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Papa's study smells of old paper and leather and beeswax polish, and of Papa himself: wool suits and the pipe he goes outsides and smokes just once a day, after supper. Helen is supposed to go to bed then, but Papa lets her stay a little longer if she has a good question, or if she's so quiet that he doesn't notice she's in his study.

"Time of Isolation," Helen reads. "What's isolation?"
"Isolation means being left alone," Papa says.
"I like isolation," Helen says, carefully saying it the way Papa does.
"That's just as well, mon poussin. I don't have any more brothers and sisters to give you."

He's thinking of Maman again. If she doesn't distract him, he'll start talking about sending Helen away for her own good. "I know when the Time of Isolation is," she says.
"Do you? When was it, then?"
"From seven to eight, after supper. That's when you go outside and smoke your pipe, and I'm to leave you alone and let you think."

*

By age seventeen, she can't help wondering why there isn't a planet like Athos, but with only women. And when she moves to the capital to study, there are so many people that at first she wishes there was a planet with only her, her and a mountain of the sources she wants to read. She adapts.

*

"I'm looking over Vorlaisner's new five-space text. It's very promising so far." He bites into his pecan cookie with satisfaction. "Would you like a look?"
"It wouldn't mean anything to me, I'm afraid. I've never really gotten my head around higher math."
"It's so often terribly taught, I'm afraid. If you're interested, I could lend you a copy of Smolikas' little book on five-space for the layperson. It's a bit outdated, but he gets the essentials right, and it's delightful, I reread it myself just for the language."

"Thank you for the thought, but I'm a bit swamped with subject reading right now. Maybe some later time when I have more attention to spare for leisure reading."
"I understand the constraint. I'm the same way myself in a heavy reading term. I'm lucky to be doing mainly mathematical coursework at the moment. Leisure reading competes for time, but not for concentration -- the same way that dessert goes into a different stomach. Here, would you like to try this? It's wonderful." And he breaks off a piece of the cookie. It tastes of honey as well as pecans, and there is just a hint of allspice.

"I haven't done any reading on our own history since I was a schoolboy," he confesses. "I liked the stories, but I hated the brute memorization."
"History's taught badly too. They should have been teaching you to make connections, look for patterns, not just remember dates."
"Do you have a favorite introductory text of your own, for the layperson? One that gets it right?"
"There's a few good ones..." He notes down the titles.

It's not that he offers her data disks. Men have done that before, professing themselves delighted to meet a truly intelligent woman, visibly hungry to mould her mind to their liking. It's that he asks her for data disks of her own that charms her. Well... also the lack of condescension, she thinks. He offered her Smolikas' text in the same way he asked her to try his cookie, like he wanted to share the treat. His warm enthusiasm is refreshing in a city of intense, serious men.

*

Her first confinement -- horrible word -- she says "Don't leave me," and he holds her hand until the midwife shoes him out and tells her to stop taking on so. Next time they choose a different midwife, one who'll let him stay.

*

"Georg, can you please come talk to Voula?" Helen asks plaintively.
"Of course I can. What's the agenda?"

He's been out late at a faculty meeting. Helen's been home all afternoon. Yelena couldn't take the children, so instead of working on a paper on parallelisms in Barrayar's Greek and Russian ancestor cults, and the documentary evidence for reciprocal cultural influence in the early period, Helen had spent the afternoon supervising her three offspring, which was rather like office hours but with different areas of interest and more food. At least she didn't have to grade their papers.

And then their housekeeper had wanted her attention for a long and confusing conversation about the budget.
"I'm really not sure. You'll have to ask her. Something about Winterfair desserts. I told her you're the one to speak to, but she was convinced only I could understand."
"A traditionalist as always."
"I'm afraid so. It was something about... falsified turnipseed oil? Does that make sense to you?"

Georg stares at the air just above her head, as he does when he's thinking. After a long moment, he booms with laughter. "Your mind's still on verifying those Greek folklore sources, isn't it?"
"As much as it could be, yes. What did I miss?"
"I could be mistaken, but I don't think anyone's bothered to try counterfeiting turnipseed oil yet. But they might solidify it and use it as a cheap substitute for butter, especially here in the capital."
"She did say something about butter, I think."
"Which faction is she in, pro- or anti- turnipseed?"

"She kept repeating, 'no artificial shortening.'"
"Mmm. The shortening effect isn't artificial as such, it works exactly as advertised."
"What's the advantage of butter, then?"
"It tastes better. Also arguably there's a health benefit. Not my field."
"Nor mine."

*

She's been spoiled, Helen thinks. In the early days of her marriage, she could feel alone with Georg. No, that wasn't right. His presence is comforting but not obtrusive. She can lose track of her surroundings with him. But it's not just him these days. The children seem to have the opposite effect on her. They're always in her foreground, like a piece of fine china too close to the table that will fall if she doesn't keep her eyes on it.

Which is their right, of course. But she owes Voula and Yelena more of her attention as well. She couldn't manage their life without them. Of course, no one expects Georg to manage more lives than his own.

She makes a vicious note to research early era attitudes to the domestic aspects of Barrayaran loyalty theory. A wife's hands are between her husband's, his between his Count's, and on up to the Emperor, whose hands enclose us all. Legally, a child's hands are in his -- or her -- father's, not her mother's. Surely there's contemporary commentary on the literal implications there, on who actually holds a child's hands, to whom that child's first obedience would be. There are so many unanswered questions, so many topics barely started.

And to think that once upon a time she had found it hard to juggle leisure reading and her studies.

*

"Did you talk to Voula?"
"Yes, and she was amazed to find a man who understood oven temperatures."
"I thought you were talking about shortening."
"We were, initially. We digressed."
"And what was the result of this investigation?"
"I've agreed with her that the budget will stand for real butter in the brilberry tarts. It will, won't it?"
"Unless there's a sudden shortage of cows."

Geog's expression grows thoughtful. "I think a pipeline problem is more likely than a shortage at the source. A factory breakdown, or a transportation problem."
"Or politics. Tariffs, regulatory disputes. Rationing."
"Politics is so wasteful. An artificial constraint. Unnecessary."
"Human nature, I'm afraid. But at least we won't suffer from a shortening shortage this Winterfair."
They laugh together. 'No artificial shortages' becomes his constant refrain from then on.

*

The house is wonderful, at any rate. Maman's people had held a dowry in trust for Helen, and with that plus Papa's settlement and a gift from Georg's grandfather, they were able to afford it. Georg has a constantly evolving set of plans for his basement, subject to their finances and his changing technological needs; and Helen has her own study, with her comconsole and disks and a very comfortable reading chair. An attic for the children. There are books everywhere.

*

Nadya campaigns for a pet cat when she's nine. She prepares an impressive briefing on the educational benefits of studying another species' behavior, the notable contributions that cats have made to the history of science, and of Barrayar, the health benefits of living in proximity to a cat, and how very, very good and grateful and diligent in looking after the animal she would be.

Helen can see Georg holding back from volunteering some of the more distressing roles cats have played in scientific and Barrayaran history. Their youngest daughter is sensitive, and does not need to hear about the Incendiary Cat Plot at this point in time.

A week later, she finds him holding Nadya's black and gray striped kitten on his knee. "You are very inefficient," he says. "You're wasting heat and noise all over the place." The kitten purrs.
"They're efficient at pest control," Helen says.
He frowns thoughtfully. "Only in a storage area with such a grain surplus as to guarantee a supply of rodents. And only with proper training, I think." He shakes his head. "No, little one, I'm afraid you're a parasite, not a symbiont." The kitten has fallen asleep.

*

The twins are twenty and Nadya is eighteen. At some point, without noticing, Helen recovered her equilibrium. Probably when all three children were in their early teens, old enough that she could take a trip to Serifosa for a conference without them. Irena wanted to know everything about the dome parrots.

They don't need Yelena any more now, and Voula has much less to do. Irena's studying at Serifosa herself now, and Nadya and Alexandra have the run of Vorbarr Sultana.

Looking back, Helen's still not sure how she managed her postdocs and three young children during the Pretendership. It's a blur. She hired some of her students as tutors for the children, when it wasn't safe for them to go to school. Helen still taught, but that was different.

Some of her students switched their majors from Time of Isolation history to modern history, or to political science. Helen tries to give them as much context as she can.

Some of them joined the fighting.

*

Professor Lyovin is retiring. Helen is appointed to replace him as department head. Until her position is confirmed, she holds her thumbs like a South Continent fisher-woman. Half superstitious, half simply paranoid. She has seen enough of departmental politics to be afraid this will slip through her hands at the last minute.

The day it's confirmed, she and Georg go out to dinner. He toasts her success.
"It'll be your turn soon," Helen says.
"Not unless I can get more people interested in survivorship bias," Georg says seriously. "Everyone's more interested in success than failure. It always does come down to that human factor in the end. One of these days I'm going to have to study that angle properly. Don't worry about me. I had a message on my comconsole from ImpMil this morning. A six month contract. The pay is good, and the engineering problem sounds truly interesting."
"That's wonderful," Helen says.
"I don't imagine it will stop Sasha from calling me 'just a tech', but at least now he can say I'm married to the chair of Time of Isolation studies."

"He didn't like the toys you sent little Ekaterin?" Georg had spent every spare hour he had for a week last month, assembling a kit of engineering puzzles suitable for a five year old child. He had taken care not to repeat any of the puzzles he had made for each of her older siblings.
"Natalia sent a thank you note. She says the boys are very grateful for the gift, particularly as they weren't expecting anything on their sister's birthday."
"Oh."

They both fall silent for a moment. Then Helen says, bracingly, "She can live with us when she's old enough for university."
"Yes. To the future, Professora Vorthys."
"To the future, Dr Vorthys."

As they toast again, Helen reflects, not for the first time, that their subjects are failure analysis and the Time of Isolation, but their marriage is neither isolation nor failure. It is built with careful engineering, and on an awareness of history, though. She hopes for the same for their daughters, and their niece.