Ekaterin saved her homework – a summary of the last three chapters on complimentary terraforming tiers – to the console and pushed her chair back with a muffled groan of relief. As she stretched muscles slightly sore from sitting hunched over for so long, she caught Miles smiling at her from across the library.
Well. Smiling was, perhaps, the wrong word. Grinning at her with hope in his eyes might be more accurate. Ekaterine found herself blushing but smiled back. She understood the grin and the feelings behind it. More than understood, she shared them. Their wedding, with its attendant near-disaster and death, was only two months ago. This state of matrimonial normalcy was new enough to be seen, constantly, out of the corner of her eye. Rather like a new haircut, Ekaterin thought. She brushed her newly-styled hair back and tucked the strand behind her ear.
Miles set his reader down and sat up straight, his eyes tracking the motion of Ekaterin’s hand with a glint she knew well. That look made her feel warm and secure and delightfully anticipatory, completely unlike the feeling of her sexual relationship with Tien. Ekaterin found herself absurdly aware of the exact fall of her bolero jacket, and the exact motions of Miles’s thighs under the fabric of his trousers. And he hasn’t even said a word, Ekaterin thought.
“That looked like an interesting thought,” Miles said. “Are you, perchance, done with your work … ?”
Ekaterin smiled and shook her head. “No, I’m not.” She laughed fondly at his crestfallen expression. “But I do need a break. I’m stiff from all this sitting. Schoolwork is more sedentary that parenting.”
Miles was on his feet before she finished speaking. He moved with a speed and economy of motion that fascinated her, half reckless energy and half the anticipation of pain. It was the legacy of a childhood whose days in casts nearly equaled days without. Miles stepped behind Ekaterin and began massaging her shoulders. She groaned and closed her eyes in pleasure.
“Is this a bribe?” She muttered, smiling. “I still need to get the work done.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of bribing you,” Miles said. His strong, agile fingers paused a moment. “Well, not this ham-handedly,” he amended. “And I hope I would tell you I was doing it. No, this is far more straightforward.” He leaned forward and whispered, his lips brushing Ekaterin’s ear. “This is laying the groundwork for future plans.”
Ekaterin shivered in delight. “Noted,” she said, only a bit breathless. Miles continued the massage in silence. Ekaterin’s thoughts drifted as her tight muscles relaxed. “Oh!” she said, sitting up straight. “I meant to ask you about something that happened today at the University.”
“Hmm?” Miles said, his mind still clearly on his amatory plans.
“Do you know why Vittori Baradev was arrested?”
Ekaterin felt Miles straighten behind her as his attention shifted. “The name isn’t familiar. Should I know it?”
“That’s curious,” Ekaterin said. She turned, half-facing Miles. “Professor Baradev teaches in the terraforming department. I’m taking Water Cycles from him this term, as it happens. I didn’t see the events, but everyone was talking about it after lunch.”
“Talking about what, after lunch?”
Ekaterin frowned. “They said he was arrested for assaulting a female student. But that seems ... unlikely, in the extreme.”
Miles winced. “People do manage to hide vileness,” he said. “I’ve heard more surprising things.”
“Yes,” Ekaterin said, “but why would ImpSec arrest a man for assault?”
“ImpSec?” Miles’s gaze sharpened. “He was arrested by ImpSec?” He sat down opposite Ekaterin. She missed the feel of his hands on her shoulders. “You’re right, that sounds off. Why don’t you start at the beginning?”
Ekaterin shrugged. “I don’t actually know much at all—“
Miles waved his hand airily. “Rumor and speculation are welcome. Facts will come later.” After investigation, his tone implied.
Ekaterin sat up straighter. “Miles,” she said sharply. “I did not ask you about this in order to give you some sort of Imperial Mystery,” she said. “I was gossiping, perhaps unwarrantedly, with my husband, at the end of a long day. I’m not asking you to fix anything.”
He had the grace to look sheepish. “You can’t really blame me for being curious,” he said.
“I would as soon blame a kitten for chasing its tail,” Ekaterin said, then snapped her mouth shut. Had she gone too far?
Miles blinked at her a moment before the corners of his eyes crinkled in delight. “A kitten?” he asked in mock-wounded tones. “Surely, if I am to be some insatiably curious and irrepressible mammal, there’s one with a bit more, a bit more … dignity?”
“A kitten,” Ekaterin reiterated with an equal mixture of playfulness and relief. Miles was not, was never, Tien.
“A large and impressive kitten?”
“A moderately impressive kitten. With verve.”
“I’ll take verve,” Miles replied. “Among other things.” Before Ekaterin had time to respond, he stood and kissed her. His lips were warm and dry and loving, and she could feel his smile. He backed away slightly. “I should take my tail and leave you in peace,” he said, sketching a bow. “I have no desire whatsoever to allow you to finish your work. But, being a respectful husband I shall do so.” The look he gave her was, under the exaggerated humor, smoldering. Ekaterin blushed. “We will take the full measure of kittens later.”
Ekaterin watched Miles leave. She turned back to her console and searched for a word to describe her current levels of focus and concentration.
As Ekaterin exited the auditorium where her Water Cycles exam had been held, she felt a sense of calm and letting go. Exams were blissfully straightforward when compared to either marriages or politics.
The complexities of politics were evident even here on campus. A local opposition party, calling itself Free Press, had organized a series of protests against the supposed secrecy and corruption of the Vor government. The students and other protestors wore orange and yellow badges on their clothes, representing “the flames of freedom that light the way to truth,” according to their flyers. Ekaterin could not argue against their claims. She knew personally that the Imperial system held secrets.
“Oh, excuse me!” The words coincided with a body bouncing briefly against Ekaterin’s shoulder. She stumbled a bit and the speaker, a sturdily-built young woman who had sat near Ekaterin all term, steadied her. “I am sorry,” the women continued in a rush. “Do forgive me, Lady Vorkosigan. Don’t know where my head’s at.”
Ekaterin blinked at her title. It was another thing she was not quite used to hearing. “It’s all right,” she said with a reassuring smile.
“No, it’s not all right,” the woman said. Her tone was not self-castigating, however, but bouncy and determined. “I shall have to make it up to you. Can’t have young fools like myself running down respected Vor like you in the halls, can we? Drinks!”
Bemusedly, Ekaterin let her fellow student steer her out of the hallway and onto the portico. Between the stone pillars a number of vendors lurked with carts of food and drinks. Campus security traditionally removed them as an eyesore. This term, though, security was kept busy with the Free Press protests. The vendors thrived in the chaos. The young woman quickly exchanged a handful of coins for two paper cups of tea. She handed one cup to Ekaterin.
“So!” The women, square-shouldered and with a short, practical mop of nondescript brown hair, eyed Ekaterin with interest. “What did you think of the proctor?”
Ekaterin sipped her tea and shrugged. “I didn’t really look at him,” she said. “I wanted to finish the exam.” She racked her brains, trying to remember the woman’s name. It was too far into the conversation to ask now, it would be terribly awkward. She was drinking the woman’s tea, for goodness’ sake.
“But, why do we even have a proctor, right? Right?” The woman looked around and leaned in. “So, what have you heard?”
“About Baradev! What was he really up to, hm?”
Ekaterin shrugged. “I heard what everyone else did, I suppose. That he’d made some errors in judgment with a female student.” Kolynko, that was it. The woman’s name was Lisette Kolynko.
It was Kolynko’s turn to shrug. “Which student? When? And where? Not to mention,” she added with a slightly mischievous smirk, “I’ve heard some doubt that Baradev would even perform with a woman.”
Ekaterin felt her face color as this crudity. Yet there wasn’t any depth of malice to the remark, just curiosity. “It seems as though I should be questioning you for information, not you asking me.”
Kolynko laughed. “But you have sources I do not! Why was ImpSec involved in what was surely a civic crime?”
The weight of Ekaterin’s new title chafed, in that moment. She felt it, not merely the Vor of it which she had grown up with, but the Kosigan part. The weight of generations of empire-defining politics settling on her so visibly that a fellow university student presumed that she, Ekaterin, would know the workings of ImpSec.
I suppose it comes with the job. “That’s not the sort of thing I would know,” Ekaterin said. She drank the tea, feeling suddenly very tired.
“You wouldn’t know Vorbarr Sultana things, or ImpSec things?” Kolynko asked.
“I wouldn’t know how to tell you that I would not share such information, or the fact of the existence of such information, with you,” Ekaterin said in a fit of overly-barbed irritation. She stopped walking and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. When she looked and Kolynko, the younger woman had the grace to look ashamed. “I’m sorry,” Ekaterin said quickly. “That really wasn’t all meant for you.”
“No, no, I’m a bit of a lout,” Kolynko said. “Of course you wouldn’t be able to share anything. Forgive me.” She inclined her head in an almost bow and turned to go.
“No, wait – “ Ekaterin held out her hand. “Let’s just pretend you didn’t ask, and I didn’t answer, and let’s have our tea?” As peace offerings went, she felt it was a bit feeble. Not the sort of thing a Koudelka girl would say, for instance. But, she reflected, it was more the sort of thing Miles’s mother might say. The thought was comforting.
Kolynko nodded firmly. “Agreed.” After a moment, she spoke. “Without prying into any special knowledge you may or may not have, but simply speaking as two intelligent women with some understanding of the world, why do you think ImpSec was involved? I can’t figure it out.”
Ekaterin shook her head. “Neither can I. ImpSec Domestic Affairs handles matters of planetary security, however the Emperor decides to define them. But, while Gregor’s a very nice man, and his wife would back him, I can’t see him putting ImpSec on the trail of molesters and rapists.” She sipped her tea, thinking it through. “There are too many of them, for one thing. It wouldn’t be an effective use of the manpower.”
“Gregor?” Kolynko half-whispered. “You mean His Majesty the Emperor Vorbarra?”
Drat Miles, he’s got me doing it. “Ah. Yes. Emperor Vorbarra.” Ekaterin cleared her throat awkwardly.
“What we have is, either the charges Baradev was arrested on are being erroneously reported to people, or the men who arrested him weren’t really ImpSec.” Kolynko looked satisfied with her conclusion.
“Impersonating ImpSec is, I think, a capital crime,” Ekaterin said with a frown.
Kolynko finished her tea and tossed the cup into a nearby waste can. “Then who is lying about the charges, and why?”
Ekaterin shook her head. She had no answer for that.
The mid-point of the spring term was marked by a week free of classes. Ekaterin relished the time at home. Much as she loved her academic work, she also wanted to spend some time catching up with friends. Miles seemed to have intuited this desire and had invited Duv and Delia over for a quiet dinner on the first free night.
Ekaterin was still not entirely used to the number and quality of friendships now in her life. She had spent a few months, right after her engagement, indulging in some self-pity, convinced that all of these people were being kind to her out of consideration for Miles. A few conversations with Miles’ mother had cleared up that nonsense. “They are being kind to you,” Cordelia had said off-handedly, “because they want you to stay. Everyone hopes you’ll be a good influence on Miles. It’s not pity, it’s something more akin to half-desperate expectation mixed with self-defense.”
Expectation she could live with, Ekaterin had decided.
Miles had arranged for dinner to be in the front parlor. He had a positive aversion to using the formal dining room when eating with her, Ekaterine had noticed. She sat back with her cup of tea in hand as the liveried Vorkosigan servants cleared away the remains of a delicious Ma Kosti meal. Duv settled into the couch and raised his cup of coffee in Ekaterin’s direction. “Delicious, as always,” he said. “My compliments to your cook.”
“I’ll make sure to tell her,” Ekaterin replied.
Miles stirred his coffee with a speculative air. “Is there any more gossip about your erring professor?” he asked Ekaterin.
“Gossip, yes,” Ekaterin said. “Truth or facts, no.”
“Duv!” Miles said, with the overly-bright air of someone pretending to have a new thought. “Perhaps you might be able to shed some light on this little mystery. Ekaterin, tell him about your professor.”
Ekaterin shook her head. “That’s not fair to Duv and Delia,” she said, thinking of her awkward conversation with Miss Kolynko.
“Of course it’s not,” Miles said genially. “It’s politics and security theater. Duv,” he said, switching his attention to the blandly resigned face of the head of Komarran Affairs, “what were Domestic’s boys doing last week, arresting a professor on rape charges? Isn’t that outside of their sphere?”
Duv frowned and shook his head. “I can’t say I know what you’re talking about.” Miles rolled his eyes. “No,” Duv continued, “I mean, I actually don’t know what you mean.” He turned to Ekaterin, his dark eyes sharp. “Tell me about this.”
Ekaterin told the others what little she knew. Her sense of unease grew as Duv scowled and Miles looked alert. Delia caught her eye and shrugged. She didn’t know, either.
“And what was the name of the woman asking you questions?” Duv asked. He had an autofiler out by this point.
Duv nodded. He glanced at Miles, and some sort of secret eyebrow language passed between them. “That is profoundly irritating,” Delia said. “We’re not wilting violets, here, gentlemen. Just tell us what’s all the hush-hush and frowning.”
Ekaterin was not so certain that she, herself, should be told. Hadn’t she just told Kolynko’s gossip to them? And hadn’t she speculated to Kolynko? Espionage, cloak-and-dagger, spycraft – this world of secret imperial agents was not one Ekaterin meant to marry, when she married Miles. She had thought, naively, perhaps, that his work would remain outside of their personal life. Her uncle had kept things that way, after all. He was an Imperial Auditor, but it was a job. A job he loved, yes, but a job. It was not his life.
Politics and spycraft were, Ekaterin was beginning to understand, Miles’s life. More than a job, more than a set of skills, they were his calling.
“There are a number of points in this narrative about which I have questions,” Duv said in the pedantic tones of the scholar he still was at heart. He marked off the points on his fingers. “I know of no Domestic Affairs operations in the capital. Therefore, first, who are the men conducting the arrest? Are they ImpSec? If so, who authorized the mission and why do I not know? If they are not ImpSec, who are they? Second, why have I not heard of this until now? A wildly public ImpSec arrest in broad daylight, where is the gossip? Where, for that matter, is Vorbarr Sultana’s new Free Press? Third, where is Baradev now?”
Ekaterin felt the meal they had just finished sit heavily in her stomach. Delia sipped her tea with a speculative look on her face. “I think we can all agree,” she said after a long and fraught pause, “that the far end of whatever-this-is could well be treason.” Duv shifted uncomfortably and half-shrugged. Delia patted his knee. “Maybe it’s not that. Maybe there’s a lesser criminal explanation.”
Duv tapped his finger on the coffee table. “I don’t like Kolynko’s approach to you, Ekaterin.”
“You don’t like it…” Miles grumbled.
“It’s very neat,” Duv continued as if Miles hadn’t spoken. “There are clearly things going on that we don’t know about.”
Ekaterin looked from her husband to Duv and back again. Miles sat back now, his fingers steepled over his chin and mouth. Hiding his face, she knew. Hiding his feelings. He doesn’t want to influence me, she thought.
Miles was not defending her. Not protecting her. Not making decisions for her. He was not saying what she should do, or think, or feel. He was simply sitting there, watching her with a gaze whose intensity felt scorching.
“If I can be of any assistance to Domestic Affairs,” Ekaterin heard herself say, “I will of course help.” She saw Miles close his eyes briefly. A flicker of expression so complex she could not hope to fathom it.
“Thank you,” Duv said. “It shouldn’t come to that. I’ll turn over this information to them tonight. We should know something – more than we know now, at any rate – by morning.”
“I’m sure Domestic Affairs will get to the bottom of it,” Miles said. His expression was under control now, falsely bright and slightly wistful.
Duv gave a small, short laugh. “No, Miles,” he said firmly. “Don’t go poking around, thank you.” He held up a quelling hand. “If anyone at ImpSec needs an Imperial Auditor, we all know where to turn!”
Miles slumped back in his chair with a grumpy frown. “But this sounds far more interesting than arbitrating with the Free Press faction.”
“Is that what you’ve been up to?” Delia said brightly. She set her cup and saucer down decisively and turned to Miles, clasping her hands on her knee. “Tell us about that.”
Miles rolled his eyes. “No more talk of missing professors?”
His mouth quirked in a half-smile. “You’ve been spending too much time with Aunt Alys,” he told Delia.
She inclined her head gracefully. “How interesting,” she said. “Do go on. Free Press.”
Ekaterin sat back, smiling, as Miles let himself be cowed into easier post-dinner conversation.
The Vorkosigan House gardens were at a particularly muddy, weedy phase of their growth. The next morning found Ekaterin in the newly-constructed garden shed and warming house. The natural garden did not require a lot of work; that was a great deal of the point of a native-species landscape. Such plants took less work that the introduced exotics. The leaf litter mulch put on in the autumn would stay and decompose in place, providing habitat for the insects and small mammal pollinators. The native grasses and forbes did not need the intensive spring watering that other plants required.
Still, there was work to be done. Ekaterin checked the console in the shed for any notes she may have left last month. The primary task of the moment was to haul out the gutter-pipes from the shed, connect them to the downspouts, and lay the hoses out to the ponds. After the pipes were in place they needed to be covered in some aesthetically pleasing fashion.
Ekaterin pulled the flatbed hand truck out of its corner and began loading heavy lengths of stiff canvas hose onto it. When the door opened behind her, she didn’t look up. “If Pym sent you,” she said, “there’s no need. I’d rather do the work myself.”
“Please don’t scream.”
The words didn’t immediately register. Ekaterin set the hose down on the truck and straightened before the woman’s low voice made sense. I know that voice, she thought. “All right,” Ekaterin said. “I won’t.”
“Turn around, slowly.”
Ekaterin turned around. When she saw Lisette Kolynko aiming a nerve disrupter at her, she wasn’t entirely surprised. “Lisette.”
“This wasn’t the plan,” Kolynko said. Her hands were shaking.
“I’m sure it wasn’t,” Ekaterin said. “Everyone who’s ever aimed a nerve disrupter at me has seemed very upset to be in that position.”
Kolynko blinked. “Someone’s pointed a disrupter at you?”
“Besides you? Yes.”
Ekaterin saw, through adrenaline-induced calm, the muzzle of the weapon wobble, then drift to the side. “Why do you have it?”
“It’s Maxim’s. I took it while he was asleep. I don’t know where he got it.”
As long as they are talking, they are not doing something unforgiveable, Ekaterin found herself musing. It was one of Miles’s principles. It had worked on Komarran terrorists and it had worked on Nikki. Nikki. Ekaterin held the image of her son’s face in her mind. “Will Maxim be upset when it’s missing?” Will he report it, will someone be looking for you.
“He can’t get more upset than he is,” Kolynko said bitterly. “Nothing went the way it was supposed to. When we took Baradev, everyone was supposed to get upset. To investigate. And then we would expose the archaic and corrupt so-called security forces for the joke that they are. Finally, people would begin to respect Free Press.” Kolynko waved the nerve disrupter in a wild arc for emphasis. “Finally the people of Vorbarr Sultana would recognize how right we are!”
“I see,” Ekaterin said slowly. And she did. This was the adult version of a temper tantrum. The new Free Press coalition, tired that their calls for democratic revolution were largely ignored, had done something foolish and criminal. And she, Ekaterin, was caught in it by virtue of marriage. Not for the first time. And not the last. “And if you are acknowledged, what next?”
“What?” The muzzle of the disrupter wavered again.
“What now? You are clearly correct. Imperial Security has failed, spectacularly. You are pointing a nerve disrupter at me in my own garden shed and there is nary an agent in sight. What now?”
“Now you … you tell everyone.” Kolynko gestured at the comconsole. “Call His Majesty. Call Gregor.”
It occurred to Ekaterin that this was possibly the most ham-fisted, clumsy, poorly-thought-out plan she had ever had the misfortune to witness, let alone participate in. As treasonous conspirators went, Kolynko and her Maxim were far, far less competent than the Komarrans. The thought sent a chill through her body. She would have preferred competence.
Ekaterin punched in the codes with which she could reach the Emperor. When the ImpSec agent who screened Gregor’s calls answered, Ekaterin simply said, “There’s a young woman with a nerve disrupter here who wants to speak to Gregor.”
Everything happened very quickly after that.
ImpSec did finally leave. After Kolynko had been stunned into a heap and the nerve disrupter – not, it turned out, charged properly – confiscated, Ekaterin had refused to answer the agents’ questions until they found Nikki and brought him to her. Nikki had insisted on bringing one of the year-old cats, and the entire interview took on a far more relaxed turn. Ekaterin spotted Miles across the room as he gave his own statements to ImpSec, but after seeing that she was unharmed he didn’t sit with her.
Nikki took the whole thing rather in stride. Ekaterin gathered from his statements that some of the Vorkosigan armsmen had been liberal with their tales of Vor escapades and triumphs. Nikki’s impression, as far as she could tell, was that he was glad his mother, having married in, was not letting the Vorkosigan team down. Ekaterin mentioned that she hoped there would be no more spy-catching in her future, and he looked a bit downcast at the prospect.
It wasn’t until ImpSec left that Ekaterin realized Miles was actually avoiding her.
She found him in the library. Miles looked up as she opened the door. As she crossed the room to his chair, he put his reader down, uncrossed his legs, crossed them again, made an abortive move to stand, and sat back down awkwardly as Ekaterin stood in front of him.
“I did eventually realize you are not angry with me,” she said.
The incredulous look of confusion and comprehension on Miles’s face was almost funny. “Of course not!” he blurted. “Why would you think – “ His brain caught up with his mouth and he stopped. “Oh, no,” he said with a groan. “No, not angry. Merely self-absorbed to the point of self-obsession.”
“Pfft.” Ekaterin sat on his lap. She was absurdly big for it and didn’t care in the slightest. “I’m not used to having a partner – a true partner – yet, either. It will take time.” She laid her head down along the top of his. “I didn’t, for instance, confide in you that first night. Or ask your advice yesterday evening when you so clearly wanted to give it.”
“I thought I was covering up that urge rather well.”
“You were. You did. For you, I mean.”
“The entire contents of your reassurance are duly noted.”
“This all – “ Ekaterin waved one hand vaguely around the room. “ – is your area of professional expertise. You can give advice, you know.”
“I’m not sure I know how to give advice,” Miles said quietly. “Orders, yes. Advice?”
Ekaterin nodded, her cheek against his hair. “And I don’t know if I could accept it, when you did.”
“I thought as much.”
She thumped him gently on the shoulder with her hand. “That doesn’t mean you get to make the decision for me, though.”
“Ah.” The stillness of his body under hers indicated the pain that remark generated.
“Next time, you give me the advice, and I take it wrong or personally or ignore it, and you get pushy, and I push back, and we have a nice rousing argument about it in which everyone’s feelings get bruised.”
Miles craned his head back, trying to focus on her face. “You don’t sound as though you are joking.”
“No. I’m not.” Ekaterin sat up a little straighter and looked her husband in the eye. “If we never have this fight, we’ll always be afraid of it.”
Miles blinked at her. A slow, faint smile touched the corners of his mouth. “That’s just what I was going to tell Gregor,” he said.
Ekaterin frowned in confusion. “Why would you tell that to Gregor?”
“Not about us,” Miles clarified, “about the Free Press party. About their claims of corruption, their demands for electoral reform. Gregor needs to answer the claims publicly, have the argument out where everyone can see it. Otherwise both sides will keep making their moves in the dark, based on what they think the other party is doing.”
“Just so, exactly,” Ekaterin said. She slouched down in a manner her entire upbringing criticized. But it brought her more body-contact with Miles.
“It’s a deal, then,” he said, wrapping his arms around her tightly.
“A deal. A contract, if you like.”
“Rather like a marriage,” Miles said. Ekaterin could hear the grin in his voice.
“Rather like,” she agreed.