“Are you nervous?” Kareen Koudelka asked Mark Vorkosigan as their passenger ship approached the Betan orbital station.
“Hell, yes,” he replied. “I’m about to go live with a little old lady I’ve never met. She’ll probably hate me. Everybody probably hates me for getting Miles killed.”
“I don’t hate you,” Kareen refuted, reaching for his hand. “None of that was your fault. You were trying to do a good thing, rescuing those clones. You didn’t know what would happen. Besides, Miles is fine, back to doing whatever the hell it is he does.”
Three people were waiting when they disembarked. Mark recognized them instantly. What shocked him, however, was they didn’t look like three generations. No, 96-year old Elizabeth Naismith looked more like 67-year old John Naismith’s old sister. And maybe the mother of 35-year old Scarlett.
“Those people are definitely related to Tante Cordelia,” Kareen whispered. “That must be your cousin. She’s so pretty!”
“Scarlett looks exactly like my mother,” Mark said mournfully. “God knows what she’s going to say. She’ll probably ask about our sex life.”
“If she does, I’ll call her out for being rude,” Kareen promised. “We don’t have Betan earrings yet. Wait, what does your grandmother’s earring mean?”
“Widowed, not looking. Miles warned me not to ask. Okay, here we go.”
To Mark’s surprise, everyone was very pleasant. Especially Uncle John, who told Kareen she looked just like her beautiful mother. “Only met her once, but we’ve seen hundreds of holos and vids over the years. Cordelia doesn’t visit often, but she’s an excellent correspondent.”
“Father said to ask about their first State Visit,” Mark recalled.
“We’ll wait for dinner for that one,” Elizabeth stated firmly, the gray eyes her grandsons shared alight with laughter. “Let’s get you settled. Lenore’s waiting.”
Elizabeth’s friend Lenore was a bustling, cheerful woman who routinely rented out her spare bedroom to what she called ‘Cordelia’s girls.’ “We’ve been waiting for you for months, every since you won the scholarship,” she gushed. “Elizabeth was ever so excited. And when Mark decided to come, too, well, it was like she won the lottery. How do you like your room?”
“It’s perfect,” Kareen assured her, ecstatic that Lenore’s apartment was just down the hall from Elizabeth’s. “I love the desk!”
“You students spend a lot of time on your comconsoles. Seemed like a good investment.”
Their first dinner was small, just them, their hosts, John, and his wife Sarah. Elizabeth was a good cook. She’d obviously been warned about Mark’s metabolism, because there was more than enough for ten normal-sized adults.
“Mother misses cooking for Sergeant Bothari,” John teased. “That man could eat!”
“That year was an adventure,” Elizabeth agreed. “15 was too young for Miles to be so far from home. His more recent visits have been much calmer. And of course I love seeing Elli. She’s so sweet.”
“Elli Quinn?” Mark stuttered. “Sweet?”
“Not on the job, she’s not,” Sarah concurred with a sharp smile. “But here, yes. Didn’t anyone tell you she lived with Grandma after a plasma accident? She had all the repair work done here.”
“As one would,” Kareen agreed. “Tante Cordelia’s convinced Betan medicine is the best. Some things, like my da’s nerve disrupter injuries, Barrayar’s still playing catch-up.”
“It is, in a lot of things,” Elizabeth stated. “Certainly anything appearance-related. Did Cordelia warn you about how common gender changes have become here? I can see doing it once or twice, but four or five times is just silly.”
“Especially if you change your name each time,” Sarah added. “Makes it hard to track work history, or so Scarlett tells us. She and her partner work for the Bureau for Interstellar Trade. She’s in Human Resources; he’s in Accounting. You need help with your schoolwork, Mark, James is your guy. Kareen, are you studying business, too?”
“No, it’s social sciences for me,” Kareen answered. “I like learning about people.”
“Mother can teach you all about starting them,” John teased. “She did a hell of a job on Clark. He’s twice the troublemaker J.J. is.”
“Nurture plus nature,” Elizabeth shot back. “Blame yourself.”
“Our sons are perfectly nice people,” Sarah insisted. You’ll meet them over the weekend. And J.J.’s family, of course. He and Debbie have Johnny and Timmy. They’re 8 and 2. Scarlett’s Paul is 5. Clarke’s not partnered. He’s too busy working and going to school part-time.”
They’d discover when they met him that 25-year old Clark had a far more active social life than his parents imagined. With the family and at work, Clark wore a ‘hetero, not looking’ earring. At Silica University and the clubs and bars he introduced the visitors to, it was ‘anything goes, no commitment.’
“I don’t understand my family’s rush to settle down and make babies,” Clark confided one night. “Plenty of time for that. Who says it has to be in the first quarter of a guaranteed 120?”
“On Barrayar, it used to be fear of infertility. Less of an issue with replicator technology becoming more and more available,” Kareen explained. “Lenore doesn’t understand how rare my sister Olivia and I are. There aren’t many replicator babies in the 8 years between Miles and Olivia. More now, but certainly no other Count’s sons other than Miles and Mark. Some girls, but not sons.”
“And we’re not the best advertisement,” Mark grimaced. “But Mother insists it’s changing.”
“It is,” Kareen affirmed. “None of my friends wants to be pregnant. Mama says it’s miserable. And less safe for mother and baby. Why take those risks?”
“You’d have to ask my mother,” Clark suggested. “J.J. and Scarlett were body births. It’s kind of a status symbol here. Not very logical, though, considering practically everyone have the embryos gene-cleaned before implantation. Grandma and Aunt Cordelia thought Mother was nuts.”
Clark waited until Kareen had gone to the rest room to ask, “What’s with you two? I was sure you’d be sleeping together by now. I promise Lenore won’t care. Grandma won’t, either.”
“It’s…complicated,” said Mark, fingering his ‘hetero, attached’ earring. “Those of us raised by lunatics have some hang-ups. And the last thing I’d want to do is push Kareen into anything she’s not ready for. Most Barrayaran girls her age plan to wed as virgins.”
“How archaic! If not their peers, then who are the Barrayaran boys her age screwing?”
“Ivan says the lower classes, the boys, or older women. He also warned me not to lay a finger on the staff or I’d never hear the end of it. Miles mostly conducts his sex life off-world as Admiral Naismith. Unlike Ivan, Miles doesn’t kiss and tell, though. I suspect he’s got a mistress in Hassadar.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me in the least,” Clark said easily. “God knows how many of the Dendarii he’s screwed. Unlike me and Uncle Aral, though, he only looks at the women. The taller, the better.”
“Miles and my oldest sister would be a great match, except he likes brunettes,” said Kareen, rejoining the conversation. “Too bad. Delia would be an excellent countess. She’s smart, she loves Barrayar, and she understands soldiers. Not many people at home take Lieutenant Vorkosigan seriously. They see his body, not his mind.”
“Yes, well, you’re unique,” said Mark, kissing her hand. “You seem to like toads.”
“I wouldn’t if you were stupid,” she admitted, drawing gales of laughter from Clark. “Not that a Vorkosigan or Naismith would be, but you’ve also taken chances that could’ve scrambled your brains.”
“Gotten that lecture,” Mark grumbled. “Want to dance?”
“Yes, go dance, so I can check out the herm by the bar,” Clark urged. “It looks promising.”
Sure enough, Clark left with the herm. “Your place or mine?” Kareen asked.
“Whaaaat?” Mark stuttered.
“Come home with me. We’ll neck until we fall asleep. Nothing more unless we both agree.”
Mark was extremely proud of himself for keeping Grunt under control. It was difficult, especially after his hands began exploring Kareen’s luscious breasts. And as much as he wanted to sink into her muscled softness, he didn’t trust himself not to hurt her.
“Clark, I need an LPST,” Mark confessed to his cousin over beers a few days later.
“They’re a dollar a dozen,” Clark snorted. “Go on the comconsole and pick one. Or two or three or six, if that’s what you’re into.”
“I don’t want six,” he shuddered. “Just one, who can teach me how to make love to Kareen.”
“Did you ask your therapist? Most of them have a list they recommend.”
“We looked. Nobody’s right. I need a blond with martial arts training in case I lose control. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“Too bad Sergeant Taura’s taken,” Clark joked before registering Mark’s expression. “Thought about it, didn’t you? Who hasn’t? You need someone who does BDSM. They’ve seen everything.”
“I don’t want to learn BDSM!” Mark protested. “I just want to be normal.”
“Normal is a very personal construct,” was the dry response. “People who get punished for a living should be able to withstand whatever sexual quirks you think you’ve got. Aunt Cordelia sent you here for a reason. Betan therapists have far too much experience fixing victims from the Whole.”
“Don’t tell me you believe everyone’s fixable!”
“Nope, sure don’t. Based on family history, I also don’t believe every Betan therapist always puts their patient first. Trust me, Grandma worked hard to narrow down a list of potential therapists for you. That’s because we all know you’re fixable. If you weren’t, Miles and Ivan would’ve died years ago.”
“Clark, you know I’ve KILLED people,” Mark said somewhat desperately.
“Kind of in your DNA, being the child of two ship captains,” Clark shrugged. “Unless you go into the mercenary business, you’ll never top their numbers. You had your chance, Mark. Uncle Aral lives because having killed doesn’t make you a killer. Doesn’t make you irredeemable, either.”
“You sound like Mother.”
“Well, I was raised by her brother,” he said reasonably. “J.J. idolizes her. My older brother still can’t believe the explorer aunt who read bedtime stories ended a civil war with a sword. That’s the stuff of fiction, cuz. Or adventure vids.”
“My parents’ entire life IS an adventure vid,” Mark groaned. “Normal people retire. Count and Countess Vorkosigan are taming another uncivilized planet.”
“Normal Betans don’t retire at 64 unless they’re independently wealthy or terminally ill,” Clark laughed. “Can’t see Aunt Cordelia doing nothing at the Betan equivalent of 40.”
“I wonder about that, too. Should I be planning for a Betan lifespan, a Barrayaran one, or something in between?”
“I imagine it’ll depend on what risks you take. Do us all a favor, okay? No more confronting Jacksonian barons. Let’s focus on getting you better from the last mad men.”
Clark was true to his word. Two days later, a link to Mistress Ruby appeared in Mark’s in-box. He felt a faint stirring in his loins as he looked at the Amazon clad in strips of black leather. The ache increased at the images of Mistress Ruby dressed in street clothes, demure nightwear, and blue ship knits like the ones Kareen used to exercise. Within minutes, he’d forwarded the link to his therapist. A day after that, Mistress Ruby had a brief history of his sexual abuse and a list of his therapeutic requirements. The following week, Mark had his first appointment.
Mark left his first session with Mistress Ruby with homework. The enjoyable part was practicing kissing Kareen. Less pleasant were the long sessions with his therapist, dredging up memories of exactly what physical abuses Ser Galen and Baron Ryoval had heaped on him. Mistress Ruby wanted them fresh in his mind so they could gradually work to neutralize those torments. And they did. By the fourth session, Mark worked up the courage to take off all his clothes. By the eighth, he could look at a shock-stick without curling into a protective ball or trying to kick it out of Ruby’s hands. He’d also learned what he, Mark, enjoyed being done to his body, what images gave him pleasure and which left him cold. And after twelve intensive, informative weeks, he was pronounced ready to try his new skills on someone other than a professional. But where?
“You’re not ready for the Orb,” Clark snorted at the timid suggestion. “And Grandma’s place isn’t appropriate for the first time. Good thing you’re not a starving student because I have expensive tastes. Now hand over a credit chit and I promise you the night of your life.”
Clark consulted his sister for advice before booking a deluxe honeymoon suite at the Silica Grand Tower & Casino. They also selected a gourmet room service meal, champagne, and a dessert basket guaranteed to tempt the most jaded of palates.
And then everyone waited. For three entire days, until Mark and Kareen finally checked out of the hotel in time to attend their Tuesday classes. Grandma Elizabeth didn’t say a word when Mark finally walked through her front door. Neither did Lenore, who was used to Cordelia’s girls disappearing for days at a stretch as they tested their new freedom. None, however, had glowed as much as Kareen.
Clark waved off his cousin’s thanks for helping arrange everything so perfectly. Compared to all the work Mark was doing to conquer his demons, what was some time on the comconsole? Now all Clark had to do was talk Mark out of his stupid notion of locking himself in some creepy basement with insects. No, galactic Mark Vorkosigan was meant for far better things than being an ImpSec analyst. After all, Miles wasn’t the only one who’d inherited their parents’ management abilities.