It was one of those balmy, early autumn nights that always reminded Cordelia of summer evenings spent on the back porch in Vorkosigan Surleau, overlooking the Long Lake, watching the children play on the shore. On the best days, Aral had been there with her, momentarily freed from his work as Regent of Barrayar, sitting in the deck chair besides hers, rolling a glass of Vorkosigan wine between his hands.
They were not on Barrayar now, but Aral was sitting beside her anyway, wine glass in hand, looking out over the makeshift plot of land that careful husbandry was in the process of turning into a garden. Everything here on Sergyar was slowly being transformed, from wilderness planet into habitable space. The worms were a bit of a problem, she had to admit, but one that they were on the way to solving and should have under control within the year. And the flourishing vampire balloon population, well, that was more than a bit of a problem, as well. They were easy enough to avoid, for the most part, but the introduction of settlers and the animals that settlers brought with them had led to an overpopulation that was decimating the populations of various herbivore hexapeds out near the rivers in turn. And last week the colony had lost two children to vampire balloon attacks, sucked dry; children who had been out to explore said river. So she and Aral had decided, in their roles as Viceroy and Vicereine of Sergyar, that something needed to be done about the balloon population, and had set in motion a process that would hopefully clear a radius of 100 miles around the city of the creatures.
Since Sergyar's limited technological resources were all geared towards solving more intricate problems, they were trying to limit the population in what was apparently a rather old-fashioned way, namely by sending people out to, well, decimate the balloons. Old fashioned and traditional on Barrayar, that was, from what Aral had told her. Nothing like this had ever been initiated on Beta Colony, of that Cordelia was certain. Still, it seemed to work well enough, judging by the early reports that were coming in, and her own early experiences with the vampire balloons helped her in keeping a balanced outlook on the process. Plus, the money they issued to fund these jobs would certainly help the poorer immigrant families to support themselves, and kept their youngsters busy.
Besides her, Aral stirred, and shifted his gaze from their slowly forming garden towards her.
"What are you thinking about, dear Captain?" he asked her, voice curious and warm.
Cordelia turned to look at him, taking in his relaxed form, slightly slouched in the deck chair, feet propped up on a wooden footstool. His face was, like his voice, reflecting a mixture of curiosity and warmth, the lines around his eyes and mouth eased by the mellow mood that encapsulated them here. Cordelia felt a sudden rush of gladness that they had, in the end, decided to come here to Sergyar, sometimes primitive conditions and the distance to her sons, blood and adopted (however unofficially), notwithstanding. This place was good for Aral. Enough work to keep him busy and make him feel useful, but not too much to overwhelm him, and not too much work not to allow for quiet days and moments like this, when duties were done and responsibilities could be shed for a while. Neither of them was growing any younger, after all, though he definitely felt the age more than her.
She smiled, and reached over to tuck a stray strand of short grey hair behind his ear. "Well, vampire balloons, actually, if you must know."
He chuckled, and captured her hand with his free one, pressing a kiss to her pulse point before tangling their fingers together.
"Vampire balloons? Because of the recent problems we've had with them? Or because of their … historic significance? And you know, we really should get around to using their proper scientific name."
"Well, their historic significance mostly, my dear. And don't tell me that you do not refer to them as 'Vampire Balloons' in your private thoughts, too. I know you too well for that."
He smiled at her, eyes fond. "That you do, Cordelia, that you do. And I am glad for it every day."
She squeezed his hand in return and they remained silent for a while, at peace with their sometimes rather chaotic world and with each other, gazes locked together, until Aral cleared his throat and smirked, voice amused when he asked: "So, vampire balloons and their history, huh? Do you remember, back when we tried to keep one wrapped in my shirt overnight, to use as a potential weapon against the, ah, what did we call them then … the furry crabs?"
Cordelia laughed, feeling giddy with wine and shared memories and sheer love for this man. "Oh dear, yes. And it died in your shirt and left behind this terrible slimy mess and stank to high heaven."
Aral laughed, too. "Yes. And then we tried to convince each other that I really might need that shirt again, and thus I had to wash it out in the river."
Cordelia was still laughing, amused tears running down her fact, which she absently wiped away with the hand not tangled in Aral's. "What a sight we must have been. And what a smell! I kept a mental tally of, well, let's call it … dishevelledness … in my mind, during that trek, you know. To see who would win our unofficial caveman impression contest."
"You did? And what result did your scientific observations provide?"
"Well, I decided that we were evenly matched, for the most part – but only until the vampire balloon incident. After that you clearly were the frontrunner."
"Hmm." Aral replied, "I think I might be able to work up the energy to possibly be offended by that conclusion, you know, if only I did not recall that vile smell so vividly. It was truly outstandingly bad. One did not get accustomed to it easily." He shuddered at the memory, as did she.
Silence fell between them again, but an easy one, both of them wrapped up in memories of that first, rather tense and fraught, week of their acquaintance.
After a while, Aral's pensive voice drifted into the silence of the night. "But, you know, they did make the most spectacular sight, when they exploded. Outstanding."
"Trust you to remember that. As I recall, it singed your eyebrows clean off, my dear." Cordelia snorted, "A cultural obsession with things that go boom, indeed!"
"Oh, come now, dear Captain! Surely you remember the spectacular sight and sound, too, and not just my singed eyebrows? And wasn't your hair just the tiniest bit on fire, as well?" Aral replied, initially with rich humour in his voice, but he turned ruminative when he added: "After all, if not for that rather marvellous … bang … we'd not be sitting here, today."
"Well, yes, that is true." Cordelia agreed, and felt suddenly cold remembering how close they had come to dying that night, outnumbered and surrounded by the indigenous predators, a nearly empty stunner their only weapon.
A meditative "Hmmm" was Aral's only reply, and he untangled their hands to reach down and pour the last of the red wine from the bottle they had been sharing into their glasses. Then he picked up Cordelia's glass from where it had been sitting on the wooden deck between them and handed it to her, clinking his own against hers in a silent toast.
Cordelia turned back to studying the garden, relaxing in her chair and just enjoying the balmy night filled with the sounds of a thriving planet, and the presence of Aral beside her.
After a while Aral said "Hmmm" again, but this time it did not sound meditative to Cordelia at all. It seemed to carry a strange, pensive and amused undertone instead, and when she glanced at him she saw a calculating and bemused expression flicker in his eyes.
He smirked at her.
"What are you pondering?" she asked him, in a slightly wary tone of voice.
Aral stood up and turned to her, perching on the armrest of his deck chair. "I, my dear Captain, think that it is time to make an unexpected and unscheduled visit to the river, say, about 50 miles north from here."
Cordelia frowned, "Where the really bad balloon infestation was reported today, that we are planning to send a call out tomorrow for volunteers to try to get under control?"
"Indeed. The very same." He looked up, studying the sky, the temperature and the absence of wind. "I think the night is just right for those damned balloons to be out in full force. The meteorologist predicted rain for tomorrow, so that might well prevent any measures we want to take from being effective."
Cordelia frowned, for she had read the weather report too, and shared his concern, but did not know what they might do about that, now. But then understanding dawned, and she mustered him with a mix of horror and bemusement. "So you want to go out, on your own, right now, to set some … vampire balloons on fire?"
Aral gave her a wounded look, its effectiveness marred by the amusement that shone through clearly. "What do you mean, on my own? Of course I'd take you with me!"
"Oh." Cordelia replied, faintly.
"Those blasted things can thrive on the rest of Sergyar for all I care." He growled, suddenly no longer amused at all, "But not that close to where our people are settling. We're not going to loose another one of our children to those damned vampire balloons, not if I can help it!"
Then he shook himself, and tried to inject a lighter mode back into the conversation by adding with a slightly forced smile: "So you see, the fire and the explosions would only be … incidental."
Cordelia mustered him, taking in the mix of righteous outrage, protectiveness, restlessness and adventurousness that she thought she detected roiling in his stocky frame. He was right, she decided suddenly. The balloons were becoming a problem, the conditions were perfect for encountering them in large numbers over the river tonight … and some actual hands-on work protecting the colony, rather than signing paper after paper that allowed other people to do so in his name, would do him a world of good. Well, both of them, really.
So she set her wine glass down and rose, then turned to face him and pulled him to his feet. "All right. Let's go. But let's swing by the storage building first and see if we can rustle up some protective gear there. It should hold the equipment they used when digging the underground laboratory facilities." Cordelia turned towards the house and snorted in amusement as a thought occurred to her: "I never thought I'd be glad of living in a place where the 'imperial storage building' might also be called the rather large shed next to the Viceroy's residence." She shook her head. "A first time for everything."
She paused and turned slightly, to look over her shoulder at him and ask: "Armsmen? Or…?"
Even being able to ponder a question like that was definitely another advantage of settling on Sergyar, Cordelia thought with approval. It would not be easy, maybe, but it might be possible to go without an armsman accompanying them, something that would never have been possible on Barrayar. Well, nor should it have been, she reflected. But here, here… .
Another one of his fierce grins answered her and Aral replied, "Krystof is on duty tonight. He's young enough that I think I can convince him to let us go and not raise any alarm until the morning, should we not be back by then."
Cordelia laughed, "Well, in that case, go on! I don't think I want to be present for that conversation. Or actually … I think I really, really do."
It was his turn to laugh, "I shall report it to you verbatim, my dear Captain, never fear. And what I plan to tell him is all perfectly truthful, as well. We're just going on a short trip down memory lane, after all. No deceit in that."
Cordelia shook her head and held the door open for him, her merry laughter filling the back foyer.
Aral smiled at her, fierce delight shining in his eyes. "Right. I'll go talk to Krystof. Will you go see if you can find that flamethrower they used to clear the space for the garden, and get the groundcar?"
Cordelia nodded and turned towards the stairs, already wondering where she'd left her sturdy boots.