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Cordelia paused to gather her thoughts before pressing the chime. She wasn't quite sure why she was here—it wasn't as if she expected to see Aral at all on her mission to deliver weapons systems to the beleaguered Escobar, and what could his ex-wife could tell her after all these years, anyway? Anaïs Vorrutyer had been married to Aral Vorkosigan for only a year or two, and had lived on Beta more years than she'd lived on Barrayar. And with Cordelia shipping out for the front and a desperate mission in a few days, surely she should be with her family or studying the mission instead of standing on a stranger's doorstep.

But as long as she was here…. Cordelia pressed the chime before she could lose her nerve.

It didn't take long at all for the door to slide open, revealing a very ordinary-looking woman that Cordelia recognized from her picture. She looked … very Betan, in her sarong, and younger than Cordelia was expecting, though that was only because Aral looked so old for his age. "Hello," Cordelia said when she realized she was staring. "I'm Captain Cordelia Naismith." She smiled.

"I already told your profilers everything I know," Anaïs said, rubbing her neck. "What do you want?"

"I'm, uh, actually not here officially," Cordelia said, wishing she'd come in civilian clothes as she'd first thought. But uniforms seemed to be so important to Barrayarans. "I actually met your ex-husband, just before the war started." What was she supposed to say? I fell in love with him over the most intense week of my life, and before I have to deliver the weapons that will very probably kill him, I wanted to talk about him with the only person on the planet who might understand?

Anaïs stared at her for a few seconds, looking up and down, before shrugging and stepping aside to let her in.

Cordelia stepped inside, and found herself in a rather ordinary Betan flat. There were a few touches—embroidered hangings on the walls, other things—that weren't Betan. Cordelia wondered if Anaïs had brought them with her, or made them since her arrival as a twenty-two year old asking for sanctuary, or if she'd imported them for a touch of home in her exile.

"What was he like?" Anaïs asked, sitting down on a comfortable couch and gesturing Cordelia to take the chair across from her.

How to put it into words? Cordelia wondered. It was the question that had plagued her during her debriefing and home leave. Those few days on an unnamed planet weren't the sort of thing that fit within the Betan experience. But here, at last, was someone who might understand. "Intense," she said.

Anaïs nodded. "I'm not surprised. He was always very focused. The question is, on what?"

"Survival, mostly," Cordelia said. "Personally and politically."

"Political intrigue and personal survival are often connected on Barrayar, yes," Anaïs said. "That is something Betans never quite understand. Sometimes I have trouble understanding it, now that I have been safe for so long. I'm glad of it." She fixed Cordelia with an intense gaze.

"I can't imagine what it's like to have to deal with threats against your life every day," Cordelia said. "On a Survey ship we might die, yes, but generally only in a few predictable ways—a problem with a jump, some hazard on a planetary survey. We don’t have to worry about a knife being stuck in our back."

"You don't really notice it," Anaïs said. "I didn't, until I was here and didn't have to make those kinds of calculations any more. It was a relief; I was never really very good at the political game, anyway, and that's a good part of the reason I ended up here. So perhaps my ineptness was a blessing."

"What did happen, if you don't mind my asking?" Cordelia asked. "Aral told me a little bit; your marriage was arranged, you were alone in the capital while Aral was away on duty, you took lovers, and when Aral found out you fled here while he killed your lovers in illegal duels. But I'm fairly sure, from the things he didn't say, that he left out quite a lot."

"He told you about it?" Anaïs said, raising her eyebrows. "I'm … that doesn't sound like the Aral I knew. He was always so concerned about maintaining appearances, everything looking right and proper. Divorce is a grave shame, though more so for women than men. A straying wife is an insult to a man's masculinity. Many adulteresses end up killed by their male relatives to wipe away the stain on their family's honor. And Aral could be executed for dueling, though that depends entirely on how high he and Count Vorkosigan are in the Emperor's favor at the moment, and how public the knowledge is. What happened, that he would confide in you?"

"I was the captain of a Survey ship that found the planet the Barrayarans are currently attacking Escobar through," Cordelia said. "The Barrayarans had gotten there first, of course. They ambushed our survey party, though they couldn't catch my ship. Aral says they were supposed to detain us until the war started, but his political officer thought it would be the perfect time to have him assassinated with plausible deniability. Aral and I ended up hiking across an uncharted planet to the Barrayaran landing site. We had a lot of time to talk."

"I see," Anaïs said. She shook her head. "Somehow, I can't imagine Aral confiding in a Betan woman, of all people, but I suppose he's changed since I knew him. I don't recall that we ever had a meaningful conversation the whole time we were married, unless you count the screaming match when he found out I was betraying him."

"What did you talk about, then?" Cordelia asked, fascinated. "Forgive me for saying it, but it doesn't sound like much of a marriage."

"Oh, it wasn't," Anaïs said. "Though that wasn't exactly unusual, among our class. When you marry for dynastic reasons and spend your life apart, well," she shrugged, "until you have children, there's not much to talk about. The whole system is dysfunctional, though it took me years of exposure to a rational system to realize that."

"Beta's system isn't perfect," Cordelia said.

"I doubt any system could be," Anaïs said. "Not any one involving actual people, at any rate. As for Barrayar, well. I didn't know Aral hardly at all before we married. He was Ges' friend, of course, and Ges was pushing for it, which in hindsight should have been a clue that it wasn't a good idea."

"Who is Ges?" Cordelia asked.

Anaïs stared at her. "Aral told you of me but not Ges?" She shook her head, and gave a humorless laugh. "Perhaps he has managed to free himself from Ges' claws. I wish him the best, if so. Ges was my brother, the second son and the third child. I was the sixth, the youngest, and I am very grateful that by the time I was old enough to be interesting to Ges, he spent most of the year away at school. Ges was the kind of bully who uses words instead of fists, and who likes pulling wings off of flies but likes getting other people to do it for him even more. He got away with it because he was very charming and because our family is not known for its mental health and stability, anyway. And as second son, he wasn't going to inherit unless something happened to our oldest brother. He had a wonderful sense of humor … as long as you weren't the one he was laughing at. There were those Ges liked, and those Ges used, and it was much better to be in the first category than the second."

Cordelia shuddered at the thought of what it might have been like growing up in such an environment. But she didn't want to interrupt.

"Aral and Ges met their first year at the Academy," Anaïs continued, "and they were fast friends. Aral was Count Vorkosigan's heir, our fathers were political allies, Ges suggested it and my father thought it was a wonderful idea. I agreed, because I wanted to be on Ges' good side and Aral seemed nice enough when he wasn't with Ges. It never even occurred to me that if I held out for a different marriage, to someone not Ges' friend and my father's ally, I might escape the whole situation entirely. It never occurred to me that there might be some other way out than marriage—though to be fair, there isn't much else for women to do, on Barrayar. An adult woman is a wife, or a spinster living on her father's charity, or a whore who is spat on by all society. There are occupations for a woman—particularly for a widow—but most of them depend on being respectably widowed."

"Is there, by chance, a trend for women to become widows under suspicious circumstances?" Cordelia asked, fascinated by the horror of it all despite herself. Why would women put up with it?

Anaïs shrugged. "Not … much," she said. "Or at least none that I knew of. So Aral and I were married, and he went on ship duty while Ges was assigned to the capital. I couldn't have lived in my father's household any more even if I'd wanted to, and I didn't want to live in the Vorkosigan District—I didn't know anyone there, and Count Vorkosigan intimidated me, and there were no women in the household to show me around the district and introduce me to my duties as the future Countess. So I stayed in Vorbarr Sultana near Ges, and was invited to a great many parties, and Ges was at most of them. And he introduced me to people, and I liked some of them, and besides I still didn't want to get on Ges' bad side. Though, looking back, I do wonder whether Ges was the one who told Aral about my lovers; it was just the kind of thing he'd do, to arrange something like that just for the fun of seeing everything go smash."

"And Aral was friends with him?" Cordelia said, unable to contain herself.

"Oh, yes," Anaïs said. "Though as I said, if Ges liked you you were relatively safe from his little games. And he was very charming. I grew up with him, and even I let myself fall for his façade, sometimes. Aral only knew him as an equal, a comrade, after they were both grown and Ges knew how to use his charm like a weapon and conceal his rottenness. Better men than Aral Vorkosigan fell for it." She paused, looking away. "I don't know what Ges is like now—it's been twenty years, after all. They tell me he is an Admiral riding high in the Prince's favor. I pray to our ancestors that he has improved. But I don't hold out much hope. And if he's the sort of man Prince Serg likes, well, I hope very much for everyone's sake that Barrayar loses. I don't think Escobar would fare very well under Barrayaran rule."

"I'll do my best," Cordelia said. It had been so easy, alone with Aral on that planet, to assume that all Barrayarans were people of his character. But surely all those stories of Barrayar's barbarities had some grain of truth to them, even if Aral was the counterexample to disprove them. She shook her head. Still, even given her mission, she didn't have much to worry about. Assuming they got through, and assuming their pod was found and captured, the worst she had to look forward to was a standard POW interrogation. After all, even if Ges was a manipulative bastard, and even if there were others like him in the Prince's service, they'd be too busy with the war to bother taking it out on their prisoners. And if things went at all well, the war would be over too soon for that to change.

But she couldn't tell any of that to Anaïs, after all. It was highly classified, and while she didn't think Anaïs was an agent of Barrayaran intelligence, she wasn't about to take any chances. "So how did you come to Beta?" she asked, changing the subject.

"Princess Chieko got me out," Anaïs said. "She was Prince Xav's wife, Aral's maternal grandmother, and Prince Xav met her on Beta when he was the ambassador before the Cetagandan invasion. Princess Chieko spent more time on Beta than she did on Barrayar once their children were grown, which is how she survived Mad Yuri's massacre while her children didn't. She'd gone back to Beta after her husband died; but she still came back to visit her two surviving grandchildren occasionally. Padma—Lord Padma Vorpatril, Aral's cousin, and Princess Chieko's other grandson—told her something of what was happening, I don't know what. She was there when it all came apart. She offered to get me offplanet, away from Ges and Aral and my whole family. This was just after the main break with Aral, and if I hadn't been so mad at what he said, at what Ges said, I don't think I would have had the courage to leave like that. But I packed my things, and we left, and she got me asylum here on Beta so I wouldn't have to worry about my father or Count Vorkosigan sending someone after me to avenge the family honor."

"It must have been quite a culture shock," Cordelia said, shaking her head.

"Oh, it was!" Anaïs said. "Fortunately, I had Chieko to guide me. And she found me a very good therapist, which believe me, I needed. Both to let go of my guilt and shame for things that I shouldn't have needed to feel ashamed for, and to take responsibility for my own choices and actions. Girls aren't taught that, on Barrayar—nothing is your choice, nothing is your responsibility, all decisions are made by your father or husband or brother or some man. And then they teach you to be ashamed of all the wrong things. I regret that I broke my oaths, and caused hurt for others. I don't regret trying to take care of my own emotional and physical needs in the only way I knew at the time."

"Forgive me, but Barrayar sounds like a very unhealthy place," Cordelia said. How much of Aral's pain was caused by such an unhealthy system of human relations, taught and ingrained in him from birth?

"Oh, it is," Anaïs said. "But I don't want to make it sound worse than it is; there are some very good things about it, too. Here on Beta, if there is a policy that is wrong or unpopular, those who implement it can hide behind the law or precedent or how they are only doing their job. That's much harder, on Barrayar, for men at least. It is only women who are taught helplessness. And … my family, the Vorrutyers, are known for our mental instabilities and unhealthiness, so you should not take us as barometers of what is acceptable and common on Barrayar. If it were safe to go back, I would, at least for a visit. Chieko was Betan born and raised, and she not only married a Barrayaran, she lived on Barrayar for a little over two decades."

Cordelia nodded. Chieko may have lived there for two decades, but she still preferred Beta to Barrayar. Well, it wasn't like Cordelia had ever been planning to go to Barrayar anyway. She glanced at her chronometer. "Thank you for being so candid with me," she said. "It must have been hard to stir up old memories."

Anaïs shrugged. "Between the therapy and various go-rounds with the intelligence people and the profilers, I've gone over it many times. It was another life, and has largely lost its power to hurt me."

"Thank you anyway." She glanced at her chronometer. "I should be going."

"I hope I was helpful," Anaïs said, standing.

Cordelia opened her mouth to take her leave, but was interrupted by the front door opening.

"Hey, Mom, you at home?" The newcomer was a young woman, early twenties, dressed in Betan fashion with earings proclaiming her to be bisexual and looking for casual relationships. That wasn't why Cordelia's mouth caught in her throat. If Aral were twenty years old, with feminized features and different colored eyes, he would look almost exactly like that.

"As you see, I am," Anaïs said. "Captain, may I introduce my daughter, Victoire Vorrutyer?"

Victoire made a face. "Are they still bugging you about that pesthole?" She shook her head. "I've got some news about my job but I'll wait until you're done." She passed through the room and went into one of the bedrooms in the back.

Anaïs looked at Cordelia warily. Cordelia blinked, as pieces began to fit together. "I don't mean to pry, but does Aral know he has a daughter?" Surely it would have come up at some point during their long trek to the cache if he knew.

"She might not be his," Anaïs said. "There were two other possibilities, after all. And despite her looks, well, all the high Vor are closely enough related that it's not a smoking gun. I never got it tested because it doesn't matter. She was born on Beta. She's a Betan citizen. She's never going to Barrayar. I'm not going to let them get their claws into her. And besides, she's 'only' a girl, so it's not like she's in the line of inheritance. They are very content to forget me back home, and I am content that they do so. It never needs to come up."

Cordelia considered that. Given what Anaïs had said of her own childhood, Cordelia knew exactly why she wouldn't want to expose her own daughter to it. And even if Aral was good father material now—he'd been very good with poor Dubauer, after all, under very difficult circumstances—that didn't mean he would have been as a young man, in the grief and guilt and rage he'd described. And now … in the middle of a war with deadly politics at his back was not a time to learn of a Betan-raised daughter, especially not one he would likely never meet.

Cordelia didn't approve of secrets, in general. They were too destructive. But in this case only pain could come from telling the truth. "I can't imagine any reason you or Victoire should come to anyone's attention back on Barrayar."

Anaïs nodded. "Thank you," she said.

***

On her way home, Cordelia sat in the corner of the tube car by herself. What had she expected? That the estranged ex-wife who had fled her marriage, her family, and her entire planet would want to have a good gossip session about all her ex's good points? Cordelia shook her head. She'd known that she wasn't anything like objective on the subject of Aral. It was good to see another side, of him and his planet. Knowing what kind of a cesspool Aral had come from might make his honor and integrity all the more striking, but it should inform her choices about her mission, as well. She wouldn't be dealing with Aral, but with whatever ship happened to capture her pod. She would have to be careful. She hadn't even realized how blinded she had been by her time with Aral.

She had a mission, a vital one. She had to focus on that, not be distracted by might-have-beens.