, it's left as a debt to your common humanity. Or to your God, if you possess or are possessed by one."

"I'm not sure that seems fair."

"The family economy evades calculation in the gross planetary product. It's the only deal I know where, when you give more than you get, you aren't bankrupted—but rather, vastly enriched."

Mark took this in. And what kind of parent to him was his progenitor-brother? More than a sibling, but most certainly not his mother. . . . "Can you help Miles?"

"That's more of a puzzle." The Countess smoothed her skirts, and rose. "I haven't known this Madame Vorsoisson all her life the way I've known Kareen. It's not at all clear what Ican do for Miles—I would say poor boy , but from everything I've heard he dug his very own pit and jumped in. I'm afraid he's going to have to dig himself back out. Likely it will be good for him." She gave a firm nod, as though a supplicant Miles were already being sent on his way to achieve salvation alone: Write when you find good works . The Countess's idea of maternal concern was damned unnerving, sometimes, Mark reflected as she made her way out.

He was conscious that he was sticky, and itchy, and needed to pee and wash. And he had a pressing obligation to go help Enrique hunt for his missing queen, before she and her offspring built a nest in the walls and started making more Vorkosigan butter bugs. Instead, he lurched to his comconsole, sat gingerly, and tried the code for the Koudelkas' residence.

He desperately aligned an array of fast talk in four flavors, depending on whether the Commodore, Madame Koudelka, Kareen, or one of her sisters answered the vid. Kareen hadn't called him this morning: was she sleeping, sulking, locked in? Had her parents bricked her up in the walls? Or worse, thrown her out on the street? Wait, no, that would be all right—she could come live here

His subvocalized rehearsals were wasted. Call Not Accepted blinked at him in malignant red letters, like a scrawl of blood hovering over the vid plate. The voice-recognition program had been set to screen him out.

* * *

Ekaterin had a splitting headache.

It was all that wine last night, she decided. An appalling amount had been served, including the sparkling wine in the library and the different wines with each of the four courses of dinner. She had no idea how much she'd actually drunk. Pym had assiduously topped up her glass whenever the level had dropped below two-thirds. More than five glasses, anyway. Seven? Ten? Her usual limit was two.

It was a wonder she'd been able to stalk out of that overheated grand dining room without falling over; but then, if she'd been stone sober, could she ever have found the nerve—or was that, the ill-manners—to do so? Pot-valiant, were you?

She ran her hands through her hair, rubbed her neck, opened her eyes, and lifted her forehead again from the cool surface of her aunt's comconsole. All the plans and notes for Lord Vorkosigan's Barrayaran garden were now neatly and logically organized, and indexed. Anyone—well, any gardener who knew what they were doing in the first place—could follow them and complete the job in good order. The final tally of all expenses was appended. The working credit account had been balanced, closed, and signed off. She had only to hit the Send pad on the comconsole for it all to be gone from her life forever.

She groped for the exquisite little model Barrayar on its gold chain heaped by the vid plate, held it up, and let it spin before her eyes. Leaning back in the comconsole chair, she contemplated it, and all the memories attached to it like invisible chains. Gold and lead, hope and fear, triumph and pain . . . She squinted it to a blur.

She remembered the day he'd bought it, on their absurd and ultimately very wet shopping trip in the Komarran dome, his face alive with the humor of it all. She remembered the day he'd given it to her, in her hospital room on the transfer station, after the defeat of the conspirators. The Lord Auditor Vorkosigan Award for Making His Job Easier , he'd dubbed it, his gray eyes glinting. He'd apologized that it was not the real medal any soldier might have earned for doing rather less than what she'd done that awful night-cycle. It wasn't a gift. Or if it was, she'd been very wrong to accept it from his hand, because it was much too expensive a bauble to be proper. Though he had grinned like a fool, Aunt Vorthys, watching, hadn't batted an eye. It was, therefore, a prize. She'd won it herself, paid for it with bruises and terror and panicked action.

This is mine. I will not give it up. With a frown, she drew the chain back over her head and tucked the pendant planet inside her black blouse, trying not to feel like a guilty child hiding a stolen cookie.

Her flaming desire to return to Vorkosigan House and rip her skellytum rootling, so carefully and proudly planted mere hours ago, back out of the ground, had burned out sometime after midnight. For one thing, she would certainly have run afoul of Vorkosigan House's security, if she'd gone blundering about in its garden in the dark. Pym, or Roic, might have stunned her, and been very upset, poor fellows. And then carried her back inside, where . . . Her fury, her wine, and her over-wrought imagination had all worn off near dawn, running out at last in secret, muffled tears in her pillow, when the household was long quiet and she could hope for a scrap of privacy.

Why should she even bother? Miles didn't care about the skellytum—he hadn't even gone out to look at it last evening. She'd been lugging the awkward thing around in her life for fifteen years, in one form or another, since inheriting the seventy-year-old bonsai from her great-aunt. It had survived death, marriage, a dozen moves, interstellar travel, being flung off a balcony and shattered, more death, another five wormhole jumps, and two subsequent transplantations. It had to be as exhausted as she was. Let it sit there and rot, or dry up and blow away, or whatever its neglected fate was to be. At least she had dragged it back to Barrayar to finish dying. Enough. She was done with it. Forever.

She called her garden instructions back up on the comconsole, and added an appendix about the skellytum's rather tricky post-transplant watering and feeding requirements.

"Mama!" Nikki's sharp, excited voice made her flinch.

"Don't . . . don't thump so, dear." She turned in her station chair and smiled bleakly at her son. She was inwardly grateful she hadn't dragged him along to last night's debacle, though she could've pictured him enthusiastically joining poor Enrique on the butter bug hunt. But if Nikki had been present, she could not have left, and abandoned him. Nor yanked him along with her, halfway through his dessert and doubtless protesting in bewilderment. She'd have been mother-bound to her chair, there to endure whatever ghastly, awkward social torment might have subsequently played out.

He stood by her elbow, and bounced. "Last night, did you work out with Lord Vorkosigan when he's gonna take me down to Vorkosigan Surleau and learn to ride his horse? You said you would."

She'd brought Nikki along to the garden work-site several times, when neither her aunt nor uncle could be home with him. Lord Vorkosigan had generously offered to let him have the run of Vorkosigan House on such days, and they'd even hustled up Pym's youngest boy Arthur from his nearby home for a playmate. Ma Kosti had captured Nikki's stomach, heart, and slavish loyalty in very short order, Armsman Roic had played games with him, and Kareen Koudelka had let him help in the lab. Ekaterin had almost forgotten this off-hand invitation, issued by Lord Vorkosigan when he'd turned Nikki back over to her at the end of one workday. She'd made polite-doubtful noises at the time. Miles had assured her the horse in question was very old and gentle, which hadn't exactly been the doubt that had concerned her.

"I . . ." Ekaterin rubbed her temple, which seemed to anchor a lacework of shooting pain inside her head. Generously . . . ? Or just more of Miles's campaign of subtle manipulation, now revealed? "I really don't think we ought to impose on him like that. It's such a long way down to his District. If you're really interested in horses, I'm sure we can get you riding lessons somewhere much nearer Vorbarr Sultana."

Nikki frowned in obvious disappointment. "I dunno about horses. But he said he might let me try his lightflyer, on the way down."

"Nikki, you're much too young to fly a lightflyer."

"Lord Vorkosigan said his father let him fly when he was younger than me. He said his da said he needed to know how to take over the controls in an emergency just as soon as he was physically able. He said he sat him on his lap, and let him take off and land all by himself and everything."

"You're much too big to sit on Lord Vorkosigan's lap!" So was she, she supposed. But if he and she were to—stop that .

"Well," Nikki considered this, and allowed, "anyway, he's too little. It'd look goofy. But his lightflyer seat's just right! Pym let me sit in it, when I was helping him polish the cars." Nikki bounced some more. "Can you ask Lord Vorkosigan when you go to work?"

"No. I don't think so."

"Why not?" He looked at her, his brow wrinkling slightly. "Why didn't you go today?"

"I'm . . . not feeling very well."

"Oh. Tomorrow, then? Come on, Mama, please ?" He hung on her arm, and twisted himself up, and made big eyes at her, grinning.

She rested her throbbing forehead in her hand. "No, Nikki. I don't think so."

"Aw, why not ? You said . Come on, it'll be so great. You don't have to come if you don't want, I s'pose. Why not, why not, why not? Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow?"

"I'm not going to work tomorrow, either."

"Are you that sick? You don't look that sick." He stared at her in startled worry.

"No." She hastened to address that worry, before he started making up dire medical theories in his head. He'd lost one parent this year. "It's just . . . I'm not going to be going back to Lord Vorkosigan's house. I quit."

"Huh?" Now his stare grew entirely bewildered. "Why ? I thought you liked making that garden thing."

"I did."

"Then why'd you quit?"

"Lord Vorkosigan and I . . . had a falling-out. Over, over an ethical issue."

"What? What issue?" His voice was laced with confusion and disbelief. He twisted himself around the other way.

"I found he'd . . . lied to me about something." He promised he'd never lie to me . He'd feigned that he was very interested in gardens. He'd arranged her life by subterfuge—and then told everyone else in Vorbarr Sultana. He'd pretended he didn't love her. He'd as much as promised he'd never ask her to marry him. He'd lied . Try explaining that to a nine-year-old boy. Or to any other rational human being of any age or gender, her honesty added bitterly. Am I insane yet? Anyway, Miles hadn't actually said he wasn't in love with her, he'd just . . . implied it. Avoided saying much on the subject at all, in fact. Prevarication by misdirection.

"Oh," said Nikki, eyes wide, daunted at last.

The Professora's blessed voice interrupted from the archway. "Now, Nikki, don't be pestering your mother. She has a very bad hangover."

"A hang over?" Nikki clearly had trouble fitting the words mother and hangover into the same conceptual space. "She said she was sick."

"Wait till you're older, dear. You'll doubtless discover the distinction, or lack of it, for yourself. Run along now." His smiling great-aunt guided him firmly away. "Out, out. Go see what your Uncle Vorthys is up to downstairs. I heard some very odd noises a bit ago."

Nikki let himself be chivvied out, with a disturbed backward glance over his shoulder.

Ekaterin put her head back down on the comconsole, and shut her eyes.

A clink by her head made her open them again; her aunt was setting down a large glass of cool water and holding out two painkiller tablets.

"I had some of those this morning," said Ekaterin dully.

"They appear to have worn off. Drink all the water, now. You clearly need to rehydrate."

Dutifully, Ekaterin did so. She set the glass down, and squeezed her eyes open and shut a few times. "That really was the Count and Countess Vorkosigan last night, wasn't it." It wasn't really a question, more a plea for denial. After nearly stampeding over them in her desperate flight out the door, she'd been halfway home in the auto-cab before her belated realization of their identity had dawned so horribly. The great and famous Viceroy and Vicereine of Sergyar. What business had they, to look so like ordinary people at a moment like that? Ow, ow, ow.

"Yes. I'd never met them to speak to at any length before."

"Did you . . . speak to them at length last night?" Her aunt and uncle had been almost an hour behind her, arriving home.

"Yes, we had quite a nice chat. I was impressed. Miles's mother is a very sensible woman."

"Then why is her son such a . . . never mind." Ow. "They must think I'm some sort of hysteric. How did I get the nerve to just stand up and walk out of a formal dinner in front of all those . . . and Lady Alys Vorpatril . . . and at Vorkosigan House . I can't believe I did that." After a brooding moment, she added, "I can't believe he did that."

Aunt Vorthys did not ask, What? , or Which he? She did purse her lips, and look quizzically at her niece. "Well, I don't suppose you had much choice."


"After all, if you hadn't left, you'd have had to answer Lord Vorkosigan's question."

"I . . . didn't . . . ?" Ekaterin blinked. Hadn't her actions been answer enough? "Under those circumstances? Are you mad?"

"He knew it was a mistake the moment the words were out of his mouth, I daresay, at least judging from that ghastly expression on his face. You could see everything just drain right out of it. Extraordinary. But I can't help wondering, dear—if you'd wanted to say no , why didn't you? It was the perfect opportunity to do so."

"I . . . I . . ." Ekaterin tried to collect her wits, which seemed to be scattering like sheep. "It wouldn't have been . . . polite ."

After a thoughtful pause, her aunt murmured, "You might have said, `No, thank you.' "

Ekaterin rubbed her numb face. "Aunt Vorthys," she sighed, "I love you dearly. But please go away now."

Her aunt smiled, and kissed her on the top of her head, and drifted out.

Ekaterin returned to her twice-interrupted brooding. Her aunt was right, she realized. Ekaterin hadn't answered Miles's question. And she hadn't even noticed she hadn't answered.

She recognized this headache, and the knotted stomach that went with it, and it had nothing to do with too much wine. Her arguments with her late husband Tien had never involved physical violence directed against her, though the walls had suffered from his clenched fists a few times. The rows had always petered out into days of frozen, silent rage, filled with unbearable tension and a sort of grief, of two people trapped together in the same always-too-small space walking wide around each other. She had almost always broken first, backed down, apologized, placated, anything to make the pain stop. Heartsick , perhaps, was the name of the emotion.

I don't want to go back there again. Please don't ever make me go back there again.

Where am I, when I am at home in myself? Not here, for all the increasing burden of her aunt and uncle's charity. Not, certainly, with Tien. Not with her own father. With . . . Miles? She had felt flashes of profound ease in his company, it was true, brief perhaps, but calm like deep water. There had also been moments when she'd wanted to whack him with a brick. Which was the real Miles? Which was the real Ekaterin, for that matter?

The answer hovered, and it scared her breathless. But she'd picked wrong before. She had no judgment in these man-and-woman matters, she'd proved that.

She turned back to the comconsole. A note. She should write some sort of cover note to go with the returned garden plans.

I think they will be self-explanatory, don't you?

She pressed the Send pad on the comconsole, and stumbled back upstairs to pull the curtains and lie down fully dressed on her bed until dinner.

* * *

Miles slouched into the library of Vorkosigan House, a mug of weak tea clutched in his faintly trembling hand. The light in here was still too bright this evening. Perhaps he ought to seek refuge in a corner of the garage instead. Or the cellar. Not the wine cellar—he shuddered at the thought. But he'd grown entirely bored with his bed, covers pulled over his head or not. A day of that was enough.

He stopped abruptly, and lukewarm tea sloshed onto his hand. His father was at the secured comconsole, and his mother was at the broad inlaid table with three or four books and a mess of flimsies spread out before her. They both looked up at him, and smiled in tentative greeting. It would probably seem surly of him to back out and flee.

"G'evening," he managed, and shambled past them to find his favorite chair, and lower himself carefully into it.

"Good evening, Miles," his mother returned. His father put his console on hold, and regarded him with bland interest.

"How was your trip home from Sergyar?" Miles went on, after about a minute of silence.

"Entirely without incident, happily enough," his mother said. "Till the very end."

"Ah," said Miles. "That." He brooded into his tea mug.

His parents humanely ignored him for several minutes, but whatever they'd been separately working on seemed to not hold their attention anymore. Still, nobody left.

"We missed you at breakfast," the Countess said finally. "And lunch. And dinner."

"I was still throwing up at breakfast," said Miles. "I wouldn't have been much fun."

"So Pym reported," said the Count.

The Countess added astringently, "Are you done with that now?"

"Yeh. It didn't help." Miles slumped a little further, and stretched his legs out before him. "A life in ruins with vomiting is still a life in ruins."

"Mm," said the Count in a judicious tone, "though it does make it easy to be a recluse. If you're repulsive enough, people spontaneously avoid you."

His wife twinkled at him. "Speaking from experience, love?"

"Naturally." His eyes grinned back at her.

More silence fell. His parents did not decamp. Obviously, Miles concluded, he wasn't repulsive enough. Perhaps he should emit a menacing belch.

He finally started, "Mother—you're a woman—"

She sat up, and gave him a bright, encouraging Betan smile. "Yes . . . ?"

"Never mind," he sighed. He slumped again.

The Count rubbed his lips and regarded him thoughtfully. "Do you have anything to do ? Any miscreants to go Imperially Audit, or anything?"

"Not at present," Miles replied. After a contemplative moment he added, "Fortunately for them."

"Hm." The Count tamped down a smile. "Perhaps you are wise." He hesitated. "Your Aunt Alys gave us a blow-by-blow account of your dinner party. With editorials. She was particularly insistent that I tell you she trusts ," Miles could hear his aunt's cadences mimicked in his father's voice, "you would not have fled the scene of any other losing battle the way you deserted last night."

Ah. Yes. His parents had been left with the mopping up, hadn't they. "But there was no hope of being shot dead in the dining room if I stayed with the rear guard."

His father flicked up an eyebrow. "And so avoid the subsequent court martial?"

"Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all," Miles intoned.

"I am sufficiently your partisan," said the Countess, "that the sight of a pretty woman running screaming, or at least swearing, into the night from your marriage proposal rather disturbs me. Though your Aunt Alys says you scarcely left the young lady any other choice. It's hard to say what else she could have done but walk out. Except squash you like a bug, I suppose."

Miles cringed at the word bug .

"Just how bad—" the Countess began.

"Did I offend her? Badly enough, it seems."

"Actually, I was about to ask, just how bad was Madame Vorsoisson's prior marriage?"

Miles shrugged. "I only saw a little of it. I gather from the pattern of her flinches that the late unlamented Tien Vorsoisson was one of those subtle feral parasites who leave their mates scratching their heads and asking, Am I crazy? Am Icrazy? " She wouldn't have those doubts if she married him , ha.

"Aah," said his mother, in a tone of much enlightenment. "One of those . Yes. I know the type of old. They come in all gender-flavors, by the way. It can take years to fight your way out of the mental mess they leave in their wake."

"I don't have years," Miles protested. "I've never had years." And then pressed his lips shut at the little flicker of pain in his father's eyes. Well, who knew what Miles's second life expectancy was, anyway. Maybe he'd started his clock all over, after the cryorevival. Miles slumped lower. "The hell of it is, I knew better. I'd had way too much to drink, I panicked when Simon . . . I never meant to ambush Ekaterin like that. It was friendly fire . . ."

He went on after a little, "I had this great plan, see. I thought it could solve everything in one brilliant swoop. She has this real passion for gardens, and her husband had left her effectively destitute. So I figured, I could help her jump-start the career of her dreams, slip her some financial support, and get an excuse to see her nearly every day,and get in ahead of the competition. I had to practically wade through the fellows panting after her in the Vorthys's parlor, the times I went over there—"

"For the purpose of panting after her in her parlor, I take it?" his mother inquired sweetly.

"No!" said Miles, stung. "To consult about the garden I'd hired her to make in the lot next door."

"Is that what that crater is," said his father. "In the dark, from the groundcar, it looked as though someone tried to shell Vorkosigan House and missed, and I'd wondered why no one had reported it to us."

"It is not a crater . It's a sunken garden. There's just . . . just no plants in it yet."

"It has a very nice shape, Miles," his mother said soothingly. "I went out and walked through it this afternoon. The little stream is very pretty indeed. It reminds me of the mountains."

"That was the idea," said Miles, primly ignoring his father's mutter of. . . after a Cetagandan bombing raid on a guerilla position . . .

Then Miles sat bolt upright in sudden horror. Not quite no plants. "Oh, God! I never went out to look at her skellytum! Lord Dono came in with Ivan—did Aunt Alys explain to you about Lord Dono?—and I was distracted, and then it was time for dinner, and I never had the chance afterwards. Has anyone watered—? Oh, shit, no wonder she was angry. I'm dead meat twice over—!" He melted back into his puddle of despair.

"So, let me get this straight," said the Countess slowly, studying him dispassionately. "You took this destitute widow, struggling to get on her own feet for the first time in her life, and dangled a golden career opportunity before her as bait, just to tie her to you and cut her off from other romantic possibilities."

That seemed an uncharitably bald way of putting it. "Not . . . not just ," Miles choked. "I was trying to do her a good turn. I never imagined she'd quit—the garden was everything to her."

The Countess sat back, and regarded him with a horribly thoughtful expression, the one she acquired when you'd made the mistake of getting her full, undivided attention. "Miles . . . do you remember that unfortunate incident with Armsman Esterhazy and the game of cross-ball, when you were about twelve years old?"

He hadn't thought of it in years, but at her words, the memory came flooding back, still tinged with shame and fury. The Armsmen used to play cross-ball with him, and sometimes Elena and Ivan, in the back garden of Vorkosigan House: a low-impact game, of minimum threat to his then-fragile bones, but requiring quick reflexes and good timing. He'd been elated the first time he'd won a match against an actual adult, in this case Armsman Esterhazy. He'd been shaken with rage, when a not-meant-to-be-overheard remark had revealed to him that the game had been a setup. Forgotten. But not forgiven.

"Poor Esterhazy had thought it would cheer you up, because you were depressed at the time about some, I forget which, slight you'd suffered at school," the Countess said. "I still remember how furious you were when you figured out he'd let you win. Did you ever carry on about that one. We thought you'd do yourself a harm."

"He stole my victory from me," grated Miles, "as surely as if he'd cheated to win. And he poisoned every subsequent real victory with doubt. I had a right to be mad."

His mother sat quietly, expectantly.

The light dawned. Even with his eyes squeezed shut, the intensity of the glare hurt his head.

"Oh. Noooo," groaned Miles, muffled into the cushion he jammed over his face. "I did that to her ?"

His remorseless parent let him stew in it, a silence sharper-edged than words.

"I did that to her . . ." he moaned, pitifully.

Pity did not seem to be forthcoming. He clutched the cushion to his chest. "Oh. God. That's exactly what I did. She said it herself. She said the garden could have been her gift. And I'd taken it away from her. Too. Which made no sense, since it was she who'd just quit . . . I thought she was starting to argue with me. I was so pleased, because I thought, if only she would argue with me . . ."

"You could win?" the Count supplied dryly.

"Uh . . . yeah."

"Oh, son." The Count shook his head. "Oh, poor son." Miles did not mistake this for an expression of sympathy. "The only way you win that war is to start with unconditional surrender."

"That you is plural, note," the Countess put in.

"I tried to surrender!" Miles protested frantically. "The woman was taking no prisoners! I tried to get her to stomp me, but she wouldn't. She's too dignified, too, oversocialized, too, too . . ."

"Too smart to lower herself to your level?" the Countess suggested. "Dear me. I think I'm beginning to like this Ekaterin. And I haven't even finished being properly introduced to her yet. I'd like you to meet—she's getting away! seemed a little . . . truncated."

Miles glared at her. But he couldn't keep it up. In a smaller voice, he said, "She sent all the garden plans back to me this afternoon, on the comconsole. Just like she'd said she would. I'd set it to code-buzz me if any call originating from her came in. I damn near killed myself, getting over to the machine. But it was just a data packet. Not even a personal note. Die, you rat would have been better than this . . . this nothing ." After a fraught pause, he burst out, "What do I do now ?"

"Is that a rhetorical question, for dramatic effect, or are you actually asking my advice?" his mother inquired tartly. "Because I'm not going to waste my breath on you unless you're finally paying attention."

He opened his mouth for an angry reply, then closed it. He glanced for support to his father. His father opened his hand blandly in the direction of his mother. Miles wondered what it would be like, to be in such practiced teamwork with someone that it was as though you coordinated your one-two punches telepathically. I'll never get the chance to find out. Unless.

"I'm paying attention," he said humbly.

"The . . . the kindest word I can come up with for it is blunder —was yours. You owe the apology. Make it."

"How? She's made it abundantly clear she doesn't want to speak to me!"

"Not in person, good God, Miles. For one thing, I can't imagine you could resist the urge to babble, and blow yourself up. Again."

What is it about all my relatives, that they have so little faith in—

"Even a live comconsole call is too invasive," she continued. "Going over to the Vorthys's in person would be much too invasive."

"The way he's been going about it, certainly," murmured the Count. "General Romeo Vorkosigan, the one-man strike force."

The Countess gave him a faintly quelling flick of her eyelash. "Something rather more controlled, I think," she continued to Miles. "About all you can do is write her a note, I suppose. A short, succinct note. I realize you don't do abject very well, but I suggest you exert yourself."

"D'you think it would work?" Faint hope glimmered at the bottom of a deep, deep well.

"Working is not what this is about. You can't still be plotting to make love and war on the poor woman. You'll send an apology because you owe it, to her and to your own honor. Period. Or else don't bother."

"Oh," said Miles, in a very small voice.

"Cross-ball," said his father. Reminiscently. "Huh."

"The knife is in the target," sighed Miles. "To the hilt. You don't have to twist." He glanced across at his mother. "Should the note be handwritten? Or should I just send it on the comconsole?"

"I think your just just answered your own question. If your execrable handwriting has improved, it would perhaps be a nice touch."

"Proves it wasn't dictated to your secretary, for one thing," put in the Count. "Or worse, composed by him at your order."

"Haven't got a secretary yet." Miles sighed. "Gregor hasn't given me enough work to justify one."

"Since work for an Auditor hinges on awkward crises arising in the Empire, I can't very well wish more for you," the Count said. "But no doubt things will pick up after the wedding. Which will have one less crisis because of the good work you just did on Komarr, I might say."

He glanced up, and his father gave him an understanding nod; yes, the Viceroy and Vicereine of Sergyar were most definitely in the need-to-know pool about the late events on Komarr. Gregor had undoubtedly sent on a copy of Miles's eyes-only Auditor's report for the Viceroy's perusal. "Well . . . yes. At the very least, if the conspirators had maintained their original schedule, there'd have been several thousand innocent people killed that day. It would have marred the festivities, I think."

"Then you've earned some time off."

The Countess looked momentarily introspective. "And what did Madame Vorsoisson earn? We had her aunt give us her eyewitness description of their involvement. It sounded like a frightening experience."

"The public gratitude of the Empire is what she should have earned," said Miles, in reminded aggravation. "Instead, it's all been buried deep-deep under the ImpSec security cap. No one will ever know. All her courage, all her cool and clever moves, all her bloody heroism , dammit, was just . . . made to disappear. It's not fair."

"One does what one has to, in a crisis," said the Countess.

"No." Miles glanced up at her. "Some people do. Others just fold. I've seen them. I know the difference. Ekaterin—she'll never fold. She can go the distance, she can find the speed. She'll . . . she'll do ."

"Leaving aside whether we are discussing a woman or a horse," said the Countess—dammit, Mark had said practically the same thing, what was with all Miles's nearest and dearest?—"everyone has their folding-point, Miles. Their mortal vulnerability. Some just keep it in a nonstandard location."

The Count and Countess gave each other one of those Telepathic Looks again. It was extremely annoying. Miles squirmed with envy.

He drew the tattered shreds of his dignity around him, and rose. "Excuse me. I have to go . . . water a plant."

It took him thirty minutes of wandering around the bare, crusted garden in the dark, with his hand-light wavering and the water from his mug dribbling over his fingers, to even find the blasted thing. In its pot, the skellytum rootling had looked sturdy enough, but out here, it looked lost and lonely: a scrap of life the size of his thumb in an acre of sterility. It also looked disturbingly limp. Was it wilting? He emptied the cup over it; the water made a dark spot in the reddish soil that began to evaporate and fade all too quickly.

He tried to imagine the plant full grown, five meters high, its central barrel the size, and shape, of a sumo wrestler, its tendril-like branches gracing the space with distinctive corkscrew curves. Then he tried to imagine himself forty-five or fifty years old, which was the age to which he'd have to survive to see that sight. Would he be a reclusive, gnarled bachelor, eccentric, shrunken, invalidish, tended only by his bored Armsmen? Or a proud, if stressed, paterfamilias with a serene, elegant, dark-haired woman on his arm and half a dozen hyperactive progeny in tow? Maybe . . . maybe the hyperactivity could be toned down in the gene-cleaning, though he was sure his parents would accuse him of cheating. . . .


He went back inside Vorkosigan House to his study, where he sat himself down to attempt, through a dozen drafts, the best damned abject anybody'd ever seen.


Kareen leaned over the porch rail of Lord Auditor Vorthys's house and stared worriedly at the close-curtained windows in the bright tile front. "Maybe there's no one home."

"I said we should have called before we came here," said Martya, unhelpfully. But then came a rapid thump of steps from within—surely not the Professora's—and the door burst open.

"Oh, hi, Kareen," said Nikki. "Hi, Martya."

"Hello, Nikki," said Martya. "Is your mama home?"

"Yeah, she's out back. You want to see her?"

"Yes, please. If she's not too busy."

"Naw, she's only messing with the garden. Go on through." He gestured them hospitably in the general direction of the back of the house, and thumped back up the stairs.

Trying not to feel like a trespasser, Kareen led her sister through the hall and kitchen and out the back door. Ekaterin was on her knees on a pad by a raised flower bed, grubbing out weeds. The discarded plants were laid out beside her on the walk, roots and all, in rows like executed prisoners. They shriveled in the westering sun. Her bare hand slapped another green corpse down at the end of the row. It looked therapeutic. Kareen wished she had something to kill right now. Besides Martya.

Ekaterin glanced up at the sound of their footsteps, and a ghost of a smile lightened her pale face. She jammed her trowel into the dirt, and rose to her feet. "Oh, hello."

"Hi, Ekaterin." Not wishing to plunge too baldly into the purpose of her visit, Kareen added, with a wave of her arm, "This is pretty." Trees, and walls draped with vines, made the little garden into a private bower in the midst of the city.

Ekaterin followed her glance. "It was a hobby-project of mine, when I lived here as a student, years ago. Aunt Vorthys has kept it up, more or less. There are a few things I'd do differently now . . . Anyway," she gestured at the graceful wrought-iron table and chairs, "won't you sit down?"

Martya took prompt advantage of the invitation, seating herself and resting her chin on her hands with a put-upon sigh.

"Would you like anything to drink? Tea?"

"Thanks," said Kareen, also sitting. "Nothing to drink, thanks." This household lacked servants to dispatch on such errands; Ekaterin would have to go off and rummage in the kitchen with her own hands to supply her guests. And the sisters would be put to it to guess whether to follow prole rules, and all troop out to help, or impoverished-high-Vor rules, and sit and wait and pretend they didn't notice there weren't any servants. Besides, they'd just eaten, and her dinner still sat like a lump in Kareen's stomach even though she'd barely picked at it.

Kareen waited until Ekaterin was seated to venture cautiously, "I just stopped by to find out—that is, I'd wondered if, if you'd heard anything from . . . from Vorkosigan House?"

Ekaterin stiffened. "No. Should I have?"

"Oh." What, Miles the monomaniacal hadn't made it all up to her by now? Kareen had pictured him at Ekaterin's door the following morning, spinning damage-control propaganda like mad. It wasn't that Miles was so irresistible—she, for one, had always found him quite resistible, at least in the romantic sense, not that he'd ever exactly turned his attention on her—but he was certainly the most relentless human being she'd ever met. What was the man doing all this time? Her anxiety grew. "I'd thought—I was hoping—I'm awfully worried about Mark, you see. It's been almost two days. I was hoping you might have . . . heard something."

Ekaterin's face softened. "Oh, Mark. Of course. No. I'm sorry."

Nobody cared enough about Mark. The fragilities and fault lines of his hard-won personality were invisible to them all. They'd load him down with impossible pressures and demands as though he were, well, Miles, and assume he'd never break. . . . "My parents have forbidden me to call anyone at Vorkosigan House, or go over there or anything," Kareen explained, tight-voiced. "They insisted I give them my word before they'd even let me out of the house. And then they stuck me with a snitch." She tossed her head in the direction of Martya, now slumping with almost equal surliness.

"It wasn't my idea to be your bodyguard," protested Martya. "Did I get a vote? No."

"Da and Mama—especially Da—have gone all Time-of-Isolation over this. It's just crazy. They're all the time telling you to grow up, and then when you do, they try to make you stop. And shrink. It's like they want to cryofreeze me at twelve forever. Or stick me back in the replicator and lock down the lid." Kareen bit her lip. "And I don't fit in there anymore, thank you."

"Well," said Ekaterin, a shade of sympathetic amusement in her voice, "at least you'd be safe there. I can understand the parental temptation of that."

"You're making it worse for yourself, you know," said Martya to Kareen, with an air of sisterly critique. "If you hadn't carried on like a madwoman being locked in an attic, I bet they wouldn't have gone nearly so rigid."

Kareen bared her teeth at Martya.

"There's something to that in both directions," said Ekaterin mildly. "Nothing is more guaranteed to make one start acting like a child than to be treated like one. It's so infuriating. It took me the longest time to figure out how to stop falling into that trap."

"Yes, exactly," said Kareen eagerly. "You understand! So—how did you make them stop?"

"You can't make them—whoever your particular them is—do anything, really," said Ekaterin slowly. "Adulthood isn't an award they'll give you for being a good child. You can waste . . . years, trying to get someone to give that respect to you, as though it were a sort of promotion or raise in pay. If only you do enough, if only you are good enough . No. You have to just . . . take it. Give it to yourself, I suppose. Say, I'm sorry you feel like that , and walk away. But that's hard." Ekaterin looked up from her lap where her hands had been absently rubbing at the yard dirt smeared on them, and remembered to smile. Kareen felt an odd chill. It wasn't just her reserve that made Ekaterin daunting, sometimes. The woman went down and down, like a well to the middle of the world. Kareen bet even Miles couldn't shift her around at his will and whim.

How hard is it to walk away? "It's like they're that close," she held up her thumb and finger a few millimeters apart, "to telling me I have to choose between my family and my lover. And it makes me scared, and it makes me furious. Why shouldn't I have both? Would it be considered too much of a good thing, or what? Leaving aside that it'd be a horrid guilt to lay on poor Mark—he knows how much my family means to me. A family is something he didn't have, growing up, and he romanticizes it, but still."

Her flattened hands beat a frustrated tattoo on the garden tabletop. "It all comes back to the damned money. If I were a real adult, I'd have my own income. And I could walk away, and they'd know I could, and they'd have to back off. They think they have me trapped."

"Ah," said Ekaterin faintly. "That one. Yes. That one is very real."

"Mama accused me of only doing short-term thinking, but I'm not! The butter bug project—it's like school all over again, short-term deprivation for a really major pay-off down the line. I've studied the analyses Mark did with Tsipis. It's not a get-rich-quick scheme. It's a get-rich-big scheme. Da and Mama don't have a clue how big. They imagine I've spent my time with Mark playing around, but I've been working my tail off, and I know exactly why. Meanwhile I have over a month's salary tied up in shares in the basement of Vorkosigan House, and I don't know what's happening over there! " Her fingers were white where they gripped the table edge, and she had to stop for breath.

"I take it you haven't heard from Dr. Borgos, either?" said Martya cautiously to Ekaterin.

"Why . . . no."

"I felt almost sorry for him. He was trying so hard to please. I hope Miles hasn't really had all his bugs killed."

"Miles never threatened all his bugs," Kareen pointed out. "Just the escapees. As for me, I wish Miles had strangled him. I'm sorry you made him stop, Ekaterin."

"Me!" Ekaterin's lips twisted with bemusement.

"What, Kareen," scoffed Martya, "just because the man revealed to everybody that you were a practicing heterosexual? You know, you really didn't play that one right, considering all the Betan possibilities. If only you'd spent the last few weeks dropping the right kind of hints, you could have had Mama and Da falling to their knees in thanks that you were only messing around with Mark. Though I do wonder about your taste in men."

What Martya doesn't know about my sampling of Betan possibilities , Kareen decided firmly, won't hurt me . "Or else they really would have locked me in the attic."

Martya waved this away. "Dr. Borgos was terrorized enough. It's really unfair to drop a normal person down in Vorkosigan House with the Chance Brothers and expect him to just cope."

"Chance Brothers?" Ekaterin inquired.

Kareen, who had heard the jibe before, gave it the bare grimace it deserved.

"Um," Martya had the good grace to look embarrassed. "It was a joke that was going around. Ivan passed it on to me." When Ekaterin continued to look blankly at her, she added reluctantly. "You know—Slim and Fat."

"Oh." Ekaterin didn't laugh, though she smiled briefly; she looked as though she was digesting this tidbit, and wasn't sure if she liked the aftertaste.

"You think Enrique is normal?" said Kareen to her sister, wrinkling her nose.

"Well . . . at least he's a change from the sort of Lieutenant Lord Vor-I'm-God's-Gift-to-Women we usually meet in Vorbarr Sultana. He doesn't back you into a corner and gab on endlessly about military history and ordnance. He backs you into a corner and gabs on endlessly about biology, instead. Who knows? He might be good husband material."

"Yeah, if his wife didn't mind dressing up as a butter bug to lure him to bed," said Kareen tartly. She made antennae of her fingers, and wriggled them at Martya.

Martya snickered, but said, "I think he's the sort who needs a managing wife, so he can work fourteen hours a day in his lab."

Kareen snorted. "She'd better seize control immediately. Yeah, Enrique has biotech ideas the way Zap the Cat has kittens, but it's a near-certainty that whatever profit he gets from them, he'll lose."

"Too trusting, do you think? Would people take advantage of him?"

"No, just too absorbed. It would come to the same thing in the end, though."

Ekaterin sighed, a distant look in her eyes. "I wish I could work four hours at a stretch without chaos erupting."

"Oh," said Martya, "but you're another. One of those people who pulls amazing things out of their ears, that is." She glanced around the tiny, serene garden. "You're wasted in domestic management. You're definitely R and D."

Ekaterin smiled crookedly. "Are you saying I don't need a husband, I need a wife? Well, at least that's a slight change from my sister-in-law's urgings."

"Try Beta Colony," Kareen advised, with a melancholy sigh.

The conversation grounded for a stretch upon this beguiling thought. The muted city street noises echoed over the walls and around the houses, and the slanting sunlight crept off the grass, putting the table into cool pre-evening shade.

"They really are utterly revolting bugs," Martya said after a time. "No one in their right mind will ever buy them."

Kareen hunched at this discouraging non-news. The bugs did too work. Bug butter was science's almost-perfect food. There ought to be a market for it. People were so prejudiced. . . .

A slight smile turned Martya's lip, and she added, "Though the brown and silver was just perfect. I thought Pym was going to pop."

"If only I'd known what Enrique was up to," mourned Kareen, "I could have stopped him. He'd been babbling on about his surprise, but I didn't pay enough attention—I didn't know he could do that to the bugs."

Ekaterin said, "I could have realized it, if I'd given it any thought. I scanned his thesis. The real secret is in the suite of microbes." At Martya's raised eyebrows, she explained, "It's the array of bioengineered microorganisms in the bugs' guts that do the real work of breaking down what the bugs eat and converting it into, well, whatever the designer chooses. Enrique has dozens of ideas for future products beyond food, including a wild application for environmental radiation cleanup that might excite . . . well. Anyway, keeping the microbe ecology balanced—tuned, Enrique calls it—is the most delicate part. The bugs are just self-assembling and self-propelled packaging around the microbe suite. Their shape is semi-arbitrary. Enrique just grabbed the most efficient functional elements from a dozen insect species, with no attention at all to the aesthetics."

"Most likely." Slowly, Kareen sat up. "Ekaterin . . . you do aesthetics."

Ekaterin made a throwaway gesture. "In a sense, I guess."

"Yes, you do. Your hair is always right. Your clothes always look better than anyone else's, and I don't think it's that you're spending more money on them."

Ekaterin shook her head in rueful agreement.

"You have what Lady Alys calls unerring taste , I think," Kareen continued, with rising energy. "I mean, look at this garden. Mark, Mark does money, and deals. Miles does strategy and tactics, and inveigling people into doing what he wants." Well, maybe not always; Ekaterin's lips tightened at the mention of his name. Kareen hurried on. "I still haven't figured out what I do. You—you do beauty. I really envy that."

Ekaterin looked touched. "Thank you, Kareen. But it really isn't anything that—"

Kareen waved away the self-deprecation. "No, listen, this is important. Do you think you could make a pretty butter bug? Or rather, make butter bugs pretty?"

"I'm no geneticist—"

"I don't mean that part. I mean, could youdesign alterations to the bugs so's they don't make people want to lose their lunch when they see one. For Enrique to apply."

Ekaterin sat back. Her brows sank down again, and an absorbed look grew in her eyes. "Well . . . it's obviously possible to change the bugs' colors and add surface designs. That has to be fairly trivial, judging from the speed with which Enrique produced the . . . um . . . Vorkosigan bugs. You'd have to stay away from fundamental structural modifications in the gut and mandibles and so on, but the wings and wing carapaces are already nonfunctional. Presumably they could be altered at will."

"Yes? Go on."

"Colors—you'd want to look for colors found in nature, for biological appeal. Birds, beasts, flowers . . . fire . . ."

"Can you think of something?"

"I can think of a dozen ideas, offhand." Her mouth curved up. "It seems too easy. Almost any change would be an improvement."

"Not just any change. Something glorious ."

"A glorious butter bug." Her lips parted in faint delight, and her eyes glinted with genuine cheer for the first time this visit. "Now, that's a challenge."

"Oh, would you, could you? Will you? Please? I'm a shareholder, I have as much authority to hire you as Mark or Enrique. Qualitatively, anyway."

"Heavens, Kareen, you don't have to pay me—"

"Never ," said Kareen with passion, "ever suggest they don't have to pay you. What they pay for, they'll value. What they get for free, they'll take for granted, and then demand as a right. Hold them up for all the market will bear." She hesitated, then added anxiously, "You will take shares, though, won't you? Ma Kosti did, for the product development consultation she did for us."

"I must say, Ma Kosti made the bug butter ice cream work," Martya admitted. "And that bread spread wasn't bad either. It was all the garlic, I think. As long as you didn't think about where the stuff came from."

"So what, have you ever thought about where regular butter and ice cream come from? And meat, and liver sausage, and—"

"I can about guarantee you the beef filet the other night came from a nice, clean vat. Tante Cordelia wouldn't have it any other way at Vorkosigan House."

Kareen gestured this aside, irritably. "How long do you think it would take you, Ekaterin?" she asked.

"I don't know—a day or two, I suppose, for preliminary designs. But surely we'd have to meet with Enrique and Mark."

"I can't go to Vorkosigan House." Kareen slumped. She straightened again. "Could we meet here ?"

Ekaterin glanced at Martya, and back to Kareen. "I can't be a party to undercutting your parents, or going behind their backs. But this is certainly legitimate business. We could all meet here if you'll get their permission."

"Maybe," said Kareen. "Maybe. If they have another day or so to calm down . . . As a last resort, you could meet with Mark and Enrique alone. But I want to be here, if I can. I know I can sell the idea to them, if only I have a chance." She stuck out her hand to Ekaterin. "Deal?"

Ekaterin, looking amused, rubbed the soil from her hand against the side of her skirt, leaned across the table, and shook on the compact. "Very well."

Martya objected, "You know Da and Mama will stick me with having to tag along, if they think Mark will be here."

"So, you can persuade them you're not needed. You're kind of an insult anyway, you know."

Martya stuck out a sisterly tongue at this, but shrugged a certain grudging agreement.

The sound of voices and footsteps wafted from the open kitchen window; Kareen looked up, wondering if Ekaterin's aunt and uncle had returned. And if maybe one of them had heard anything from Miles or Tante Cordelia or . . . But to her surprise, ducking out the door after Nikki came Armsman Pym, in full Vorkosigan House uniform, as neat and glittery as though ready for the Count's inspection. Pym was saying, "—I don't know about that, Nikki. But you know you're welcome to come play with my son Arthur at our flat, any time. He was asking after you just last night, in fact."

"Mama, Mama!" Nikki bounced to the garden table. "Look, Pym's here!"

Ekaterin's expression closed as though shutters had fallen across her face. She regarded Pym with extreme wariness. "Hello, Armsman," she said, in a tone of utter neutrality. She glanced across at her son. "Thank you, Nikki. Please go in now."

Nikki departed, with reluctant backward glances. Ekaterin waited.

Pym cleared his throat, smiled diffidently at her, and gave her a sort of half-salute. "Good evening, Madame Vorsoisson. I trust I find you well." His gaze went on to take in the Koudelka sisters; he favored them with a courteous, if curious, nod. "Hello, Miss Martya, Miss Kareen. I . . . this is unexpected." He looked as though he was riffling through revisions to some rehearsed speech.

Kareen wondered frantically if she could pretend that her prohibition from speaking with anyone from the Vorkosigan household was meant to apply only to the immediate family, and not the Armsmen as well. She smiled back with longing at Pym. Maybe he could talk to her . Her parents hadn't—couldn't—enforce their paranoid rule on anyone else, anyhow. But after his pause Pym only shook his head, and turned his attention back to Ekaterin.

Pym drew a heavy envelope from his tunic. Its thick cream paper was sealed with a stamp bearing the Vorkosigan arms—just like on the back of a butter bug—and addressed in ink in clear, square writing with only the words: Madame Vorsoisson . "Ma'am. Lord Vorkosigan directs me to deliver this into your hand. He says to say, he's sorry it took so long. It's on account of the drains, you see. Well, m'lord didn't say that, but the accident did delay things all round." He studied her face anxiously for her response to this.

Ekaterin accepted the envelope and stared at it as if it might contain explosives.

Pym stepped back, and gave her a very formal nod. When, after a moment, no one said anything, he gave her another half-salute, and said, "Didn't mean to intrude, ma'am. My apologies. I'll just be on my way now. Thank you." He turned on his heel.

"Pym!" His name, breaking from Kareen's lips, was almost a shriek; Pym jerked, and swung back. "Don't you dare just go off like that! What's happening over there?"

"Isn't that breaking your word?" asked Martya, with clinical detachment.

"Fine! Fine! You ask him, then!"

"Oh, very well." With a beleaguered sigh, Martya turned to Pym. "So tell me, Pym, what did happen to the drains?"

"I don't care about the drains!" Kareen cried. "I care about Mark! And my shares."

"So? Mama and Da say you aren't allowed to talk to anyone from Vorkosigan House, so you're out of luck. I want to know about the drains."

Pym's brows rose as he took this in, and his eyes glinted briefly. A sort of pious innocence informed his voice. "I'm most sorry to hear that, Miss Kareen. I trust the Commodore will see his way clear to lift our quarantine very soon. Now, m'lord told me I was not to hang about and distress Madame Vorsoisson with any ham-handed attempts at making things up to her, nor pester her by offering to wait for a reply, nor annoy her by watching her read his note. Very nearly his exact words, those. He never ordered me not to talk with you young ladies, however, not anticipating that you would be here."

"Ah," said Martya, in a voice dripping with, in Kareen's view, unsavory delight. "So you can talk to me and Kareen, but not to Ekaterin. And Kareen can talk to Ekaterin and me—"

"Not that I'd want to talk to you," Kareen muttered.

"—but not to you. That makes me the only person here who can talk to everybody. How . . . nice. Do tell me about the drains, dear Pym. Don't tell me they backed up again."

Ekaterin slipped the envelope into the inside pocket of her bolero, leaned her elbow on her chair arm and her chin on her hand, and sat listening with her dark eyebrows crinkling.

Pym nodded. "I'm afraid so, Miss Martya. Late last night, Dr. Borgos—" Pym's lips compressed at the name "—being in a great hurry to return to the search for his missing queen, took two days' harvest of bug butter—about forty or fifty kilos, we estimated later—which was starting to overflow the hutches on account of Miss Kareen not being there to take care of things properly, and flushed it all down the laboratory drain. Where it encountered some chemical conditions which caused it to . . . set. Like soft plaster. Entirely blocking the main drain, which, in a household with over fifty people in it—all the Viceroy and Vicereine's staff having arrived yesterday, and my fellow Armsmen and their families—caused a pretty immediate and pressing crisis."

Martya had the bad taste to giggle. Pym merely looked prim.

"Lord Auditor Vorkosigan," Pym went on, with a bare glance under his eyelashes at Ekaterin, "being of previous rich military experience with drains, he informed us, responded at once and without hesitation to his mother's piteous plea, and drafted and led a picked strike-force to the subbasement to deal with the dilemma. Which was me and Armsman Roic, in the event."