"I'm not actually hurting for money," Byerly Vorrutyer protested, with the sinking feeling that solvency would not save him. At Lady Alys' look, he explained, "It's an excuse for inviting myself to dinner as needed, since I can't exactly become a graduate student locust."
She was unimpressed, but allowed herself to be diverted. "Would you want to?" she asked.
By had a shrug for every occasion; he used the one guaranteed to infuriate the teachers, headmasters, prefects, etc. of every expensive and punitive Vor prep school he’d ever got himself kicked out of. Lady Alys’ mouth tightened a little, but she was made of sterner stuff and gave no other reaction. By placed his hand on his heart, made his eyes go wide and guileless, and murmured, "You can't see me with a doctorate? My lady, you wound me."
"You could test in, with an appropriate recommendation. If you wanted to."
"I can't see me with a doctorate, either," he confided, since lying to Lady Alys was something to be practiced at every opportunity. Someday, he was sure, it would be important to succeed.
"Psychology?" she asked, brows raised, and he sighed. Well, surprising her was almost as good, and he would take what he could get.
"Poly sci, so. Yes, more or less. I'm not going to get out of this, am I? Whatever 'this' is."
She smiled at him, that sweet smile that inspired terror in the wise. "No. Your tailor bills, I am sure, have become pressing; you need a job, Byerly. And while your unfortunate scholastic history is an embarrassment to both your family and yourself --" ooh, pointy "-- it does mean that your options are limited."
He coughed politely. "Not really, no." He didn't need another job; he didn't even need the job he had, as a domestic informant for Imperial Security, with Lady Alys as his contact. He hoped he would not be expected to work. He had a reputation to maintain.
"Therefore," she continued, blithely ignoring him, "you will have to take any position offered. And what is offered -- only because Lady Vorpoimenidou is willing to overlook your complete lack of qualifications -- is clerking at the Vorhartung Castle Gift Shop."
Clerking!? "I thought it was staffed by volunteers. Kindly, elderly volunteers."
"They need help carrying the stock, too," she said serenely.
"This will only be temporary, of course."
"Of course," he echoed.
"Once you find out where all the money is disappearing, you will receive a sufficient bonus to relieve your tailor." Money was disappearing? Was he seriously being set to control shrinkage in the Castle gift shop? Oh, what he would do for the Empire.
"Ah, a bonus, excellent. Kseniya will be grateful, I am sure." Kseniya was going to spend the entirety of his next fitting laughing at him. Ah, well, at least he would be counting out change in style.
"I am looking forward to the good report from Iro."
"Of course, m'lady." He stood and bowed, just a touch too low, and she acknowledged the insult with that infinitesimal eyelash-flicker that might be his very favorite thing about Lady Alys Vorpatril. "I live to serve." Even in the Vorhartung Castle Gift Shop, apparently. It was a good thing he gave up dignity for Lent ages ago.
"This is all very irregular," Lady Vorwaters informed the spoons that she was sorting. They were pewter commemorative grapefruit spoons, stamped with the Imperial crest, and By was not entirely sure just how they were sorted. They had been made from the Imperial tin soldiers Emperor Gregor had played with as a child, the plaque said, a claim he found dubious at best. While he hadn't been in the Residence as much since the Escobar War, he was pretty sure there hadn't been the oceans of tin soldiers needed to make so many spoons. "I am sure I don't know what Iro was thinking, though I suppose it is nice to have those shelves fixed. You're that Vorrutyer boy, aren't you?"
She'd been out sick his first two days; like the other VCGS ladies, she was ancient, widowed, and fragile, as an elephant was fragile. "Yes, my lady," he said, extremely polite; playing against type had been working well so far.
She peered at him over her spectacles. "I remember your mother," she said, which was the usual thing elderly Vor ladies told him. "You don't look like a faggot." That wasn't.
He smiled back, because really. "Thank you, m'lady."
"Though -- you young people these days -- how do you tell? Gentlemen should carry arms."
He lifted a spoon. "En garde, my lady?" he suggested, and she giggled. He tucked the spoon into his pocket. "Will this do? Perhaps I should take a second, hmm." He wondered if a duel with two grapefruit spoons was, like a duel with two kitchen knives, a capital offense.
"Oh, don't be silly! Why don't you fetch the rest of this order from the stock room? And don't bring along those horrid paperweights Iro told you to bring up. I don't know why they ordered those things; they don't move at all. Maybe the flimsy doll books," she suggested. "Yes, and the tea towel kits! We're out, I think, though we will really have to talk to Mrs. Revolutsiya about those kits, you know. They're so popular, but I had another complaint today about the floss, the filament just breaks and breaks and breaks...but she is so difficult.... Maybe Dinochka will call her."
She trailed off for a particularly tricky bit of sorting, and then gave him some cat treats. "Oh! And would you give these to Sybaris? They get so fussy about it, but really, she ought to have them, don't you think? It is not as if she will come here." She gave a dark look to Dowager Countess Vorpoimenidou, who was halfway across the shop updating the books and couldn't see it. The cat that presided over the stockroom was a topic of disagreement among the ladies who ran the gift shop; each of the them had a different name for her, and each was convinced that the others were starving her. By had decided that he was going to have to pick his own name. Zap the Third, possibly, given her age, her elegant black coat, and her habit of rolling onto her back and meowing until the hapless mark pet her belly, then attempting to claw off his hand. Not unlike Vorkosigan's demented feline.
Hmm, Vorkosigan. He decided, regretfully, that an Imperial Auditor would not help this situation, particularly not that Auditor. Vorkosigan would find a plot against the Empire whether one existed or not. So far, all By had found was a great lot of libelous (and inaccurate) gossip and embezzlement on a scale he could not have imagined before seeing Lady Vorpoimenidou’s meticulous accounting of same.
Lady Vorwaters blinked at him, clearly wondering why he was still there. "Go on now! Shoo!"
By ducked his head politely and headed back to the break room. It was tiny and cluttered; fortunately there was coffee, as well as Lady Vorvasilyev's medicinal vodka and Lady Vorpoimenidou's kourambiethes. (He'd been ominously notified that he was expected to provide the break room snacks tomorrow.) He suspected that the gift shop was situated in its otherwise wholly inconvenient location due to the miraculously undamaged hidden staircase, a tight iron spiral that dropped two levels to the cellar-cum-stockroom. He had wondered how the VCGS ladies handled the inventory until Gregor's Armsman Kevi came by with a group of Cetagandan dignitaries and very nearly embraced him as a long-lost brother.
Come to think of it, one of the Cetas had bought an Imperial Crest Tea Towel Embroidery Kit. They really were that popular. Huh. No accounting for taste.
Once he had made it safely down -- why hadn’t they blocked off one of the few secret passages that was actually dangerous? -- he gave Valentina Couffer Sybaris Zap the Third her treats and sacrificial belly-rub, then collected the boxes that had been requested along with the ones that were needed. None of the ladies had realized that they were out of the appalling best-selling Ghem Bars (which were packaged with emblems deniably resembling those of various Countships and came in four different flavors, none of which remotely resembled field rations used by Barryaran guerillas in the Cetagandan Invasion; By knew because Thanassie had used to serve the real deal for Pascha, as a sort of remembrance). And the Quaint Handmade Native Vests -- one of which By was required to wear over his suit, the only thing he wore that wasn't handmade -- were running low in the medium size. Kseniya had wept when he told her about The Vest. Fortunately for his sartorial future, they had been tears of laughter.
He climbed and climbed and climbed up the twisty stairs, wishing someone had put in a lift, and found Lord Ivan Vorpatril dusting powdered sugar off his fingers at the top. "These are as good as Ma Kosti's," he said happily as By leaned back against the bookshelf, reminding his legs what "straight" and "level" were. He rolled his eyes and shoved the entire stack of boxes into the man's arms. "Hey! These are heavy!" He paused a moment, registering just how heavy they were, and grunted.
"Really?" By said, batting his eyelashes for good measure, because it was Ivan. "Come to mock my new career, have we?"
"Umph! No, no, I wouldn't!" he lied. "M'mother was inspired, though." He stared at By over the boxes. "What is that vest?"
By smiled his best for-the-tourists smile. "This is a traditional Barrayaran handicraft," he began, using his starchiest Vor accent: the contrast of his town clown drawl and the VCGS ladies' precise intonation had provoked comment from the offworld visitors, and anyway Lady Vorpoimenidou had said that she understood that kids these days had their fads but could he please speak clearly? He sorted the boxes into the appropriate pile for each of the ladies, making sure the paperweights were well-hidden under the rest of Lady Vorpoimenidou's stack, explaining to Ivan the many virtues and illustrious history of The Vests. He'd enough practice that he could do it without choking, now, but he couldn't help sharing an ironic smile, because Lady Alys' son, at least, recognized their irredeemable awfulness.
"You can't be serious," Ivan said, laughing, as By relieved him of the last box.
By let his smile widen. "I'm so glad you agree," he said, as Lady Vorwaters came in. "Lady Vorwaters! Here are your spoons, my lady. Ivan here likes our Vests, too."
When she smiled, she could still light the room; it was in the way her eyes sparkled, delighted and presbyopic. He suspected some of that light came from medicinal applications of vodka. "Oh, you must take one, Ivan," she said. "Such a nice boy. They're such lovely vests. I always knew Alys would raise you right. Some weren't sure a single mother was up to the job," he said, with a dire look towards the gift shop. "But I always knew Alys was more than just a pretty face. Here, Byerly, you have not had your share of cookies."
He'd had one -- sizing up the competition -- but he didn't have much of a sweet tooth. "No thank you, my lady. They're very good, but I have to keep my girlish figure."
She giggled. Ivan looked disturbed; but then, it wasn't as if he had any relatives who had lived to Lady Vorwaters' age. He probably wasn't accustomed. By did not know the VCGS ladies well, but had been dealing with their like since he’d been in short coats. "Never let it be said that I do not give justice where it is due; Iro does bring the most excellent cookies. She makes them herself," she added, slyly.
By nodded in solemn understanding. Lady Vorwaters was the only one of the ladies who had help to prepare her snacks, and that was important. "Come along, Ivan, let's get you your Vest. We wouldn't want to disappoint Lady Vorwaters, would we?"
"Er, oh, no," Ivan replied, limply. "Thank you, Lady Vorwaters."
"So what brings you to Kitsch Central?" By asked quietly, once they were out of earshot. He could hear Lady Vorvasilyev telling a story to some tourists. She was relating the tragic orgies of Admiral Papas, Lord Vorhaven, their wives, and their armsmen. Further off, he heard Lady Vorpoimenidou speaking with Predstoyatel Smits, doubtless funneling the entire day’s profits to his soup kitchen. By grimaced and began rifling through The Vests, looking for one the right size. A nice dark blue, he thought, considering Ivan's uniform.
Ivan choked. "Oh my God, you are not -- you are, aren't you? I'm sorry, sorry! Since you're too busy working to go to events, I'm supposed to, er, drop by."
"How nice of Lady Alys to volunteer you." The ladies would get some interesting ideas, certainly. "Here you go!" he said with grand bonhomie, draping The Vest around Ivan's shoulders and snickering. "Lovely." Well, the color was good. "I'm off now -- if you want to talk, you'll have to walk with me."
"All right." Ivan twitched under The Vest, then sighed and followed him towards the front of the shop, and freedom.
Lady Vorpoimenidou, however, blocked them and asked, "It's that time, isn't it, Vorrutyer? Are you going to Anna's party? I know you young people like her parties." She was arranging the horrid paperweights on their shelf to make more room, and perhaps reinventing Kepler's conjecture for closest packing.
By had to agree with Lady Vorwaters: they were horrid. He snagged a chair with his foot, dragged it over, and lifted the box of paperweights into it. "You work me too hard, my lady; I'm too tired for parties. You going, Ivan?"
"Um, maybe? Probably," he corrected, seeing Lady Vorpoimenidou's face fall just a bit. He was a soft touch; it was one of the reasons, By thought, that he actually liked Ivan, not that he'd admit it. Well, that, and he was easily needled. "Anna has the best parties."
"She does, doesn't she?" Lady Vorpoimenidou beamed. "My granddaughter is such a lovely girl." Her face clouded. "I was looking forward to great-grandchildren, though, you know."
Ivan got that blank, panicked look he sported when talk went the direction of babies or politics. Normally, By would let him flounder; but the schoolchildren touring the museum were due to finish any moment, and he would really like to be in another part of the city as soon as humanly possible. "Modern medical technology can still provide, my lady. Anna and Jessie are both lovely girls, and will give you lovely grandchildren." After Jessie had done some pro bono work for the Gift Shop; he was still deciding exactly what. Defending your prospective grandmother-in-law from an Imperial charge of embezzlement was a good cause, but he hoped to find a better one. Among her many excellent qualities, Jessie had become quite the legal shark. He patted Lady Vorpoimenidou's shoulder. "Just give them some time."
"Oh!" She turned a becoming shade of pink. "That's very clever of you to think of that. All the girls nowadays are using replicators, aren't they, so what does it matter if there's no man? It wasn't like that in my day. Doesn't it seem a little -- cowardly?" she asked, hesitantly.
Ten years ago, Lady Vorpoimenidou had put her considerable energies towards having uterine replicators banned for general use as an offworld abomination. Of course, ten years ago, she had thought much the same of him, excepting the offworld part (which naturally made his sort even worse). Time and Anna's girlfriend had mellowed her. "Most do use them; I wouldn't want Anna or Jessie to put themselves at risk. It's safer for the great-grandchildren, too, you know."
"Oh. Is it." She gave him a dubious look, caught between her longing for great-grandchildren and her horror of the technology.
"Certainly," he reassured, and bussed her cheek. "I'll see you tomorrow, Lady Vorpoimenidou."
"Tomorrow, then, Vorrutyer." She paused, and then actually smiled at him. "Byerly. And my name is Iro."
"Iro," he repeated warmly, bowing to the exact correct degree, and escaped.
By had many indulgences, but the worst (or perhaps he meant the best) was an apartment in the heart of Vorbarr Sultana. He was within walking distance of most of the city and had a spectacular view of Vorbarra Park, which they were now crossing. "I can't believe you work there," Ivan said, shaking his head. "And -- my God, you live here? The Jewelbox?"
"It's rent-controlled," he said with a shrug.
"How the hell did you manage that?" Fortunately, he did not expect an answer. "This is -- wow, ok." He turned around in the foyer, admiring the cracked marble and the chipped glass mosaics and the Penrose-tiled parquetry floor. The past twenty-five years had burnished the floor to a luminous glow; it had been called the Most Beautiful Floor on Barrayar in the Vorbarr Sultana Historic Homes Tour. He was glad the floor had held up better than the other décor, as it had been more trouble than the rest of it put together. "You can't get apartments like this for love or money," he said. "I know; Mark's been trying. I don't suppose you could hook him up?"
By sighed. "No."
"How did you get in?"
By pressed his thumb to the lift-lock and selected his floor, wondering how much to say. His cousin Dono was pretty much the only person who knew anything, and he was careful not to ask much. In the Donna days, she'd once asked, very sharply, why By wanted to be buried with his ghosts; they hadn't spoken for nearly a year, until they met again at the funeral of Husband Number Two, and the subject stayed dropped. "This was Serge Vorbarra's mistress' house, back in the day." Ivan nodded; he already knew that. For someone so devotedly apolitical, he had certainly picked up all the gossip. "You will recall my wicked uncle was his, er, best friend. He owned this building. After Thanassie died in the fire -- " by which he meant, after Uncle Ges torched the place for the insurance money and burned her alive " -- I helped rebuild. Hence the rent control." He'd had to rebuild, of course; he'd inherited the smoking shell, along with the rest of Uncle Ges' fortune. Ges' sense of humor had been...unfortunate. Or maybe it had been some kind of twisted recompense? By had set things up so the rest of the money did not burden him, but he'd kept Thanassie's house. He thought she would have liked that: she might have been crazier than any ten Vorrutyers, but she'd been kind to him.
"Is that what you were doing, instead of school?" Ivan asked. By wondered what Lady Alys had been saying to him. "They're hardly going to press you into Imperial Service now; you could get an Equivalence," he suggested, rather too shrewdly for By's taste. It was easy to be lulled by the Ivan-the-idiot pose; easy, and idiotic.
"What would be the point of that? Most of the apartments here are rent-controlled, and have been rented since forever. Some very nice people have been on the waiting list for decades. Your cousin is not...nice."
"Hah, no, not so much. I can't believe they carved this up into apartments."
"After the Pretendership, no one could have afforded to rent the whole place," he said. Besides, he hadn't wanted to be buried alone with his ghosts. "So we split it up."
"But then maybe they could afford the upkeep. I think this entire apartment would fit in one of my cousin's closets," he mused, flopping on the sofa. By smirked as his expression transformed; it was a very comfortable sofa. "Wow. Can I have this couch? Can I sleep on it?"
"No, you may not have it, and yes, if you like. Do recall I live here, though. You haven't seen the plumbing yet; they were still rationing, when we rebuilt that, and it brings new meaning to the word 'inconvenient.'" There were a lot of renovations he was planning to undertake, someday when he was the sort of person who could live in that sort of place.
Ivan blinked, remembering that he did not generally flirt with men. By grinned at him. Straighter men than Ivan Vorpatril had been seduced by that sofa.
He wondered why he hadn't diverted Ivan to a coffeeshop -- Lunds down the street had a decent privacy field, and he could be quite sure no one was eavesdropping there except his ImpSec -- but supposed that wanting to show off a little wasn't so much of a crime. "Your mother will want to know what is happening to the funds at the gift shop," he said instead.
Ivan groaned and sat up straight. "Yeah, yeah."
By stared up at the coffered ceiling. "The Ladies Vorpoimenidou, Vorvasilyev, and Vorwaters are embezzling all of the profits, and mostly giving them away."
"Says the man who took a free handmade traditional Barryaran vest," By murmured.
"I didn't want to!"
"But you didn't pay; you didn't even think of paying. Neither do they. They take a little for the medicinal vodka and coffee and ingredients for the break room snacks and groundcars home; that's petty change, and any decent lawyer would argue should have been covered by the volunteer agreement they do not actually have anyway; they work enough for full-time jobs with pensions and whatnot, and then some, and it's kind of appalling considering what they live on. But the rest -- do you have any idea how much profit the shop nets?"
"Half a million marks per year," he said, feeling satisfied when Ivan's jaw dropped. "Profit, not revenues. Amazing, isn't it? All that tacky knick-knackery...but the ladies know what will sell, and they know how to sell it. And then they give it all away -- it's the most random thing. They give it to soup kitchens, clinics, children's workshops, libraries, earthquake relief, assistance for the elderly -- the same service that does for Lady Vorwaters among them -- literary magazines, school trips, rural comm networks, everything. All over the planet; Komarr and Sergyar, too. People just come and ask for the day's take.... They each have their pet causes, and whoever doles it out first, wins. It's a competitive interplanetary charitable racket. They barely manage to keep back enough for restocking and overhead. Not that there is much overhead, since they are doing all the work for free."
"How did you find this out?"
He smirked, though if he thought about it, he could actually get rather angry on behalf of the ignored VCGS ladies. "Not my daring spycraft, sadly. They keep meticulous books -- two sets, actually, Lady Vorvasilyev and Lady Vorpoimenidou can't agree on accounting standards -- and as far as I can tell they're accurate. It's just that no one ever asked them."
Ivan was laughing. "That's fantastic!" he exclaimed. "Gregor is going to die."
It was fantastic. Except. "Yes, well. It's also treason." Ivan shut up, shocked. "Technically. Embezzling directly from the Empire -- from the Emperor. Which is why I have not yet made my report; I am trying to figure out what to say, track down the donations, anything. Oh, yes, I know they'd get off; Gregor would never convict the Vorhartung Castle Gift Shop Ladies, the whole planet would revolt. But Lady Vorvasilyev had a stroke my first day, Lady Vorwaters' heart isn't good, and they're all older than god; even a breath of this.... Not to mention, how many charities depend on them now? I can't just stop it; that doesn't solve anything except that pesky treason problem."
"Oh," Ivan breathed, his face falling.
"Not so funny, is it? Anyhow, I have the records, if you really think you need them now, but if you could hold off a few days, I'd be grateful." What he hoped to find in a few days, he did not know.
"Oh. Yeah, sure, why not? Jessie Vorlaigle's family finally ponied up for school; she's some kind of finance lawyer, and practically family now...."
"Good thought," By said, noting how Ivan colored a little, either at the praise or at being caught thinking. "I've talked to her about it. We're...stumped." He shrugged ruefully. The law might not have been intended to entrap little old ladies selling vulgar souvenirs and feeding children, but it was very clear on the topic all the same.
Ivan frowned: the rarely-seen Vorpatril Thinking Frown, By thought, unwillingly charmed. And just when had Ivan gone from being an object of pitying amusement to an object of affectionate amusement? Probably when he'd told By to go away and start thinking, surprisingly good advice from someone who pretended to be unacquainted with the art. Like all good advice, it had been followed by a period of strong aversion, but after several years they were both willing to admit the acquaintance. "Come on, Ivan, if you want a drink," he said, heading for the kitchenette.
Ivan didn't say anything as he wandered about, throwing flour and almond meal and butter into a bowl: just poured them both some brandy and let him think. The problem, of course, was that he -- or rather, the trust into which he had dumped Uncle Ges' blood money -- was as implicated as anyone else in the receipt of stolen funds, since the ladies donated to scholarships as well. Oops. He didn't think there would be any trouble, as such, but it was a conflict of interest. To put it mildly.
"What are you doing?" Ivan asked finally, as he mixed the dough with his fingers.
"Making the break room snacks," he said. "It's my turn tomorrow."
"Don't you need to, um, measure?" Ivan suggested. "Look at a recipe? Even Ma Kosti uses recipes. Sometimes."
"So do I. Sometimes. I was disowned at fourteen; if I wanted to eat, I had to learn to feed myself. I like food, personally speaking." He decanted toasted almonds and sugar and nutmeg into the grinder. "Hand me an egg, will you?"
Ivan poked in the cooler for a bit. "What are you making?"
"Spiced nut tartlets. We've had cinnamon rolls, iced cakes, and kourambiethes; stakes are going up. Clearly. They expect me to bring something store-bought, which would shame the honor of the Vorrutyers for all time." He laughed at the look on Ivan's face. "I said they were competitive."
"Um, you could probably get something from Ma Kosti, or Dono's cook...," Ivan suggested. Then, watching him crack the egg in one-handed, said, "I guess you don't need to."
"You're very...domestic." Ivan's tone was hilariously doubtful, as though he expected By to retire to the country and start building insane towers like his great-great grandfather forthwith.
To be fair, that was probably the next stage. He shrugged again. "Disowned, remember? Oh, they took me back when it was clear I was doing just fine without them" -- he hoped he didn't sound bitter, but he probably did -- "but I'd learned to do well enough for myself before that. Don't blow my cover, if you please."
"No one would believe me. I don't believe me. Um, do you want me to stir something?"
"Thank you, no."
"What does Dono think of this?"
By grimaced and pulled out the tartlet molds. "Dono does not exactly approve, but for reasons entirely unrelated to conformant performance of gender roles." At the blank look, he translated, "He thinks I'm moldering."
Was that actual concern? He stopped rolling out the dough and put some butter on the heater to brown. "Very likely, then. I still don't know what to do about my gift shop ladies."
Ivan laughed at him, as he'd meant him to. "And just when did they become yours?"
Time was getting short, and today there would be four school tours, a visit from interested attendees of an intergalactic physics conference, a group of elders from the Greek Orthodox eparchy in the South Continent -- By gave the schedule a very jaundiced look, and considered hiding the till from Lady Vorvasilyev, who tended to empty it for any likely Southerners who happened by -- and whatever random museum parties were coming through. No diplomacy types on the schedule for today, at least. He put the tartlets in the break room, started the coffee, and then minced his way downstairs to refresh the stocks. Yesterday's schoolchildren had decimated the stuffed animals and the Ghem Bars, and he'd rather have them up before Lady Vorpoimenidou -- Iro -- arrived.
Ghem Bars were available; more stegosaurs, sadly, were not. He sat at the bottom of the stairs and asked Zap, "So what are we going to do with them?" Zap rolled on her back and gazed at him lovingly. "I know that look. No." Zap wriggled back and forth a few times, hopefully. "Valentina Couffer Sybaris Zap the Third," he huffed, laughing, and she rolled back to her feet and jumped up the stairs to be level with his shoulder. "You're not very helpful, you know."
"I know." He stroked her back, which was much safer. Zap had the right idea, he thought: queen of her space, beholden to no one and mooching from everyone, no friends she could not turn upon and claw at will, no awkward questions. Zap was a very independent sort, and would, like her ladies, age into ignored poverty. "It's too bad -- it's too bad," he said slowly, testing the words as an idea bloomed, "that the volunteers do not share the same vision for the Gift Shop that the Castle staff does." He turned the notion over in his mind. The ladies had no agreement whatsoever with the rest of the Vorhartung Castle management: Lady Vorpoimenidou had built it out of thin air, annexing the unused space she could find, funding the first orders -- how? So many years ago, did that matter? Even if the Castle had paid for it, could they really be said to be embezzling if they'd never agreed to making a profit in the first place?
He scrabbled in his pocket for his comm -- earning an unhappy glare from Zap -- and called Jessie.
"Blrgh? What time is it?"
"I'm sorry, Jessie," he lied. "I had a thought. The VCGS ladies are volunteers. They have no agreement, no contract, nothing; they're not being paid, so is there even an implied contract? Can you embezzle without a contract? What assets have they been entrusted with in the first place, with no agreement? Who's to say the Gift Shop profits aren't intended for charity."
A long silence. "I -- that's almost plausible," she said. "Even if one would normally assume the charity is Vorhartung Castle, there's no reason it has to be. Let me think about it for a few hours, do some research."
"Remember, it doesn't have to be solid, it just has to let them handwave the charges."
"Thank you," he breathed, fervently.
"No problem. Byerly --"
"I found out where my scholarships came from."
Oh, that. "It's blood money," he told her.
"I know," she said. "I know. Thank you repurposing it. You've done something for all of us, haven't you?" By "us," he presumed she meant Sainted Uncle Ges' various victims. She was not entirely correct -- a few had refused point-blank, and many had died -- but, well, that was what the trust had been for. Jessie was actually the last; he was going to have to find some new purpose for it. Debauchery, perhaps.
"Coals of fire, Jessie," he said gently.
"What does that even mean? No, no, I'll figure it out," she said. "If anyone ever made you explain yourself, the universe might end."
"True enough," he agreed. "Let me know what you find out about contracts and such."
"Will do," she said, and hung up.
He looked at Zap, still glaring at him. "I'm sure that was my good deed for the day," he said. "Don't be nosing about for treats; they’re all upstairs." She gave him a very disgruntled mrowr, so he carried up the Ghem bars and finished getting ready for the day.
Lady Vorwaters -- "Ellie, dear" -- arrived first, and regarded his tartlets with dismay. "You didn't purchase them, I hope," she said worriedly.
"Of course not, my lady. Ellie," he corrected. "I made them."
"Untitled bachelors don't generally have servants, even in these decadent days. There are no more dinosaurs in the cellar, however."
"Oh, dear, oh dear. They are so difficult to order, too."
"Tell me whom to call," he suggested, flourishing his pen and handing it over. Apparently, they were supplied by some group in Joidevivre Vorlaigle that he feared was yet another charity. "And perhaps you have Mrs. Revolutsiya's comm code? I'll call her too, about the floss."
"Will you?" she asked, sounding a little awed.
"How was your nice young man?" she asked.
He blinked, baffled, and then realized she meant Ivan and grinned. "He's very impressed by how much you all have done with the gift shop," he said sincerely. "Oh, good, Lady Vorvasilyev has arrived."
She smiled at him and patted his shoulder. "He'll come around," she said comfortingly. "And Dinochka should really let you call her by name."
He held back a smile while she went to commune with the spoons. Iro came in, kissed his cheek, and exclaimed at the tartlets. Lady Vorvasilyev glared at him before informing him that he already had permission to call her Diana, and why was he being so rudely formal? He begged her forgiveness, gave her a tartlet, and ducked out to greet the first customers of the day.
The traffic was every bit as bad as the schedule promised, and earning his way to first-name basis with the ladies also meant they felt safe letting him man the front alone while they gossiped and drank vodka in the break room. The school tours demolished the remaining stegosaurs and Ghem Bars, the Galactics all bought Quaint Native Vests, and the elders seemed ready to carry away the entire contents of the back wall if only they find a way to lift them. "Resistance training is very good for this sort of thing," he advised, helping lift down their selections. The eldest and spryest of them, who had spent most of the visit romancing a Ellie until her flustered retreat, agreed loudly, and began to remonstrate his peers between asking By bizarrely intrusive questions about his own exercise.
"One fifty, usually," he said absently, when asked about his deadlift.
"Really?" a voice said behind him: Ivan, again. "That's even decent."
"One rep max?" inquired the Elder. “You should progress, young man!”
By shrugged. "What? I can lift twice my body weight; why would I need anything more? Kseniya would kill me for ruining the line of her suits."
Ivan shared a look of amused pity with the elder. "Don't mind him," he said. "His entire family is insane. Jessie told Anna to tell me to tell you it's a go, whatever 'it' is, by the way. Do you even know what that means? We probably got mixed up in translation."
He closed his eyes with a little prayer of gratitude. "Thank you, I'm sure that is exactly right," he said, and began collecting payment from the elders. When the last of them filed out, the ladies came out of the break room bearing tartlets. It had not been an entirely happy break: Ellie was looking daggers at Iro and Dinochka. Paperweights again? By gave his tartlet to Ivan, who made incoherent appreciative noises. "You needn't sound so surprised," he muttered.
"What? What did I say? By, did you know these flimsy doll books have pictures of m'mother in her underwear? Does she?" Ivan brandished one of the books in dismay, open to the page where Lady Alys Vorpatril, noted hostess and 'companion' of ImpSec Captain Simon Illyan, stood in color-your-own glory.
"That's not her underwear; she could never wear the dresses she does. That shift would show and doesn't have anything like enough structure." The Barrayaran Imperial Hostesses outfitted women from the Time of Isolation through Vicereine Vorkosigan. The next edition would doubtless include Empress Laisa; he hoped he would get to see Gregor's reaction to that. "You should buy her the book. Perhaps she can convince them to be more accurate?"
"Um. No." Ah, so Ivan had read the text, too.
The ladies had listened to the byplay with interest, but were forestalled from comment when Ellie noticed the destruction wrought by the Southern elders. "Oh, oh, dear. They bought all that!" She noticed the silver lining and shot a look to the other ladies. "And they didn't even buy any paperweights!"
Affronted, Iro and Dinochka stalked back to the vodka. By reached over Ellie's head and pulled the last remaining stuffed stegosaurus from the high shelf. "This should be set at child-height, don't you think?"
"Yes -- oh, no!" She cradled it in her hands, staring in dismay at the dislocated eye, trailing by a thread, and the stuffing peeking from the seam in the neck. "Someone played with it." She looked heartbroken. The stegosaurs were a favorite, which was why they couldn't keep them in stock. It was familiar; By took a moment to examine it.
The tag informed the reader that the toy they held in their very hands was an exact replica of His Imperial Highness Prince Gregor's beloved Steggie. By sighed. Exact replica his ass. "No doubt one of the grubby Betan physicists," he said, pulling a tea towel kit from its hanging rack and scanning the package. "Do these come with needles? Ah, good. Ivan, got another ten minutes?"
"Um, sure? Why?"
"I'll just repair this." And why an Imperial Crest Tea Towel Embroidery Kit would have pink floss was entirely beyond his ken, but whatever; it matched the dinosaur's belly well enough.
"His Majesty really did have a stuffed stegosaurus, you know," Ellie said. "I don't remember...I think it looked something like that."
"It was a manly green color," By reminded her, threading the needle with black. He reattached the eye more firmly. He checked the other side, and that eye was loosening, too, because whatever idiot had sewn this (or designed the stitching program) hadn't known how to shank buttons properly. He refastened that one, as well. The stegosaur's face looked constipated, rather than kindly, so he added a few black stitches to its lizard smile, then bit off the thread. "Now, my cousin Donna -- that's Count Dono now, Ellie -- had a pink one. Still has it, in fact. He and Olivia are saving it for their spawn."
"How…interesting," Ivan murmured. Then he straightened, frantically. "Sire!"
By looked up to see Emperor Gregor, gazing at the tableau. He bent back to threading the needle with pink. "I didn't know you sewed, Vorrutyer," he said, nodding greetings all around. "Lady Vorwaters, Ivan."
The lady went into a flutter, and dashed off to fetch snacks for her Imperial guest. "I have many talents Your Majesty may not be sufficiently aware of," By said, looking up through his lashes. Vorpatril put his face in his hands, but Gregor just looked amused. "Anyhow, this isn't sewing so much as field surgery. I have to be able to keep my clothing in good repair, you know, or my tailor would disown me. Kseniya is very particular about her clients. There's a test, even." He tucked in the stuffing and whipstitched the gap closed, and then kept going, because he didn't suppose the rest of the seam was any sturdier.
"It's kind of you to help out at the Gift Shop. We are most appreciative." Gregor said.
Hmm, the Imperial "We." Fascinating. Vorpatril heard it, too, because he looked less appalled and more curious. "Kseniya has these peculiar notions about payment," By stalled, trying for a plaintive tone.
"Many do," was the reply, just a little more pointed than it needed to be. "I was surprised you remember Steggie's color...is that really supposed to be a replica?"
By finished the seam and consigned the rest of the toy's shoddy workmanship to an indifferent Fate. He handed Steggie to the Emperor, who turned it over thoughtfully; but the second plate on Steggie's back did not respond to a discreet tug. Not an exact replica, no. The original Steggie had a distress beacon in the second plate. It had never actually been used. Iro returned with the tartlets, which Gregor -- who By knew had even less liking for sweets than himself -- accepted graciously. "Thank you, Lady Vorpoimenidou, these are delicious," he said when he was done, sipping his coffee.
"It's my grandmother's recipe," she said. Ivan looked outraged; By stepped on his foot, hard.
"Lady Stavroula is well-remembered," Gregor answered; he must have been all of three when she died (in bed with one Captain Matthias, which boded well for Lady Vorpoimenidou's continued robust health). By did remember her, a dry crepey hand on his cheek and pitying blue eyes. He was fairly sure that was Lady Litsa, anyway, though he had gotten rather a lot of that sort of thing.
"Thank you, Sire. Is that not a wonderful likeness?"
"Such a clever toy...do you remember who gave it to you? We never could find the manufacturer, so it must have been handmade."
"I don’t recall, actually; Drou, I suppose," Gregor said. "Er, Madam Koudelka. Though I can't imagine her making it, as such." By snickered a little at that.
"Hello, there, is that an Imperial Crest Tea Towel Embroidery Kit?" a tourist asked. He gazed at them without the least recognition, employing the customer's universal stop-gossiping-and-help-me glare.
By winced; he'd become very familiar with that look. "I'm afraid so, but we cannibalized it for Steggie, here." He folded the kit into his hand and reached back for a fresh one. "This one has not been opened. Would you like me to ring you out?"
He made for the check-out console, but the tourist wasn't having it. "My wife wanted the one with pink yarn," he said stubbornly. He had a Vervani accent, By noted absently, and realized suddenly it was a fake Vervani accent, or at least one that sounded weirdly Polian. He wondered how politics in the Hegen Hub were doing just this instant. How extremely interesting. "I want that one."
"It's been opened," By said patiently. "I'm very sorry. Pink is not a color normally found in the Imperial Crest, so the kit must have been mis-assembled; I'm sure this one is correct." Well, maybe. Given the number of complaints they received about the kits, that might be expecting a bit much. He studied the man, but couldn't tell much about him. Middle-aged by galactic standards, well-to-do -- he wasn't on Barrayar because he couldn't afford to vacation somewhere better, certainly -- probably some sort of military desk jockey, given his posture and slight paunch. A spy? Who didn't recognize the Emperor or Vorpatril? Curious, indeed.
The man was about to insist, but then saw that everyone was looking at him. His eyes widened and he switched tracks. "Where is your manager?" he huffed.
"I believe that would be me," Gregor said, desert-dry. By smirked, Vorpatril stared, and Lady Vorpoimenidou squeaked. Upset at being usurped, By thought, taking the spoon out of his pocket and staring at it until his eyes crossed so he wouldn't laugh. "I assure you that Steggie's need was greater than yours. Please take this one, with Our regards." He took the fresh embroidery kit from By and offered it.
Mr. Perhaps-Not-From-Vervain scowled, dropping the package and reaching for By. "This is ridiculous!" he exclaimed. "I want the one with the pink -- thread -- yarn -- things -- and the pink I shall have!"
"Floss," By supplied helpfully. He blocked the groping hand with the commemorative grapefruit spoon, which left satisfyingly Zap-like scratches, and wondered why he was protecting an ugly embroidery kit with the wrong floss.
Kevi, who had been lingering politely by the door, came over, looking very...uniformed. He took in By's weapon, the dinosaur, the Emperor's nonplussed expression, and the red-faced tourist at a glance and did not smile. "Is there a problem?" he asked.
By grinned at him. "Not a bit," he said. "He was just leaving with his Imperial Crest Tea Towel Embroidery Kit, compliments of the Vorhartung Castle Gift Shop. Were you not, sir?"
"Oh," he said faintly, looking at Kevi. "I -- this man attacked me!" What remarkable persistence.
"I saw," Kevi said, expressionless. "His family is known to be mad; perhaps we should all back away slowly, eh? Your customer service leaves something to be desired, Vorrutyer." At the name, the tourist paled and meekly exited with Kevi, clutching his unwanted embroidery kit like a talisman.
"How very odd," Gregor said, gazing after them. The man was still complaining and looking over his shoulder, though Kevi's grip on his arm seemed politely inexorable. "It's unfortunate that Steggie needed repairs, I suppose, if he wanted that color so badly."
By dropped the kit as he realized. "Steg -- oh. Hell. Steggie. He was a spy." Gregor lifted his brows in question, while Ivan and Iro just gaped. "Steganography. The tea towel kits are so awful because they're not really embroidery kits, they're a code." He bent to scoop the kit back up -- was Iro really the only one eyeing his backside? tragic -- and turned to the shelf. He swept all the kits into a souvenir tote labeled "Lady Vorkosigan's Shopping Bag" and gave them to Ivan. "Take these to, er, ImpSec, for preliminary analysis, please."
"Captain Wechler," Gregor clarified. "Are there any in the stockroom?"
"No; they sell so quickly, we're nearly out. There's another shipment due tomorrow or the day after." They all contemplated the supreme tackiness of the Imperial Crest Tea Towel Embroidery Kits.
"Indeed. Well, We will leave you to your work." He looked at the ersatz pink Steggie. "How much are these?"
By closed his eyes. "Just take it," he said. "Please."
After that, the rest of his duties for ImpSec were very simple: reporting to, well, everyone, including Gregor, Wechler, Allegre, Alys (who had thankfully already received a very positive review from Iro), Gregor (again), and Imperial Auditors Vorkosigan (gleeful curiosity) and Vorgustafson (actual financial interest); tracking down customers who'd purchased kits and determining whether his assigned purchasers were guilty of espionage or bad taste; discussing various issues with Mrs. Revolutsiya, who turned out to be entirely innocent and just as impossible as Ellie had claimed; and otherwise wrapping up the information services provided the galaxy via the Vorhartung Castle Gift Shop. Their Hegen Hub spy had been released without charges on the grounds that he really was only a tourist with a shopping list and a managing wife, who just happened to work in Pol's Internal Service.
Everyone seemed to forget, or not realize, that the embroidery ring had nothing whatsoever to do with the several million marks that the VCGS ladies had liberated over the years, which gave Jessie time to draw up a contract between the VCGS and Vorhartung Castle management. Since the ladies had exposed an intergalactic spy operation, the Imperial word was that the contract would be signed forthwith; and so it was. The ladies could continue their competitive interplanetary charity racket as they would, though it might be less fun now it was legal. Mostly legal. Some of the recipients of the donated funds were not entirely aboveboard. But at least the funds themselves were no longer picked from the Emperor's pocket lint. "If I don't sign this," Gregor had noted, "we'll be paying the same, if not more, in relief programs, won't we?"
"That seems possible," By said. "All right, yes," he revised, at the Emperor's minatory glare.
"You're getting too old to keep pretending you're the dullest spoon in the drawer," Gregor said, actually annoyed. By stared a moment; getting a real reaction from him was unusual.
"Is that like being the commemorative Imperial grapefruit spoon?" he asked.
"Ah." By took his spoon from his pocket -- he'd been obscurely amused to wear The Vest for all of his official meetings on the topic -- and offered it to the Emperor. "Since you like our stock."
"No, no, thank you. It's your last day?"
"Yes. I just wanted to help the ladies with their inventory; then I will have worked myself out of a job. Story of my life," he said, with mock sadness that was maybe hiding some of the real thing. Clerking in a gift shop was not something he wanted to do even an hour longer than he had to, but he'd miss his ladies.
"It occurs to me," Gregor began, in that reasonable tone that inspired terror in the wise, "that the ladies of the Vorhartung Castle Gift Shop are, in fact, operating one of the larger secular charities in Vorbarr Sultana."
"Yes," By agreed cautiously.
"And yet," he continued, "they have remarkably little guidance from, oh, a legal standpoint. Or a financial one."
"I have noted this."
"Perhaps they might do well to consider taking advice from someone who also, quite unprepared, came to manage a rather large charitable trust, and did a remarkably good job of it."
"If I find anyone like that, I will be sure to connect them." His voice seemed to come from somewhere outside himself.
The Emperor sighed; fortunately, he was not willing to press the point. Not at this time. "And perhaps you can find them someone who can make better-quality stuffed dinosaurs."
Gregor picked up the pink toy and turned it in his hands, over and over, flipping the plush scales on its back with his fingers. "And what would have happened, if I had pulled it apart? I don't remember you giving Steggie to me, but I remember that was very important. And how did ImpSec not find it?"
By examined his boots, which were a beautiful soft matte black that anyone, really, should envy. "My comm would have been alerted," he whispered, imagining the way the Emperor's eyebrow was doubtless lifting. "And then, well. Perhaps I would have told -- someone -- to pick on someone bigger. Or perhaps nothing. It was a good twenty minutes to get to the Residence."
"Just your comm?"
He shrugged. "I was twelve. The idea that you had a bodyguard, of notifying anyone else, simply didn't occur. As for why no one noticed, I don't know; it was an ImpSec beacon, on an ImpSec channel, to an ImpSec comm I'd taken from my uncle's desk."
Another excruciating silence. "Ah. We are grateful, nevertheless." He waited a bit, perhaps expecting By to say something. "You may go."
He did not run. He went into the first restroom he could find, and considered whether a nervous breakdown would serve: he could follow his great-great-grandfather's illustrious architectural example, except that his interest in architecture was restricted to constructing it. Of course, there were many models for madness in his family, not to mention the larger Vor community, for an aspiring lunatic to consider. Even ruling out sadism, sociopathy, and pyromania, he had choices. He washed his face and headed back to the shop.
It closed; the ladies were in the break room, with Ellie's glazed almond scones, squabbling in a not-entirely-friendly way over the new contract. Dinochka took one look at him and poured two fingers of vodka, without the coffee. "You're not drunk enough," she said bluntly.
He gave them all a weak smile. "No, I don't think so," he agreed, and tossed it back. "Thank you. Look, what is your goal with the charity? Do you have one? Do you have a plan?"
He would have expected them to get stroppy -- he was, he supposed, kind of trying for that -- but Iro had apparently decided to humor the incipient lunatic. "We help people," she said simply, for once not taking offense. "That's the plan."
"It's a good one," Ellie chimed in, and Dinochka nodded.
The spectacle of agreement among them left him speechless for a moment. "It is, yeah. Ok. Have you heard of the Vorkosigan Clinics? KomarrCorps? Brothers and Sisters of Sergyar? Vorbarr Sultana Scholarship Trust?"
"Of course. But what do they have to do with us? We're just a gift shop."
"With a bigger operating budget than any of them except the clinics, and the clinics get the extra from the Imperial medical allotment." They stared at him. Ok, the Scholarship Trust was a little unfair, since its "operating budget" was the interest on its investments (lately 8.83%, after taxes and fees), but still. "If you'd rather run this as a hobby, that's fair. That's wonderful. Keep on keeping on. But don't do that because you think you can't do it any other way. If you want to run it as a focused, strategic investment in giving your children and grandchildren and Districts the best future you can...." He sighed tiredly and wiped his face, conscious of his own cowardice, but not really regretting it. Their eyes had begun to glow with new fervor. He cleared his throat. "Jessie Vorlaigle, Anna Vorpoimenidou's girlfriend, is a lawyer specializing in the nonprofit sector, and I'm sure she can put you in touch with people who can advise you. As can Lord Auditor Vorgustafson. He was most impressed with the gift shop financials."
"Oh." The ladies looked at each other. "Do you really think? We -- we thought we were just a gift shop. Something to do while we are...." Waiting to die, he finished for her.
He wondered just what they would unleash on the Barrayaran charitable landscape. He imagined samplers with VCGS: Taking Over the Empire, One Donation at a Time. "Do you have any idea how difficult it is for a gift shop to make a profit at all, much less half a million marks per year?"
Clearly, they did not. However, explanation was cut short by the respective arrivals of Ivan (from the front of the shop) and Zap the Third (from the hidden stairs). Ivan was handing By an envelope when Ellie exclaimed, not at all quietly, "Your young man is here!" By felt himself relax, just a little, at Ivan's sincerely-expressed horror, and watched with just the tiniest bit of glee as Dinochka and Iro pressed vodka and scones upon him and helped him sit at the table. He drained the vodka and then hid his face in his hands, but By was pretty sure he was laughing.
"He's not my young man," he said blandly, as Ivan's shoulders shook, and opened his letter. Inside was a flimsy with an official-looking seal, granting him his Secondary Equivalence Diploma, apparently based on his entrance exam for ImpSec lo these many years ago. And a card, unsigned: With my compliments. The flimsy would not tear, of course, but the card was hand-pressed wood pulp, and he found his fingers picking it apart methodically. It was too much; he rather desperately wanted to go back to his closet and his ghosts, but instead he poured himself some vodka.
"Bad news, dear?" Iro asked, and he shrugged.
"'Bad' is relative, I suppose. 'Irritating' might be a better word." He turned to the cat, who was flopping at Ellie's feet. "What is she doing up here? I thought she never left the basement."
Iro knelt to pet her Valentina, then snatched back her bleeding fingers. She gave Ellie and Dinochka a triumphant look. "I told you she'd come up someday."