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Tied up with Strings

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Tej took a breath, when given the opportunity. The whirl through Vorbarr Sultana had reminded her a little of her odd-siblings' intensity during tech rehearsals. But her mother-in-law's intensity resulted in more...stuff.

Elaborate dresses, some with satin sashes; vests that perfectly matched trousers; intricate jewelry; overcoats and wetsuits; written citations for where to obtain the right Betan sarongs in the first stopover on the way—they had been shopping for clothes. Lady Alys had wanted to make sure Tej could begin the stay in Ylla with sufficient clothing fit for the climate around the consulate. She'd also wanted Tej to have even more Barrayaran clothing of every sort, in order to be sufficiently Barrayaran for various occasions on Ylla. Tej certainly was no expert on being sufficiently Barrayaran, but she was becoming fast familiar with how Lady Alys girded herself for battle.

She'd certainly seemed satisfied with the results of the trip so far. “Before the two of you leave,” she said. “You may as well help me get presents for all of Ivan's youngest cousins.”

“And then supper?” came the question, muffled slightly by countless carefully piled bags and bundles. It went unanswered for the time.

“And those are.... second cousins once removed?” Tej asked. Eventually, their extended honeymoon might end, and she'd need to remember how to speak High Vor. She figured her own mother would have found it easy, if the Baronne had been interested in taking the time.

Lady Alys smiled. “Miles's children, yes. Gregor's are Ivan's third cousins.”

Tej smiled. “Quite the little army to shop for,” she said.

“And that's just fine,” Ivan Xav said somewhere behind the stack of packages he was carrying. “This particular army, like any serving an excellent cause, deserves any spoils or spoiling to which they're entitled.”

“What excellent cause is that?” Tej asked.

“Standing between me and the throne,” Ivan said.

“If we could focus on the issue of toys?” his mother asked. “We need to find all of the new Legend of Vorthalia figures.”

“All of them?”

“They each have a different favorite. None of the fighting over who plays whom that some children went through,” Alys said.

“We didn't fight over who got to play Vorthalia,” Ivan said. “We fought over who could get out of playing Emperor Xian.”

“Couldn't Gregor do it?” Tej asked.

“Sometimes he was busy; he was five years older than us and, y'know, Emperor. And sometimes he didn't want to. Kinda cruel to make a kid sit on a throne at playtime, too.”

“Guess so,” Tej conceded. “Ylla is a federated parliamentary republic, isn't it?”

“Yep,” Ivan Xav said. “But they can be whatever they want; won't affect my job there much.”

“It's true; a diplomatic post will be just the thing for you,” Lady Alys said. “Provided, of course, there isn't anything like That Incident at Count Falco's Court.”

“Mamere, you'd been standing over my shoulder...” Ivan growled behind his portable fortifications.

“What happened?” Tej asked worriedly.

“It was a quiet Incident,” Lady Alys said cordially. “Nothing worth mentioning.”

“Except to some sort of Betan counselor—the regular kind,” Ivan's voice then fumbled, and the packages wavered slightly. “Not one of the LPST people or anything.”

Lady Alys sighed. “Lord Ivan...” she said, with a patented mother significant-pause intended for quelling defiance. It didn't have the force behind it that even Tej, short-timer though she was, knew Lady Alys could use on a significant chunk of the Imperial government. But it probably was traditionally enough to quiet Ivan Xav.

It didn't this time, apparently. “Mamere, I was 18, and I just needed an inch, just one figurative inch.”

“Which is the worst possible time to give it,” Lady Alys assured Tej. “Something to remember in future, dear.”

“I'm sure there will be inches enough for everyone in Ylla, Lady Alys,” Tej said carefully.

“A diplomat already.”

Tej decided to try to showcase that burgeoning skill further by changing the subject. “I must admit, I'm still getting the hang of so many Vor things. If first sons are named for their grandfathers, why is Ivan Xav half-named for his great-grandfather?”

“Padma's middle name was for Prince Xav,” Lady Alys said. “Ivan's middle name was after my father.” A pause. “Who was named after Prince Xav. He was a third son, and the families were close. The Baba considered this a good sign in Padma's and my engagement, actually.”

Tej listened, nodded, and somehow pictured her mother muttering about 'bound for homozygosity.' Thank goodness for the health scrubs of the modern reproductive process.

“How's the search coming along?” her husband asked. “I realize our small army marches to varying legendary drumbeats, but Captain Lord Ivan Vorpatril, military attache, is one of the armies that marches on its stomach, and I've heard Ma Kosti is free tonight.”

Tej helped look through the carved and painted and polished action figures. “The joints for the toys are supposed to be fully articulated,” she said, waving a little hand with a removable scepter. “But it's really difficult to get Emperor Xian out of the sitting-on-the-throne position and let him stand up.”

Ivan Xav snorted. “I know a time when Gregor would have said that's not a flawed toy, just sheer accuracy.”

“So what did you do, when you were so little, and no one wanted to play the Emperor?”

“Sometimes, instead, our friend Elena would play Empress Andreina, delivering the important message from her husband.”

“Oh,” Tej said, starting to grin. “Because that's what Empresses do, no ideas of their own? Somebody tell Laisa.”

“Hey,” Ivan Xav said, “The assumptions of the Time of Isolation and the assumptions of being 5 overlap a bit.”

“Assumptions being the operative word,” Lady Alys said primly. “There's more to the running of any empire than what Everyone Knows about it, which is probably best for much of Everyone.”

On that matter, Tej nodded to the expertise of a secretary.

“What kind of stuff did you play with and watch vids of at that age, Tej?”

“I watched some of The Big Talk Tour, but we didn't play at it or anything. Rish and the other odd-siblings would have been too snobbish.”

“As shocked, shocked indeed, as I am at the idea of any of your family being a bit snobbish,” said Ivan Xav, “I'm going to need a little context.”

Tej decided not to dwell on the subject of her family more than a slight roll of her eyes. She figured most of that part of his remark was from seeing how they'd talked with her as much as anything. She stuck to addressing the pop-cultural issue. “Big Talk were an older set of genetically engineered operatives for one of the other Jacksonian barons. They were also a musical group.”

“What kind of genetic engineering?” he asked.

“Extraordinary sense of timing, finely tuned senses of hearing, extra arms for the instruments, wider than normal vocal range, going even into the subsonic—both for visceral musical effect and to communicate with one another discreetly. Basic pack-coordination conditioning. Ahead of their time—well, ahead of their time on Jackson's Whole, the Baronne said. She said if a haut lady had designed their aesthetic, people would have said nice things.”

“And …what does that mean in Cetagandan?” Ivan was starting to sound uncomfortable.

“The Baronne says if something's really good, no one needs to say nice things.”

“May I direct both your attention to the vital importance of a Mountain-Climbing Action Vorthalia?” Lady Alys said.

“Is that the one for Sasha?”

“Is he still Sasha? I hear he was wavering.” Aral Alexander Vorkosigan didn't seem to like leaving any stone unturned.

“I'm sure Lord Aral will make up his mind soon,” said Lady Alys.

Tej was sure he would too, if only to avoid being Lord Araled. “My sister Pidge sure would have wished she got to pick her own nickname.”

“Sibling paradigms are a funny thing,” Ivan acknowledged.

Tej smiled. “I guess you'd know a little even just from cousin paradigms.”

“A little. Miles is a host unto himself. Is Helen getting the Winterfair Court Empress Andreina?” Ivan Xav, still carrying Everything, was peeking around the stack trying to spot the various toys the two women were sifting through. All day, he'd been maintaining that balancing act, and for all that he made mention of being hungry, he didn't seem that tired. Tej was beginning to think she'd married a packhorse. But then, between his mother and some extremely confusing stories about Miles, he was possibly in his fourth decade of 'Ivan, hold this.'

“No,” said his mother. “Helen likes Little Lady Vorlightly.”

“That one's wearing a lot less dress. Think Miles will worry?”

“With friends like his, he'd best not. It's just a matter of different expertise.”

“So who gets Empress Andreina in the very, very elaborate dress?”

“Henriette Vorbarra,” said Lady Alys. “Now there is a girl who's going to know how to wield an evening gown. Perhaps you'll even be recalled from Ylla by the time she's reigning over the dance floor.”

“Perhaps. Don't rush anyone to end my exile on our accounts, Mamere. Now, about Ma Kosti...”