"So, which of them d'you want?"
Padma tried not to jump. Serg could move like a cat, even when he was three parts drunk and, by the look of him, another part high on God knew what off-world concoction. He looked back at the girls all talking together at the edge of the ballroom, and didn't let his eyes fall on the one in the centre.
"Oh, they're all lovely," he said, trying to sound lazy and untroubled by the presence of his younger cousin. "How could I possibly choose?"
"Or perhaps you want her?" Serg jerked his head at the Princess, a little away from her peers now, exalted above them by this marriage, talking quietly to some of the younger Countesses.
Serg always did that, asked questions to which the only worse answer than 'yes' was 'no', enjoying the way people squirmed as they tried to answer. Accustomed to it, Padma batted the gambit away.
"You're the envy of every man in Vorbarr Sultana."
Serg laughed. "Then every man in Vorbarr Sultana is an idiot."
"I've no doubt of that," said a new voice from behind him. Padma felt part relieved, part aggravated. Aral had come to rescue him from the Prince, the way he always did. It was a habit with him now, Padma suspected. Aral had called him 'baby Padma' till he was seven, after all.
But the distraction worked, and Serg turned towards this much more fascinating target for his wit. Padma looked back at the girls, at the Princess. He'd stood in the wedding circle as the virgin sacrifice had been offered to Serg, and had smiled and said everything that was proper, and wondered whether Kareen had known what she was doing. Perhaps she had; she'd been pale enough, but she'd smiled too and kissed Serg, and if her mother had wept, well, mothers did always weep at weddings.
"No need to ask if you want any of them," Serg said, continuing his theme with Aral. "Not your style, I think."
"Those girls?" Aral said. "They giggle too much for my taste. Padma, Countess Vorlightly wanted to speak with you."
Padma doubted Countess Vorlightly wanted anything of the sort, but Padma wouldn't mind a chance to speak with her. Or rather, with her eldest daughter. "All right. Thanks."
He would have preferred to stay--Aral was sober enough tonight, but that just meant he wouldn't mortally insult Serg by accident. On purpose was another matter. For all that Aral looked after him, there were times when Padma thought he ought to look after Aral, or at least protect him from himself. It was disturbing that practically his only remaining relative seemed to have a death wish. But Aral gave him a pointed look, and Padma stood up, bowed to the Prince and began to make his way across the ballroom.
He looked again at the young women, and this time he let himself watch the one in the red dress, her long black hair like living velvet. The one everyone was talking to, everyone was flirting with, laughing and moving like a butterfly tonight, but he remembered watching her in the wedding circle as Kareen's Second, her face pale and stern, and he knew that she at least had known exactly what kind of sacrifice her cousin was.
And she was obviously clever, and beautiful, and the eldest daughter of a Count, but not too closely related for comfort. Padma knew that if he didn't move soon, someone else would snap her up. But he had to wait a little. Serg was married now, but until Kareen was delivered of a son, it wouldn't be safe for him to pay too much attention to any woman.
And besides, next week he would be back in space, First Lieutenant on the flagship headed for Komarr, and there would be no time for the half-formed plans he was building in his dreams. Whatever he did tonight, there wouldn't be a chance for a second move.
Abruptly he realised what that meant, what freedom that gave him for tonight. He glanced quickly back, and saw that Serg had vanished, and Aral had returned to the group of officers he'd been talking to all evening. Padma raised his chin and straightened his shoulders.
The girls giggled as he approached them, inevitably, but she didn't giggle. Instead she looked at him and smiled, and it was the most encouraging smile he'd ever seen. Padma bowed to Lady Alys.
"Might I have the honour of this dance?"