Donna put a hand below her navel and thought: two months until the bin, dear ones. Do your worst.
“Premature regrets?” On screen, Byerly’s gaze drifted, affecting ennui. His jacket had gone missing, and the sleeves of his tunic, a diagonal pinstripe affair in a galactic cut, were rolled up neatly on one arm, askew on the other. The chair under his arm was dark wood and green brocade; decidedly not his cramped but modern apartment.
“For the luggage, more like,” Donna said, eyeing the dark room past By’s shoulders, finding something familiar about the arch of the door. Her trunks were neatly secured in the cabin’s generous storage space behind her. She wouldn’t really miss them. Dumping them felt too much like the next move in a dangerous game, and she was looking forward with a grim bloodlust to finally being on the winning team. “As for the rest – I’ll be glad to dispense with the need for subtle ambition.”
“I would think that I, as your favorite male, made subtlety very masculine.”
“But not ambition, surely.” Donna turned before the cabin’s narrow mirror with a critical eye. No, this was the best time. Elegance and dignity aside, age was never the preferred look on women, when men could do fifty so well. She meant to be a glorious fifty. “I’ve always had an appreciation for strength – in hindsight, accounting for my most terrible taste in men. Not counting poor Tasha, of course, who tried so hard. I thought that sort of impotence would at least make marriage harmless.” Donna smiled sharply: “Imagine if I’d found lazy, beautiful Ivan by then.”
By aimed a mournful look at the vid pick-up. “Donna, Donna, Donna, you hurt my soul, bringing up Idiot Vorpatril as an in-law.”
“Whose parlor are you calling me from, By?”
“No one conscious,” By said vaguely. “Would you like to inspect the drunken silhouette? I’ll have to move to the other room.”
“By,” Donna said, though he knew she enjoyed these stories, told as they were slantwise and roundabout, to be puzzled out or not depending on his audience's wit and sobriety. He seemed to be skirting some issue – most obviously the gender of his slumbering host, but Donna suspected a blind.
“Some time ago, it amused me to be unwise, as long as great cleverness was required to do so,” Byerly said. “Long story dull – much like the affair, sadly – I picked up some knowledge about secure lines of communication and covering your tracks. What I mean to say is: we should have no eavesdroppers.”
“Discretion over confidence. I’m not going to lose before I get a chance to play.”
“You have always been the better winner, coz.” By fiddled with a loose thread on the upholstery in apparent idleness. “Is that going to get you through this?”
“Rage is going to get me through this,” she purred.
“Mm,” By said. “I’ve been thinking about what it will take to make this work.”
Donna stopped moving.
“You know that I would wish you a certain amount of unhappiness in return for the misery of our beloved relations,” By said lightly. “But Donna, I think – I’ve come to realize – there are lambs I would not sacrifice. I have a perfectly serviceable broken couch after dear cousin evicts you from the district.”
“Byerly,” Donna hissed, “I swear by God and Empire, I am standing on nothing but a gold brick of sheer want shat out by the collected malice of four decades of family feeling. If you undercut me now, you will – you will unman me, and I swore at twelve I would never be the sobbing woman on the chaise.”
By sank in the chair, and Donna realized his earlier slouch had been nothing more than a brittle imitation. “No, I don’t think you’ve ever had that in you,” he lifted a finger, “though you’re about to get out of that oath for all time on a technicality.”
To her irritation, Donna had noticed that loophole herself and could admit that it called to her heart. On any other day, it would be fodder for a deliciously sharp conversation all its own, but damn it, it was no use being charmed on sliding sand.
“Are you with me on this, By? Because I need you to – Good God, you’re in Richars' house.” Donna started. She hadn’t seen the inside of that house more than twice since her thirteenth birthday and never again after Pierre’s first engagement.
By looked around with convincing surprise: “Oh, yes.”
She barked out a laugh. Clever By, who loved dueling with sharp edges so long as the cuts didn’t really bleed. He couldn’t stop getting tangled up with Donna, who only dueled to win and didn’t mind a few mortal wounds. It said something about By’s inherent twistiness that to discover that he had spent the night, drunk, in the house of their lifelong antagonist convinced her immediately and sincerely that Byerly was still with her.
She leaned over the desktop console on her spread hands. “Spit in the soup for me.”
“I am embarrassed to admit that I considered it. Hard to explain if caught. I’ll settle for toasting – ” He stopped abruptly and put his hands over his face. “Donna, you had better win this.”
“You are drunk. I will win this.” She had her teeth in it now. To give over a fight for the simple fear of losing was the definition of cowardice. What was the worth of being Vor if not for war?
“I’ve never had your ability to turn desire into momentum," By said wryly. "You are my champion.” One hand remained curled in his hair as he smiled, a tired By smile. There was not any doubt that he meant it. “I have to return to bed lest someone in the household wander by, but – I hope you will add my rage to yours. May it speed you on your way.”
“I will remember it. What were you going to say, by the way?”
“Something about toasting your – next wedding.” Donna flashed her teeth in a brief grin at the pause that marked their shared paranoia. By’s eyelid twitched, acknowledging the point, and a sly smile spread across his face. “Come to think of it – can you do it? Marry again?” His eyebrows went up significantly.
“This gambit would be worthless without a future – I can do it.”
He gave her a look that said he recognized an answer that came more from forward momentum than personal reflection. “Duty? Uterine replicator?”
“We’ll see. Who knows what a Betan can do with a scalpel?”
“Not that, I think. Or Tasha Vorinnis might have signed himself up for an adjustment.”
Now Donna did spend a moment in reflection. “I don’t think any adjustment will be necessary.”
By’s eyebrows went up. “Cousin, I want to hear the sordid details of your private school days more than you know – ”
“I know exactly how much, By!”
“—but your shuttle is leaving on the hour, and I will release you in the expectation of more interesting details to come.”
“Agreed.” Donna paused. “Though I have a request while you stroll through Vorbarr Sultana in my absence.”
Donna smirked. “Find me a tall one. I can predict with confidence that I will like them tall…”