There was an overpowering smell of fresh paint in the antechamber, and although Mark had been kept waiting there for nearly ten minutes, he still thought it was an improvement on his first visit to the Imperial Residence. That time round, he hadn't requested the audience. And that time round there had been a scalp. He distinctly remembered the scalp. This time there was just paint. The door that led to the private office opened, and a liveried man came out, quietly requesting that his lordship follow him inside.
Mark was led into a big white room with a lot of light, and a striking view out across the city. A big desk covered in papers was set in front of the windows. Like the antechamber, the office gave the impression it wasn't quite ready yet – there were spaces on the walls where Mark supposed paintings or artwork would eventually go. Of course, anything chosen to hang here would be scrutinized in detail; every drop of meaning squeezed out. Would the choices be conservative? Forward-looking? New artists, old? Local, galactic – even, god help us, Komarran...? Given the number of choices and the high probability of offending somebody, it had to be tempting, Mark thought, to take the easy option, leave the walls blank, and call it modern.
In front of the desk, there were two pale green, comfortable-looking sofas, arranged around a tea table that was laid ready and waiting. And rising from one of the sofas to greet him was the new Empress of Barrayar herself.
"My lady," Mark said, giving her a small bow – fairly certain he was getting it right, Galen's training hadn't exactly covered the eventuality of an Empress – and: "Lord Mark," she replied, just as formally, gesturing to him to sit down.
Mark had met her before, so he had seen a little – and heard a great deal more – about the loveliness of the new Empress. Face-to-face, he thought maybe the fairy tale had been overstated. The Empress of Barrayar was dressed this morning in a blue-green suit that matched and set off her unusual eyes, and somehow managed to convey both Vor elegance and Komarran professionalism. But when Mark looked closer, he thought that despite the smiles and the welcome, this woman was looking tired. The smile was a bit strained, the welcome a little stiff. Is it me? Mark panicked, and then put together the delay in her schedule, the slight air of unreadiness about the room, and thought, Perhaps this could have waited...
As she poured the tea, they exchanged polite pleasantries – her apologies for keeping him waiting; what he hoped were appropriately phrased demurrals – and he took the cup she offered and sipped. Just as he liked it... Of course she could have found that out easily but, on the whole, it didn't make him any less nervous. What else have they been saying about me? The new Empress was an unknown quantity; this whole meeting something of a risk. Still, he thought, selecting one of the pastries on offer, nothing ventured...
"I loved your maple ambrosia," she said.
He looked up from juggling cup and pastry in frank astonishment. "Did you really try it?"
"Oh yes. It was astonishingly good. Delicious."
"I'm amazed you got around to it—"
"It took so long to get married," the Empress said dryly, over the rim of her teacup, "that I promised myself I was going to enjoy everything the day had on offer. What can I do for you, Lord Mark?"
The speed with which she got down to business nearly blindsided him, but at least she'd given him his opening. Because what Mark wanted this morning from this woman was to do some kind of business; to talk to the heiress of the Toscane fortune about what advice she could give to the owner of MPVK Enterprises... Mark knew that while he didn't have Kareen's flair, he was getting better at this part of the business. But he also knew when a pitch wasn't going down well.
It wasn't going down well now.
The Empress was chewing her lower lip, and she was frowning.
"Well," Mark wound up, "that was it really. Introductions would have been nice – but, well, anything, really, any advice you could give me, thoughts..." Stop talking now, he thought, and reached for the security of the pastry.
The Empress was still frowning. She crossed and uncrossed her legs, and looked around the room. "This is difficult," she said, at last.
Damn. "I didn't mean to make things awkward..." he began.
"What I mean is," she was already saying, seeming to struggle to put what she was thinking into words. "This is very new. It's like business as usual, and at the same time it's completely not like... Any sign of undue patronage... it's proving so difficult to judge..." She bit brutally into her own pastry.
Damn, damn, damn. Typical of this place, he thought bitterly; typical Barrayar – everything had to be that bit more complicated. Look at how Kareen had struggled when she had come home again, how everything that had made perfect sense on Beta Colony seemed a matter of guilt back here...
"This isn't at all how I wanted this meeting to go," the Empress was saying, just as he said, "I don't know if you've noticed this, but this place can swamp you—"
They both stopped speaking. "Um – you first," Mark said.
"No," she said. "You first. You were here first."
"Just that – I'd been on Barrayar for what seemed like five minutes before they had me kneeling down and handing over bags of gold. This place," and he didn't realize quite how fierce he sounded, "can eat you. Every piece of you. But only if you let it." He finished up his pastry with a vengeance, sending it on its way with a gulp of hot tea. When he looked up at her again, her frown had gone. In fact, her expression had changed to... he wasn't quite sure, but was that respect?
"Gregor told me all about your arrival here," she said, which made Mark gulp down some more tea. Well, I suppose it makes sense to assume they talk to each other... "Speaking from my own experience," the Empress went on, "I think what you did took a vast amount of courage. I mean – when I think that I had a whole team supporting me, and weeks, months, of preparation, and you just..." she shook her head, "you just went in and did it."
Not strictly true, Mark thought, given the lengths Galen had gone to in order to prepare him – but it had certainly all turned out very differently from those plans...
"You know," she said, almost wistfully, "eighteen months ago I was working for the Shippers' Syndicate. I almost fell over with delight to get an invitation to a state dinner. And today..." She gestured around the room with her cup.
"It's a good office," Mark told her fervently. "But I think you should put some pictures up. Just remember that you're the one who has to look at them every day."
The Empress leaned back in the sofa and looked at him thoughtfully. Then she muttered something that sounded like, oh screw it, sat up again, and said, "Lord Mark," then corrected herself, "Mark. I think maybe there's something I can do for you. But I'd like you to do something for me first."
"If I can..."
"I think so. It's been..." she looked around the half-finished room, "an exhausting first few weeks, and I could do with decompressing." She nodded at the table. "Actually," she said, "I could do with some tea and sympathy."
Mark looked at her in frank horror. Was she looking for a shoulder to cry on? "Urk—" he began, and she raised her hands to calm him.
"Oh no, don't worry!" she said. "No, what I wanted to ask was this – a very old friend of mine is visiting at the moment – she's leaving tomorrow evening, in fact, but we've barely had any time together. We're due to meet for lunch tomorrow – but she's here with her mother and her baby sister. Now, this baby sister – I should stop saying that, she's nearly eighteen years old – is thinking of going to study on Beta Colony. And I thought that perhaps your lovely girlfriend might be able to tell her about her experiences. And you, too, of course – which would make a foursome, and leave me with some time to talk to my friend."
Mark looked at her with rising panic. He knew Kareen would be excellent company, but Ivan, surely, would be a better choice to charm a dowager and her daughter; hell, even Miles if she was really desperate...
"My friend's name, by the way, is Delaney. I think you'll have heard of her mother already."
Delaney? Visiting from Komarr? Mark played with the handle of his teacup. Did she mean those Delaneys? The ones with the bank? The ones who could occasionally – and may all their investments be blessed with foresight and favourable markets – be persuaded of the wisdom of risking money on brilliant ideas? From Laisa's expression, Mark thought maybe that was exactly who she meant.
"Perhaps," the Empress said, almost demurely, "you could find it within you to perform this small service for me?" She wasn't sounding so awkward with all the formalities now, Mark thought – oh no. You might even think she was enjoying them.
"It would be my pleasure," he said, just managing not to blurt it out. "Milady," he added, for the hell of it.
The Empress – Laisa – laughed. "Yes, I thought it might... We'll get it fixed up then, shall we?" She leaned over to the com console beside her.
"Are you sure people won't think it looks, well, suspicious?" Mark said.
Laisa gave an un-imperial snort. "Three ladies having lunch with a chaperon? I bet you any money they'll think it's charming. Barrayar never pays attention to what its women are up to. Not the right kind of attention, anyway."
How did that happen? Mark thought in bewilderment as the black gang high-fived, and he rewarded himself with another pastry. Kareen would be in heaven when he laid this at her feet... "How did we find ourselves here?" Mark said suddenly, in amazement. "I mean – of all places – Barrayar."
"Easy," Laisa murmured, busy with her diary. "It's the place that comes with the person I love." Then she looked up from the console and smiled. "Tomorrow it is. Thank you, Mark."
"I think I'm the one that should be thanking you—" he began, but she waved her hand.
"Just make sure you stay in touch," she said. "I mean that, Mark – really. You're right – it's a strange place to pick to make your fortune. I think we'd both profit from comparing notes."
Back in the antechamber, someone had opened a window and the fresh air was blowing away the smell of the paint. No scalps today, Mark thought, as he made his way back through the Residence. Kareen, family – they all, more or less, came with Barrayar attached. But not the old one. Not the one that could eat you, that had eaten men – and better men than Galen. This was a new one, the one happening all around, whether or not people were paying the right kind of attention; the one that brought opportunities, and rewarded investment – and could take a chance on a Komarran empress. Mark was whistling by the time he went back out into the sunlight shining on Vorbarr Sultana.