The Peace Memorial
Ekaterin’s Cetagandan commission, Midsummer 2810
Glad-handing disgruntled Cetagandans while they inspected her work was not on any list of Ekaterin’s desires, but as Deputy Speaker of the Residence (despite her best efforts both to refuse the title Gregor had imposed and subsequently to resign it) she had not had much choice, so here she was. Low, scudding clouds and fitful sunshine gave little atmosphere to the Occupation Memorial, but at least the stiff breeze cracking the flags above Vorhartung Castle wasn’t being channelled by the river gorge, and it was pleasantly calm where she waited with Olivia Vorrutyer and dragooned representatives of the Imperial Architects’ Guild. His Excellency the haut Paramel Volusor, who had somewhat surprisingly chosen to accompany the party, had even more surprisingly gone to stand with the ghem visitors while they made their offering in the inner courtyard ; his bowed head showed above the ghem surrounding him as the ten-minute silence wore on.
The whole visit, impeccably courteous on all sides, was as fraught as any dealings with Cetagandans she’d had since the Alliance was forged with Jack Chandler’s new technologies and Miles’s inspired glue. All the ghem in the party were very senior and crusty, but they were only satellites to the real problem, the haut Auselon Kemire, who would next week take up his Visiting Chair at the Cetayaran Institute and who all too plainly had no taste whatever for anything Barrayaran. From some private conversations by frame with Dag Benin, with Miles and Gregor later offering sidelights, she thought she had just about grasped the basics of the internal Cetagandan politics swirling around Kemire, but what to do about them besides making as nice as possible to him in the highest and most proper style she hadn’t a clue. At root she thought it wasn’t a logical matter at all, but a visceral inertia and an ingrained haut superiority wrapped in careful political reasons, and what it might take safely to goose that inertia not even Dag knew, though the Visiting Chair was apparently supposed to achieve something. Feh. Cetagandans!
She was covertly looking at Kemire, standing across the outer courtyard from her, when with their usual exact abruptness the ghem collectively decided the ten minutes were up, and their leader, a white-haired centenarian General, creakily knelt to light their offering. In a minute all was done, and the ghem began to shuffle out of the inner courtyard, haut Paramel still among them, while to her alarm Kemire swung round and came directly towards her. Halting, he bowed, and her brain registered that it was a deeper, more sincere gesture than any she had seen from him among the protocol of their first meeting. The bow to Olivia was shallower and the architects were roundly ignored.
“I believe I owe you an apology. Even the best holovids do not properly convey what you have wrought here. Such grace to enemies is of a high nature.”
For all his sincerity she heard the barbs in his words and stifled irritation, smiling to sweeten her rejoinder. “Former enemies, sir. And I would say rather, of a common decency, if as high an aesthetic as could honourably be contrived.”
Unexpectedly Kemire smiled, and she saw for the first time why someone might follow this haut in more than shared bigotry. “Touché, my Lady. Forgive my habits.” He gestured to the bench behind her, sheltered between two of the dwarf-trees that ringed the outer courtyard. “If Countess Vorrutyer will excuse us, perhaps we might sit and enjoy a little of what I have heard your Imperial Master call plain-speaking.”
Concealing her alarm Ekaterin nodded. “Of course. Olivia, dear, could you field haut Paramel and the honourable ghem? The castle staff are just bringing the water carafes and glasses for those who need refreshment.”
“Certainly. Haut Auselon. Gentlemen.” Olivia collected the architects by eye and led them off to greet the shuffling ghem party while the arriving staff swiftly set up a table with the plain crystal carafes of spring water and simple but very fine glasses. Mentally blessing unruffleable Koudelka competence, Ekaterin folded herself neatly onto one side of the bench and gestured to Auselon to do likewise.
“What plainness did you wish to speak, sir?”
He smiled at her briskness. “In the first place, only this—that I am not, whatever ghem-General Benin may have told you, opposed to our alliance, nor to the peace and co-operation it entails.” Ekaterin blinked. Plain speaking indeed. But why to me? “We haut have, I believe, a great deal of thinking to do about the relations of our achieved genetic superiority to baseline humans with our tendency, driven by our contract with the ghem, to prefer military conquest over diplomacy. And the alliance gives us time to do so safely. Well and good. But the strike to our psyche that you delivered with this memorial, my Lady, is a more dangerous matter altogether. And the question to which I need to hear your answer is whether you intend to repeat the performance.”
Dismayed, Ekaterin regarded him for a moment with the stillness that she had learned shrouded her feelings from almost everyone except Miles and Nikki. “In the first place, sir, you ask me a question wholly out of my competence, a matter of policy that you should address to my Imperial Master. Or to yours. But in the second place, speaking purely personally, no—how could I have? There was but one invasion, and there is only one memorial. I can imagine no call for another on Barrayar.”
“Mmm. And on Eta Ceta?”
This time Ekaterin let her bafflement show. “Eta Ceta? Forgive me, sir, but I do not understand why you should think such a thing possible.”
“You are not aware, then, of moves among the ghem to commission you to create a memorial twinning this one, at the Imperial Heroes’ Cemetery?”
Flabbergasted, she went with instinct. “No, I am not, and were I ever to be asked I should refuse. Politely, of course, but firmly.” And a fat lot of good that did me with Gregor. Eep!
“Ah. May I then ask, why so?”
She looked around slowly, trying to order her thoughts but conveniently prompting him also to survey their surroundings yet again. “My accommodation of our peace in this place, sir, honours the courage of the ghem who died here on Barrayar, and mourns the loss their families knew, cradling that grief as it mourns our own deaths and bereavements.” A touch of asperity deepened her voice and sharpened her gaze at him. “Why exactly you believe that a dangerous matter, sir, I can only imagine, but I fear it does you no honour. And to believe that I could create a ghem memorial on Eta Ceta is as strange as to believe that an haut or ghem could have created this place. With such an authority it could not function, whatever its aesthetic delicacy or success.”
“Indeed.” He studied her for a moment, and she realised that far from being irritated by her rebuke he had visibly relaxed. “That is almost exactly what both ghem-General Benin and the Celestial Lord told me you would say. I confess I did not believe them, and further, that I am most relieved to be proven wrong. For your information, my Lady, I very much doubt the proposal will ever be put to you, but it was seriously suggested by several very senior ghem-lords.”
Exasperation combined with asperity. “Well, if you didn’t believe Dag and Fletchir in chorus, the more fool you.” His eyes widened at the reminder that his emperor’s familiarity with her was a two-way street, and a thought crystallised. “Tell me, sir, do you have a garden yourself, at your private dwelling?”
His eyebrows rose. “Of course.”
“Do you have a holovid-cube of it with you?” Many of the haut she had met here carried such cubes, and even on Eta Ceta those bound to the capital away from their estates had done likewise, so it seemed a good bet.
“May I see it?”
Imperfectly concealing reluctance he nodded, and took a slim unit from his pocket, setting it on the bench between them. At his touch, a small hologram sprang up between them, showing a small-scale view of a large and exquisite park in which species she recognised as strictly Eta Cetan, and apparently perfected as individual specimens rather than geneered into any oddity, were combined into a dazzling autumnal display, accurately reflecting the present season in the Imperial capital. She sighed appreciation and saw him relax again, though a slight frown appeared when she reached out and began manipulating the display to zoom and show various angles.
“Your control interface is superior to ours, so I’ve been using a model like this myself.”
“Ah. I see.” He fell silent as she continued to tour his virtual garden, noticing from the corner of her eye that the ghem were surreptitiously staring, surprise visible on several faces, presumably at Auselon showing a Barrayaran woman something so personal. But the garden was more compelling, especially the one place that stuck her as less than perfect, a corner-plot between beds of hardy perennials where what must have been a quite sizeable flowering tree with spreading branches had evidently been recently taken out. She looked a question at him and he nodded ruefully. “I don’t care to use a force-shield and sometimes one pays a price for that. A lightning-strike.”
She considered the rusty reds and deep yellows of the perennials in their beds and the shape of that part of the garden. “A Kolkai tree?” The form would be right.
Surprise flickered on his face and faded into respect. “Indeed, my Lady. A fine specimen. I miss it still.”
“Naturally. Have you decided what to do by way of correcting for its absence?”
Decision sharpened in her mind. “Tell me, are you familiar with Barrayaran geneered maples?”
He frowned. “Only as the stylised leaf of your family device. Are they very different from their Terran progenitors?”
“Not very, but the more acid soil here and some of the atmospheric variation has given them a slightly different shape and very vivid colour, quite close to those of the Kolkai. Do you have … ah, yes.” Her fingers found the design tool-kit and palettes that most serious gardeners kept installed to play with possibilities, pulled up the reference menus, and imported a link to a data-bank she often used. A few finger twirls, long familiar from her work at Vorkosigan Surleau, located a maple programme and installed it. She selected one of her own marketed cultivars with excellent decorative bark, sharply palmate, unusually pale green and red-edged leaves, red flowers, and an especially glorious autumn riot. Her eyes met his squarely. “The only Eta Cetan commission I might consider from anyone save His Celestial Majesty would be if you were to ask me to select an appropriate maple sapling for you. This cultivar is Acer palmatum Barrayar Vorkosigan. Watch.”
She set the tree to grow at a year every ten seconds with proper seasonal display of its foliage, the whole garden cycling with it, and watched his growing astonishment as the highly distinctive maple developed smoothly into a near-perfect fit for the space, pulsing with radiant colours that blended smoothly with the rich swell and fade of the perennials and sweetly complemented the other Eta Cetan foliage. The ghem were now openly goggling, and a swift glance showed the haut Paramel also observing closely, looking as if he was sternly suppressing a grin, while Olivia grinned openly back at her, winking fractionally.
Things that Dag, Gregor, and Miles had mentioned floated in her mind. “Life, you see, not death, so no memorial. But it could be a memento of your visit here, and the answer you came so uncomfortably far to hear.” She smiled dazzlingly at him, and rose, a gesture learned from Gregor very satisfyingly cutting off his attempt to rise in courtesy. “There are some other cultivars in the programme database you might prefer, but to my mind this one is best for that space, and will least strike at your garden’s … psyche. And do please excuse me a moment—I believe Admiral Eragas wants a word.”
* * * * *
The rest of the day’s schedule included tours of Vorhartung Castle, the newly restored bits of the old Caravanserai, and a long, defensive lecture about the legacy of Mad Yuri’s pet Vorrutyer’s buildings and the difficulty of doing anything about them, nicely capped by Olivia’s rueful acknowledgement on behalf of her marriage-kin and inspired appeal for any suggestions that might help with the problem. By the time she and Ekaterin got back to the Residence for the debriefing on which Gregor and Miles had insisted it was full dark, and they found Gregor eating in his private apartments ; debris suggested Laisa was taking their children off to bed. Miles also had an empty plate before him and places awaited both women, who sat gratefully and set about their soup.
“Home are the hunters.” Miles and Gregor were both grinning. “That was marvellous, milady.”
“This thing worked, then?” She tapped the ruby brooch fastening her high collar, which acted as a fish-eye lens for the frame within.
“Like a charm.”
“Good. I wasn’t sure how the hologram would show through the ruby.” She looked at Gregor. “And that was alright otherwise? I’ve no idea what Auselon made of it all, but I didn’t care too much by then. He manages to be amazingly rude to almost everyone by being so selective with his protocol.”
“Yes—but did you notice how it improved towards you, and gradually to all?” Gregor nodded appreciatively. “You played on his self-regard beautifully. I’m very grateful to you both, and I rather think Fletchir and Pel will be too.”
“Dag would pay money for that recording,” Miles added, “though he won’t have to. And Da will laugh like a drain—Auselon was crashingly rude when he stopped off at Sergyar, so seeing the old boot Vorslapped with a maple will make his day.” A deeper glint showed in his eyes. “Tactically he’ll appreciate the pure precision of your strike as much as Fletchir will appreciate its means.”
“Whatever.” Ekaterin moved hungrily on to a plate of meats and salad. “As long as it’s enough to make Auselon tread carefully around Nikki at that conference. That’s all I really care about.” She mellowed a little as the calories began to hit her system. “Though I must say he has a very fine garden.”