Vorkosigan House had gone night-quiet hours ago, but naturally there was an Armsman standing watch outside the library, where Prime Minister Admiral Count Vorkosigan was still at work. Jankowski braced to attention as Cordelia approached, but she smiled and waved off the formality.
Jankowski smiled slightly and answered the unspoken question of her hesitation before the door. "Dull roar, milady. Nothing unusual."
"Right then," Cordelia said, putting her shoulders back and chin up. "I'm going in."
Jankowski opened the door silently, permitting milady the element of surprise, and Cordelia stepped in softly, not eager to squander it.
Aral was standing with his back to her, leaning over his current military secretary, Lieutenant Jole, who sat at the secured comconsole doing something Cordelia couldn't see. They were indeed keeping the volume down. Cordelia couldn't hear what they were working on, just the low murmur of Aral's voice as he pointed something out. She stood still a moment, watching them from just inside the door, which Jankowski closed silently behind her.
Aral had had Jole for nearly a month now, and Cordelia liked him rather better than she had the last secretary, Smythe, probably because Jole seemed to like Aral better than Smythe had. They all went through an awestruck phase to start with, which Cordelia found universally charming. Jole had proven unusual by the speed with which he mellowed into what seemed to Cordelia to be a genuine liking for Aral--not only for Aral as his commanding officer, but for the man inside the uniform. That man was apt to be nearer the surface at moments like this, late at night after a long day. Even as Cordelia watched he muttered something dry and ruffled Jole's blond hair, and Jole laughed and ducked his head, submitting to the touch rather than pulling away from it.
That was interesting. Aral wasn't often physically demonstrative in such a casual way with men under his command, though he had become quite fond of any number of them. Then, too, many of them--especially his secretaries--were the subjects of his occasional crushes, a phenomenon Cordelia observed with delight and tried never to acknowledge as such out loud, since Aral didn't seem to quite realize it himself.
Jole was certainly a crush, she thought. Aral's eyes always lit up when he talked about his latest bright young man, which he did fairly regularly. Any form of shop talk came to include a rather endearing digression on Jole's virtues, winding down thoughtfully into musings on where best to deploy him when he had outgrown his role as Aral's protégé, as they all did after a year or two.
So Jole had, somehow, found the knack of setting Aral at ease enough to be playful, and that made Cordelia like him even better than she had a moment before. She kept still, watching to see if she might spy anything else, and then Aral stood and stretched, tilting his head back toward the ceiling. Jole's intent gaze followed him up like a compass needle to north, like a flower's face to the sun, and Cordelia realized abruptly that it was not only that Jole liked the man inside the uniform--he liked the body inside the uniform.
Cordelia's face heated and her heart leapt, and she found herself smiling rather the same way Aral did when he talked about Jole. In that very instant Jole became quite completely her favorite of all Aral's protégés and all his crushes. She had in a single glance discovered something she had not realized she longed for--rather like the first time she had unexpectedly heard a Betan accent on Barrayar. She wanted, with the sudden intensity of homesickness, to cross the library and take Jole aside, to gossip delightfully about the man at the center of both their lives, to share this particular joy with someone who would appreciate it as she did.
But the impulse popped like a soap bubble as Jole looked quickly away--afraid of being caught in that gaze, because Jole was Barrayaran, of course. And Barrayarans were tediously heteronormative as well as tediously insistent on strict monogamy--on the appearance of strict monogamy, anyway, and for some people merely the appearance of the appearance. Aral was, of course, notoriously sincere in his appearance of strict monogamy. He had no reason not to be, since his crushes tended to be on his irretrievably unavailable bright young men, all determinedly heterosexual and all too aware of Aral's exalted rank to contemplate any form of intimacy, let alone the sexual variety.
All but Jole, it seemed.
Cordelia immediately began to consider what might be done to break the impasse; it was naturally a delicate and difficult one. Aral was clearly unaware of Jole's attraction, or he wouldn't casually torment the boy with such closeness. Equally obviously, Jole saw no possibility of being requited, even if he did dare to show his interest.
Cordelia had barely begun to see a way clear when Aral turned his head and broke into a bright grin at the sight of her. "Cordelia! You look as if you're plotting something."
Jole was on his feet in an instant, his face a perfect mask of polite attentiveness as he looked toward her. He had no doubt realized instantly--because Jole was doubtless every bit as brilliant as Aral had told her, many times and in loving detail--what she might have seen from where she stood. And Jole was Barrayaran, of course, and would have no grasp of the possibility that adults might choose to share their relationships in a sensible and friendly manner. Whatever she said next, he was likely to hear it as a remark on him.
Well, let him hear it then. Let him take what warning from it he would.
Cordelia smiled brightly and walked over to her husband, reaching out her hands for his as she reached him. He gave her a slightly quizzical look, but accepted the reassurance of her grip and said nothing more. She looked past him to Jole, who was looking down at the comconsole now and doing his best impression of a man not inside the room. A man listening with all his might at the keyhole, perhaps....
"Never fear," Cordelia said, and pressed a brief kiss to Aral's cheek. "We're all on the same side."