Mug of tea steaming gently in her hands, Ekaterin fixed steely gaze on the man before her. Lord Miles Vorkosigan was not physically intimidating, standing just at her shoulder as he did. And she held intimate knowledge of his physical limitations -- which bones were still friable and easy to break, which scars still ached on cold winter's nights. The minefield of emotional scars that would ache regardless of weather.
Miles Vorkosigan was not a physically intimidating man, but that did not make it any easier for Ekaterin to draw herself up, push her shoulders back, and stare him down. This was still a skill she was mastering. Her mother-in-law called it, cryptically, The Art of Barrayaran Maleness, but she thought Tien might have referred to it as having a spine. So much of her world was still defined by the parameters he had set.
Intimidating or not, Miles was a man. In Barrayaran society, let alone in the sitting room of the second-highest Vor family on the planet, that held a pressure to it that Ekaterin, merely a woman, could never hope to combat. And then there was the name. That combination of syllables in his name had, over the breadth of generations, created something more than name from itself. 'Vor' and 'Kosigan' held weight, together and separately, that no Barrayaran could escape from under. Especially not in the house of the man himself. And he was her betrothed. Barrayar put tradition in that, too, a weight almost as inescapable and heavy.
Despite it all, she straightened. Raised her jaw and set her stance, and Miles, betrothed, male, Vorkosigan, wilted like a parched flower.
"I would suggest," she said, her voice never rising above its regular, even pitch, "that for the next few months you refrain from referring to anything -- our wedding, our children, our life together -- as 'a siege campaign'."
"I was going to go get some coffee," Miles said, which on the scale of Miles non-sequiturs wasn't even really that high. "Would you like some coffee? No, you don't drink coffee, you drink tea, you already have tea. Would you like more tea?"
The time for resolve and will was past. She wasn't entirely heartless. She softened, taking pity on him. "More tea would be lovely."
"And maybe you could see if Ma Kosti happened to have anything lying about for an afternoon nosh," Lady Alys put in from behind her. Drat and drat. If she had to lay her husband-to-be out, why must it be in front of the extended family she was gaining with him. But a quick glance behind her showed that, if anything, Lady Alys and her own aunt were politely ignoring the pre-marital strife, and Laisa was attempting to follow their lead (but as a newlywed herself, and Komarran to boot, doing a bad job of concealing her fascination with the social/cultural interplay). Meanwhile, Countess Vorkosigan looked outright thrilled to see her son receive a dressing down from someone else.
Either way, Ekaterin wasn't quite sure it was polite to ask a man to have his cook scramble something from the kitchen to send up (and she'd learned by now that Ma Kosti never "happened to have anything lying around", but could materialize ambrosia from almost nothing) even if he was your nephew, and currently being a lout. She also wasn't quite sure that in this, the Eternally Correct Lady Alys cared. A Ma Kosti lunch was, after all, a Ma Kosti lunch. Upon reflection she realized that one, she was hungry, and considering that, two, she didn't mind at all.
"Thank you, love," Countess Vorkosigan called after Miles, a final maternal insult as the man beat a hasty retreat from his own parlor, and Ekaterin could only marvel. One day, she hoped, she would possess that level of poise. Coupled with that sense of timing. Ekaterin turned back to the women. Her guests. She was hosting a Countess, the premier socialite of Vorbarr Sultana, and the Empress of Barrayar in a parlor that didn't technically even belong to the man she was betrothed to. Let alone to her.
"Miles is right about one thing," Professora Vorthys said.
"He usually is," replied his mother, with a sigh that suggested she found this unfortunate. The professora allowed a quirk of appreciation in her smile to show that she understood all that was being said, and not said. Lady Alys pursed her lips like she wasn't going to lecture the Countess and couldn't really find grounds to anyway, no matter how inappropriate the intonation. And Empress Laisa still looked fascinated by everything occurring around her.
"Ekaterin, dear, you're approaching this as if you're planning a wedding."
Still holding her mug as a lifeline, Ekaterin resumed her seat. "With all due respect, Aunt, how else am I supposed to approach it?"
Her mother-in-law to be was blindingly, almost terrifyingly fast in most things, Ekaterin was learning. In this, it was no different, and she picked up on Professora Vorthys's thread as if it had been her own. "Put it into a context that works for you, dear," she said. "No offense to Alys, of course," Lady Alys's grateful shrug suggested she was used to ignoring offensive comments. "But the nuts and bolts of event planning is a skill with limited use, and not one possessed by everyone. So stop trying to force yourself into how you think it should be done, and shift your frame of reference to something you can do."
"Stop looking at it as a wedding, and look at it like a garden," Professora Vorthys simplified.
It was remarkable, what a change in viewpoint could do for her mood and productivity. Instead of a seating chart, Ekaterin transformed the ballroom of Vorkosigan house into a garden. Which flowers would clash if planted too close together? Which shrubs would strike a discordant scent if they were allowed to mingle? Suddenly, the overlapping social and political strata of the Vorbarr Sultana elite was no longer impossible to navigate. It was easy. Ekaterin sat back to survey all her hard work and felt a surprising swell of pride in what she'd accomplished.
"Very good, dear," Lady Alys said, warm and approving. "Tell me you remembered to leave seats for yourself and Miles."
And just like that, Ekaterin felt her world come crashing apart once more.
This late in the season it hadn't grown too bitterly cold, or started to sleet down the icy rain that made Vorbarr Sultana all but impossible to traverse without a dedicated car and driver. It was chilly, but not impossible to bear, as she came to sit on one of the large boulders they'd liberated from the Dendarii Gorge that memorable afternoon. Had it really been less than a year ago?
Her peace was inevitably shattered by the trampling of child's feet on gravel. Ekaterin drew in a deep breath and closed her eyes, and said, without opening them, "Nikki, darling, you're thumping again."
"Did you get sick at your lunch with Tante Vorthys and Tante Alys and Grandmere Cordelia and Empress Laisa?" he asked. She realized she was going to have to have a word with him about addressing the women of the Vorkosigan family so familiarly, and also about the kind of sick that left mothers with headaches after social events at which they consumed too much wine.
"No, I didn't," she said. "I'm just getting tired from wedding planning, that's all. Nikki, you can't call Lady Alys and Countess Vorkosigan that."
She didn't need to look to hear Nikki wrinkle up his nose as his brain worked. He always processed his thoughts on his face. It was one of the many things about motherhood she loved, for him, and hated, for herself. "Countess Vorkosigan said I should. If I wanted to."
Well, she wasn't a countess. She wasn't even in line to be, yet. Who was she to counter the word of her esteemed future mother-in-law? "Well then, I suppose you should."
"Countess Grandmere?" the boy tried, still puzzling out adults and their silly castes. Me too, kid, me too.
Ekaterin laughed, and opened her eyes to look at him. And promptly shrieked.
"Nikolai Vorsoissin, what did you do to your eye?" A quick, motherly lick of her thumb and some frankly brutal scrubbing revealed that it was not just dirt. There was a bruise forming under the skin, dark and nasty, though it didn't look as though the skin had broken at all. A small blessing. "Nikki, did someone hit you?"
"No!" The boy said, virtuously outraged by her implications. (Miles had taught him the phrase in response to the men saying Bad Things about him and his mother. He hadn't stopped using it since.) Ekaterin leveled steady gaze upon him. "Maybe!" Nikki said, at the same level of virtuous outrage.
"Who have you been fighting with, Nikolai?" She tried to keep her tone stern, tried not to laugh at his darling, 9 year old dedication to his version of the truth.
"Me'n Arthur got into a scrap," Nikki admitted finally. Ekaterin heaved a sigh of relief. Of course it wasn't good that her son was beating up his friends. Or rather, from the looks of things, getting beaten up. But it was a lot better than the visions swirling through her head. Young Vor lords laid out in the streets of Vorbarr Sultana. Blood on silk. Duels for vengeance and sworn blood feuds. Miles was making her dramatic. "Just you and Arthur? Where were you?"
"Out'n the park with Count Dono," Nikki said, and immediately her heart plummeted back down into her chest.
One thing, it seemed, that no one had predicted, was that the ruling elite of Vorbarr Sultana (at least the progressives) had no trouble leaving their children with Count Dono while they went about their daily business. After all, he'd had a maternal instinct for most of his life, had he not? And was a maternal instinct truly something lost with the addition of a penis? (In Ekaterin's admittedly limited experience, signs pointed to yes. But then, Dono was outside even Miles's experience.) And on his part, Dono seemed overjoyed to spend his afternoons tussling with the boys in the park. It made sense after a fashion. They were all learning about this business of Barrayaran Maleness together. Or (as Ekaterin privately suspected) the good will earned from his fellow counts was worth the hassle of having to then actually do something for them. Either way, since Dono was rarely apart from Olivia Koudelka these days, she had just assumed that there was someone of level head there to keep an eye on the children. All of the children.
"Nikki, who was at the park with you and Count Dono and Arthur?" she asked.
Obedient as ever, the boy listed off, "Alexi Vorhartung, Sylvie Vorbohn, and Sergei and Ivan Vorgorov. 'N some of their armsmen's kids."
"Nikki," she said, taking his hand. "It is very important you not fight with the Vorgorovs or the Vorrutyers while Mama is planning her wedding reception."
"Huh?" Nikki said, eloquently, Ekaterin thought, expressing all their feelings on the Vor-caste system.
"Never mind." She stood and brushed her hands off on her skirts. "You'd better take me to the park so I can speak to Count Dono."
("Sylvie will be Sylvie," Annaliese Vorbohn, who was a native Komarran, emigrated before it became fashionable, and insisted Ekaterin call her 'Annaliese', said with a sigh. "She's my sixth, you know. All boys. They never gave me a moment's worry. When I was pregnant with Sylvie I prayed for a girl. Just one girl, to dress in pink, with hair to braid. I grew up with sisters, you know, it was all girls. Nikki is such a nice boy, please don't worry about it. Such a nice boy. You wouldn't consider a trade --?"
And Ekaterin, who had always wanted girls herself, smiled nervously and made a note to call on Annaliese very soon. Before the wedding.)
She related the news of the skirmish that night to Miles, once he'd finally stopped licking his wounds after supper, and invited her for a private night cap. She wasn't spending the night in Vorkosigan House. Not yet, not when there was Nikki to look to. But he was back with Arthur after a two-hour separation enforced by herself and Ma Pym, doing God Knew What in the attic.
"I don't know why you're so worried," Miles said with a frown. "Children scuffle, you know. Even counts' heirs and little lords. I got into some terrific rows at Nikki's age. Of course, I inevitably lost them, unless I could convince Ivan or Sergeant Bothari to step in for me. It's not like the whole council goes to pieces over it. They're tight-assed old sticks, but not that tight-assed."
She reminded herself that she loved this man. She reminded herself that he hadn't spent the afternoon staring at a seating chart with sixty Counts, their heirs, their heirs' families, all of whom couldn't or wouldn't sit with at least half of their fellows. If she had to start separating tables based on whose children had recently gotten into fist fights, she would scream.
She told Miles as much, adding at the end, "This whole business of planning a wedding is just more complex than I anticipated. I know I've been through it before, with Tien, but that was so different." And, she hoped, would remain very different.
Miles chewed it over. "I don't know what to tell you," he admitted, "Unless -- you could talk to my mother. But no, she's not so much one for the maternal comfort. More of a throw you in and time how fast you drown type, y'know. For science."
"Perhaps I will," Ekaterin said, determined.
"Ekaterin," she covered Ekaterin's hand with her own, in a loving and maternal gesture. Ekaterin only wished it felt less like the jaws of some great beast closing around her. "You simply need to put your foot down. Say 'enough is enough', and let people know that they can't push you into anything."
It was true, she often felt pushed. Pushed into marriage with Tien. Pushed into having a child. Pushed into moving out to Komarr, where no one would discover their shameful secret. Pushed into widowhood, pushed back to Barrayar. Her proposal to Miles even felt forced, though the engagement itself was one of the few things she treasured as truly her own in her life. "Do you remember what it was like, when you were marrying Count Vorkosigan?" she asked.
The Countess didn't answer right away, taking her time to compose the thought. "Well, I'm sure you know it was very different," she said. "For one thing, Gregor and Laisa have made it a competition. Every wedding for the next five years will be jockeying at least for second place. And there was less attention on the Vorkosigans back then, too. It was Aral's second, you know, and there was the whole mess with Escobar. It's not like he was really in favor before that. I think the people who were interested just wanted to see if it would go as poorly or if he could manage a failure even more spectacular." Ekaterin caught herself wincing and the Countess responded with a sharp smile. "But you know, even despite all of that, I don't. Not really. I remember leaving Beta Colony and finding him here, and then, to be honest, everything's a blur until I wake up one day at Vorkosigan Surleau with a summons from old Ezar waiting for my husband. If that's what he is. I have dreams, you know, that it was all just some terrible mistake. That something happened, in that time things get fuzzy, and this -- everything, the last thirty-three years, it's all been an elaborate scheme. Like we've pretended it's all real and proper, but any day now I could wake up and they'll say to me, 'just kidding, you were never married at all. Everything you've lived for, everything you've done, this whole second life you had here, it's all been staged. You can go home now.' And then I wake up and I laugh until I think I'm going to be sick. It doesn't happen so much now, as it used to. Does that help, dear?"
Ekaterin began to see what Miles meant when he said his mother wasn't one for maternal comforts. She smiled nervously and excused herself as quickly as she could.
"I worry about Ivan," Lady Alys confided in her. Ekaterin thought about responding that Miles did, too, but ultimately decided not to because she didn't think Lady Alys meant it in the same way Miles did. "You're a lovely woman, Ekaterin, and I'm very glad Miles found you. I don't know where Ivan goes wrong."
Again, Ekaterin felt that her thoughts were better kept private. Or relayed through Miles, to take up with his aunt in a more appropriate manner. Or kept private. She asked about Lady Alys's marriage.
"Oh, my marriage was miserable, dear. I was too young to realize it then, you know, but it was a nightmare for both of us." She fixed her eyes on a photo of Ivan and said, "I just don't want him to wait to find real happiness until he's so old he thinks it's passed him by," which sounded very personal and more than a little bleak. Ekaterin finished her tea, and wondered if Miles would find her something stronger in the Vorkosigan cellars when she returned.
And maybe, the thought lingered, it was not so much that she was having pre-wedding difficulties. Really, wasn't the stress of the wedding just putting a magnifying glass to her existing faults?
Driven by that thought, she found herself knocking at the door to the Professora's office, settled for what turned out to be the shortest conversation of all.
"If something is making you unhappy, Ekaterin, I can't tell you how to fix it," her aunt said. "You know that." She did.
Her comconsole chimed insistently. Lady Alys, she had no doubt, checking for the third time this hour to see if the seating chart had been completed. The caterers, apparently, needed to know.
Ekaterin stared at the flimsies before her, crossed out and scribbled and chopped apart to be rearranged, and with a resolute nod rolled the whole caboodle up, excusing herself to her fiance's office.
"Vorhalas likely won't come, but we can't go ahead and say that outright without offending the entire old guard, and half the council still won't sit with the Vorbrettens and more than that won't sit with the Vorrutyers. I have stared at these seating charts until my eyes bled while you've been gallivanting around doing God Knows What Nonsense --"
"Lord Auditor Nonsense," Miles interjected. She noticed belatedly that his cousin held the seat across from him and was settled in with a completely impolite but much more sincere appreciation for drama.
"--God Knows What Lord Auditor Nonsense," Miles had passed on to her his propensity for capitalizing words in speech and thought. How much, she wondered, would his parameters begin to encroach upon her, as Tien's had? As much as I allow them to. Miles would sweep away any woman who didn't tow a firm boundary. "And I have had it with your silly counts and their silly quarrels. You find places for them to sit, they're your cohort, or they can camp in the hallways of Vorkosigan House for all I care. I've already told Lady Alys that you generously offered your knowledge and experience with the Council of Counts and will be setting the reception seating to rights. She'll direct her future inquiries to you."
She deposited her package with a flourish she was ultimately convinced she'd learned from him. Miles looked between her and the paperwork, and then (clearly drawing on the memory of some conversation she hadn't been privy to,) said only, "Yes, dear."
Ekaterin nodded again, set her shoulders, and left much as she'd come. Behind her, she heard Ivan drawl, "Well, she's not wrong."
"She almost never is," Miles said, resigned. "Don't suppose you can think of a way to get me out of this?"
"Not unless you want to get out of the whole kit," Ivan said. "Come back to bachelorhood, join me."
"Thank you, no." Miles did sound droll when he conversed with his cousin. Ekaterin allowed herself a small, private smile, and went back to write that note (belatedly) to Lady Alys. She was filled with a warm sense of approval -- not from her aunt, or from her mother-in-law, or even Nikki. Not from any external place, but from within herself.
She was halfway through composing it, of course, when the new lighting element in Vorkosigan House's garden caught fire. Understanding her new family a little better, she set out to take care of it.