The Imperial Palace
Gregor Vorbarra sat perched on his stool like a thin, brooding raven in the precise temperature-controlled oasis of his office, Imperial chin propped on an Imperial fist attached to an Imperial arm whose elbow rested in turn on an Imperial knee, and stared out at the steaming, sultry, perfumed gardens fronting the North Wing of the Imperial Residence.
They looked thirsty. Rather parched, actually, but then the entire northern half of the planet of Barrayar at the moment, if one were to believe the newsvids, bore remarkable similarity to a flushed, tawdry, half-drugged and overheated whore. Life and duty in the Imperial Capital marched vordutifully and vorstoically along, however and in spite of all that, and as Gregor himself was the bleeding, cracked nipple at the center of the powdered floppy right tit of Vorbarra Sultana, he was dragged unwillingly along and around in its ever-so-slightly cannibalistic wake.
Still. It didn't mean he had to think graciously on the fact. People sucked at him all day, all night, every day they suckled and bit and chewed, and who could blame him, really, if he had trouble (especially in this heat, and yes, he was fully aware of the fact that he wasn't physically subject to it at the moment, but he certainly wasn't emotionally or psychologically immune to its effects) containing the occasional snarling instinct to bite back? Some people got acutely horny as the temperature rose. Some got acutely grumpy. The Emperor didn't really have the luxury to indulge either, so he got acutely metaphorical instead. It was an eminently private indulgence, as most of his indulgences were these days, but really quite viscerally (and occasionally viciously; thank God the Father, as they said on Athos, that He kept all his telepaths there), satisfying.
At least to a point. Gregor could almost feel an imaginary trickle of sympathetic perspiration slink its way down his back as he watched the laconic shimmering spirals of heat rise off the sidewalks, and the flowers and guards wilt outside the palace. Heat. Right. Sweat. Right. People, right. Rancid streams of people trickling through the sweating, grey, and gritty plethora of cleavage that made up the high, closed alleys and narrow streets of the caravanserai, and…
Gah. You should have been a poet, Vorbarra. He swung a foot and sighed, hooking it neatly and properly around the rung of his stool as a light knock on the door sounded. But then… Even poets need day jobs, or so I hear. And the day job needs you, oh yes. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof, anyway. He straightened his shoulders and cleared his throat, though he didn't look away from the window.
"Count Winston Vorquenta, Sire." Polite, deferential and cool. Gregor cringed inwardly. He didn't even have to turn around to detect the moment his visitor entered the room; he could smell the man as soon as the door opened. Stubby, blinking, probably hadn't brushed his teeth since before Gregor took the throne at the age of five… The vile weather would have been bad enough even without the man's vile breath to defile and gag every hint of breeze; the Emperor could smell the putrid stench even from halfway across the room. I wonder, he thought, how rude it would be to have ImpSec send him a little memo. His Imperial Majesty Requests and Requires that you attend to your dental hygiene before inflicting yourself upon him like the slavering pustule you are … He pondered the not-unpleasant thought of attending to the matter himself given a pair of military issue pliers and an hour or two of free time, then shook himself slightly.
"Count Vorquenta." Pleasant, expressionless. No monsters here, oh dear me no. Those are all outside back buried in that lovely white mausoleum just beyond the South Wing. We're in total control, yes indeedy.
The sudden urge to giggle was almost overwhelming. He smiled slightly and mildly instead, shuffled rapidly through his mental catalogue of Appropriate Emotional Responses, and fixed the man with Intent and Interested Stare, Version Number Three. God bless Cordelia Vorkosigan, he thought fondly and absently as he let his mind drift to happier places, for making him practice that one in front of the mirror for hours on end… He could almost hypnotize himself with it now. All they really want to do is whine at me anyway , and Simon's recording it all. Yes, Count Vorquenta, I understand, Count Vorquenta, of course, Count Vorquenta, I'll put my people right on it, Count Vorquenta… That should do nicely.
Two more appointments, one business dinner, six- no, seven – comconsole meetings, and the rest of the night is mine, mine, mine.
The thought actually teased a genuine small smile out of him, and Vorquenta, encouraged, smiled feebly back. The fuzz on his warped, near orange teeth gasped and died at the shock of the oxygen, and revivified, zombie-like, even as the Emperor watched in (internalized) revolted horror and fascination.
Bleach. Bleach would help considerably. And it burns too…
Gregor sighed, and tried not to squirm as the imaginary trickle of perspiration on his back slipped down his bare, cool, perfectly temperature-controlled skin.
Never a good sign when the psychological sweat starts pooling in your actual underwear. What I need, he decided, is someone who really, really understands the power of metaphor.
He flipped through his mental card catalogue to a very specific page, and his hazel eyes gleamed in thoughtful anticipation under his dark lashes as he let his booted foot swing ever so gently, just once.
The com chimed softly. Lord Mark Pierre Vorkosigan groaned, shifted in the swampy pool of his sheets, and mopped his pasty, round cheeks with a limp hand as he staggered over to punch in the recognition code. Gregor's eyebrow rose as he surveyed the short, flushed, obviously wretched-tempered and overheated naked dwarf who appeared before him.
"Air conditioning not fixed yet?" he inquired politely. Mark bit back an extremely rude and inappropriate response.
"Miles is on it," is all he said. "Or at least he says he's on it. Third floor, you know, I'm not high on the priority list. Ma Kosti has that privilege." He contemplated sitting down, but the thought of eventually having to peel his flabby, sweat-sticky naked ass off the leather seat held absolutely no appeal, even for Howl. No one else really offered an opinion on the matter; Grunt and Gorge had both been rendered catatonic by the horrible heat, and Killer just lay limply in a corner and whimpered piteously at the thought having to exert effort. Lord Mark and the Black Gang, subdued at last… Miles, naturally, was hopped up like a bunny with his particular response to fast-penta; he actually enjoyed this kind of weather. Mark smiled darkly. Just wait till winter, you manic little shit, he thought. Then we'll have our revenge, oh yes. You're not the only one who can fantasize about what it's like to have a brother… I'm gonna haul your frenetic little ass to Vorkosigan Surleau and make you build snowvor, and snowforts, and go tobogganing, and ice-skating, and…
Mm. Icicles. Grunt actually lifted a bleary, semi-interested lid at that one. Killer just rolled his eyes.
Don't you dare, he said severely. Or so help me Mark, I WILL exert myself. Howl just snored. Gorge didn't even move.
"Ah." The Emperor examined him for a moment. "And here I thought you were just humoring my whims. Really, Lord Mark," he said mildly. "What if I'd been my secretary?"
"You never use your secretary when you call me at three in the morning," Mark pointed out, tearing himself away from his own inner group conference and and fanning himself uselessly with a random flimsy from the stack on the desk. "What can I do for you, Sire?"
"I'm sending a ground car 'round," Gregor said pleasantly. "It should be there in about five minutes. My penchant for the metaphorical is getting away from me again, and I thought we might chat."
"Ah." Lord Mark nearly wept in relief at the thought. Anything to get out of this hellhole… Then he paused. "How's the state of your air conditioning?"
"We're the Emperor, Lord Mark," his Imperial Lord and Master said briskly. "We are above such petty concerns as air conditioning."
"I'm not," Mark muttered, but bowed. Gregor laughed gently, and was gone. Howl rolled over limply and landed on Grunt. Grunt snored. Killer sighed.
Better wake up, boys, he said. The car's on its way, and you know what that means.
You throw the pillow at him, Grunt mumbled.
S'too hot, Howl whined limply. Make Gorge do it. Gorge groaned.
He called?! He wants us… In this weather? He's GOT to be kidding!
Uh huh, Killer said laconically, and settled down as the rest of the Black Gang hauled themselves to a painful state of semi-sentience in anticipation of the hours to follow. Have fun, kiddos.
Your Betan drawl is getting much better , Lord Mark observed as he reached for the loosest, lightest clothing he owned.
It's the desert heat, Killer said sourly. It brings your mother's ancestral tendencies out in all of us. Mark chuckled, grabbed his shoes, closed the door softly behind him, and padded down the stairs of Vorkosigan House.
Gregor looked over as the armsman ushered Mark into his bedroom and nodded. The guard left quietly, closing the door behind him. Mark, by now positively half-drunk on the blessed coolness of the Imperial Residence, slumped against the wall.
"You might want me to take a shower first," he said. "You didn't really give me time, and I stink."
"That's rather relative. I met with Count Vorquenta today," Gregor said dryly. Mark winced.
"I'm so sorry," he said sincerely. "I did brush my teeth before I went to bed, if it's any comfort." The Emperor laughed and waved.
"Go ahead," he said. "It's secure. I made Illyan take this room and my privy off the permanent 'nets after the last time I bashed my head on the ceiling of Vorvolk's office."
Mark nodded gratefully and padded off. The cool water and luxurious spray woke everyone up quite thoroughly, even Killer. He wasn't planning on participating of course; he was just happy to sit in his corner and watch. He'd attained a certain admiration for Gregor's improving technique over the past couple of months, and often offered pointers when there was new equipment involved. Mark didn't linger though, and as he toweled himself off briskly, flicking a comb through his black hair, Gregor came over and leaned against the door to watch. Mark hung the towel up neatly, squared his plump shoulders, and turned, bowing.
"Yours to command, Sire," he said, and Gregor nodded, jerking his head as he turned and settled himself in the armchair beside the huge bed. Mark knelt before him, thighs spread, head bent, hands laced behind his back. He looked, Gregor thought, very small, very round, and very edible, and as he propped his chin on his fist and leaned forward to brush away a few droplets of water that still remained on Lord Mark's hair, he contemplated the scientific application of the phrase 'good enough to eat'. Gregor Vorbarra, of course, was a civilized man – besides which, he'd already had dinner – so he didn't actually intend to make a meal out of the man before him, but he did wonder just how he'd react to…
Howl woke up with a roar. Gregor sat back and smiled. Mark stared at the deep, vicious bloody bite mark on his shoulder, then up at the Emperor in shock.
"You bit me!" he said in actual affront and outrage. "I can't believe you… Even Ryoval never had anyone bite me!"
"Interesting," was all Gregor said. "Lie down on the bed, Lord Mark, face up, and let's see what happens."
"How am I supposed to explain that to the Countess-my-mother?" he asked plaintively even as he obeyed. Gregor lifted a shoulder as he retrieved his (now considerable) tool box from under his bed.
"Cat?" he offered laconically. "You people have enough of them wandering around Vorkosigan House; maybe you rolled over on it in your sleep, and it had to fight for its life?"
"Whatever you say, Sire," Mark said sourly, and lay back as the other man cuffed his ankles and wrists efficiently. Gregor patted his plump cheek affectionately, stripped off his pajama shirt, and began to hum quietly under his breath as he happily sorted through his options.
He lay back on the palatial bed dreamily, and let his fingers drift through Lord Mark's hair as the smaller man suckled him exquisitely gently in the aftermath of his orgasm. Closed his fist and tugged him up beside him. Mark cocked a bit of a bemused and cautious eyebrow at that; Gregor propped himself up on one elbow and regarded him seriously.
"Nothing," Mark said diffidently, and reaching for a pillow or three, hugged them to him tightly as he rolled on his side to face the Emperor. Gregor frowned.
"That's bullshit. What's with the wall?"
"What wall? Oh." He looked down at the pillows. "Sorry, you want one?"
"No," Gregor said. "I don't." He sat up, cross-legged, and waited. Mark sighed. He ached all over, the synergine only worked so well, and the Black Gang was piled in one big puppylike hazy happy heap, of no use to him now whatsoever. He was on his own on this one, he reflected glumly, and nibbled on his knuckles as he thought of how to phrase it.
"I'm not good at cuddling," he said finally. "And it wasn't part of the Deal anyway." Gregor snorted.
"Ths isn't Jackson's Whole," he pointed out. Mark grimaced.
"I know," he said, and tucked one of the pillows under his head. "It wasn't meant to be a metaphor."
"You still planning on going to Beta Colony?" Gregor asked coolly. "For therapy?"
"Have you been talking to my mother?" Wearily. "I should think you, of all people, Sire, would know how distasteful it is to have everyone and his foster-brother sticking his hand in your fishbowl."
"I talk to your mother every day," Gregor said. "But not about you. It was a logical deduction, there's nothing keeping you here, really, once she and Aral head off to Sergyar next year, and you'll want more of an education than Barrayar can offer you."
"Ah yes. Logic." Mark was silent a moment. "It is the eminently logical thing to do, I suppose. Yes. I'm still planning on going to Beta Colony; I understand my grandmother is most anxious to meet me."
"Mm," Gregor said, and lay back down again. Something clicked in Mark's head then, and he swore. Gregor turned his head and looked at him quietly.
"Elena," Mark said flatly. "You've talked to Elena. She described the vids to you."
"I had to Request and Require it," Gregor said. "She is most loyal."
"Born a Bothari, raised a Vorkosigan," Mark said bitterly. "Of course she is." Gregor reached out and traced a finger over the smooth, plump flesh of his arm, his belly, his cheek, and his eyes were far away and shadowed.
"Both hands tied behind your back, eh, Lord Mark?"
Gregor shook his head.
"We are sorry for the delay," he said softly. "If nothing else, We promise that you shall have no further problems with Illyan." Mark sat up abruptly, ignoring the screaming pain in various parts of him.
"Illyan was in on this conversation?"
"No," Gregor said. "He wasn't." He waved a hand around the room. "It would have been most irresponsible on Our part, Lord Mark, to initiate this arrangement without finding out what, exactly, We were Dealing with. We've simply informed Illyan that as a scion and second son of House Vorkosigan, We expect him to extend you the same courtesies he does the rest of your family." Mark would have bet Betan dollars that there had been a great deal more to the conversation than that, and oh, wouldn't he have loved to have seen it, but…
"Thank you." Grudgingly.
"I can't do much about Ivan, I'm afraid," Gregor said regretfully. "You're on your own there." Mark thought back to the first time he'd met up with young Vorpatril after the triumphant return from Jackson's Whole, and smiled a bit. Ivan hadn't exactly apologized, but then, he hadn't needed to. The look on his face when he'd seen Miles – scrawny, shattered, exhausted, bewildered, but blazingly, amazingly, astoundingly, perfectly alive – had been reward enough all on its own. It of course, had been followed by a look of perfect disgust and horror when he'd seen the wreck that had been Mark, but at least he'd given up nattering on about the evils of closets, closed spaces and clones, oh my.
"I can handle Ivan."
"I'm sure." The Emperor smiled crookedly.
"So what now?"
"In what sense?"
Mark struggled a bit at that. "What are you going to do with this information?"
"Nothing. I just wanted to know what happened. For reference's sake." Mark hugged his pillows tightly at that. Is this what having a friend is like, then?
"I'm not going to Request and Require that you offer me one of those," Gregor said. "But it would be nice. I get a sore neck when I sleep flat on my back."
"You could use me," Mark offered.
"I could," the Emperor conceded, but made no move, simply watched him with those intent hazel eyes.
Ah go on , Killer said sleepily. What's he gonna do, cuddle us to death?
There are worse ways to go, Grunt said timidly, quietly.
Huggies, Howl said happily. Ow. Grunt eyed the crotch of the Imperial Pajama Pants.
He really does have stamina, doesn't he? he noted. And that sandalwood stuff he uses is surprisingly flavorful. Mark sighed.
"Here," he said, and offered the man a pillow. "Knock yourself out." He sounded not a little surly, but the wide, flashing warm smile nearly blinded him.
"Thanks," Gregor said, and lay down beside him, closing the distance between them with firm and decisive aplomb.
"Welcome," Lord Mark said gruffly, acutely aware of the heat of the long, lean body pressed next to his. He eyed Gregor. Gregor eyed him back.
"You got your metaphorical issues all sorted out then?"
"I think so," Gregor said meditatively. "At least for the moment. The weather should break soon, and that always helps."
"Mm," Mark said dryly. "You want some help with that?" He jerked his head. Gregor laughed and thwacked him with a pillow before settling back against the headboard and crooking a finger. Mark rolled over and squirmed across the bed on his belly, settling in happily as the Emperor linked his ankles comfortably (and heavily) around his ample waist and reached for his abandoned glass of wine. He traced the bite mark on his shoulder.
"So I was your first, eh?" Teasingly... Mark nearly choked on his own laughter, and on other things.
"I suppose you were, at that."
Gregor tilted his chin gravely.
"Was it good for you?" he asked seriously. The Black Gang rolled their collective eyes on that.
"Yes, though it doesn't really look like a cat bite," Mark said dryly again. "You're going to have to come up with something better than that, Sire."
"I thought I already had," Gregor murmured, and tilting his head back, closed his eyes as the first raindrops struck the pane of the glass of his darkened window.