Galina threw the rosette onto her bed before heading straight for the bathroom where she stripped and ducked under a hot shower. She had learned quite young not to use the contestants’ showers. In these modern times, women were allowed to compete but; as a general rule, the male competitors did not like it. As a child when she had just started out, she had competed within Vorrutyer District; and, of course, she always returned to change in her own rooms at the Great Hall. However, when she was eleven years old she went to her first contest in Vorbarr Sultana. The arena was some distance from the main Vorrutyer residence. The changing rooms for female riders had been smaller than the men’s; but there were only four females competing (and she was the only unmarried girl). Used to the privileges that automatically went with being the only daughter of a Count, Galina had sniffed a bit at the limited choice of lockers for personal effects and small shower cubicles but thought nothing further of it. That is, until overhearing two of her male rivals snickering about the birth mark on her left buttock had led her to make a close inspection of the rear wall of the shower. Cracked and uneven tiles had disguised a peephole. After that, no matter how far the distance from where she was staying, nor how long the wait until all the competitors had been judged and the Vorrutyer party was leaving, she had always delayed until she got home before changing.
It gave her a reputation of being one of the more serious competitors, as she used the time wisely to check out her opponents. Increasingly, too, as she got into training her mounts, she spent less time with the riders and more time with the older set, discussing breeding and form. Most female riders became blasé about the peepholes and gained the inevitable reputation. Many were country-bred or Armsmen’s wives; barrack-room humour and relaxed standards was simply part of everyday life. But Galina was a Count’s daughter, and set an example for the younger Vor maidens now starting to enter pony club competitions all over Barrayar. Her fastidiousness won her a certain personal respect to add to the blue rosettes she hung on her bedroom wall; it was a useful reputation to have as a younger female member of the slightly notorious Vorrutyer clan.
She had won the World Dressage Championship today in Vorbarr Sultana, this Autumn competition the culmination of a series of meets in which Galina and her horse, General, had consistently stunned the judges and beat all comers with caracoles and pirouettes, and, of course, perfectly executed Airs above Ground. Most of the other women riders danced minuets on geldings. Only the strongest male competitors rode stallions - except Galina. She always said good horsemanship wasn’t about strength; it was about training, of both horse and rider. And about rapport. She had been riding General three years now; they understood one another very well. After accepting her prize she had joined her father who had been toasting the win with Count Vorkosigan’s party in his box. Her father had bought General from the Count six years ago, as a promising half-trained three year old. But her father and the stallion had not taken to one another. Galina knew her father for a hot-tempered man, lacking the patience to win over the heart of a sensitive horse which needed to be led gently, not brutally mastered. In the end, her woman’s touch had proved better for General and she had taken over his training. She bowed her head respectfully when Count Vorkosigan congratulated her. He was no mean dressage rider himself; even though he no longer rode himself, everyone knew the best horses came from Vorkosigan stables. Now, hours later in the shower, as she worked up lather with the fine rose-scented soap and scrubbed horse-smell from every inch of her skin, Galina savoured the admiration Count Vorkosigan’s eyes had held for her this afternoon.
She emerged from the bathroom clad only in a towel to find her old nurse fussing about her clothes. The Vorrutyers were hosting the traditional celebratory banquet tonight, a masked ball on All Hallow’s Eve. She had scandalised the old retainer by commissioning a skin-tight cat costume, complete with long fluffy tail, new from the estate dressmaker.
“Your legs will be on display for everyone to see,” protested Anna.
Just as if they had not been seen earlier in the day when she was riding, thought Galina in exasperation. The days of side-saddles were long past.
Nonetheless, she soothed, “my face will be masked.”
“Huh!” scoffed Anna, “as if that will fool anyone.”
“They may suspect; but I'm wearing a full mask; that will keep my propriety.”
“Not when that brother of yours is going as a tom-cat!” retorted Anna. “They’ll think you planned matching costumes on purpose.”
Anna just shrugged.
But, of course Ges would be, Galina realised. Shared memories meant she was still fond of him but always he had teased and tormented and been jealous if she outshone him. Why would today be any different? They had talked about their costumes, which meant he would be bound and determined to upstage her in some way, foiling her plan to have the most talked about costume at the ball. She sighed: better to bow gracefully to the inevitable.
“I suppose I’ll just have to wear the gown I wore to last year’s Winterfair.”
But her bottom lip drooped in disappointment. Only the matrons and patriarchs would be in normal dress tonight. All the younger generation would be in costume, and no matter how lovely her gown it would mean she was not one of them. And she had meant to win this year’s competition too.
“What about those old costumes stored in the attic?”
Galina grimaced. She remembered playing dress-up as a little girl, using the contents of old chests.
“You see to your hair while I go upstairs to check,” offered Anna.
In the end, she wore a silver and gold silk tissue fairy outfit, complete with gauzy wings, diamante crown and sparkling wand, which some long dead Vorrutyer had worn to a many-years-forgotten feast. Glittery spray had turned Galina’s hair rainbow coloured. The effect was, in its own way, very striking – just not in the way she had originally imagined.
She was, however, pleased as she tripped lightly down the central staircase. At the bottom were her parents and the Vorkosigan party. Count Vorkosigan looked smart in house uniform. Not for the first time she thought the chocolate brown-and-silver that little bit more distinguished than the Vorrutyer blue-and-gray her father wore (though that could have been due to the old General’s trim torso, when her father tended to portliness). Beside him was a slightly shorter, stockier figure, smart in a King of Hearts costume. The heir, if she remembered correctly, home on leave. She curtsied graciously as Lord Vorkosigan bowed with precise correctness, and kissed the air just above her hand.
And the perfect fairy-tale princess smiled serenely as her handsome prince escorted her to the ball.
Galina was all too conscious she was in disgrace. It was, as criticism always was, an unpleasant feeling, and not one she had felt for over a year. She had grown used to basking in the approval of people around her: the young and beautiful wife of the son and heir to the Vorkosigan District. Without any mother-in-law to rule the roost, whatever Galina wanted she got. And given what she wanted was horses, there could be no better place to be than Vorkosigan Surleau. Papa Piotr was a renowned horse-breeder (none better). Galina had spent much of the past year in the stables and breeding barn. When not there, she had spent time with Papa, either refining her dressage techniques under his expert tutelage, or in his study, spending the hours after dinner most evenings discussing the breeding programme and planning which mare would be put with which stud.
Aral was usually away on some kind of assignment or other with the military. Clearly being Lieutenant Lord Vorkosigan mean more to him than being a husband. Given Galina’s passion for horse-riding she could hardly object. Winning next year’s Championship meant more to her than being a wife. It had not taken her long to realise that Aral did not share either his father’s – or her own – love of horses. As the first year of her marriage progressed she had come to realise that in many ways she had married the wrong Vorkosigan. She had many more interests in common with Papa Piotr.
Not that she wanted to be married to him; he was her father’s generation, after all. And Galina had discovered sexual passion. The disciplined life of equine competition had never left her with any extra energy to spare before marriage. Plus, as the only daughter of a Count she had been dogged by chaperones. Not even the most passionate suitor could make much headway while the frowning middle-aged duenna her father had hired was watching over her. But Aral almost never visited the countryside, except exceedingly briefly to whisk her off to the capital on his infrequent leaves. There they attended parties hosted by other young married couples, finishing each night tumbling into bed, laughing giddily over the latest in-jokes and slightly the worse for drink. With no horse to absorb her energy, her sexuality asserted itself. Aral had proven a talented teacher.
She had not, however, given any thought for the natural consequences. In retrospect she realised her short-sightedness. Papa Piotr did run a breeding farm after all. And she and Aral had been married off by their fathers precisely because both hoped for grandchildren. On her honeymoon Galina had been aware of this, and slightly frightened by it, but prepared to do her duty. Nothing had happened though; and as the months went by she had put the possibility out of her mind. It had not been difficult given how much she was enjoying herself working with Papa Piotr’s stud farm.
Now, Galina lay in her bed feeling thoroughly sorry for herself. The doctor had come and gone. He had spoken in hushed tones to The-Count-her-Father-in-Law in her private sitting room. She had not been meant to hear; but the door to her bedroom had been left ajar and the Count’s voice had risen sharply as he was briefed by the doctor. He had been hushed quickly; even a Count bowed to medical expertise and kindly Dr Vorlovsky’s tone had been stern. He believed her too young and innocent to have known she was pregnant; he believed she could well become deeply depressed once the full realisation she had lost her baby sunk in. He cited medical symptoms to watch for. He prescribed rest and pampering. He warned of serious risks. In short: he convinced. And Galina was thankful for it. But she was left in no doubt of her father-in-law’s reaction. Her foolishness in jumping – falling from – that half-broken mare had meant the loss of the Count’s much longed for heir. He was Papa Piotr no longer.
A large brown tabby cat jumped on the bed and curled up beside Galina. She purred loudly when her ears were stroked, then rolled over on her back and wriggled in sybaritic pleasure as Galina rubbed her tummy. At least she provided some comfort. The doctor, no matter how deferential to her status as Lady Vorkosigan, had not. The middle-aged man had looked at her with a combination of pity and exasperation. He had ‘appreciated’ she had had a shock and would be feeling upset. He had treated her like a half-wit. Not that there was not a measure of truth to his words. The miscarriage had come as a shock, just not the pregnancy. She had known she had conceived. It had not entered her consciousness when she decided to put that horse through her paces. It never occurred to her it would be dangerous if she was thrown.
It was a week before Galina left her rooms. Over dinner that evening, in the formal dining room, the Count politely enquired after her health. He spoke about a forthcoming flower show; perhaps she would care to be one of the judges? He mentioned how shabby the sitting room had become and suggested she send for swatches of fabric from the capital and embark on redecorating. He spoke about plans for visits to nearby villages and beautification projects. He never once mentioned horses. Later, over coffee, he promised never to mention her lost baby to Aral. It would be their secret. He withdrew to his study immediately after and closed the door firmly behind him. Lips quivering, eyes swimming in tears, Galina retired for the night.
The next morning she packed and left for Vorbarra Sultana.
He let himself into Vorkosigan House quietly, using a passage from the disused stables few knew existed, before making his way up a secondary staircase to the family apartments. It had been several years since he had had to use stealth; but the skills learned in a harsher world had not left him. The modern world was gentler; it appeared kinder and more civilised in comparison with the Barrayar of his youth. Barrayar thought itself come of age, worldly and wise, now that had joined the rest of the galaxy; it rejected former customs as backwoods crudity born from the cruel time of isolation. It was subtle and sophisticated. But he had learned subtlety from the Cetagandans.
The door was locked – except no door could be locked closed against the one who held the master key. Inside, her private apartment was dim with the waning light from twilight. She was seated at her writing desk; a lamp illuminated the letter she was writing, leaving all else in gloom.
From the shadows he fired, then checked her neck for a pulse, and positioned his son’s service plasma arc in her hand. Piotr smiled grimly as he read her letter, before slipping it into his pocket and letting himself out as quietly as he had come.