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The Christening Tour

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Prologue







Emperor Gregor Vorbarra leaned his head on his hands and wondered if, with the children at last sleeping, he was allowed to cry himself. Sitting beside their cribs seemed the only place he had a chance to relax these days, and he was more tired than he could comprehend. Bizarrely, his recent trip to Jackson’s Whole, now Aralyar Ceta, to co-preside over its bloodless invasion had been an almost blessed rest, care for the children necessarily delegated. But he was determined not to resemble his own father in any way he could imagine, and changing diapers, like rising to night-calls, seemed a necessary affirmation of his difference. And since his return the backlog of quotidian work, frictions in the new Joint Administration on Aralyar, and continuing, intense frame conversations with his Celestial cousin, as well as the tearing political and personal needs he felt to see his heirs happy and well established despite everything Barrayar could do to children, had simply flattened him.

Today had been a Meet-your-Future-Rulers day in Vorbarr Sultana, necessary and long-planned, but in the event profoundly exhausting—swamped by an eager public full of joyous goodwill but haunted by his fears of disaster and assassination. Quite irrational fears, really, these days. It was also the first of more such days than he could count because Alys, with the best intentions, was insisting on a full sixty-District Christening Tour that had every compelling Vor tradition and cogent political reason behind it, and that he simply could not face.

Prince Aral gurgled slightly and Gregor tensed, but the babe did not wake, nor Princess Kareen alongside him. Smiling at them, soothed by their breathing, he hauled himself upright and slipped out, nodding to the guards and waiting nursemaid before turning into his personal suite, hoping to find Laisa alone. She was there, smiling at him as he entered, but so was Miles, saying something about the almost completed Komarran soletta repairs that trailed away as he took in Gregor’s exhaustion. Silently he got up, went to the sideboard, and as Gregor dropped onto the sofa beside Laisa brought him a glass of wine.

“You really are done in, aren’t you?” The little man sat with a glass of his own and eyed his foster-brother with concern.

“Flat as the southern plains, Miles. Frame-calls eat into half my sleeptime, and the babies into the rest. And today has been horrible, for no real reason.” He closed his eyes. “What are you doing here? And how can I tell Alys that I simply cannot do a full Christening Tour? All sixty Districts? It’s insane.”

“I know, and I’ve told Alys it’s not on.”

Gregor cranked open one eye. “Really? Good luck to you. My refusal counted for very little.”

Miles snorted. “That’s because no-one offered her either an alternative plan or a rationale for change.” He gave an ironic bow. “Never fear, Sire, your Lord Auditor is on the case.”

Both Gregor’s eyes opened as he levered himself upright to glare at a grinning Miles.

“Don’t fret, Gregor. The point is ninety percent less work for you, and ten percent different work, to make up for the rest.”

“Different work?” His voice was extremely cautious and Miles grinned again, alarmingly, but so did Laisa. If Miles had sold her on whatever it was, all might yet be well.

“Yes. If you want it. But in any case, Alys wasn’t thinking through the fact that the Imperium just got a whole lot bigger. Sooner or later you and Laisa will have to do state visits en famille to Komarr and Sergyar, perhaps Aralyar too, and Eta Ceta before very long, so sheer logistics says you can’t do all sixty Districts here or the children will still be being paraded as newborns when they reach their majorities.”

“Tell me something I don’t know, Miles.”

“In a minute. But first, what do you think of skipping every northern District capital except Vorbarr Sultana and using only these eleven venues plus two southern ones?”

Miles prodded a remote and the communit in the corner produced a holovid map of Barrayar’s continents showing thirteen red dots. Wearily Gregor focused on the map, and as he took it in found his concentration sharpening. Besides Vorbarr Sultana, ringed by eight of the most populous Districts, the other ten northern lights were, he realised, very cleverly chosen—all older, smaller towns but large enough to support a full Imperial visit, predominantly in Districts with conservative Counts, and above all well-placed near multi-District boundaries, so that almost anyone, urban or rural, who wanted to attend the Christening Tour could do so within a day’s return journey. As his political brain began to kick in his appreciation went up a notch, for all but two of Miles’s choices were in Districts whose Counts had been especially insistent that a Christening Tour be undertaken in the proper manner—a demand Gregor felt in his bones it would wisest to honour. The other two were in the Vorsienne’s and Vorharopoulos’s Districts, drawing in the largest concentrations of French and Greek speakers.

“That’s … very good, Miles. Thirteen, eh? Or twelve plus here. I think I could survive one a month for a year. If you can sell it to Alys.”

Miles grinned again. “I already have. She didn’t want to go to all the capitals any more than you did. She just couldn’t see a politically aceptable way of avoiding it, but agrees this would work, especially if accompanied by a frank statement of the rationale in the announcement. Your subjects do understand your life just got busier, you know.”

Gregor stared, then collapsed back into his seat. “Oof. Well, thank you, Miles. That is actually a tremendous relief.” He eyed the map again, still glowing in the air. “You’ve given your own District short shrift, though.” A thought struck him. “And what new work? You also mentioned something I don’t know.”

“Ah, that all goes together.” Miles drummed his fingers on his thigh and Gregor’s brain came back to alert. “You realise I’m in the same boat, albeit on a smaller scale? Aral Alexander and Helen Natalia seem to be better sleepers than the Prince and Princess, though what we’d do without the nursery staff I can’t imagine—and you must let them deal with the night feeds and changes, Gregor dear. It’s what they’re for, not least so that you don’t have to face the Staff, or the public, asleep on your feet.” He peered knowingly. “And you’ve made your point twice over, you know.” You aren’t him, and never will be hung unspoken. Gregor grimaced and saw Miles make a mental note to have a word with the senior night nursery staff himself. Rightly, dammit. “In any case, the thing is that a District Christening Tour for Aral A. and Helen is very much on—and if you remember I once suggested to you that if our Christening Tour leg in the Dendarii could coincide with the actual nameday of Harra’s and Lem’s child by replicator …”

Gregor nodded slowly. “Yes, I do recall that. After your visit to Silvy Vale last Midsummer—no, the one before. Gods.” He rubbed his eyes. “Their babe is due next month, isn’t it? She. Is all well?”

“Yes, indeed. They are happily expecting a healthy, bouncing daughter, whom they have with bright eyes asked permission to call Ekaterin Palma.”

Despite his weariness and remaining alarm Gregor whistled with surprise and pleasure. “Have they indeed? Harra doesn’t do things by halves. Do they want haut Palma to stand as a friend-mother, then?” He grinned at the thought of the Rho Cetan Planetary Consort receiving such a request, but Miles’s face was serious.

“They do, and she has agreed.”

Gregor’s eyebrows snapped up in consternation, but Laisa was still smiling at him so he let them subside. “Really? Where is the nameday to be held? and is Palma proposing to attend in person or by frame?”

“Silvy Vale, and in person, if you and Cousin Fletchir permit. Next Midsummer Day. I have also been honoured to be asked to stand as friend-father, and Ekaterin as friend-mother, with Palma. What is really interesting is their choice of witnesses, though; again, if you permit.” Gregor quirked an eyebrow as Miles uncharacteristically hesitated. “The thing is, Gregor, they were almost too terrified to ask me if I thought it was acceptable, and fell over backwards insisting they sought no favours. But they want to ask you and Laisa.” Suddenly he grinned. “All else aside, they liked you both when they met you at the invasion, and are simply brimming with feudal devotion. But Harra has also been listening very carefully to a number of people who were in the square at Vorkosigan Surleau that day, and she’s been sponsoring Taura into her new job as postwoman as well as passing word along about guaranteed genetic health and replicators. Which has been made both easier and a good deal more complicated by the fact that her deeply astonished audiences saw her and Lem and Taura in your private party during the invasion broadcasts. But she says there’s still too much suspicious head-shaking going on, and thinks it would be, um, helpful, perhaps critically so, if you could make a personal Dendarii appearance at some well-judged point. Her babe’s nameday seems to her, rightly I think, the moment, but she wouldn’t ask you to stand as friend-father or Laisa as friend-mother because she thinks it’d seem like cadging for future favours, so she and Lem evolved this.”

Gregor considered a moment and eye-queried Laisa, who smiled brilliantly at him. “I think it’s a fine idea, love. I’d like to see Silvy Vale and meet the Csuriks again, and I can’t see a downside for you. But I’m sure there are Barrayaran complications. Miles, lay out the cons, would you? He’s too tired to think.”

“Of course. Sorry.” Miles counted on his fingers. “First and foremost, bad precedent. Outside us”—his gesture indicated a family circle—“you’re friend-father only to the Vorvolks’ eldest, a strictly personal connection. And you don’t do private witnessing at all. This could be seen to jeopardise your neutrality. Against that, how often is a Planetary Consort going to be involved in a backcountry nameday? Easy to refuse further invitations falling short, but you would then be binding yourself.” He shrugged. “Though it occurs to me that Harra’s and Lem’s needs would be served just as well if you came as Count Vorbarra, to whom any subsequent request would then have to be addressed—the Emperor not having been there.”

Gregor considered. “That works, I think. What else?”

Miles tapped another finger. “Second, pure domestic politics, because it’ll be seen as a favour to me. Against that … I’m sorry, but sod ’em.” Both Gregor and Ekatrerin suppressed snorts but Miles waved a hand. “No, really.” The snorts escaped. “And third, you’ll be endorsing Galactic Corruption of Old Barrayar, again. Against which, that’s the whole point, so see two above. It is a political move, Gregor, unavoidably, but there’s protection available on the precedent, and I really don’t think the rest matters. It’s just business as usual.”

“Yes, alright. I don’t disagree. And in any case, Miles, if haut Palma’s to be there I don’t think I can stand aloof. Fletchir would understand but not approve, and he’s intrigued by my capacity as Count Vorbarra so I don’t think he’ll mind that. Besides, I find I too feel honoured to be asked, so, as you say … see two above.”

Miles sighed relief. “Good. But there is a wrinkle, because the naming of Ekaterin Palma Csurik is not the only ceremony taking place in Silvy Vale that day. There is also Taura’s marriage to Armsman Roic.” Gregor whistled again and Miles grinned. “He asked her, going down on one knee, which she says made him very difficult to see, but when she found him again she said yes.” Both Gregor and Laisa laughed at the image, but Miles continued briskly. “Ekaterin has stamped her foot, waived protocol, and insists on standing as Taura’s second, to everyone’s scandalised delight. Roic’s second is his brother, who seems nice enough if somewhat bemused, but I’m used to that in relations. His parents and I will be standing on the points—as, by Taura’s shy invitation, in the same frame-call as Harra, will haut Palma. You see their cunning plan? So they wondered if you would both join the first circle.” Now he smiled. “Where you would be standing not only with Lem, Harra, and probably a newly named Ekaterin Palma, unless we can, heh, palma her off on the imperial nursemaids, but also with Simon, Alys, and the redoubtable Estelle—who is of course supplying the wedding-dress. Not to mention a couple of Dendarii sergeants Elli has promised to deliver in time, Pym, who was reduced to silence by the request, and Ma Kosti, who adores Taura because she really eats her food.” The smile that had started with his horrible pun brimmed over. “Do say yes, Gregor. It’ll be a famous day in the Dendarii.”

Laisa laughed, and Gregor felt a wash of genuine amusement—make that bemusement. “Miles, how do you do it? That’s, what? three high Vor, ten adult commoners of varying degree, and four galactics, one a planetary ruler. And us.” He shook his head. “It’s almost as good as Ekaterin’s graduation party. Does haut Palma have the least idea what she’s letting herself in for? And come to think of it, how does a lady-bubble fit on a star-point?”

Miles looked very smug. “We discussed that, with the notion that a star-point witness should not ideally be anonymous. She’s agreed to stand with only a lace veil, if Rian agrees. And for once, Gregor, I didn’t do anything I wasn’t asked to do. A mere middleman, and that in courtesy. Mostly I suspect the Hand of Tsipis, who is involved up to his neck, but both Taura and Harra had frame-links to haut Palma’s personal comm, though neither had used them before.”

For a third time Gregor whistled. “Really? Interesting. I wonder if Fletchir knows that.” He reached for Laisa’s hand. “In any case, Miles, I wouldn’t miss it for the world, so tell Harra and Taura we shall be honoured to be witnesses and are intrigued”—he smiled genuinely, sensing the tug of an idea—“to see what happens.” The idea unfolded a little, then a lot. Oh … Yes! Miles peered at him suspiciously and he gratefully closed his eyes, the better to think it through.

 

 







Feeling the grass beneath his feet give way to stone Gregor surreptitiously scraped mud—I hope—from his boot-heel and internally sighed relief as he saw the doors of the vast airbus Miles called the Nursery Wagon hiss closed. Laisa and Ekaterin were already in the Adult Aircar, but Miles was still attending to the anxious village Speaker, and Gregor took the chance to stretch his back and walk forward until the view opened out. He stopped several metres short of any peril, careful not to disturb his wary Armsmen, but he was enjoying the rare freedom of being only Count Vorbarra too much to concede more than was reasonable to their professional hypercaution. The Emperor had less choice.

Behind him he heard the Nursery Wagon powering up, and after a moment lifting smoothly away to join its escort of stingships, but his attention was absorbed by the panorama of the High Vale—a tapestry of small fields and terraced slopes in the foreground, and beyond a vast blue gulf where the mountains dropped precipitously to form the great, grey rockfaces of the Dendarii, visible for miles out onto the northern plains. Amazing. Across leagues of crystal air the inner slopes of the foothills showed a fractal patchwork of terraformed green and native Barrayaran red, the maple plantations spreading as they could where slope, sun, and dainage allowed.

Reluctantly conscious of time he turned away and saw Miles at last heading towards the capacious old aircar. They reached it together and grinned briefly at one another as each gestured the other to go first. Slipping in and seating themselves opposite Laisa and Ekaterin was a practised routine, but until the ground dropped from view as the aircar rose Miles sat silently with a Vorkosigan heaviness in his face that abruptly made Gregor think of Aral, then grimaced.

“I’m sorry to have been slow, Gregor, ladies. Kurcherov’s an old woman at the best of times, and a spineless jellyfish at worst, but he did have a point. I couldn’t just snub him.”

Ekaterin smiled understandingly. “Of course not, love. You don’t do snubbery.” Sitting beside her on the opposite bench—or in this aircar, sofa—Laisa’s mouth twitched. “But relieve my curiosity. Are there such things as spined jellyfish?”

Miles tried to glower, but a grin broke through. “As it happens, my Lady, there are, in the Enclosed Sea on Tau Ceta. Toothed as well. Very ugly customers by all accounts. Not a bit like Kurcherov.”

“Oh.” She frowned. “That does sound unpleasant. Is the Enclosed Sea artificial?”

“Merely large and landlocked, and full of odd beasties pursuing evolutionary paths of their own. It was one of the things the Cetagandans liked about the planet, I think, despite its inconvenient location. Specimens for the vault.”

Gregor contrived his officially interested look. “You should ask Fletchir.” Miles stuck out his tongue and Gregor grinned. Miles had done remarkably well to keep the party more-or-less on schedule by this stage of the day, but Gregor was not averse to teasing him as he could, especially when he could make it this pointed without Miles realising why. Since the little Lord Auditor had pulled the Cetagandan alliance more or less out of his hat two summers before, with no less than three new, Nexus-changing technologies to cement it, and as icing on the cake parlayed the deal into a bloodless conquest of Jackson’s Whole broadcast live to a Nexus audience estimated at over 850 billion, it had not been easy to count coup on him. Even for an Emperor who was his elder foster-brother. That the ghem-pilgrims to the Invasion Memorial in Vorbarr Sultana had unwittingly redeemed Miles’s bold promise, aged six, to ensure that Gregor was alliteratively known everywhere as ‘the Great’ did not help. The soubriquet had caught on like wildfire, and still bothered him as often as it pleased; with luck today might balance some scales. The Emperor inside, enjoying his day off, suppressed a chortle. “And what was Kurcherov’s so compelling point, Miles?”

“Me. Or rather my long failure to visit the High Vale, sadly felt during the unfortunate absence of the Count and Countess on Sergyar, and dismayingly compounded by my galactic junketings, in which I appear to have been everywhere in the Nexus except my own back yard. He hoped in an entirely pious way at which it was impossible to take offence that I would not make my devoted villagers here wait until another Christening Tour before returning.”

Gregor looked indignant. “Doesn’t bringing Laisa and I make up some shortfall? And you have hardly been junketing idly.”

Miles grinned, then sighed. “Some, but not all. They’re very fond of you, Gregor, and they all like Laisa and Ekaterin, but it’s really about the Silvy Vale power plant, you know. And using Harra and Lem as spearheads for change in the mountains. The High Vale is losing too many youngsters as a result, not to the cities, which is traditional, but to the lower vales. I’ve been wanting to get power of some kind up here for ages, but the problems are real. Only wind or fusion make sense, and both would cost a fortune.”

“You have a fortune,” Gregor pointed out.

“Yes, thanks to your grant from the technologies. But the villagers also hate both answers with a passion, and with reason. The wind-speeds are too high for anything less than military-grade turbines, which are as ugly as hell however you look at them, and too big in any case, meaning major adaptations. And nuclear means radiation, whatever I say.” Miles grimaced. “The High Vale took in a lot of survivors from Vorkosigan Vashnoi, you know. Nursed the dying until they did, and adopted the orphans. Raised the babies whose throats they didn’t cut.” Everyone winced but Miles shrugged. “Three generations down the line they know it’s irrational as well as I do, mostly, but they don’t want fusion and I won’t force it on them. Not until the haut genetic work is complete and they understand what it means. Until then we’re out of options, so far as power goes.”

“Ask Jack Chandler.”

“And when could you last get through the wormhole teams to talk to him, eh? Which is work that really can’t wait.”

“You have a point,” Gregor admitted. Two, in fact. The Alliance’s demonstration that it could create usable wormholes at will had caused galactic conniptions, and as Chandler was still the only man who could do the bizarre new maths of his theory almost instinctively, in his head, desperate purchasers of the technology tended shrilly to demand his personal oversight of their own particular link. Including the Tau and Sigma Cetans, whose direct wormhole was mysteriously resistant at a quantum level to being established, and whose joint squawks of disappointed protest had carried sufficient weight that Fletchir, as harried as Gregor had ever seen him, had formally requested Chandler’s full-time presence until the problem was solved or a definitive cause established. Opposite him Laisa was frowning deeply, and he guessed what was coming.

“Why don’t you just use a power-sat, Miles?”

Miles blinked. “Oh, sorry Laisa. I didn’t realise you didn’t know. It can’t be done safely. The mountains are over several major faults and a very iron-rich upwelling in the mantle. The magnetic flux has, unpredictable spikes that could bend a power-sat beam by anything up to five hundred metres.”

“Good grief! Truly?”

“Truly. They want power, but not riding a graser-beam throught the roof. It also makes geothermal tricky, and this high up hydro is out too.”

Laisa looked pensive. “I don’t believe there’s any such zone of Komarr. Not enough vulcanism, I suppose. But have you asked Zarmian or Brancol Industries? They do a lot of power supply work.”

“I have. And Georg Vorthys. But everyone says military wind-turbines or a fusion plant are the only workable options, and the villagers refuse both.”

Pensive became puzzled. “Then what does Speaker Kurcherov want?”

Miles shrugged, and beside Laisa Ekaterin grimaced. “A little Milesian miracle of their own, probably. Power-bubbles from the sky.”

Gregor sat forward, suddenly intent. “Could that be done? Use a frame to deliver a graser-beam?”

Miles waggled a hand. “Maybe. I’m hoping so. But the miltechs I’ve talked to who worked the invasion say they wouldn’t care to try anything on the necessary scale without Jack’s approval. Fields are OK, but he was apparently very cautious with the larger tractor-beams we used, and this would be orders of magnitude greater. It’s not just the village that’d want connecting.”

Gregor nodded. He read census data carefully, but the size of the population that had assembled in Pierrotin village to see the incognito Imperial and very cognito District Christening Tour had surprised him. To be sure, everyone had been there, but that only made Miles’s point, and it would take megawatts to supply several thousand families with powered lighting, heating, cooking and freezing units, as well as holovids, lightflyer charging-stands, comunits, and probably a nanoforge. But he had also noticed the dearth of younger adults, and knew what it meant. These villages will not die on my watch. “I can at least send the question to Jack as a priority. He can advise straight off, and if a frame-relay can be used you could get to work on infrastructure.”

Miles brightened. “Thank you, Gregor. That would be a boon.”

Laisa was still puzzled. “But Miles, why can’t you just fragment and recombine? Those argon whisker-lasers fleet com uses for secure intership channels are only two-and-some centimetres in diameter, and carry up to eight kilowatts. That shouldn’t bother a frame. Even with cooling dispersal you could certainly get twenty-five to the metre, so each square metre of array would give you five megawatts. And fragmentation makes more sense anyway, because you could disperse the receiving frames and reconverters to wherever the power was needed. Much less disruption.” She paused as she felt Gregor staring at her, and saw Miles and Ekaterin were too. “What am I missing?”

Miles recovered first. “Nothing, so far as I can see. I was merely feeling like an idiot.” His eyes began to glow. “Ha! Thank you, Laisa. That’s … brilliant, actually. And eminently do-able. Gregor, can I borrow some Marine engineers to help it happen?”

Regaining his own breath Gregor reached lovingly for his wife’s hand to squeeze admiring gratitude. “Probably. Most of them have been helping with frame and nanoforge work somewhere.” A thought struck him. “But you know, the military applications might be a boon anyway. Power easily transferred between ships, or ground units, as well as ship-to-ground. And what about frontier-worlds? Places on Sergyar will want this. Why bother with hellishly expensive power-sats if you can avoid it?”

Smiling at her husband’s touch, Laisa sat forward, eyes suddenly sharp. “Tell you what, Miles. I’ll have a word with Da, and Toscane Industries will undertake design and fabrication at cost in return for proprietary rights over the resulting power-transfer technology for ten years.”

“Ooh!” Ekaterin laughed. “Nicely done, Laisa.”

Her husband glowered at his Empress. “I need Mark,” he muttered in complaint, and his fingers drummed on his thigh. “Never around when you want him, that boy.” Lord Mark and the new Lady Kareen were yet on honeymoon on Beta, and from what Gregor had read in his ImpSec digests having a much more sedate time than the newsies (increasingly fascinated by the marriages of the Koudelka Commando) had salivatingly imagined. “Five years. And during that time both the Vorkosigan’s District and Sergyar have priority at favourable rates over everything except military demand, as well as three points of the net revenue stream. If Da agrees.”

“Eight years. One point.”

“Seven and two.”

“Done.” Laisa grinned, and Gregor thought only he realised she had agreed so fast not because Miles had given away a bargain but for the pleasure of making him wonder if he had. She too felt an urge to discombobulate his foster-brother when possible, more or less on principle and certainly since he had unstoppably rearranged the politics of the imperium and half the Nexus (not to mention his Emperor’s and Empress’s daily lives) to suit his own senses of honour and justice. From the indescribable expression that flickered across Miles’s face Gregor thought the tactic had worked but he responded smoothly enough.

“Excellent. And thank you again.” He smiled at Laisa affectionately. “You are inspired, and inspiring. I’’ll start micro-infrastructure projects immediately, to keep people from leaving, and if I’m lucky I can nurse a replacement for Kurcherov through construction control. Someone less jellyfishy and more like Lem Csurik. Who”—he glanced at his chrono—“will be amazed we’re only running a half-hour late.” He grinned widely. “When I told him we’d come to Silvy Vale for the evening after two other stops after Vorkosigan Surleau he said they’d expect us at midnight, and it’s broad daylight yet!”

Miles gestured expansively at the panorama of the Dendarii peaks and gorges visible below them in sharply shadowed relief. From Pierrotin village to Silvy Vale was only a hop by air, but they were still over the deep valley between the inner mountains and their frontier range, terrain that took days to traverse on the ground and explained Pierrotin’s continuing, powerless isolation. Gregor saw his wife make the same calculation as she followed Miles’s hand, and inwardly shudder. He was delighted for more than one reason with her casual solution to a problem that had stumped all others. Komarr might be airless and cold, but nobody in its domes suffered the kind of social and techno-deprivation she had been seeing in the fastnesses of the Dendarii today. She had been wonderful throughout this whole extended Christening Tour, a half-year already of monthly Barrayaran weekend trips and a more congenial, though still tense, week-long visit to Komarr where she had also had the genuine pleasure of opening and naming the new soletta array; but the burden had been hard, her impulse proudly to hold up squalling infants for inspection long since worn out by weariness with the crudities of Barrayaran curiosity and the edged weight of neofeudal traditions. Surreptitiously he nudged her foot with his own, and sent a confidence-boosting smile.

“Last leg, love, and a proper party with friends, not just another Appearance.” He grinned. “Though Miles has been sulking since I, um, expropriated his christening present to Ekaterin Palma, he’s excited about it. So am I. Aren’t you?”

She smiled back at him, acknowledging his concern and their shared knowledge of the surprise awaiting Miles in Silvy Vale. “Yes, of course, love. The wedding, especially. I’m just a bit shaken by the … rawness here in the mountains, wondering how I’d fare, how my family would fare, if we still faced on Komarr the sheer physical problems these people do. But it’s just my ignorance and comfort-zone—though Miles doesn’t look so happy himself.”

“No, no, Lady, I was just pondering that imperial expropriated.” He made a face at Gregor, who grinned. “Witnesses don’t even have to give presents, so hornswoggled would be more like it. Or highjacked,” he added thoughtfully, “which, I warn you, Gregor, in your smugness, challenged my ingenuity to find a replacement.”

Not for the first time since high-handedly winning that argument for reasons of his own Gregor mentally winced and wondered what Miles’s replacement was before replying with a confidence he didn’t quite feel. “It’ll be worth it. And we’re nearly there, so briskly, Miles, what is the final order of events.”

Miles stared magnificently. “You’re asking me? The only man who might—might—know is Master Tsipis. Ask Ekaterin. I’m just along for the ride.”

Beside him Ekaterin almost spluttered, but caught herself and merely batted at Miles in the style she shared with ImpSec, who ought to be at Vorkosigan Surleau but might well, Gregor fancied, turn up at some juncture in tonight’s proceedings.

“Oh, you. Nothing important has changed, Gregor. It’s the baby-show first, on the school-porch, for which two hours was allotted, now reduced to one. Then the naming, with space for Needful Speeches, and straight afterwards the wedding, followed by dinner and maple-mead for all, gods help us, with space for Optional Speeches. The only key-people for you and Laisa, besides Lem and Harra, and haut Palma of course, are the in-laws—Lem’s mother and brothers, Roic’s parents, brother, and sister, and I suppose Taura’s Dendarii-sergeant friends, who are, save Miles, the only representatives of her life before Roic. Miles, love?”

“Gregor’s up on this; you’ll see. Laisa, Fleet-Sergeant Ramson is a Terran in her late thirties—came up through the ranks like a rocket, converting potent aggression into maintaining rather than disrupting discipline. A fighting soldier, very much like a male you’d expect in that job. She and Taura bcame friends sparring, which was”—terrifying, actually—“a thing to see. Quartermaster Segeant-Major Hellund is a different story—a Polian technogeek who became an accountant before breaking out into mercenary procurement and inventory. She and Taura became friends because so much of Taura’s uniform and equipment appeared as unique items in the sacred paper trail. They’re both in the crowd at the viewing and naming, but with you and Gregor in the first circle at the marriage.”

“Got it, thank you, Miles.” Laisa nodded. “Fleet Ransom’s like a man, but QSM Hellund counts and carries the can. Terran torso and Polian psyche.” Miles and Ekaterin were staring again, and Laisa laughed. “One of my business tutors believed in the rhyming and alliterative memo-to-self.” She paused, reflectively. “I never used it in business, but I’ve found it handy for married life.”

Miles nodded solemnly, obviously conscious of Gregor’s concern at the allusion to a life that, for all an emperor’s romantic appeal, Laisa had really not anticipated and certainly imposed a great burden in payment for its joy. “Elli Quinn would like your summary. And as I’m decreasingly sure who knows what I’ll add that haut Palma has, Pym tells me, as well as the expected attendants and guards about whom everyone is being ostentatiously polite, a friend with her—a tall, razor-balanced shadow, anyway, whose name appears to be haut Gars, as far as Pym can tell. He hasn’t actually seen him but was told by haut Palma that ImpSec and the Residence had cleared him.”

Gregor carefully raised an eyebrow. “Haut Palma’s there already?”

“All day, apparently. With Alys and Simon. So we’re in good hands, oh emperor, whatever it is you’re not saying. Hmm.”

Gregor smiled blandly at his astonishing and delightfully puzzled foster-brother. “I am the Great. You said so yourself, Miles, and all shall be well.” Heh.

 

 

II







Preceding Gregor from the Adult Aircar into the centre of the clearing before the Raina Csurik School, then waiting in front of a hovering Pym and Gerard to hand out Ekaterin, Laisa, and finally Count Vorbarra, Miles was sharply aware of the hushed atmosphere. There seemed to be thousands of the Count-his-father’s liegefolk crammed into the space and stretching back into the trees, watching every move with barely suppressed excitement. He ran a quick check and found everyone who ought to be there (including Nikki, who had declined the day’s travails though not the party after them), saving only haut Palma. But gawping was hardly her style, and the ghem sentries who stood in what must be the Imperial Guard’s version of undress greens—or undress reds, belike—before a traditional but uncommonly large Dendarii shelter-tent indicated where she could be found. And presumably friend Gars as well. He was sure he’d never met either a haut or a human of that name, but a bell was ringing somewhere. In the slanting evening light he also saw that the ghem wore a version of the Imperial Array he’d never seen, zebra stripes splashed with green instead of the usual red, and his pulse quickened. Whoever warranted that must have either Celestial blood or high imperial trust. What is Gregor up to?

With everyone disembarked and walking amid Armsmen towards the school-porch where the Csuriks waited with Vorbarra and Vorkosigan nannies and their charges, the aircar lifted away behind them and the crowd flowed back into the space it had needed. Smiling greetings to Aunt Alys and Simon Illyan, who stood in the rank immediately before the porch with Nikki, Taura, Roic, Estelle, and Taura’s two sergeant friends in grey Dendarii dress uniforms, they all mounted the central steps, shallow enough for children’s ease, to stand facing a beaming Lem and Harra.

“My Lord and Lady Vorkosigan, Count and Countess Vorbarra. It is my rare honour and our great pleasure to welcome you all to Silvy Vale.” As Speaker and Speaker’s Wife they bowed and curtsied, and the crowd dipped solemnly with them, murmuring salutations, before Lem unexpectedly grinned. “Frankly, my Lords Count and Ladies Countess, we should wish to cheer you half the day, but we all know”—he rolled his eyes at Harra and the crowd laughed—“that there is much that must yet happen this evening and only 26 hours in a day. So we have agreed that if you will permit we shall reserve our cheers for these beloved children, if you will introduce them to us.”

Taken aback at just how smoothly Lem had managed that Miles managed one of his all-purpose ImpSec salutes, but before he could speak Gregor inclined his head to Lem and highjacked yet another Counts’ Right. What on Barrayar is he doing?

“Speaker and Madame Csurik, I know Lord Vorkosigan should reply to you, as your Count’s Voice, but before he does so I would ask that you bring forth to join us your own babe, whose naming I come to witness. The whole nature of this occasion, after all, is to assure us of the future, and in that future the mutual knowledge of our children must carry the day.”

Lem looked nonplussed but Harra only smiled satisfied appreciation before nodding to Gregor and turning to catch the eye of a gangly boy hiding behind her, who slipped through the schoolroom door. “She’s been fussing, my Lord Count, but will be happy to be included.”

Gregor nodded back. “Good. Thank you, Madame. Lord Vorkosigan?” His eyes were gleeful and Miles felt his political brain shift into high alert. Ekaterin was also eyeing Gregor with a pensive expression.

“Sire.” He left it at that and swung to face the crowd, gesturing behind him to the nursemaids holding no longer so little Aral A. and Helen Natalia. Among the nearer faces were many he recognised, including Zed Karal with his parents, the pack of skinny, menacing hill squirts who were Lem’s brothers (full grown, now, but still reminding him irresistibly of ferrets), his mother, stooped but beaming her pride, and a little block of Hassadarians in feastday-best, Roic’s parents and siblings, looking almost as surprised today as they must have been by his fiancée when they first met her. He would have given much to observe that scene, and was beginning to enjoy observing this one. Finishing his brief survey he raised a hand.

 “Speaker and Madame Csurik, and all you good people of Silvy Vale, it is the great pleasure of Lady Vorkosigan and I to return once again at Midsummer, sharing your festivities and joy. It’s becoming quite a tradition. I’m sorry we had to miss out last year, but we were on a belated honeymoon, on Terra, and busy besides, with the cleansing of Aralyar Ceta to arrange.” He smiled, slowly dusting his hands, and the crowd murmured laughter, Barrayaran appreciation of the revenge their Lord had taken streaked with unease at the connection between such huge events and the little man who stood before them. “But now we are here, and with guests of our own—just as I once threatened you, Zed—so as your Count’s Voice and heir allow me to present to you now he who will in the fullness of time be the twelfth Count Vorkosigan, Lord Aral Alexander Vorkosigan, and his sister, Lady Helen Natasha.”

The nursemaids handed Aral into his arms and Helen into Ekaterin’s, and as they held the blinking babies for the crowd to see a raw cheer swelled, making the hair on Miles’s neck bristle with the potency of its claim. No words were audible but if a future historian might say that this day formally established Lord Aral’s claim on his liege-folk-to-be, one who was here in Silvy Vale would know it was more a case of the liege-folk claiming him. For all the additional hardships and insults the Vorkosigan’s District had suffered through their mercurial Lords’ capabiltities its people had acquired in their extended sufferings and improbable triumphs an immense Vorkosigan pride, and since Mad Yuri’s Massacre more than seventy years ago had endured considerable uncertainty about their Count’s succession. To know it safely established for two further generations was no small thing, and since the sudden Cetagandan alliance, with Miles at its heart, they had begun to feel that the greatness of Counts Piotr and Aral was despite everything running true after all. Miles stared down at Aral Alexander in his arms, across at Ekaterin and Helen Natasha, and out again at the still boisterous crowd. And there are still days when I can’t quite believe it myself. Shifting his grip he raised a hand and the noise began to subside.

“Thank you all. Truly, our fealty is strong, and our mutual pledge renewed once again. The future beckons. But this fine Lord and Lady are not the only future that is here today. Count Vorbarra?”

As he turned to Gregor he saw that the flaps of haut Palma’s tent had been thrown back; what was visible of the interior seemed as purely Cetagandan as the tent’s exterior was Dendarii. Interesting. She stood watching them from within, free of any bubble-chair and dressed in her usual shimmering robes with a glittering white veil. At her shoulder, an elegant silhouette in the dim interior, stood a tall man in what looked like very rich if casual attire. Gars, presumably. The hair on Miles’s neck prickled again and he noticed that the ghem-guards were notably more alert, eyes quartering the crowd in professional patterns. Then to his utter astonishment one of them looked squarely at him and winked. What—? But before he could process implications he really couldn’t believe he noticed another figure beside Gars, rubbing against the haut’s leg, and even in the tent’s dimness there could be no mistaking the grey-and-tabby shape of ImpSec, supposedly secure at Vorkosigan Surleau. That cat will take up with anyone, dammit … Abruptly he remembered what bell it was that the name ‘Gars’ was ringing, and realised he had to believe the implications of the wink after all. Beside him Gregor coughed almost inaudibly and after a second’s inspection of his foster-brother winked at him too before murmuring “Very quick indeed, Miles. But babies first.”

Glaring slightly but deeply intrigued and feeling the beginnings of real amusement tinged with alarm—make that real alarm tinged with amusement—Miles stood to one side with Ekaterin to let Gregor and Laisa forward. The protocols of being Count Vorbarra made this a little complicated, and despite Lem’s sterling performance (eased no doubt by having met Gregor before) Silvy Vale was not yet quite the loyal village of Vorkosigan Surleau, with its solid core of veterans, to take imperial fictions in their stride. But Gregor knew exactly what he was about.

“Loyal liege-folk of my true father, my wife and I are here today with our children only as Count and Countess Vorbarra. If it were otherwise there would be more protocol in this lovely clearing than there are people, so much may and must go unspoken. But that does not mean it will go unseen, nor in any way misunderstood.”

He beckoned both to the nursemaids holding the Prince and Princess and to Harra, now holding a shawl-wrapped bundle, but when all reached him it was to Harra he turned, holding out his arms to take little Ekaterin Palma as he nodded to the nursemaid to give Prince Aral to Harra. Smiling at him she took the babe, as Laisa took Princess Kareen, and let him guide her to a place between them. The silence was profound, and Miles heard Ekaterin beside him breathe delighted approval of the symbolism Gregor had so simply contrived. His own admiration bubbled.

“My heirs, Prince Aral Michael Vorbarra and Princess Kareen Cordelia Vorbarra. May their lives honour all whose names they bear.” At his gesture Harra and Laisa briefly held up the babes, and the crowd growled a satisfaction distinct from the way they had welcomed a Vorkosigan heir but no less possessive or sharp with bitter experience. They were all Vorbarra, as Vorkosigan, loyalists, for fiercely practical as well as feudally emotional reasons, and Gregor pounced on their relief at healthy imperial progeny. He held up a surprised but willing baby. “And one you already know of their generation, Ekaterin Palma Csurik to be, who will grow with them into adult health, enjoying peace and free of old fears, for I will that it be so.”

Count Vorbarra or no, the crowd knew an imperial command when it heard one at close range. They were also, Miles thought with approval, perfectly willing to obey but he wasn’t surprised that some at least had needed to hear words said, and Gregor had obliged them. A ripple of bows and curtsies washed through them with the sussuration of ‘Sire’, and Gregor smiled at them all as he handed little Ekaterin Palma to an imperial nursemaid, signalling others to relieve Laisa and Harra and both Vorkosigans of their own burdens.

“Now, as Speaker Csurik said, there is much still to happen this day, and while I know you have been surpassingly busy here, we have been to Vorkosigan Surleau, Seligrad, and Pierrotin Village in the High Vale. So perhaps you will forgive us, and greet our children in their nursemaids’ care, while Lord and Lady Vorkosigan show my wife and I this school’s famous picture-wall.”

That brought nods of pleasure and the oiled routine of Armsmen and nursemaids swung into action, absorbing an additional baby with ease. Beautiful wooden cribs were set out along the porch, each with an attendant maid and Armsmen before and behind, and the crowd began to move as those who wanted to come closer did so, forming a line to pass before the porch; those with business still to complete—including Taura, Roic, and the sergeants—set off to be about it. Gathering him, Ekaterin, and Laisa by eye, and gesturing to Alys and Simon, Gregor pulled them all with him towards the senior schoolroom, where a still grinning Lem held open the door. As he passed in behind Ekaterin Miles shot a look at Gregor and drew breath to pose a disingenuously mild query but found himself stopped by a raised hand as Gregor sat himself at a front-row desk and settled back to contemplate the pictures above the board on the wall behind the teacher’s stand.

Sighing, Miles settled back to wait and saw both Aunt Alys and Simon, entering behind Nikki, grin at him. They had, he assumed, seen the picture-wall already, and from Aunt Alys’s evident satisfaction she clearly approved Harra’s use of the gifts she had facilitated—the astonishing mid-wedding images of him and Ekaterin, and of Gregor and Laisa, that Harra had hung with the required portraits of Count and Emperor, and the extra one she had hung the day the school opened, of Ensign Lord Vorkosigan, who had once judged her mother for her daughter’s murder. When Harra herself slipped in behind them Lem closed the door, and they all waited until Gregor sighed with pleasure and turned his head to give Harra one of those personal-yet-imperial smiles that did strange things to one’s confidence.

“You’ll understand, I imagine, Harra, that I’m usually underwhelmed by images of myself, but these really are very good.” His gaze flickered around them. “And after long years when I saw no way forward I have found not only a wife but a sister, and my brother has found us all a deeper peace than we would have dreamed possible when those pictures were taken. So it is right that in the heart of the Vorkosigan’s District the twining truth of Vorbarras and Vorkosigans be known.” Miles couldn’t deny it, and didn’t want to, but his alarm and amusement both deepened. Gregor rested a hand on his chin. “What I really want to know, Harra, is how you have found sight of Taura there”—he gestured to the image of Miles’s and Ekaterin’s wedding, where Taura was unmistakable behind Ekaterin, as her second –“to affect sight of her here.” He gestured to the Vale outside. “There may be no more important place on Barrayar right now than Silvy Vale, for reasons you well appreciate even if you’d never claim any credit, so tell me, please, how it has been.”

Harra nodded, seeming far less surprised than anyone else by Gregor’s plain speaking. “Nothing to cause real fret, my Lord, for which Taura herself is mostly to thank, though seeing her with you in that broadcast has certainly been a good talking point.” She considered a moment, an unflustered gathering of thoughts that Miles saw Gregor appreciate. “The picture here certainly began acceptance, and Taura’s tales of Lord Vorkosigan and all her mercenary adventures were honey to half the adults as well as all the children.” He winced and noted Gregor’s flicker of a smile. Who knew what fearful compound of him the Vale would make of Taura’s stories? It was inevitable, but all the same. “But it’s Taura’s own presence, her patience and kindness and, well, her understanding of being stared at that’s really won over hearts.” Harra’s gaze swung to Miles and her whisper was intimate. “I understand well why you and she are friends, my Lord”

Miles nodded back, ignoring the surprise that flickered on several faces around the room. “Just so. And her job is working out?”

“Oh yes, wonderfully.” Harra laughed and everyone felt eased. “You should see Taura charging for a mile up the slopes. She’s not even out of breath when she presents the letters and parcels, and she’s very clever with how she smiles around her fangs. The women don’t know what’s hit them and the men are simply riveted that she’s wedding Roic. His brave history in Hassadar and meeting Taura the way he did saving Her Ladyship is all just icing on the cake. So you needn’t worry, my Lord.”

Gregor intervened before Miles could continue. “And with your babe? Haut Palma’s work, and presence?”

Harra considered again, then grimaced slightly. “Among the men, a quarter muttering to themselves, a half talking more-or-less sensibly to one another, and a quarter who already know they’re far more grateful than embarrassed.” Miles saw Aunt Alys’s eyes widen slightly in appreciation. “Among the women nine-tenths practical and immediate seizure of anything making haut Palma’s promise. Any wife or grandmother wants whole babies, and one here in the mountains might deal with Baba Yaga herself if she offered a guarantee.” She grinned more openly. “Which  I suppose is what we’re doing. Take a long spoon to sup with Baba Yaga, they say around here, but our spoons grow shorter by the day, thanks to my Lord’s generosity with replicators, and haut Palma doing—what did the doc call it?—fast-tracking of people round here. Everyone’s already seen more results than little Ekaterin, they’ve heard your command just now, and they’ve found for themselves today that ghem can be civil as guests. They’d heard it from Vorkosigan Surleau two years ago, but it’s good to know for oneself.” Suddenly she blushed a little. “And I’ve a speech to give myself, later.”

“Excellent. Thank you, Harra. And I look forward very much to that speech.” Gregor glanced sharply at Miles, who subsided again, and at last began to wonder why exactly Gregor wanted him to contain himself. “I’m especially glad to hear your Cetagandan guests have been properly respectful, though I thought they would be. And haut Palma’s guest, haut Gars? Have you met him?”

Miles would have sworn Harra’s eyes twinkled. “I have, my Lord. A very polite man. He explained that he needed to see Count Vorbarra about his work, and had limited time, so he hoped we didn’t mind his being here.” Count Vorbarra about his work? His political ear twitched. Why on Cetaganda would—

“And what did you reply?”

Unexpectedly Lem answered Gregor, inclining his head respectfully. “That any friend of yours was welcome here, my Lord, and he in his humility more than most.” Oooh! Miles saw Gregor’s well-concealed wince, and inwardly chortled with Dendarii glee. Lem must have seen it too, for he grinned at his emperor. “Also, that it was always an honour and a boon to return and requite hospitality.” He paused. “Then we presented him with a pitcher of maple mead.”

Miles felt his anticipation rocket. Maple mead did many things to man; what might it do to haut? Gregor winced again, more visibly, but also smiled despite himself. “Fair enough, Speaker Csurik. Did haut Gars reply?”

“Only to thank us, very graciously, and say that in courtesy he felt he should withdraw until you arrived, my Lord.” Lem’s face became thoughtful. “I think haut Palma is not quite used to being out of her bubble, for she … well, snorted would cover it. Twice. I wondered if she realised I heard her, and if haut Gars was making the same calculation.”

Gregor’s attention was suddenly palpable. “He may well have been. Your mind is as sharp as your voice is clear, Speaker.” Lem bowed, visibly pleased. “Now, Miles, you had a question?”

Catching the barely suppressed smiles on the faces of Aunt Alys and Simon Miles realised belatedly that he and—he checked with a fleeting glance of enquiry—Ekaterin were the last ones to know about haut Gars. Gregor has counted coup, dammit. Oh well, it was his turn.  “One or two.” Million. “But I was just thinking that Cetagandan security can’t have had such access to the Dendarii for almost a century, now. Gran’da must be at high revs.”

Flush in his fraternal triumph Gregor wasn’t going to concede a blush, but he paused slightly before smiling sweetly at Miles. “True, but I’m only following your lead, you know.”

“Undoubtedly. So all I shall ask is to be present when you inform Da about this … visitation?”

Gregor winced a third time, in appreciation. “We both know he won’t mind, but you have me there. And yes, visitation is the word. Or maybe holiday.” He straightened. “I owe you an apology, Ekaterin, for the surprise, but fooling Miles tends to mean having to fool you too. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t resist.”

For once Ekaterin looked uncertain. “I’m not entirely sure I follow, Gregor, but I don’t feel owed an apology yet.”

“No? Then wait and see what happens. It’ll be … interesting.”

Miles blinked. Interesting? Rhymes with ‘emperor’, right?

 

 

III







Trailing Miles onto the porch Ekaterin was still wondering what Gregor was up to that had Miles on hot bricks, but there was always something, and her attention was on the scene before her. The necessary political burden of the Christening Tours was bad enough in itself; twining around lingering Dendarii suspicions that there might yet be infants whose throats were best cut, and tangling with fossilised perceptions of Miles as a mutant who kept his heart in a box somewhere, it could make her quite impatient. District duties and brotherly games were all very well, but they had prevented her from anything more than distant advice about the pavilions and ceremonial circles that had been set up, and she was eager to see what Silvy Vale—and Aunt Alys, Estelle, and haut Palma—had contrived.

The clearing looked grand, though terribly crowded. The two pavilions stood opposite one another at the higher end, while a stacked row of tables and benches at the lower showed where food would be served when the time came. Bunting caught the last, low sunlight, fluttering on guyropes and trees as well as the porch and roof of the school. A steady stream of folk wound along the porch-front, smiling and cooing at the babes, all miraculously pleased by attention rather than bored with personal inactivity. The Armsmen were alert, eyes quartering, as were the ghem-guards outside haut Palma’s pavilion to the higher side of the school. Aral’s and Helen’s nursemaids met her gaze with nods and smiles, so that was alright. And Nikki was bouncing at Gregor in front of her, asking why he liked his picture on the wall so much, and adding artlessly that Aunt Palma had brought him greetings from Fel Epallo, temporarily back on Eta Ceta with his parents for what Ekaterin guessed was probably a high-level debriefing.

She saw Miles and Gregor freeze as they caught that Aunt Palma and blinked herself. Oh … dear. The foster-brothers shared an appalled look before Gregor shrugged fractionally and replied warmly to Nikki. Things were bustling over at the naming pavilion but clearly not ready yet for the actual participants, she had already done most of what she could for Taura as her second, and Gregor was plainly busy with Nikki, so she dropped back to ask Aunt Alys if she was satisfied with arrangements, and Simon Illyan cocked an eyebrow at her quizzically.

“Fretting, my Lady? Has the Tour today been that bad?”

Gah. She smiled ruefully. “Not really, Simon, just … time-consuming. I’ve really had no chance to be a proper second to Taura at all, and I want to see the pavilions and the dresses.”

Both he and Alys laughed before she replied. “Patience, dear. All’s well. Do I gather, by the way, that Nikki has adopted haut Palma as yet another aunt?”

“It seems so. He appears to collect them.” As a substitute for jump-ships. Several other thoughts also occurred. “He wants a lot, you realise, because they’re all so often unavailable.  And if haut Palma agreed to it he seems to have acquired Miles’s ability to … do something very strange to well-established protocol.”

Illyan snorted but grew thoughtful. “Yes. He did as much with Fel Epallo at your graduation party, I recall. He obviously misses the lad, and his approach to Palma this afternoon was a conscientiously tactful cross-examination. What is interesting is that she clearly expected it, and I think genuinely did bear young Fel’s greetings, relayed via haut Pel, I imagine.”

“Really?” Ekaterin thought Miles should be hearing this but he was hanging off the porch between two cribs, talking crossly to Jankowski until one hand, resting briefly between gestures on the porch-rail, was abruptly pounced upon out of nowhere by ImpSec. Who was supposed to be in Vorkosigan Surleau. Hmmm. Miles rubbed the grey-and-tabby head affectionately for a moment before returning attention to Jankowski. Intrigued, she moved forward and felt Alys and Illyan behind her.

“I rest my case, Armsman. Conclusively.”

Jankowski hunched. “But it was the haut woman, my Lord. She asked me directly to go and collect the … cat, in the same tone His Majesty uses to request and require. What could I do? And when I got to Vorkosigan Surleau the cat was waiting for me, hopped in cool as you please, and nodded permission to chauffeur him here. I’m no Pym, my Lord, to cope with cats, as you well know.”

Miles did not look appeased, and drummed his fingers on the porch-rail. “Are you sure it was haut Palma who was asking? Or was it perhaps haut Gars?”

Jankowski looked confused. “Well, she did the asking, my Lord, and I’ve not seen hair nor hide of him save in silhouette when you and Count Vorbarra were speaking.”

Ekaterin laid a hand on Miles’s arm. “It’s ImpSec, love. Force majeure, not Jankowski’s fault.” She smiled at the Armsman, thinking that he was growing elderly and had never been the sharpest knife in the Vorkosigan drawer. His retirement would also open the way for Miles, thwarted in Taura’s case by her partnership with Roic, to appoint an Armswoman as what he called her ‘very own Drou’, and she found she was growing impatient herself for the change—though whom he now had in mind she wasn’t sure, and reserved her approval. ImpSec extended his attentions from Miles's hand to her own, and with a sigh she let her fingers find the jawline he always wanted scratched. “This cat’s been a law unto himself since he first scaled that armillary sphere, and a holiday atmosphere only makes him worse.” Jankowski nodded gratefully. “Now, Armsman, could you please go and check with Sergeant Taura when she needs me to be where, and if there’s anything she’d like me to do meanwhile.”

“At once, my Lady.”

Jankowski fled into a twilight increasingly splashed with firelight as a troop of younger folk made their way around the clearing lighting tapers on tall stands that were (she could just see) gorgeous in their simple lines and inlaid with carving. Miles stared up at her for a moment, flicked a gaze at Simon and Alys, and grinned.

“Quite right, my Lady. I was being a boor.” He gathered up a purring ImpSec and draped him over his shoulders, where the cat groaned with pleasure and, Ekaterin would swear, contrived to imitate one of those ghastly full-fur stoles with taxidermic eyes that high Vor battleaxes of her great-aunt Vorvayne’s generation—what Ivan called the geezer-class—had thought proper to their dignity. She almost made a face back at the shameless beast but Miles continued just in time, jerking her attention back to the Other Thing that was Going On. Whatever it was. “In any case, there are higher powers in motion here, and for once I will believe that even ImpSec is only an accessory after the fact. Aunt Alys, Simon, may I know when you found out about haut Gars?”

Both smiled, and this time Illyan replied. “Only when haut Palma arrived with him shortly after we did. I was expecting to make myself useful, or scarce, while Alys did whatever was needful for Taura, but Harra had everything running smoothly, so we both relaxed and had a nice long chat with haut Palma about the effect of all the new wormholes.”

Miles smiled acerbically. “And with haut Gars?”

“He … contributed once or twice, but was more a listener. His personal bodyguard had more to say—a very well-informed and pleasantly spoken ghem who said that on the job his name was Legion. There was an allusion involved, I think, but neither of us got it. Do you?”

“Not off the top of my head, but … ask Ma. I think it may be to do with one of the old Terran religions. But unless I’m sadly wide of the mark he’s also playing an unfamiliar new role, and so feeling unreasonably multiplied.”

Aunt Alys smiled at her nephew. “Very good, Miles. Tell me, did you ever get past Richard III to discover what Gregor sometimes calls Sir Thomas Erpingham’s cloak?”

Miles’s eyes went unfocused for a second before opening very wide. “Yes, certainly. Is this the night before a battle?”

“No, no, not at all. My analogy was merely in principle, you understand, as the Cetagandans appear to have issued several for use today.”

“Ah, yes. Thank you.”

Alys lowered her voice. “And if I’m not mistaken, using them is a form of … imperial gift. From Gregor.”

Miles seemed arrested by this idea, as he often was by Aunt Alys’s imperial observations, but while Ekaterin knew he had as a child learned by heart that old play about a deformed king, she could make neither head nor tail of it otherwise, and frowned slightly. Alys raised an eyebrow at her.

“Miles can explain later, dear. You should follow up. So many people find reasons to be incognito these days.”

Gah. Again. But here at last was Jankowski back, nodding respectfully before announcing that Sergeant Taura would be glad to see Her Ladyship as soon as she might be spared, and Madame Csurik said they hoped to begin the naming ceremony before too long. Looking around, Ekaterin saw Nikki had vanished somewhere and Gregor and Laisa had set off towards haut Palma’s pavilion, trailing Armsmen and creating a swirl in the crowd that opened paths she could use herself. Making appropriate noises of temporary farewell she let Jankowski escort her through the cheerful throng, smiling vaguely at all, to an area under the trees behind the wedding pavilion where the bride’s and groom’s parties were staging. She took the chance as she went by to peek inside at the circle of groats on the floor and the fittings, but Aunt Alys had of course done her usual job, and all looked elegantly splendid without ceasing to be appropriate in this simple setting. Behind the pavilion the quiet Bride’s and much noisier Groom’s parties were separated more symbolically than practically by a small, beautifully carved two-panel screen showing maple trees and the Long Lake below Vorkosigan Surleau.

Taura had already changed into her wedding-dress, and Ekaterin stopped to admire her, a vision not in white—there was just too much of Taura for that—but a deep forest green that like all of the dresses Estelle had made for her enhanced her grace and femininity without in any way apologising for her size, and brought out the colour of her eyes and the whiteness of her fangs. She looked wonderful. The modiste was herself adjusting something at the back of the hem, and both she and Taura smiled greetings as they saw Ekaterin. The Dendarii sergeants stood watching, one with a strange contraption on her face, holding what must be corrective lenses before pale blue eyes. Glasses, Ekaterin remembered, still sometimes seen on Barrayar among the truly poor, but so rare she couldn’t recall ever seeing them herself before. How odd.

“Madame Estelle, it’s good to see you. Taura, dear, you look wonderful.”

“I’m sorry I can’t move to greet you properly, my Lady.” She sounded the feudal vocative with a sergeant’s trick of penetrating chatter and Ekaterin heard the male voices beyond the screen abruptly fall silent.

“No, no,” she laughed, “I’m the one who should be apologising for being such a bad second. I am sorry, Taura, but the Christening Tour has been a bit overwhelming.” And far too like watching Barrayar begin to eat its own young. She wished momently for Cordelia to be here today, but the Viceroy and Vicereine were busy jumping Sergyar over several decades of investment and cultural growth on the back of the massive and hugely disruptive boom the new technologies were fuelling, and any free hours they squeezed out were spent using the new wormhole-link to Aralyar Ceta, where the major Joint-Fleet and administrative buildings were already astonishingly far advanced (and so striking architecturally that a visit was high on her own agenda). Taura looked at her wistful woolgathering with concern.

“Oh you mustn’t apologise, my Lady. I know how busy you’ve been, and how much the Tour matters to Miles. And it’s not as if I did any real seconding for you at your wedding. Roic and I each have our lines memorised in seven languages, and the planning’s been zapped by Lady Alys and Harra.” She grinned. “If it was a combat mission I’d be good to go.”

 Seven? Gregor and Laisa will like that. Ekaterin smiled back warmly. “Excellent. Is there anything you would like me to do, now I am here? Are you nervous? I was so exhausted with all my memories and knocked sideways by that poison that on the day itself I had no energy to fret.”

“I remember. And, no, thank you, I’m fine.” Her eyes softened. “This day is all joy to me. It’s so much a fantasy that I know nothing ill can happen. But I’ve forgotten all my manners. My Lady, may I introduce my friends? Fleet-Sergeant Alexa Ransom, late of Terra, and Quartermaster Sergeant-Major Nan Hellund, late of Pol, both of the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet Command. Gunny, Specs, Lady Ekaterin Vorkosigan.”

As both sergeants were in Dendarii dress greys Ekaterin wasn’t surprised that they bowed rather than curtsying, and felt slightly relieved it hadn’t been salutes. She offered a hand and felt in Ransom’s grip a controlled strength that oddly reminded her of Aral; hands that might strangle a man. Hellund’s grasp was less intimidating but no weaker. Ekaterin drew breath to make polite enquiries but was forestalled by Ransom.

“I must say, Ma’am, you’re not what I’d have imagined as Mrs Naismith.”

Taura whooped laughter but Ekaterin saw Estelle frown minutely in puzzlement and hoped her own shock hadn’t shown. She thought Miles might be amused but had to fight off an appalling vision of the wilderness her life might be if she had accidentally married Miles in his covert ops persona. And the good sergeant should be set straight.

“That’s because I’m not, Fleet-Sergeant.” How did Miles put it? “You might say that while both Lord Vorkosigan and Admiral Naismith were killed on Aralyar Ceta, under its old management, only Lord Vorkosigan survived his cryo-revival.  And I am only Lady Vorkosigan.”

“Really, Ma’am?”

“Really.”

“I’ve told her, my Lady, but she won’t listen.” Hellund’s voice was sorrowful, eyes glinting behind their strange windows. “Gunny, she’s not Mrs Admiral Shorty. Remember, the Admiral couldn’t avenge himself as he wanted on the Jacksonians. The Dendarii don’t do invasions. Much. But when the gene-crackers took a pot at Her Ladyship here someone created the largest naval force ever seen in the Nexus and took the whole planet out on live framecast. With coloured bubbles. To impromptu music by a quaddie with a dulcimer that has since logged several billion paid downloads and made Graf Station—which I remind you is hell and gone in Sector V—into some kind of Hammered Music Central. That was Lord Auditor Vorkosigan, and this is his Lady.”

Ekaterin smiled. This I can cope with. “Quite right, QSM. We Vor react badly to wedding-day crime.” Thoughts tumbled through her head, and she cocked an eyebrow at Ransom. “The thing is, Fleet-Sergeant, there’s a lot of it about. You understand, for example, that while Gregor is here today, the Emperor isn’t? And that while haut Palma is here, her friend and ghem-guards aren’t ? It’s odd, I know, but rather important.”

She hadn’t meant to name-drop but bare mention of Gregor had both Dendarii blinking, and Hellund murmuring to Ransom with an edge in her voice. “Come on, Al. We are on Barrayar, you know.”

Ransom grunted, unmoved. “Seems foolish, Ma’am, and I don’t trust foolishness. Never have.”

Hellund sighed and looked prim. “In a fight, my Lady, Gunny here’s your go-to girl. Wham, bam, and he’s already cooked, Ma’am. Wonderful, really. But she’s not so good with fictions, and forever butting heads with Fleet Legal.”

Ekaterin smiled neutrally, wondering how to do good here, and brightened as a trio of girls, none older than eight, struggled into view carrying wooden stools not much smaller than they were. Their leader looked aghast to see her standing there, and somehow managed a curtsey before manfully proffering the stool.

“Here you are, my Lady. I’m sorry we were delayed.”

As her companions offered their own burdens to the sergeants Ekaterin gravely thanked the girl, and explained that she hadn’t minded standing in the least before winking fractionally and asking what the Vale thought of their new postwoman. She was rewarded with a concerted stare of devotion at Taura and an unexpectedly thoughtful and heartening—and disconcerting—answer.

“She’s magical, my Lady. And she says we can learn magic, too. Not her fangs and what—that’s just genetics and bioengineering.” The polysyllables appeared without a hitch, and Ekaterin’s appreciation of Harra rose still further. “Her way of … just doing it, and suddenly it is possible.” She received a solemn scrutiny. “The sergeant says she learned it from Lord Vorkosigan, and Ma Csurik says he got it from his Da-the-Count and his Ma who cut off Vordarian’s head to save him. Did you learn it from him?”

Ekaterin blinked. “I believe I may have. He certainly practices on me. And there’s a lot of work first, you know. When things like that just happen it means you haven’t seen the work, not that there wasn’t any.”

“Oh I know that, my Lady. Ma Csurik’d skin me otherwise.”

On that note she recollected herself, gathered her cohort, and led them away, leaving Ekaterin and the sergeants each holding a stool while Taura and Estelle kept very straight faces and over the maple screen a row of eyes—Roic’s brown evident among them—stared in fascination. Amused, Ekaterin planted her stool and sat, with one motion waving at the gawping men, who vanished amid a buzz of renewed activity, and more politely to the sergeants, who cautiously seated themselves.

She looked at their wary faces. “I wonder if you ladies were with Admiral, ah, Shorty when he got entangled with the newsies on Terra? Yes? Then you must understand fictions of security and covert ops, Fleet-Sergeant. The difference is that there the idea is that people genuinely don’t know who you are, while with Count Vorbarra the point is a collective ability not to know what he is. It saves on protocol, and has other advantages. His Imperial Majesty could not be here, politically speaking, but Count Vorbarra can, and Gregor is glad to be, as he is very fond of Taura and devoted to Harra Csurik. With haut Palma it is more that the people want her here, as herself, because of the genetic work she has sponsored to make today possible, and she is willing to visit. But she is also, you realise, Planetary Consort of Rho Ceta, one of the ten most senior haut there are, and she can’t go swanning about Allied backwoods with no escort. Yet in a place the ghem-lords hit with very dirty atomics less than a century ago ghem-warriors aren’t so welcome, and to square the circle everyone’s agreed to pretend they’re not here.  And the ghem are happy with the arrangement. They’re all wearing face-paint anyway. You don’t have to pretend anything to yourself, but if you intend to talk to anyone you’ll have to dance the dance. Frankly—it has purpose, and works. Live with it.”

The sergeants stared at her, then at one another, until after a moment Hellund said questioningly “QED?”

Ransom shrugged massively. “Yes. I owe you the beer. If she isn’t Mrs. Shorty she just channelled him righteously.” She turned to face Ekaterin, smiling a little. “I’m not a complete loss, my Lady, I’ll dance as needed. And do you know who this haut Gars is? I rather think our Fangs here does, but isn’t saying, and it’s beginning to bug me.”

Taura grinned happily and Ekaterin shrugged herself, noting Taura’s sergeanting-name among her peers. “I’m sorry, I really don’t.”

Ransom smiled some more. “Fair enough, true or false, and I’ll believe true. But I tell you, even seen from behind he’s fit, that Gars. And so are his bodyguards. As good as I’ve ever seen, and I strongly suspect a whole heap better. They all move like … I dunno, cats. Biiig cats, with long teeth and sharp claws. Pullable tails, too, I bet.”

“Yes, I imagine they do. High-level Cetagandans are like that, usually. But Ekaterin’s mind was suddenly whirling. “And I think haut Gars may be very high-level, as haut Palma is. Or even Count Vorbarra. You might care to think about what it means to be an emperor, you know. In his proximity to the imperial throne Lord Vorkosigan has far less privacy than Admiral Naismith enjoyed. And poor Gregor has almost none. He now rules, technically at least and it’s growing at light-speed, anything up to a hundred planets, and he’s spent at least twenty days in the last six months showing two perfectly normal babies to better than three million Vor and commoners, loyal subjects who may one day be asked to die for them. Along the way he’s cajoled through and signed off on the Alliance Trades and Tariffs treaty, which is deadly dull but will affect, conservatively, fifty billion livelihoods as well as those of all who settle in the newly claimed volumes. Oh, and he’s opened twelve new wormholes that with the thirty-four the Cetagandans have opened will channel nearly one third of the total trade of the Nexus through Alliance space, which means his probable earnings over the next half-century are estimated in billions of billions. You may have noticed the, um, hardening of the Barrayaran Imperial mark?” As Nexus markets had realised that wormholes and doubled lifespan really were on Alliance offer the mark’s rise had been almost exponential, so even though the Dendarii paid salaries in Betan dollars Ransom jolly well ought to have noticed, and Hellund must have done so. “Remember every mark bears Gregor’s profile, and he is free of scrutiny about as often as no-one anywhere is looking at one. Think about it. What price Count Vorbarra then? Besides, wouldn’t you rather the ruler with those powers got a day off now and again? For old times’ sake?”

 Both sergeants were staring at her, as was Estelle. Oh well. Hellund spoke. ”Damn straight she’s channelling. We hear you, my Lady. Empowering fictions it is. Gunny?”

“I’ll behave. But it’s still foolishness.”

Ekaterin nodded, and turned to Hellund. “Forgive me, QSM, but why do you affect those … glasses, are they called? They’re an … intriguing accessory.”

Hellund’s eyes glinted again. “No affectation, my Lady. I’ve ruined my eyes with small figures on cheap screens, and I can’t see without them.”

“What Specs means,” explained Taura, as Estelle at last finished with her hem, “is that while she really did need them to see after, um, departing Pol, she is now addicted to the way they change her face and serve as a recruit-nailing prop. Like my fangs, really. Show her, Nan.”

Hellund laughed, and stared ironically, then menacingly, then enticingly, then forlornly at Ekaterin over her glasses before sliding them off and transforming herself from a formidable warrior-bureaucrat with a spinsterly look into a mild, blinking, and very attractive older ingenue with fluttering lashes.

Ekaterin involuntarily gurgled laughter and saw everyone relax a little, but she’d also seen Hellund’s eyes lose focus and tracking. And perhaps she really was channelling Miles. Good. “That’s perfect, But, QSM, now that you can, why not have your eyes done and replace the lenses with plain glass? Control the accessory, don’t be a slave to it.” She took in the womens’ stillness, and Taura’s, then glanced at Estelle, cocking an eyebrow and after a dense second receiving a nod. She looked back at Hellund and Ransom. “That’s new on you both? I really don’t see it should be, but … do you want to make a lot of money and win a thousand admirers, QSM?”

For once Hellund looked nonplussed. “I’m not saying No, my Lady. Yet.”

“Then let Estelle vid that routine you did, and any other uses you put your specs to.” Ransom and Taura both grinned. “ She and I know people who can make plain glasses the accessory of the season.” And designing frames will be fun. “With Lord Mark’s advice Estelle can handle the high end and license the rest, and if after two seasons we can’t send you a transfer of, oh, at least a few million Imperial I’ll be surprised. And I don’t know how long you have on Barrayar, but if it’s more than a day or two I can arrange laser surgery for you, if you’d like.” She smiled sweetly. “My expense, of course. I have a fortune these days it can be hard to find really satisfying uses for, so please don’t be shy.”

Taura’s hoot drew admiring looks from the faces that reappeared over the maplewood screen. “I told you, Gunny, don’t mess with my second. And do it, Nan. You’re both toast, girls.” Then she frowned, blushed, and turned apologetically but resolutely to Ekaterin. “But I’m afraid, my Lady, that I’m now honour-bound to carry you piggyback up my longest mail-run. At your convenience, of course—I insisted on that. So after all this is over”—she gestured expansively around tent and clearing—“could we, um, liaise? I’ll have no peace until I send them both vids, you know.”

 

 

IV







Haut Gars—whoever in all my empire he may be—looked down at his imperial cousins and chose the mode of sincere respect, courteously adding the inflections to swear genome-truth, though he wasn’t sure Gregor would fully understand the gesture. No matter; Palma will. And Dag. A microsecond glance assured him Benin was near enough to hear, though co-ordinating the close-squad, who were doing well. Even if half of them are ImpSec. In face-paint, Crèche help us.

“That is not so, Gregor. You realise, cousins, even in Celestial pomp I could legally give haut Palma no order unless it had vital bearing on the concerns of empire? But she as Planetary Consort has the right to command imperial protection, and offer it. The token she chooses to give Madame Csurik’s infant is mine to honour, not mine to command.”

“Is it so, cousin? How charmingly imperial. Well, fictions and truth go pleasantly together.”

Gregor’s Cetagandan had been surprisingly good when Fletchir first met him so unepectedly by frame, and by now it was exquisite for an outlander, as well as garnished, unnervingly for both ghem and haut, with certain tricks his own Celestial grammar had supplied. Not always wittingly. It seemed Gregor had caught the genome-truth and gentled the barbs of his remark by patting Laisa’s hand where it rested on his left forearm and turning equably to Palma. Who would not for a world be seen … gawping like that back home. What a splendid language Barrayaran was, and Gregor was not done exercising his Cetagandan.

“Forgive me, haut Palma, but amid their beauty your gifts bear sigils of the Star Crèche, finely wrought.” He gestured toward the Crèche attendant, still holding the honour-jewels for his and Laisa’s inspection. “In Barrayaran lands, what might that mean for the safe honours of their bearers, whose hands rest between mine?”

Palma was clearly caught by the subtle traces of imperial mode that graced Gregor’s clever question, so mockingly simple. And good luck to you interrogating her, cousin. Someone deserves it. He stifled a smile as his third-ranking Planetary Consort all but curtsied, but she hadn’t quite lost her wits.

“Nothing but good, Lord Count, Lady Countess.” Laisa smiled neutrally, following Gregor in this. She does not always. He waited with interest to see what tack Palma would take. “In our own empire it is like that Horus-eye your Security uses. A testimony to our vigilance over our own. Truth to tell, here it will mean … little. The Csuriks remain themselves, your subjects in all things. It is only the shadow of our parent’s hand, held above their child. But the gifts acknowledge our connection, and the acknowledged are an obligation.” Clever. And true.

 “Just so, my Lady. Well … I am happy it be so, but in virtue remind you I take such obligations very gravely.” His drop into the teaching mode between friends gave Fletchir a jolt. “How odd that there is no way in the high tongue to call you ‘Aunt’ Palma, as Nikki has dubbed you. There should be.”

Gregor used the Barrayaran word but inflected it correctly to signal quotation.

“What is it Horatio says about the ghost and Hamlet’s Da? These hands are not more like?” He held up his own imperial hands, turning them in the light Palma had programmed to limit Barrayaran aesthetic advantage. Less than successfully, I see. “He’s oddly wrong, of course, not allowing for mirror-symmetry, as we must. But do remember, please, that little Ekaterin Palma’s hands remain between mine, with her parents’.” An imperial meta-inflection made the possessive apostrophe audible, and Gregor followed that rare trick by reverting to imperial mode in a version of his own that was becoming extremely interesting, especially where pronouns were concerned. “Should the protection symbolised ever be invoked, I trust you will first talk to … us. Or Laisa, or my heir. Or his. And that you will never extend your protection to any subject without our explicit imperial grace. Have we Your Word, as the Handmaiden would know it?”

Fletchir saw Benin’s hidden shock as he listened so discreetly. Where cousin Gregor had discovered that old formula was a puzzle for the future, Palma’s dilated pupils a pleasure for the present. Recovering well, she did not hesitate.

“You do, Sire.”

Fletchir nearly laughed aloud as he noted the word and promise made. His own strange disguise would require a long legal note, but such a declaration in the high tongue, by a Consort in his presence, was a formal commitment of Crèche policy. And it was open-ended, while any heir of the Vorbarra held the Barrayaran throne. Cousin Gregor had perhaps won more than he knew. And perhaps that is twice over a dangerous thought. Catching a finger-signal from Benin he dropped into Barrayaran, savouring the gutturals and wild informality even of its polite modes.

“So that’s settled. And not before time, as I believe things are starting to happen outside. But before we go, Gregor, tell me of Miles. I saw him deduce from Dag’s wink whom haut Gars must be in about two-tenths of a second, just before your speech. While holding his son. It was … impressive. How has he taken the news?”

Gregor grinned charmingly. “Like Shuang-Mei with that geneered catnip Pel has to keep under spaceglass. I had to squish him when we were in the schoolroom, until he started thinking. And ImpSec captured a gesturing hand from concealment soon after, so I expect he’s back under control. Whether Ekaterin has worked you out I’m not so sure; she hadn’t when I last saw her but she’ll have spoken to Taura since, who has I take it seen you?”

“Yes. A brief stare and a calculating nod. Another very quick study of these odd fictions of yours. Dag says her sergeant-friends are observant, and armed.”

“Nothing more than the knives women often bear here. Guy made sure.”

“Ah. Well enough. So Miles was … intrigued. But you haven’t—“

“No, not at all. Much better to let him get there on his own.”

“And he will? Truly?”

“I have no doubt. Nor should you.” Gregor peered up at him, then disentangled himself from Laisa to—clout, I believe is the word—his taller cousin on one arm. “It’ll be alright, Fletchir. Miles just needs to be … stroked, sometimes.” He cocked a head. “And you’re right, we should be going. The naming is being called.”

Amused by the impromptu negotiation and appreciative of Gregor’s summary resolution, Fletchir found himself content to trail his cousins beside Palma, despite the sheer oddity of the experience. And digesting what Gregor had just done edged him further towards belief that this—entirely insane—experiment might truly win him and his family something of which he had despaired. The scene in the clearing was in any case affecting. Encircling trees held a leafy gloom, reminding him of his grandfather’s personal grotto in the Celestial Garden, but scores of tapers gave a flickering effect technology had never duplicated. From behind him, to the left, came enticing smells of cookery, but it would be an hour or more before those meats were ready. His half-borrowed guards and their commander were doing amazingly well in opening their way. Without turning Gregor radiated reassurance. All is well.

Where those makeshift tents had been placed opposite one another the crowd was arraying itself, and within one pavilion Lord and Lady Vorkosigan already stood on two of the … star-points, yes. The term made plain sense, wrapped in its own and common allusions, as he had told Rian. Miles and Ekaterin. How I admire them. Harra Csurik and her husband also stood there, he on a star-point and she centrally, holding their infant. Her dress was simply cut but subtle glitter and exquisite line warned him of Lady Vorpatril’s busy hand. An empty star-point awaited Palma, and in the space before the pavilion, marked with that cereal his cousin’s people were so fond of, were places of witness. The splendid Taura, whom Palma had genetically intervened to save at Miles’s impassioned request—and he dearly wished he had the record of that meeting; he must ask Gregor if there was one—stood as a witness, in what must be her very fine wedding-dress, with her sergeant-friends in that grey Dendarii uniform and the Vorkosigan Armsman she was to marry in his best livery. A good-looking young man, however short he may appear beside her. He could also see the smiling Lady Vorpatril, with whom Pel was so taken, standing with Chief Illyan and Ekaterin’s Nikki. Nikolai. A name from his stupidly dead genefather’s family. I wonder what happened to the Crèche report on that genome I asked for … months ago. And beside places for his cousins, himself, and Benin, three more waited in that foremost circle—Armsman Pym and the female cook Ma Kosti, feudatories anyone with sense would envy, with a woman who must be Lady Vorpatril’s modiste Estelle; her own dress was certainly cut by the same hand as Taura’s, Ekaterin’s, and Lady Vorpatril’s. Dag had flagged her in the aesthetics file.

As they approached, another man was firmly handed by Lady Vorpatril from the second circle to the first to stand between the Lady and the Armsman-Groom, leaving behind a group of skinny men who looked amusingly like Terran mustelids. He didn’t recognise the newcomer, concealing pride and fluster equally well, but Gregor turned his head slightly and murmured “Tsipis”. Ah, the Vorkosigans’ ‘Man of Business’. Well and good. His alert faded, Benin’s too; he must have caught Gregor’s words. which meant he had been meant to. Interesting. And Dag met Tsipis at Ekaterin’s graduation. Something within Fletchir relaxed, and without entirely intending it he flowed into his place between Laisa and Palma with a potency of grace that had attention rippling through the nearby crowd and the Barrayaran witnesses he joined. His nerves tautened with the scrutiny until he felt a slight press against his leg and stooped briefly to acknowledge ImpSec, whose timing was as admirable as ever. Palma stepped onto her own star-point, turning slightly to look out at the crowd through her veil. Silence fell swiftly, and Harra Csurik proudly held her cooing babe briefly aloft, dress flowing beautifully around her solid form, before settling the child in crossed arms, where it gurgled contentment. Taking her time, she smiled achingly at her husband, then triumphantly out to the crowd.

“Liege-sisters and -brothers. Most honoured lords and ladies and guests, amazing us in Silvy Vale. And yes, this once, honoured haut and honourable ghem, as we have heard our Count himself say to all there are.” This time Harra’s smile was … commanding and the crowd shivered, as did Benin and the real ghem among his special squad. Fascinating. “I am so proud today. This child, third living from Lem’s and my bodies, though not of my womb, is Ekaterin Palma Csurik, and she is whole and will breed true, by Word and deed from beyond the stars. Who would have believed it when my mother lived?

Her untrained voice went as hard as the mountain rock. There was a deep silence in which Fletchir made a formal note to himself to ask Palma again for Harra’s story in full, and then Gregor, separately. And Miles. Oh yes, Miles. And Ekaterin. And perhaps young Nikolai, if I can contrive it.

 “So my news for the Vale today is”—and suddenly Harra grinned straight at him, like a bolt of the lightning that must often strike in these mountains—“that by imperial grace the past is done. For us all.” Though speaking his own words at the first treaty-signing back at him her gaze had turned intently to Miles. “And with my teacher’s education that you have learned to love, and that two galactics paid for when none would grant my Raina justice, I tell you all it is past time it happened.”

Fletchir heard Benin softly sigh his admiration of this woman’s way with words. As finely artless as they are well calculated. Nor was Harra Csurik done.

“In this moment I command your attention, all of you, as the cowed girl you have seen grow into a wife and mother, a mourner, a teacher, and impossibly beyond my wildest hopes, more. So very much more. Some of you, older ones due respect especially, say I am grown proud and strange. And if so, have I not cause?

Abruptly her voice raged at them, so potently Fletchir was minded of an undisciplined version of Miles’s odd ability to sound murderous.

“Who witnesses the naming of my whole and blessed daughter, entering our lives here before you all? Who stands now before us all for all my daughters’ lives?”

From their reactions the crowd obviously felt the question’s barbed and acid point, that he could only sense in outline.

Whose grace do we know today?

The stillness was absolute, and he saw Harra use it to nail with venomous force what must be particular individuals in the crowd arrayed behind him. Fascinated, he realised she was in fact wielding Gregor’s authority, not drawn from him now but stored from his earlier blessing of her motherhood. It was, like that absurd, marvellous invasion Miles had conjured, a life-changing excess, a grav-lance targeting gnats, but it certainly worked. He could sense dark individual passions among the crowd being incinerated as she reviewed them, and so, he was sure, could others, in their own way. The levels of empathy here were astounding; Gregor’s and Miles’s sensitivities he could more readily credit in hereditary rulers, but there could be no doubt the base population here had something too. And just as the tension grew truly sharp Harra gave a smile that had the whole crowd rocking forwards to share. Superb.

“Whose grace do we know? Let me tell you. Our Vicereine’s, blessed be, and our Count’s. They’ve sent a vid you all can see. My Lord Vorkosigan’s, who has absorbed all our false assumptions and fear, yet held us every one between his hands. His Lady’s, blessed be, who commands our hearts and gardens. The Speaker of Vorbarr Sultana, Lady Alys, and her acushla, stories of whom you men bring home from your drinking at the Count in Vorkosigan Surleau. To me, bewilderingly, he is today Simon, and here at my asking.” He sensed Gregor and others swallowing exclamations. With difficulty, I think. But the exactitudes were beyond him, and Harra still was not done. “Count Vorbarra’s and his brave Lady’s, blessed be, long to be ours. The haut Palma’s, blessed be, and more, who could look at the eggs in my womb, and at Lem’s seed, and discard the damaged before they drew breath.” She shuddered, the crowd with her. As is Palma, I see. The Consort’s eyes were enormous behind her veil. Harra’s gaze rested on him again, and he felt its strange energy. “And that of Count Vorbarra’s particular friend, haut Gars.”

Uh-oh. Amusement at the childish note of his inner voice was fretted with … genuine anxiety, by the Crèche. But he was not her target. Yet. Just a prelude to her peroration. I am schooled. He relaxed and ImpSec again pressed his leg for a moment.

Are we not graced indeed? Who among us could have believed it? Yet who will deny me now? I tell you all, Silvy Vale, in Voices greater than my own, Let go your fears with your dead, and loose your winternight hopes of holding back time. In wounded ignorance we cherished revenge and clung to tradition, sour as my eldest child’s absence, hopeless as my mother’s love. And we have won through. You know our Count said it two years past, at Vorkosigan Surleau. We all have peace again, and by his grace, and our Lord’s, and our Lem’s, we are so very much richer. Be content, Silvy Vale. We should be, this night, and by my daughters’ lives I say we are.”

He noted the uncapitalised plurals. Just as in Gregor’s new mode. The crowd clearly heard them too, as did the high Vor. Harra’s power was palpable, and he knew his own imperial potency had been subtly tapped in the lee of the far greater tapping his cousin had authorised. Which does not explain how she can do that. No ghem could, not even Dag.

“So, my kin and neighbours, you hear and see the best your Speaker’s Wife can do. But those who stand as friend-parents to my new daughter today can speak for themselves.” A knowing grin flashed across Harra’s face. “And those with bets on the nameday presents will be able to relax, win or lose.” Her arms rose, rocking the baby a little. “Silvy Vale, listen now to our Count’s Voice and heir, Lord Vorkosigan, and his Lady with the Golden Star. I do not forget what company we keep when I tell you he is the biggest man I have ever known, and our Taura agrees, so be mindful of it.” Laughter erupted all round him and Harra gentled the crowd down again with consummate ease. “Lord Vorkosigan, Count Vorbarra told me to expect from you, on little Ekaterin Palma’s behalf, something more marvellous than what he calls my picture-wall. Will you relieve my curiosity, my Lord?”

Miles’s eyes were glowing as intensely as Fletchir had ever seen. Ekaterin also looked proud and strongly approving, and echoed Miles’s sweeping gesture of acceptance.

“Madame Csurik, I will. Vorcsurik, it should be. Harra dear, you were splendid.” Fletchir’s thoughts stumbled, arrested. How in the Nexus did Miles so manage the personal amid the public? It should be destructive of achieved mood, and simply … wasn’t. A lord’s gaze swung feudally across his people. “And you know already, Silvy Vale, sworn to me as you are and will be, that tonight tradition stands on its head. When Count or Count’s Heir stands friend-father to a liege-child, he speaks both first and last, as all know, yet tonight I gladly follow Harra, and Count Vorbarra, a mere witness, has claimed last privilege here. And we welcome another among us as friend-mother, haut Palma, for whose labour on your behalf I give thanks every day, and who also must speak before me.” With perfect timing Miles looked around the clearing, now lit only by the tapers that would soon need trimming, and turned to Palma, immobile on her star-point. “But it grows dark, so on all our behalves I beg, haut Palma, your other presents this day, if you will.”

Palma was grinning behind her veil—and what I shall do if that habit catches on among the Crèche I have no idea. She gestured toward her pavilion, where a small group of her attendants waited, and evidently had a remote to hand for swiftly ballooning into the air before the pavilion, and drifting forward over the startled crowd who craned their necks to see, there appeared two medium force-bubbles in that rose pink Pel teased him with. Reaching symmetrical positions on the axes of the clearing they halted, spinning, and the pink faded to reveal portraits of Harra and Taura, as they had for all on the day of the invasion. Subtly the bubbles’ internal light shifted through the spectrum, settling on a tint that respected the firelight of the tapers while greatly augmenting it.

“Thank you, haut Palma.” Miles’s voice cut effortlessly through the crowd’s exclamations. “We thought these might be useful, as well as fun, Harra, and my Ma wanted you and Taura to have them.” His attention swung outward again. “Think on these women above you, Silvy Vale; they are among you tonight, who have been among the stars. They have taught your children and will deliver your mail. They helped tear down a planet that revolted all love and decency. And now they will light your dreams to come.”

A part of Fletchir wanted to protest the bluntness of the lesson but Miles knew his own. Evidently. The crowd was staring up, spellbound, and Miles glanced smilingly at Palma, who nodded back and took a breath, her hands flexing slightly. Is she really going to—? Then for the first time in his long memory, and longer, a Consort of the Crèche addressed massed humans in public. I had to be here for this, whatever else happens.

“Silvy Vale.”

Palma gave her geneered harmonics full, sensuous control, projecting for the woodland space so well that the whole clearing rippled with her energy, as it did with bubble-light. And where did she learn that trick? Startled ears whipped a thousand heads down and round, bubbles forgotten, and as the collective, transfixed gaze rested on her Palma slowly raised her hands and gently drew back her veil. Crèche help us now. At least she is in still mode. After a long, long moment in which the crowd forgot to breathe, there was a slow, gusting sigh of ensorcelled disbelief.

“It is not for nothing that women of the haut walk veiled, but I find I would not have you think me a Baba Yaga, come among you with hidden purpose and appearance.” He saw Miles’s and Ekaterin’s eyes go very bright, and felt Gregor’s and Dag’s rich amusement. Baba Yaga? The crowd shuddered where they stood and Palma’s voice deepened into instruction. “Your bugbear-witch is a stealer of children, taken alone and unawares in the woods, surrendering health or lives to her rituals. And by her ugliness you may know her. But the gift of the haut I represent to you all is the very opposite, and we give it gladly, for all to know.” She lightened her voice again, into celebration. “In part, because Lord Vorkosigan asked us, and we would not deny him. But in greater part, and in wholeness, because he asked us on behalf of your children.”

To Fletchir’s surprise Palma allowed a very enigmatic smile to show, and the crowd trembled again in her thrall.

“In this matter I understand your old fears and motives better than I suspect you believe. Every geneticist who properly approaches the mystery of a genome, and the task of correcting mutation or refining design, knows the pain of failure, and may face the necessity it can impose. But the methods you have used here”—her voice cracked like a whip—“are no longer acceptable. And no longer needed. I swear to you all, on my Consort’s Oath, that little Ekaterin, and all whom we aid, are by science and care free of all genetic taint. Further, as her mother affirms, she will breed true.” She smiled again, fey in the strange, compounded light and her voice took on a chant. “Never mole, cat’s mouth, or scar, nor mark prodigious such as are despised in nativity, shall upon her children be. Nor even her children’s children’s children. And my gifts to her and to her parents today attest it.”

From within her robes she produced the three small boxes that had so exercised Gregor earlier, the honour-jewels of the Crèche set in necklace, ring, and bracelet.

“These ornaments bear a design that proclaims our hand in their wearers’ health. And should those wearers ever be within Cetagandan space they will command much aid and protection from any official, ghem or haut.” She drew a deep breath and Fletchir waited for what must follow. “Ekaterin Palma Csurik, daughter of Harra and Lem Csurik, of Silvy Vale on Barrayar, the Star Crèche acknowledges you. Our help is yours at need.” Unthinkable as the words were to him, he realised they meant far less to the crowd than Palma’s earlier and plainer promise. Slowly she arranged her veil over her face again, and spoke from behind the shimmering lace. “Our hand cannot be over you here, in protection, for this is not our land, and you are in Another’s care. But you have our blessing, and hold our gaze from afar.”

And wasn’t that pure truth? Purer than even Gregor knows. The argument started by Palma’s reports of what she was finding and doing in these Dendarii mountains was still developing, and promised to become the most serious Crèche debate about a genomic correction since his grandfather’s day. Barrayarans! The benediction in Palma’s voice was holding all spellbound, even Miles, to judge by the dreamy look on his face, but after only a second he gave a sudden, fierce smile and drew breath himself.

“On Harra’s behalf, haut Palma, and for all here in my care, my most sincere and profound thanks. And Barrayar’s” He saw Gregor nod sharply. “The Vicereine-my-mother advises me to trust beyond belief for results beyond hope; and you have been beyond our greatest hopes today, most gracious lady.”

Without disturbing the groats among which he and Ekaterin stood they bowed and curtsied, the crowd dipping with them, and he thought Palma blushed a little beneath her restored veil. Well, well. He missed the commentary Rian could have provided more than he had thought he would. Soon.

“As to my own and Lady Vorkosigan’s gift … well, we were going to provide something for the picture-wall, but that is strangely taken care of.” Miles and Gregor seemed to be carefully not looking at one another, and Fletchir again glimpsed the brotherhood between them, with a feeling almost of envy. “So instead, and remembering all the traditions that have of necessity been swept away, we will gift you with a new one, that builds on the gifts of haut Palma.”

From an inside pocket Miles produced a slim, silk-wrapped package. Something rigid. A delicate brown and silver moiré gleamed in the fire- and bubble-light, and he guessed the casing was embroidered with the Vorkosigan sigil.

“Traditionally, of course, new mothers were given knives. The vorfemme knife of my own class was explicitly designed to be sharp for infant throats, but when it came to it nothing so fancy was ever needed.” Fletchir couldn’t quite believe his ears and the crowd were more frozen than ever, but Harra’s eyes, locked on Miles, were glowing, and he waited with her. “They were given as bride-gifts, too, in token of grown purity, and in case the evils of the mutagen disasters were only skipping a generation. But that custom has failed, and not been renewed.” He saw Gregor and Laisa twitch slightly, but was unsure why. Something in their own marriage ceremonies, perhaps.

“So what will serve our children’s need when they come to their own wedding-circles, with the grace of pure bodies they may now enjoy, as you never could, nor I, in that dead past? And what will serve us all?” He slipped from the silk wrapping a carved wooden tally, or sheath; maple, by its look and smell, and from what Fletchir could see very beautifully chased with carving alive to the wood’s grain. “This gift, Harra, is what Ekaterin calls a maple warrant. Its outside is carved, by Master Yaralt in Olivia’s Vale, with her name, and yours and Lem’s, and a scene of Silvy Vale.” The crowd murmured and Fletchir assumed Master Yaralt must have a reputation. “Inside the warrant is Ekaterin Palma’s gene-scan, that on her wedding-day any who rightly ask may be satisfied. Our own children, Aral and Helen, have their own maple warrants, carved by the same hand with scenes of Vorkosigan Surleau. And”—he flicked a finger and from a few places beyond Gregor Pym rose, offering slim packages to Laisa—“we have two also for Prince Aral Michael and Princess Kareen Cordelia, where Master Yaralt has set around their names an image of the Residence and the imperial crest.” Suddenly his voice dropped a note and he spoke to Gregor with that strange, unshielded intimacy he used to such unexpected effect. “And you know, Count Vorbarra, the only penance I extract on behalf of the Count-my-father’s liegemen and women for the surprises of today is to ask that as your Christening Tour winds on, even to Sergyar, you show these Dendarii gifts wherever you go, allowing their function to be known to all.”

Gregor’s shoulders had tensed as Miles addressed him but as he took the maple warrants from Laisa and looked at them Fletchir saw complex relief flow into his body, and he spoke in an easy, supremely clear tone. “With all my heart, brother, though it boosts a thousand woodcarvers’ shops between here and Hassadar.”

Gregor smiled, strangely and intimately, and Fletchir’s envy twinged again even as he sharply appreciated Miles’s commercial care of his people. How many birds can he hit with one stone?

“And you are unexpectedly merciful, my Lord Auditor, as the whirligig of time brings in its revenges.”

That Terran knew too much. And so do this pair. But his attention was claimed by Gregor’s glance as he rose to step onto the daïs and turned to let his address encompass the crowd. How many of them caught his passing whisper to Miles—my turn now—Fletchir was unsure, but he saw Harra and Ekaterin suppress smiles. Gregor surveyed them all, briefly pausing as he saw ImpSec sitting neatly by Fletchir’s foot. Then he turned on his imperial smile. Ah, now … But it was still Count Vorbarra who spoke.

“Harra Csurik of the picture-wall, who has taught us all tonight just how complete a victory courage and endurance can mean, I tell you as Vorbarra that winning new memories can be harder still than losing old ones. But Raina would be so proud of her Ma tonight; as I am.” Gregor swung his attention out in that useful way he said Miles had taught him, and Fletchir had been glad to study. “So I have a contribution to your teacher’s picture-wall, Silvy Vale. There is a framed copy for the wall itself, and for your pleasure now a hologram.” Light flared behind Fletchir, from the school-roof, and people swung round. “Behold her now, Silvy Vale, and know who is among you.”

Alarm suddenly cramping his heart, though he had known what Gregor intended, Fletchir Giaja turned with others to see the great icon his cousin had had cast into the sky. The glowing bubbles had moved higher and dimmed slightly, and the image blazed in the dimness. The scene was on Gregor’s own battle-yacht soon after the invasion, though few here could know that with certainty, and it was unimportant compared to the people captured in the light—Harra Csurik, eyes alight and hands gesturing, while her husband stood admiringly mute and before her two emperors paid riveted attention, as he well remembered. Laisa was there as well, eyes intent on Harra; Rian had been present too, but Gregor had, with a grin, assured him steps would be taken, and there was no trace of her in this image, nor of any gap where she should have been. But his own face, like Gregor’s, was entirely visible, and part of him—a large part—waited for this absurd Barrayaran fiction to implode under the weight of its own transparency. An internal voice noted his incoherence of metaphor but it was far more interesting that Gregor sailed effortlessly over ice so thin it must be broken, yet wasn’t.

“And so you all gasp to see us together, Count Vorbarra and haut Gars seeking wisdom they needed, as well you might. But why then do you not gasp each time Harra Csurik herself walks among you, and devotes her care to your children? You may think on this with them, each time they see my gift as they learn to be My subjects.”

Smiling, he leaned in toward Harra and kissed her forehead, then her daughter’s, before lightly stepping down back to his place of witness. The crowd, still half turned around to stare at the towering hologram representing so much, were experiencing tumultuous emotions across the whole spectrum of wonder, pride, and flickering shame, and by Fletchir’s standards were on the verge of becoming dangerously unstable with whiplashed emotions; Dag had tensed as well, but Miles seemed untroubled. He did however flick a glance at Lady Vorpatril, who stepped up to the daïs, looked about, and caught Taura’s eye. The sergeant, beautiful in her green dress, gave a grin that was all fangs, put her fingers to her mouth, and produced a whistle that disturbed roosting birds for a kilometre, left his own ears ringing painfully, and rotated the crowd’s attention as fast as heads could turn. Whiplash, indeed. Gingerly he swallowed to pop his ear-drums and saw Lady Alys open her mouth.

“Good people. Time is short. The wedding is now. Please clear a path for the bride and groom, and settle yourselves.” She gestured, and the crowd began to part, Armsmen moving immediately forward into a corridor stretching towards the other pavilion. Like Pel with her tractor-beams. But suddenly Lady Alys’s gaze was on him, and … maternal, which was absurd, for he was a quarter-century her senior, but that did not seem to matter. “And haut Gars is new among us, with those whose steps he guides, so smartly now to your places, everyone.”

 

 

V







Nan Hellund was unsure whether to be more confused or delighted as she fell in behind Taura to cross the clearing to the wedding-tent. Two emperors, yet! At our Fangs’s wedding! She hadn’t quite believed the implications of Mrs Shorty’s remarkable lecture to her and Gunny, especially as the Vor woman hadn’t seemed sure herself. Fictions or no, there wasn’t a chance in hell that Giaja was going to be—what had her phrase been?—swanning about Allied backwoods himself, even if Emperor Gregor the Great was. His imperial presence was somehow just the Admiral’s nimbus anyway, a familiar impossibility that had entered Dendarii Mercenary legend after he somehow whistled up the Butcher of Komarr at the head of a righteous fleet to save everyone’s bacon at the Hegen Hub. From the Cetagandans. Who are here. When, years later, it had begun leaking through the fleet that he was actually the Butcher’s son, it had just been more icing on the cake. And everyone who bothered to think in the first place had known full well from their missions that the Admiral had some mighty friendly connection with Barrayar, even if they hadn’t guessed, as she and Gunny had, that his main-man client was at the top of ImpSec. And he’s here too. With the Admiral’s amazing aunt as his squeeze. And Giaja!

The people forming a living corridor all looked as if they had swigged back a litre of water only to discover it was that maple mead they all drank in these mountains. Even Gunny had been impressed by the bottle Lem Csurik had given them, putting the stone—stone!—pitcher away after a single taste with a startled expression and a thoughtful comment that big guns often had to be kept in reserve. The crowd were still trying to stare simultaneously at the floating invasion-bubbles, the priceless hologram of Harra Csurik laying down the law, and the procession she was herself a part of, and most of them seemed more likely to fall over than see all they wanted. The sheer, impossibly controlled chaos was the purest Admiral Shorty, and Nan drew a long, savouring breath. It has been so long. Quinny was a treasure, right and bright, but there was only one Admiral. She decided to save her confusion for later and enjoy the show.

Ahead of her Fangs and her man swept into the pavilion and entered the circle of raw grains that for some reason really mattered here. It was pretty, and Fangs looked even more splendid in her dress than Roic seemed cute in his spiffy uniform. Not for the first time in the last hour, the though occurred that getting some gladrags out of Estelle was in itself a very good reason to do as Mrs Shorty asked, even if Nan didn’t believe she’d ever be sent a few million Imperial marks on that account. And if I am … ? Hell, the MedFund had need enough, even now. The Admiral went right in behind Fangs and took one star-point, while Mrs … no, Lady Vorkosigan, by golly, went to stand behind Fangs, where a scared looking young man, obviously—and adorably—Roic’s brother, joined her. She murmured some comment that had him smiling and relaxing a little, and Nan’s estimate of the Vor woman rose again. She really is kind, as well as proud. Fangs said she was. The haut Consort in her fabulous gauzy dress—and best not think about what that cost, girl—took another star-point, face unreadable behind that gorgeous veil. And what a face! Roic’s parents, nice, ordinary people she had spent time with during the day, inched glassy-eyed onto their own star-points, clearly beShortified beyond recall, and she grinned warmly at them, hoping her joyful sympathy would ease the experience. Though nothing does, except the results. She took herself sharp left, tugging Gunny with her, to their assigned place among more high Vor and villagers than needed counting, and as the emperors took their places not far away (with that freakishly good close-squad already arrayed) silence returned. And Fangs seized her moment, letting a mountain-accent shade her Barrayaran. Nice.

“Count and Countess Vorbarra, My Lord and Lady Vorkosigan, haut Palma, my friends, my love. And Silvy Vale all. I cannot hope to tell you truly what this moment means to me.” Nan saw Taura’s hands flex, and felt her grasp the crowd in those always impressive claws. Fangs could pick up Mauschler cannon e-packs four at a time, so she didn’t know why she should feel so impressed and proud herself, but she did. Her friend’s gaze covered the crowd but concentrated on the Admiral. “There has been Talk, I know, and I had planned to speak truth to all today. But I have also now understood, from Lord Vorkosigan the deeper roots of that talk, so I am doubly sure.” Her head was high and her fangs very white. “And I will tell you tonight, Silvy Vale, as I would make your home my own, who and what I am that weds your Lord’s Armsman and promises swift delivery of your mail. I have no maple warrant to show, and obvious features you think of as mutancy, but I am a woman, nonetheless. And more loyal than you know.”

There was a pregnant pause during which a very strangely marked cat Nan hadn’t seen approach suddenly appeared beside the Admiral, stepping delicately over the lines of groats to sit neatly, gazing up at Fangs with clear approval. The Admiral was staring so intently at his wife he didn’t see, and with difficulty Nan contained her glee. Though Fangs and Mrs Shorty are tight, so it’s OK.

“I was not born, but made, at the whim of power and money. A super-soldier, terrifying and lethal on command, for one of those you saw your Count summon, and humble, and dismiss to justice, on the planet now called Aralyar Ceta. My maker, and my commissioners, though I could not live past my teens, and believed that good. I would have died there, starving naked in a pit, but for the Admiral.”

Yes! Nan could have cheered. If Count Vorbarra and haut Gars were here, so must the Admiral be, whatever Lord Vorkosigan and Mrs Shorty thought. And Fangs knew him in full measure, as she had confessed on the only occasion Nan and Gunny had ever managed to get Fangs’s very absorbent mass sheerly and delightfully drunk. She was also out to repay her debts.

“So I’ll give you another new tradition, Silvy Vale, to help you tell one time from another.” She grinned, compellingly. “And one Count’s heir from another. Lord Vorkosigan is an admiral, whatever others need him also to be. I’ve seen him command fleets to save you all from horrors you can’t imagine, and afterwards weep for his dead. I’ve even seen him die for you, and still come up fighting on your behalf. So I promise you all, you will, before me as I deliver your mail in the years to come, call him the Admiral.”

The silence was simply splendid, if terrifying. And the Admiral was looking delighted and mortified, in pretty equal measure. Damn but Fangs is good.

“I would have died where I was made, in dungeons of the former Aralyar, but the Admiral found me, and beyond reason trusted me. More. He loved me. Unquestioningly.” Tears shone in her eyes. “I have since met the Vicereine-his-mother, and Lord Mark, and I better understand how that could be. But there can be no accounting. I tell you, Silvy Vale, your Lord works miracles of healing. He appeared to me in darkness, and lifted me up, and fed me. He gave me work, where I found friends, and with every command he offered me trust.”

Mrs Shorty had gone an interesting colour, though the Admiral just looked resigned. But both emperors, she felt rather than saw, were as taut as bearing cables, and so was the ghem she had marked as the close-squad’s leader. Fangs smiled hugely.

“And I worked well. But the clock of my body ticked on. The Admiral did all he could, paying for many, many surgeons and clever city opinions, but in all things there are limits, and I was resigned to mine. I thought my visit to his wedding might be my farewell, and when it chanced for me to discover—through my strangeness, mark you—those pearls made to murder Lady Vorkosigan, and to meet Roic among my Lord’s Armsmen, I was conscious of grace, and happiness.” She smiled still more. “And pleasure!” She paused to let them ponder Roic’s valour as the Admiral kept a suspiciously still face. “And then,  beyond my dreams, the Admiral did it again, granting me life by prevailing on haut Palma for the same gifts she has given you all, of a body that will not betray you, and children who may be born and raised in health. I do not know how, or where, he managed that, and surely he has had other things on his mind in these last years.”

Fangs paused as a more normal murmur of appreciation for that ran through the crowd, and Nan wondered if they were thinking of the Admiral’s marriage and children or of his abrupt emergence across the Nexus as the new Alliance’s go-to man for impossible things before breakfast. But an insight whispered to her that they were probably all thinking more of the money that was clearly being pumped into this strange, backward community, and must be changing all their lives.

“What I do know, because I have my sums well enough, is that amid all his work he must have remembered me early, and acted soon, and when I came, joyous still, resigned still, to celebrate Lady Vorkosigan’s graduation, a year ago last Winterfair, he gifted me this life. When I went with Armsman Roic to Rho Ceta, where haut Palma helps rule”—she gestured elegantly with a clawed hand towards the veiled Consort, who swayed in graceful acknowledgement—“I was able at last to trade my speed, and the metabolism that drove it, for a more human lifespan—another thirty years or more, if I am lucky. And this when I am a decade already beyond anything my own creator dreamed possible. I tell you all, I live with miracles.”

Fangs was twenty-six. Nan swallowed hard.

“And I think, Silvy Vale, you have all been hit on the head enough already tonight, while I am impatient to be married. But I will say one thing more, for it is a truth I know Harra has struggled to convey, and you should know. It is also part of the debt I owe the Admiral and haut Palma, and must be paid before I speak my vows.”

For the first time she looked to Nan’s knowing eyes as if she was having to think about what she wanted to say, and when she resumed her voice was slower.

“I also understand your motives, Silvy Vale, better than you believe. You have known bleak trouble and necessity in the past, and you think your extremity very great, as it was. But for all that happened here, in your mountain fastnesses you have never seen the depths of misery the Nexus can manage. As a soldier I have stood on more than sixty worlds, and I have seen more hells than you can imagine. On what is blessedly become Aralyar Ceta I witnessed genetic horror that would make your strongest blench, your hardest weep and rage. And whatever you have thought or imagined in the past, when we extirpated that evil the ghem fought and the haut laboured at our side, not only as allies but in their own righteousness. Blessed be.

Taura really let her fanged smile rip and the crowd rippled all but involuntary assent.

“You have wondered also, among yourselves, unthinking to ask, why your Speaker’s Wife was invited there, by our guests tonight. But I understand why my Admiral made it so, to the marrow of my bones. He and our Harra fight the same fight, as you all learned thirteen years past. I might even say, piecing together all I know and guess, that the invasion we all saw last year began here in Silvy Vale, where Raina was born and killed.” The crowd winced but, a few places along from Nan, Harra Csurik didn’t, and the Admiral’s eyes were wide. “But no child is threatened here today, and all the children of Aralyar Ceta rest safe as well, with the same bright futures you may now fairly hope your own will know. As Roic and I may hope for ours. Think on it, Silvy Vale.”

And on that ringing note Fangs turned, holding out her hand wth its gleaming claws to Roic, who took it and visibly squeezed. So cute. They might have more emperors and Vor bigwigs and real Dendarii hillbillies staring at them than you could shake a stick at, but they had, Nan swore, eyes only for one another as Mrs Shorty and the handsome brother came round to the front of the daïs carrying little bags and poured out thin lines of groats to close the circle, then returned to their positions behind bride and groom. Nan had been surprised by the details of Barrayaran ritual she had gleaned from Fangs after her adventures at the Admiral’s wedding, but seeing now how it worked she was more impressed. And she definitely liked the way Barrayarans married themselves, speaking straightforward vows directly to one another. Fangs and her man both got through them all, nailing the four Barrayaran languages, then Cetagandan in some impossibly complicated high mode Nan had been gleefully told was certified by Emperor Gregor himself and certainly had ol’ Gars’s eyebrows lifting smartly, and finally the two galactic common-tongues that the Dendarii used. When they finished, still beautifully dewy-eyed if looking dumbstruck with relief at having finally done it all right, Mrs Shorty was back with the brother, waiting for him to scuff open the circle again and plant a bug-eyed kiss on Fangs’s cheek as she stooped gracefully to spare him the need to jump. Then the Vor woman planted a smacker of her own on Roic and turned to open her arms to the crowd as their accumulated shock finally found an outlet and cheering started in earnest.

And then all was gorgeous pandemonium for a moment, with more promiscuous kissing than she’d seen since the Fleet visit to Marilac, before generating a tremendous bustle that with astonishing rapidity saw at least half the crowd attack the stacked tables and benches in the lower clearing while the other half vanished only to reappear with linens and cutlery, fresh tapers, musical instruments and the makings of a playing-stand, goggle-eyed children, baskets of warm rolls, and trays of small stone cups that steamed and spread a deliciously spicy alcoholic fragrance in the mountain air, crisp despite the summer warmth. Mulled maple mead, she thought, and with an internal hoot snagged both rolls and cups for herself and Gunny. Fangs had told them firmly to hang tight at this point and let Harra’s people do their thing, so though various of the bigwigs started whizzing about in command-mode and the lines of groats edging the witness-spaces were trampled to hell and gone, they did as ordered, drifting quietly to one side of any traffic, and were rewarded for their tact.

“Fleet. QSM. Good to see you both. Opinions?”

The Admiral had snuck up on them in that way of his, and stood grinning, Mrs Shorty on one arm and the other resting on her boy’s shoulder. The cat was also standing beside him, looking at them both. Grinning back she saluted, beating Gunny to it by a half-beat at least.

“Opinions? No, sir. Stone facts. Our Fangs is a marvel of creation, you still know how to throw one hell of a party, and this hot maple stuff could stun a Betan sandsnake at fifty metres. Also, it’s very good to see you, Admiral. And to see you happy.”

“Back at you, Specs. Thank you. Gunny?”

“Still running amok, sir, I see. You don’t change. But I think I like your Mrs Admiral there.” She paused, surveying the boy, who stared back, face alight with curiosity. “Is this your son, sir?”

The Admiral nodded, smiling. “It is. Nikki, this is Fleet-Sergeant Ransom, once of Terra, and QSM Hellund, once of Pol. They make sure that when Dendarii troopers get wherever they’re going they know what to do and have what they need.”

The boy nodded. He was assured for his age, intelligence glinting in his eyes. Nan knew he was the Admiral’s stepson, not gene-son, but he had an air that suggested biopaternity wasn’t going to count for much.

“Hello.” His voice was still treble, though not, Nan thought, for much longer. Hands were solemnly shaken. “I know my father was delighted you were both able to come.” A more boyish enthusiasm peeked through the dignity. “What do you think of it all? Aren’t the bubbles fun?”

Gunny frowned and Nan waited with interest for her reply.

“Fun? They’re weapons, lad. Is an exploding bomb fun? Or a graser-beam?”

The boy looked at her, unperturbed. “Maybe not the graser-beam. But a bomb could be, I think, in the right place.”

The Admiral winced but Mrs Shorty looked amused and Gunny, who had certainly had plenty of fun with bombs herself, was suppressing a grin. Oh, the Admiral was training this one up, all right.

“Maybe so, lad. I can’t wholly deny it. But bubbles are the least of the weapons deployed here tonight. Your Da’s been busy.”

“I know.” Nikki grinned at them both. “Uncle Gregor and Aunt Palma too. Poor Roic doesn’t know what’s hit him.”

Nan saw the names register with Gunny, who actually blinked. And Aunt Palma sounds like a story worth hearing. She wanted more than ever to know how in hell the Admiral had got to the highest Cetagandan command and wrapped them all up in ribbons and bows with bells on, but a pause was building so she stepped out to save Gunny’s blushes.

“That would be our Fangs, Master Nikki. And I think she’s the most fun weapon here.” The boy smiled charmingly at her, and the Admiral laughed.

“You have that right, QSM. And with Harra running target-selection for her, I don’t think the mails will be having any trouble round here for a while.” Fast mountain music suddenly began to spill into the air, and he and the cat beside him glanced aside, identically. “But I think order is once again emerging from chaos. There’s a high table, I see, so I expect we’re all on it. Shall we stroll?”

And with that he and Mrs Shorty, cat pacing alongside, led them around the clearing to a linen-draped splendour bearing a stunning display of candles, condiments, place-settings winking with silver and crystal, and vases bursting with flowers of the season. It was far finer than Nan had been expecting in so remote a village, and she remembered Fangs saying the Admiral had a place by a lake not far away that must have been heavily raided. Liveried Armsmen and the ghem-guards with ol’ Gars were dotted about, the emperors themselves already seated on either side of Fangs and her man, with the Csuriks, the Vor bigwigs, and other Barrayarans finding their places nearby. As the Admiral and Mrs Shorty peeled off to insert themselves into the mêlée young Nikki showed them to their own places, slightly kitty-corner from the emperors and along from Roic’s now even glassier-eyed family, before trotting back round the table to slide in between the Komarran empress and the Admiral. No flies on him at all. The Admiral’s Armsman who’d been a witness was also there, she saw, looking strangely surprised at himself, with others who’d been by him in the witnessing. Looking round, Nan realised all the tables were now full, the band was still blasting out what must be the dance-music of these mountains, sawing up and down scales as if there were no tomorrow, and clouds of people had begun bearing food to all and sundry.

And what food, by golly! At first Nan had been a tad disappointed to realise that while everyone was clearly getting good stuff the dishes coming to the high table were distinct, but as she began to eat and heaven beguiled her taste-buds she abandoned her routine disapproval of officers’ privilege for wondering how the hell anyone had managed this exquisite a feast for—she counted—thirty covers at the high table. From the exclamations around her, and the admiring nods the Admiral and others directed to the beaming little woman sitting by the Armsman, who must be the cook Ma Kosti, she’d outdone herself. Even ol’ Gars, who must chew on some pretty good victuals most days, seemed properly impressed, and after tasting one dish of pasta-ribbons and finely chopped green somethings silently raised his glass and inclined his head to the cook, making her blush scarlet with pleasure. She tried it herself, and sighed agreement. Green walnuts? Superb taste. And what did I expect from the haut of hauts? And for all that haut Palma’s veil stayed in place food still seemed to be making it through in some quantity, to judge by the sounds of appreciation. Long before the dishes stopped coming Nan was replete, and contented herself nibbling while Gunny went on gorging with the look of a woman who had finally found her real reason for being here. The wine was flowing, full and red, bottle after bottle that had to be vintages from some Vor cellarage and packed a mighty punch, but once the feeding became desultory Lem Csurik heaved himself to his feet, waved at someone in the band who powered an amazing bugle-call into the mountain night, and in the sudden silence it won called for everyone’s attention.

“Well, Silvy Vale, we’ve had a day-and-a-half alright. And as your Speaker, I’m proud of you all. There’ll be no slighting us down in Seligrad now, eh?” That gained a pleased laugh that he let run its course before continuing. “And we’ve had us a passel of speeches to think on very hard in the days and nights to come, as well as Count Vorbarra’s command and our Lord’s gift.” He bowed in their direction. “You’ve done great good here today, my Lords, and as Speaker I thank you for it. But we’ve still a speech or two to come before we break out the maple mead properly, so brace up now.” He didn’t seem authoritative after all she’d heard already this evening but she saw backs ripple along the tables below them just the same. “My Lord Vorkosigan?”

The Admiral stood, then shrugged and hopped up to stand on the bench, resting a hand lightly on his wife’s shoulder.

“Just three things more, good people. One is mere logistics, but has a place here, for I can tell you that when Taura the Mail comes calling on you when she and Armsman Roic return from their honeymoon—and where they’re going you’ll have to ask them!—she’ll have a new official Mailflyer to do it in, specially built for her impressive dimensions. And in case the Armsman should be away on duty anytime after they’ve used the clinic’s replicators, it has room to stow a cot and a child’s necessities securely. And it’s shiny red!” Amid the cheers the Admiral glanced intimately at Harra Csurik, who gave him back as complex a smile and duck of her head as Nan had ever seen. Yet another story to ferret out. “As for the rest … well, I’m not so sure myself what they are, but Count Vorbarra is. My Lord Count?”

He hopped back down as the Count rose, smiling, and Nan blinked, appreciating more than ever what Mrs Shorty had been so insistent about, as without seeming to do anything Count Vorbarra hit some internal switch and became unmistakeably the Emperor Gregor the Great she’d seen with the rest of the Nexus on that crazy framecast, potent beyond measure. She knew every last sitting diner felt it too, and felt her own legs tense as some of them began to rise, but an imperial hand waved slightly and they all sank back down.

“Silvy Vale. I too am mindful that it has been a long evening, with dancing yet to come, but there are a few formalities I find it proper to announce here tonight. The first is a surprise even to me, for the ways of my bureaucracy are a wonder, but a few weeks ago, in a routine report, a name caught my eye. Armsman Roic, please stand.”

Looking very surprised, which made him even cuter, Roic did.

“I believe all here will know the tale of your heroism in Hassadar, four years past, before you joined Count Vorkosigan’s Score, and I know you received a commendation for those actions in Hassadar. At that time your police commander made a recommendation, that has at last wound its way to the top of Lord Vorbohn’s in-tray, and while there will be a ceremony in Vorbarr Sultana in due course it is my great pleasure now to inform you, and all, that you have been awarded the Xav Cross in recognition of saving so many lives at such risk to your own.”

Nan had never heard of the award but exclamations from around the tables made clear its notability, and poor Roic, blushing so much she had to suppress giggles, endured at least a minute’s clapping and cheering as his hand was shaken and he stood by his smiling emperor. His family had gone from glassy- to pleasingly pop-eyed, and the look his Da was giving him, clapping like crazy all the while, would have melted stone. Eventually he was allowed to sit, only to receive a knockout kiss from Fangs that set everyone off again. At last the Count—or Emperor, or whatever he was being now—lifted a hand and the noise just stopped.

“I am also pleased to inform you all that an Imperial Decree will be published in Vorbarr Sultana this evening, extending the privilege of wearing medals with House liveries from Count’s and Count’s Heirs to all who wear a House uniform, including Armsmen. And though the Decree could not, alas, say so explicitly, it is My understanding that its terms recognise the medals awarded by allied forces, as the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet were at the Hegen Hub, and the uniforms a House may designate for any of its officials, including mail-carriers. So when you next see the good sergeant and armsman in their best—for another nameday ceremony, perhaps?—you will also see how honoured they have been before ever coming into your lives here.”

To Nan it all sounded way too Barrayaran, but she knew Fangs liked the chestful of Dendarii awards she had won over the years, and the crowd were clearly pleased. The Admiral’s Armsman down the table—Pym, she recalled—was looking very thoughtful, while the cook Kosti laughed and cheerfully slapped him on the back. And the Admiral himself was looking at his … emperor? friend?—partner in crime?—with a strange look that made her wonder what he was planning until an imperial hand gave another of those slight waves and yet again silence abruptly returned. How did he do that? Gunny was pretty good at getting silence, even on battlefields, but this was way faster with only a smidgeon of the effort.

“And finally, Silvy Vale, there is one Other Thing, for my friend haut Gars would speak to you, and I require you to hear him well.”

Oh golly! This silence you could have cut with a knife, and in it haut Gars—no disrespecting him now—came to his feet with a fluidity that had Nan blinking and Gunny next to her squinting appreciation. Without haste the tall haut, who’d clearly thrown some internal switch himself, surveyed the silent diners, and then to everyone’s electric shock he laughed, a joyous, rolling dance of sound in that amazing baritone she remembered from his address to the Nexus.

“Silvy Vale. The chances that have brought me here are very strange. And if you are surprised I have come, that is nothing, I assure you, to the surprise I left behind, and to which I will return. I was in two minds when Count Vorbarra urged his invitation on me, and with strong reason among my own people, but I have enjoyed myself today as not for many years, and I thank you all most sincerely for your grace to me.”

For all the beauty of his voice he didn’t seem disturbed to have his words heard in silence. And come to think of it, that was probably what usually happened to him.

“To witness the nameday of little Ekaterin and the wedding of your brave sergeant and armsman is purpose enough, and I have also seen with pleasure the work haut Palma has sanctioned here, and that her liegeladies are about even now.” Glances were flickering between the Admiral and his own emperor but the silence remained absolute. “It is well done, and I wish you all joy of it.”

Then, still in silence, he bowed slightly and a noise of which Nan had never heard the like, at once low moan and sussuration, filled the clearing. Haut Gars looked at his audience steadily, and the noise died away, but Nan saw the Admiral was looking at him very intently indeed, and catching that gaze he inclined his head again, briefly and personally, before continuing.

“I was not born when the ghem invaded Barrayar, and yet in my minority when the Occupation ended with their defeat. Even if it were permitted me, I cannot apologise for the actions of Another, and such an apology could mean nothing. That it was a grave mistake your own forebears taught ghem and haut alike. But here tonight, Silvy Vale, I will say to you that it was also, in my judgement today, an evil and a foolishness.” That sat Gunny up straight. “And though I bear no responsibility for the decision once made, I am responsible for our decision now, to labour as we may to restore what was destroyed.”

This noise was even stranger, an almost subliminal keening overlying a deep growl of assent. Nan shivered in her seat and saw Gunny’s muscles tauten sharply to prevent her doing the same thing.

“And it is my pleasure to say so here tonight, not only because it is right, but in recognition of the man who has made it possible. You have heard it from your Imperial Master, and from your most admirable Count, and now you hear it from me.”

He held up a hand of his own to enforce the silence.

“It was once said on old Terra that prophets—seers of the future—are always without honour in their own countries. And I have reason to know that Lord Vorkosigan has not always been honoured among you as he should be. But when I first had the pleasure of meeting him, more than a decade ago and under most peculiar circumstances, he told me we should meet again; and against all odds, to my great astonishment, he has been proven right.” He shook his head more elegantly than anyone should be able to do. “Quite how he does it, Silvy Vale, remains a mystery to me, and even to Count Vorbarra, but that he does it none can doubt. And should you ever doubt again his power and honour, Silvy Vale, remember haut Gars himself came here to tell you so.”

Still in silence he lifted from the table before him one of those stone Dendarii pitchers and filled a glass with a liquid so dark a brown it could have been mountain-shadows he was pouring out. The silver bubbles and heady aroma of the maple mead were themselves transfixing, and around the table more than Barrayaran eyes were watching the level in the glass rise with a profound, gleeful fascination. But beyond both distractions Nan was riveted by the sheer beauty of the man. She was more than close enough to see that for all his youthful vigour Gars—Giaja—felt the nearly ninety years she knew he carried, but if any fragment of her mind had doubted the depths of Cetagandan geneering after seeing haut Palma’s face it faded now as she watched his pure elegance of action. Gunny too was sighing under her breath.

“Lord Vorkosigan, your health!”

With equal beauty the glass was raised in salute, and drained. For at least a second the most refined genetics in the Nexus could not prevent a glazed shock from flashing in those deep blue eyes, and the crowd’s attention bulged dangerously, but the glass was set down, haut Gars sat again under his own control, and a roar to scare the leaves off the trees shook the tables and set the bubbles bouncing above them. Then it mutated into a thundering chant, Vorkosigan! Vorkosigan! Vorkosigan!, and Nan happily settled back to watch her amazing Admiral at last receive the dues of his own people.

 

 

VI







A tumultuous time later Miles found himself drifting with Ekaterin, Aunt Alys, Simon, and the Csuriks towards the school, where the quiet privacy of the back-porch would let them sit and wind down. The dancing had been energetic and surprisingly co-ordinated, conversations in-between interesting and for the most part highly satisfactory. Roic and Taura had left twenty minutes ago by lightflier (Jankowski piloting), for Vorkosigan Surleau, where a guest-suite awaited them, and would depart in the morning for Marilac, where Taura (who had missed the Dendarii fleet’s all-but-state visit) had through Elli Quinn’s good offices been offered free use of a spectacular apartment in the capital. Gunny and Specs were now sitting with Roic’s family, spilling beans about Taura’s mercenary career, with Pym, Tsipis, Ma Kosti, and even Estelle among their croggled and attentive audience. Haut Palma—Aunt Palma!—whom Miles had really not expected to show her face, had retired to her pavilion, probably to get over the shock of having done so, and of being so summarily aunted. And Gregor and Laisa were off with haut Gars somewhere, so that was alright, though he was sorry not to have a chance to talk to ghem-Captain Legion. Heh. Oh well.

Both moons, though each short of the full, were bright in the sky, and the trees behind the school would be casting criss-cross shadows on the patch of greensward there. His head fizzed with the evening’s long-anticipated excitements and quite unforeseen additions, and in his heart he was beginning to feel a rare contentment he had no need to analyse. We have come a long way, Silvy Vale and I. But there was also a thread of concern, for he knew in his bones that while everything haut Gars had said had been true enough, if far more personally flattering than he’d ever supposed possible from that mouth, nothing he had yet seen or heard really explained what Fletchir was doing here. Gregor’s motives might be clearer but that wasn’t saying much, and in any case Miles was just as sure that something his brother wanted was yet undone.

From behind a little knot of villagers beaming in their direction Nikki came scooting to join them, face glowing from dancing, general excitement, and at least one taste of maple mead.

“Where are you going? Can I come?”

Miles glanced at Ekaterin, who shrugged.

“It’s not as if he’d be in bed otherwise, love, but … ?”

“Yes. Still …” Intuition was suddenly clamouring at Miles that Nikki should be present. Especially if … “Alright, Nikki, but the usual conditions. If I say so, you go without demur. And Auditors’ Rules apply. Everything you hear is strictly confidential, even from Arthur or Fel, even if all we do is tell bad jokes.” Intuition yammered again. “And even if Gregor and Laisa and haut Gars don’t join us.”

But there was, he thought, little danger of that, and as they mounted the porch-steps having heard Nikki’s promise he saw outside haut Palma’s pavilion a painted face that had been watching them turn to murmur something to those within. Ah … But Harra’s attention had been claimed by a Vorbarra nursemaid, and after a moment she turned to him with an apologetic look.

“Matron Laptikos says little Ekaterin’s woken hungry again, my Lord, so I’ll join you in a bit, if I may.”

Big Ekaterin looked intrigued. “You’re breast-feeding her?”

“Oh yes, my Lady. I asked haut Palma and she sent a shot the doc gave me that started my milk right on time. And we’ve got a supply of those shots now. It’s a thing about replicators that really matters here, because it’s so much easier and cheaper than bottles.” She smiled shyly. “Better for the babes here, too, haut Palma says, because it helps with the mountain fevers.”

Miles was kicking himself for not having thought of the issue, and in the back of his head suddenly wondering what haut practice was with the unweaned—they like biology, after all—but he was also loath to lose Harra’s company. “As you will, Harra, but if you’d rather have little Ekaterin brought to you here, go ahead.”

She blinked at him. “You’d not be bothered? But suppose …”

Ekaterin was smiling. “I don’t think anyone will mind if you don’t, Harra.” She ruffled Nikki’s hair. “I breastfed Nikki on Komarr for exactly your reasons, and we got stuck in bubblecar-jams a time or two for so long he was really howling, so I just got on with it for the sake of silence. There were a lot of stares but they all became smiles pretty soon.”

So Matron Laptikos was despatched, shortly to return with a grumbling babe, and they all strung themselves in chairs along the back-porch. Even Nikki for once sat properly, trying to look adult but scuffing his feet a little. A grinning Lem broke out a new stone pitcher of maple mead and in amused deference to Aunt Alys’s tart look provided glasses, while Harra settled herself beside him and began to nurse. For some moments they were all content to enjoy the relative quiet, though the band could still be heard exploring slower, haunting melodies and the murmur of conversation remained audible. The doubled, intersecting shadows were all Miles had hoped, flickering as a night-breeze tickled the leaves, but he was also aware of guarding presences among the trees and his conviction hardened that some at least of that close-squad were ImpSec boys in face-paint. And that’s a debriefing I shall want to read. Meantime he played to an ear he hoped was listening, gently setting out a cat—and where is ImpSec, I wonder?—among the crowded pigeons.

“So, Aunt Alys, Speaker of Vorbarr Sultana, eh? We’ll have to have it gazetted.”

Simon and Lem snorted, Ekaterin’s eyes shone, Harra blushed, and Alys gave him a long but mostly amused look. He winked at her and seeing Simon nobly stifle a smile had a sudden image of him wearing a little nametag that read ‘Voracushla’. Hmmm. But that must wait and Alys was steepling her fingers.

“It was a splendid compliment, Harra dear, and I do thank you for it—but I think not, Miles. Mayor Berçonneau would object at tedious length, and I have in any case no desire to be a Speaker for more than thirty million people, many of whom seem to have no idea what they actually want from life. But I have been thinking that a Speakership of the Residence is actually a very interesting idea.”

Which it was, startlingly so, but this wasn’t quite what Miles wanted. He nodded agreement.

“Yes, indeed. That’s rather brilliant, actually, Aunt Alys, and would allow formal deputising.” Alys’s gaze strayed at once to Ekaterin, whose eyes opened in alarm. Heh. “But I fear ‘Speaker of Vorbarr Sultana’ is going to stick in Silvy Vale. It’s just the kind of happy impossibility that will flourish here.”

Lem raised his cup in salute. “Why, thank you. Are we some secret garden, then, my Lord?”

Bingo. Whatever the hell that means. “Oh yes, Speaker. Ekaterin’ll tell you, and my Ma. All sorts of things can grow here in the Dendarii, and Silvy Vale is now at their innermost heart.”

Lem laughed but looked thoughtful, and from around the back of haut Palma’s pavilion, just visible past the school-garden trellis-work laden with scented climbers, came a dapper silhouette, shepherding three others through the cross-hatching shadows. ImpSec trotted alongside them, tail bannered high.

“I think we need four more chairs, Lem.”

“Only three’ll fit, my Lord. Who’s coming?”

“Let’s put a few on the lawn, then. You’ll see.” Lem went in through the senior-schoolroom door and Miles patted the side of his own chair. “Nikki, perhaps you’d sit on the edge of the porch here by me?” He glanced towards the silently approaching party, almost upon them.

Frowning slightly Nikki followed his look, swallowed, and stood swiftly as a painted ghem-face preceded Gregor, Laisa, and haut Gars out of deeper shadows and onto the tiny lawn in front of them.

“Don’t go, Nikki.” Ahhh. Miles’s intuition gave a pleased little shiver. “May we join you?”

“Of course, Gregor.” Miles glanced at haut Gars. “And, ah, ghem-Captain Legion?”

“If he wishes, certainly.”

The look between haut and ghem was unreadably complex, but the ‘Captain’ took a chair once Lem had brought out the extras and they had rearranged themselves in a shallow oval. To Miles’s renewed amazement and great pleasure he also brought a small sachet from an inner pocket, took from it a small, slightly perfumed square that unfolded into a surprisingly large towel, and with the unthinking deftness of very long practice swiftly rubbed his face clean, eyelids and all, in no more than half-a-dozen movements. Blinking slightly, Dag Benin peered at him quizzically.

“Hello, Miles, everyone. I confess I have no idea if I should greet you all properly.”

“Hello, Dag. I shouldn’t bother. We’re all friends here.” Welcomes were murmured back by all the Barrayarans, even Lem and Harra, who had met Dag during the invasion, when they had met Their Celestial Majesties. “It’s what back-porches are for, you know.”

“Are they? A useful custom, if a shocking triumph of sentiment over protocol.”

“Naturally.” Miles laughed. “Have you been enjoying yourself?”

“Immensely, when I wasn’t confused, momently alarmed, or finding it very difficult to keep looking properly around rather than letting myself be riveted by whatever astonishing thing was currently being said.”

“Excellent. But no real alarm?”

“Amazingly not. It has all been very … positive.”

“Better still.” Gregor was wearing the faintest smile, so Miles thought he was probably on track. “And haut Gars, may I offer my, um, felicitations on surviving as noble a draught of maple mead as I can recall seeing quaffed, here or in Vorkosigan Surleau.”

Lem and Harra chuckled, producing a grump from little Ekaterin before she settled again. Big Ekaterin grinned, and haut Gars let himself smile back wryly.

“It is a remarkable beverage, and I have learned why it comes in stone pitchers.” The laughter was general, and Miles saw Gars relax a little in his chair, stretching out his long legs and crossing them at the ankle. ImpSec promptly hopped aboard, settling into a neat position, and began to purr as clever fingers scratched the back of his head. With the other hand Gars lifted his glass and took an exaggeratedly careful sip, producing more grins. Well, well. “Your health, one and all. And my sincere thanks again, Lem, Harra, for your hospitality today.”

The Csuriks flushed, smiled warmly, nodded, spoke, clashed, and paused in unison. “You’re most welcome, myhautLordGars—“

Gars laughed softly. “So, it does have its limits. It just takes maple mead to find them. But please, I think that here”—and somehow no-one doubted he meant only the back-porch they occupied—“for now at least, I am just Fletchir.”

Miles thought he heard Benin groan ‘Identity Three’, very sotto voce, but it might have been the breeze in the leaves. For now at least? Everyone had gone very still, and Aunt Alys was having a problem keeping her eyebrows down where they belonged, but Gregor’s smile had widened. And the way was open at last.

“Are you? Good. Is there anything Fletchir wants to say or do that even haut Gars couldn’t?”

“There may be, Miles. One thing at least, in courtesy.”

He set down his glass, gathered his legs, and leaned forward with that extraordinary, fluid grace, holding an unprotesting ImpSec in place, to extend a long-fingered hand to Nikki.

“It is my pleasure to meet you properly at last, young Nikolai.” They shook, and Miles dearly wished he could have seen his son’s face; Ekaterin’s eyes were shining as Fletchir leaned back again in his chair. “I am not entirely sure what I should do to earn the rank of uncle, but thanks to Dag here I can tell you that I agree with your assessment of Lord Vortalon’s strike against ghem-General Slayer’s intelligence staff. His tactical thinking was sound, and certainly reflects historical events, but in the execution he was very fortunate in his scriptwriters.”

Even without seeing Nikki’s face Miles knew his son would already have progressed through surprise to his delightful grin.

“And I would like to ask you a question, if I may?” Nikki nodded, and Miles hoped he was cocking an eyebrow. “I understand you have invited young Fel Epallo to visit you at Vorkosigan Surleau this summer.” Another nod. Excellent. Miles saw Simon’s face go distant with thought. “Would you bring him here?”

“Yes, si—Uncle Fletchir, I would.”

Miles stifled a whoop and saw both Fletchir’s and Gregor’s eyes brighten. He didn’t dare look at Ekaterin.

“And what would you do together?”

“I know quite a few of the village children, from visiting before with Ma and Da, and there’s a great pool for swimming nearby. We went this afternoon. There are good walks and climbs, too. But”—he glanced round at Miles, then his Ma, giving them a look both recognised with mild trepidation—“Uncle Lem said one of his brothers has built a sailing-boat to use on the lake, so I’m really hoping if Fel comes that we can learn to sail.”

One of the ferrets built a boat? Oh well. It could be worse. Maybe. At least Roic’s a first-rate swimmer. If he’s back in time.

Fletchir was smiling. “Indeed.” He glanced at Miles and there was more than amusement in those deepset eyes. “Sailing is a passion for some haut, also. The Tau Cetans like their Enclosed Sea for its difficult winds and currents, and say they find the challenge of managing speed and the tight manoeuvres of racing to offer quite an emotional experience.” Miles blinked, mind racing. “And it does sound … fun.”

I thought so.” Nikki hesitated. “May I ask if you know when Fel will be back?”

“Soon, I assure you. His … Da has been promoted, you know, but will stay at our embassy here for some while, I believe. He has done well. Very well, in fact. But he needed to meet some other recent appointees at the Celestial Garden, as well as the new ambassador your Uncle Gregor has sent me.”

Vorreedi had been coldly furious to be recalled into retirement, but even Gregor’s loyalty to past service had finally had enough of his attitude and as far as Miles could tell more or less everyone who had to deal with the sour old ImpSec man on Eta Ceta, Barrayaran, haut, or ghem, had been delighted to see him go. The new ambassador was (despite assorted protests) both a commoner and a diplomatic outsider, Ivan Boulanger, formerly a Cetagandan specialist of Vorsmythe’s who had been invaluable during the Trades and Tariffs negotiations. Colonel Lord Ivan Vorpatril had been appointed as his deputy and Celestial Garden liaison, and to Miles’s suspicious fascination had hardly protested at all.

“Thank you, Uncle Fletchir. I really miss him.”

“So I see. You do not care, then, that he is ghem? That his loyalties cannot ever wholly be yours?”

“He’s my friend. We disagree about lots of things, of course.” Nikki hesitated again, and this time glanced at Miles with a much more uncertain look before turning back to Fletchir and squaring his shoulders. “Even about you, sir.”

“How so?” Fletchir was intent, and so were Gregor and Laisa.

Nikki gathered his thoughts. “I mean no offence, Uncle, but at school we’ve both had to deal with boys who are … whose parents are politically conservative. Not opposed to the Alliance—no-one is, really—but opposed to my Da, and to Fel because he is ghem. The Occupation … comes up a lot. So we’ve argued about it together, privately.” Miles had never loved and admired his son more, and everyone was holding their breaths, even Gregor and Fletchir. “Fel says you weren’t responsible, and of course he’s right. You said tonight you weren’t even born when it started. But I tell him, the fact is you’re the emperor, so logic doesn’t matter; people will blame you, just as they blame Uncle Gregor for stuff he’d never have allowed if he’d had a choice. It’s what you are, not … real thinking.”

“And young Fel disagrees?” That exquisite baritone was very carefully neutral.

“Not really, but he doesn’t understand. After I introduced him to Uncle Gregor and Aunt Laisa, and Grandma Cordelia and Gran’da Aral, I think he started to see. But he hasn’t lived with people like that, and of course he’s never met you, so I think it’s not quite real for him, and he forgets. But he knows it’s real for me, and we … rub along. Sometimes it’s hard, because there’s so much I can’t tell him.” Miles sensed Fletchir’s delight in this evidence of Nikki’s discretion. And secrecy will matter like hell. “But the thing is, Uncle, just as people will blame you and Uncle Gregor, and Da, for things you didn’t do, they’ll forgive you with the same … illogic.” That’s a new word. Nikki paused, eyes obviously searching Fletchir’s calm return gaze. “It’s what I think happened here tonight. None of the bad stuff that happened in the mountains, the radiation-damage and the guerrilla war, can possibly be your fault, and I see exactly why you wouldn’t apologise, but they forgave you for them all the same, and it changes them.” He paused, suddenly self-conscious. “I’m sorry about my pronouns.”

It was a good line but Miles didn’t quite see why Gregor and Fletchir both gave such hoots of genuine laughter. It was unnerving. And Dag was looking distinctly strangled. Pronouns? Oh.

“Not a problem, Nikki.” Gregor was having unusual difficulty controlling himself. “And your analysis is superb. I tell you, there is no-one now in ImpSec who could have given it and if you ever want an analyst’s job there, it’s yours for the asking.”

Laisa nodded. “Or with Toscane Industries.” Whoa! That wasn’t among his plans.

Gregor’s gaze swung to Miles. “You are one hell of a teacher, Admiral, as your delightful QSM would probably say.” And swung on. “Fletchir?”

The haut nodded. “I’m getting there, Gregor.” Eh? But Fletchir’s gaze was back on Nikki. “Thank you, Nikolai, for your honesty and … trust. It deserves requital, and I shall count myself in your debt. And I fear I may wish to ask you other questions, sometimes. Would you mind if I were to ask your parents for your personal comconsole code?” Miles could have danced except he’d have fallen over laughing. Ekaterin’s eyes were doing it for him, anyway, and Simon’s expression was simply priceless. “Good. Thank you again. And I can offer you one requital now, for after my return to Eta Ceta, and before young Fel’s return here, I could make sure he and his parents came to dine with me, and with General Benin. Fel’s security clearance for many of the things you know and he does not cannot be changed, but you might then be able to resume your friendship on a somewhat more equal footing. Shall I do so?”

“Yes, please. He’ll be … scared.”

“I will make sure he is reassured.”

“Thank you. Uncle”

Fletchir nodded, smiling, and his gaze swivelled upwards, Nikki palpably relaxed against Miles’s knee, for once perhaps glad to step out of the centre of attention, and he ruffled his son’s hair while bracing himself. So. The haut’s gaze was long and steady, and the local silence so intense Miles could hear no breathing but his own and little Ekaterin’s, still nuzzling at Harra’s breast.

“So … is there perhaps a question that you would ask of me, Miles, that you did not have the chance to ask haut Gars?”

Aah! Home stretch.A question, Fletchir? When have I ever asked one?” Simon’s eyes glowed a little in the dimness. “But you know, I’ve been asking myself all evening what might really bring haut Gars to Silvy Vale.”

”And how did you answer yourself?”

Miles grinned, but he saw Fletchir was serious. “Well, now. I learned long ago that emperors never do things for only one reason, so the answer is multiple choice. When I realised it was you I remembered where I’d come across the name Gars before. It’s an acronym, isn’t it? And an imperial pseudonym.”

Gustavus Adolphus Rex Sueciae.” Fletchir’s baritone rolled the strange language. “Gustav Adolf, King of the Swedes.” Suddenly he grinned at Gregor. “Also known as Gustav the Great, so I shouldn’t be surprised Miles knew about him.”

Miles grinned in turn. “I collect alliterating emperors. Besides, that one used the alias Captain Gars as a light cavalry commander, and Gran’da collected them. But begging Dag’s pardon, you didn’t seem to have any of Captain Gars’s lethal Hakkapeliita with you today, Fletchir, so on we go.” I see your Old Terran Latin and raise you Finnish. He received a nod of amused appreciation. “Thanks to Aunt Alys I also had a thought about Erpingham’s Cloak, that can disguise kings, but it doesn’t quite fit the bill. It did remind me, though, that when I first mooted to Gregor today’s attendance by Count Vorbarra, he said he thought you wouldn’t mind because you were intrigued by that capacity of his.”

He looked around the watching faces, feeling with pleasure the weight of thinking going on, in Harra and Lem as much as Simon and Alys.

“Tell me, Dag, as an artist with protocol, would you back my guess that the reason the Cetagandan Imperium has never developed a legal fiction that can be used the way Gregor uses Count Vorbarra is the same as the reason the ghem go painted and the haut are still?”

Dag smiled austerely, reflecting the tension visible in his arms and shoulders. “The relevant facts overlap, certainly. But Count Vorbarra, of course, is a neofeudal constitutional reality as well as a convenient fiction. And I cannot speak for any haut.” He relaxed slightly. “Nor am I quite sure what you’re driving at, Miles.”

“Only this, Dag—that your Imperial Master, in any guise, would never dishonour such a celebration as we first witnessed tonight, so on Ekaterin Palma’s behalf I shall always think that haut Gars shared her nameday. And we know as security-men, you and I, that in any given name there is a world of possibility.” He looked back at Fletchir. “Tell me, if you will, how many ghem and haut already know the name Gars?” Those haut smiles were very enigmatic.

“Six of one and half-a-dozen of the other.”

Heh. No matter. “Too few, Fletchir, if you really want it to work. Slip it sideways to your top fifty of each, with warnings mild enough to let them talk to one another. And this is becoming sooo not my business, but take a leaf out of Ekaterin’s and Ferrant Coram’s book, and use Gars first on Eta Ceta at a ghem memorial ceremony.” He glanced at Benin, whose face was very still. “Explain it to the ghem as a necessity for the haut, and to the haut as a necessity for the ghem. You’re the unique fulcrum of haut and empire anyway, and I know you reinforced that not so long ago, in spades. So who can deny your necessities?”

To his considerable relief Fletchir laughed aloud, a great rolling richness of harmonics. “It’s going to take some doing, Miles, but I believe I shall be taking your advice. Not for the first time.” He sobered, though Miles gave thanks to the maple mead that he suspected was doing sterling work. “And it is, as so often, very good advice. The ceremony, especially.”

Miles had a brainwave so intense it was almost painful, and spoke very carefully. “It also occurs to me, Fletchir, that the new Deputy Ambassador would be able to help you practice. Ivan … knows an awful lot about fictions.” He would not look at Simon or Aunt Alys, and thought he had probably better bank some countercredit immediately. “But to get back to your question … I must confess that beyond those answers I found myself swamped in embarrassment.” For once a blush was useful. “I did not at all expect you to say in public, or even in private, what you said last to the Vale. And in trying to consider it the only thing that has really come to mind is that, as Gregor once warned me, you do not care for me to think of myself as your court jester. Or perhaps of yourself as having such a functionary. I meant no offence, you know?”

“And I took none, Miles. But you are right that persuading you of my distaste for your self-assessment has a place among your multiple choices. And with Gregor’s permission there is a small group of haut to whom I would very much like you to deliver a short, sharp lecture on how and why you cracked open Dagoola IV like the rotten egg it was.”

Gak! But he didn’t hesitate for a second. “Gregor’s call. And thank you. It would, I think, be an honour to jest for you, but it is a much greater one to be taken seriously. I have, you see, grown up a little.” In the darkness Harra snorted softly. “Which not everyone has. Do you know, haut Gars, of what I am most conscious about you in this moment? And what the question is that Miles would ask Fletchir?”

Long-fingered hands opened permissively in the double moonlight.

“We Barrayarans”—he smiled at Laisa, whose eyes were shadowed and intent upon him—“are all en famille. Little Ekaterin is here nursing, and Nikki growing like fury, and all the adults joyfully partnered. Only you and Dag are alone. I know he’s unmarried, though I very much hope he won’t always be, but the question I would ask Fletchir is simply this. How is your family?”

Gregor’s eyes were bright on him, and even the noises of revelry from the clearing seemed to have stopped. Fletchir’s hands moved again, rippling in the light as he shrugged. Have I ever seen a haut shrug? Gregor has been working on him.

“Rian is well, and sends you fond greetings, tinged with alarm. She did not believe this … adventure of mine well-advised, yet hoped for our sakes it would succeed.” As Miles heard the wonderfully ambiguous pronoun his heart began to thud. Fletchir calmly looked at the Csuriks. “She asked also to be remembered to Harra and Lem, with apologies for the necessity of having her image … extricated from Gregor’s gift to you.”

Lem smiled and Harra—fascinatingly—laughed, disconcerting little Ekaterin again. “Please tell her not to worry, my Lord. If I had Her Majesty on my wall as I remember her from that day I’d never get a moment’s right teaching done.” She bent to reaccommodate the babe.

“My word, yes!” Aunt Alys’s heartfelt understanding as her imagination went to work set everyone smiling, but Miles leaned forward, hand on Nikki’s shoulder, to recapture Fletchir’s eyes.

“The Princes are also well?”

“Yes. My elder sons are grown enough to have begun gaining valuable experience on secondment to Raniton and other governors. Arrangements in the governance of the new volumes may ultimately dictate otherwise, but it is likely that in maturity each will serve at least one term as a governor of one of the Eight, and ideally several, in rotation.”

“And your son by Rian? I’m sorry, I don’t know his name.”

Before the silence could freeze Fletchir was speaking, for the first time in Miles’s memory with something he could call determined normality. Yes!

“Riahir. He’s well, and growing quickly.”

“Forgive me again, but he’s how old?”

“Nine.”

Rian worked fast. Miles brain felt as if it ought to be smoking. “A difficult age, as I remember. For Nikki, too, though for different reasons. But then all ages as a child were pretty difficult for me, as for Gregor, and for you, I’d imagine. To grow up in some places is at once wonderful and impossible. Getting away from it sometimes was very important. So I was going to say, if you wanted, I’m sure Riahir would be very welcome here, from time to time, as haut Gars’s son.” He turned. “Lem, is old man Cherryt still trying to build that house of his in the little clearing by the falls?”

Lem looked startled, but his answer was prompt and his brain was, thank Barrayar, working despite the maple mead.

“Didn’t you know, my Lord? He died in his sleep last Winterfair. An aneurysm, doc guessed, but the family wanted no cutting to find out. They don’t like probing round here, for all it’s everyone’s hobby.”

“Who is his heir? Varga Cherryt?”

“That’s right, my—“

“Does she want the land-grant, or would she be willing to return it to my Da, if she were compensated?”

“In a heartbeat. Especially if the compensation was a landgrant for her son-in-law over in Rossy Vale.”

“Ah. Then take steps, please, to reclaim the grant. I’ll instruct Master Tsipis.” He turned again. “The thing is, Fletchir, that there’s a very lovely spot a mile and some away, up the Vale, where old man Cherryt, when he wasn’t so old, decided he could build a house. He got the land-grant from my father years ago. But besides being as stubborn as a dead mule, a renowned skinflint, and the worst builder you could ever hope to find, he kept on wanting something bigger than the space will hold. How many houses fell down, Lem?”

“Three I know of. He was working on number four, though. It was supposed to be cantilevered over the falls.”

“Heh. Anyway, I flatly refused him permission to fell trees or bring in heavy equipment, because apart from anything else he didn’t have the money to do it right, and by that point he was dreaming of blasting-powder and earthmovers, y’know? But if you had force technology and aircrew to spare, an engineer like Vanos Kariam or Georg Vorthys to control them, a good architect, and a designer like Ekaterin to decorate the place, you could do something really lovely. A small holiday retreat with a spectacular view and serious privacy, amid a population who within a year are going to be discernibly loyal to haut Gars.” He smiled widely and lovingly, feeling the last piece take shape. “Nikki can explain it to you. Fletchir Giaja is still an ex-enemy emperor, however respected, but after today haut Gars will be secretly one of their own. And they have always been very protective of whole children. And imperial ones. Ask Gregor.”

There was a little sigh of understanding around the circle, but he didn’t break the only eye-contact that mattered now.

“You have taught me, you know, much about the grace of giving. And I think I will, in the Count-my-father’s Voice, give that land-grant now to haut Gars. As Lem and Gregor are here we have a Speaker and a Count as witnesses, and if I recall correctly that insane law from the Time of Isolation that still governs this stuff, with his other hat on for a second Gregor can give permission for the grant to go unwritten and unannounced unless a challenge is issued by another Count—and that concession was a District border issue that doesn’t apply here. So given I have override whatever Varga Cherryt may want, I hereby declare in the Count-my-father’s Voice that the land-grant formerly held by Yuri Cherryt of Silvy Vale, in the Vorkosigan’s District, is transferred to haut Gars, of the Celestial Garden, Eta Ceta, in recognition of his child Riahir’s need and his own greatness as Fletchir the Fair, to make himself a dwelling as he will.”

“And We hereby allow the said grant to go unrecorded and unannounced. Without implication or apology, We also request and require that all present keep this grant a close secret, disclosing or confirming it to none without the explicit permission of Ourself or Our Celestial Cousin.”

Miles could not remember when he had last taken such pleasure in saying ‘Sire’, or in the chorus Gregor could command. And the only two who had been silent amid that thrilling murmur were both staring at him like hunters who suddenly find their prey trotting up to them with an enquiring look and a droll opening remark.

“All could be very well, if you wish. After all, I do have some practice in helping emperors grow.”

Fletchir’s hands were as still as his face, and without uttering his usual quack of protest when ignored ImpSec slipped down from his lap, ghosted over to the porch, and leaped to curl up by Nikki’s feet, purring.

 

 

Epilogue 

A little shy of two years later.

For once Gregor had finished his morning paperwork and meetings early, earning himself nearly an hour before a rather delicate diplomatic lunch with the Betan ambassador. Since he and Fletchir had used their Alliance’s sudden and overwhelming tech-edge to cut the Betans down to size and secure permission for Cordelia to visit her family without fear of arrest for fishtanking Dr Mehta all those years ago, the ambassador had been as persistently frosty as he dared. Mehta having abruptly withdrawn her filed charges and retired from government service with what had sounded like a truly whopping pension, less than a week after the invasion broadcast, the Betans did now have licensed frames and nanoforges, and were by all accounts making very good use of them. But they still did not have any nice new wormholes, and could see better than most how the Alliance was using its leasing policies for the new tech to remind everyone that what it gave it could also deny. Or even take away. He didn’t personally give a damn for the urbane ambassador’s hurt feelings, but the whole tactic was working too well, and no-one wanted to put a real crimp in Betan R. & D., merely induce a certain self-scrutiny and … humility. Cordelia was wonderful, but a planet’s worth of people who thought the same way was downright scary. Even Fletchir agreed with that.

His comconsole chimed softly, and he frowned as he saw Guy Allegre’s request to talk flash up. It was edged in green, meaning ‘if you have time’, and he had seen Guy earlier, as he would see him later; the quotidian security routine of morning and evening briefings had grown easier of late, but still covered most things that might as well as all that did matter. So what was this? Reluctantly, feeling his garnered hour tremble, he tapped the accept.

Guy appeared, looking apprehensive and … amused? Uh-oh …

“I’m sorry to bother you, Sire, but I have just received a rather unusual communication, from Lady Vorkosigan. All in all, I thought I’d better pass it along straight away.”

Ekaterin? What on earth was she up to? “Of course, Guy. Go ahead.”

Allegre tapped his own console. “There. I believe I’ll leave you to listen to it alone, Sire.”

He winked out. With a strange feeling growing in his midriff Gregor hit ‘Play’ and Ekaterin appeared, wearing an extraordinarily stylish pair of those plain-glasses with which every last Vorbarr Sultana socialite, not to mention all the holovid people and half the general population, seemed to be amusing themselves this year. The gods know why. He’d asked Laisa weeks ago if she understood the fad, but she’d only grinned and said Toscane Industries had secured the franchise for Komarr and was establishing a small sub-division to churn the damn things out with nanoforges. As if their new and ferociously expanding power-supply division wasn’t enough. And the Komarrans already live under glass! Gah. Ekaterin, he saw, was looking over the top of her glasses with a strange mix of admonition and private amusement. And ImpSec sat beside her, grinning as only a grey-and-tabby cat can.

“Good morning, Guy. You’ll find in your in-tray two transfers. One is from my private account, for four million Imperial in favour of QSM Nan Hellund. She should be expecting it, and if you would be so kind as to pass it on via Admiral Quinn Miles and I would be much obliged. The second is a donation to ImpSec funds from a new division of MPVK Enterprises, for nine million Imperial, and Mark asks you formally to earmark that for Dendarii pensions and other retirement support. Thank you,” She smiled, infinitely. “I expect you’ll want to let Gregor know. If he’s puzzled, tell him I decline any explanation until he revokes this damn Deputy-Speakership of the Residence he’s landed me with. Oh, and I’m not available for the Betan bash today. I have some tiles to choose and a bonsai’d skeletum to install at a friend’s new house, down in the Dendarii. He’s decided to call it Mon Repos, apparently, unless I can dissuade him.”

Her image froze as the transmission ended, and Gregor slowly lowered his head onto his hands, sighing. His free hour, he thought, might profitably be given to working out how, in principle, he could manage in future to fool Miles without even remotely goosing Ekaterin. Or Fletchir. It would not be easy, but it would definitely be worth it. And where on Barrayar had this thirteen million marks come from? And why QSM Hellund, charming as the good sergeant was in her … glasses.

The comsonsole chimed again and he looked up to see Gerard looking at him with concern.

“Are you well, m’Lord?”

“I’m fine, Gerard. Just … enjoying a revelation. What is it?”

“Lord Auditor Vorkosigan is here, m’Lord, and asks if you are free to see him. A personal matter, he says.”

Miles! Gregor smiled evenly. “Of course. Show him in, please.”

By the time Miles entered he had taken position in his easy chair, gesturing Miles to its opposite. “A personal matter, Miles? Of course. But perhaps you would explain to me first why Ekaterin has suddenly decided to make QSM Hellund a millionaire, and Mark to fund Dendarii retirements. And where exactly the money is coming from.”

Miles grinned, not untriumphantly. “Guy wasted no time, then. Sorry, Gregor, it’s more than my life’s worth to spill Ekaterin’s beans. She is really not at all pleased to be a Deputy Speaker of the Residence.”

“So I gathered. I’m afraid I insist, though.”

“Me too. But still … Anyway, as that’s all off-limits, would you hit the cone of silence, please.”

Gregor stared but complied. “What on Barrayar requires that?

“A thought, regarding which I need to check a fact. Do you remember Fletchir saying, in the course of that long chat a few months back, that Riahir is presently crazy about space adventures, Nikki having introduced him by frame to the adventures of Lord Vortalon?” Gregor nodded, stifling a grin at the thought of such Barrayaran propaganda being avidly watched in the Celestial Garden. “And do I rightly recall, Gregor, that somewhere in your vaults there really is at least one document that defines the relationship of the Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet to Your Majesty?”

Eh? “Yes, there is. Vorhalas insisted.” He met Miles’s eyes and knew they were both thinking almost sentimentally of the old Count, who had died three months before and whose District’s succession was, to say the least, uncertain. He having no sons left.

“And how does it name that fleet?”

“As the …” The mark dropped. “Miles! You cannot be serious!”

Miles grinned, profoundly. “I’m right, aren’t I? That name, in full, is the Emperor’s Own Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet. And it’s perfect, Gregor. Remember Fletchir saying how much he regretted that the Cetagandan set-up made it impossible for haut to garner any practical military experience because they can’t serve under ghem? And that as a youth his grandfather sent him on fleet tours to start getting the space-naval understanding he needed? I did, and do, wonder about the Joint Fleet, but Riahir’s not old enough yet for a Midshipman’s Warrant. You should trail that to Fletchir, though, quite soon.”

Gregor stared, his brain racing. “Maybe so. And you’re suggesting that meantime …”

“A visit, with Nikki, accompanied by Roic, of course, and Taura, with Gunny and Specs on hand as well as whatever bodyguard Fletchir wants to assign. And Fel Epallo, maybe; I think Fletchir would trust him by now. Arthur Pym’s agitating, as well, though he has no idea, of course, what the trip is to be. And it’s a thought to ponder, I believe; Fletchir has met and rather admired Pym, when we were on Eta Ceta on honeymoon and for the ballet, as well as in Silvy Vale. The Dendarii have no action planned, of course, and given how peaceful the Nexus is being these days Elli has, with Guy’s permission, accepted a rolling Cetagandan contract to help in their volume-survey. So they’d actually be in Alliance space the whole time, which is definitely a point too, But think of it, Gregor, as young Riahir undoubtedly will—a most educational treat. And think of the long-term benefits for us of the education. And the gratitude.”

Gregor stared some more. “Miles, that is insane. And … brilliant. Maybe. Have you—“

“Not a word, to anyone at all, though the point of Mark’s transfer is partly to provide a fund against covering Elli’s expenses. The pitch I leave to you.” He smiled wickedly. “We should have some more Christening Tours, don’t you think? The last one was very productive.”

Gregor’s thoughts at that moment are hard to describe.