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On your right stands the queen in garments of gold

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It was a daring mix of Komarran and Barrayaran styles. The short-cut jacket was very Barrayaran, though in a style that had been more popular when Alys was a girl, but the trousers were pure Komarran, and not, Alys thought, the best Komarran style either. She gave Laisa's protégé Amelia a little smile and passed the flimsy back to her. "Very pretty," she said, damningly, "perhaps to wear in the country." Amelia seemed to shrink a little, but Alys did not feel particularly remorseful. Laisa was going to have to try harder than this.

*

Perhaps inevitably, the next afternoon, Laisa was wearing the precise outfit Alys had condemned, and she was chatting to Amelia. Laisa managed to affect perfect unconcern as Alys approached her, and Alys' momentary irritation subsided as she saw how to play this stroke. "You're learning," she said quietly. "Well done."

A hint of chagrin crossed Laisa's face as she unravelled this, and Alys sighed inwardly. It wasn't that Laisa had poor dress sense. She had more than sufficiently good taste, left to herself. But she was trying too hard right now, and it showed. And Laisa's intelligence and considerable charm were not enough to outweigh forty years of learning how to navigate the social currents of Vor society. In ten or twenty years, Alys was sure that Laisa would have learned enough, and Vor society would have changed enough, that Laisa would be on top of it, but right now she was still Alys' pupil. And Alys had no intention of going easy on her Empress. Nobody else here would.

*

Three days later, Ekaterin came to Alys' lunch party, a little late, which she put down to her university course but which Alys couldn't help noticing was perfectly timed for her arrival to be seen by everyone. And she was wearing a suit that had clearly been inspired by the outfit in question, but which had been subtly altered. Alys blinked. The awkwardness she had perceived in the combination of Komarran and Barrayaran styles was gone, and in its place was an assemblage that Alys couldn't help but admire. She knew she had been defeated when Simon said afterwards, still as oblivious as ever to the games beneath the surface amongst the Vor women, "Ekaterin looked lovely in that green thing, didn't she? I think that would look nice on you."

"Yes," Alys heard herself say, "it would."

One thing Laisa had already grasped, she reflected, was how to make allies. Alys felt a certain easing. Laisa was still in a little over her head, but with Ekaterin helping her, Alys thought she could afford to relax a little. Laisa would survive.