At first, the room seemed almost bland, its colors muted, its lines simple. Yet it felt, somehow, more luxurious than any elaborately decorated Barrayaran chamber. There were a few low tables, sleek yet comfortable chairs, and a sinuous vase containing one perfect flower. Some sort of hybrid iris, maybe, in an unusually brilliant red, a single note of color highlighting the soothing subtlety of the other furnishings.
Ekaterin leaned back and stretched. It was the first time in days she had taken notice of anything, really. As Miles had grown weaker, it was as if she had become his shadow-self, borrowing the relentless determination and stubborn intensity his body could no longer support. She had heard that married couples came to resemble each other, a sort of blending of personalities, but only after many years together, not on the honeymoon.
Then again, she had had an extraordinary honeymoon.
But now he was safe. That rather unnerving lady doctor had said so; he would recover from whatever vile poison he had ingested. It was hard to be grateful, knowing that the people who had saved him were the same ones who had created such a horrid thing to use as a weapon. “Elegant, subtle, and entirely ruthless” was the phrase Miles had used to describe the Cetagandans, the night he had told her of his first visit to Ceta Prime. Well, no matter; Vor-trained, she could certainly imitate gratitude, with an infinite reservoir of relief adding substance to the illusion.
Miles was resting comfortably in his own room. She could watch him in the oval screen beside her chair, his chest rising and falling again in the rhythm of true sleep, after the awful stillness of stasis. The ba servant who had escorted her to this suite had shown her how to use the screen, and it was a comfort. She was aware of a deep physical exhaustion, but it was not yet time to give in to her body’s demands.
There was a quiet chime, and Ekaterin rose from her seat as the door opened to admit a tall woman in pale-gold robes that complemented the deeper gold of her hair. She had met this woman only once, briefly, but her face was familiar from the comconsole screen.
“Haut Pel Navarr.”
The two exchanged formal nods of acknowledgment. There was probably some elaborate protocol she ought to be following, Ekaterin thought, but no one had explained it to her, and her visitor didn’t seem to expect it. Instead, she gestured to a seat, and the haut Pel sailed in and seated herself, followed by a ba servitor, who brought in tea on a wheeled cart, bowed and left.
“It is a great pleasure to meet you face to face,” said Pel. “On behalf of the empress, I thank you for your service in resolving this unfortunate situation.” She poured the tea, her movements a study in grace underlaid by strength.
“Thank you. It’s really Miles—Lord Vorkosigan—who deserves the credit. I just filled in for him a bit, at the end.” She accepted a cup, her botanically trained nose trying to divine the source of its aroma.
Pel waved a hand. “A solution unheard solves nothing. It was necessary that his voice be heard, and you ensured that.” She smiled. “I must admit, I have been curious about you since our first meeting, at your Emperor's wedding.”
“Really?” was all Ekaterin could muster.
“After I first met your husband, many years ago, I became a student of Barrayaran culture. In fact, it is something of a hobby of mine. The more I have learned, the more I realized how remarkable a man he is. It would take an equally remarkable woman to be his partner.”
“He is remarkable, yes.”
“Many men are courageous. Many are intelligent. And yet few would have seen clearly enough or moved swiftly enough to save two empires. It helped me to understand how Cetaganda could ever have been defeated by Barrayar.”
Ekaterin felt a twitch of irritation at the slight emphasis placed on that ever. Cetagandans, she knew, believed themselves superior to ordinary humans, advancing toward a racial goal of genetically-engineered perfection. “Barrayarans don’t give up easily, especially Vorkosigans. It was my husband’s grandfather, the late Count Piotr Vorkosigan, who led the resistance against Cetaganda. Perhaps Miles isn’t so remarkable, just representative.”
I should be intimidated, she thought, by this woman, by her unearthly beauty and her power. A year ago, I would have been shaking. But I’m Lady Vorkosigan now. And besides, I’m too tired to care.
“Perhaps,” was the reply. “I’ve studied that history. It isn’t a commonly held belief, but I think Cetaganda has much to learn from Barrayar and its people. I would not like to see us as enemies again.”
“That’s a goal we share.” They were silent for a moment. Back away from the politics, Ekaterin told herself. Change the subject.
“I’m afraid I don’t know as much about your world as you do of mine,” she ventured. “On Barrayar, we have some familiarity with the ghem, but few even know of the haut’s existence.”
“That is by design,” said Pel. “The Celestial Garden is a private world which few of the ghem enter, and even fewer outworlders. It shares some aspects with your Vor culture, such as a reverence of ancestry. Our children are also very precious to us, not only for themselves, but as our life’s work.”
“That’s true of every parent on every world, I think.” Far away, Helen Natalia and Aral Alexander floated in their replicators, serene in the not-yet of life, while Nikki, with his grandparents in Vorkosigan Surleau, was learning to ride a horse. “I am glad we were able to return your children to you.”
“Do you have children of your own, Lady Vorkosigan?” Pel watched her face intently as Ekaterin explained about the twins and Nikki.
“And you? Are you a mother, too?” Ekaterin asked. The haut Pel’s eyes widened only slightly, but Ekaterin wondered why her question seemed to startle her.
“Not as such, no. My genes are passed along in the children of my constellation, but the role of a mother…is different, here.” Of course, Ekaterin thought, as a Consort, her work for the Star Creche is central. She may not raise her own children, or even spend much time with them. I wonder if she misses them?
“I envy you.” It was Ekaterin’s turn to be startled.
“The first time I encountered Lord Vorkosigan was an extraordinary experience. Haut life is very…constrained. Our traditions are the fulfillment of generations of study, all aimed at creating a world of aesthetic perfection. We live within these traditions, and change comes slowly, if at all. Excitement and danger are nearly unknown in the Celestial Garden.” Her slender hands folded around each other.
Ekaterin offered a tired grin. “Miles likes excitement and danger. I don’t know if he unconsciously seeks them out, but they always seem to find him. Being with him can be terrifying, but it’s rarely dull.”
“I must admit that the episode, and the man, have been…significant to me.” Pel poured more tea, her long-lashed eyes focused on the pale-green porcelain of the pot, the delicate cups. “I should not speak of this, but who else may I tell? My peers would not understand; they would only think me foolish and misguided.”
“I think I understand. In my first marriage, there were things I could never say, because there was no one who would hear them.” Was the haut Pel lonely? Such a strange thought, but Ekaterin felt it as a truth. “You can speak freely to me; I promise to hold your words in confidence."
Pel nodded; the long fall of silken hair from her chignon shimmered in the light. “He loves you. He was not fully conscious, yet he spoke of you, and with such longing….” She paused to compose herself, disconcerting Ekaterin even further. “I had believed marriage among the Vor caste to be much as it is here, a formal contract binding constellations for a larger purpose. Your name, in his voice…made it clear to me that it is much more.”
“It can be,” said Ekaterin gently. “It isn’t always. My first marriage was not…it was a formal contract, as you put it. But I have been lucky. Miles is…”
“Miles.” There was a sadness in Pel’s voice, a yearning for something the fabled Celestial Garden did not hold. “The highest compliment I can offer is that I find you worthy to be Lady Vorkosigan. I am glad of it.”
Lady Vorkosigan murmured her thanks, while trying to wrap her head around the idea that the haut Pel Navarr, Consort of Eta Ceta, was...in love with her husband? She was so tired, surely she had misunderstood. Suddenly, a movement from the screen caught her eye.
“He’s awake!” She set down her teacup. “I need to see him—” She stopped, realizing that her actions might appear rude. “I’m sorry, but I would like to be with him as he awakes.” A soft chime sounded at the door.
“And here is the ba to escort you to his side, if I am not mistaken.” Pel rose, an untouchably gracious hostess once more. “Of course you wish to be at his side. I will speak with him later, when his recovery is more advanced.”
“Thank you.” While half her mind, and all of her heart, was already at Miles’ bed, she made an effort to turn her attention to Pel once more. But what was there to say? Pel Navarr had a planet, and one-eighth of a galactic empire; Ekaterin had what they both wanted most. The ba waited at the door.
“It was a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for everything you’ve done, and for this last half hour together.” She clasped the other woman’s hands, and met her eyes; a wordless understanding passed between them.
“Likewise, Lady Vorkosigan. Let us go.”