Olivia Koudelka first met Lady Donna Vorrutyer at a Residence party when she was fifteen. Lady Donna was idling beside the dance floor and watching her date with poorly-concealed irritation. Ivan had split his time fairly equally between stretching the bounds of decorum with Lady Donna on the dance floor and loitering in the courtyard regaling his classmates with tales of his last date with the buxom heiress. Olivia watched her watching him, and was startled when Donna’s cool gaze turned back to her.
“Enjoying yourself, my dear?”
Olivia flushed, embarrassed to be caught staring. “Yes, milady,” she replied finally. “It’s a lovely evening for a party.”
“Indeed it is. Perhaps we should take in the night air? I’ve a feeling that I shouldn’t leave dear Ivan unsupervised for too long. Unless your escort would object, of course.” She cocked an eyebrow in inquiry.
“No, milady. It’s just that,”--why was she stuttering?--”I’m here with my sisters and--”
Just then Lady Alys Vorpatril walked up and grasped Olivia by the shoulders by way of greeting. “Olivia, my dear, are you enjoying yourself?”
Olivia smiled and ducked her head in assent. Alys turned and regarded Lady Donna with considerably less warmth. “Lady Donna, I’d no idea you’d be able to attend. I imagine this is a trifle sedate for you, given your recent exertions.”
Donna smiled and swung her goblet of wine in the general direction of the musicians. “Lady Alys, your hospitality requires very little exertion whatsoever. I appreciate your concern for my health, though I assure you I’m quite fit to attend both a Residence event and Lady Vormontrose’s dinner in the same week. It’s only right that I do so; so many women our age are beginning to slow down, you know.”
Alys smiled faintly. “Olivia, dear, could I interest you in meeting young Cassie Vorgorov? I just saw her over by the gallery.”
“Delia will be looking for me here in a moment.”
“Of course, but I’m sure she knows that you’re quite safe anywhere at the Residence.”
“Well, I shan’t need Cassie to supervise me then, will I?”
Alys looked pained. “Very well, dear, I’ll give her your regrets.” After a calculating glance at Donna, Alys was gone.
Donna’s smile grew warmer as she regarded Olivia. “I’m so sorry you had to witness that, Miss Olivia. Forgive us; these party politics grow more absurd every year.”
“Is it party politics?” Olivia asked. “That seems so unlike Alys. She’s always welcomed everyone here.”
“Not on her son’s arm. I suppose that’s what I get for provoking Lady Alys.” A shade of amusement crept into Donna’s voice. “Speaking of young Lord Ivan, I should be getting back to him. A lovely gentleman, wouldn’t you say?”
“Ivan?” Olivia snorted. “You must have heard that from him.”
Then she remembered her company. Lady Donna had been nothing but courteous to her, and this wasn’t how Mama had taught her to repay such kindness. She paused to measure her words. “I suppose he’s more like a brother to me.” Hardly that; they’d seen each other monthly at these gatherings, particularly since the campaign to find Gregor a bride had begun in earnest, but they’d never had two words to say to each other.
“Well, yes. You and he are about the same age, is that right?”
“Not precisely; I’ll be sixteen next month.” Olivia tried to remember exactly how much older Ivan was--four years, or five?--and decided that it would be poor form to ask Donna herself. “He’s older than he acts, I suppose.”
That won a brief smile from Donna. “Indeed. Good evening, Miss Olivia.” Donna touched her fingers to the back of Olivia’s hand, and then she was gone in a swirl of red skirt. Olivia watched her disappear into the crowd, fascinated.
Over the next four years, Olivia would occasionally see Donna at social events, and she grew accustomed to Donna’s thoughtful gaze on the other side of the room. What she didn’t expect, at Tatya Vorkeres’ engagement party, was to see Donna follow up that gaze with a purposeful approach.
“Miss Olivia!” Lady Donna greeted her with a glint of amusement in her voice. “You don’t look nearly harried enough to be a part of the bridal retinue.”
Olivia replied defensively, “Tatya and I actually went to school--” Olivia faltered, saw Donna’s eyes crinkle with laughter. “Well, it’s a little early yet.”
“I imagine we have a good three hours before the crawling races begin,” Donna agreed. “I’m hoping to offer my best wishes to the bride before that happens. I caught a glimpse of her at the ceremony; she’s quite smitten, isn’t she?”
Olivia was reluctant to talk about Tatya to someone who didn’t know her well, but Tatya’s devotion to René was blazingly obvious to anyone who had seen them in the same room. “Yes, they make quite a pair, milady. René is just as taken with her; he proposed the marriage on the day that she and I finished school. They’ve got the whole rest of their life planned out.”
“Well.” Lady Donna seemed to swallow a tiny grimace. “Call me Donna, my dear. And congratulations to you both.”
The Vorkeres family had gone all out for the event--Tatya had a younger brother to be married off as well, and given the shortage of Vor maidens, it was necessary to put one’s best foot forward. She remembered Tatya’s brother as a crude little boy, ill-tempered to his parents, overconfident in his petitions to both universities and marriage prospects alike. Not that he’d ever shown an interest in Olivia; she was quite sure he was expecting to marry a Vor bride.
Two hours later, Olivia and Tatya were tearing through House Vorbretten, giggling like children and exploring all the rooms in what would be Tatya’s new house. As the party wound down, the Vorkeres family carried Tatya back home to maintain propriety, while her retinue stayed behind to entertain the last revelers. Olivia was going back to collect her sisters when she found Lady Donna loitering in a back hallway.
Olivia approached Donna, bright-eyed and uncautious. “I’m sorry, do you need anything?”
“I’m rather hoping my date goes home without me. I let him know I wasn’t feeling well. Though I seem to be recovering nicely in his absence.”
Olivia laughed merrily. “Well, don’t hang about here; you look like you’re up to no good. Let me show you to someplace better.”
They fetched up in the tiny third floor library in which Olivia and Tatya had hidden their brandy earlier in the evening. Olivia played hostess, and found a glass and a comfortable couch for herself and Lady Donna.
“Well, this’ll do for a hiding spot, until René shows up and starts glowering.”
“You’re not fond of the young Count Vorbretten?”
Olivia rolled her eyes. “He’s not fond of me. He thinks I’m a bad influence on Tatya, because of the balconies. But they’re totally besotted with each other, anyway.”
“I have a hard time seeing you as a bad influence on anyone.” Olivia flushed slightly and grinned at Donna. “Are you saying that she loves him despite the... architecture?”
“He and I had an argument about the balconies on Vorbretten House. He put in these cubes, you know, like a shelf sticking out the side of his building, all glass and metal practically glued on. A building needs to tell you what it’s for, you know? And this building says nothing, it’s just a box. I tried to explain it all to Tatya and she suggested wainscoting and it was a mess.”
Olivia paused, realizing that this might be more than Donna wanted to hear.
“You would prefer more traditional architecture,” Donna reflected, “but it wasn’t all tea and roses, you know, back towards the time of Isolation. Mostly people built their structures in an attempt to survive the next civil war. In Vorrutyer House, we don’t even have windows until you get to the third floor.”
“I know! People were more aware of their vulnerabilities then. It wasn’t like today, when we assume that if they have a few power packs and a stunner and the municipal authorities down the street, they’ll be just fine. What happens when René’s power is cut and his force shields die? What then?” Olivia tried to imagine René using the force of his wits against Cetagandan invaders, and wished for a stronger fortress in which to hide her friend. Donna, however, seemed entirely unmoved by the threat of disaster, and Olivia saw her relax and slip one foot slightly out of her silk heel as she leaned toward Olivia with interest.
Donna smelled beautiful, like a garden, and Olivia shifted her eyes helplessly to Donna’s soft dark hair as they continued to chat. She belongs in a castle, in a tower, Olivia thought; would she be able to climb down on hair that long? Belatedly, Olivia realized that she had lost the thread of the conversation and Donna was staring curiously at her.
“What are you thinking?” Donna asked her.
Olivia couldn’t meet Donna’s gaze. “I was wondering, if we put your hair out the castle tower, whether it could touch the ground.”
Suddenly the whole thing was overwhelming: Donna’s eyes on hers, soft lines around her eyes and mouth as she smiled bemusedly. Olivia had to lean back primly, a hot blush creeping over her face. “I’m sorry; I think I’ve been going on. Your date?”
“Is long gone,” Donna reassured her. She stood up from the couch and obediently, Olivia rose beside her.
“Are you ready to go back?” Olivia asked.
Olivia found herself off-balance as Donna took her arm and stretched up to kiss her. She brought both hands up to Donna’s shoulders, meaning to push her back, but then lost her momentum as the kiss sank in. One hand slid up to the smooth, warm skin of Donna’s neck; the other grazed down the darts of her dress and tangled itself in Donna’s skirts. Olivia tasted warm skin and honeyed lip balm, and licked a trace of brandy from the edge of Donna’s lips.
Olivia gasped and broke the kiss, breathing hard. She looked down at Donna but could find no words to explain herself. Naturally, she turned and fled.
The next day at noon, a Vorrutyer maidservant arrived at the Koudelka residence with a package for Olivia. Drou, who wholly disapproved of Olivia’s late night, welcomed the woman inside with an edged smile and abandoned her in the front room.
Olivia heaved herself out of bed, threw on work clothes, and pulled a brush through her blond hair. It wasn’t until she saw the blue piping on the maid’s grey uniform that she remembered the events of the night before, and she felt a flutter in her chest.
“Sorry t’disturb you, Miss,” the maid recited carefully, “But my Lady Donna saw you leaving this shawl and was concerned it would get lost at Vorbretten House. She bid me to put into your hands and wish you good day.” Doing so, the maid fled.
Olivia turned over her shawl and found a note. Olivia, I enjoyed our conversation immensely, but I fear I spoke unwisely and may have caused you offense. I beg you to let me apologize in person. Please come to lunch at Vorrutyer House tomorrow; Szabo will pick you up from the library at noon. --D
Spoken unwisely, ha. Olivia scanned the letter and tried to remember what on earth had possessed her. It had been Olivia who had spoken unwisely, though surely she hadn’t been responsible for what happened next. Had she? Still stunned, Olivia folded the note into her skirts and went in search of painkillers.
The luncheon at Vorrutyer House was predictably awkward. Olivia hadn’t been certain that she should even accept the invitation, but curiosity drew her to the library. Armsman Szabo strode up and said “Miss Koudelka,” and then turned on his heel so quickly that Olivia had to follow just to agree.
Donna welcomed Olivia with a warm smile. “I had to invite you over, just to find out if our architecture is to your taste. Vorrutyers have been known to have strong opinions of our own on how to build a fortress.” Olivia smiled and ducked her head, not sure whether she should chat with Donna or challenge her.
All through the meal, Donna made light conversation on Vorbarr Sultana gossip. Olivia paid little attention to the stories and watched Donna instead. Her demeanor today was totally at odds with the conversation they’d had on the evening of the party; Donna was impeccable in her manners, her dress, her topics. Olivia found herself wondering what Donna would look like when she was off-balance.
“What do you want from me?” Olivia finally asked, bluntly.
Donna’s mouth softened slightly. “I’m trying to figure out whether I should apologize for kissing you the other night. I’m afraid I got a little ahead of myself.”
“It--” Olivia felt a hot blush creeping up her face. She didn’t have the cool confidence that Lady Donna had, and had never quite learned the art of Vorish innuendo. What was it that Mama said? Don’t lead with your chin. “Really, there’s no need for apology.”
“Of course,” Donna continued smoothly. “These things will happen, particularly at a betrothal when romance is in the air. Think nothing of it.”
Olivia had thought of nothing else, for the past day and a half. She didn’t want to let Donna change the topic, but found herself absolutely tongue-tied. Finally, she rose and walked around to Donna’s side of the table.
Olivia took Donna’s hand and pulled her to her feet. Donna’s eyebrows rose, slightly confused. “I’ll think nothing of it,” Olivia agreed, and leaned in for the next kiss before Donna could regain her composure.
Three weeks later, they were sprawled across a couch in the sunroom of Donna’s residence in Vorrutyer District. Olivia flipped idly through a genealogy while Donna lay with her head in Olivia’s lap.
“I wish my family had a history,” Olivia commented.
“Your family does have a history. Didn’t your father rescue Ivan Vorpatril from infanticide? Didn’t your mother help deliver the Pretender’s head?”
“I mean ancient history, like Vor do.”
Donna sat up to face Olivia. “Vor lords are nothing but relentless hoarders who will never let go of a mark, a deed, or a grudge.”
“You say that, but you manage the District as much as Pierre does. If it’s so worthless, why do you give so much to it? You said yourself last night that the Vorrutyers are crazy, that the district could be just as well managed by a prole.”
“You aren’t supposed to listen to me when I’m in my cups, darling. H’sh.” Donna moved her hand up to Olivia’s mouth, running one finger gently between her lips. Olivia smiled and nipped at it.
“Impertinent little thing, aren’t you?” Donna laughed and took Olivia by the shoulders, pushing her down to the couch.
Several months later, Olivia returned from another weekend in Vorrutyer District to find Tatya at the house waiting for her.
“Olivia, how long are you going to keep doing this? Your mother, Delia, and Kareen have all taken me aside over the last three days to ask me who he is.”
“Who is who?” said Olivia, defensively.
“The gentleman, Olivia. They all want to know who your gentleman is. Madame Koudelka is frightened to death, and wants me to tell you about babies. I told them you were in Vorrutyer District, I told them that you were a guest of Lady Donna’s, and they think I’m lying, gullible, or batty. Your little sister grilled me, Olivia! And she was the most frightening of the three.”
Olivia yawned and stretched over the chaise. “Tell me about babies.”
“You’ll never bear one at the rate you’re going. I know you like her, but what are your plans for the future? Are you going to run off to Beta, leave your sisters and your family behind? Are you going to marry some foolish boy and explain to him that you--” Tatya stopped, with no words for what she guessed Olivia had been doing.
“No, Tatya, I’m not getting married.”
“Ever?” Tatya frowned in dismay. “It’s not so bad.”
“Not so bad?” Olivia echoed. “There’s a recommendation.”
Olivia sighed, and closed her eyes, feigning sleep until Tatya gave up and went downstairs to find Kareen and Martya. Then she got up and moved to the comconsole to call Donna.
“I’m back home,” Olivia said.
“Oh, good,” Donna teased. “Glad you didn’t sleepwalk into someone else’s house. You should have stayed another day to rest, my dear.”
Olivia declined to point out that between the salon that Donna had hosted for her, the concert, and Donna’s penchant for nightcaps, there was never much rest in Vorrutyer’s District for Olivia.
“I’ll be tied up here for at least another month until Pierre gets back into work. When can you come out again?”
Olivia looked away from the comconsole. Donna, never patient with indecision, offered a car to take Olivia to the District, and then in the next breath began planning her own overnight trip to Vorbarr Sultana, shoehorned in between two trade meetings. Olivia was silent for another ninety seconds before Donna seemed to realize that neither of these plans were gaining traction.
“What would you like to do?”
“I came home to a lecture from Tatya on getting married.” Olivia was trying to explain her sullen mood, and didn’t realize that Donna would read this as a plan of action.
“We could find you a lovely young man. There are some talented gentlemen in the District, if you’d care to settle here.”
“Would he be welcome at Vorrutyer House too?” Olivia asked sarcastically. She was suddenly tired of both Tatya and Donna trying to orchestrate her.
“Always, my dear. I would be delighted to heckle and bait any husband of yours. Or train him, perhaps.”
“I don’t want someone like that! And I don’t want this. I don’t want to be another vice of yours.”
“In my family, I’m considered downright virtuous.” Donna seemed to regard Olivia more carefully. “Is this because you’re going away for school?”
“Don’t try to get into my head. I’m not twelve.” Olivia snapped.
“Eleven, surely. You look to be a few seconds away from stamping your feet.” Donna was goading her, trying to push her into saying--what?
“Young seems to be your type, if Ivan and I are any indication.” It felt good to be angry at Donna.
“Ivan was just to prove a point. You could give yourself some credit.”
Olivia looked away from the comm more pointedly this time, not quite daring to cut the line but unwilling to talk any further.
“You don’t want this?” Donna’s voice softened.
“I don’t know what I want.”
“Call me when you figure it out.” Donna was leaning into the vid pickup thoughtfully, taking the sting out of her words. She regarded Olivia for another moment before nodding and cutting the comm.
Olivia still didn’t know what she wanted, five weeks later, when she finally gave up and called Donna back. She hadn’t been able to figure it out on her own. It couldn’t hurt to try and figure it out in Vorrutyer House.