Despite their agreement, Laisa was not even slightly surprised to find a pile of presents awaiting her on the breakfast table, the morning of their first Winterfair together. She nearly laughed out loud: it was such a picture-perfect image of Winterfair morning, right out of a Barrayaran picture book. Laisa recognized the immaculate contrivance of Gregor going overboard. She'd thought saying yes in such a very public way a couple of weeks ago would have cured him of this need to impress her, but she supposed that no one was entirely rational about their traditional gift-giving holiday.
Still, she held back the laugh and made her formal protest; she wasn't going to cede all her ground at once.
"Gregor! We agreed that all either of us wanted for Winterfair was to survive the engagement party."
"From each other," Gregor said, giving her one of his excessively innocent little-boy looks. "These must be from Father Frost."
Laisa shook her head, but didn't bother to argue. There were boundaries and principles at stake, in theory, but there was also a big pile of shiny presents, and Gregor quite transparently wanting to give her a happy first Winterfair.
Still, she could tease him a little. "Remind me to give Father Frost a kiss of thanks for each of these lovely gifts when I see him next, then."
It wasn't as if she was really caught out. She'd done her research regarding Gregor and Winterfair.
The only question that remained, as she sat down at the table with her coffee, was whose advice had prompted Gregor to select each gift for her. The presents were all wrapped in shiny gold paper, with differently-colored ribbons all in perfect bows--they had that machine-like perfection that never actually came from machines, on Barrayar. Did they have artisans of gift wrap? Did Gregor have gift-wrapping artisans on retainer?
Laisa dismissed that impossible question and reached for the biggest present first. The biggest wasn't apt to be anything too overwhelming--at least, it didn't have airholes. Gregor sipped his coffee and watched her with what she judged to be a pleasant level of anticipation. She unwrapped the perfect paper as carefully as it seemed to deserve, drawing out the anticipation, but Gregor seemed completely content to sit still and watch.
The box held riding boots, with a botanical design of some sort stamped into the leather at the top. The leather was ridiculously soft under her hands, and Laisa tried not to think of the poor skinned animal it represented--there was no room to imagine it was synthstuff. Under the guise of examining the velvety lining Laisa peered into the top of the boot--and yes, there, convenient to her right hand, was a concealed knife sheath at the outside of the right boot.
"Lovely," Laisa said, and totted up a suggestion from Madame Koudelka, the socially-slightly-less-terrifying of Gregor's foster mothers, who was evidently a godmother of sorts to the female Security who had formally begun to protect Laisa two weeks ago. Gregor waved a hand blithely--no, custom-made boots complete with allowances for protecting herself in hand-to-hand combat were nothing, of course--and Laisa returned the boots to their box and set it aside.
The next-biggest box was disproportionately heavy, but Laisa had already spent enough time in the Vorbarra and Vorkosigan libraries to recognize the density of old-fashioned paper books. Miles, she thought, even before she peeled back the paper to reveal several beautiful old leather-bound volumes (Barrayarans: more traditional and respectable reasons for killing animals than Laisa could ever have imagined, back home--back on Komarr).
They were, Laisa realized as she read the spines, books she had admired in Gregor's or the Vorkosigan library, which she had regretted her inability to read as they were in Russian or Greek. Gregor had found English translations of them; well, of course he had. Possibly he had commissioned English translations of them, and then had the books artificially aged so she wouldn't guess.
Laisa wasn't sure if she should exert herself to curb his gift-giving extravagance or just enjoy it until it ran its course. Surely it would eventually run its course. But if she didn't stop him now, what would he do when they had children?
Laisa pushed the books aside, looking over at Gregor and thinking This is the future father of my children. She found herself grinning giddily, and Gregor smiled hopefully back and said, "You like the books, then?"
"Oh, yes," Laisa allowed, even as she realized that this would mean a future deluge of books. There was room for more in the library. "Perhaps Father Frost will have several kisses for those."
"Generous woman," Gregor said, and nudged the three remaining boxes closer to her.
Again Laisa took the larger one; its contents shifted gently, not quite rattling but definitely giving the impression of separate rigid parts moving within the package as she unwrapped it. Gregor looked a little sheepish over this one, and between his expression and the process of elimination, Laisa scarcely needed to see the name of Vorbarr Sultana's most exclusive chocolatier to guess that this one had been Ivan's suggestion. Laisa laughed--oh Ivan, honestly--and Gregor's look of chagrin deepened.
Laisa shook her head a little and lifted off the lid, inhaling the rich smell of the confections inside--all her favorites, and some she hadn't seen before but suspected had been specially engineered to her preferences. "Is this a proper Winterfair breakfast Father Frost has provided? Which first, do you think?"
Gregor's smile returned, and he plucked out a rich, dark chocolate topped with a delicate pink leaf made of some kind of candy-stuff. "Try this, you'll like it."
She did like it; she was, in fact, not responsible for the noise she made when the full effect of the flavor struck her tongue. She opened her eyes and Gregor was watching her more intently than mere chocolates deserved, and it was the look in his eyes that made Laisa blush. An answering pink appeared, gratifyingly, on Gregor's cheeks.
Laisa smiled even as she swallowed the last of the sweet, and then she looked down that the selection and said lightly, "Father Frost did know my fiancé would be joining me for breakfast, didn't he? Are there some here for you?"
"Father Frost knows everything," Gregor agreed solemnly. "Including my sadly pedestrian tastes in chocolate."
Laisa raised an eyebrow and reached for the most medium-brown and unadorned little chocolates in the box. Gregor quirked a smile and nodded. Laisa hand-fed him the chocolate, which he accepted delicately, and chewed with merely ordinary evidence of enjoyment.
Laisa licked her fingers carefully clean and then reached for another box--nearly a cube, and familiar in its homelike plastic density.
Duv, clearly. Laisa grinned as she unwrapped it, and her grin widened as she read the edge-labels on the stack of book-discs--all the latest interesting galactic work on economics and politics, including a couple of perspectives on Komarran-Barrayaran relations that Laisa had been wanting to see.
"I believe a few of those authors will be attending a small dinner here next month," Gregor said casually. Laisa was briefly, genuinely surprised, and then thought, well, Duv. But she had to give Gregor credit for carrying out the advice to its furthest logical extension.
"Really," Laisa said aloud, holding firmly to a calm tone that she knew was utterly belied by the grin on her face. "I shall have to check my calendar."
"It's probably already scheduled," Gregor assured her cheerfully. "I made sure to clear the date with your social secretary first."
Laisa shook her head and said, "I thought none of this was from you?"
"Invitations aren't presents," Gregor said firmly, betraying once again his peculiar perspective on nearly all social occasions as unavoidable ordeals.
"Thank you anyway," Laisa said, and leaned across the table to kiss him; he smelled of coffee and sweet chocolate, and smiled into the kiss.
"One more," he said, when she sat back.
Laisa picked up the smallest box, an elegantly proportioned flat square. Alys, she thought with certainty, and peeled back the paper to reveal a hinged presentation box, which gave way to another glitter of gold--a necklace with sparkling stones just the color of her eyes. Even recognizing it as part of Alys's ongoing campaign to render her acceptably Barrayaran-feminine, Laisa loved it on sight, for the atavistic appeal of shiny things or just the thought of Gregor choosing it for her.
"It's beautiful," Laisa said, and then set it gently but decisively aside. She leaned her elbows on the table and her chin on her hands and said, "You're sure that's the last one?"
Gregor's face got very blank, which meant he was even more unsure of himself than a mere sheepish look could cover.
"I love these," Laisa added. "And since we agreed to no presents, these are all much more than I expected and I'm delighted by each and all of them. But I had a hunch there was something else."
"When you say you had a hunch," Gregor said slowly.
"I asked Cordelia," Laisa said, smiling, and reached into the pocket of her dressing gown.
She'd had to try four times to get the squishy package to look reasonably neat, and it was still crooked, but Laisa chose to believe that was part of its charm. The ribbon had been crushed a bit in her pocket, but the bow was still recognizable as such, and the white and red of the paper was, she was assured, traditionally appropriate for Winterfair.
Gregor's lips parted, and he looked--well. He looked like a little boy on Winterfair receiving an unexpected present. He kept very still for a moment, and then stood up decisively and went back into the bedroom, emerging a moment later with a small gift bag.
"Oh, a bag," Laisa said. "Isn't that cheating?"
Gregor grinned and set the bag--red with silver snowflakes--beside Laisa's present. "There's tissue paper. I did the tissue-paper wrapping myself."
Laisa nudged her gift closer to Gregor and said, "Aren't you going to open it?"
Gregor picked it up and said, in the neutral voice she was learning to recognize as Gregor at a loss to express sincere emotion, "I already love them."
Laisa shook her head wryly and reached for the gift bag. "They'll keep your feet warm better if you unwrap them, though."
A week beforehand, Cordelia sat down with Gregor and asked him how he and his mother had celebrated Winterfair. Five-year-old Gregor frowned thoughtfully--it was an expression Cordelia had already become familiar with, even when she wasn't asking him about events that had taken place one-fifth of his life ago.
"Droushie helped me buy a present for Mother," Gregor said. "A necklace. And mother helped me buy a present for Droushie. New boots. And in the morning I had a big stack of presents--mostly from Father Frost, but one from Mother and one from Droushie. And then we had breakfast, and then Mother had to get ready for the ball."
"Well," Cordelia said, making a mental note to get Drou to write out a wishlist for Gregor's big stack of presents. "I'm sure Father Frost will come for you again this year. And you and I and Aral will have breakfast together, and then we'll go and see Miles and tell him Happy Winterfair." At ImpMil, and not a holiday-decorated replicator bank full of fellow parents-in-waiting, but Cordelia supposed traditions had to start somewhere. Whatever Winterfair traditions she and Aral began this year, for Gregor, would be already a little practiced next year, when Miles was home.
"Would you like me to help you choose a present for Drou?"
Gregor nodded solemnly. "And one for Lord Aral, and...."
Gregor looked uncertain. "Do you think I could send Armsman Esterhazy a present? I know it was only pretending, but I promised."
Now and then, Cordelia had the opportunity to imagine that Gregor had forgotten, or was forgetting, the events of the Pretendership; and then she realized that of course he could not ever forget.
"You can give presents to anyone you like," Cordelia said firmly, and found one more cause to regret their estrangement from her father-in-law; if not for that, Gregor might see Esterhazy every day. "What did you promise Esterhazy?"
"When we pretended he was my Da, and I was his little boy Stavros," Gregor said. The words came in a rush, as if he'd been waiting to say this to someone. "My feet got cold sometimes, just at night, and he gave me his socks to wear. I promised I would give him new socks, to repay him, when--but I remembered that I wasn't supposed to be the Emperor, just Stavros. And Armsman Esterhazy said, for Winterfair, you mean? And I said, yes, I would give him new socks for Winterfair, because I couldn't say when really. I know it was just pretending, but--I did promise. I meant it, even if it was pretend."
Cordelia gathered Gregor into a hug, so that he wouldn't see the water standing in her eyes.
"We'll go tomorrow," Cordelia said. "I'll take you myself."
Shopping with the emperor in tow also meant shopping with Drou, half a dozen uniformed Armsmen in Vorbarra livery, and an outer perimeter of ImpSec men hastily deployed after she told Aral at breakfast that she wanted to take Gregor shopping for Winterfair gifts. There had been an urgent side-consultation over the comconsole with Alys, to find out where to shop for men's socks in Vorbarr Sultana. Alys, to her credit, had simply rattled off three suitable destinations while bouncing three-week-old Ivan, who screamed ceaselessly the entire time. Alys looked like a woman in a war zone; Cordelia prudently refrained from inviting her along on the expedition.
Next Winterfair Miles would be here--maybe trying to eat decorations, maybe opening presents with Gregor's help, maybe just screaming his head off while they tried to be festive. But this year Cordelia had Gregor, and Gregor was plenty to worry about.
The security procedures had evidently given ample warning of their arrival; the first shop's owner was waiting at the door, and welcomed the Emperor and Regent-Consort only a little obsequiously to his humble establishment. Cordelia firmly informed him that they would like to browse, and Drou and Armsman Douglas took the hint when the shopkeeper might have resisted it, interposing themselves firmly. In their hard-won bit of breathing space among the tall men in dark uniforms, Cordelia led Gregor to a display of socks neatly arrayed on a low table. It was just the right height for Gregor, and Cordelia wondered how much time the shop's employees had spent arranging it, only to be hustled out the door so their boss could meet the Emperor himself.
Gregor stared thoughtfully at the selection of colors, and finally looked up at Cordelia. "I don't know which he'll like best. The ones he gave me were plain brown, but plain brown isn't very nice for Winterfair. He can wear colored socks under his boots, can't he?"
"He can," Cordelia assured Gregor. Undergarments, including socks, were essentially the only realm of sartorial self-expression available to Barrayaran military men. They were, as Cordelia had learned, nonetheless extremely reticent in discussing their choices in that line, and so Cordelia had no more idea than Gregor of what socks Esterhazy might like best of those on display. She didn't dare extrapolate from Aral to every Barrayaran male of his generation, after all.
"Perhaps you should touch them. How socks feel is very important, isn't it?"
Gregor nodded thoughtfully and extended a hand to gently examine the texture of each sock in the display.
They'll be selling everything we don't buy for twice the price, Cordelia realized. Guaranteed touched by the Emperor.
After methodically examining eight pairs of socks--Cordelia was frankly impressed with his attention span--Gregor looked up at her. He pointed to a pair with stripes of red and gray--Winterfair colors, more or less. "These are the softest. They seem warm, don't they?"
Cordelia reached down to test the texture of the sock. It hadn't the particular feel of survival-rated synth-spun, but that hardly mattered. "I'm sure Armsman Esterhazy will be very happy to have them."
Gregor nodded firmly, and then his hand moved hesitatingly onward over the display. Cordelia braced herself for indecisiveness--she'd read parenting books, she knew no child this age should be as easy to manage as Gregor--but Gregor surprised her by pointing to a pair with a pattern of tiny evergreen trees on a blue field and saying, "would Lord Aral like these, do you think?"
Aral did, in fact, indulge in ridiculous socks--or at least, indulged Cordelia by wearing ridiculous socks when she bought them for him.
"He would love them," Cordelia assured him sincerely.
Gregor looked up with a smile and then said, "Does Miles need socks yet? Is it all right to give everyone socks?"
"Everyone needs socks," Cordelia assured him. "You can always give them to people you love."
Laisa was wearing her new purple and green striped socks, and Gregor a boot-tall pair of socks, each sporting fifty-nine different monkeys in fifty-nine different colors. Both of them wore, in addition, a few smears of chocolate here and there and nothing else. Laisa rubbed her toes against Gregor's brightly colored ankle. Gregor looked down and giggled again, just like he had when he first saw the socks.
There, Laisa thought, that's what I wanted for Winterfair. That sound.
Laisa leaned over and licked a stray smear of chocolate off of Gregor's shoulder--she could almost make out the shape of her own fingertips--and then leaned her cheek against the same spot and said, "Next Winterfair, just the socks, all right? You can give me any presents you like, the rest of the year, but all I want on Winterfair is the present that's just from you."
Gregor looped his arms around her and hugged her close. "I'll tell Father Frost," he murmured. "I'm sure he'll understand."