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The Rules of Barrayaran Sex

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Rule twenty-six: It is permitted, but disapproved of, to discuss anything at all related to pregnancy or babies in front of men.
[added in pencil below] 26b: Although pregnancy results from sex, everyone pretends it does not. This means that when someone asks about your pregnancy, you should under no circumstances comment on the quality of the sex that started things off.

*

Cordelia snorted with laughter at her holonovel, then covered her mouth quickly and glanced at the bassinette, but Miles hadn't stirred. She looked across at Aral, surrounded by stacks of paper and colour-coded data cubes, his attention fixed on some long file with the Imperial Seal on the top. He didn't notice background noise when he was working; once she'd seen him ignore a full ImpSec security drill with sirens wailing. Cordelia turned back to the novel.

The next time she looked up, Aral was still holding the same file, but his gaze seemed to be going through it. Cordelia watched for a moment to be sure he was wool-gathering, then said, "Reports boring you to sleep, love?"

Aral started and looked at her. "What? Oh, I was just thinking." He looked down at Miles.

"Anything in particular?"

Aral shook his head and looked back at the report, unconvincingly.

"Do you lie better than that when you're talking to the Council of Ministers?" Cordelia asked.

"I'm not married to the Council of Ministers," Aral said, "so I hope so, yes." He sighed and looked back at Miles. "Shouldn't he be talking by now?"

"All the research says that the development of language is variable."

"That's what you said last month. And the month before. Ivan's talking in sentences."

"So long as you consider two words a sentence," Cordelia said. Alys was trying very hard not to be smug about it. "Also, he's older."

"Still."

"Dr Ritter says delays in his development are only to be expected, and Miles is still inside normal parameters. He's fourteen months, love. There's time."

Aral rubbed his hand across his lips and said, "But ... what if he never learns to talk? What if he can't?"

Cordelia tried to catch Aral's eye, but he was staring fixedly at the wall. "Most children learn to talk in the end."

"But there could be something wrong with his brain." The very level, calm way Aral said that told Cordelia that this was the core of her husband's anxieties.

"Yes," she said quietly. "There could. All the scans have been optimistic, but there are a lot of possible ways for things to go wrong, especially considering all the trauma Miles went through at critical developmental stages."

"And what happens then?"

Cordelia set her novel down and folded her arms. "Then we deal with it. I've been doing some reading. With careful teaching and therapies, there should be no reason he can't live a comfortable and happy life even if he does have intellectual impairments."

Aral gave her a frustrated glower. "But how could he be Count Vorkosigan?"

"I didn't think there was an entrance exam," Cordelia retorted. "Isn't that the point of a hereditary aristocracy—and don't tell me the Vor are a warrior caste, for all practical purposes you're aristocrats—that you just are who you are by birth?"

"Count's choice before Count's blood, actually," Aral said.

"And you'd choose ... who, Ivan? ... if Miles' brain is damaged?"

"Or a younger brother," Aral said carefully. "But yes, Ivan would be the next logical choice."

"Well, Miles isn't getting a younger brother."

Aral said nothing.

"Besides, I don't think he does have brain damage. He seems to understand quite a lot."

"I've never noticed."

"That's because he's almost always asleep when you see him," Cordelia pointed out. Aral always came and worked in the evenings wherever Miles was sleeping, but after the first few months Miles had rarely awoken at night. "You should spend more time—" She cut herself off. She could feel herself slipping into the Barrayaran wifely stereotype, futilely nagging to get her husband's attention whilst he fled her to Important Work. She hadn't previously realised how much societal structures supported those stereotypes.

Aral knew the stereotypes too. "Damn it, Cordelia!" he said. "What do you think I'm doing all this for, if not for Miles? And you, and Gregor, and Elena, and everyone's children! You knew how big a job it was when you said I should accept it."

She really didn't want to be fighting with Aral about this. Cordelia let her frustration out in a long slow breath. "I know. I understand. I just wish you could enjoy some of the rewards of your work as well." She tried to smile. "And if Miles is going to be Count Vorkosigan someday, somebody is going to have to teach him how. I don't know how to teach him that."

Aral was silent. Cordelia looked down at the bassinette and saw that Miles had woken up, big dark eyes gazing fixedly at Cordelia in that characteristic baby way that made her feel like she was being studied in a lab. Then he opened his mouth.

"Dammit," he crooned.

Aral and Cordelia stared at each other. "Did he really--" Aral began.

"I'm afraid so," Cordelia said, trying not to laugh. "Your son's first word, love. I think he's Barrayaran."

Aral slid out of his chair and sat on the carpet next to Miles' bassinette. "Dada," he said experimentally to Miles. "Say 'Dada'."

"Dammit," Miles repeated.

"Mama?" Aral tried.

Miles gave him an are-you-an-idiot look, then reached out for the gold braid on Aral's dress uniform, but gave a wail of frustration when he came up against the spinal restraint that kept him from breaking his back when he tried to move. Aral detached part of the braid and put it in Miles' hand. Miles wailed for a moment longer, just to make his point, then shoved the braid in his mouth.

"Hungry?" Aral suggested.

"Curious," Cordelia offered, joining them on the floor. "I think he likes the taste of power."

Aral rescued his slightly chewed braid after a few minutes and reattached it, then pulled his comlink out. Cordelia sighed inwardly.

"Kou?" Aral said into the link. "I need you to rearrange my schedule, starting from tomorrow."

Cordelia couldn't quite hear the response, but she had her own secretary now, and was fairly certain Kou was grumbling.

"I want you to wall off my lunch-break, and extend it to an hour and a half. No, two hours. Two hours at lunch and absolutely no interruptions. Yes, I know about the Kline Station ambassador, you'll have to move him. No, it's definitely more important. Yes, every day. Thanks, Kou."

Aral pocketed the comlink and turned his attention back to his son. "You, my boy, are going to have to learn some new words or your mother will decapitate me."

Cordelia leaned in to give Aral a quick kiss on the cheek, but Aral was a strategist, and turned his head at the last moment, his lips parting. Cordelia found herself pulled into his lap.

A minute later, they were interrupted by a small voice saying, "Dammit!"

*

Rule Ten: Both men and women are expected to be clothed from shoulders to knees; nobody wears sarongs and even men rarely go topless.

*

"Cordelia!"

Cordelia groaned and did not open her eyes. She'd been having such a nice dream, too. Perhaps if she lay very still Aral would find someone else to bother. His voice didn't sound urgent, just irritated and sleepy.

"Cordelia, please."

"Mmfh."

"I need your help."

Cordelia opened one eye and glanced at the clock. It wasn't yet five in the morning. "Go back to sleep, Aral."

"I can't find my socks."

Cordelia closed her eye again. "You're the Lord Regent of Barrayar. Don't you have, you know, people to find your socks for you?"

"It's that new girl, and I can't ask her to come in here right now!"

Cordelia turned over and pressed her face into the pillow. Aral's voice turned coaxing. "You know you can find things much more easily than I can. Please, dear Captain..."

With a slightly theatrical sigh, Cordelia sat up and regarded her husband. He was evidently fresh out of the shower and had only got as far as putting underwear on before realising that he didn't have any socks.

"All right, all right. We must by all means spare the new girl the sight of the Regent in his underwear." Though Cordelia didn't have any objection to it herself. Aral had turned the dressing room light on, and she could see him dimly in its glow. She enumerated his features: greying hair on his arms and chest, torso thickening slightly in late middle age, the muscles in his thighs, his broad strong hands. His bare feet.

"Socks," Aral said, getting her back on track.

"Why are we up at this hour anyway?" Cordelia asked, swinging her legs out of bed. The room was chilly in the early morning, and she reached for a robe. Aral didn't seem to be feeling the cold, but he never did. He held the robe for her, then caught her in an embrace as he wrapped her up.

"It's the latest Komarran delegation. Their shuttle arrives in an hour, and my staff are probably all in the office already."

"And why don't you have any socks? You must have hundreds of pairs of socks."

"I need the socks that go with my parade uniform, and I can only find one."

Cordelia shook her head, stroked a hand down Aral's spine and headed for Aral's dressing room.

"What's going on? Is the house on fire?" Miles' soprano voice came through the door. "You woke me up!"

"Your father's lost his socks," Cordelia called back. "Go back to bed. Or come help look."

Miles opened the door and looked in. He studied his mostly-naked father, who yawned hugely and said, "Good morning, son." Miles closed the door again firmly.

"It's still night-time," he declared through the door. "I'm going back to bed. Da can have my socks if he likes."

There were probably--no, certainly--some ImpSec guards outside listening to this little family drama, and maybe Armsmen too, Cordelia thought. She wondered what she and Aral would have to say before the guards started to snicker. But then, most of them had families, and this scene had to be familiar to anyone with a family. Though Aral provided his own unusual variations...

"Look," Aral said from his dressing room. "Undress uniform socks. Casual socks. Dress uniform socks. Sports socks. Battle dress socks. Old socks with holes in. And only one parade uniform sock."

Cordelia went in and looked. They mostly seemed alike to her, like a row of Barrayaran soldiers.

"I think I should turn this problem over to the experts," Aral continued, his voice dropping thoughtfully. "ImpSec is good at finding things. And besides, there could be some other reason my socks are missing..."

"Some other reason? You think Barrayar is under attack from a dangerous sock thief?"

Aral hesitated. "Well, when you put it like that..."

"Did you try my wardrobe? Maybe they got mixed up."

"You mean you stole my socks?"

"I did not steal your socks. Alys would notice and would lecture me if she saw me wearing men's socks. God knows how she could tell, but I'm sure she could."

"Ha. Very true. All right."

The fact that she had so many clothes she needed a whole room to keep them in still stunned Cordelia. Aral's dressing room was modest, containing every possible Barrayaran uniform and very little else, but Cordelia's was larger and had rows of dresses, long skirts, blouses, jackets and coats, appalling Barrayaran ladies' underwear which Cordelia still refused to touch, preferring to import sensible clothing from Beta, and only a very few pairs of trousers that seemed to cower in a corner, especially when Alys came to inspect. Cordelia even had a maid whose entire job, it seemed, was to keep her clothes in order, do her hair and apply the formal face paint Barrayaran women considered essential.

She pulled out the sock drawer and rummaged about. Lucille the maid would no doubt be cross with her, in her restrained way, when she found it a mess, but Cordelia could live with that. "Anything in there look suitable?"

Aral's rummaging was rather more energetic and resulted in half a dozen pairs of socks and filmy stockings strewn on the floor. "No." He held up a long strip of some silky material. "What is this?"

"No idea." Cordelia looked at it critically. "I can think of half a dozen things we could use it for, though..."

Aral gave her a look. "Cordelia! I have to go and deal with Komarrans this morning."

"I'm sure they'd be happy if you were in a good mood," she said innocently.

"Socks." Aral's voice was emphatic, though his eyes lingered on her.

There was a polite knock on the door of their bedroom, and Kou's voice drifted in. "Sir? Excuse me, sir, your groundcar is waiting."

Cordelia turned out the entire of her sock drawer on the dressing-room floor and took a look at the single parade uniform sock Aral was clutching. No matches.

"Kou! Come and give us a hand here," Aral called back.

To his credit, Kou only boggled slightly at the sight of his liegelord in his underwear surrounded by ladies' stockings. "Yes, sir?"

"Kou, if you have two matching parade uniform socks, will you bring them here?" Cordelia said. "Aral, why don't you put the rest of that crazy uniform on whilst we look for socks."

"Perhaps I should go to the meeting like this," Aral said thoughtfully. "I'm going to need all the distractions I can scare up to keep these Komarrans from asking the wrong questions."

Cordelia and Kou exchanged glances. Aral in a mischievous mood was very dangerous to innocent bystanders.

The door opened again and Miles came in and stood in the doorway, pointedly not-looking at his father. "Your socks are in my drawer," he said.

Aral held out his hand, but Miles shook his head. "Oh no," he said. "You have to come and get them."

"Miles, we don't have time for games," Cordelia began, but Aral shrugged, stood up and paraded past the ImpSec duty guard and down the corridor to Miles' room, trailing Kou and Miles.

Cordelia watched Aral's naked back vanish down the corridor, sat down on the bed and laughed until tears ran down her face.

*

Rule Eight: Women are believed to be fragile and must be guarded and protected by men. They are not expected to deal with traditionally masculine subjects such as politics and warfare.

*

"Damn the boy!" Aral burst out. "What was he thinking?"

"Don't look at me," Cordelia said. "I dreamed of running away and having adventures when I was seventeen, but I was going to make First Contact with sentient aliens, not find a war of my very own to play with. Also," she added a meditative moment later, "I never actually did it."

"Unless you count Barrayarans as sentient aliens, which I know you sometimes do," Aral said, distracted from his outburst.

"Sometimes I'm not sure about the 'sentient' part," Cordelia said honestly.

"Ow." Aral tapped his heart with one finger, touché. They fell silent for a while, both looking out the windows of the aircar. A monorail line cut through the landscape, passing through small towns and between hilltops still bearing the last of the winter snow. Barrayar really was a beautiful planet, Cordelia thought. Shame about the sentient aliens.

"I don't think our absence will have improved things in town," Aral observed after a while. "It's bad enough whilst I'm there; I'm sure Vordrozda and his cronies have been taking advantage of my absence to tell the Emperor non-stop stories about how I'm planning to destroy him with Miles' tinpot fleet. But I'm going to have to go back to Hassadar at least once more in the next month. I didn't realise quite how much my father had still been doing there." He wiped a hand across his face. "Assuming we're all still around by next month, of course."

Cordelia supposed it had been hopeless to think that she and Aral might have talked about anything other than the political crisis on this ride. Time alone with Aral was always a rare commodity, but very few things could distract him from politics, and none of them were things she could get away with in the back of an aircar with a pilot and copilot a few feet away beyond a transparent screen.

Though considering that this was a political nightmare that had the potential to turn as vile as Vordarian's coup, Cordelia couldn't exactly blame Aral for it. If Vordrozda pushed the Vorloupulous' Law charge, and the Counts found him guilty ... the idea of sacrificing their son to keep Barrayar from another civil war made Cordelia feel sick. And if Vordrozda was planning on usurping Gregor himself, then war would come either way. Unless they could get this political knot untangled before it got that far.

"It still has to go through the vote, though, doesn't it?" Cordelia said. "If the Council of Counts votes to acquit him then it doesn't matter what knots poor Gregor has tied himself into." She ticked off names in her head. "You normally can get a majority to your name, can't you?" She marvelled at how Barrayaran she had become. The idea that the Counts would weigh the evidence and vote for what they believed to be true ... well, even Betan politics didn't always work that way, but there were very few counts for whom that would even be a factor in their vote.

"I've not had to go up against the Emperor before," Aral said, and she noticed that he'd been calling Gregor 'the Emperor' a lot lately. "He's made his feelings clear, and people will see me as the old guard, and him the new, and choose according to their self-interest, apart from a few personal friends."

Aral's comlink chimed, and he answered it. Cordelia listened to his half of the conversation.

"Vorkosigan here ... what? when? ... you have confirmation? ... all right ... shit ... thank you for telling me. Vorkosigan out."

His eyes were hooded when he looked back at her, that deceptively sleepy gaze that meant he was thinking hard. "That was a source inside ImpSec. Apparently Simon's just been arrested for conspiracy. Whatever we do from now on, we're going to have to do without his help."

"Damn," said Cordelia, inadequately.

"It makes sense from their point of view. I've been wondering who was going to get caught in the crossfire. Kou will be next, I think. He's closer to me, but less essential in this business."

"And then me?"

Aral's brows snapped down. "They will not come for you, ever," he whispered. "You are going to stay out of this. And if it all does ... go wrong, my Armsmen will take care of you. If you can get to the Betan embassy, your Betan citizenship will protect you."

Cordelia blinked at him. "You've made a plan for this? Were you planning to consult me about it?"

"Of course I was. It hasn't been anywhere near that stage yet, but ... well, I'm telling you now. I'll do everything I can to prevent it, but if it does come to this, I'm going to make sure you are safe."

"If it comes to it," Cordelia muttered, "I'll be going to Gregor and reading him the riot act."

"God, Cordelia. You can't do that. The whole source of this problem is Gregor thinking that I'm trying to keep him in my pocket."

"Just you watch me." She turned to face him. "I've been thinking about this too, and the key to the whole thing is Gregor. If he does order Miles' execution, I'll get in to see him and make him pull his head out of his ass, and this whole disaster will go away. I will not allow my family and everything you've worked for to be destroyed because Gregor's in a snit."

Aral was looking at her with a mixture of respect and frustration. "You can't do that," he repeated.

"I couldn't, or I shouldn't?" Cordelia demanded, her chin going up.

"I'm sure you would be able to," said Aral slowly. "And it would work, too, it would keep us all alive in the short-to-medium term, and get Vordrozda off our backs and Simon out of prison. But in the long term, with the goal of creating Gregor a strong, independent Emperor, nobody's puppet? No."

Again, Cordelia cursed the insanity of a political system where everything rested on the psychological stability of a scared kid barely twenty years old. "Better a puppet under your control than a fool on the loose," she said.

"But I won't live forever to hold the strings. And what of Gregor's children? Barrayar needs stability, love, far more than it needs you or me or Miles."

"So you think we should just sit tight and hope for a miracle, is that right?"

Aral flinched a little at her biting tone, but said, "I think we have to work within the system I've spent the past twenty years building and protecting."

"I'd rather cut straight to the centre. It's worked for me before, you'll recall."

"No," Aral said. "No. We will not be sending in the Betan therapists because Gregor is making political decisions we dislike."

Cordelia went still.

"Beware your conditioning," Aral added gently, his hand on her arm robbing his words of their sting.

And that was the problem with marrying a man who was your equal in every way. Sometimes he was right where you were wrong. Cordelia was sure she could turn Gregor's head inside out if she chose: she knew all the strings to pull, all the keywords that would go straight to his reflexes. She could persuade him to do whatever she wanted.

But Aral had his finger on the problem with this scenario. After a while, you couldn't mould people any longer. You had to let them grow on their own, mistakes and all. Even bad mistakes. Miles was undoubtedly making appalling mistakes out there with his pocket space fleet without his parents critiquing him, and if it was important for Miles, how much more so for Gregor?

"All right," she said. "I won't launch a psychological war. But if he gives me the slightest hint he wants me to intervene..."

"Then you can. Yes." Aral relaxed against the seat.

"So what can we do? Apart from hope Miles pulls a miracle out of his pocket."

"Keep playing the political game. I've been thinking we should manoeuvre for the charge to be changed from Vorloupulous' Law to usurpation."

"But--oh. I see." Cordelia wasn't sure she would ever learn to think in the strange corkscrew manner required to participate in Barrayaran politics, but she could see the twists when Aral pointed her in the right direction. "Yes, that would help. I'll talk to Alys. It'll help take her mind off Ivan, at least."

"Good."

Aral put an arm around her and they looked down at the scenery below. They were just coming to the edge of Vorbarr Sultana now, the rows of new houses laid out in modern galactic grids. "Ten more minutes, then we'll be back in the fray," Cordelia remarked. "What can we do in ten minutes?"

*

Rule Four: Women are expected to be submissive to men, in and out of bed.

*

Miles and Mark arrived in Barrayar orbit two days after Aral was released from ImpMil to continue his convalescence at home. Since the doctors had advised against Aral going to meet them at the shuttleport, Cordelia had remained at home with him, leaving Simon to administer whatever scoldings he felt necessary before her boys reached their refuge. Cordelia tracked their journey in her head: now they would be on the shuttle, now going through biocontrol, now they would be with Simon... by the time Pym called to tell her they were leaving the shuttleport, Cordelia was nearly dancing with impatience.

She went into their bedroom and woke Aral with a hand on his shoulder, smiling. She still hadn't stopped enjoying the sight of Aral back in his own bed with her, instead of that antiseptic hospital bed. It was strange: she'd grown very used to being in and out of hospital with Miles, but Aral had always been unbreakable, a wall at her back. Until now.

"Come on, love. They'll be here soon."

It took a moment for him to come into focus—he was still on a cocktail of drugs that left him drowsy and not always fully coherent—but then he nodded. "Good. Right. I need to get dressed."

By the time he was ready, Cordelia could hear the groundcar arriving and voices in the courtyard. She helped Aral through to the sitting room and into his favourite armchair.

"Go on, dear Captain," Aral said to her. "Go down to them."

Cordelia kissed him briefly on the lips, then dashed downstairs as Pym opened the doors.

The first five minutes passed in a flurry of hugs—Mark did not escape, and indeed seemed almost pleased at his share of them—and tangled greetings as Cordelia let the past months' maternal anxiety and love pour out.

"Your father is upstairs waiting for you," she said when they all paused for breath. "Come on up."

"How is he?" Mark asked anxiously.

"They kicked him out of hospital two days ago," Cordelia said. "He's still not himself, but much better than when you last saw him." She was going to climb the stairs two at a time, but noticed that both Miles and Mark looked battered. They were better than Aral, but that wasn't saying much. Cordelia slowed her steps.

Aral opened his arms in welcome as Miles and Mark entered.

"Come here, boys," he said. Miles went instantly, Mark trailing him. Cordelia placed a hand on Mark's shoulder. "It's all right," she said. "He's missed you."

Miles was already seated on the arm of his father's chair, and Cordelia listened to Aral launch into a detailed rebuke of all the errors in Miles' planning and strategy.

"As for you," Aral said, turning to Mark. He paused, and Cordelia saw Mark brace in anticipation. "Well done, boy. Very well done."

"Yes," Cordelia agreed. "I'm very glad I gave you that clock factory."

"That reminds me," Mark said, and pulled a credit chit out of his pocket. "This is for Vorkosigan Surleau." Cordelia looked at it.

"Exactly right," she said. "I hear you made a profit, too."

Aral raised his eyebrows. "You have no idea how surprised your grandfather would have been."

Everyone laughed, and Cordelia sat back and watched her family, all returned to her. Aral was more animated than she had seen him for weeks, gesticulating, arguing with Miles about combat weapons and Jacksonian food, listening to Mark's comments on life-extension therapies. She was tempted to tell ImpSec to seal the room, never let any of them out again, but you couldn't do that to people, no matter that half of Barrayar would thank her for it. When Mark turned to include her, saying, "You understand that stuff about mitochondrial anti-aging therapies, don't you, Mother?" apparently without even thinking about it, she had to swallow a lump in her throat before allowing him to draw her into discussion.

But after half an hour, Aral was starting to pant for breath in between sentences, and his eyes were shadowed.

"Right, boys," Cordelia said when Miles paused. "Time for you to go get settled."

Mark stood up at once, then put a hand on Miles' elbow as Miles looked likely to protest.

"I'm all right," Aral grumbled, and it was Miles' turn to focus on his father properly.

"You know what happens when you argue with Mother," he said.

Aral wheezed a laugh, then hunched over his chest. "Ow. Don't make me laugh, those medical torturers broke half my ribs cutting me open. Yes, I know."

"Come on," Cordelia said. "You're coming with me."

"Or else you'll handcuff me to the bed," Aral said. "I've heard that before." He began to struggle to his feet. Mark and Miles hovered anxiously, and Cordelia saw Aral grit his teeth in his attempt to look normal in front of his sons.

"Go away, both of you," she said. "I'm placing your father under close arrest now."

"Yes, ma'am," Aral said to her. Cordelia took his arm, and he permitted himself to lean against her once they were alone, when it was safe to be vulnerable.

They made their way into the bedroom and Aral fell onto the bed as if someone had doubled the gravity. "They're really home," he said at last. "Both of them."

"Vorbarr Sultana look out," Cordelia said wryly.

"Miles looked ... pretty sick still."

"He's on the mend. We all are. That's all that matters." She found Aral's next dose of all the medicines he was still taking, marked them off on the records and handed the pills to him. He made a face.

"How much longer do I have to take these?"

"A week, most of them." She gave him a stern look as he opened his mouth to argue. "Just take your medicine."

He dry-swallowed the pills and said, "You have no idea how sexy you are when you give orders, Captain Naismith. You should have been Prime Minister, not me. Come here."

Cordelia grinned at him. "Go to sleep, love."

"I'm not sleepy," he protested, and propped himself up on an elbow. "Come here."

"All right," she said. The drugs would knock him out in a few minutes, so she wouldn't actually have to enforce the doctors' strict and very frustrating no-sex-till-we-say-so rule. She kicked off her shoes, lay down on the bed and made him lie down too, then curled up with him, her head settling nicely into the niche between his chin and his shoulder. "But you rest."

"Very sexy," Aral said drowsily, one hand stroking her thigh. Gradually his hand slowed, and his eyes drifted shut.

*

Rule One: Even though this is not true, everyone on Barrayar pretends to believe that sex only occurs between a man and a woman who are married to each other.

*

Miles and Ekaterin had flown off to Vorkosigan Surleau several hours ago. Mark and Kareen had vanished upstairs somewhere. Gregor and Laisa had returned to the Residence. Kou and Drou had made their way to their groundcar, Olivia and Dono accompanying them and giggling. Roic and Sergeant Taura had stealthily disappeared. Illyan had whispered something to Alys, and five minutes later they had left too.

"It's our turn," Cordelia said to Aral.

He regarded her a trifle owlishly. "Our turn for what?"

"All the lovebirds have gone, and the rest of the guests can get drunk without our further assistance. Come on."

"He's really married," Aral said. "I've been expecting more disasters all day long, I think."

"Well, I just got a message from Jankowski that Miles and Ekaterin have arrived safely and are enjoying their seclusion. I think we're going to have to settle for 'happily ever after' this time." She stood up, and Aral followed, draping his arm around her shoulders. Long accustomed to the way Aral's body metabolised alcohol, Cordelia knew this was as much for balance as romance, but she snuggled against him anyway and they made their way through the Green Room, smiling at the guests as they passed.

The musicians were playing another slow dance in the ballroom, suitable for the quietening guests. Aral twirled Cordelia around to face him, catching her free hand in his, and their feet picked up the steps. Cordelia remembered when she had just arrived on Barrayar and discovered that she was expected to know how to dance. Drou had tried to teach her the basics, but after a rather unfortunate incident at an informal ball, Alys had stepped in and provided a small, elderly man who she said was one of the best dancing masters in Vorbarr Sultana. Cordelia had been a frustrating pupil, but she thought she wouldn't embarrass Monsieur Orville these days.

Their dance carried them through the ballroom and out into the black-and-white tiled foyer. Aral unbuttoned his high collar and rolled his shoulders back.

"Tired?" Cordelia asked.

Aral's eyes glinted. "Not that tired." He drew her close as they climbed the stairs. "Did you deal with Pym?" he asked.

"All sorted. He's going to abase himself for a while, I imagine, but he's not despairing any more." She tilted her head. "Let's not talk about that any more, we've done everything we need to do today."

"Sorry." Aral shut their bedroom door firmly behind them. "The world can stay out there now, unless someone sets the house on fire."

"They'd better not." Cordelia pulled Aral towards her in a practiced movement, one hand catching his head as he pressed against her, and kissed him. Some things didn't get boring just because you'd experienced them thousands of times before. Cordelia was glad she knew that. When she came up for air she said, "I hope Miles and Ekaterin are having a nice time."

"I thought we'd just agreed to shut the world out," Aral said, carefully pulling flowers out of her hair. "Also, I don't think I've been Betan-ified enough to speculate on my son's sex life."

"Is 'Betan-ified' even a word?" Cordelia asked, taking off her necklace and earrings and setting them on the dressing table.

"You know what I mean." Aral waved a hand impatiently. "Anyway, I'm not interested in Miles and Ekaterin right now." He began to unfasten the buttons at the back of Cordelia's dress. "I still think you should have worn your Survey uniform," he said. "That's how it all started, after all."

"I wore it for our wedding," Cordelia countered. "I still remember the look on Alys' face the first time she saw me. But it seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. After all, you were wearing a uniform. I'd have worn it if we'd been getting married back home." She laughed. "It's scary to think how ignorant I was about Barrayar then."

"Regrets?" Aral asked, easing the dress off her shoulders. Cordelia stepped out of it and draped it over a chair.

"How could I? I have no idea what my life would have been if I'd stayed behind, let Beta take me apart and put me back together, but I can't imagine how it could have competed with this." She sat down on the side of the bed and gave Aral a critical look. "Hey, how come I'm in my underwear and you're still fully dressed? Rule nine, sir!"

He was still laughing when they fell into bed.