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Testing the Waters

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Cordelia tapped one finger against her lip, considering.

No matter how they handled things, the poor young woman was going to be embarrassed when she saw them. There was no avoiding it.

Might as well rip the bandage off all at once.

"Gently, now," Aral murmured. His eyes glinted with amusement. "She's having an unusual day."

Cordelia grinned at him before carefully arranging her features into a welcoming smile. She leaned forward between the woman and a boy who was sitting next to her—the son, surely.

"Madame Vorsoisson," she said, pitching her voice low. "May I be the first to offer my congratulations?"

Ekaterin Vorsoisson turned around with a gracious smile ready on her own face.

And then her gaze met Cordelia's, and slid sideways to Aral for an instant before returning. Cordelia watched as the smile flickered, faded, vanished. The blue eyes widened; the face paled.

Come on, girl. We're easy—you'll have much harder tests to pass than this. And you did so well, a few minutes ago.

Then the chin came up. "Thank you, Countess Vorkosigan."

The smile reemerged, as gracious as ever, although the face was still slightly green around the edges.

"And please," the younger woman added, in her pleasant and admirably steady voice. "You must call me Ekaterin."

"Welcome to the family, Ekaterin." Cordelia let out some of the grin she'd been keeping under wraps. "If you start things off with a proposal like that one, I think you'll fit right in."

"It seemed advisable," said Ekaterin. She reddened a little, but there was an unrepentant spark in her eye that Cordelia liked very much.

"Viceroy! Vicereine!" Now Helen Vorthys had turned around and noticed them. "That went rather well, don't you think?" Beaming, she reached over and shook Cordelia's hand, heartily.

Aral laughed his rough warm laugh. Ekaterin stiffened her spine before turning further around in her seat to face him, but her own smile relaxed and warmed a little when she saw his expression of obvious delight.

"Forever and fiercely, indeed," he muttered under his breath. Cordelia shot him a question with her eyebrow, but he ignored her and spoke to his future daughter-in-law. "I've asked Miles several times to introduce us properly, my dear, but it looks like we'll have to take care of that ourselves. It is a great pleasure to meet you at last."

Ekaterin winced a little at the properly, but she also looked pleased, reaching around to shake the hand that Aral extended. Then she introduced a brother and another man who was apparently some cousin of her late husband's. Cordelia was amused to note that neither the brother nor the cousin had one tenth the poise that Ekaterin had mustered after her initial shock. And they hadn't just gotten themselves betrothed in such a spectacular, public fashion.

On the other hand, they probably haven't been having to deal with Miles for days on end, either. That's practically combat training.

"And this is my son, Nikolai," Ekaterin finished, resting a hand on his shoulder with maternal pride. "Nikki," she murmured, "the Count and Countess Vorkosigan are Lord Vorkosigan's father and mother."

The boy shook hands carefully. He looked curiously at Aral, too, but it was Cordelia who seemed to have captured his attention.

"Countess Vorkosigan? Can I ask you a question?"

Ekaterin covered her mouth with her hand, Cordelia noticed, as though she knew what was coming next. Well, I certainly don't.

"Of course, Nikki." She raised an inviting eyebrow. "What is it?"

The boy swallowed. "Were you scared? I asked Lord Vorkosigan if you were, but he said I should ask you myself."

Cordelia blinked. It had been some time since she had been called upon to untangle the train of thought of a nine-year-old. "Scared? When?"

Nikolai frowned. "When you were attacked with the sol— sol—"

Ah. "Soltoxin," she supplied. Miles told him to ask me? She would certainly love to know how that conversation had come about.

She watched the boy looking back at her and wondered what to tell him. "Scared" was not a word she associated with the soltoxin attack itself. The fear had come later—when the doctor wouldn't meet her eyes. When Aral's blind rage had turned him into a stranger.

But how was she supposed to explain that night to a nine-year-old?

And what was Nikolai really asking?

"I was confused and angry, mostly." Cordelia huffed a laugh. "Someone was trying to assassinate my husband, after all." She suddenly remembered what had happened to Vorsoisson, and was glad she had come out with assassinate rather than the more widely applicable kill.

The boy's glance flicked to Aral and back. She looked over at the husband in question as well—and saw that he was looking at Ekaterin.

Of course he was. This was Barrayar, and Vorkosigans were political. Things could happen.

Ekaterin returned their gazes with a level one of her own. She was not, it seemed, unaware.

"Lord Vorkosigan told me the sol...soltoxin damaged his bones, not his genes." Nikolai bit his lip. "Were you glad he didn't have a real mutation?"

The boy's eyes on her face were unexpectedly intent. Ekaterin, too, had gone very still. There were undercurrents here that Cordelia didn't understand.

Surely Miles wouldn't fall in love with a woman who had backcountry ideas about genetics?

Well, Ekaterin and her son were just going to have learn to deal with Betan opinions. Let's rip off another bandage.

"What I think," said Cordelia tartly, "is that the Barrayaran attitude toward people with mutations is simply inexcusable. We should fix the harmful ones when we can, and be careful when we are planning for reproduction. But no one should be denied the right to full participation in society just because his or her genome is a little different."

"Oh," breathed Nikolai. A very large smile lit his face.

She glanced at the boy's mother, looking for clues. Ekaterin's face revealed nothing but an unexpected look of gratification.

Most interesting.

Cordelia smiled, bemused, as René Vorbretten returned to the Speaker's Circle and the chatter in the gallery—and on the Council floor—died away.

She had a feeling that Ekaterin wasn't the only one who had passed a test here today.

. * fin * .