Even though she’d been living on Beta all her life, and had her sense of orientation honed by her time in Betan Survey, Cordelia had managed to lose herself thoroughly. Of course, she could always go to one of the public comconsoles on every street corner and get both her position and an array of itineraries back to her mother’s apartment, but Cordelia found that she quite liked the sensation.
There was a café not far, overcrowded tables spilling on the street, and Cordelia thought that mindless happy chatter might be just the thing for her. She found a table, recently vacated, the rings of liquid left by the former customers’ glasses not even yet dry, even in Beta’s heat.
A server swept the top indifferently clean and took her order, soon coming back with a glass. She took careful sips from it, brooding, letting the background noise fade to a hum.
She was abruptly awoken from her daydream by a woman asking, “Do you mind if we sit here?”
Cordelia did mind, but the seats at her table were among the very few left. She looked up and nodded quickly, examining the two women as they sat. The one who’d spoken was old, her face wrinkled, her hair gone white, done up in an unfamiliar style. Her eyes looked weirdly familiar. Her companion was much younger, perhaps ten years older than Cordelia. She was strikingly beautiful, with short curly hair and deep brown eyes. Her eyes, too, looked familiar. Cordelia frowned, trying to remember where they could have met before.
“You must be Cordelia. I’m so pleased to meet you at last.”
“How do you know my name?” Her suspicion was knee-jerk, but Cordelia almost instantly realised that the woman must have seen that broadcast of her coming home.
“I have been following your career with a lot of interest as soon as I read that you had met Aral.”
She said his name with utmost familiarity, and Cordelia was unsure what to do with the information. She chose to focus on another part of her sentence, instead.
“Read? Read where?”
The old woman smiled. “Oh, an ImpSec report. Ezar has them sent to me when they concern Aral.”
Cordelia physically recoiled. “Who are you?”
The young woman put a hand on Cordelia’s wrist. “Friends. Really. This is Judith Vorbarra, Aral’s grandmother. I... Well. I’m called Viola Bears, now, but in another life, I used to be Donna Vorrutyer Vorkosigan. Aral’s wife.”
Cordelia opened her mouth, then closed it again. After a moment, she said, “I thought you were dead.”
“Yes, there are very few people who know the truth. Judith, of course. The Emperor, Captain Negri, that’s it. Certainly not Aral.”
Cordelia’s mind was in a turmoil. “Isn’t that quite... unfair to him? What if he want to marry again?”
“Marry you, you mean?”
Cordelia flushed, and Donna — Viola smiled gently. “For the record, and from what I’ve read of you in the ImpSec reports, I think you are the best thing that ever happened to him. Certainly you two look better suited that he and I ever were. Don’t fear, we are legally divorced. From what I understand, he signed the documents while he was too drunk to remember how to read.”
“Highly irregular, of course,” Judith said. “But much better than the alternative.” She grimaced.
Hadn’t Aral said that her wife had committed suicide by plasma arc?
“I don’t know who she was. Negri set it up; I don’t doubt he has corpses of all sort of looks stashed somewhere, ready to be used in the way he best sees fit. Well, I shouldn’t complain. It saved my life. There is a tradition for Vor women who had lost their ‘honor’ to commit ‘suicide’ to stop the dishonor from spreading.”
“I can’t imagine Aral condoning that.”
“No, not Aral. For all his faults, he’s never thought that a woman’s honor was tied to her sex life. Piotr, though, he’s very old-fashioned.”
Cordelia nodded absently. “Viola Bears?” Now that she thought about it, the name rang a bell.
“Twelfth Night was always a favorite of mine.”
“No, I mean— Are you famous, or something?”
Viola smiled widely. “Not in most circles. I’ve worked with Dr Naismith on a number of issues, though, so that’s probably where you heard my name. Once I got to Beta, I chose to take advantage of the opportunities offered to women here, and got an education.”
“Another issue Barrayar is still backwards on, then,” offered Cordelia. Her statement drew a snort from Judith, who until now had looked at them both with the indulgent smile of a grandmother watching her two favorite granddaughters get to know each other.
“Backwards is an understatement in most areas. Though I’ll admit — grudgingly, mind — that they’ve changed for the better since the first time I set foot there. Perfectly medieval, it was. It was quite the shock to me.”
“You’re Betan, right? Aral said you never quite adjusted.”
“Oh, I adjusted some. And so did Barrayar.”
Viola burst into laughter, a pearly sound that drew stares and infected first Cordelia and then Judith, until all three were giggling helplessly and wiping tears. Cordelia felt better than she had in ages.
Once they calmed themselves, Judith asked seriously, “What are you going to do?”
That sobered Cordelia up instantly. “I don’t know. I meant to go back to Betan Survey, but that’s conditional on me passing the psych p-profiles. The sh-shrink seems utterly persuaded that I’ve been b-brainwashed by Aral and that I’m a spy for Barrayar.”
Both Viola and Judith rolled their eyes.
“Are they so blinkered by their training that they can’t recognise a woman in love?” Viola asked.
“I used to think that therapy was the answer to everything. I’m not so sure anymore.” Judith’s tone was reflective.
Viola smiled at her with affection. “Barrayar left its mark on you, too, my dear.” Judith smiled back.
She turned towards Cordelia. “Have you realised that you never stuttered, except when you spoke about your shrink?” She paused, obviously gathering her words, and Cordelia waited respectfully. “Look, I probably don’t know well enough to give you actually useful advice. But... it seems to me that maybe you should think about a future that doesn’t involve Betan Survey and shrinks.”
“I’ve been thinking about it. I don’t know. It’s...” Cordelia made a frustrated gesture. “Life is so complicated, sometimes.”
“And sometimes we make it more complicated that it needs to be.” Judith took Cordelia’s hands between hers. “Think about it. Then act. Don’t lose one more minute than you should.”
Cordelia looked down then back at Judith. “I will. Thank you, Judith.”
“Grandmama. If you please. Whatever your decision, I look forward to hear from you again.”
“Oh, you will! I’m so happy to have met you.” Cordelia turned towards Viola, to include her in the statement. “Both of you. Thank you for meeting me. For reminding me of my options.”
“I haven’t seen him in twenty years, but I still hold a lot of affection for him. You’ll make him happy.”
“I intend to.”