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Red over Green

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“What I don’t quite understand,” said the Count plaintively, “is why Miles had to hire her to create a Barrayaran garden. I mean, she’s training in horticulture, yes. But–” (and here spoke the Count of a rural district where terraforming had been an ongoing struggle for generations) “–why not an elegant garden with proper trees and flowers? ImpSec might prefer not to encourage people to linger; but Vorbarr Sultana could always do with another public park.” With a wry look, he added, “I just don’t see the appeal of red over green.”

Aral had been filled in on Ekaterin’s role in thwarting the rebels on Komarr. Cordelia was certain, therefore, that he was not in any way symbolically impugning her loyalty (though it was certainly true that dark red was the colour of Cetagandan dress uniform). She suspected that Aral simply had a not-entirely-aesthetic attachment to undress green. And to brown-and-silver, of course; but that was hardly relevant, unless one were counting the trunks of the trees that had been taken away.

It was a sentiment that she overheard rather too often over the next few days as the skeleton staff of the previous weeks was suddenly augmented by those who had returned with them from Sergyar. Ma Kosti’s cooking was, as always, a delight: the prospect of a mid-city acre of wild Barrayar was, at best, eccentric. If Aral had whole-heartedly endorsed his son’s plans, the reaction of the staff would probably have been different; but, although he said nothing overtly negative, except to his wife, his reservations were obvious to those who had known him for years. Retainers who had been born in the hills, where terraforming was still a way of life, shared his views; and they were not averse to expressing their opinions to those who were city-bred. As for the latter, they were more curious than anything. Some, indeed, had never seen native Barrayaran flora since their history lessons at school.

Cordelia went dutifully and looked at Miles’s garden. There had obviously been much work done to the bones of the land, sculpting slopes and valleys.  These had been smoothly covered with a flesh of native soil, with its perceptibly different, alien hue. The routes for paths were already laid out; and beds—presumably beds—marked out to fit between. Through it all wound a graceful, babbling brook that rippled over rather familiar-looking stones. The curves and hills had a certain aesthetic appeal; but, as a garden, it was singularly free of plants. On the whole, she thought it looked rather … brown. 

No, wait. There was one small flash of Barrayaran red.

Cordelia walked down an embryonic path to investigate, and found a small fluffy mound planted in the soil. It was clearly alive, whatever it was; but quite remarkably solitary. She wondered why it was there. Planting it all on its own like this was surely somewhat premature.

She mentioned it later to Miles, and was regaled at length with its history. For a time, though, the skellytum had to struggle to survive her son’s attentions, for Ekaterin did not return—for which Cordelia did not blame her.  She did, however, hope for the best:  Miles could usually demonstrate a startling learning curve.

A week later, a load of carefully shaped stones arrived. They remained stacked intriguingly while a small crew of workmen laid a foundation of sand.  They then began painstakingly laying the stones out in a pattern. In time, it became clear just what pattern Miles had chosen as centrepiece.

Aral joined her in contemplation as the workers, after a few startled glances, avoided looking in their direction in order to accurately piece out the final quadrant.

“It appears that both our sons feel compelled to display the family crest,” commented Aral. Cordelia caught his import: the search was still on for the last of the liveried butter bugs. Still, the Count's tone was mild. Perhaps, he confided to Cordelia, there was a role for a native garden outside the purview of a university Botany department.  This would be a park through which anyone might stroll. In long-terraformed parts of the planet, such as Vorbarr Sultana, there were too many who lacked a hands-on familiarity with that aspect of Barrayar’s past.

“School trips,” she said, thoughtfully. What ImpSec was going to say about it all she wasn’t sure. Had that occurred to Miles? Had he even consulted them? Cordelia suspected that, when her son had hired his gardener, his mind had been on quite other matters than clearing his plan with Security.

The next day, she called Helen Vorthys and invited her round for afternoon tea. The Professora came dressed in her best gown, deep rose, with an embroidered bolero.  Miles might have recognized it, had he been there; but he was out on one of Alys's errands.  Pym—who was, of course, familiar with the Vorthys establishment—showed her in with an air of suppressed anticipation. The whole staff were eager to know about developments in Miles’s courtship: Cordelia was herself; but she doubted there was much to learn at this stage. Her interest was in knowing more of Ekaterin’s family.  She saw the Professora in one of the smaller, private lounges: this was, she hoped, more or less a family tea. Or would be, retrospectively, if all worked out. Nevertheless, she realized as soon as the tea trolley was wheeled in that the staff were making an effort to impress. There was a tiered display of astonishingly elaborate confections, both rich and varied: Ma Kosti had outdone herself, yet again.

Cordelia poured, as the Professora inspected the array, more than a little bewildered by the range of choice. She settled in the end for a slice of something piled high with cream and chocolate.

“My husband should be here,” she observed. “He adores pastries of all sorts.”

As she picked up a fork, prodding tentatively at the multi-toned curlicues on her plate, Cordelia glanced sideways at Pym, who nodded imperceptibly and left.

“So, how is your niece?” she said to the Professora, adding, “Is she missing her garden yet? I’ve been to see it; and clearly much work has already been done. Still, her plans must have included plants, none of which has arrived yet; and I assume she would prefer to supervise when they do turn up.”

Unseen by either woman, a black and white paw explored upwards from under the table.

“At the moment, Ekaterin insists that she is never setting foot in Vorkosigan House again.”

“In the circumstances, quite understandable,” Cordelia said. She intercepted the kitten in the moment of its leap, and rose to her feet. Even as it snatched sideways at the tray of cakes, she bore it to the door and shut it firmly outside.

“Sorry about that,” she said as she returned. “They’ve been spoiling those cats, letting them get at the cream cakes.”

Delicious cream cakes,” said Helen, with more than mere politeness. “You have an excellent cook.” Half the chocolate confection had already disappeared from her plate.

“She’s Miles’ discovery, really,” said Cordelia as she sat down, “but I can’t deny that I’ve found her invaluable when we’re back home.” She added, “Do have another,” and then paused, consideringly, before adding, “I gather that, at the party you attended, she was quite ingenious in adapting the menu to incorporate a …,” she hesitated, “… a novel ingredient.”

“The food was excellent,” her guest averred. “You need feel no qualms on that score.”  She scooped up the last forkful of cream, and looked the tiered cake plate over with clear intent to raid it again.

“The rest of the party being unmemorable?” said Cordelia ruefully. “We missed the moment when Miles made his proposal; but I have had it described to me, several times, by interested observers. I gather it was catastrophic.”

There was an answering smile. “I doubt,” said Helen, “if any description of that party could do it justice.”  Making her choice, she transferred to her plate a tart whose citrus-tinted filling was symmetrically swirled with brillberry conserve.

Emboldened, Cordelia added, “Did it come as a surprise? To you, I mean? Clearly your niece was not expecting it.”

“Well,” said Helen, after a moment’s judicious thought, “if you mean was I surprised that your son was interested in Ekaterin, not in the least. I suspected as much before we left Komarr, to be honest; and, in the past few weeks, he’s visited our home far too often—ostensibly with regard to the garden—for me not to notice that his eyes are on her rather more than the plans.” There was a longer pause, during which each woman tackled Ma Kosti’s creations, before she added, “I do like what I’ve seen of Lord Vorkosigan. Certainly more than any of the other suitors who’ve come calling.”

After that tea, there was a cordial understanding between the older generation; and a conduit of information was thus established between the Vorthys home near the university and Vorkosigan House behind its formidable gates. Occasional parcels of pastries made their way across town, to the great pleasure of both Georg Vorthys and Nikki. The Professora did not tell her niece where they came from; but she probably guessed.  Ma Kosti’s baking was unmistakeable.

Still, though she ate her share of the pastries, Ekaterin continued to remain aloof from Miles and his affairs. It was therefore only after she had made her proposal of marriage and been accepted that she once again took an active role in the creation of the garden. In the meantime, Lady Alys had kept Miles so busy with duties relating to the forthcoming imperial nuptials that he scarcely had time to think—which did not mean that he forgot Ekaterin herself, of course, for that was impossible. Nevertheless, when she did return to Vorkosigan House, she discovered that he had never got around to placing the orders she had suggested.

The royal wedding took place at midsummer, which is not the best time to be transplanting anything, let alone from the wild. The latter part of that season was taken up therefore merely with sourcing native vegetation—at Aral’s suggestion, primarily from areas scheduled for terraforming. Plants began to arrive in early autumn:  plugs of scrubwire, dotting along the borders of the paths; large clumps of zipweed, chopped into sections before planting to encourage new growth; even razor-grass, judiciously located at points along the wall adjoining the grounds of Vorkosigan House, to tower over the shorter plants and keep off intruders. By ImpSec orders, nothing was permitted that would overtop the wall: the skellytum would be, on maturity, the tallest specimen in the garden.

Towards the end of the mammoth enterprise, Cordelia joined her son’s fiancée in the centre of the garden, where she stood on the edge of the mosaic Vorkosigan crest. “It looks good,” she commented. “A bit sparse, mind you.”

“It’ll grow,” said Ekaterin. “I know right now the plants all seem very small and the gaps too large; but they’ll spread.  The plants, that is.” She looked down, and stretched out a foot to scuff the soil with the toe of her shoe. “Fortunately, we’re so far from any place where the native plants grow naturally.  One thing that I don’t need to concern myself with is weeds.”

Cordelia looked her head to look round the garden.  It was a symphony of shades of red, from darkest maroon, through russet and flame, to shades of tawny gold and blond. One one side, the ground rose to the outer wall, where baffles almost kept out the sound of the city. She turned the other way, towards her home, and was suddenly struck by the alien emerald of the tree-tops in the grounds beyond.

“What’s that?” she heard Ekaterin say, startled beside her.

“What?”  Cordelia turned, and peered in the direction that Ekaterin seemed to be looking. The other woman stooped to a basket on the ground, then straightened and headed off, walking fast.  Clearly, she had spotted something, but not, Cordelia thought, someone. 

After a moment, she followed, rather more slowly. Ahead of her, Ekaterin was walking uphill towards the artificial rock fall from which sprang the head of the little creek.

Stretching her legs, Cordelia began to catch up.

Ekaterin stopped on one of the rocks.  She seemed to be looking down at something, though what it was Cordelia could not make out, for it was obscured by the other woman’s skirt.  Hearing footsteps, she turned her head.  “I thought we’d got rid of all the terraformed soil,” she said. “Perhaps some came in on one of the rocks.”

“No weeds,” said Cordelia.   “Wasn’t that what you said?”  Beyond, rooted in a crack between two rocks, was a short plant with jagged-edged leaves and a budded stem showing yellow.

“You can never get rid of them,” said Ekaterin, shaking her head. “Not those.  Ubiquitous, that's what they are.” And she stooped with her trowel.