"You should come in!" Cordelia splashed out of the lake, water cascading off her, revealing the appallingly skimpy garment she had chosen to wear for this exercise.
Alys gave a gentle smile. "Oh, no, thank you."
"It's much too hot to sit there," Cordelia protested. "Come on. It's lovely."
"I don't swim."
Her hair dripping, Cordelia padded over the sandy lake shore to join Alys. "You don't ... you do know how to swim, don't you?" she said.
Cordelia was altogether too Betanly shrewd sometimes. "No," Alys confessed. "I don't." She looked at the bathing-party in the long lake. Miles, Ivan and Gregor were leaping off the dock, squealing and shouting. Kou, surprisingly graceful in the water, and Aral and Captain Illyan were all with the boys, occasionally rough-housing with each other as well, while Sergeant Bothari sat on the dock and watched with arms folded. Drou, wearing a bathing-dress which was significantly less revealing than Cordelia's but still looked indecent to Alys, was teaching little Delia and Martya to paddle up and down in the shallows, with Elena switching back and forth between helping her and following the boys. And Alys was sitting on the shore in an calf-length sundress and a stylish sunhat, sipping iced tea and keeping an eye on baby Olivia.
"You don't know how to swim," Cordelia repeated. "But you need to know, Alys. It's not safe. Even on Beta, everyone learns how to swim."
Alys pursed her lips. "Young ladies on Barrayar," she began, looking again with concealed horror at Cordelia's outfit, "don't swim."
"But Drou--" Cordelia began.
"Drou isn't from the same background." Alys swept back a stray lock of hair irritably. How could Cordelia not understand what it meant that Drou was a prole girl and Alys was the daughter of a Count? "I grant you, things are a bit different nowadays," she went on, watching Drou teach her daughters to swim in the same lake the Emperor and his Regent were bathing in.
"Well then. You should learn."
Alys looked at the water with a mixture of attraction and dismay. "I'm minding baby Olivia," she argued.
"Lorena can do that," Cordelia said at once with a gesture to the maid. "She's sound asleep anyway. Come on, Alys. I'll teach you."
"I can't..." Alys looked at the men. Cordelia was so Betan. Alys couldn't take all her clothes off in mixed company!
But Cordelia had absorbed enough Barrayaranness to understand this. "They're all family," she said. "I'm sure they won't even notice."
As if to refute this, Captain Illyan splashed out of the lake, a bit breathlessly, and went to the picnic table to pour himself a glass of water. "Simon," Cordelia said at once, "Alys says she doesn't know how to swim. She needs to learn, doesn't she?"
Illyan turned, politely averting his gaze from Cordelia. "It's a valuable skill," he said diffidently, "but perhaps Lady Alys would prefer not to."
Alys kept her gaze equally politely averted from Illyan, who was wearing nothing but a modest pair of shorts, though he still had his wristcomm and carried a weapon in a waterproof holster. But before she could thank him for his defence, he went on, "That said, it does concern me. Especially as the mother of such an active boy. If Ivan got into difficulties..."
A low blow, Alys thought, frowning at him.
"Come and wade a little, at least," Cordelia said. "Get your feet wet. You can see if you like it."
Bowing to the inevitable, Alys rose and emerged from under the sunshade. It was breathlessly hot in the full sunlight, even with her hat on. She took off her sandals and walked down to the waterside, then waded in till the water was just at her ankles, cool and soothing. Cordelia went to speak to the servants, then joined her, lying flat in the shallow water, arms stretched out on the sandy bottom of the lake.
"It is pleasant," Alys admitted, lifting her skirts a little to wade deeper. The air was cooler above the water, refreshing and comfortable. A little fish swam up past her feet, bumping lightly into her ankles, and she smiled at it.
Delia and Martya paddled up to her enthusiastically, splashing lake water over Alys's dress. She tried to retreat, but succumbed to the inevitable as Delia put out her arms in cheerful welcome.
"Are you coming swimming, Lady Alys?" she asked. "I can go really deep now, look!"
She demonstrated her new skill while Martya tried to follow, and Cordelia hastened after them. "No deeper than that, Martya," Drou called. "Don't splash Lady Alys, now," she added, too late, as Martya fell headfirst into the water, sending up a wave. Alys quickly reached for the child, but Martya bobbed up again grinning and shaking lake water all over Alys's dress, and Alys gave up her attempt to keep it dry. The hem was trailing in the water anyway.
Cordelia returned with her namesake, and looked at Alys, then up at the lakeshore.
"Jeannie has brought a bathing dress for you," she said, gesturing. "It would be more comfortable than that, now that it's all wet."
Alys tried to give Cordelia a stern look, then surrendered. Better to surrender quickly to Cordelia than to see what she would think of next in her campaign to get Alys to swim. "All right. I'll come in properly." She waded out again, noticing how unpleasantly hot it was out of the water. Perhaps this wasn't such a terrible idea. She nearly changed her mind as she went into the little screened area where the women had changed before swimming, and saw what she was expected to wear. But she'd taken the wet dress off, and putting the damp clinging fabric back on felt even more unpleasant. So she changed and emerged, more self-conscious in her clothes than she had in years.
Cordelia made no remark as she returned to the water, and neither did Drou, and the men were all still off at the end of the docks. Alys relaxed a little as she waded back into the lake, this time to her waist, feeling less exposed when the water at least shrouded her bare legs. Under Cordelia's instruction, Alys waded out almost to shoulder-depth, then very uncertainly tried to float on her back. Untrusting the water, she held herself tense, and promptly sank, arms flailing. Cordelia took hold of her firmly and pulled her back to her feet, and Alys wiped her face and spluttered.
"You need to tip your head right back," Cordelia told her. "Get your breath back and we'll try again."
On the third attempt, Alys managed to float on her back, and after the first terrifying moments she began to believe that the water would hold her up. She could hear the underwater sounds from the lake, and see the wide sky above her. It was beautiful.
"That's it," Cordelia said. "You're doing great."
The lesson continued, and Alys found herself paddling a few uncertain strokes, feet reaching quickly for the lake bottom again, and she watched Delia and Martya splash up and down with greater respect.
Olivia began to cry and Drou went to see to her, leaving Cordelia to take over minding Delia and Martya, and Alys was released from her lesson. She considered getting out too, but when she waded into shallower water the air hit her skin like a furnace blast, and she retreated to the cooler depths, floating on her back again and watching the children out of the corner of her eye. It was so nice to have nothing to do.
She discovered that if she paddled a little with her hands she could scull about, and drifted along the lakeshore towards the dock, enjoying the play of different currents against her skin, the sunwarmed top layer of water and the colder, deeper water below, and watched a flock of starlings swirl across the sky.
Splashing and shouts distracted her, and she twisted her head a little to see the boys all pelting across the water, splashing wildly as they raced, heading for her. She twisted and let her legs drop so that she would be standing securely when they reached her, then floundered, discovering that the lake bottom had sunk away here and she was out of her depth. She squeaked and her head went under, lakewater flooding her nose and mouth. She managed to remember her teaching enough to get back to the surface, but flailed, unable to recover her previous floating position, and sank again, suddenly very afraid.
A pair of hands grabbed her and pulled her up, and then she was moving through the water briskly, being towed in a powerful grip. She gasped for air and spat a mouthful of lakewater.
"You'll be able to stand here," said a male voice behind her, and the supporting hands were firm on her waist as she found the lake bottom with grateful feet.
Alys inhaled deeply and let herself lean against Captain Illyan, then realised that she was resting on his bare chest and jerked forwards again. He held her steady, and she recovered her balance and turned to face him.
"Thank you," she said breathlessly.
"Not at all," he murmured, regarding her in concern. "Lady Vorkosigan should have warned you about that."
"She's taller than I am," Alys said, feeling the need to defend Cordelia from his suddenly frowning expression.
Illyan gave a vaguely acknowledging grunt, and drew back his supporting hands. Alys twisted her toes in the sand of the lake bottom for reassurance in their stead. He looked at her carefully, and Alys was suddenly aware that she was only waist-deep in water now.
"I'm fine now, thank you," she said.
"Come out a bit deeper," he said, "and I'll show you what to do if that happens again."
Alys hesitated, then followed him out into the deeper, colder water. The boys had reached some invisible marker not far from where she'd been, and were turning back again, safely away from them. When she was almost neck-deep, he stopped. Then he bobbed out alongside her, arms stretched out across the water, hands moving gently, apparently floating there.
"You can float like this, treading water, and be able to see what's going on around you," he said. "And it's easy to start swimming away, if you need to."
It surprised Alys that even from whatever distance he'd been, he'd not only seen her difficulty, but correctly understood the cause.
"Stretch out your arms and paddle in little circles, like this," he continued, demonstrating with slightly larger motions so that she could see. Alys looked at his wiry arms pushing on the water and nodded. "Then pull your feet off the bottom and kick, with your whole leg. You shouldn't have to kick too hard. Tip your head back a little and just keep moving."
Alys felt herself begin to lift off as she moved her arms in imitation, and hesitated for a moment, then continued. When she picked up her feet, she promptly sank. This time, no strong hands grabbed her. She kicked, trying to find the bottom, but instead, her head broke the surface. She paddled with her arms, kicked her legs, and blinked water from her eyes. Captain Illyan was standing by her, watching and smiling slightly as she recovered.
"That's right," he said. "Very good." He nodded. "Don't tire yourself out, though," he added after a moment. "You're, um, people are naturally buoyant, my lady. You shouldn't have to work too hard to float."
Alys shot him a suspicious glance, but perhaps fortunately for him, she was forced to concentrate on keeping afloat. She was moving a little, she realised in alarm, further out into the lake.
"You're drifting deeper," Illyan said. "It's all right. Aim back towards the shore a little."
Naturally buoyant or not, Alys's arms were starting to get tired. She pushed against the water, moved towards the shore, and when she put her feet down, the sandy lake bottom met them easily. She smiled at Illyan, and he nodded.
Splashing behind her heralded the return of Cordelia. "Sorry about that, Alys, the girls are fine now. Everything okay?"
Alys shot a quick glance at Illyan, who said calmly, "I was just teaching Lady Alys how to tread water."
"Oh, that's a good idea." She swam up alongside Alys, and Illyan retreated a little. "Delia's just figured out swimming underwater. She found some fascinating native species on the lake bottom."
Alys was abruptly conscious of just what might be under her feet apart from sand. Again apparently reading her mind, Captain Illyan said, "Nothing toxic, my lady. ImpSec regularly screens this region of the lake for safety."
She relaxed a little. There was a chorus of noisy shouts from the male party, and Illyan glanced over. "If you'll excuse me, ladies..."
"Thank you," Alys said again with a bow of her head.
"It was my pleasure." Illyan straightened, not quite coming to attention, then plunged into the water. Alys watched him swim away, his lean body moving with swift economic movements. Suddenly he turned over, looked back at them and gave a sudden grin, then ducked under the water and disappeared. Alys stared around. A moment later there was a loud yelp from Aral, and he went under with a lot of splashing. Both men re-emerged, Aral holding Illyan in a way that suggested that despite Illyan's surprise attack, Aral had got the better of that round. There was more splashing, and laughter echoed over the water. Alys wasn't sure she'd ever heard Captain Illyan laugh before.
"I could watch him all day," Cordelia said beside her. Alys blinked, then realised that of course it was Aral that Cordelia was staring at. "I don't get to see him relaxing very often."
"It is pleasant to have a holiday," Alys said, but she deliberately looked away from the men.
Cordelia continue to watch, a soft smile on her lips. Then she waved to her husband, blew him a kiss and headed back towards the shore. As she turned to follow, Alys glanced back over her shoulder, but the men had all started swimming towards the docks, and she wasn't sure which of the dark bobbing heads was Captain Illyan.
Illyan bumped down as the horse went up, and his teeth rattled. The weather had turned in the night, and though the cool breeze was refreshing, the light drizzle was making the saddle slippery, rendering a difficult problem even harder. Trying to recover his balance, he jerked sideways and the horse side-stepped in answer.
"No, no, no, are you an idiot?" Count Piotr bellowed. "If you jab at his mouth like that what do you think he'll do? I thought my son kept you because you had a brain! Even Miles knows better than that."
It was a pity, Illyan thought, that he was most solemnly oath-sworn to guard Aral, because otherwise he would be very tempted to take some arcane revenge for this. This morning Miles had clamoured to go riding, and Aral had suggested that Illyan take the opportunity to put in some practice. Aral's earlier riding lessons hadn't been too unpleasant, so he'd agreed, but then the boys had hijacked Aral to escort them out, leaving Illyan to the Count's untender mercies.
"Sit up straight and keep your heels down! Look where you're going, not at your hands!"
Illyan had been through basic training, and doing impossible and uncomfortable tasks with insults raining down on him was not a new experience, but he was rather out of practice at it these days. He managed to recover his balance without pulling on the horse's mouth and turn him back into the line they were following. The horse made a noise that Illyan thought was probably another insult.
"Now, prepare to walk... and walk."
His chip knew what he was supposed to do to make this happen, though his body was uncertain, but somehow, the horse stopped bouncing in its trot and straggled to a walk again. The Count snorted.
There was someone else at the edge of the arena now, leaning on the rail--and if that wasn't proof that this was an idiotic pastime then nothing was, because if people could sneak up on you like that when you were riding a horse then clearly riding was dangerously unsafe. It was Lady Alys, dressed in a peculiar grey and dark red outfit that his chip flagged up as traditional Vorish female riding dress. He had no idea how you were supposed to ride a horse in that skirt; it was bad enough in these trousers and uncomfortably new boots. For a moment he was distracted as his chip flashed up a comparison, an image of what Lady Alys had--or hadn't--been wearing yesterday. Golden began to slew sideways, and Illyan quickly put a stop to those thoughts.
"And prepare to halt ... and halt!"
This time he just about managed to stop the horse. The last time he'd tried this the horse had first ignored him, then stopped only to begin walking backwards instead.
"Use your seat, boy, not your elbows, dammit," the Count said. "Heels down."
They were only fifteen minutes into this lesson, Illyan thought grimly. The Count had said an hour, and Aral had grinned and said it would do him good. Well, it was probably survivable. And if he persevered, it would mean he could follow when the Regent and Miles and Gregor went galloping off into the woods, instead of trailing them on a float-bike and getting yelled at by the Count for frightening the horses. He patted his horse, inexplicably named Golden despite being a nondescript brown colour, and the Count gave a grunt of faint approval.
"Are you going out for a hack, my dear?" the Count asked Lady Alys, turning away for a moment.
"Yes, they're just saddling Fancy for me now."
"Would you care to take this fellow with you? He's just about safe to be let out on the paths, so long as you weren't planning to go too far." He gave a chuckle. "I'd keep him going in here, but Aral told me please not to break him. I think you could set him a good example."
Illyan kept his face impassive, but Golden sidestepped. Damn. Horses were better at reading body language than people, it seemed, for he was sure the Count or Lady Alys would not have seen his discomfiture at this.
He stood waiting as a smaller horse was led out, and frowned in confusion at the saddle Fancy was wearing. Alys took the reins, the groom moved behind her, and Illyan couldn't quite see what happened then, but abruptly Alys was in the saddle. Side-saddle, he realised, with a long whip in one hand and her skirt neatly flowing over the horse's side, the picture of Vorish elegance. She said something to the groom, then turned Fancy about, and Illyan had to admit that it all seemed to work perfectly for her.
"All right, Captain, off you go. Lady Alys will take care of you. And when you get back, see you untack Golden yourself. I won't have any rider in my stables who can't take care of his horse."
He opened the gate to the arena, and Illyan nudged Golden forwards. It was unnerving to be outside the riding arena, suddenly aware of how far off the ground he was and how precariously balanced. Lady Alys smiled at him.
"It's a little wet," she said, "so why don't we go down into the woods?"
"As you wish." He cleared his throat. "Ah--I hope this isn't an inconvenience to you, my lady."
"Oh, not at all. It's always pleasant to have company." She seemed perfectly sincere, but then, she was good at that. But Illyan was sufficiently relieved to be away from Count Piotr that he didn't argue further.
They left the stable yard, their horses side by side at a gentle walk, and headed onto the Chestnut Walk, a long straight path with rows of the Earth trees planted on either side. They seemed much closer at this height, and he had to duck to avoid a trailing leafy branch. At the end was a gate leading to the woods, and Illyan looked at it in dismay. How were you supposed to open a gate on top of a horse? But Lady Alys managed the manoeuvre deftly, both opening and closing the gate, and all Illyan had to do was aim his horse through it.
As Lady Alys had promised, it was drier under the trees, cool and tranquil. Illyan felt he ought to be making conversation, but merely riding the horse was taking up most of his attention. His chip held a careful record of every instruction he'd ever received, but it took a lot of concentration to figure out which instruction applied to which circumstance. It was a while since he'd had to learn something completely from scratch like this: Aral would probably say it was good for him.
A pheasant shot up suddenly from the bushes, its rattling cry as loud as gunfire. Illyan jumped and Golden threw his head up and started sideways. Alys's horse, though, squealed and seemed to leap at least six feet sideways and up, then whirled around in a tight circle. Illyan watched in terror, aware that there was absolutely nothing he could do to help her this time. But Alys seemed barely to move, as if she was magnetically held to the saddle, swaying with Fancy's movement like a dancer following her partner, and a moment later Fancy was walking calmly forwards as if nothing had happened.
Illyan nudged Golden up abreast. "That horse," he said breathlessly, "just failed its safety test."
Lady Alys had seemed distressed after yesterday's swimming mishap, but this time her face was calm and her cheeks only faintly flushed. She raised her eyebrows and gave Fancy a soothing pat on the neck. "What, for that? She's just a little fresh, and she likes to play. There's no vice in her at all."
"My horse didn't do that, though." Illyan eyed Golden more respectfully. It was just as well, too, because he didn't have whatever magnetic catches were holding Alys to the saddle.
"Oh, Golden's a staid old thing," Alys said. "Good for beginners, though I don't know why Piotr didn't put you up on Nelson instead. He has much smoother paces."
"You mean they don't all jolt like this?"
"Heavens, no. Golden's a little bouncy. Good-mannered, but bouncy."
Illyan snorted. Clearly the Count was playing with him. That was no surprise. He bumped sideways and struggled to regain his balance. Golden stopped, then started walking again, and Illyan wasn't sure why. Alys waited patiently for him to sort himself out, and they carried on along the path.
"What am I doing wrong, my lady?" he asked after a moment.
Lady Alys glanced at him, a flicker of dismay on her face, as if she wasn't sure where to begin.
"The Count's been teaching me," he said. "There's no chance that anything you say might offend me."
"I see. Well." She watched him with alarming attention for a moment. "Golden wants to obey you," she said at length. "He's a good horse, and well trained. But you're giving him lots of contradictory and confusing instructions."
"Ha. That's how I feel when the Count is shouting at me."
Alys smiled. "No doubt. But you're also not giving your instructions with confidence. Horses need us to be confident. Not overbearing, but not timid or uncertain." She looked at him again. "When you pull at his mouth, you're telling him one thing, when you bounce you're telling him something else. He's trying to make sense of it all, but he doesn't really know what you want. It's perfectly natural, of course. You're learning to speak a new language, and it stands to reason that you wouldn't make perfect sense at once." She gave a slightly frustrated shrug. "I'm sorry. I'm not a natural teacher. I don't know what the answer is except to keep practicing."
Noises ahead made them both look up, and Fancy whickered. The racket increased, and a moment later Aral and the boys thundered down from the hill onto their wide path. They waved at Alys and Illyan, but didn't stop. Ivan gave a whoop, and Illyan heard Miles shout, "Race you to the clearing!"
The three boys surged ahead. Aral, following on his big rangy black, raised a hand in salute to Illyan, but cantered briskly after the boys as the path widened out.
Illyan looked at them disappearing ahead.
"Shall we?" Lady Alys said.
Illyan blinked, then nodded. This was what he was learning all this nonsense for, after all: to be better able to trail Aral and Gregor.
As usual, Alys appeared to do nothing at all, but Fancy leaped forwards into a canter along the wide track. Illyan kicked Golden, and he jolted into his bouncy trot.
"Oh, come on, you're supposed to do what I tell you, go faster," Illyan muttered. Confident. As confidently as he could, he sat down and kicked Golden again, and somewhat to his surprise, Golden bounded forward after Fancy. His canter was much smoother than his trot, and for a breathtaking moment it all came together: he was moving with Golden, not against him, and the horse was obeying his instructions. There was a low-hanging branch ahead, and when he steered Golden around it, the horse moved exactly where he wanted.
He could see Aral and the boys ahead; Alys was holding Fancy in alongside him. She turned her head and smiled at him, and Fancy flicked her tail, and they surged forwards. Golden followed without being told, snorting, and the thunder of their hooves seemed to pound in Illyan's blood. So this was what riding was all about. Perhaps there was something to it after all.
Alys pulled ahead again, then went a little to one side, and Illyan saw there was a low log jump on one side of the path. Probably better not to risk it. Fancy leaped over it neatly, and Illyan pulled on his reins to guide Golden around it.
Golden pulled right back at him, and pounded towards the jump. Alys, looking back, said, "Oh, no, don't--" and Golden soared into the air.
For a moment, Illyan thought it would all be fine. Then Golden landed on the other side, and the jolt knocked Illyan's feet from his stirrups and the reins from his hands. His stomach seemed to be somewhere back over the jump. Golden broke into a trot, and that put the last nail in Illyan's coffin. He felt himself tilting sideways, and there was a frustrating moment when he knew he was going to fall and couldn't do anything to stop it.
Then he fell off. His unarmed combat training kicked in halfway to the ground, and he hit the ground rolling and came back up on his feet with the breath knocked out of him. Alys gave a cry of dismay.
Illyan straightened up slowly and brushed the leaf-litter from his tunic; when he looked up, Lady Alys had somehow captured Golden and was leading him back towards him. "Captain Illyan! Are you all right? Whatever possessed you to try jumping?"
He took an exploratory step forwards, and nothing hurt particularly beyond what he suspected would be some impressive bruising. "I'm fine," he said. "And I didn't intend to try jumping, that was Golden's idea." He gave the horse an annoyed look.
"Ah." Alys sighed. "I'm sorry. That was probably my fault, then. We do usually go over the jumps here, and once Golden saw us jumping he wanted a turn. I should have been more careful."
Ahead of them, Aral vanished around the turn, and Illyan sighed in relief. At least they hadn't witnessed this.
"You're quite all right?" Alys asked again.
"I believe my dignity is a trifle bruised," he retorted, and she smiled.
"So long as it's nothing worse."
"I suppose you're going to tell me I should get back on again."
"It's what I do when I fall off," she said, and Illyan blinked.
"You fall off?"
"Not terribly often. Especially not side-saddle; it's more secure. But yes, it happens sometimes." She passed him Golden's reins.
Illyan looked at the horse. He seemed very large, and though his chip-memory knew how he'd mounted the previous times, his muscles weren't confident of the motions. "Very well."
He succeeded in mounting on the second try, though he was sure Alys hadn't landed in the saddle with such a thud when she'd got onto Fancy. But Golden stayed still until he told him to move, and they rode down the path at a sedate walk, for which Illyan was grateful.
When they reached the clearing, Aral and the boys were there, letting their horses rest after the race. Illyan eyed them all with new respect. Gregor was leaning back in his saddle until his head rested on his horse's rump, and Ivan was actually sitting backwards on his pony.
"I did not imagine you could do that," he said, gesturing to them.
"Boys," Alys said in answer. "You can do all kinds of stunts, if you're really minded to."
Miles came forwards to meet them, and Illyan noticed that he wasn't actually touching his horse's reins; his hands loose at his side, but somehow his horse moved towards them purposefully and then halted in front of them.
"Uncle Simon, you're riding!" he exclaimed. "That's great! Father says he's too old to chase us all day, but you can, can't you?"
Behind him, Aral rumbled a laugh. "Simon's very busy, Miles," he said. "Don't pester." He turned his horse to meet them too. "Did Father kick you out?" he asked Illyan with a grin.
"Captain Illyan kindly offered to escort me," Alys put in. "It's much more pleasant to ride out here than in the arena, after all."
That wasn't precisely Illyan's recollection of events, but he could honestly agree with the second half of the statement. "Indeed it is."
"All going well, then?"
"Quite well," Alys answered.
Illyan followed Aral's gaze, and discovered there more leaves stuck to the shoulder of his tunic. He kept his face still, but Aral grinned. Alys raised a hand and brushed the leaves away with a carefully calculated flick of her long whip. Illyan went still.
"I'm glad to hear it," Aral said. "All right, boys, let's keep moving. I want to take a look at the new fences on the upper pasture. But at a sensible pace now, please." He nodded to them. "Ride with us?"
"Of course, sir," said Illyan promptly.
The boys arranged themselves more neatly on their ponies, Ivan swinging himself neatly around to face forwards again, and they set off up the hill. With a smile, Lady Alys rode ahead with the boys, still the picture of elegance as they went up the path, Fancy behaving like an extension of Alys's own body. Illyan watched her as he nudged Golden on and rode alongside Aral at the rear. He didn't suppose he would ever have the time and energy to achieve that level of skill, but it was, he thought, a beautiful sight to watch.
The day brightened as it wore on, and by the time the sun was sinking in the sky, the damp ground was dry and the air was warm, heralding another scorching day tomorrow, and everyone gathered for a picnic supper on the lakeside. Cordelia had avoided the riding party, instead spending a happy day with Drou and the girls chasing around the house and splashing through puddles in the garden. It was almost like having daughters of her own.
She commandeered Aral as soon as he returned from his day's riding, and after only a modest amount of flurry--it was impressive how much respect Alys and Simon between them could command from the boys--they were sprawled out side by side on a rug on the grassy bank above the lake, drinks in hand.
"And have you indulged your masochistic desires sufficiently today?" Cordelia asked.
"Well," Aral said, "if you're going to make me an offer..."
"Ha. We'd have to break Rule Eight," Cordelia countered, and he laughed.
"It's a deal." He raised his glass to her. "As for the riding--well, I think Simon found it rather more masochistic than the rest of us. Though he seemed to get on better with Alys teaching him than with Father."
"I've seen the way your father teaches," Cordelia said. "It's hard to imagine who wouldn't be an improvement." She looked across to where Alys was supervising the children setting up the picnic tables. Simon was carrying a large hamper, which he obediently set where Alys gestured. He was limping rather badly, Cordelia noticed with considerable sympathy, remembering how painful she'd found her horse-riding experiences. Alys touched his elbow for a moment, gesturing him to a chair with a quiet word that made Simon smile.
"Only one more day of this," she observed. "Then the Koudelkas go off to their own cottage, and Alys will be at Bonsanklar, and Simon is heading back to work, and it'll just be us."
"Don't you like having everyone here?" Aral asked in surprise.
"Oh yes, of course I do. It's been a fantastic holiday. But I wouldn't mind a few days to ourselves before you go back to the frenzy." She grinned. "And besides, we ought to be able to get Piotr to take Miles out on a day-long ride or something, and have the place entirely to ourselves..."
Aral wrapped an arm around her. "I think that would be the perfect end to an excellent holiday, dear Captain."
She lay back against his shoulder and watched her extended family. The children were all swarming around the hamper, refereed by Drou and Bothari: Miles was trying to distribute the food as if it were military rations, but Ivan and Gregor were arguing vociferously and the girls were taking advantage of their distraction to help themselves. Kou, with baby Olivia on his lap was sitting with the Count, and Alys and Simon were deep in conversation, Alys gesticulating animatedly about something, and Simon smiling.
It was most definitely, she thought, an excellent holiday.