Laisa put her left foot in the stirrup, pushed herself easily up into the saddle, and carefully settled herself on the white mare. The wedding girls fluttered around her, making sure her Komarran trousers fell perfectly, that she hadn't disarranged a single hair in her coiffure, or a flower braided in the mare's mane. In the months since Gregor had first shown her the lovely mare she'd had many practice sessions with the animal. She didn't know at first that the horse had been drugged into submission until the beautiful thing stumbled on an small easy hill in the corner of the Imperial garden. When she got the secret out of Gregor she wasn't happy. If she had to ride a tall unfamiliar beast, she wanted the horse to have all its wits about it. “All in” was the Toscane family motto; either they committed fully to a project or rejected it entirely. The trainer taught Laisa to post with Ariela and while the movement was not as easy as a walk, she grimly learned to use her knees and the gentle rein touches.
It had helped when the trainer had suggested small jumps—at first no more than a small log—but when Martin showed Ariela how to hop over, Laisa was able to get her to imitate it. He put up a one foot jump which looked much larger when Laisa guided the mare to face it. Then the mare flung herself into a full gallop and leaped over easily. The rush was amazing—for an instant she and the horse were one, flying.
Riding a horse to meet her groom had never been her plan—but then there were no horses on Komarr, and she had bound her fortune to this strange planet—to this handsome man now joining her on his black stallion.
It had taken several visits with her parents to convince them she was serious. Basil and Maribella Toscane had been sure that the engagement was meant to give their shipping empire a boost with the Barrayarans, and had been frustrated when she convinced them it wouldn't.
“Why, Laisa? Why?” her mother had asked over and over again. It had become very annoying, and Laisa finally stopped responding after she'd explained for the fifth time. He was handsome—she'd dated handsome men. He was powerful and rich—she had nearly been engaged to a man whose family owned twice as many shares as hers, and was a major figure in Komarran politics. He was sexy, he was kind—she had had kind and sexy men before. But he was the only man who'd looked at her and not seen the trade diplomat first. Not seen all the shares, her father's glittering career in shipping, her mother's financial wizardry in investing their gains, and wondered what he could get from her. Not that she intended to let Gregor forget she was a Toscane and a professional woman, even as she had his children. Could she call it chemistry? She'd never believed in those who said they found the perfect partner in a glance across the room, but...
As she walked her horse to the wedding circle, Cordelia appeared in her vision—happy-eyed as Laisa had never seen her. She couldn't avoid a tiny wince as she remembered the visit with Cordelia's-unique- explanation of events.
“We've known for a long time that women choose their mates partly because of the MHC and other immune complexes.”
“Mmm?" She'd been taking a sip of tea—Cordelia had cornered her for a brief visit, with all the Ma Kosti Vorkosigan house delicacies on offer, but she'd eaten so many formal meals all she wanted was a drink. She'd put two spiced apricots tartlets on her plate—it she didn't eat them she could sneak them out to Gregor.
“The Major Histocompatibility Complexes. Everyone's immune system responds differently to infections—one complex may attack ABC diseases, and the other one QRS. There's always overlap, of course, but women are primed to find the MHC most different from their own, so their children could resist both ABC and QRS challenges.
“Gregor's MHC is likely wildly different from yours, given Barrayar's centuries of genetic isolation—I wish we could get samples from both of you. Blood only, I think.”
Laisa swallowed the sip of tea and reached for a tartlet. All she needed now was a fight with the most powerful woman on the planet, her fiance's foster mother, but she wasn't going to submit to medical tests. Again.
“So—you say that's been known for a long time?” Polite and interested. Polite and interested.
“Yes, even before space colonization. It's far more complex now, with both and major and minor complexes tied to the exact genome pairs. And they've done multiple scent tests.”
“Yes, the MHC complexes create pheromones—attracting scents. Women always pick the man who smells the sexiest. Of course the research started with women smelling used t shirts, but we advanced to pure olfactory samples centuries ago.”
Laisa couldn't find a word. Smelling dirty shirts to find a partner-an appalling idea. She tried to remember how her other lovers smelled—only one came to mind.
“That's interesting. The only one whose scent I remember smelled—happy—he was easy to be with, and we were happy, but—I don't know.”
“Were you related to him?”
“Pardon?" She said, wishing she could swear instead.
“Were you related? Sometimes women like the way men smell because their MHC's are too similar—they feel like home.”
“I have no idea. All the great trading companies have intermarriages, but I don't particularly recall his family.”
Maribella and Basil would faint if they heard this conversation. She wished she could leave, but she wasn't scheduled for more visits with Cordelia before the wedding, and the Countess's eyes were still bright.
“So I guess I smell good to Gregor, too.”
“Oh yes, but it's different with men. They are attracted visually, of course, and to exogamy, to women whose genes are unrelated to theirs. I'm sure that's why he initially fell for you—that and your lovely maternal figure, of course. Gregor has lacked a mother for so long—”
That was a bit much for Laisa. “You think Gregor wants to marry me because he needs a mother,” she said, struggling for her most professional voice. “Because he's never acted that way, and I don't plan on being his mother.”
She could tell Cordelia was also struggling to remain polite. “No, you're not going to be his mother. What I was trying to say is that Gregor has never wanted a Barrayaran bride. I explained this to Alys a few years ago, and she told me to shove off. But Gregor has obsessed over his family lines for years, looking at each girl they pushed toward him and getting her family breeding sorted. It never worked out. I suggested a Vor not of the highest rank, possibly some South Continent girl. Or even a prole, which is a term I've always hated. I thought that if he married an armsman's daughter that might be passable, but Alys said—never mind, it didn't turn out to be her doing in the end.”
“But,” and now she did have questions. “What about personalities? What if someone smells divine but is unkind or cruel?”
Cordelia waved this away. “Your limbic system handles that. When people say they're “following their gut,” they're actually being aware of these functions.”
She went on in an infodump Laisa was sure she'd never recall, about the amygdala and fear learning, the hippocampus and memory indexing, the hypothalamus and its emotion-producing molecules, the olfactory cortex...
Laisa took another sip of tea and bit the inside of her cheek to stay awake. It was only supposed to be a half hour visit, she thought numbly. Where was Gregor, the rat? Surely she'd been here all afternoon. She practiced her empress smile and worked very hard to keep her eyelids from drooping.
“Kiddo!” Cordelia jumped up and held her hands out to Gregor. “I've been telling Laisa how she chose you—the compatibility of the immune system is a wonderful thing.”
Laisa gave a tiny jerk. She hadn't dozed off in front of Countess Vorkosigan, had she? But Cordelia had eyes only for her foster son.
Gregor kissed Cordelia on the cheek and managed a a small sideways smile to Laisa.
“Ah, wonderful to see you too. Alys has another function for us, and we can't keep the general waiting.”
They quickly said goodby and hurried to the groundcar. Once they were safely inside, Laisa glanced at Gregor, trying unsuccessfully to control a giggle.
“Is she always like that? She told me I picked you because you were smelly.”
She didn't disbelieve the Countess, just—it had been overwhelming listening to her airily spun theories.
Gregor nodded solemnly. “You should have heard her when I turned 30 without marrying. She was convinced that I only---wanted to be with men-or-- didn't want anyone at all. She thought I should give ImpMed a sperm sample.” He shuddered, and then pulled her over for a cuddle and a long kiss, and would have gone on to more if she hadn't gently stopped him. “My hair—it can't be mussed.” Then she got a thought—
“What were you supposed to do for an egg? Was it supposed to be anonymous?"
“I don't know. I had to cut her short when she started musing on that.”
She leaned over and inhaled deeply. Woodsy? All those who spent time around those scary open fires smelled a little like that. Deep darker tones she would call intense—intriguing—mysterious? Something she wanted to explore. Citrus—that was cologne, but not all of it. He had a dense tone of pure sexual attraction she couldn't explain or deny. Regardless of what the scent might mean biologically, it was coupled with his kindness, his humor, his open appreciation of her beauty and brains.
Now they'd reached the groat circle. She dismounted. Ariela and Gregor's horse were lead away. Now the circle was closed, and she looked up at him, so handsome in the red and blues. Now Alys was coaching them in all their promises, all the phrases she'd learned in the four languages—and now the groats were kicked open and she looked over at him. She was an Empress, she was happy, she was married to the sexiest man she'd ever known. She took another big breath—of fresh grass, the rich groats, the open air—and the man she loved.