"Mother thinks we should take the children to Beta Colony," Sonia said, as soon as the maid left.
"Mother's brain is full of sand," Olivia said crisply. She could just imagine how the Emperor would react to that particular provocation. Piotr would be accused of spiriting his heirs away to spearhead an usurpation. A usurpation backed by degenerate foreign forces, eager for Barrayar's resources, bought by Barrayaran blood…
Olivia shook her head. As if Barrayarans would ever accept an Emperor who ran and returned with a Betan army. But the Emperor, who saw assassins in every shadow, would act regardless, and Piotr would die in the Great Square.
Provided she and Vassily and Aral even made it to Beta Colony. A cold vision sprang before her unwilling eyes, her children ripped from her clutching arms, lined up against the shuttleport walls. Then the brutal slicing of a needler, or the hot devastation of a plasma arc.
They needn't even use weapons. Aral was so small, they could simply throw him off the roof. As Achilles' son had to Hector's, so that Priam's line could never trouble the Greeks again…
She suppressed a shiver. She was Princess-and-Countess Olivia Vorbarra Vorkosigan, and what she felt was of no matter. What she showed was of prime importance, even alone with her sister, even at Vorkosigan Surleau, the true heart of the District, the safest place in the world.
She hadn't yet gauged the measure of the new maid, and the cook's helpers, swiftly recruited for this sudden summer holiday, could be anyone's tools.
No place is truly safe.
Sonia took a dainty sip from her teacup. She hadn't added cream. Probably trying to shed the last of her post-pregnancy weight gain, though she looked slim and girlish enough in Vorpatril blue and gold. "I didn't say I agreed, Olivia. But I promised her I would tell you."
Olivia felt alarm stab her. "Is that why you came? Sonia, you're not considering it. Promise me you won't." Baby Padma, smashed to bits.
Sonia set the cup down and looked at her. It was the same look she'd given her sister when they were girls, warned off borrowing a favourite dress. As if I would, Olivia. Ignominious flight just isn't my shade.
"But you should talk to her, Olivia. She's not foolish. Merely concerned."
"She doesn't understand Barrayar. After all this time." Olivia didn't subscribe to the notion that a woman must subsume all her own opinions and desires when she became a wife. But a wife did not merely marry a man, but his people. Her Betan mother's bafflement at Barrayaran ways might charm her father, but it was a thorn in her oldest daughter's side.
"You could be anyone you wished, Olivia. You're so brilliant, so talented. Don't let it all go to waste on an arranged marriage."
"A marriage arranged to the man I love. I will bear our children, host our guests, run our household, defy our occupiers, and care for our people. My talents will be fully employed."
How Princess Helena Vorbarra, who had left all she'd known for a distant world and a prince's arms, could find fault with a true love match failed all logical comprehension. She hadn't said a word when Sonia married for political alliance and friendship, which had blossomed into affection. But then, Sonia hadn't married a General-and-Count, a famous hero of the then-dwindling Cetagandan Invasion.
It was a long ago memory, fifteen years past and counting. Now Olivia could sincerely hope they would both be granted many more years to stew over old resentments. "I'll talk to her," she said. "Tomorrow." Sonia smiled. Always a peacemaker. If Sonia had been Betan-born, she'd be in their diplomat corps by now. Olivia... didn't know what she would have done on Beta. She wouldn't have silent terror constantly claiming her attention, like discordant music heard faintly in a distant room. But nor would she have Piotr, or her boys.
The maid returned with sandwiches and tiny, delicate pastries, and Sonia left the dangerous subject of their mother's plans to talk about Padma, about his feeding times and sleeping schedule, how he clearly recognized her and Ivan, how quick and curious he was. Olivia nodded and mmmed in the right places, her ear cocked towards the parlour door. The light was dwindling over the long lake, and Piotr had promised to bring the boys back by suppertime. He had promised.
Piotr alone knew of Olivia's night fears, of the dark dreams that woke her trembling and weak, as she could not afford to be.
I am Vor. I will not yield to fear.
Sonia's conversation was dying, her efforts growing increasingly strained. Olivia roused herself to take the burden, speaking of the gardens she was attempting to grow at Vorkosigan House, the sad decline of the beautiful saddle Piotr had given her, only last Winterfair. She'd used it so much these past months.
Woman, you can't outride an Emperor's rage.
They struggled on, through the twilight and into the evening. Some of their conversation was political, cloaked in the gossip of Vorbarr Sultana. Lady Voryutter was increasing again (her kin were the Emperor's allies, and she did not fear to breed). Countess Vorbretten had dismissed her housekeeper for petty theft (of documents possibly injurious to her husband's health). But most of the discussion was personal. Vassily's success at school. Aral's sketches of his family and the Armsmen. Ivan's enthusiasm for the newfangled vat protein, which was greatly disturbing the artistry of Sonia's temperamental cook.
Their pauses became longer, their careful phrases more stilted. Olivia could no longer see the lake, nor the straight lines of bushes that delineated the Surleau gardens. Tactfully tucked in behind those bushes was the graveyard.
The noise came at last. And it was the clatter of riding boots on polished floors, not the thump of Imperial troops.
Olivia's breath hitched, then calmed. Sonia's mouth curled slightly at the corners, then relaxed into its usual serene line.
Vassily burst into the room, always the first, glowing with excitement.
"Mother!" he said, then saw his aunt at her place and halted. "Lady Vorpatril, ma'am. This is a pleasant surprise."
"So formal, Lord Vorkosigan?" Sonia said. "Come and kiss your wrinkled old auntie."
Aral was hanging at his brother's back, shy in the doorway.
"But Aunt Sonia, you're beautiful," Vassily said, with all his grandfather's direct charm. He bowed over Sonia's hand, and she laughed. He set about entertaining her with tales of his school exploits. That was Vassily's gift, to see darkness, and bring lightness in.
"Is Padma here?" Aral asked, so quietly that Sonia didn't hear. Olivia nodded confirmation, though, and held out her hand to her youngest.
"He's sleeping. You can see him after he wakes, if his mother agrees," she said. Aral brightened. He loved the baby, and Olivia had thus far tactically ignored all Piotr's snorting about Vor manliness. As if Piotr hadn't been besotted with both his boys when they were tiny, marveling over each small, perfect limb. "Did you have a good ride, Aral?"
"Yes, Mama. We found roses."
"Earth roses," Piotr said, and stepped in. His arms were overflowing with huge pink blooms. He did not smile, but his eyes met Olivia's, and she felt the chill seep out of her bones.
"They're growing feral," he said. "I'll have to have them cut back, or they'll stifle that trail." He hesitated, searching her face. "Maybe next year?"
"Yes," Olivia agreed. "An excellent idea, Piotr." She stood and took the roses in her arms, dismissing the hovering maid with her eyes. There were thorns to prick her hands and drag at her sleeves. But the roses filled her head with their sweet, wild scent. "There will be time next year."