Are you interested in Barrayaran folk tales? The University press will be reprinting copies of Vortashpula's Collection of Barrayaran Folk Tales in the spring. You're Komarran, so you might not have grown up with paper books, but I've always found them much nicer than reading off a comconsole. Some of the tales – though not all – would be suitable as bedtime reading for your girls.
I'd especially like to bring your attention to the tale of the Red Queen. I'm probably forgetting some details, but the story and its variants tell of a young Vorish lady with flaming red hair, unmarried and unbetrothed, whose family was wiped out by a neighboring Count or clan. Her closest male relative would have had her married to those who killed her family, so she declared that she would not dishonor her dead father and took up arms to avenge them. She got her revenge, but rather than marry into obscurity, she then set up as the ruler of the lands her family had lorded over. Many tried to seize her lands by force or by duels, but she was always victorious, and ruled over the lands “drenched in the blood of her enemies”, thus earning the moniker “the Red Queen”.
What are considered the oldest tales typically end there, though many more modern retellings have ended with her marrying a Count or an Emperor, and bearing him a dozen children. The origins of the tale almost certainly predate the establishment of the Countships, and probably predate the foundation of the Empire proper and the Vorish class. The Red Queen was, if she existed, a woman warlord who used vengeance as an excuse to climb to the position of her father. The story's been somewhat hushed up after a few early feminist academics cited it as an example of women being allowed to wield power in the past, so why not today?
The collection also includes many riffs off the “Little Red Riding Hood” tale that mostly give sound advice on not ingesting Barrayaran plant life. Those might be more suited for the children. Delia would probably appreciate the tale of the Red Queen.
Cordelia had only just welcomed Vorinnis when the reports started floating in. Cordelia winced at the bad pun she'd made.
The general gist of the reports was that the gasbags, up until now relatively harmless, had begun targeting humans in their blood-sucking, and exploding just before reaching their human target. The hydrogen explosions caused considerable property damage, and in most cases, death of the original target.
Cordelia frowned. “Why would a gasbag kill itself? I don't see any evolutionary pressure towards this”, she said, seemingly to herself. Jole shrugged.
Vorinnis made a small sound. Cordelia and Jole looked at her.
“Maybe... Maybe they're muties. You know, accidents. And they self-regulate the gene pool”, she said, her voice getting smaller and smaller with Cordelia's raised eyebrow. To her credit, she did keep her back straight.
“I do not think that a few mutations would be enough to cause such a drastic change in behavior.” Barrayarans and their muties. “Still, I suppose I could order a genetic analysis be done, to see if all the suicide bags come from a single population.”
Jole twitched. “What if it's a Cetagandan plot?” he asked, some urgency in his voice.
Barrayarans. “Then I shall be writing to the Cetagandans and tell them that they seem to be losing their touch”, Cordelia said with a smile. She dismissed Jole and had Vorinnis complete her first task as secretary to the Vicereine: ordering a genetic analysis of the suicide bags.
Two days (and a dozen suicide bags) later, Vorinnis presented Cordelia with the results of the genetic analysis.
“Well, Admiral”, Cordelia said, “it would appear that your theory is correct.” The suicide bags were clearly genetically manipulated, and a sequence of DNA that on first glance looked simply irrelevant actually encoded “Greetings from the Emperor Giaja, long may he reign”. Cordelia wasn't quite up to understanding Cetagandans, but she could believe that they would leave such a message in their supreme arrogance.
“Now, Lieutenant, please write a report to ImpSec's Head of Galactic Affairs, and append all of our data to it. Admiral Jole, these suicide bags have to come from somewhere. See whether there are any suspicious reportings around the epicenter of the attacks.”
Jole looked apologetic. “The epicenter of the attacks would be somewhere in over two hundred square kilometers of wilderness. We don't exactly have eyewitness reports, milady.”
“We have satellite data. See if they've caught anything”, Cordelia said.
Jole and Vorinnis saluted.
Hours of labor later, Jole presented Cordelia with an approximate location.
“You've narrowed it down to an acre?”
Jole looked insufferably pleased with himself. “Yes. About a month ago, the heat emissions from that region greatly increased. I suggest raiding the location in force.”
Cordelia nodded. “Then do it. Take as many soldiers as you need.”
Jole saluted and turned to walk out of the office.
“Oh, and Oliver?” Jole stopped and turned at the mention of his name. “Use stunners.” Jole nodded.
Nadya Vorinnis was excited! This was the first time she'd seen actual action. Well, she hopefully wouldn't be seeing it, but she was out here, in the field, making observations on what to especially bring to the Vicereine's attention.
The combat-experienced soldiers began their approach. Nadya looked at the tactical computer that was making a model of the facility based on the data the soldiers were gathering.
The facility had one floor, was four meters tall, and relatively well-camoufleged into the surrounding hills. It had an indoor surface area of around a hundred square meters. Nadya put on a livestream from a Corporal Arlington's headcam on the other display.
The lights were off, so the Barrayaran forces had to make do with their own lamps and strips of luminescent wire that they lay behind them, like Theseus in the labyrinth. Arlington swung his head nervously to and fro at every intersection, though most eventually revealed nothing more than emptied storage lockers and washrooms. The corridors remained deserted in their utilitarian plascrete bareness.
Finally Arlington arrived at the central cavern. It was filled with racks upon racks of empty uterine replicators, all of which had tubes sneaking out to a corner filled with nutrient tanks.
Nadya cut the feed. Who could use replicators for gasbags, of all things, when there were months-long waiting lists for them on the South Continent?
Cordelia found the reports fascinating. Whoever had evacuated the place had obviously done a thorough job, for the comconsoles were wiped, and there was essentially nothing for forensics or anyone else to go speculating off of. The empty replicators were of Jacksonian origin, which didn't give any clues, either. Cordelia had some scientists looking at the modifications done to them to support gasbag gestation, after which they'd be edited back to their original state and be offered by the government for Barrayarans in desire of children.
The fact that the replicators had been abandoned despite the otherwise meticulous evacuation was concerning. Did they have another hundred replicators tucked away somewhere? Had the suicide bags been redesigned to reproduce by themselves?
Vorinnis knocked. “Milady Vicereine, there's someone to see you”, she said.
“Send them in”, Cordelia said. Her schedule for today was firmly in the realm of “contemplate the suicide bags” and she had no idea who'd disturb it. Someone important yet unannounced?
A Cetagandan ghem-Lieutenant, decked in red and white, with the Imperial wounded zebra facepaint, strode in with the collected strides of someone who'd been ferried in on the fastest courier available. He had gone to the trouble of pressing his uniform and putting on fresh facepaint. Unfortunately for him, his paints seemed to disagree with the heat.
“Ghem-Lieutenant Taro Mintaka, second son of ghem-General Rohan Mintaka and ghem-lady Tassa Rau, here on orders of the Chief of Celestial Security ghem-General Dag Benin to lend aid to Our Barrayaran friends and clear the name of the Imperium.” Mintaka bowed. “I lend you my aid.” He gave Cordelia a sealed data disk. She opened the wrapping to discover a note reading It would be prudent to view the disk in private. Mintaka is the best operative I could scare up at such short notice, so do not hesitate to use him as you see fit. Say Hi to Miles for me. - Dag Benin.
Cordelia deliberated for a moment, then decided to pass on the problem of Mintaka's housing to Vorinnis. Once the two were out of the room, Cordelia viewed the disk.
The disk contained a note from the Celestial couple itself, urging for peace in a rather snobby, hautish way. There was also what was presumably a heavily edited copy of Mintaka's personnel file. It did not appear immensely scrubbed, so he had perhaps not been in that many exciting operations. It made sense; not all Lieutenants were Miles, after all. A few choice comments and highlights from Benin drew her to Mintaka's test scores; apparently the boy had a talent for rational problem-solving and a science background. Doubtless selected to appeal to her. Cordelia forwarded the whole thing to ImpSec. They would have a field day, no doubt.
Cordelia did like to use any and all assets available to her, so she gave Mintaka all the data they had and set him to work. She called up Jole, Vorinnis and Mintaka and had them sit down for a brainstorming session. It had been too long since she'd had occasion to use her problem-solving skills from her Survey days.
“So, to recap: we have gasbags gengineered to conduct suicide attacks on civilians. Their DNA contains a sequence that can be translated as ‘Greetings from the Emperor Giaja, long may he reign’. When we went to raid the gasbag production plant, it was deserted and empty apart from an odd hundred replicators”, Cordelia said. “Thoughts?”
“Were the gasbags genetically distinct or were they merely clones of one another?” Mintaka asked, facepaint already disintegrating in the Sergyaran heat.
“Clones”, Vorinnis said.
“I would say that removes anyone of ghemish origin from the suspect list. Clones are inelegant”, Mintaka said.
“Who else would insert ‘Greetings from the Emperor Giaja, long may he reign’ into the genome, then?” Vorinnis asked in an accusatory tone.
Mintaka looked offended. “Literally anyone except the Cetagandans. Do you think we're stupid?”
“No, we find you merely arrogant”, Jole said. Everyone ignored him.
“Point”, Vorinnis conceded.
“So, who would have the means to set up such a plant? It would be quite a financial investment, not to mention setting it up discreetly”, Cordelia said.
“Perhaps it was set up through one of the Jacksonian Barons?” Jole suggested.
“The replicators' origin would corroborate that”, Vorinnis said.
“Um. I believe we should call security?” Mintaka said in a voice that rose in pitch. Cordelia followed his gaze to an unauthorized woman wielding a nerve disruptor at the Viceregal presence.
“Good evening. I'm Cordelia”, she said. “I don't believe we've met before?”
The assassin cocked her head, sending black hair tumbling over her shoulder from its high-set braid. She looked Barrayaran, and indeed vaguely like Aral. She took a step closer to Cordelia. Vorinnis and Jole had joined Mintaka in making concerned noises.
“I have been sent to kill you, y'know”, she said. Definitely not Barrayaran. “You're awfully … nonchalant.”
“Oh, one gets used to elaborate assassination plots eventually. Now, are you merely a hired hitperson or do you have any grievances you'd like to air to me?”
“My superiors ordered me to do it, so I'll kill you.” She took a wholly unconvincing half-step forwards. The pitch of Jole, Vorinnis and Mintaka's concerned noises rose.
Cordelia frowned. “Why do your superiors want to kill me?”
The assassin looked taken aback. “I don't know? Maybe they dislike all redheads intensely.”
“Your superiors don't seem to confide in you much.”
“Nah, they send oblique, anonymous communiqués and probably have a fucking spy network trained on me. Really, they should just hire me some staff; have you any idea how hard it is to run a one-woman gasbag cloning plant?” she sighed. “And here I am, babbling to you. Wonderful.”
“You know, I could grant you amnesty provided that you put down the nerve disruptor and tell us all about your employers.” Cordelia hoped that that would be enough.
The assassin looked sceptical and raised her disruptor. (The concerned noises Jole, Vorinnis and Mintaka were making had begun to approach the ultrasonic.) She sighed, shook her head, and put the disruptor down. “Fine. I accept. At least you speak to me.”
Jole, Vorinnis and Mintaka let out a collective sigh of relief.
Cordelia smiled. “Thank you. I'm Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, the Vicereine of Sergyar, Dowager Countess Vorkosigan, and a former Captain in the Betan Survey, amongst other exploits. These are Admiral Oliver Jole, head of the Sergyaran Fleet, Lieutenant Nadya Vorinnis, my secretary, and ghem-Lieutenant Taro Mintaka, temporary liaison officer and aide to the investigation on your suicide bags. Now, what is your name?”
Ara had given Cordelia all of her data disks. Most of it was trivial or too obscure to use as a hint, and ImpSec Sergyar hadn't been able to figure out anything conclusively. Cordelia flipped through the files idly, then stopped at some pictures. They were of a nuclear weapon, floating in space. She frowned. She could almost recognize the star patterns-
Four hours later, she called Ara, Jole, Vorinnis and Mintaka over. (Mintaka had conclusively lost the battle against the tropical heat and had forsaken the facepaint for a cardboard mask that had been colored on with crayons.)
“I did a good run-through of my stellar database back from my astrocartography days, and I've come to the conclusion that these were taken at Jackson's Whole”, Cordelia begun, before she was interrupted by Mintaka's swooning.
“You did all that just on a few images? That's amazing”, he said from behind his mask. He sounded awestruck.
“Well, yes, however-”
“He's right, Milady Vicereine, that is quite impressive”, Jole said.
“I feel stupid now”, Ara said.
“You truly are the greatest!” Vorinnis added.
Cordelia sighed. “Well, the more concerning thing is that they display a nuke. Why is there a nuke? Do they intend to strike Sergyar when we're all too concerned about suicide bags to notice?”
“Milady, I believe that would be typical Cetagandan deviousness”, Jole said.
“For Enkur's sake, we have nothing to do with this unaesthetic dastardly plot”, Mintaka yelled. (His cardboard mask, softened by the humidity, fell to the floor.)
“Who's Enkur?” Vorinnis asked.
Mintaka looked taken aback. “She's the mythic ghem-creator. She features in a lot of just-so stories. Mostly they involve her looking at nature, seeing an ecologic niche, and creating a creature for it. You should really hear the one where she creates the platypus.”
“Admiral, do we have any clues as to the conspirators' identities? So far their activity seems targeted towards me and Sergyar.”
“None, unfortunately. Pretty much anyone can hire Jacksonians. I suppose we'll just have to wait for further evidence”, Jole said apologetically. “Unless Ara can supply something?”
“No”, Ara said.
The next day, Mintaka had given up with the facepaint completely. In fact, the wave of heat and humidity had made everyone forsake a large quantity of wardrobe items, with Ara in very lightweight white shirt and pants, Cordelia in a cream-and-green lightweight dress, and the military triad in shirtsleeves and suffering.
Unfortunately, Cordelia had been delayed by uncooperative plumbing, so she walked into the room to find Jole staring intently at the wall, Ara pacing, and Vorinnis trying to clear things up for Mintaka, who'd come across a campaign of “you don't need to paint your face to be beautiful” (the Betan originators had noted the frequency of make-up usage, but hadn't clued in to the Cetagandan associations of their phrasing) and was rather confused on what facepaint had to do with beauty.
Cordelia cleared her throat. Ara, Jole, Vorinnis and Mintaka all turned to her.
“Do we have any new clues?” she asked. All four shook their heads at her.
She sighed. “All right, we'll ask ImpSec to track down any and all reports of hiring for the suspicious Houses. Ara, do you have any suspicions on who it may be?”
“No”, Ara said, “But you should probably know that there are three facepainted assassins behind you.”
This time forearmed, Cordelia, Jole and Vorinnis shot at them with stunners. Mintaka congratulated them on the truly stunning aesthetics. Cordelia wasn't sure whether he meant to pun.
“They're dead”, Vorinnis said from next to one of the would-be assassins.
“Suicide implants.” Jole grimaced. “Nasty.”
“They didn't even bother to do the facepaint properly”, Mintaka sneered. “Look at them, wronging the Imperial Array with their finger-paints!”
The next day, ImpSec had tracked the hired goons to the minor Jacksonian House of Tarkleigh. (They had been sloppy with more things than just the facepaint. In this case, one of them had left his calling card in his pocket.) Jole was gradually coming to the conclusion that it might not be the Cetagandans after all. Ara was pacing with an intent that reminded Cordelia of Aral. Mintaka had cursed the climate and taken Vorinnis shopping, having been told that men didn't go shopping for clothes alone.
Cordelia was worried. She was very worried. Why had Ara's employers sent her a picture of a nuke orbiting Jackson's Whole? Had it been idle threat, as Ara speculated, or was there something deeper?
Ara stopped her pacing abruptly. “Oh shit”, she said, and turned towards Cordelia. “Uh, Milady Vicereine? About those gasbags?” she said in a small voice. “My orders for emptying the incubation facility included dumping all the gasbags in a designated location. I just remembered that this was supposed to encourage nesting behavior in them and create a sustainable population to rain death from above unto innocent Sergyarans.”
“What do you mean, you just remembered?” Jole spluttered.
“Admiral, do go to check out the location she was given. Let us hope that the suicide bags haven't reproduced.” Cordelia felt like hitting her head on the wall. Repeadedly.
“Well, I was told that it was difficult to get them to reproduce on their own, as opposed to fucking the regular gasbags to no result”, Ara consoled them.
The heat continued. Cordelia was wearing her lightest sundress and had loaned her second-lightest to Ara. Jole was wearing something very light that could technically be considered part of an uniform if one squinted. Vorinnis was wearing a new yellow sundress, and poor Taro Mintaka was wearing a toga he'd made from a floral pink bedspread.
Then the window exploded inwards in shards of glass. Doctor Mehta swung in through the hole she'd made.
“You do realize that your dreadful security will be mentioned in the report I'll give to ghem-General Benin?” Mintaka asked.
“Unfortunately”, Jole groaned.
“Doctor Mehta”, Cordelia said. “What brings you here?”
“You”, Dr. Mehta said. “You were meant to be our greatest weapon, a resounding success of equality merged with history to be deployed against the sexist barbarity that is Barrayar! We searched and searched the Barrayaran legends for mythical women, and paid off the Cetagandans to ship a genetic sample of the Red Queen, the most famous female mythical figure. We cloned you from that DNA! You were supposed to be the herald of an egalitarian age! But no, you threw it away. You fucking married Vorkosigan. No matter how much we gave to cure you, you failed. You disgust me, you patriarchal handmaiden!” Mehta paused from her spitting to breathe.
“You do realize that I have modernized Barrayar – gradually, yes, but a step is a step. I, however, highly disapprove of the fact that you tried to brainwash me”, Cordelia said.
“Ha! Only a true feudalist would call therapy brainwashing. Alas”, Dr. Mehta said, then pulled out a small device from her pocket. It looked dangerous. In fact, it looked exactly like the nuke in the pictures, floating above Jackson's Whole... “This conversation is coming to an end. You have failed, and so I shall kill you, now that I have funding. Behold my nuclear device!”
“ADMIRAL JOLE!” a lowly Ensign shouted, bursting in to the room. Everyone turned to look at him and he screeched to a stop.
Ara, Jole, Vorinnis and Mintaka all pulled out stunners and shot at Dr. Mehta. She crumpled to the floor.
“Eh, um, Admiral Jole? The suicide bags are breeding and while they're still in the nest, they'll soon overcrowd and wipe out all life on Sergyar. That's what the Science guys said, sir”, the Ensign reported.
“Thankfully, we seem to have acquired a nuclear device”, Jole said and pointed at Mehta's nuke. “Please detonate it on the suicide bags, they're far enough away from everything that there should be no fallout anywhere where there are people.”
“Yes, sir!” the Ensign said, saluted, grabbed the nuke, and hightailed out.
“So”, Ara began. “What do I do now?”
Cordelia regarder her closely. She sounded flippant, but closer inspection revealed a concerned, lost young woman. “What do you want to do, Ara?”
“I have no clue whatsoever”, she admitted. “And I have next to no qualifications.”
“You are free to remain on Sergyar. If you wish, I can help you find something meaningful to do. Your skills at organizing would certainly be useful here at Chaos Colony.” Cordelia smiled.
“Yes, I would wish that very much.” Ara smiled. She lifted her hand towards Cordelia's face. “May I?”
“Yes”, Cordelia said. They kissed.
Jole, Vorinnis and Mintaka clapped.
Gregor Vorbarra, Emperor of three planets, was reading the report.
Of the adults in his life, Aral had worked until death, never finding anything that could be called retirement. First Simon and now Cordelia, however, had seemingly grown bored in their retirement. He probably should have expected that, after the decades of busy service they'd given to him. He wasn't sure whether he should have expected that they would all begin to channel their internal Miles Vorkosigan the moment he let them out of his sights.
A terrible thought struck him. He shuddered at the thought of what would happen when Lady Alys got bored.