Once, in the sultry heat of midsummer,
An Emperor caused the miniature mountains in his garden
To be covered with white silk,
That so crowned,
They might cool his eyes
With the sparkle of snow.
-- Amy Lowell, "The Emperor's Garden"
"Sire, are you sure?"
Laisa laughed, and before Gregor could answer, broke in to say, "Ekaterin, that's terrible business etiquette. What you say is 'Yes, Sire, and what's your timetable for completion, and to whom shall I present my bill?'" She shared a smile with her friend, and added with more obvious sympathy, "It is a big job. But you can do it."
"Oh," said Countess Vorkosigan, "I know I can do it. I'm just not sure I should." She waved a hand at the courtyard they were sitting in, an oasis of green shade in the near-Midsummer sun. "These are Emperor Ezar's gardens. His own design. One can't just casually--" Another gesture, this one implying the razing of every plant, fountain and piece of stonework on the north side of the Residence. Laisa thought the swift flat-palmed sweep belied Ekaterin's stated reluctance; it said how I would love to erase this and start over. She often felt like that herself about anything to do with Ezar and his works. Though the gardens were lovely, especially at this season of the year. Gregor's grandfather had been gifted with an eye for beauty; considering the horrors he'd seen in his lifetime, Laisa wondered if he had regarded the gift as a miracle, or as a curse.
"It's hardly a casual decision," Gregor said. "I've been thinking about it for... oh, since before Laisa and I were married. And I would very much like to announce the commission as part of the celebration of our tenth wedding anniversary. Which is" -- he checked his chrono; a visual joke, but not too much of one -- "imminent."
Laisa glanced across the table at their other lunch guest. Dowager Countess Cordelia Vorkosigan was smiling benevolently at the mention of the upcoming festivities and their occasion. Gregor had invited her as, he'd told Laisa without a hint of a smile, "a representative of the older generation." He had in fact meant to invite Lady Alys Vorpatril as well, but she'd put them off (her ability to say "no" to the Emperor was one of the reasons he valued her counsel), first with generic excuses, and then (Gregor had played back the recording for Laisa with poorly-concealed glee) with a snappy Alys-rant: What do you want me to say, Gregor? The conservatives will split themselves. Again. Some of them are nothing but scar tissue up the middle now. Set Laisa at them; she can make them think an old rosebush and a square of lawn are concessions.
Absent Alys, it was Laisa's job to interpret the conservative viewpoint in this discussion; Cordelia just couldn't, and Ekaterin with all her professional self-confidence still tended to undermine her own interests if allowed. Know your enemy was going a bit far; Laisa, as a non-native Barrayaran, tended not to see political labels stamped on foreheads. Other parts of the body, perhaps, on occasion.
"We do need to make a decision soon," she said, "but we also need to be certain that we know what statement we're making with this project. Some of the more, um, traditionalist--"
"Stuffy and unimaginative," put in Cordelia.
"Old-growth Vor," said Ekaterin with a little smile. "Yes, this has to have meaning; we need to avoid change for change's sake. I'd be happy to--"
"Some people," Cordelia said, "have been walking in the same paths so long that if you move the walls they'll run into them face-first. An outbreak of nosebleeds and black eyes in the Council of Counts; it'll do you a world of good."
Laisa noted the "you" but didn't comment on it. Cordelia's circuitously-routed return to Barrayar after Aral's death, while likely to lead to more-or-less permanent residence, still had a tentative air to it, as though she were circling the planet in a shuttle, unwilling to order a landing.
"Walking in the same paths isn't just a metaphor, either," Laisa said. "There are memories in these gardens. I had a conversation... two years ago, I think... with old Count Vorhalas, in which he waxed nostalgic about a particular alcove -- the rustle of wisteria in the breeze, the plash of fountains -- when he was a young Lord Vorhalas and courting his Lady-to-be."
It could have been a twinge of reminiscence, the flicker in Cordelia's eyes; she and Aral had likely entwined themselves on that bench as well. Laisa could in fact have named a dozen other couples who'd taken advantage of the alcove being out of ImpSec's direct line of sight, including herself and Gregor; she'd hit on Vorhalas because of the sweet unexpectedness of the confession and because she'd seen Cordelia crying at the Count's funeral, as she had not at Aral's, when he'd followed his old rival to the grave a stubbornly-precise half year later.
At any rate, Cordelia's feet were touching the ground now. "Wisteria," she muttered.
Gregor, handily picking up Laisa's devil's-advocate offer, put in dryly, "Two Ministers and three top-ranking Vor lords have been assassinated in these gardens as well, and innumerable plots have been hatched. Different sort of nostalgia, I suppose."
"If you're worried about security, we could clear-cut it," Laisa said. "Emulate the Vorfolse aesthetic."
The new Count Vorfolse, on coming into his inheritance, had reclaimed his ancestral mansion in Vorbarr Sultana, paved the surrounding lot, and surprised his neighbors with an Emperor's Birthday carnival of games and kiddie rides that had in the intervening months shown no signs of disappearing or being closed down for violations or even snowstorms; it was open to all and sundry, offensive to tasteful sensibilities but perfectly safe and hovering just below legal decibel levels, and raking in cash. Laisa had taken the children twice so far; they'd loved it.
Gregor snorted. "It's an idea, but I don't think it would challenge Ekaterin's skills sufficiently. Now," he said with a getting-down-to-business air, "we could wait until everyone who remembers my grandfather is gone, but that doesn't eliminate affectionate memory as a factor. These gardens have been here all of my life, and I'm not immune to the aura of unchanging tradition--"
"But it's not unchanging," Ekaterin said, and then put a hand to her mouth; she was never going to quite lose that endearing oh dear God I've interrupted the Emperor consternation. Gregor gestured, inviting her to continue. "Plants change; that's their nature," she went on. "Ezar didn't make drawings for his design, apparently, or at any rate no one's found them. But I can... sort of see inside his head, in that respect at least. He put in all these shrubs and trees when they were small, and he envisioned them at maturity. But most of them are past that now, into senility, if they haven't already died and left gaps. That grand old beech on the east side, it's close to hollow; you'll need to take it down even if we don't go ahead with the redesign. Those rhododendrons" -- she pointed -- "are much too large for the space they're in, all glooming and smothering. And so on. If I make you a new garden, I hope your great-grandchildren will have the guts to rip it all out, even if the wife of the famous Miles Vorkosigan created it. Time always conquers in a garden."
Gregor nodded slowly. "And if we're lucky we get to negotiate the terms of the surrender. Not the first time the Vorbarras have won by losing, after all. Or the Vorkosigans." His eyes rested on Cordelia; she met them steadily for a moment, and then turned to her daughter-in-law.
"And I think you mean 'the famous Ekaterin,' not anyone's wife," she said. "Though there will be Vorkosigan-bashing, in spades. With spades, if we leave them around carelessly. At the very least there'll be cries of nepotism."
"Well," said Gregor, "it is nepotism. Somewhere on Barrayar -- or Komarr, or Sergyar -- there must be another garden designer just as clever, who will grind his or her teeth in frustration as the Emperor's favorite takes on this job." He shrugged. As no-false-praise went, Cordelia was good, but Gregor was the master. "Saves me interviewing candidates; saves ImpSec some headaches. But in the end... these are my gardens, not my grandfather's. I want them redesigned, and I want Ekaterin to do it. Simple as that," he finished, and took a sip of coffee: the Imperial pronouncement, no cream or sugar.
Ekaterin smiled -- no, glowed -- and opened her mouth on what Laisa was sure would be that Yes, Sire, and when and how much? It came out "But..." Gregor lifted an eyebrow inquiringly. "Perhaps not all at once," Ekaterin said.
"Do you not have the time?" said Gregor.
"For this, I could make the time. No, I was just thinking... what Laisa said about the conservatives... I could design around things like those alcoves. Work a bit at a time so it wouldn't be so shocking. We could start with the boxwoods near the top terrace. They have psyllids. And when we take the beech down it'll bring in more sun, so we could--"
"No," said Laisa. They all looked at her. She'd noticed Gregor's "my garden" and, in this context, agreed with it, but this was her decision too, and he knew it. "Doing it piecemeal isn't the way to go. One fell swoop and get the shock over."
"Medical personnel on call..." murmured Cordelia.
Laisa grinned at her and continued, "I hope we won't cause any heart attacks. But I think we'll garner more respect for a firm decision than for a series of concessions." Gregor gave a sharp laugh; he complained regularly about the latter tendency in the Progressive agenda. "If we're going to cater to any whims," Laisa went on, "let them be Gregor's."
"No, no; chop down my whims at will. Spare no lawns and rosebushes." He winked at Laisa. "Respect for comprehensive slaughter; it's the Barrayaran way. Metaphors aside, the fell swoop should likely benefit us in the context of Imperial expenditure as well."
"Yes, it would," said Ekaterin. "Labor costs and bulk discounts on materials. And... well, it's unprofessional of me, but I hate killing plants. So, contrary to reason, it's easier to take out a lot at once than one at a time." She smiled. "I hope I can live up to being General Vorkosigan of the grand strategic vision, then. Rather than of the guerrilla assassination technique."
Cordelia laughed. "I wish you'd known my father-in-law, Countess. He would have adored you." She put down her cup and flexed her hands, then stood up. "I could use a stroll. Find me down the path when you're done negotiating."
She paused to sniff at a honeysuckle on the nearest archway and then disappeared around the corner. Laisa watched her go, then refreshed her coffee, and with satisfaction sat back to observe her husband deliberating the details of his garden's surrender.
Cordelia knew where Ekaterin would come to look for her, so after a little restless pacing -- less was more, these days -- she settled down on the bench under the wisteria arbor to wait. And remember. Aral's hands, Aral's lips... Aral swearing a blue streak when one of those damned ImpSec boys disguised as waiters wandered in to 'see whether they needed anything.' And then laughing fit to choke when Cordelia told the boy that yes, they did, and what.
She wasn't near old enough to stop needing it, either, but the detour to Beta had produced nothing but a breath of clear desert air, a nice interval of being mothered, and a pair of earrings that, no matter what her intentions when she entered the shop, declared flatly that she was a widow with no interest in sexual relationships of any variety. She had them in her ears now; it wasn't as though most Barrayarans could decipher them, even these days, but they satisfied that small bit of her that forever missed the old sandbox and its rules, long after she'd fit herself into a different box with both tighter walls and a broader horizon. Laisa and Gregor had known what the earrings meant; she'd caught the familiar sideways flick of the eyes. Alys could read them too, and had told her dryly that she'd better hang onto them, as a few men on this planet might be brave enough to approach the Dowager Countess with offers. They hadn't appeared yet, but Cordelia had no doubt Alys was right; she certainly knew the territory, and without the benefit of earrings, either. Simon, though not a bauble to hang from one's lobes, served the purpose now, along with others more important. Earrings for Alys would prove a challenge to Betan designers; the "no, thank you, already provided for" aspect wouldn't be difficult, nor the disdain for legal or domicile-related definitions of marriage, but the blithe "do as I say, not as I do" traditionalism was pure Barrayaran. She and Simon made no excuses and had many admirers, but setting a fashion in unwedded bliss was still very not-Alys.
Cordelia smiled, remembering Alys's moist eyes at Ivan's nuptials, and then heard footsteps coming down the path. Ekaterin's, she knew in seconds; she'd always been good at footsteps. They slowed and paused, and then Ekaterin ducked under the hanging vines -- she was right; things were desperately overgrown here -- and sat down on the bench next to Cordelia. She looked a bit blitzed.
"Gregor make you hit the ground running?" asked Cordelia.
"He wants preliminary designs in a month. At one and a half times the rate I've been charging, but... a month!"
"You'd better get cracking, then."
"Most of the installation work won't start until the autumn, after the Emperor's Birthday bash -- Laisa was nervous about people falling into pits" -- when completely drink-fuddled, Cordelia interpreted -- "but he insists on taking down that beech and the boxwoods now. A shot across the bows, he said. It's surprising how similar Gregor's metaphors are to Miles's," Ekaterin added with a little frown.
"Not so very much," said Cordelia. "What are psyllids, by the way?"
"Plant lice; this sort feeds exclusively on boxwood. Evolved on Earth, of course, but they were imported to Barrayar accidentally a few decades ago, and they have no natural predators. The damage looks awful and the plants are slowly weakening. I've been meaning to talk to Gregor's head gardener about it for years, but it never seemed the right time."
"You'll have to, now."
"And won't that be fun." Cordelia laughed at her aggrieved tone, and Ekaterin added, "You all can go on about the Council of Counts if you want, but I'm more worried about the Residence staff. I'm an interloper."
Cordelia knew interloping like Alys knew widowhood. "You're Countess Vorkosigan and the Emperor's chosen designer," she said. "They'll listen." Ekaterin frowned again. "Or are you worried they're going to think this is... what, Imperial folly? The legendary-yet-secret Vorbarra madness? If so, it'd be a harmless manifestation."
"Not to the boxwoods."
"Ha. Mow 'em down. Send anyone who complains to Gregor. Or to me."
"Will you be here?"
Cordelia turned on the bench and took her daughter-in-law's hands. Words and promises took shape on the back of her tongue and then dissolved, several times. Finally she smiled and said, "Damn the boy."
"Which... you mean Gregor?" Cordelia nodded, and Ekaterin grinned. "He's got you curious."
"You have me curious. I want to see what you'll do with it."
"He hasn't given me any parameters. He told me to use my discretion with the budget." She sounded incredulous; Cordelia smiled inwardly, thinking of the new Countess's District reputation as a mark-pincher on the broad scale. "I'm going to try to pin him down about what message he wants to send, but I suspect it's along the lines of 'I am not my grandfather' and that doesn't help me very much."
"Hm. What message was Ezar sending, then?"
Ekaterin looked out beyond the curtain of wisteria; the blooms were spent, but Cordelia thought she was seeing them in their season along with the rest of the garden, all present in her mind like a series of pictures. "I should think," she said after a moment, "considering the circumstances, that it must have had something to do with peace. It is peaceful here. And pretty." A dismissive compliment, Cordelia thought. "It's hard to judge a garden in its dotage, but he did well with shape and light and shadow. And color, though the flowers can't be all his choice. New varieties," she added to Cordelia's unspoken question. "Fashionable. A gardener's way of edging into a new aesthetic without breaking the bones of the garden. That's what I'm going to do," she said with determination.
"Break bones?" Cordelia said, lifting her eyebrows. "Well, it was character-building for Miles. Not very peaceful." I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. Or pruning hooks, whatever those are.
"There's peace, and then there's stasis. Or stability. And Ezar didn't get to have any of them. I don't think Gregor wants... an escape. A retreat. I'm not sure what he does want, though."
"An advance? Forward momentum. Not sure how that works out in garden terms." A flash of memory: mist in the mountains, a grinning young man falling on his knees by a tussock of silver lace. "Did I ever tell you about Dubauer?" she asked. Ekaterin's brows drew down; Cordelia quickly realized the confusion. "Not the ba who attacked Miles," she clarified. "An ensign in my Betan Survey command. He was a botanist."
"And he reminds you of me?" Ekaterin said, her mouth twisting. Did she get that a lot? You both like plants! You must have so much in common.
"Not much, no," Cordelia said. "He'd have made a terrible Countess Vorkosigan. Well," she felt obliged to add, "he never got the chance to find out what he'd have made."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Was he killed?"
"Yes," she said after a second's hesitation: it was easier, if not better, to lie. He was still alive, middle-aged for a Betan; they even had him gardening now, if sticking seeds in the soil with no sense of consequence was gardening. "When I met Aral, on Sergyar. We were in the middle of a biological survey. I suppose Aral and I continued it, in a sense. It's as complete now as these things ever are, of course."
"Yes. We studied Sergyar in my exobotany course. It's fascinating: a subtly different chemistry and structure, really weird in places, but all the same niches filled as on Earth. More complex than Barrayar."
"Dubauer was very excited by it," Cordelia said. "In the short time he had. It's something I miss about the Survey, watching my team get their heads turned inside-out by new things. Whereas on Barrayar... it's the lingering shadow of the Time of Isolation, I suppose, that pride in making the best with what you're given, because you're never going to have anything else. All evidence to the contrary. New stuff imported every year. Including boxwood pests, alas."
"Some of our imports are more beneficial," Ekaterin said, smiling. "One of them made an excellent Countess Vorkosigan."
Cordelia mocked a curtsey, seated. "This whole planet was a miracle of beauty to me, once. This garden in particular. Still is." She looked straight into Ekaterin's eyes. "Use whatever works and tear the rest out. We need to move on."
They found her in Ezar's rose garden, down on her knees with a magnifying glass in her hand. She looked up as they came close, and scrambled to her feet with a little cry.
"Martya! Enrique!" Hugs, kisses, then, "What are you doing here?"
"Here, the Residence? To see you," Martya said. "Vorbarr Sultana? The baby." Duv and Delia had just produced what Martya wasn't going to think of as the afterthought child, another boy; it wasn't as though you could have accidents involving uterine replicators, but you could be distracted by your work long enough to forget you'd meant to reproduce. Or at least that was how it seemed to be turning out for her and Enrique. "What were you looking at?" she asked.
"Ruminata foetidissima," Ekaterin said, and when Enrique made an "ooh" noise, grinned and handed over the magnifying glass. He bent down immediately.
"On roses," he said. "It's very confused?"
"Either that or evolving to eat Earth-descended organic matter," Ekaterin said, still smiling. "A native Barrayaran insect," she told Martya. "Well, technically not quite an insect, but close enough for practical purposes."
Martya took the magnifier in her turn. The creature, which not even Ekaterin could have redesigned into beauty, had more than six legs, but seemed to be locomoting with its body rather than its limbs. Back and forth, across the leaf. "It looks lost," she said. "Do they still call it entomology when you get sidetracked by studying them?"
"Yes," Ekaterin said ruefully. "And yes, you've caught me out. I am working, though." She indicated a stylus and drawing pad with sketches on it. "The rose garden is... sort of central, I think, geographically and otherwise; I'm imagining outwards from here."
"Tante Cordelia seemed to think you were bulldozing the entire thing. Not so?"
"I like roses," Enrique said, pulling himself away from the "insect" with difficulty. Like most of his more childlike statements, it had a lot of depth to it. He presented Martya with bouquets, gleefully, on random occasions that probably had a mathematical significance she didn't care to decipher.
"I do too," said Ekaterin. "All these" -- she gestured at the fading blooms around them -- "have to go. Past their prime; too fussy, and they look like thorny sticks out of season. But I like the notion of a rose garden. Geometrical, like this, maybe, but... Miles showed me a river of rugosas in the Dendarii hills. I'm trying to bring it all together."
Enrique nodded, as if he understood. Martya had bigger things on her mind. "Do you have... an overall concept, I guess? For the whole garden?"
"I'm trying to," Ekaterin said. "Gregor is being much too 'let's see what happens' about it; he just nods agreeably to anything I propose. My first thought... well, it was Cordelia who gave me the idea." Martya tried to look encouraging; Ekaterin always needed bringing out. "She was hinting at me -- though I don't think she was conscious of it -- that we should have some Sergyaran plants here. And I thought... well, let's do the whole Empire. But..."
"Sergyar isn't impossible, though many of the plants wouldn't be hardy here. And I know Barrayaran horticulture pretty well." Better than most, Martya interpreted. "On the other hand... I've done that."
"In your own garden, in fact. The Vorkosigan garden."
"I'm sorry about the butter bugs," Enrique blurted out. As though he'd been brooding over it nights, which he hadn't.
"Oh, no, Enrique," Ekaterin assured him. "It wasn't a problem." It had almost been a disaster, the escape of a queen and colony of the Barrayaran-plant-eating bugs into the garden next to Vorkosigan House. Miles had nearly exploded with indignation, but they'd just set all the Armsmen and kids to searching -- just like in the old days, Enrique had sighed, gazing at Martya with nostalgic bliss -- and the situation had been rescued. It had been a warning, though, and now that Barrayaran gardens were becoming trendy in many Districts, alongside farmers using the bugs to terraform, they'd be facing the conflict again; most of Enrique's recent research had been spent on solving it. Hence the brooding, Martya supposed. Plus, he still had a little crush on Ekaterin.
"We won't be bringing those bugs to University conferences any longer," Martya told Ekaterin. "So no worries about the Residence gardens being chomped up. But I can see how you wouldn't want to repeat yourself, design-wise."
"Yes, and... there's the dilemma of Komarr, too. No native plants there at all. I could build a greenhouse, but it'd still be Earth plants in it, and those from other planets."
"Escobar has a complete native ecology," Enrique said. "Very pretty. Lots of vines. A range of scandent strategies, twining and adventitious roots and... I have a botanist friend who does nothing but study them."
"It's a center of floriculture, too," Martya put in more practically. "A significant segment of the economy. But a greenhouse of Escobaran plants would no doubt send the wrong message. No, you're right about Komarr. And you can't ignore it, not with Laisa being Komarran. So what are you going to do?"
Ekaterin sighed. "Ezar only used Earth plants. That was the fashion then. But I think maybe I need to do the same. There's continuity to that, at least. And we all come from there. Originally."
"Martya and I surely have some of the same ancestors," Enrique said, squeezing her hand.
"Hanging from trees, if nothing else," she returned. "Well," she went on, nudging him, "if you're using Earth plants, then, we have a proposal for you..."
"We're interested in food," Enrique announced.
Ekaterin gave him a curious look, probably remembering how Kareen and then Martya had needed to remind him to eat, back in the old Bug Butter Basement days. He was still just as skinny, but that was metabolism; Martya fed him well these days, and took him for walks, and kept his energies on an even keel with plenty of sex.
"Food?" Ekaterin said.
They'd worked on the tag-team spiel. "There are people on this planet who don't get enough to eat!" Enrique said, his amazement still sounding honest each time. "I don't know how that can be, but it's terrible."
"So you know," Martya said, picking up her cue, "how Kareen and I set up the MPVK/Koudelka Foundation. To make grants and donations. We started in the Vorkosigan's District, but it's expanded to other Districts now."
"Yes, I know," said Ekaterin, smiling. "Miles was a trifle annoyed."
"Well, he can be more-feudal-than-thou about it if he wants," Martya said, "but it reflects well on him in the end. Because where is the money coming from? Right out of Hassadar. Anyway, a lot of the funds go to farmers with new terraforming projects, but we've done urban work too. That's another reason we're here in Vorbarr Sultana. Community gardens in the caravanserai. I know Laisa's been trying to improve food access there, and we have more hydroponics going in those defunct factory buildings, but there's nothing like growing your own to make you actually want to eat it."
"And educational for the children!" said Enrique. "Fun for all!"
Martya elbowed him; there was such a thing as overdoing the exclamations. "Fresh vegetables are good for everyone from undernourished youngsters to absentminded professors. Like your Uncle Vorthys."
"And his cookies. So, you're saying I should plant a community vegetable garden here at the Residence?" Ekaterin looked doubtful. "ImpSec would have a fit. Collective fits."
"Not that, no. The other message we're trying to get across is that the Vor and the richer classes of us proles should be leading the way to better diets, by replacing our ornamental gardens with edible ones. But just as pretty and well-designed. You could demonstrate that here."
"Not roses but apricot trees," said Enrique. "Not Barrayaran razor-grass, but asparagus!"
"And," Martya concluded, as Ekaterin still looked doubtful, "you might mention to Gregor... I was talking to Ivan, and he was reminiscing about that trip to Eta Ceta he took with Miles, ages ago. Once I could get him to shut up about that stupid kitten-tree, and talk more generally about what he'd seen... it's all aesthetics there, in the Imperial sector. All the practical plants, the ones that make food and fabrics and building materials, they're all relegated to the parts of the planet no visitor ever sees. Not supposed to be worth looking at. Well, Barrayar isn't Cetaganda. We're proud of our producers, here. We like beauty, but we have a practical streak that goes deep, and it shows. What do you think?"
"I agree with you," Ekaterin said slowly. "I'm just not sure... I'll think about it, all right? And talk to Gregor."
"Good." That was all they could hope for at the moment, to plant a seed. "I can send you some reference materials... lists of plants and so forth. One of the professors at Hassadar is putting it together."
"You could have a beehive for the apricot trees," Enrique mused. "Bees are fascinating. Females, with swords. And think what it would do for dinners here! Apricots in bug butter cream, mm. Or Gregor could sell the produce." Martya pictured the Emperor wearing a straw hat and perched on a stool behind a farm stand in the Great Square. Or better yet...
"The kids could have a little market during festivals," she suggested. "It would be cute." Leave it at that, now... "Thanks for hearing us out, Ekaterin. We'll see you around?"
"Oh, yes. I'm not working all the time." Just most of the time, that little sigh meant. "It was wonderful of you to visit. I'll..." She waved vaguely; it was the same considering look Enrique got when he had inner scientific visions, and Martya didn't want to jinx it.
"Children," Enrique said as they made their way back toward the north gate. "Aprons with pockets for coins, and mounds of apricots." He seemed to watch a happy picture in his head for a moment, and then turned to her with a look of revelation.
"Martya!" he said. "We should have children!"
Planting seeds. "Brilliant idea, dear. Let's get to work on that, shall we?"
"Fun," said Miles.
He'd always hated word-association games, especially the sort that asked you to name one word, because that automatically prompted a flood of mental verbiage or made him draw a complete blank. So he was surprised how easily he'd responded to his wife's question.
"Fun," repeated Ekaterin. "That's the feeling that comes to mind when you think of this garden?"
"Ask me another day and you might get a different answer. There might be some sort of correlation going on." They both looked out at the fountain court and its surrounding hedges, their children and Gregor's running madcap and trampling the flowers. The face of Crown Prince Xav appeared for a second under a bush nearby, completely filthy, and then disappeared again. "What did the others say?" Ekaterin was trying to look innocent; he persisted. "Come on; if you're using Betan garden design techniques on me, you've been doing it to other people."
"Simon said 'fear.'" Miles nodded; he could see how that emotion would be left over when the details of hundreds of surveillance operations were gone. "Ivan," Ekaterin went on, "said 'sadness.' I'm not sure why."
"Huh. I'd have thought 'randiness,' but I do not underestimate my cousin these days. What did Mark say?"
"'O brave new world.' I pointed out that I'd asked for a single word, and he told me to pick either of the adjectives, and went back to sampling coffee-flavored ambrosia. Whereupon Ma Kosti turned around and volunteered 'spicy.' She notices scents more than colors; it's not a common response."
"Alys said 'pretty,' but she wrinkled her nose in annoyance at the same time, so I chose expression over verbalization. Byerly said 'inevitable.'"
Miles snorted. "And I take it you didn't ask Gregor?"
"Like everything else about Gregor, the answer would be 'it's complicated.' Laisa said 'discovery,' which is rather like Mark. That's as far as I got."
"Well," said Miles, "no sense stopping there." He looked out across the courtyard, spotting one familiar form pouncing out from behind a bench, sending the smaller children into reams of giggles.
"Aral!" he barked. It was still, after all this time, odd to call his son by his father's name, but all those variants on Alexander had been discarded in a morning a few weeks past the funeral, and they'd had no choice but to go along. Aral looked up, a flash of guilt on his face giving way to confidence, and he trotted over.
"Yes, Father?" And that was new, too; it had been 'Da' until recently.
"You're our wordsmith. Tell your mother what one word expresses your feelings about this garden."
Aral glanced around for a moment, and then looked back at Ekaterin and said, "Gloomy." A second of reconsideration, then, "And fun. May I go back now?"
Miles nodded. Aral retreated from parental interrogation with relief, and then threw back over his shoulder, "Corners. It has lots of corners. Enough for everyone."
Miles glanced at Ekaterin, recognizing the abstracted look. "Out of the mouths of babes?" he said.
"Mm." It was, to Miles's perhaps biased mind, a very sexy "mm." He got up and moved behind the bench to massage her shoulders. She made another noise, much more decidedly sexy, but she was still thinking about the garden. "Miles," she said.
He bent, not far but enough to feel good about it, and kissed the nape of her neck. "Mm?"
"How do you feel about apricots?"
"Hm. Peaches, more like," he said, brushing his lips across her skin. "Satin, and..." The sleek coat of a palomino mare they'd petted on Earth, but he'd finally learned not to compare Ekaterin to horses. "There's a much more secluded bench down the path," he murmured instead.
"I've heard tell," she said dryly. "If there'd been an apricot tree here when you were growing up, would you and Gregor have wanted to have a little stand and sell the fruit?"
"Huh? Well, maybe once, just to see how people would react. I'd rather have eaten them. But I don't think we ever had apricots. There was a mulberry tree, a weeping one. It made a good fort. And the berries stained magnificently. I painted Gregor's face once, all over in swirls, like the ghem-lord-ambassador who came to lunch. Purple is a royal color, you see," he added. Whispers in the shrubs behind; he had a distinct feeling someone was listening, and that Laisa was going to kill him.
"You have good memories of the place, then?" Ekaterin asked. "Fun ones?"
"Overall, yes. I broke a few bones jumping off things, but that wasn't the garden's fault. Unless it inspired me into unusual flights of Vorthalia-the-Boldness, which is possible."
"Did Gregor have fun?"
"Insofar as he ever did, yes. I think so." He kissed his wife's neck again, and added, "Whatever you come up with, I'm sure all these kids will have fun in it too. You might want to stay away from 'delicate' as a guiding principle. And... put in some corners."
"I'll do that," she said.
Georgios Tsipis put on his most welcoming expression and answered the comm. "Good day to you, my lady," he said.
"And a good day to you, sir," Countess Vorkosigan replied, but she didn't look as though she were having one. "Do you have a moment?"
"For you, always." Not a politeness but the truth; it was his job and more than that. "What can I help you with?"
"I sent you a preliminary list of plants for the Emperor's garden. Do you have it handy?"
"Of course." Everything tagged to Ekaterin Vorkosigan under any of her names or titles had been at his fingertips, literally, as soon as he'd taken the call. He brought the document in question up on the screen. It was a long document. Auto-cross-reference began to fill in market prices as he watched: Imperial funds, not Vorkosigan, he reassured himself.
"One of them came up with a proscribed tag. Climbing honey-leaf. I can give you the scientific name--"
"No need; I have it here. An Escobaran vine?"
"Yes. It's not the origin that's the sticking point, I hope."
"That should not be the case. Let me see--"
"It's known to get a little out of control in its native habitat, which is equatorial. In Vorbarr Sultana I'll have trouble keeping it alive through the winters. If someone's logged it as invasive--"
"No, in fact I believe..." Oh dear. She would not be happy. "Another plant in the same genus is a known source of hallucinogenic--"
"Not again! How can they.. stupid, shortsighted, unscientific bureaucrats--"
"Lawyers, mostly, in this instance, my lady. There was a case in the Vorkalloner's District six months ago... involving construction equipment... and a giraffe from the District Zoo... it was rather tragic. Nearly in the Greek sense of the word. But," Tsipis added hastily, as the Countess looked ready to break out in a new series of insults, "I fully agree that banning the entire genus on the basis of one species is irresponsible."
"Is there anything we can do about it?"
"Given time, certainly. How quickly do you need the plant?"
She sighed. "I'm not sure I need it at all. It was... an idea. Probably a bad one. Might not be worth--"
"Do you want the plant, my lady?"
"Yes," she said, biting the syllable off just after it escaped.
"Then I will do my best. And I will alert you if any other difficulties emerge. Is the project progressing satisfactorily?" The plant list was a good sign. He'd been worried; the Count had given him a "trouble may be looming" heads-up, and the Emperor's deadline was only a week away. Not that it was a deadline in any firm or literal sense, but the Countess rightly took it seriously.
"Ha," she said.
"It's going well enough, I suppose," she said. "It just doesn't feel..."
"Sufficient? Presentable? Up to standard?" She gave him an odd look, and he added, bowing his head slightly, "If you will pardon my saying so, my lady, you and I possess at least a modicum of temperament in common."
"Mm. May I ask you something, then? You've been in the Emperor's garden."
"Only once. Many years ago."
"Really? Oh." She seemed surprised; did she think people of his class strolled as easily into the Residence grounds as... they did into the garden next to Vorkosigan House, yes. "Well," she went on, "what's the one word you would use to describe it?"
"Besides" -- he let himself smile slightly -- "expensive?" He thought for a moment. "Perhaps... impersonal."
"That surprises you?" Too.
"I'd been proceeding under the apprehension that it was very personal to Emperor Ezar. Very much his garden."
"Oh, I believe so, my lady. I did not have the honor of His Imperial Majesty's acquaintance. But from what Count Piotr... let slip, I gather that he seldom did anything without a view to consequences. Imperial consequences, you understand. A mathematical mind, really, quite calculating," he added with a degree of approval.
"So he wouldn't have put in a shrub because he liked it, or built an alcove on the chance he'd get to kiss someone in it, or planted flowers with a perfume that held memories?"
"Possibly. But I doubt that would have been the primary objective."
Tsipis hoped he'd done the Countess some good; it was hard to tell by her expression. "The word I was searching for before," she said finally, "was 'coherent.' What my garden plan didn't feel like."
"Is it necessary for a garden to cohere?"
"Not in the... the gum-leaf sense. Which is not a plant I'd thought of adding to the garden, by the way."
"Ah, gum-leaf. Without which I would never have met Madame Tsipis." Let her chew on that; she might find it intriguing. "But you mean that your plan has no overarching sentiment or purpose."
"Yes, that was it."
"Then if I may say so... neither does the Empire, at this time. Not that we lack purpose; we are swimming in it. But we swim in... many channels of a broad river. This Emperor is the true ruler of three very different planets, each of which is developing and changing internally, though Komarr by its nature... looks outward more than the others. I have always rather thought of Komarr as the Holland of its day: the trade voyages, the reliance on infrastructure for its very breath of life, the love of color to offset a rather dreary... well, no matter. We all carry our ancestors with us; we are all new-born. And all our children will see the world differently than did we."
He sat back, slightly amazed; it was not often he got to give a speech. But the Countess was a good listener, and she grasped concepts very quickly, and took them places he'd never before considered.
"Thank you," she said, looking thoughtful. "Thank you very much indeed. And you'll let me know about the honey-leaf?"
"Of course, my lady," he said. "I am always pleased to serve you."
"So," said Gregor, fingers hovering near the comconsole but not touching. He felt lightheaded, nervous; it was rather like the first viewing of a fetus in a uterine replicator, except that it would cost a lot more upfront and he'd had less to do with its conception. He wished again that Laisa was with him for this, but she'd told him he needed to see it first on his own.
"Let's have a look, then," he went on.
"Yes, Sire," said Ekaterin, straightened in her chair, and keyed up her design. The first image provided a strange doubling of viewpoint: it gazed out this very window, from his office, but into a different world. "We can move through the design as though walking the garden's paths," she said. "I've set it to your height, like we're seeing with your eyes." And then the image broke the glass, and they were in the garden.
"Spring, first," she said, and it was a wonderland of blossoms; no more staid hedges, but a perfect circle of small trees exploding in pink, and tussocks of something silvery-gray, and carpets of yellow and purple-blue. "Somewhat conventional," Ekaterin added.
"No." Gregor had put his hand on her shoulder, without noticing; whether he'd needed the support or she had he wasn't sure, but he gave her a little reassuring shake now, and said, "It's beautiful. Let's... stroll onwards."
"All right. This is... I don't like labels, but we could call it the Avenue of the Planets, if you want." A freshly-crimson field of Barrayaran grasses and creepers and... more of the silvery-gray stuff: that wasn't native... "Sergyaran," she said. "A principle of non-segregation, perhaps." They blended very well, the colors: bold swaths of red-brown, blue-green, dozens of different plants in varying shades. And then, further down the path, Earth again; regiments of tulips marching toward what might have been the ramp of a shuttle, and... he looked up, or his avatar did.
"Greenhouse," said Ekaterin. "A high enough ceiling to be unobtrusive from below, though from above it'll be quite noticeable." She switched views.
"Crystal palace," breathed Gregor. But dome-shaped. They passed through quickly; the olfactory part of the program wasn't online yet, she explained, but these plants were those that produced spices in the tropical regions of Earth, and the galaxy beyond. An Escobaran vine twined up a tree laden with fruit; Tau Cetan palms; Betan cactuses; more he did not recognize.
And then they were beyond the greenhouse, his last sight a whirl of black and silver orchids, and treading brick paths that seemed to be edged with... lettuce?... and strawberries, yes; and Ekaterin said "Summer." The light grew brighter; the flowers changed from blue and yellow into red and gold; but there were shadows in the brightness, the shade of weeping trees and high branches playing against the sun. They ducked into an alcove, with a bench not of iron but of wood woven together in a formal pattern, far from rustic and yet evoking its origins; it looked like it would be comfortable to sit on with someone else. The arbor above was draped with flowers in white, a bridal Midsummer white. He clutched Ekaterin's shoulder tighter. "Yes," he said.
A map tucked into the corner of the display showed their progress; they'd been working around the east side so far, but now they turned a corner and headed toward the garden's center. What had once been a series of small distinct spaces bordered by hedges had been opened into one great vista, with the Residence visible at its end. Trees and grasses, swaying in the breeze, formed the banks of a great river, a river of red. "Roses," he whispered, and Ekaterin nodded. They paused on the top of a rise looking down; the rose-river forked into streams, with rivulets of lawn or contrasting plant life between; and then the streams came together again, separated, joined, by some mathematical rule he couldn't grasp, all carried by a great current toward a sea of trees. They followed the path down and plunged in; it was like drowning, moving through that torrent, but he could pick out individual roses as they passed; each flower was distinct, though part of the harmonious whole.
They skirted the border of forest and moved into a sunny cheerful garden: herbs, and fruit, and elegant shiny peppers, and an arbor of grapes; a shrub he recognized with a stab of nostalgia as the gum-leaf his five-year-old self had demanded to chew during that interval in the Dendarii hill country. Pomegranates and lavender; quinces and beans. A fountain, its cooling spray misting his vision. Sunflowers.
"Autumn," said Ekaterin, and they were in a maze of orange-leafed hedges, with here and there the green of topiary forming the shape of an animal: a pouncing cat; a horse; an elephant. Tunnels of dark evergreens; heaps of multi-colored fallen leaves; low walls perfect for jumping from; niches splendid for hiding. They'd missed the berry season here, but he recognized some of the plants; and the flowers one wove crowns from in the summer. More of those comfortable benches, too, for those who lacked the energy to run and jump. But Gregor thought he'd try it, once or twice. He smiled, and squeezed Ekaterin's shoulder again.
She looked up at him, hesitated a second, and then said, "Winter."
"Always a few who wander the grounds even at Winterfair," he agreed.
"A garden needs its bones." She turned back to the display, and the autumn colors faded to white and gray: snow over the paths. "I've kept some of the older trees," she said, "near the edges. Thinned out what we didn't need, and left the best." Deeply gnarled, convoluted ancients; younger trees with elegantly peeling bark; all leafless. They strolled back, toward home, round twists and turns, past skeletal branches reaching for the path, past ghostly gardens of fog and tall pointing fingers of dark green, or coniferous skirts sweeping the ground.
And then they were back in the courtyard where this had all begun, a month ago: the same stone walls clothed in moss; the same looming overgrown rhododendrons; the same wrought-iron table and chairs. He made a noise in his throat, involuntarily; Ekaterin looked up.
"He's never going to be gone, Gregor," she said. "Not completely. I don't do tombs and statues, but memorials, perhaps. It's up to you."
She didn't seem to touch a key or breathe a command, but snow began to fall in the courtyard, the icy edges of the picture softening. A memory, or a fantasy: an old man sitting in one of those chairs, keen eyes in a ravaged face. Measured footsteps to approach, an accustomed curbing of impatient energy; a cool hand on his forehead, in blessing. Ash, not snowflakes, falling from the sky.
Gregor shook himself; the image hadn't changed. "Keep it," he said. "All of it." It was a paradise, and she was its unanswerable creator, but he still felt he ought to... he was the Emperor, after all. "More gum-leaf," he said. "And I'll want to see what the view out here" -- he gestured at the windows, glad to find the real, interior world still in firm existence -- "looks like in all the seasons; it's what I'll see the most, unfortunately."
"Oh, I have the whole thing in all seasons," she said. "Sit down, if you would, Sire." She patted the chair next to her. "Let's explore."