The night air out on the patio gardens of the Imperial Residence was cool but not damp, perfect for fall. The Empress’s guests mingled about, digesting their dinners and, in many cases, getting serious about the wine.
In Mark’s opinion, the food had been too good to risk for traditional Vor heaving-into-the bushes drunkenness. And his partner undeserving of such loutish treatment. He was loutish enough as it was.
"Why are you with me?" he asked.
"What?" Kareen made the crooked-mouth face that suggested Mark was being socially inept again. "How rude! I have an invitation from the Empress, is why." She looked amazing, as always, pale greeny-blue gown, just showing a hint of those creamy, soft shoulders, round breasts nestled in her bodice and covered with lace like wrapped presents. "I'm not even sure if you're my guest, or I'm yours."
She looks delectable, Gorge thought, and Grunt was already halfway to unwrapping her then and there on the Emperor's patio. Which led Mark to yet again wonder what he had done right to win this creature on his arm. "I think we are invited as a package deal. Me being a Vorkosigan gets us on the long list. You just being you gets us the invitation."
"Don't be silly, silly." She leaned over and kissed his temple. "The Empress specifically wanted you at the salon to talk about the Durona Group and their progress. And then the tariff thing -- I think you really impressed her with that bit. She clearly values your judgment."
And she values you for just existing, Mark thought. No one never needed an excuse to be around Kareen. "I mean, why are you here with me? Why are you anywhere with me?" He reached for her hand, held it to his lips. "You're not safe, you know. I want to devour you." He bent to kiss her hand, and nipped it with his teeth. Salt, garlic from dinner, a faint hint of her perfume.
He earned a giggling little shove for his pains. "I am always safe with you," Kareen said, because she was clearly demented. And wonderful. And hugging him, gently pulling his head close enough for him to snuggle her breasts. Oh, yes.
Mark focused again with some effort. "You are at the Empress's salon with a date who looks like a pet toad and who is barely holding his brains together with two rolls of duct tape and a hat pin."
"I think, when we go home, you need to talk to Yulis again about your self-esteem. Howl enjoys putting you down too much." She leaned over, picked at a crumb from dessert on his lapel. "Let's go dance again. And for the record, I am with you because you are my partner, genius-breath."
"Genius-breath." He raised an eyebrow at her, taunting: is that the best you can do?
She ignored him, grabbing his chin, her focus beautiful in the half-light. "And. Mark. You're the bravest and strongest person I've ever known. That includes every single member of your family, down to cranky old General Piotr Pierre himself."
"Also, stop second-guessing me. You're the only person I can count on to remember that I'm an adult."
He grinned; he couldn't help it. "And how."
"Well, then. I know what I'm doing, okay? And I want to do it with you."
"After the dancing. If you're good." She took his arm, grinning. "Down, Grunt."
Dr. Yulis Andrea cost her non-Betan patients a largish fortune, but Mark had a fortune to spend, and it could literally not be put to better use. In return, Yulis spent five days a week with him, unraveling his thoughts and knitting back together a functional human being.
But one thing she didn't do was go anywhere near the Black Gang. "A goal of reintegrating your secondary personalities is an obvious non-starter. I'm not going to take any of those identities on in a battle for their elimination."
Not that Mark blamed her, but. "Isn't the point of this entire exercise to treat my dangerously dissociative personality?"
Yulis sighed her deep let-me-explain-this sigh. "You need to appreciate who you are as an aggregate, and to welcome the parts of you that have protected you and kept you --"
"Together?" Mark suggested sardonically. "Whole?"
"Functioning," Yulis suggested. "The first rule of treating trauma, Mark. Don't fix what ain't broken. In your case, your Black Gang has helped you survive trauma on a scale that, frankly, very few individuals could have survived. Never mind coming out of that trauma and earnestly seeking to be a whole and productive person."
"Um. Thank you?"
"Thank yourself. We're going to work on the trauma first. I suspect we'll be at that for a while. One goal at a time."
Mark considered that a moment. It sounded like a slow way to get things done, honestly, but he had been trained to be Miles Vorkosigan. His perception might be a bit skewed on that score. "Why did you take me on? I'm not exactly a short-term project. And my prognosis can't be great."
Yulis's smile reminded him sharply of Cordelia's. "One: I like a challenge. Two: the money is excellent. Three: stop fishing for my approval. We've talked about this."
"But you do approve of me."
"Hmmm," said Yulis. "I'm not the one who has to learn to like Mark Vorkosigan. That's your job."
They were two dances in before Mark was panting for breath. “I need more exercise, I suppose.” He disappointed himself; he wanted to make certain Kareen danced as much as she liked, and she looked as though she might just be getting started.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said easily, and guided him to a table where they could sit. “We can people-watch.” And she seemed just as pleased to sit with him and sip a truly mediocre wine punch, pointing out the gowns. She began tracking the Vorbarr Sultana gossip, using a complex calculus of dance partners, accessory choices, and something to do with the floral arrangements.
“Stop, wait,” he said. “What do the flowers have to do with anything?”
“Nothing, except that Ivan swiped one of the pink gladiolas, and now Stasia Vorgorov is wearing it in her hair.”
“And in that dress, too. With Ivan. She must be getting pretty desperate.”
Mark didn’t see exactly what was wrong with either Lady Stasia’s dress or with Ivan, for that matter. Well, if one were judging his merits purely as a potential sexual partner. Tall, heroic jaw, full head of hair, exquisitely fit… feh. He sipped at his punch and scowled as Kareen waved at some other exquisite sample of manhood in a dress uniform.
Kareen didn’t even need to look over at his face; she just slipped her hand into Mark’s and squeezed it as she chatted with the young man, who turned out to be Ma Kosti’s youngest son.
That was all right, then. Killer subsided, the threat level minimal.
“Ah, just the man.” Mark jumped at Miles’ voice. He couldn’t help it; it was a reflex, compounded when he saw that Miles had the Emperor with him.
“I’m sorry?” Mark offered as he stood. It seemed like a good compromise between can I help you and I didn’t mean it, whatever I did.
“Sit, please,” Gregor waved easily at him. “Kareen, do be a dear and take Miles for the mirror dance, won’t you?”
“What, now?” Miles was clearly startled. It looked good on him.
Kareen took her cue. “Come on, Miles. You need to be exercised before bedtime or you’ll wake Ekaterin up in the middle of the night.” She dragged Miles away over his protests that he was a Lord Auditor, not a puppy, thank you, Kareen.
“God, he wears me out,” Gregor confided. “When he gets on a tear about something… however.” His expression changed from a conspiratorial half-smile to an Imperial half-frown. “I’m appointing you.”
“To what? Sire,” he added carefully.
“Imperial Committee on Galactic Trade. Effective immediately, Laisa’s orders. Congratulations.”
“Thank you?” Mark stared at Gregor, looking for the punchline, but such forms of teasing were not usually the Emperor’s style. “Sire, Kareen and I are going right back to Beta after Winterfair.”
Gregor shrugged, a minimal tilt of his head. “The committee meets once a year in person. Most of the members are offworld; that’s why it’s a committee on galactic trade.”
“I’m still in school. And in, in therapy. Kind of a lot of both, honestly.”
“We are aware,” Gregor said, his tone was slightly teasing but his look in full earnest. “I can’t see where more of either of those could possibly do you any harm in this position.”
“The jig is up, Lord Mark,” the Emperor said quietly. “We know you’re ready.”
Mark breathed in and out, fighting his rising panic. “For what, exactly?”
“To start,” said Gregor. “If you’re going to be a part of the Imperium, then you pay in the Vorish coin of service. And if you’re going to be with Kareen, be part of your family, accept your name… then I’m sorry, but my Imperium needs brilliant minds and you have one.”
“Sire.” Mark was utterly uncertain of what to say, and his eyes caught Kareen and Miles capering on the other side of the room. He felt too far away from anyone who could tell him how to answer. “Can I think about it?”
“Of course,” Gregor said. “But do say yes, Mark. Laisa likes you.”
She likes that I figured out how to raise her profitability by seven percent, Mark thought. “I’m pleased if she thought my insights were helpful.”
“They were. But she also just likes you. Says you have exactly the right bleak sense of humor for the job.” Gregor stood to leave, then, and Mark felt himself rising before he could even remind himself of the courtesy.
Miles and Kareen reappeared before Mark could finish a restorative sip of punch. Mark also waved over one of the impeccable ImpSec waiters for a brace of restorative little sausages on sticks.
“The Empress likes me,” he said weakly, as Kareen leaned against his back and Miles nicked a sausage.
Miles shrugged. “She has a thing for competence,” he said, and kissed Kareen’s cheek before heading back off into the social whirl.
Mark stared at his brother, the most accomplished psychological mess on three worlds. He looked up at the woman whose heart had become his true north. “How is this my life?” Mark asked Kareen. “The Empress likes me,” he said again, no less bewildered than before.
“I like you, too.” Kareen kissed the top of his head. “You might have to accept that you’re likeable, one of these days.” She sat down and pulled his head to her shoulder. “Take your time.”