One's life ran out like water.
Lord Auditor Piotr Vorkosigan was feeling his age today, an ancient forty-two. Time and youth seemed to be slipping away from him, and he'd taken his physician's rough estimate before this trip of another fifteen years in stride. In a sense, after all, he was completely superfluous.
It was easy to think that Miles Vorkosigan was dead, a past cipher succeeded by himself and his brother the Admiral. He'd considered, tongue in cheek, holding a funeral. Was it mad, to pine for the memory of a woman he met every week? To mourn the living who had never been? He was left with the knowledge and scars of a different life and the sick knowledge that those he had lost, he might lose again. Ekaterin. Elli. Children unconceived and unborn.
There was no might with Sergeant Taura. He knew her count of days exactly. Four hundred and twenty three...
He thought Taura was happy as his brother's bodyguard, not giving a damn for the stares she received as she cheerfully upended the Barrayaran military establishment in his wake. Admiral Naismith was obliged, of course, to take Imperial non-fraternization regulations much more seriously than he'd ever taken the Dendarii ones. Thus she had turned curiously to Piotr, and Piotr to her.
They had become lovers, discreetly, again for him, but not for her. He loved her, and her life was running out before his eyes. In this timeless place, he was reminded of her mere mortality. His as well.
A chorus of creatures began to chirrup as he walked slowly along the path. He had forsworn the cane for the day. Appearances were important, here in the heart of the Cetagandan Empire. His House uniform was spotless, his walk as confident as he could make it. Still, he trailed his escort like a small child, trying not to stare. He'd never been to this section of the Celestial Garden before.
A small curve in the path revealed a graceful gazebo, open to the domed air. Flower vines twined up Greek pillars, weaving a lacework roof overhead. The Emperor sat on a marble bench, perfectly still, in robes of red. He looked exactly the same as he had ten years ago - twenty years ago for Piotr. Time passed differently for his kind.
Two haut bubbles flanked him, both equally red. Each was attended by a ba. One ba was Empress Rian Degtiar's personal servitor, and the other, if he recalled correctly, belonged to the haut Pel Navarr.
The ghem-lord in the red dress uniform standing to the side was naturally Cetagandan Imperial Security's Dag Benin. Standing beside him was... Piotr's expression went very blank as he recognized the hairless ba who had nearly melted him, once upon a time. The ba showed no sign of recognition in return, nor any emotion whatsoever. Despite its hairlessness, its resemblance to its Imperial master was striking.
"Lord Vorkosigan," Emperor the haut Fletchir Giaja said, acknowledging his existence.
"Sir," Piotr said.
The haut Rian's bubble winked out. An opaque uterine replicator rested on a float disk inside her bubble, the same one Piotr had returned to her a week ago. It was one of the ones that the rogue ba, Lisbet Degtiar's creation, had planted on Barrayar to frame the Imperium for the elaborate hijacking it was planning. The Star Creche had apparently completed their investigation. The crime, Piotr had to assume, was averted. Unless the ba in question was very clever indeed...
Suppressing his paranoia forcefully, Piotr bowed to the Empress. "I am pleased that I could return your misplaced artifact to you, Celestial Lady," he said respectfully.
Rian nodded. Her beauty was undimmed, but his reaction to it was different now. He was twenty years older and wiser now, and better aware of how impossible any love between them would have been. "The Star Creche thanks you for your assistance, outlander," she said.
Piotr bowed again, "It was a small thing, and well within my powers. I am glad that your internal affairs are in order once more."
Fletchir Giaja smiled thinly. "You have a curious mind, Lord Vorkosigan, to perceive treason in an instant from worlds away. It is a talent I wish my own security shared, at times."
Yes, Giaja could not be happy with Benin right now for missing this. Piotr suspected that Benin's meteoric rise to the top of Imperial Security had been triggered in his own timeline by the correct identification of himself with Admiral Naismith. Now that he and the Admiral had a demonstrably separate existence, such a theory must now be an embarrassment. Here and now, Benin's career had stalled after he reached second in command. He could compare notes with Haroche, Piotr thought dryly.
A man approached from a blind path to Giaja's right, a haut lord that Piotr didn't recognize. Trailing him was another red bubble, and another ba. This one was far younger than even Rian's attendant. It had hair, if it could be called such, a silky fringe of downy black...feathers? and a matching unibrow.
The ba were all in some way deliberately and elegantly imperfect, so that they could never be mistaken for their part-siblings and masters. Piotr idly wondered if his own appearance created a cultural minefield for haut. Perhaps they saw him as Gregor's ba. Odd thought.
The haut lord, revealed as a constellation chief, exchanged respectful and formal greetings with the Emperor and the haut Rian. He studied Piotr with interest before withdrawing, leaving the haut-bubble he had escorted.
"Lord Vorkosigan," Rian said. "Your curious talents have been noted by the Star Creche, and examined by us. We have come to the conclusion that your genotype displays too much phenotypic variation in expression for your uniqueness to be incorporated into the haut, though such has been considered due to your service to us."
It was a nice way of saying they didn't want any Naismith getting on their next generation. Piotr suppressed his amusement. To be fair, neither did he.
"It is a judgment I agree with," the Emperor said. "Nevertheless, once more your actions are worthy of recognition at the highest level."
The Celestial Lady nodded, considering Piotr with her dark and liquid eyes. "With the gracious assent of my Celestial Lord, the Star Creche offers you the blood gift, to exalt your lineage above your lessers, and your descendants above their peers. From among us we have chosen one fitting to your station for you to honor as your companion and the mother of your children."
Piotr felt his expression freeze.
Pel's bubble, at Giaja's left hand, winked out. Her smile at him was deeply ironic. "Lord Vorkosigan, may I present my daughter the haut Beiru Degtiar."
The third haut-bubble shimmered out of existence. The ba attendant offered a hand to the occupant of the float-chair as she stood.
The first thing he noticed about her was how tall she was. She was taller than the Emperor, nearly two meters as he eyed it. Taller than Elena, perhaps even as tall as Bothari, who had loomed over his head for over a decade. She wasn't as tall as Taura, true, but nobody was.
The second thing he noticed about her was that she looked nothing whatsoever like her mother. She was slim under her enveloping red and gold robes, as far as he could tell, with dark brown hair that fell in coiled and braided cascades past her knees. Her features were haut, smooth and hard-carved, but different from Pel's. Unlike her mother, who was so pale in coloration as to look ephemeral, her skin was very dark, darker than her hair. Her fingers, brushing against the ba attendant's, were long and slender.
"I am afraid, Celestial Lord, that I must respectfully decline the honor," Piotr said after a long pause to collect himself. He'd be damned if he'd let Fletchir Giaja arrange his love life for him. Even his father the Count would never have dared.
Pel's eyes crinkled in amusement. She at least has been expecting this reaction. "Beiru has been assisting the Empress and myself in the evaluation of your genotype, and in the design of the child that is the Star Creche's gift to your House and clan," she explained.
Piotr stared at the uterine replicator floating before Rian's feet, suddenly furious as he understood the true nature of the trap that was being sprung on him. Those psycho-mutant sons of bitches! Daughters of bitches. Whatever.
"I am unmarried by preference, sir," he said to the Emperor, letting some of his anger drift to the surface. Just the idea that some overbred Ceta could replace Ekaterin outraged him. He had re-acquainted himself with the woman who had been his wife, but he was not repeating his earlier mistakes. He wanted to let her grow into herself, without pressure from him. If she turned to him - and she had as of yet showed no inclination to do so - he would be there for her. If not... he would still be there.
"Children are the wealth of a clan," Giaja said. "and this gift to you increases your House's wealth beyond measure."
"Nevertheless, I decline." Piotr's tone went slightly acid. "Perhaps you could inquire of my brother, who is also single."
Benin almost cracked a smile at that, though the Emperor was wholly unamused.
Giaja opened his palm and raised the stakes. "Should this gift not be to your liking, we could of course arrange a suitable foster family for your son among the ghem-comrades."
Piotr's mouth opened in absolute speechlessness. Bastard. And snowballing unease. Surely they hadn't already...
A son? Of his blood, and Dorca's - yet also of Fletchir's mother's kin. With the raging ambition bred into haut and ghem-lords, he would be a sword pointed at Gregor's throat. The Cetagandans made a virtue out of treason, while for Vor it was merely an occasional under-the-table hobby.
"Wholly immoral," he choked out, "to steal my genes to create a child. I hardly see what you hope to accomplish by this." Were they really so blind to see this as a favor? He looked up at the haut Beiru, whose face was an unreadable mask. What did she feel about all this? Was she her mother's daughter, feeling the confinement of the haut lifestyle? In disgrace, to be given to a deformed outlander? Or was there some deeper plot he couldn't sense?
Pel, he'd once thought, might cut her hair and do a runner to Beta Colony if she thought she could get away with it. But if she had a part in this... he was re-evaluating her now.
His eyes passed over the haut Beiru's ba servitor again and stopped. He'd been distracted by the featherlike hair, but the features were barely Cetagandan. The strong brow suddenly reminded him of a holo he'd once seen of his father as a young man.
Piotr frantically did the math in his head. Ten years, yes, which meant that given design time any ba of his blood would be perhaps seven or eight years old. And this ba was young. Barrayar had learned when they'd cloned Terrence Cee how much growth acceleration Cetagandans built into their experimental subjects. It was possible. Which meant likely. How much of him was in this creature? How much of Rian's art, of Pel's? Why were they discarding this work now, when before they had taken him up into the Star Creche?
The haut Emperor had put two children at stake in this game here. Quite deliberately, Piotr was sure.
"It is a free reward," Giaja said, "and one any one of my subjects would be pleased to accept."
"I am not your subject, Fletchir Giaja." Piotr's mind raced. What solution could he make of all this? He grudgingly admitted it was a neat little trap indeed. Betray his flesh and blood to the Cetagandans, or betray his District to them.
"As you say," the Emperor said.
"The blood of the haut has not prospered on Barrayar," Piotr observed. "I expect it will be gone in a few handfuls of generation. Outcompeted. As is the way of things." He met the Emperor's eyes, and then Rian's. "Do you want to know why your project is doomed to failure, Celestial Lady?"
She raised her eyebrows, giving him the potted-plant look again. The ba looked surprised that the Emperor was tolerating this impertinence. Benin, more used to him, was merely blank.
"In three or four generations, the contribution of the ghem to Barrayar's gene pool has diminished. In another three or four, it will be negligible. Your evolutionary strategy relies on exclusiveness, on maintaining strict control, on secrecy, even with what you release into the wild. But for humanity as a whole, what succeeds is what's been proven to work. The Betans are genetically conquering the galaxy, because they document their research. On Barrayar, the descendants of ghem-bastards are starting to use uterine replicators, and they're switching out their elegantly designed Cetagandan gene loci and regulatory regions for Betan sequences because the gene screens are flagging the Cetagandan genes as having an unknown effect. Better doesn't matter, if it's unprovably better. In your little bubble here," he waved a hand to take in the whole Celestial Garden, "you're losing the game."
Rian blinked at him. Piotr smiled thinly and looked up at the haut Beiru.
"Of course," he said, "you could do something about that."
"Are you speaking to me?" Pel's daughter asked.
"Just so," Piotr said. "Let's leave the politics of the old men and women out of this. Would you like a job?"
Giaja's eyes widened before the mask of calm returned to his features. Pel sat up, suddenly attentive.
"A...job?" Beiru said, frowning.
"There's a project in my District, offering galactic reproductive technology to an infertile couple in every village, to stop the impact of deadly recessives in the rural areas. We're giving gene-scanned children to the childless, and we're trying to create a uniquely Barrayaran baseline, so as not to discard the useful adaptations we've accumulated over the past seven or so hundred years. The Betan basic scans are nice, but," Piotr smiled faintly, "tend to lean towards producing people who would be good Betan citizens."
"It is forbidden for a haut-woman who joins to the ghem to work in human material, other than her own children," the haut Beiru said.
"I am not ghem. And he," Piotr nodded at Fletchir, "will no longer be your Emperor. Nor will you owe homage to your Star Creche. You will be free to set your own path, as I suspect your mother intended. My mother and I want to document Barrayar's diversity, and splice in crucial galactic adaptations." He glanced at the haut Pel. "Nurturing our own diversity, away from galactic orthodoxies. A researcher of your talents - and I assume you are a talented researcher - could give us new perspectives, and help further the goal of haut by explaining it. And applying it."
"Designing your servitors?" She sounded skeptical.
"Helping my liege people," he corrected. "Yourself and your, er, ba would be welcome to assist us. Our salaries are competitive." He wasn't actually sure the haut woman understood the concept of being paid for work. Nor the child-ba. They were so sheltered here, in their peculiar purdah.
"I am bound to my constellation until I produce a child," Beiru said. "I have created one of your blood. A son. Your heir."
Piotr's eyes narrowed. "My clan head has not consented to this. And no Cetagandan child will inherit the Dendarii mountains. That I swear on my grandfather's grave. We have spent too many lives for the privilege of ruling our own destiny. My brother is my heir, and will remain so. He is fully of my father's blood, and my own."
"Among my people, it is expected that the offspring should be greater than the parent," the haut Rian said. "Is that not so among you? It is vanity, to see perfection in one's own genotype."
Piotr frowned. He had to assume their threat to raise the child here was real. Reluctantly, he came to a decision "Make it a daughter," he said, "and I will agree to a child-contract." He could not have a son, not with her, the representative of a foreign empire. A son - the heir apparent to Prince Xav's claim - would stand irrevocably between him and Gregor. A daughter, less so. Even with all Vorkosigan Vashnoi her dowry.
Pel and Rian frowned. The haut Beiru looked stormy. "That would be non-optimal," Pel said carefully.
"But within your powers," he said.
The two elder haut-women exchanged glances, seeming to confer silently. The Emperor left them to it, this being outside his role.
"The issue is," Pel said slowly, "that a son could succeed his father, but a daughter could not succeed her mother. We can make a son of yours a great general, or a great admiral. Indeed, we believe we have done so. We can switch out the sex chromosomes. But we cannot make a child of yours her mother's equal."
"Well," Piotr said. "We'll just see about that."