"Is this normal?" Cordelia asked, staring out at the whitened world. It had started snowing last night, and now it was lying a foot deep across the gardens, with deeper drifts in the corners, and it was still falling lightly, big fat flakes whirling in the wind. It changed the light in the room, turning the reddish Barrayaran daylight to something much brighter and colder.
"Is what normal?" Aral turned his attention from the stack of flimsies he was poring over in front of the fireplace. "Is something wrong?"
"The snow," Cordelia said. "I've never seen anything like it. We don't have--well, we don't really have weather at all on Beta, apart from sandstorms. But it's so cold in here." Someone had tried to persuade her to put on a coat made of the skins of dead animals yesterday when she went to ImpMil to sit with Miles in the replicator. She had requisitioned a set of military winter gear instead, which was made with modern technical fabrics instead of the biological version.
"They're saying it will be a particularly hard winter," Aral said, "but we do get snow every year. And they'll have all the modern heating up and running here soon."
"What about everywhere else?" The modern heating systems at the Residence were one of the many things that her fire had damaged. She'd been told the building had a backup system, and had foolishly not enquired as to the detail. For Barrayarans, it seemed, real open fireplaces in almost every room constituted an entirely acceptable heating system. The whole building was designed to work that way, including plenty of draughts to facilitate all the combustion taking place, not to mention staff to light and maintain all the fires. It didn't make it warm the way a proper internal climate control system should, but the indoor temperature was higher than the outdoor temperature, and there were warm places to sit. Cordelia had been concerned for the servants, but their rooms didn't seem much colder than anywhere else. "One of the housemaids said it was warmer here than at her family home."
"A lot of homes still don't have modern heating systems, just wood fires, even in the city. It makes for tough soldiers, Father always--" he cut himself off.
"Culling the weak," Cordelia muttered. "Barrayarans!"
"We are trying to modernise," Aral said. "Last summer, before you came, Father had me administering a project in the District to improve home heating in Hassadar. More jobs and better living standards in one package. I want to put some Imperial funds behind something like that, planet-wide. But it's a big project."
"One of hundreds of big projects." Cordelia watched the snowflakes bounce off the window. "And this week at least, the Regent and Emperor aren't much better off than the rest of the planet. The heating engineer had to cancel. Apparently he fell on the ice and broke his arm. They're calling in someone else, but one of the other emperors--Yuri, I think--chose a strange system that almost nothing else on the planet uses, so it's a bit complicated." She'd learned a lot about the fabric of the Imperial Residence, this past month.
"If only his strangeness had been confined to heating systems," Aral said, and picked up his flimsies again. There was a bustle at the door, and Gregor came in. His face was more animated than Cordelia had seen it lately, and he was dragging his coat behind him.
"Lady Cordelia," he said, coming to join her at the window, "Lady Cordelia, can we go out and build a snowman? Please?"
Cordelia stooped down to his level, smiling. Gregor hadn't asked her for anything since coming back to the Residence, instead going meekly where he was told and responding in monosyllables.
"A snowman?" she said. "Sure, kiddo. But you'll have to show me how. I've never built a snowman before."
"Never? Never ever?"
"Never ever," Cordelia agreed. "I've never seen snow until the other day. It doesn't snow where I come from. So let's go and see what it's like."
They traipsed down several flights of stairs and through to a vestibule leading out into the rear courtyard, where paths had been industriously cleared around the edges, but the snow still lay pristine in the centre. Cordelia wrapped Gregor up tightly in his coat and all the accoutrements that a determined maid insisted upon. Suiting up to go out into the snow seemed almost as complicated as prepping for a spacewalk, and only a small circle of Gregor's face peeped out from the clothing by the time they were finished.
The snow speckled her face, but it didn't feel as cold as she had feared, and within a few minutes Gregor had her rolling snow into balls. The classic image of a snowman had survived even on Beta Colony, and she knew what the result was supposed to look like, but she didn't think her first attempt was going to pass muster.
"No, no, it needs to be bigger!"
"Bigger than this?" Cordelia rolled the ball of snow over with some difficulty. "It's almost as tall as you are!"
"This is going to be a giant snowman," Gregor explained to her. "Bigger than--bigger than Lord Aral." From the tone of his voice, Aral was the biggest person in his world. Possibly that was true. She'd tried encouraging him to draw pictures, hoping to find a way to help him process what had happened to him, but all he did was draw himself and Steggie playing, apparently peacefully, but surrounded by giants. When she asked, he said the giants were soldiers. Guards, attackers, protection or menace, they probably looked very similar to him.
"Bigger than Aral. Okay, it's a plan." She rolled the snowball a bit larger, and it ground to a halt in a corner. "Now, what do we do?"
"Make another one and put it on top," Gregor told her gleefully. Cordelia obeyed, getting snow inside the cuffs of her gloves and down her sleeve. She bent over the ball of accumulating snow, and felt something brush her side. She turned and saw Gregor looking a bit worried and a bit pleased, and a dusting of snow on her side.
"You got me!" She was going to fall down in the snow, but thought better of it. Instead she picked up a small handful of snow and threw it back at him. He gave a shriek that had her starting forwards, until she realised he was laughing. He threw another handful of snow wildly and missed her completely, but she laughed anyway and threw some back again. It was the most play she'd seen from him yet.
"Come help me with this," she said when he stopped throwing snow, and he joined her pushing the second snowball towards the first. Cordelia lifted it up, not without difficulty. It wasn't as tall as Aral yet.
"Another one," said Gregor, and they set about rolling a third ball of snow. Cordelia lost her grip on it as they rolled it back across the courtyard, skidded and fell flat on her face in the snow. Gregor gave a strangled squeak and jumped down beside her. Cordelia got up onto hands and knees. "Oops," she said, and took in Gregor's position. "Hey, I'm not used to this snow yet, don't laugh at me for falling down." He wasn't laughing, of course, but her light tone got him to sit up too. Then he grabbed her coat and held on tight, staring up over her shoulder, and Cordelia turned.
Two black-clad figures were looming over them. For a second Gregor's panic was contagious, then she recognised the faces above the black fatigues.
"Allow me," said Captain Illyan, extending a hand to her, and at the same time Drou said, "Hi, Gregor."
The familiar voice got through to him, and Gregor relinquished Cordelia for this older friend, bouncing up. "Droushie!"
Illyan pulled Cordelia back to her feet. "Good afternoon, my lady. Sire." At Cordelia's glare, he corrected himself. "Gregor. I like your snowman."
"It's not done," Gregor told him, and attempted to push the third heap of snow a bit further.
"It won't go on top if you make it any bigger," Drou said, evidently more experienced at snow constructions than anyone else present. "Let's put it on." She and Illyan hefted it up on top, and Gregor smiled.
"It has to have a hat. And a face." He began to rummage about in the snow, coming up with a half-burned stick and some pebbles. Cordelia hoisted him up so that he could design the face to his satisfaction, and Drou produced some more pebbles for additional detailing.
"And a hat," Gregor insisted, attempting to remove his own.
"Oh no," said Cordelia. "I'll be in big trouble if I let you run around out here without a hat on. Besides, it won't fit." She removed her own. "Try this one."
Gregor placed the bright yellow item--which Cordelia had chosen at random from a box of spare winter gear--on top. "Good. He's not a soldier," he declared. "He's--he's a scientist."
"Studying snow," Cordelia agreed. She set Gregor down and he began to decorate the rest of his snow scientist. Cordelia looked at Illyan and Drou. They both seemed rather windswept, with damp patches of snow on their clothes and in their hair, and Illyan had a rip in the collar of his fatigues. "Been busy, have you?"
"Negri used to conduct Drou's training personally," Illyan said. "It seemed she hadn't done anything in snowy conditions before."
"Looks like it was an even match."
Drou grinned, and Illyan smiled tightly. "I think we both learned a few new tricks," he said.
"Can we make another one, Lady Cordelia?" Gregor asked.
The wind had increased, and without her hat Cordelia was starting to feel chilled, and for all Gregor's enthusiastic tone, his mittens were plainly soaked and caked with snow and his face red with cold.
"Maybe later," she said. "Let's go in and warm up first. Drou's been working outside for a long time, she needs to go in and have a rest."
"Just so," said Illyan. "Droushnakovi, you did well. Make sure you warm up now."
"Yessir." Drou straightened militarily.
"All right, Come on, everyone, we're going in." Cordelia took Gregor's hand. "Our snow scientist will carry on learning about Barrayaran weather out here while we go and warm up."
They went back to the vestibule, where a guard stood on duty, as they did everywhere, the giants in the corners while they played. Cordelia peeled Gregor out of his layers of snow-caked clothing, while Illyan and Drou stamped their boots and shook off their own dustings of snow.
"You're absolutely freezing," Cordelia said as she reached up to brush snow off Drou's shoulders. "How long were you out there?"
"Four hours," Illyan answered. "It's a standard part of the drill, but Drou's never done it before."
"I did this part of training in summer," Drou said in explanation.
"Well, come on up and get warm. You too, Simon. I know for a fact that you don't have any heating at all in your office right now."
"The engineer was supposed to be here today," he said.
"Broken arm. And blocked chimney too. Come on. Aral is burning half the trees on Barrayar upstairs."
Since both Illyan and Drou were shivering and trying to pretend they weren't, Cordelia didn't anticipate much resistance. Gregor completed her work by saying, "Droushie, Droushie, come up and see, we're allowed to play in the old library now."
Cordelia and Illyan fell in behind them on the way up the stairs. "He seems... happy," Illyan said quietly.
"He likes the snow," said Cordelia. "There's a long way to go yet. But he's resilient. Just as well, really."
There was still some snow clinging to the back of Illyan's head and his collar. Cordelia brushed it off, and Illyan reached back without looking at her, accurately sweeping a clump of snow from her shoulder.
"Show-off," Cordelia muttered. "What were you and Drou doing, wrestling in the snow?"
"Some of the time. Tracking and stealth too."
"Hard to be stealthy in a black outfit against white snow," Cordelia observed.
"Well, that's what makes it fun," said Illyan. It wasn't that long that he'd been on field work instead of desk duty, Cordelia thought. First day of snow and he'd taken the opportunity to do some outdoor training. Perhaps things really were starting to calm down.
Gregor scampered up the next flight of stairs, holding Drou's hand.
"We need to restart security drills for the Emperor," Illyan said.
"For Gregor," Cordelia corrected him, again. "I'd rather you waited a bit longer, but I'm sure you're going to tell me it's absolutely essential."
Illyan paused on the stairs, turning to look at her. "I'm afraid so."
"Then you'll need to make it a game. And have as few uniformed soldiers involved as you can."
Illyan looked dubious, but continued up the stairs, and they came to the door of the library. "I really must go and get on--" Illyan said.
"Oh no you don't. You're just as frozen as Drou is. Come in and warm up first."
Inside, Aral was still at work, but he put the heap of reports down when they clattered in. "We have successfully built a snowman," Cordelia informed him. "It's bigger than you. And now we're all halfway to turning into snowmen ourselves."
Aral's gaze swept them all. "So you are. Come on in, then." He got up and went over to the window that overlooked the courtyard. "Oh yes. That is a very fine snowman."
"Snow scientist," Gregor told him. "He's not a soldier."
"Not in that hat, no," Aral agreed. "Did you do the face?"
Cordelia went to flop onto the sofa while Gregor described everything he'd done to the make the snowman, his voice animated. The fire was crackling brightly in the hearth, throwing its heat a little of the way across the room. At least these Barrayarans were realistic about the limitations of their heating system: there were several large woollen blankets draped over the sofa back. She pulled one over herself. Drou came to join her, and Cordelia promptly shared the blanket.
"Did you have fun out there?"
"Captain Illyan's good," she said obliquely. "Not much like Captain Negri, though." She extended her feet towards the fire. "I think my toes are frozen solid." Her eyes tracked Gregor at the window. "How was last night?"
"About the same." Cordelia yawned in illustration. "We'll see if tiring him out during the day helps any. I guess it's all good training for when Miles is born." She looked up. "Come on, Simon, don't stand there looming over us." She pulled back the blanket on the other side, and Illyan cautiously perched on the edge of the sofa, stretching out his hands towards the fire. Aral returned from the window carrying Gregor and deposited him on her lap, then stretched out.
"Too much desk work," he muttered. "Training go well?" he asked Illyan.
"Drou had me eating snow several times," Illyan said with a nod of acknowledgement towards her.
"Good for her." Aral looked at Gregor. "Very important question, Gregor. Do you want hot chocolate now?"
Gregor nodded vigorously, snuggling under the blanket. "Bring some for everyone," Cordelia told him. "It's ridiculously cold out there." She caught identical looks of horror on Drou and Illyan's faces at the prospect of being waited on by the Lord Regent, but ignored them. It was as good for Aral to have some normality as it was for Gregor, and besides, it wasn't as if he was actually going to go down however many stories and corridors it was to the nearest kitchen and prepare hot drinks for everyone with his own hands.
Gregor curled against her for a minute, then began to wriggle, forcing Illyan to sit back as Gregor manoeuvred from Cordelia's lap to his, then clambered back to sit on Drou's lap instead. Cordelia rescued the blanket and pulled it back up over Illyan again.
"You're even colder than Drou," she said as he moved closer to her. "How long were you out there?"
"Quite a while," Illyan said, with unusual imprecision. Cordelia frowned at him.
"I know you can tell me to the millisecond."
He drew himself inwards a little under the blanket, looking away.
"You'd better tell her," said Aral, returning with a tray with suspicious speed. Cordelia was gradually getting used to the idea that the Residence servants tried to anticipate what you would want, but even after being used to command on her ship, it felt strange to her.
Illyan accepted his mug, curling both hands around it. "We had a suspected security breach at 0423," he said. "It turned out to be just drunks throwing snowballs at the building, which is why you weren't told, but I've been out since then, more or less, getting things straightened out, and then training with Drou."
Four in the morning. Someone would have notified Aral, but Cordelia had been in with Gregor then. His nightmares weren't quite as frequent as when they'd first returned to the Residence, but she could count the number of unbroken nights of sleep she'd had on the fingers of one hand.
But he seemed happy enough now, carefully holding his own small mug and concentrating hard on not spilling it, seated now in between Drou and Cordelia. Aral sat down at the end, on Illyan's other side, and draped an arm around Illyan's shoulders, and for a while the only sounds were the crackle of the fire and the clink of the mugs. Gregor drained his mug and gave it to Cordelia, then wriggled down and went to get Steggie from the side table.
"What's next?" Aral asked Illyan.
"Should be security drills," Illyan answered, gesturing with his mug towards Gregor, "but Lady Cordelia says not yet."
Aral met her eye. "Then not yet."
"We wouldn't scare him, Lady Cordelia. I do understand. And his personal guard--I handpicked them all, and they all have experience with young children. They understand too."
"They may well understand. He doesn't. You can't do a simulated emergency now."
Drou was nodding vigorously. "We've done lots of security drills before," she put in, and Cordelia was pleased that she felt confident enough to join in their discussion. "He'll remember it all."
"In the building as it was before," Illyan said. "Everything's changed now. According to yesterday's reports, he still can't find his way from his suite down to the kitchens. Apparently he was intending to cajole the cook into giving him pastries," he added to Cordelia.
"I can't find my way around half the time," Cordelia said. "But I take your point. Hm." She looked at Gregor, who was crawling on the carpet with Steggie. He looked up at her and bounced to his feet.
"Can we go out again and build another one?" he asked.
Cordelia looked out the window. "It's getting a bit windy out there. I have a better idea. Do you want to play hide-and-seek? There's lots and lots of space to play in here. We'll all play with you, Droushie and me and, and, and Uncle Simon."
'Uncle Simon' blinked at her, then smiled understanding. "Hide-and-seek," he said. "Yes, that's a very good game. Do you want to hide with me, Gregor, and Lady Cordelia and Droushie will try to find you?"
"I want to hide with Droushie."
Drou gave Illyan a questioning look. "Route two to the black room, but leave the door ajar," he murmured, and a look of illumination crossed Drou's face.
"Come on, Gregor, I know the best hiding place," she said, taking his hand.
"'Uncle Simon'?" he said dubiously as they scurried out of the room, Gregor giggling.
"No soldiers, remember? You'll make a great uncle. Say 'boo' when you find them. Tickle him. Come on, Simon, it's not enough to stop him getting shot. You want a sane Emperor at the end of all this, or what's the point?"
Drou looked back from the doorway. Gregor was already dashing up the stairs, still laughing. "Princess Kareen--" she began, stopped, began again. "Kareen always used to say, she hated that he had to be Emperor, but that we could make him into a great one if we tried."
She blinked rapidly a few times. "Droushie! Come on!" Gregor shouted from halfway up the stairs. Cordelia pressed her arm quickly, and Drou gave her an acknowledging nod and ran after Kareen's son.
"He'll be all right," said Aral, watching from his desk, and Cordelia had to grant that if anyone knew how to survive a childhood disrupted by horrific military trauma, Aral knew. "He's got you."
"All of us," Cordelia said, stooping to kiss his cheek. "Come on, Uncle Simon, let's go find them."