Aral glanced up at the clock. Cordelia was late again, no doubt tied up with the environmental people she'd been meeting. Armsman Bogdanov was standing furniture-like with the lunch trolley, but he'd have said something if Cordelia was going to have to miss their private lunch the way she had two days ago.
Then he heard the flurry that always heralded Cordelia, the door opened and she breezed in, shedding her secretary in the doorway. Aral smiled. She still had so much energy, that same glorious sense of life and enthusiasm that had drawn him to her. She'd seemed to get younger as he got older, and it was both pain and pleasure to watch her dashing about whilst he sometimes needed help to get out of a chair. In his mind, he was still equally energetic, but his body kept letting him down.
"Oh, you should have started without me," she said at once, coming around to give him a peck on the cheek. Bogdanov pulled out her chair, seated her and began to place the silver dishes on the table. It was just a light lunch, family style, but the Viceroy and Vicereine couldn't entirely avoid ceremony even at private mealtimes.
Aral noticed the salad and began to grin. "They've done it again," he said, waving Bogdanov away and serving Cordelia himself with a flourish that made her smile.
Cordelia looked at her plate and laughed. He had no idea how or when the story of their first time on Sergyar had spread amongst the staff at the Viceroy's Palace, but it had, with occasionally peculiar results. The Sergyaran dairy industry had been creating some really quite good cheeses, and this salad had a new one crumbled in it. A blue cheese. And Aral was almost sure there were oats involved somehow in the sprinkling on the top.
"The difference is," Cordelia said, swallowing a bite, "that this is actually tasty. Who would have thought it?"
"Certainly not me." He tasted the salad too. It wasn't as powerful as he remembered Cordelia's Betan blue cheese dressing being, but that wasn't a bad thing. "So how did you get on with the Environmental Threats officer?"
Cordelia grimaced. "It's the new settlement for sector nine. It's apparently in a flood risk zone, and the ET officer wanted me to know that he could not recommend the site."
"But that one's been on the books for years," Aral said. "I realise I may regret asking this, but how did nobody notice this before?"
Cordelia gave a sharp laugh. "Yes, you will regret it. It was the lead surveyor on the team doing sector nine. He trained on Escobar, where they have complete weather and hydrological management and controlled flooding planet-wide, and he accidentally put the Escobaran parameters into his software. And at that time the chair of the committee for settlement site selection was Dmitri Fowler. And--well, you can fill in the rest. Screw-ups by the numbers."
Aral had personally sacked Fowler two years ago after the whole corruption scandal broke. "So that leaves us with four hundred and nineteen families still stuck in temporary housing here," he said. "Weren't they planning to move in the next month?" He was pleased that he had no trouble remembering the details. His body might be wearing out, but at least he still had all his wits.
"Four hundred and eighteen, now," Cordelia said. "We're just lucky this whole thing came to light now and not when the poor folks found the waters rising around them. Apparently what happened is that one of the men who was planning to move there was working on the emergency planning group. He saw some flood mappings and put two and two together, pulled his family from the list for that settlement and brought the matter up with the Environmental Threats officer."
"Oh, good for him," Aral said. "What's happening to him now?"
"I believe he's got a promotion out of it, and first pick for a new lot for his family."
"Somewhere dry, undoubtedly."
Cordelia laughed. "I should think so. We're scrambling to find places for the others--we might have to open up the Princess Valley site for its second wave of settlers early, but the local council is screaming bloody murder at the prospect. Apparently there are infrastructure issues."
"Aren't there always." Aral still wasn't sure how Gregor had persuaded him that this job would be a restful retirement. The scale was smaller, but the problems were all too familiar. "Lean on the council. There's been a lot of money gone into Princess Valley lately, it's not impossible for them to take these people, and they can't stay in the old barracks indefinitely. It's no place for families." He smiled a little. "You can go on the attack there, my Captain." They generally tried to govern Sergyar with a light touch, but every so often he got to deploy Cordelia at full power to disentangle some particularly tricky problem. Watching the results--from a safe distance--was one of the great pleasures of his life.
Cordelia gave a satisfied nod. "Good. I will."
The conversation lagged for a while as they finished their lunch. "Is Miles going to stop by on his way home? He must be winding up that case soon," Aral asked after a while.
"He should be coming back through Escobar." Cordelia set down her fork. "I hope he'll manage to steal a few days to come by. It's not like Gregor would grudge him it. And I heard Mark was in that part of the galaxy now as well, so we might actually get both of them here at the same time." She looked a little wistful as she poured them both some tea.
"Well, even if they don't, we'll see them at Winterfair." The journey to Barrayar was tiring even with all the luxuries the Imperium could provide, but it was worth it to be home again. Sergyar was a beautiful planet, but Aral always missed the lights of Vorbarr Sultana, and the long lake at Vorkosigan Surleau. Aral drank his tea and, at Cordelia's pointed glance, swallowed the array of pills from the box Bogdanov had placed on the table.
"You should make sure you get some rest before the military review this evening," Cordelia said.
Aral was the titular commander of the Sergyaran fleet--his one post that was not joint with Cordelia--but mostly these days he just had to show up and look important at ceremonies. Though he had gone topside to the flagship three months ago when they'd been doing wargame exercises and taken personal command for a while, testing himself. Under his leadership they'd beaten the computer eight times out of ten, and the awed looks from the senior officers had been just a little gratifying. He could still defend his planet, and his family, if he had to. He might be getting old and tired, but that was the true test of whether he was still fit to govern.
"I'll be fine," he said. "No need to cosset me that much, love." Cordelia looked a little unhappy, and he knew why. It was a familiar squabble, and Aral supposed he did sometimes push himself too far. But how else would he know what he could do? "It's all right," he continued. "I'm not going to do anything to make you and my doctors yell at me today. But I don't have one foot in the grave yet. I'll do some paperwork, and then I'll rest a bit, and then I'll talk to the mayor and then I'll get ready for the review."
She nodded and finished her tea. "All right."
Aral let Cordelia help him up when they had both finished, as much for the opportunity to snuggle her as for the support. "I knew it was a good idea to marry a woman who was stronger than me," he whispered in her ear, making her laugh.
"Do you want those reports, then?" she asked.
"Yes, I'll go over them all this afternoon and note them up for you."
They walked--slowly, always slowly now--arm in arm to the summer sitting-room, stopping to collect Aral's reader, loaded with more reports than he had hours in the day to read them, from his office.
Aral sat in his armchair by the window, and then pulled Cordelia onto his lap, enjoying her familiar weight against him. "And after the review," he murmured, dropping his voice to a register he knew she liked, "then we can go to bed."
With Cordelia's hilariously-labelled Betan pharmaceuticals that meant that things he hadn't imagined were possible at eighty-four were in fact entirely possible. He would have been embarrassed about needing them, but Cordelia was so entirely unfazed that he couldn't manage it.
In answer, she kissed him properly, and he nearly changed his mind about spending the afternoon with reports. He could still whisk his wife off her feet--perhaps only metaphorically, these days, but it was enough. His fingers tangled in her hair.
She broke away to say, "Rule two," before kissing him again. No sex where people might see. Though he'd had to add a footnote excluding ImpSec from that rule or they'd never have had any fun. Cordelia made a small, familiar sound of enjoyment and her arms tightened around him.
Reluctantly, Aral pulled back after several very pleasant minutes. "You need to go, you'll be late for the meeting. Go run the world, dear Captain."
"They won't start without me," the Vicereine said confidently. "All right. See you later." She kissed him again, and swept out.
Aral took up his reader. The bulk of the work might fall on Cordelia now, but he could still do his part. He read two reports and made notes until the words began to dance before his tired eyes. He called up the latest pictures of the children instead. Ekaterin was so much better about writing to them than Miles was, and she always included lots of pictures. It was a joy to have an intelligent and thoughtful daughter-in-law. Two, really, though Kareen didn't write so often. And Laisa for a third. She'd sent the latest pictures of the Crown Prince--and what a wonderful thing it was to have a Crown Prince at last--and his brothers and sisters only last week. They would have to go back to Barrayar to visit them all again soon. He looked through the pictures, smiling as he traced Miles' features, Ekaterin's, Cordelia's, his own in his grandchildren's faces, until he fell asleep in the afternoon sunshine.
The reader slipped to the floor.