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You Believed Me

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"Oh, what have you gotten into now?" Miss Donna Vorrutyer's lady's maid exclaimed. She frowned as she continued, "Another dress ruined, and with you growing like a weed, the-Count-your-father's already complaining how much he pays for your clothes!"

Oh. He only cares that I cost him money. Typical. "I, ah, I need a bath," Donna said.

"But you just had one this morning! I'll have to get Cook to heat more water, and she'll want to know why."

No she won't. Not this time. "I said, I NEED A BATH!" Donna was trembling as her voice rose. Luckily, her maid just raised her eyebrows, nodded once, and headed towards the kitchen to talk to Cook.

Donna didn't want anyone to see what lay underneath her muddy, torn dress. As she stripped, she was relieved to notice that there were still faintly glowing embers in the fireplace at the corner of her room. She stuffed her shredded and bloody underthings into the fire and watched the cotton flare up. She soaked in the heat, before wrapping herself in a dressing gown.

It did take a long time and a lot of wood to heat water for the bath; no wonder Cook was grouchy. Donna's father kept saying he'd get a boiler installed in the ancient stone house, but there was always something else to spend money on. Lately, it was the education and social advancement of her brother Pierre, the Count's heir and only son, in Vorbarr Sultana. Perhaps she could suggest that to her father that he buy her a smaller wardrobe, and put the savings towards a boiler. It was a small economy, but with the other ideas she'd presented to him, the money would add up, even if it took a while. But her father would laugh this suggestion off, as he'd always done before, because he could not see her thriftiness and financial understanding; everyone knew that girls were by nature self-indulgent and expensive. And as a Count's daughter, Donna was destined for a good match with a wealthy man, so what did she need to know about money?

When her bath was finally ready, Donna hoped to persuade her lady's maid to wait outside the little bath chamber. She didn't like anyone seeing her naked under any circumstances, what with all the strange changes to her body recently. And now...

But the woman insisted on helping. Donna winced when she touched one of the bruised spots on Donna's arms, and slid the dressing gown off. Donna winced again at the woman's sharp indrawn breath. "What happened to you?" she demanded.

Well, what does it look like? There were more bruises on Donna's thighs, a nasty-looking contusion on her neck, just above her collarbone, and scrapes and dirt elsewhere. At least Richars had his own set of bruises to match... but no one would ever guess they'd been put there by his four-years-younger, female cousin. She'd finally gotten away from him by kneeing him in the crotch, and leaving him to writhe, snarling, in the mud.

"Richars, he, he found me down by the brook and he wanted ... he tried to ..." Donna started crying.

"Lord Richars is a young gentleman. You mustn't tell such lies, Miss Donna! Blaming him for your tomboyish ways won't do..."

"But he tried..." Donna spluttered through her tears. The little sign the woman made with one hand -- a variation on the anti-mutant hex -- meant she wasn't going to listen anymore. But at least Donna had said enough to get her to leave, and the tub of hot water was irresistible. Though it hurt terribly, she scrubbed her skin as hard as she could ... but even when her body looked clean, she still felt dirtied.

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"She locked herself in there as soon as Lord Richars and his father showed up, Sirs." Donna listened to her maid through the door to the private bathroom adjoining her bedroom. Well, of course she'd locked herself in! Richars was such a talented bully, and so good at making it look like he'd done nothing. Any action she might have taken, had she seen him, he would have twisted into yet more proof of her supposed tendency to over-dramatize about the slightest thing.

She could hear Richars' father's rumble. "I talked to the young Lord about it, and he made it clear she was just trying to wriggle out of getting blamed for ruining another dress. I don't know where the girl ever got such an idea about him!" OK, so her uncle had a huge blind spot when it came to his only son. That was no surprise, and she'd never really expected him to believe her.

Donna held her breath, knowing it was her father's turn to speak, and whatever he said, she was meant to overhear this conversation. But his words crushed her: "Well, no harm done, then. Girls do make up stories, but I'll have to remind her again that it's only a few years until she marries, and this sort of tale would be quite a mark against her."

Her father had at least listened to her initially, and agreed to interview Richars himself -- but whatever hopes she'd had for some sort of justice had just vanished. The Count was all about pretense, she'd come to realize two years before, when her mother the Countess had finally succumbed to madness. Her father's reaction had been a cold dismissal of Donna's anguish, along with obvious relief that he would no longer have to "explain about the woman," as he put it, to the other Vor. No doubt he didn't want to have to "explain about his daughter," either.

"Ah well, she'll have to come out sooner or later, or she'll catch her death in there," the maid said. "You two had best get along to your meeting now."

Eventually, Donna was, in fact, freezing in the little tiled room. When she was sure no one was outside, she tiptoed out and, after locking the bedroom door, crept over to her bed with its warm nest of blankets. She'd never felt so alone in her life. What can I do, when no one at all believes me... or, even if they might, all they care about is making sure no one finds out? She fantasized about taking revenge on Richars -- and her father, and Cook, and her maid, and all the rest of them -- until her rage faded to soft tears once again. Blessed sleep took a long time to come.

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She awoke to the sound of her name being called, and gentle knocks on her bedroom door. "Go away! Leave me alone!" she shouted reflexively.

"Donna, my sweet, it's your cousin Byerly," a lilting, humored voice called out. "There can be no madwomen in this house anymore, I won't allow it!" It was an insensitive comment, but coming from Byerly, it was surely meant to cheer her up. And no one liked him very much but her, so maybe she should at least be kind. She went to the door and opened it.

Byerly was tall and thin, pale and gawky, utterly the opposite of his blocky, bullish cousin Richars. Unmanly was the word Donna heard whispered far too often, ever since Byerly had deliberately flunked several courses at the exclusive private school he attended. He'd been expelled for that, a year earlier, and now, at fifteen, spent most of his time wandering between the Vorrutyer District, which bored him, and Vorbarr Sultana, where he managed to get into all sorts of trouble, while his relatives shook their heads and wondered what to do about their errant scion. Over time, as no answers had revealed themselves, unstable and useless and lazy had been added to unmanly to describe him. The shadows of the Count's long-dead siblings, Ges and Leesa, both done in by the infamous Vorrutyer temperament, hung over the adults' discussions. Byerly had inherited that temperament in full measure. "He has their eyes," Donna heard again and again.

"Donna, what mood's caught you now?" Byerly said in a gently teasing voice. He took a breath as if to continue, but then he looked at her. He reached a hand to her shoulder and gently touched the discolored wound on her neck. She flinched as all the humor went out of him, leaving something very bleak in its place. His eyes darkened. "Good heavens, who's been biting you?"

Donna tensed, and tried not to say anything, but the words rushed past the lump in her throat faster than she could control them. "By, Richars... Richars attacked me, he bit me, he pushed me down in the mud and tore my dress and scratched me and tried to...." She dissolved into sobs.

"Oh, sweetness ...." Byerly's breath caught, and he put his arms around her and patted her back awkwardly. As Donna's weeping cleared, she looked up at his face to see a tear tracking its way down his cheek as he spat out "That bastard."

"You believe me?" she asked softly.

"Of course. I'll explain, but here, here. Sit down, that's a good girl." He'd steered her to one of the chairs in front of the fire, and after tucking a blanket around her shoulders, took a seat in the other chair. After a moment, and with more than a little nervousness, he took one of her hands and wrapped his own hands around it.

"No one else believes me. Why you?" Donna immediately felt guilty for her accusatory tone, given how kindly he was acting.

She watched him gulp, and his face redden. "Um, ah ... he did that to me, too."

"But you're both boys! What do you mean? How could he..." Donna's voice trailed off. She wasn't supposed to know about what boys did with girls, much less boys with boys -- and she was more curious than she dared to admit. But yes, Byerly had a good reason to believe her.

Byerly looked thoroughly shamed. "Um, last summer ... after I got kicked out of school. He called me a girl, he said only a girl would be a coward like I was. It was nothing new; I'd heard it from my father, and his father, and -- um, sorry -- your father the Count, and everyone else. I told him he was wrong, that just because I wasn't going to try for the Imperial Service Academy, I wasn't a girl, and he said prove it. I did something really stupid then -- I stripped, um, because I thought he wanted to see, um ... you know." He crossed his legs and hunched a little. "So I was naked, and he he had the advantage over me, no one else was around. And we started shoving each other, until he pinned me, um, on my stomach, and then he undid his pants and took his ..." Byerly stopped. "I can't ... I can't say any more."

"You don't have to tell me the rest. " She squeezed his hand, to reassure herself as much as him. "God, By, how terrible! I, he ... I kicked him, where it hurts, so he didn't get a chance to ..."

"Heh." Byerly sounded bitter as he said, "Even a 12 year old girl fights better than me." He pulled his hands from hers and stared morosely into the fire.

After a few minutes of sitting in silence, during which Donna imagined, with horrified fascination, what Byerly had not said about what Richars had done, he turned to her again, eyes downcast. "He ... did it again, you know."

"You let him?" Donna was shocked.

"It was right after that night a few months ago, when they" -- Donna knew he meant her father and uncles -- "were going to send me off to that military school for a good old-fashioned toughening up, and I took a rope and threatened to hang myself." Donna remembered that terrible night, remembered sneaking out of bed and peeking around the doorway after the voices in the great hall downstairs had risen to a shout, seeing Byerly raging and crying before he finally dropped the rope and ran into the night. "Richars found me later, and called me a girl again, and dared me to fight, but I wouldn't. And that time ... when he did it, it felt, I shouldn't say this to you, but it felt good."

"Good? But that's so terrible! How could it --"

"I don't want to explain. It wasn't good because it was Richars, though. Good like ... I kept thinking of what Uncle Ges and Aral Vorkosigan must have felt when they ... you know."

Oh. One of the "benefits" of being raised in her casually neglectful household, Donna had found, was that she overheard things that a 12 year old girl -- or boy -- would normally never be allowed to. She'd heard the rumors, that Uncle Ges and Aral Vorkosigan had been "very close," or some other, less euphemistic term, always said with a tone of disgust. She'd even heard that this was why Leesa Vorrutyer -- Ges's sister, Donna's aunt, and Count Vorkosigan's first wife -- had killed herself. These days, Aral Vorkosigan was old and scary and the Emperor's Regent, and married to Cordelia Vorkosigan -- who gave Donna butterflies in her stomach because she was so strong -- and Uncle Ges had died in the Escobar War when she was a little girl. But here was another piece of the story.

She took back his hands. "What about now? You don't still..."

"Oh. I don't let Richars anywhere near me, if I can help it. He'd do it again, but because he hates me, not because he likes me. And ... Donna, my sweet" -- he gave her an affectionate smile and pulled her out of her chair and closer to him, so she sat on his knees -- "you might not understand yet, but when something like that feels good, you want it to happen with someone who likes you."

She rested her head on his shoulder. In the silence that followed, Donna decided that it didn't matter that Byerly's hands were sweaty, or that his knees were uncomfortably bony, or that he needed to shave and to brush his teeth, or that his face was still streaked with tears. All that mattered was that he believed her.