Work Header

Reaching One's Limits

Work Text:

By tradition, official Winterfair celebrations were held in Vorbarr Sultana. By family tradition, unofficial celebrations were held at Vorkosigan Surleau, just as soon as the principal participants could get away from the pomp and circumstance of the capitol. This provided an opportunity for them to relax.

“For you to relax, perhaps, from that dog-and-pony show you Barrayarans call government,” remarked Cordelia to Aral as they got into bed the night of their arrival, “but the locals here look to the lady of the house for every little decision, and then argue with me because there are traditions for all of them and I’ve stepped on something.”

“You could put Miles in charge. As heir that would be traditional too.”

When Alys arrived early the next morning she fully expected to roll up her sleeves and help - not that she actually touched her sleeves when she did so, but the demands of a big celebration of the kind a District threw for its Count tended to leave Cordelia frazzled, while Alys always knew just what to say to get old retainers to forget their disagreements and work smoothly together. She was informed by the Vorkosigan’s Major Domo that Cordelia had gone to Hassadar for two days and would return only just before the celebrations kicked off.

Who did you say she put in charge of the preparations?”

Taking note of the glazed expression in the Major Domo’s eyes as he informed her of the Count’s decision, Alys told Ivan to help Miles, extracted a small overnight case from the luggage the servants were in process of taking upstairs, and promptly ordered the light flyer to take her to Hassadar.

Ivan went in search of his cousin. He had come prepared to be slightly bored. Not that he would not enjoy this private Winterfair with the Vorkosigans just as he always had; but from the lofty heights of eighteen, and having his first two terms as a cadet under his belt, Ivan had also expected to find the amusements from his childhood somewhat old hat. Still, if Aunt Cordelia had handed over to Miles, things might be different this year. No … not might, he thought as he sighted Miles in the ballroom: would be different. More than different, in fact. This year, Winterfair would be decidedly … interesting.

Usually the ballroom was dominated by a huge evergreen at one end. Ivan had lost count of the number of times he had heard his Aunt Cordelia lament the Barrayaran custom of killing a perfectly good healthy tree just to hang a few baubles on it for a few days, all for the sake of tradition. (Only Aunt Cordelia could make a swear word of "tradition".) He remembered how when he was eight he had asked her what Beta Colony did instead, only to be hear incredulously that there was no Winterfair. School had been teaching the origins of Winterfair that year in history class, just before the break-up of lessons for the holiday; and Ivan had learned the important role the Counts had played in deciding who lived and who died in the deepest, darkest, coldest winters by stockpiling supplies and inviting their most faithful retainers and the strongest warriors into their strongholds. In Betan winters, he asked his aunt, however had they managed to select the fittest and best? He recalled that his mother had intervened at that point, sending him on an errand to the cook.

The traditonal tree did still grace the ballroom this year; but it was situated at the other end, where the room opened up to the wide staircase. Miles had taken advantage of the extra height to choose a taller tree. When Ivan pointed out that there were insufficient ornaments to cover the larger tree completely, Miles explained to him that, to avoid bare spots, he had ordered the glass decorations to be placed on the higher branches. For now, things might look a little odd, he admitted; but he assured Ivan that it would only be temporary: he had co-opted local cooks to make maple sugar decorations for the lower branches.

Meanwhile, in the bay window at the other end of the room, he was constructing an elaborate fort complete with moat. Ivan admired it, but wondered why it was there.

“For the District children to play in," said Miles simply. “In case it snows too hard and they cannot get outside for the games.”

“Mmm ... District?” Ivan asked cautiously. Traditionally, it was the Armsmen and their families who were invited to a feast, with games (and tobogganing when there was sufficient snow) keeping the children occupied.

“It just seemed a bit … elitist … to limit it to retainers,” Miles explained, “so I decided to invite the whole District this year.”

Ivan recognised Aunt Cordelia’s influence, transformed by Miles’ enthusiasm running unchecked.

“Surely if it snows that hard they won’t be able to get here to begin with,” he pointed out.

“I’ve ordered sleighs and organised hayrides.”

Of course he had.

“Have you mentioned this to Uncle Simon?” asked Ivan.

Miles looked slightly stricken – clearly something he had overlooked. Normally Ivan would have missed no opportunity to gloat over his usually-more-brilliant-but-prone-to-occasional-lapses-in-good-judgment-due-to-his-over-enthusiasm cousin. He found himself strangely loathe to score off Miles this time, however. Inwardly, he promised himself not to make a habit of it, before saying reassuringly, “I’ll take care of that.”

However, when Ivan tracked Simon Illyan down in the library, he seemed strangely disinterested in what Ivan had to say about Miles’ over-ambitious plans.

“We are in the middle of Vorkosigan Surleau, traditionally the most loyal of all the Count’s Districts, having left behind Vorbarr Sultana which is a hotbed of intrigue. I have just finished running that three-ring circus our illustrious Prime Minister has made of Winterfair, and come here to relax and now you expect me to twist myself in circles all because Miles is planning to invite a few more people to the party? Just what risks to Gregor do you expect to arise from this?” And, as Ivan seemed about to interrupt, “Yes, yes, I can see risks to Miles ... from some backcountry woodsman who decides to practice retrospective birth control on the mutie heir who is beggaring the district with his extravagant modern ideas. But,” Illyan added pointedly, “that is hardly an ImpSec matter.”

“I just thought you’d want to know,” protested Ivan.

“Well you go on thinking,” said Illyan ascerbically, “and when your thoughts bear fruit, come show it to me.”

Later, he tracked down Aral at the lake, where he was checking the thickness of the ice preparatory to going ice fishing. He filled him in. “Not but what he wasn’t absolutely right to consider the security implications,” Simon finished. “I was just taken aback that it was Ivan who thought to come to me.”

“Don’t be too impressed,” Aral said. “Had he thought a bit longer he should have realised that nothing Miles could get up to here would fail to be noticed by both your staff and my Armsmen and reported back to us. Nonetheless, it is a hopeful indication of forethought and planning, which have been sorely lacking in Ivan up to now.”

It was a point. It was, however, a point that somehow seemed at a tangent to the real point. “How long are you going to let this go on?” Simon wondered.

Aral shrugged, “I thought I’d see how long it takes Miles to realise his ambition has outstripped his supplies.”

“‘Let’s see what happens’, eh? Clearly that isn’t just Gregor’s motto.”

Aral laughed. “Who do you think he first heard it from?”

After no more than a moment’s thought, Illyan responded thoughtfully, “Cordelia, now that you ask.”

Aral just grinned.

Later that day, Miles began talking about constructing a temporary structure to the west of the house to accommodate visitors from the Dendarii mountains who would be coming too far to make the return journey the same night.

Ivan decided this time to try to elicit help from Gregor. “Can’t you talk him into seeing some sense” he asked plaintively. “No sooner does he solve one problem than he creates three more. Is he ever going to stop adding to this spectacle of his? Where is the quiet family holiday I thought I’d find boring?”

Gregor laughed, and went to have a word with Miles.

An hour later, while on his way back from passing one of Miles’ messages to the cook, Ivan saw a squad of men engrossed in some construction project. Incredulously, he saw that Gregor was foreman in charge.

“Oh, it’s just a temporary spa next to the lake,” Miles said nonchalantly. “So that people can enjoy themselves skating on the lake and then relax in the hot tubs afterward; also, overnight guests can use it as a bathhouse the next morning before they set out for home.”

(Oh, right. Of course.)

The next day Ivan found himself kept too busy to think. Miles’ plans grew and grew like Jack’s beanstalk; and he sent Ivan here and there and everywhere with one message after another. Of course, Ivan could ride; but he had never been over-enamoured of horses. Nevertheless, by afternoon, he felt stressed enough to take refuge in the barn. Helping Miles was even worse than being at the beck and call of his mother! He sat feeding Fat Ninny sugar lumps while he ate the roast vat meat sandwich and oil cakes he’d cadged from the kitchen on his way. Once finished, he sat for a bit, enjoying the quiet. It was peaceful here. From the distance, the noise of construction could be heard ... but only dimly. If he was right, it was probably the bleachers. This morning, Miles had decided on an equestrian display. Somehow, from somewhere, he had found sufficient supplies and enough help; and workmen were now constructing an arena. If Ivan left....

No. He decided he had had enough. Definitely, enough; and more than enough; and long since. He stretched out in an empty stall and fell asleep.

That night, the evening meal consisted of a buffet on the sideboard of the dining room. A few people did eat at the table; but most simply filled their plates and took them back to whatever project they'd been conned into working on. Ivan had to admit the food was good. In fact, normally, he would have gone back for seconds. In the circumstances, though, he decided it would be prudent not to chance it, lest he run into Miles and be put to work again. Instead he went looking for Simon Illyan, and found him deep in discussion with Uncle Aral in the library.

“I’ve been thinking,” said Ivan, without any preamble. Illyan looked round, startled. “You told me to return.”

“I did? That sounds very rash of me.”

“‘Once my thoughts bore fruit,’ you said.”

“Did I?” Illyan looked quizzically at Aral, who shrugged.

“I came to tell you that I figured it out.”

“Figured what out, boy?” asked Aral. He sounded mildly intrigued.

“Your plan,” Ivan replied, a little stiffly, “only you got it wrong.”

“How so?”

“You forgot this is Miles you gave the reins to. He doesn’t have an ‘off’ button.”

“And you just figured this out?” said Aral quietly.

“No,” said Ivan. He sounded more than slightly scathing. “I’ve known that since I was about four years old. I meant, I figured out you gave him this job of organising Winterfair as a test, to see how he would handle it when he finally figured out that there had to be a limit to what he could do.” Encouraged by their sharpened attention, he went on, “What did you say to him? Something like ‘a celebration people will remember’ is my guess.”

Aral nodded.

“Well, have you figured out that there’s a limit to what you want to do?”

This earned him a pair of frowns. With a grin of triumph, he pointed out the obvious. “The catch is: Miles has no sense of proportion. None whatsoever. He doesn’t know there are such things as limits. Not that apply to him, anyway. Hell, anyone else would have decided enough was enough long since. I would have. But not Miles. When he comes to the end of what is humanly possible for one man, he just pours on the charm. People fall all over themselves to help.”

This impassioned revelation was met with silence. Finally, Illyan asked, “So what do you want us to do?”

Ivan blinked in surprise. They were asking him? The most powerful and most feared men in the country were asking him? It took him a long moment to recover. And almost as long a moment to come up with his answer. “Aunt Cordelia is coming back tomorrow morning isn’t she,” he asked. “And my mother?”

Aral nodded.

“Then,” said Ivan in delight, “you don’t have to do anything!”

Illyan and Aral shared a look. Simon's lips twitched, just a bit; and Aral laughed, a deep belly laugh. He stood up suddenly, and held out his hand.

Uncertainly, Ivan put out his own, and found it grasped and shaken. Then Illyan rose; and Ivan was pushed into a wing chair and handed a glass of maple mead.

“A toast!” said Aral, raising his glass. “To Ivan, who has finally learned how to say no."