I. Learning to Look.
The theater was dark, thank God. Ekaterin sat stiffly in her seat, unable to pay attention to the play for the distracting smacking noises to her left. From the short glimpse she had caught before averting her eyes, it seemed as though Mara were attempting to suck off Lord Ivan’s face. This had left Ekaterin free to take refuge in impeccable posture and stew in resentment and irritation.
She was never, ever doing this again. And she meant it this time.
Her own date to her right looked as though he was thinking the same thing. Ekaterin glanced over at him – down, rather – and saw that he was looking quite as stone-faced as she imagined she was. She thought briefly of telling him she was getting up to use the rest room and then simply leaving, but that seemed . . . cruel.
After a second Ekaterin realized Lord Vorkosigan was looking back at her, eyebrows raised.
“Sorry,” she muttered, glad he couldn’t see how she blushed.
He shrugged and, strangely, went on eyeing her. She looked back, and after a moment he jerked his thumb toward the exit. She nodded and pointed to the necking couple with a questioning lift of the eyebrows. Lord Vorkosigan rolled his eyes and shook his head, and together they crept out of their row.
Once in the lobby Ekaterin sighed in relief. “Thank you,” she said.
“Don’t worry about it. Not the first time – though usually my date excuses herself after dinner,” Lord Vorkosigan added with a grim smile and a tic of the head that Ekaterin had already realized was a nervous reaction. “Sick grandmothers are very common these days, it seems. In fact, I’m starting to suspect there might be some sort of grandmother plague out there.”
Ekaterin laughed. Lord Vorkosigan looked momentarily startled, then pleased. Ekaterin found herself looking at him as she had not at dinner, preoccupied as she had been trying not to look at him too openly. He was . . . short. Well, yes, there was no denying that. And rather strangely proportioned, his head too large for his body. But not – not bad looking, really, especially when he wasn’t standing next to Lord Ivan. And he was funny, it seemed, which Lord Ivan thought he was and really wasn’t. They’d spent a lot of time staring awkwardly at each other’s foreheads while Mara and Lord Ivan had cooed at each other, but now she realized that his eyes in particular were quite . . . nice.
“Well, shall I take you home?” he asked as they emerged from the theater into the crisp Vorbarr Sultana evening.
“No,” she said, and she wasn’t sure who was more surprised, Lord Vorkosigan or Ekaterin herself.
“No?” he said, stopping dead on the steps of the theater.
“No,” she said. “I’m dressed for the theater and Mara promised me a good time. Since she is now, er, occupied, it seems it falls to you to make good on that promise.”
“I . . . see. Er . . . there’s this place a couple blocks away. It, uh, has wine.”
“I like wine,” she said, smiling. He had paused two steps up from her, bringing their eyes level. Yes, his were very nice indeed. More than nice even.
You just had to look.
Tien stared at her, plainly astonished for a moment, and then laughed, reaching across the table laid with some of the finest dishes Ekaterin had ever seen in her life to take her hand. “Oh, Kat, you don’t know how glad I am to hear that. You really had me worried, you know. An entire week to think about it.”
“It’s a big decision,” Ekaterin said. His joy – well, truth be told it seemed more like relief than joy – assuaged the slightly sick feeling she’d got in her stomach the moment she’d said the word. “Marriage – it’s forever.”
“I would certainly hope so!” He grinned at her and signaled to their waiter, who gave a brief bow and ducked into the kitchen. “I hope you don’t mind, but I took the liberty of ordering something to celebrate – or drown my sorrows in if you said no,” he added prudently. The waiter appeared bearing a silver bucket of ice and a bottle of very expensive champagne, which he set down at their table and uncorked with a flourish. He poured them both glasses and bowed himself away.
“To our future,” Tien said, holding his glass up high.
“To our future,” Ekaterin echoed and drank. Yes, their future – their children, their many, many years together. It was all so uncertain now, but she tried not to feel daunted; the future was always uncertain, even when you thought you knew what you were about. It was an adventure, she decided, and she was only nervous because her life had thus far been so very dull.
Tien poured her more champagne. “My job in the Vorsmythe District begins next month, so we should make the arrangements quickly – part of the reason I pressed you for an answer. Not that I wouldn’t have preferred to give you as much time as you need.”
“It was enough,” she assured him, though she hadn’t been entirely sure of what was going to come out of her mouth until the moment she’d opened it. “Er . . . excuse me,” she said, standing.
He stood with her. “Where are you going?”
She raised her eyebrows at him. “The bathroom.”
He sank back down, appearing sheepish. “Ah, yes, of course.”
The entryway of the restaurant where the bathrooms were wasn’t visible from the dining area. Ekaterin walked until she was sure Tien could no longer see her and then stopped, twisting her hands together and ignoring the curious gaze of the girl behind the counter of the coat-check. She had said yes; she could not leave now. She could not get her coat and simply walk away. It would be charitable to call such an act dishonorable. If she had made a mistake she should go back and say so.
Except . . . except she could not. “Oh God,” she murmured, pressing a hand to her throat. She felt as though something – someone – were strangling her, and telling herself that it was only nerves from having made the decision so quickly didn’t help.
“Madame, is everything all right?”
Ekaterin blinked down at the man in front of her. She took in his height, or lack of it, first, and everything else a few seconds later. Dark hair, gray eyes, pain lines. Indeterminate age. Concerned.
“I –” Just promised to have and to hold forever and I don’t think I want to. At least – not him. Not something you could say to a complete stranger. She glanced back toward the dining room; she was pushing the limits of the amount of time one could reasonably spend in a public restroom. She looked back down at the man, who, she saw with sudden surprise, was wearing Imperial Service dress greens. He’d seen her glance back toward the dining room, and a certain light of understanding was dawning in his eyes.
“Shall I get you your coat?” he asked, gesturing toward the coat-check, where the woman behind the counter suddenly made to look busy. “I could have our driver take you home.”
“Er – no,” she said, shaking her head. “Thank you.”
“Miles,” a woman’s voice said suddenly, and the man’s head turned. She was tall, with red-roan hair; beside her stood a terribly familiar stocky man with white hair, who eyed Ekaterin curiously. “Our table is ready.”
Oh. Oh God.
Ekaterin only noticed then that the restaurant was flooded with ImpSec agents. Of course it would be; they followed the Prime Minister everywhere, even when he was out to dinner with his family. She had just been borderline rude to Lord Miles Vorkosigan. She felt her face heat with mortification and she stepped backward. “I’m so very sorry, m’lord. Thank you.” She turned back to the dining room, and managed a respectful nod toward the Count and Countess Vorkosigan as she passed them.
Tien pulled her chair out for her when she sat down again. Their food had arrived, but Ekaterin barely tasted it. Tien was full of plans for the future that night: the places they would go, the things they would do, the children they would have. If he noticed the ImpSec agents he said nothing, and in fact the Vorkosigans were seated behind him, where he couldn’t see them. Ekaterin was glad, as she didn’t know what Tien might have said about Lord Vorkosigan if he had been able to see him – but it seemed she could not look anywhere else.
It was only when he glanced up and met her gaze directly that she was able to turn away. Back to Tien and the future she’d chosen.
III. Finding the Right Topic
Someone – or someones – was arguing in the kitchen.
Ekaterin paused in the foyer, listening. The voice wasn’t raised, but it was heated, almost passionate, and completely unfamiliar. She couldn’t make out the words, muffled as they were through the door. Though she wasn’t given to eavesdropping, she found herself putting her things down quietly on the sofa in the living room and stepping over to listen.
“– the technological devolution in the first two centuries of the Time of Isolation didn’t necessitate a complete reversion to archaic gender roles,” the person – a man, Ekaterin realized, eyebrows shooting up in surprise – said. “That’s a lot of claptrap perpetrated by historians – er, no offense, Professora,” he added after a moment. “I meant other historians.”
“No, I quite agree,” she said. “It is interesting though, to see how very quickly it happened and to what extent.”
“Interesting or horrifying,” he replied.
“Both, I would say.”
There was a clink, as of china being set down. “My mother says the Time of Isolation just goes to show how much humanity is actively looking to set itself back. She claims part of us always thinks everything was more comfortable before we were born – and who’s to say it wasn’t, since we can’t know for sure?”
“That is the definition of conservatism,” Ekaterin’s aunt replied. “One of them, at least. But I’d say you’ve found your topic, wouldn’t you?”
“So it would seem.”
There was the sound of a chair scraping backward and Ekaterin jumped away from the door, flushing. She had barely enough time to grab her bag from the couch and make as though she had just arrived home before her aunt and the mysterious history student came through the swinging kitchen door. Ekaterin was looking just above her aunt’s head where she expected him to be – and found him missing altogether. She had to drop her gaze to see him and then could not help startling, her eyes going wide in what she knew had to be unflattering shock. He looked back at her without flinching, though there was perhaps the faintest ironic lift of an eyebrow.
“Ekaterin!” her aunt said. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“I, um, just, just got home. From class.”
“Yes, you had your painting studio this afternoon, didn’t you?” Her aunt turned to the . . . student and said, “This is my niece, Ekaterin. She’s a student at the university as well. Ekaterin, this is Lord Vorkosigan.”
“Oh,” she managed. “Er . . . nice to meet you.”
“And you. Thank you, Professora. I’ll see you in seminar next week.”
Ekaterin’s aunt saw him to the door. Ekaterin waited until she had closed it and then said, “Er . . . do you have the Prime Minister’s son for tea very often?”
“More and more these days,” her aunt replied. Ekaterin followed her into the kitchen.
“He’s studying history?”
“He’s not sure.” Her aunt began washing up the tea things, while Ekaterin hovered in the doorway, not quite able yet to recover from her shock. “He didn’t pass his Service examination, and now he’s not quite certain what he wants.”
“He – he took the Service examination?”
“Oh yes. I gather that his score on the written was off the charts.”
“But the physical trials –” Ekaterin began.
“Ah. Yes.” Her aunt sighed, and then added, “He’s quite brilliant. I want him for history, but your uncle had him last semester and is trying to steal him for engineering.” Her aunt dried a teacup and put it away with an air of satisfaction. “And he might, if all that counted were intellectual curiosity.”
“I see.” Ekaterin looked away from her aunt, thinking of the fervor in the young lord’s voice as he had argued – or, well, not really argued, since her aunt wasn’t about to protest anything he’d said. He’d taken the service examination; he’d had to know he couldn’t pass, and yet he’d taken it anyway. What was that, exactly? Stubbornness? An inability to accept limits? Something else?
Ekaterin suddenly realized she was being watched. “Shall I invite him to dinner?” her aunt asked, frighteningly astute.
Ekaterin had to swallow before answering. “If you like,” she said evenly and left the kitchen because she could not suppress the color she felt rising in her cheeks.
“All I’m saying, dear, is that this isn’t the sort of thing you want to rush into.”
“I’m not,” Ekaterin said in a hushed voice. She lengthened her stride to keep up with her aunt, who was walking quickly to keep up with their guide. Rather surprising, Ekaterin thought, considering the length of their guide’s legs and the way he hobbled about. “I thought you liked Tien.”
Her aunt gave her a strange look. “I don’t know Tien,” she said. “And neither do you, really. Ekaterin, I understand that you’re flattered, but the first offer isn’t the last one.”
“You keep saying that,” she muttered, annoyed. “I know.”
“Well, here we are,” Lord Vorkosigan said, stopping short in front of a plain, unmarked door. Ekaterin just managed not to trip over – that is, run into him. She looked at him once and then away; the shortness of his body, the largeness of his head, the way he moved, so jerky and halting and uneven – everything about him embarrassed her.
“Ah, thank you, Lord Vorkosigan,” her aunt said. “It was very kind of your mother to lend you to us for the afternoon – I’d never have found this otherwise.”
“Yeah, these new buildings are a maze,” he said, gesturing upward to indicate the building that went on above them for twenty-five stories and housed most of the government offices in Hassadar. “Not as bad as ImpSec HQ, but still.”
Her aunt glanced toward her. “Ekaterin, I’m sure you’d find this very boring. Why don’t you and Lord Vorkosigan get a cup of coffee and I’ll catch up with you when I’m done in the archives?”
Ekaterin stared at her aunt in horror. “What?”
“There’s a cafeteria, isn’t there?” her aunt asked reasonably.
“Um . . . yeah,” Lord Vorkosigan said. He looked almost as horrified as Ekaterin felt, and that only discomfited her more.
“I’ll be a couple of hours, no more,” her aunt assured him. “Thank you for your assistance.”
“Er . . . right,” Lord Vorkosigan said, and Ekaterin’s aunt vanished into the dusty gloom of the archives, leaving Ekaterin alone with the little lord, who looked up at her. His head jerked and she blinked, almost flinched. What was Aunt Helen on about, putting her in this terrible situation? “Cafeteria,” he muttered after a few awkward seconds. “This way.”
She followed; neither of them spoke until at last he said, “So, you’re, uh, getting married?”
“I think so,” she said.
“He was for ten years. Now he’s in administration.”
“Oh. He’s older then.”
They arrived at the cafeteria, which smelled like coffee and green beans. Neither of them seemed to want to go inside and sit down; they hovered outside the door saying nothing until finally Ekaterin said, “You don’t have keep an eye on me, you know. I don’t know what my aunt was thinking, but I’m perfectly capable of entertaining myself here or going back to our hotel for a few hours.”
“Of course,” Lord Vorkosigan said. He had to tilt his head back to look up at her. “Well – can you find your way back to the archives?”
“I think so. If not, I can ask someone.”
“Oh. Yes. Of course. It was nice meeting you then.”
“Likewise,” she said, knowing it sounded stiff and false. She watched him hobble away, the outline of his leg braces showing through his trousers. His hands were clenched at his sides, his shoulders hunched awkwardly. She thought of Tien, tall and handsome and whole, and felt grateful.
V. Unerring Taste
Ekaterin was up to her elbows in potting soil when the sensors on the flower shop door pinged. She glanced toward the back office where Madame Toulouse, the proprietor of the shop, was doing the monthly record keeping. No help would be forthcoming from there, Ekaterin was certain. “One moment, please!” she called.
She spent a few seconds scrubbing her hands in the sink to try and get as much dirt off as possible. Her nails were, as usual, a lost cause, but Ekaterin supposed people didn’t expect anything else from someone who worked in a flower shop. She dried them on a towel and went out front.
The customer had his back to her, studying some display bouquets, so she saw him before he saw her, which was just as well. She could not even begin to conceal her shock, both at his appearance – which was odd to say the least – and at who he must be. After all, it was not every day the Prime Minister’s very short son walked into one’s place of employment.
“Good afternoon,” Ekaterin said, wondering if she should pretend not to know who he was. Ridiculous. “How may I help you, m’lord?”
“Well, I, er.” Lord Vorkosigan sighed. “I’m in trouble, I’m afraid. The sort of trouble that calls for a very large bouquet of something that smells good, looks nice, and costs a lot of money.”
“I see. Trouble with a lady friend then?” she asked delicately.
“How I wish,” Lord Vorkosigan said ruefully. “No, I’ve landed in hot water with my Aunt Alys. Lady Alys Vorpatril,” he added when she looked blank.
“Oh,” Ekaterin said, feeling her eyebrows climbing. “Oh my.”
“Yeah, pretty much. Aunt Alys can make life, er, uncomfortable when she’s displeased, so I thought a gesture would be appropriate. However,” he sighed again, “she has unerring taste. I do not. Which I suppose is how you can help me.”
Ekaterin shot a glance over her shoulder toward the back room. If Madame Toulouse knew exactly who the flowers were meant for – and what the effect the success of the bouquet might have on their future business – Ekaterin was certain she’d have wanted to help Lord Vorkosigan herself. She looked back to see him poking furtively at a massive, genetically modified blue rose with a most skeptical expression and had to swallow a giggle. Madame Toulouse could keep her monthly records, Ekaterin decided. She had the feeling this would be fun.
Besides, everyone but Madame Toulouse herself agreed that Ekaterin’s bouquets were prettier.
Lord Vorkosigan claimed to know nothing about flowers except that many of them made him sneeze and so gave her free rein. Ekaterin immediately discarded anything genetically modified and anything that smacked of cliché, both of which she was certain Lady Alys Vorpatril would merely sniff at and dismiss as hopelessly prole. She selected a generous number of tall, blue-purple irises and tiny yellow roses, which were acceptable (though their larger cousins were not) because of their unusual size. She decided to forgo the traditional baby’s breath in favor of a Barrayaran plant with small white flowers and a pleasingly sweet smell reminiscent of freesia. She added no greenery, allowing the stalks of the irises to stand on their own.
At last she held the bouquet out at arm’s length. Once arranged it would be one of her best: simple, balanced, elegant, unusual without being strange. Lady Alys Vorpatril had an appreciation for the traditional, after all.
“Will this do, m’lord?” she asked.
Lord Vorkosigan startled, and Ekaterin realized suddenly that he had been watching her work. She flushed but didn’t waver. “Let’s hope so,” he said, grimacing – not at her handiwork, Ekaterin assumed.
She began arranging the bouquet in a clear crystal vase he had selected. “If you don’t mind my presumption, m’lord,” she said after a moment, “but what exactly did you do?”
He grimaced again, this time seeming rather embarrassed. “I, er, might have played a . . . a small prank at the Emperor’s birthday party last week.”
Ekaterin paused in the act of poking a sprig of the tiny yellow roses in between some of the irises and blinked at him. “A small prank?” she repeated.
“Very small!” he insisted. It was his turn to flush, Ekaterin noted, and then wondered why that pleased her. “Gregor thought it was funny. I don’t understand why Alys is so unimpressed.”
“What did you –”
“Well, it’s a bit complicated – Ivan needed diagrams to follow along and the part with the duck got rather, er, derailed.”
“The – the duck?”
“Yes, the duck,” Lord Vorkosigan said. “Which I returned to its natural habitat in the Imperial Gardens,” he added conscientiously. “Nothing suffered except some of the decorations, but apparently a few of the guests were offended. My argument that the only people offended were those with no sense of humor was not helpful. According to Aunt Alys.”
“Shocking,” Ekaterin murmured. He raised an eyebrow at her, but she merely smiled serenely as she finished arranging the last of the flowers. She stepped back and smiled, satisfied.
“Excellent,” Lord Vorkosigan said, sounding faintly surprised. “Even I know that’s a work of art.”
Ekaterin shook her head and quickly waved away the compliment. “It’s nothing. I have an eye, that’s all.”
“That’s not all,” he said. He looked as though he wanted to say more then but fell silent in favor of watching her with unnerving scrutiny as she ran everything through the comconsole and produced a credit chit for his signature, which he provided with a flourish.
The bouquet was almost as big as he was and she wondered how he could possibly get it home; the answer came in the form of a tall man in the Vorkosigan House livery, who appeared seemingly out of nowhere to accept the burden. Lord Vorkosigan thanked her and started to leave, but to her surprise paused on the threshold to glance back. She was embarrassed to be caught staring, but he looked pleased to find her doing so. Since he must have been quite used to being stared at, this made her wonder just what exactly he saw in her expression.
“You know,” he said, “I think I might be offending a lot of people really soon. I have a full two weeks of leave left, and according to Aunt Alys I already have a count well in the hundreds.”
He was in the Service? She filed this fascinating bit of information away for later. “You’ll need a lot of flowers at that rate,” she replied, struggling not to smile.
He didn’t even bother with such a struggle. He grinned at her and she smiled back helplessly, unable to do anything else. “Yes,” he said. “I think I might.”