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By the Seashore

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"Please do let me know when you have finished trying to pretend that nothing is the matter."

Simon Illyan turned to see Lady Alys Vorpatril watching him calmly as she sipped her tea. He'd been reading a book, but his attention had been drawn by the children playing on the beach outside the window. "Nothing is the matter," Simon said.

Alys raised an eloquent eyebrow. Years as the spymaster in the shadows had given Simon a deep and thorough appreciation for what was not said; years as the velvet glove directing the High Vor social scene had honed Alys's subtlety to an even greater degree. It was so satisfying to be spared the necessity of spelling things out. And yet, there were times that Simon wished her observational skills were slightly lower.

There were times, as now, when there was simply nothing to be done, and thus no use talking about it. Yet Alys knew he was preoccupied, and would not forget it until she figured it out. He sighed. "I was watching the children," he said. "Once I became the head of ImpSec, of course, I didn't dare risk forming any attachments, and as I had no children by then ... I accepted that I never would. When I was still young and working twenty-four hour days on a regular basis, it did not seem like much of a sacrifice, in the grand scheme of things. Now that I have few occupations during my day-to-day existence, that is one of the few things I wish were different."

Alys's eyes softened. "Oh, Simon," she said, and reached out to take his hand. He held it in silence, reveling in the simple comfort of touch. How seldom had he been able to indulge in that luxury during his adult life! He switched off his reader and sat there enjoying the touch while Alys sipped her tea one handed. Here, in private, on holiday on the South Coast, they could both relax. Perhaps later, when the family in the cottage down the path had had their fill of playing in the sand, he and Alys would put on their sunbathing suits and lounge on the chaise and listen to the sounds of the waves.

If they were feeling adventurous, they might put on the wetsuits the resort provided to protect their guests from the ocean's heavy metals and go swimming. The metal concentration in the ocean wasn't dangerously high, of course, unless you went swimming nude every day for years or swallowed lots of it. But even that slight risk of heavy-metal-induced mutation was too high, on Barrayar. Unless, of course, one was a middle-aged man who would never have a child … but Alys would still insist on a wetsuit. It was the proper attire for sea-bathing, after all.

Alys' console dinged, and Simon lifted his bookreader up from his lap. Alys withdrew her hand and checked her messages. They passed some time together that way, reading and sipping their tea. "Countess Vordarian sends her regards," Alys said at last. "Her nephew seems to have had some common sense scared into him at last, and she thanks you for arranging it without drawing his indiscretions to ImpSec's attention."

"It was a trivial matter, and best nipped in the bud," Simon responded. The little intrigues of the Vorish elite could become great matters so easily, and arranging them so that they did not was an interesting way to pass time that he now had far too much of. Alys could always be counted on to steer him in the right direction, as she had done when his hobby had been his profession.

"Nevertheless, she is at your disposal if you require her assistance in any other … trivial matter." She fell silent, and Simon thought that would be the end of it. "Lady Tatiana Vorob'yev's daughter Theodora was just betrothed to Maxim Vorfolse."

"Has Count Vorfolse declared Maxim his heir?" Simon raised an eyebrow. That announcement had been anticipated for years—the Council of Counts' approval would be a foregone conclusion, as Maxim was the nephew of the current count and a studious young man who had been running what passed for the Vorfolse District's government for some time.

"No," Alys said. "But he has grown tired of waiting, and apparently told Theodora that if she would not have him without the certainty of a District, he would not have her. Lady Tatiana still thinks her only daughter could do better than the Vorfolse heir, even if he were certain to get it. I have suggested to her that perhaps the Vorfolse district will allow her daughter greater scope for her talents than one in better shape. Perhaps that will console her to her daughter's choice."

"Whether Maxim gets the District in the end or not, those two will have their hands full trying to drag that district into the modern age. Best of luck to them," Simon said.

"Yes," Alys said. "I shall have to think of a suitable wedding gift to give them." She frowned thoughtfully.

Simon didn't make any suggestions; since he and Alys were not married, they would not be sending a gift together. And since he barely knew the Vorob'yevs or Maxim Vorfolse (an endorsement for a person's character if ever there was one), it wouldn't do for him to send one on his own.

"If Maxim were officially the heir, I should think a galactic specialist in reproductive medicine for the largest hospital in his capital would be just the thing." Alys shook her head. "I do so wish Vorfolse would make up his mind—this in-between nonsense makes everything so much more difficult." She tapped the screen, paging to the next message. "Madame Madeleine Vorlakial will be having a hunting party at her cousin Cristophe's lodge, next month; tasteless, in the circumstances, but Marisse informs me that her grandson Emile will be going anyway."

She continued to give him the news as she read her letters, all the High Vor gossip that only came to those who were part of that society.

The society she would no longer fully be a part of if she married a prole and had children with him.

Simon wished he were a painter, or a sculptor, a photographer. That he had any talent and training that would allow him to capture the way the moonlight glistened in Alys's hair as they lay in bed together. Such impulses were common enough, for lovers, as the former Head of ImpSec knew better than most, but as someone who used to professionally go through other peoples' dirty laundry, he also knew how rarely such impulses resulted in anything more than merely pornographic.

"I wouldn't give you up for anything, Alys," Simon said, running his fingertips gently up and down one of her arms.

"Nor I you," she replied, returning the caress. There was no intent in their movements that night besides the intimacy and comfort of each others' presence. "I was never maternal, exactly, not as Cordelia is."

"Few are," said Simon.

"My mother said it didn't matter; likely it would change with the birth of my first child, and if it did not, that was what nannies were for. But I was comforted that Padma was as interested in children as any man I knew—not just as heirs, but for their own sake. I knew that he could supply any deficiency that I lacked. Then he died, and Ivan was born. I found I loved Ivan more than I had imagined I could, but I was still alone with him. And then Padma's mother wanted to take him, and I couldn't let him go. I've always wondered: would it have been better for him, to have grown up down in the District, with all his cousins for playmates instead of in the Capitol with me?"

"Hard to say," Simon said. "Perhaps, but … he would be no less attractive a figurehead for intrigue, but he would have been denied the first-hand look he got at the politics of the High Vor he got through you and your position. That might not have ended well for him. Or anyone."

"I suppose," Alys said. "He'd certainly have had less contact with Miles and Gregor, and whether that would have been better or worse for him I cannot say."

"Being playmates with both Miles and Gregor was certainly good preparation for being a junior officer," Simon said with a smile. "All those orders to follow."

She huffed a laugh. “Don’t I know it! Ivan himself could be a handful, but when Miles was involved, things were invariably worse. And some of their adventures, while common enough for boys, were entirely out of my frame of reference. If Padma had been alive, I could have simply handed things over to him once Ivan reached a certain age. But I was left to muddle through on my own.”

“He did have more than his usual share of teenage boy idiot obliviousness,” Simon said, “but he’s turned out a fine man.”

“Yes,” Alys said. “I am glad I had him, but it was hard enough as a young woman. Even with you to help, and a uterine replicator to conserve my health and energy at the start, I don’t think I could do it, now.”

“I know,” Simon said. “Life is a series of compromises. No one ever gets everything they want; I’ve seen enough to know that. The trick is to make your choice and be happy with what you have, and I made my choices long ago. I chose my life; I could have asked Aral to be replaced as head of ImpSec a decade before Haroche forced me out, and I didn’t. I could have chosen to build my post-ImpSec life with someone else, someone who would have given me children, and I didn’t. I chose you, and I am so very happy with you. Don’t worry about me, or think that I wish you to change in this to accommodate me. But you must allow me a moment of melancholy, every now and then.”

“Of course,” Alys said.

Simon waited for her to say something else, but nothing came. And he certainly had no wish to dwell further on it; the subject could only pain them both. So he turned his mind to other matters and waited for sleep to claim him.