"So, how's life now you're sleeping with Simon?" Cordelia asked.
Alys glanced at her, looked down at the cup in her hands and sighed. "Really, Cordelia, I miss you terribly when you're on Sergyar. And then you make remarks like that one, and I remember why your absences are not quite an unbearable trial to me."
Cordelia merely grinned, and reached for a water biscuit off the tray. "That's not an answer."
Alys sighed again. "Cordelia."
"That's an evasion."
"Simon is..." Alys paused, and softened. "Simon is a good man. Of which you're well aware."
Cordelia nodded. "I am, but he might be a good man the whole day long and still not make you smile like that." She stretched out a little, and kept on grinning under Alys's disapproving gaze.
"How is Count Vorkosigan?" Alys asked, effortlessly changing the subject. "He's out in the District, isn't he?"
Cordelia nodded. "Aral's doing fine, I'm sure. Dealing with all the disputes that have built up in his absence, but he's in his element doing that. I wanted to go out there with him, but" – she patted the crutch next to her – "I suspect I'd have been more of a hindrance than a help. Lots of walking around to be done, and I can't quite manage that yet."
Alys peered down at the second crutch laid out on the floor, her curiosity masked by her manners. "Are you quite sure you don't need extra help? I'm sure I could arrange something..."
Cordelia waved a hand. "I'm fine, Alys, really, I am. I've had a room made up on the ground floor, and I have Pym to look after me. And it's not as though I have small children to chase around, any more. It's funny," she went on reflectively, "I had years in the Astronomical Survey, not to mention surviving the Regency, and I'm defeated by a flight of steps."
"Was it very bad?" Alys asked, concerned.
"Not at all." Cordelia grimaced. "Clean break, nothing to worry about. Which is why my physician took the opportunity to go all purist on me and demand I let the bones knit at their own pace." Alys looked unconvinced, so she added: "I broke the same bone in the same place once before, when I was much younger. Apparently regeneration at the molecular level is not recommended twice."
Alys smiled a little. "Well, if you do need any help, you know where I am. If you need any extra errands to be run for you, you can send Ivan."
Cordelia grinned. "Poor Ivan. My boys are both safely off-world, luckily for them. Thank you, Alys."
"It's not a problem." Alys stood up. "But I should be taking my leave, Cordelia, I've already spent too much time away. I don't like being away from the Residence too long."
"I still think Gregor and Laisa should elope," Cordelia said.
"Cordelia," Alys said. "You say these things just to antagonise me. No, don't get up!"
Cordelia did anyway, getting to her feet slowly and limping her way to the door. "I feel like an old woman. Goodbye, Alys."
"Look after yourself, Cordelia," Alys said, sincerely, and floated out.
There had been times, Cordelia thought grimly, when the post-dawn hour at Vorkosigan House had seemed like the centre of the world. The Lord Regent would be running to the Residence, often with Gregor in tow, Miles would be getting up and beginning his day's havoc, Armsman Jankowski would be doing drills, Kou would in the library getting started on the paperwork, and the household would be shifting into gear to prepare for whatever grand event would take place in the evening, complete with glittering guests and silverware and underneath, the sharp edges of political agenda. And she herself, an epicentre for the chaos, sometimes, and at other times a gleeful part of the dizzy whirl.
Cordelia shook her head and sighed. She had her groats and honey, she had her hand viewer, Pym could come in to give her someone to lean on if she needed to get up for anything. It was an opportunity to catch up on paperwork. She took a deep breath, called up the latest reports on the internal matters of the Chaos Colony proto-legislature, and began.
Twenty minutes later she'd called Pym to bring round the groundcar, and another fifteen minutes after that she was hobbling into the Imperial Residence, nodding at the Emperor's Armsmen as they schooled their expressions into dim implacability. The Emperor's secretary, doubtless also with training in maintaining a lack of any expression whatsoever, said, "Countess Vorkosigan. The Emperor will have some time in about half an hour, if you'd care to wait?"
"I'd care to wait," Cordelia said firmly, and sat down in the nearest wing-chair. Gregor looked tired when he appeared, and she felt an unsurprising burst of maternal feeling, but he brightened at the sight of her.
"Cordelia," he said, cheerfully. "They didn't tell me who was waiting to see me. I'm glad it's you and not yet another Count wanting to talk to me about grain subsidies. I was about to have lunch. Join me?"
"Of course," she said, and consented to taking his arm and letting him help her down towards the dining room, sunlit and airy. He pulled back the curtains and opened the windows, letting in the breeze.
"Your Armsmen all looked a little… constipated on my way in," Cordelia said as he helped her sit down. Gregor's chef, though not Ma Kosti, was quite capable of putting together a pretty, light spread, and the sandwiches and little cakes seemed very appealing after her lonely breakfast at Vorkosigan House.
"Can't leave their posts," he said, still cheerfully, "but they were all well-brought up and thought they ought to help the lady with the crutches. Speaking of which" – he waved at the offending items – "how did you come by those? I only heard you'd had an accident of some sort."
"Fell down the stairs," she said, irritably. "More accurately, I fell over one of those dratted cats of Miles's. They're lovely things when you're not hurtling head-first towards a stone floor."
"Ouch," said Gregor, with genuine sympathy, but still with that note of determined happiness beneath it, and Cordelia grinned.
"Being in love suits you, sweetheart," she said, and kept on grinning as Gregor blushed. "How is Laisa?"
"She's wonderful," Gregor said, and Cordelia suppressed the urge to ruffle his hair. "Was this a social call, or can I do anything for you?" he asked, and poured her some coffee.
Cordelia nodded. "Gregor, you have to give me something to do."
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
"Yes, you do." Cordelia reached for his hand. "Aral is away in the District, which leaves me at something of a loose end. Things had begun to pile up down there, and Miles is too busy at the moment to act as his father's Voice. But what with my little accident, I couldn't go, and dealing with the politics of Chaos Colony isn't something you can do from afar. Too complex, too messy." She paused for breath. "I'm sure Alys would give me seating charts to pore over if I asked her – or maybe she wouldn't, she wouldn't trust me as far as she could throw me on those. But I need something real to do before I go out of my mind with boredom."
"Ah," said Gregor, delicately reaching for a sandwich. "What sort of scale of problem did you have in mind? The problem of why three of the Residence wait staff have taken their annual holiday at the same time, causing, I am informed, no end of trouble for the kitchens? Or the problem of why the Komarran soletta array has possibly, we're not sure, been sabotaged?"
"You've sent Miles and Lord Auditor Vorthys to see about that, dear," she said, with a smile at his disingenuous look. "And as for the wait staff – find out from their records if they're related even distantly, and if so if there's been a wedding in the family."
"I will at that," Gregor said, approvingly. "I think I know the right problem to place at your feet. Tell me, have you ever heard of the Kamal?"
Cordelia frowned. "A ship, wasn't it? A colony ship?"
Gregor nodded. "It's a mainstay of Barrayaran education. How the first colonists arrived here, long before the Time of Isolation. Did you know there are still artefacts of the ship in existence?"
Cordelia raised her eyebrows. "From hundreds of years ago? Are there really? Why hadn't I heard this before?"
"I'm the Emperor," Gregor said mildly, "and I didn't know it until just recently. I was informed of it by Dr. Toscane the elder, whom, it would seem, has advanced degrees in ancient Barrayaran history. People never do fail to surprise me."
"Me, too," Cordelia said. "What are these artefacts?"
"Just scraps of metal, I'm told," Gregor said. "Greatly distorted by the heat of re-entry. Dr. Toscane is very interested in seeing them, however, when the family return for the wedding, and it's proving more difficult to arrange than I'd anticipated. Which is where you come in."
"How can I help?"
"The scraps of metal in question are in private ownership, which is why they're not common knowledge – Count Vorcini being rather a recluse, and very resistant to any thought of donating these crucial pieces of this world's history to, say, a public museum where everyone could see them." Gregor's voice was perfectly even. "But I haven't given up on persuading him to lend them out. Just so Dr. Toscane can see them, you understand, and then we'd return them unharmed to their owner. My staff's attempts at persuasion have so far fallen on deaf ears. Yours, on the other hand..."
"You could just issue an Imperial order," Cordelia said, amused.
"I think that would be a sledgehammer to crack a nut," Gregor said, "not to mention abuse of my power to impress my mother-in-law, and besides, I'm sure you can charm him into it. Would you try? It would give you some employment and it would be doing me a great favour."
She nodded. "I can't make promises, but I'll give it a try."
Gregor smiled. "In the meantime, are you sure you don't want a floater, like they use in Quaddiespace? I'm sure ImpSec have one somewhere in a cupboard marked "miscellaneous."'
"Thank you, but no, thank you," Cordelia said, amused. "I will be just fine. If you'll help me up" – he did, leaning down to give her an arm – "I'll leave you to your grain subsidies."
"If you must," Gregor said, matching her amusement, and saw her out.
"Perhaps you shouldn't think of this as a task set by the Barrayaran Imperium, Count Vorcini," Cordelia was saying, "but merely as doing a favour to a young man on his wedding day?" – but it was too late, and the Armsmen were gently leading her out of the room and down the steps, suggesting she take a moment to enjoy the gardens, and wishing her a safe flight home.
Cordelia sighed, starting down the pathway to where Pym had landed the aircar, leaning heavily on her crutches, thinking.
"No luck, milady?" Pym asked as she approached, moving to pop the canopy, but Cordelia waved a hand to stop him.
"No luck," she said, sighing. "But I think I am going to take the very kind Count's very kind advice and take a walk around the garden. And ponder how I'm going to change his mind. Would you mind waiting for a few minutes longer?"
"Of course not, milady." Pym took a step back and watched her go, waiting to see if she was managing on her own before he went around to the other side of the aircar and let himself back in.
"I'm being mothered," Cordelia muttered under her breath, and resigning herself to it, took a proper look at the garden. The house was set on a gentle incline, the ground curving down towards the water. From below, Cordelia could hear the low rumble of the sea. The Vorcini's District was several hundred kilometres south of Vorbarr Sultana, and spring was already well-advanced here, flowers rising with a tropical intensity of colour from the rich, well-watered soil.
Cordelia breathed in the scent, and felt the muscles in her shoulders unknotting in the sunshine. "Worth the trip, at least," she said, still to herself, and then had to catch herself as she misjudged one of the crutches on the gravel, and swore. After a moment to get her breath, she limped slowly in the direction of a wrought-iron bench sitting between a neat enclave of trees.
"Oh, wait, you're hurt!" said a voice. "If you just wait I'll call one of my Armsmen – are you sure you're all right?"
Cordelia couldn’t turn to see the speaker. "I'll be fine," she said, "just let me get to the bench."
Another moment's stiff concentration, and she made it with an inelegant thump, just in time to see the girl step out from behind a tree. Cordelia guessed her age to be around nineteen or twenty, and she was standing with her head up in a way somehow reminiscent of the tulips on their stems. Cordelia guessed she might have found the guiding hand behind this garden. "I don't think we've met," she said, returning the girl's smile.
"Lady Alessandra Vorcini," said the girl easily. "Are you here to see my father?"
"Oh," Cordelia said, feeling a little stupid. "I didn't realise the Count had a daughter."
"Most people don't," said Alessandra, still easily casual, and came to sit down next to her. "What happened to your foot?"
Alys would probably have lectured her on unmannerly curiosity, but Cordelia smiled. "I fell over a cat and then down some steps."
Alessandra made a face. "It sounds painful."
"It was mostly embarrassing," Cordelia admitted. "And yes, I was here to see your father."
"Oh! Are you the lady who was arguing with him a while ago about the fragments from the Kamal?"
"That's right," Cordelia said. "You know about those?"
Alessandra nodded. "I don't know why he doesn't give them to a museum. Probably because he's a cantankerous old man." Off Cordelia's look, she added, "He's my da, I'm allowed to say that."
"That's quite fair."
"You think I'm too young to be his daughter," Alessandra said, shrewdly. "He was married before he met my ma, but she died. And then my ma died too, but I was a replicator birth, so here I am."
Cordelia felt a small prick of pride at that – such gentle lack of self-consciousness, I was a replicator birth – and said, "I'm sorry to hear your mother's no longer with us."
"It was a long time ago," Alessandra said, and then stopped, looking more closely at Cordelia, an unreadable expression on her face. "Are you Countess Vorkosigan?"
"Yes," said Cordelia, surprised. "I'm sorry, my dear, have we met after all?"
"We haven't been introduced," Alessandra said, a little confusedly, "but when I was seventeen and my da finally let me go to the capital with him, there was a Winterfair ball for all the Counts' daughters. Because I hadn't got my ma, Lady Alys Vorpatril looked after me, and she pointed you out to me."
Cordelia remembered a number of such balls, usually held for Alys to keep track of young Vor maidens who could be potential empresses, and smiled inwardly. "I think I recall."
Alessandra nodded, and her gaze sharpened. "Lady Alys said you were half-Betan."
"Ah," Cordelia said, "I think you may be confusing me with my sons. I'm wholly Betan, they're half."
Something lit in her expression. "Countess Vorkosigan, if you can do something for me, I'll persuade my father to lend you those ship fragments. I'll give you my name's word on it."
"My dear," Cordelia said slowly, "that's quite something you're committing to there. Even if you could persuade him, what would you have me do?"
Alessandra looked down. "There's this boy."
"Ah," Cordelia said, a little indulgently, and Alessandra suddenly lifted her head and met Cordelia's gaze.
"He's the son of Count Vorfarin," she said clearly. "In the next District over."
"Ah," Cordelia said, smiling. "And you like him?"
"We're going to be married," she said, matter-of-factly. "But."
Cordelia waited, still appreciating the dappled sunshine and shade, as the silence stretched out. "But what, dear?"
"But I had... plans," Alessandra said, with some difficulty. "There were things I wanted to do."
Cordelia nodded. "What sort of things?"
"I have all these ideas about, you know, how to improve agriculture her, and I want to study, maybe terraforming" – bigger gardens in her head than this one, Cordelia thought – "and my da hasn't any close relatives, so there's only me to learn things for the District. I have real things to do."
Another long pause. Cordelia waited.
"Countess Vorkosigan," Alessandra said, the words spilling out, "can you help me get a contraceptive implant?"
Cordelia blinked. "Lady Alessandra, while I live on Barrayar, I'm subject to the same constraints as you are. Perhaps more. I'm not sure you understand what a difficult thing it is you're asking."
"Please," Alessandra said, painfully sincere. "If you get me the implant, on my word as Vorcini I will persuade my father to lend you those ship's fragments."
"Well, then," Cordelia, said, smiling. "I will try my best."
"Countess Vorkosigan," Dr. Srivastava said, frustrated, "I'm not sure you understand what a random trial actually is. If, as you suggest, we take this girl and place her in the group, it's no longer by its very nature a random trial."
Cordelia sighed, and made a decision. "Let's try this again," she said. "I'm going to go outside" – she did, going slowly because of the crutches, leaving the door open – "and come back in again, and I'm going to say, hello, you must be Dr. Srivastava. And you're going to hold out your hand for me to shake – hold out your hand for me to shake." He did. "You'll smile and nod and ask, and you are? And I'll say, hello, I'm Captain Cordelia Naismith of the Betan Astronomical Survey."
He took a step back and withdrew his hand, looking a little stunned. "You're a captain in the Astronomical Survey? Are you really not Countess Vorkosigan?"
"I'm that, too," she said, tiredly, and sat back down. "In truth, Dr. Srivastava, I haven't been a scientist in thirty years. But let's assume, shall we, for the sake of argument, that I understand the nature of a double-blind clinical trial."
He had the grace to look embarrassed. Stepping away from her, he drew the curtains. It was a bright day outside, if wintry and cold, and the pretty architecture of the university district was set off in sharp outlines against the cool blue sky. "Would you like something to drink, Captain Naismith?"
"Tea would be lovely," she said, and he took his time over brewing it, carefully, with cup and samovar and fragrant green leaves.
"Again, from the beginning," she said, slowly, after she'd taken a sip. "If you do as I ask, you'll bring this girl in, you'll make an assessment of her health."
He nodded. "I see."
"No, you don't," she said. "You'll make the necessary alterations to bring her into the basic parameters of the control group, and then you'll thank her for her time and send her home. She will not be in the control group or the experimental group. Your data will not be interfered with. Do you see?"
"Dimly," he said, with a faint sardonic aspect to his voice.
"Good. You're using Betan standards, aren't you?"
"Yes... but I still don't understand."
"You wouldn't," she said, and sipped her tea. "Look, Dr. Srivastava, I need an answer from you. I don't have any right to make demands. But if you do what I ask, you will be, in a way, doing a generous favour to the Barrayaran Imperium. And the Imperium will, of course, make good any additional expenses you might incur."
"My funding comes from Beta Colony, and the marginal cost would be tiny," Dr. Srivastava said, sounding amused. "The Imperium can rest easy on that account."
Cordelia sat up straight. "So you'll do it?"
"I'll do it, Captain Naismith," he said, still smiling. "Not for the Barrayaran Imperium or anything else, mind you. Because it's you asking, I will. I'm sure you have a reason." He stopped, a frown crossing his face. "But…"
He took a long time to answer. Cordelia glanced around the room, taking in the neat piles of notes, the bunch of flowers set in a vase on a shelf, the honeysuckle curling at the edge of the window. The frown softened off Dr. Srivastava's face, leaving a look in part reflective and in part apologetic.
"Speaking as one Betan to another," he said, neutrally, "it can't have been easy for you to have come here and done what you did."
Cordelia said nothing, waiting for him to go on.
"But you are Countess Vorkosigan, and you were the wife of the Lord Regent during the current Emperor's childhood, is that right?"
"That's right," Cordelia said, matching his neutral tone with one of her own.
"And Count Vorkosigan never had any difficulties because he had chosen a galactic partner?"
"They got used to me," Cordelia said, shortly.
"My wife," he said, slowly, "my wife has not found it so easy."
"Your wife is Barrayaran?" Cordelia said, understanding suddenly. "How long have you been married?"
"Two years," he said. "I was here on an exchange programme from Beta Colony, and it was rather" – a smile – "a whirlwind romance. But her family didn't approve of the match, and my wife doesn't say anything, but I know it hurts her."
Cordelia nodded. "I think I understand."
"And her friends, and her sisters, even, received invitations for the celebrations surrounding the Emperor's betrothal, and, well, she hasn't said anything at all. She doesn't know I know. But, Countess Vorkosigan... my colleagues tell me there's a last ball at the Imperial Residence to mark the changing of the season. If you could use your influence... I would like to see her happier."
"What's your wife's name?" Cordelia asked.
"Lady Primrose Vorlotta," he said. "She's the daughter of a Count. I've never met the man, I gather he spends most of his time in the Southern Continent."
"I'll see what I can do," Cordelia said, "and in the meantime, I've taken up too much of your time, Dr. Srivastava."
"It was a pleasure to meet you," he said, helping her up, and she smiled her thanks. "One more thing," he asked, as she reached the door. "Why do you want me to take a girl into a research study, assess her health, interfere with her body to meet Betan physiological standards, and then forget about her entirely?"
"Ask your wife," Cordelia said, and limped out.
"Really, Cordelia, when the seating plan's been completed and the invitations have gone to the engravers!"
"Alys, I wouldn't be asking if it wasn't important," Cordelia said, using her crutches to cross the room in long strides. "In a convoluted way, it's what Gregor wants."
"None of this is anything to do with what Gregor wants. Gregor wants to elope on a jump-ship bound for the other side of the galaxy," Alys said, but there was humour in it. Cordelia sighed and reached absent-mindedly for one of the sample menus on the table. The words blurred before her eyes. It had been a long day.
"All right," Alys said, pacing, turning back to her list, "who is this Dr. Srivastava and who is Lady Primrose... oh."
"Oh?" Cordelia dropped the menu. "Alys?"
"I understand," Alys said slowly, still not looking up from the list.
"Alys, please tell me that the reason they weren't invited wasn't that she married a galactic." It had been years since Cordelia had taken real offence at such things, but something inside her felt honour-bound, in a Betan way, to ask.
Alys gazed at her steadily. "To some extent," she said. "The Count doesn't approve of his daughter's marriage. He never was very bright, and keeping him away from the reality of change is the only way to keep his vote. He's a reactionary. If he spends enough time around his Betan son-in-law to definitely take against him, it's a given that he'll express his feelings by splitting off from the Progressives."
"Whose most notable leader in modern times also married a Betan," Cordelia said, and groaned.
"My ankle hurts," Cordelia grumbled, and staggered into a chair. The room would be decorated well in time for the ball, but in the daylight, it looked eerie, Cordelia thought, the rays of sunlight crossing through the dust motes hanging in empty space.
"You can help re-word the invitations while you rest it," Alys said unsympathetically, and sat beside her.
Cordelia groaned again. "Re-word the invitations?"
"Simon was having doubts," Alys said, looking thoughtful. "It's going to be market day in the city for more than half the Districts, and he thought that Allegre would object to my choosing that date because of security forces being stretched too tight. He hadn't made the objection yet, but I was marshalling arguments.
"But if we move the date a week later... yes." Alys tapped a perfectly-manicured nail on the edge of a glass. "Then we may as well re-word the invitations, we'll have to redo everything, including the seating plan, for your Dr. Srivastava and Lady Primrose..."
Cordelia sat up. "What about Count Vorlotta?"
"He goes to his District on the first of the month, to join the hunt," Alys said. "Without fail. So we invite him, but he won't come, and no one else will object. I can save my goodwill with Allegre for another occasion."
"Alys," said Cordelia, sincerely, "you're a marvel."
"I do my part." Only the faintest quirk of her lips showed she appreciated the compliment. "Oh, another thing, Cordelia."
"Yes?" Cordelia said, picking up her crutches and getting very slowly to her feet.
"If you should see Simon, just tell him that the date of the ball's changed. He'll appreciate knowing, especially before Allegre does."
"I will," Cordelia said, "but you'll see him before I do, I'm sure."
"No," said Alys quietly, "I won't."
Cordelia came to a stop, made a careful turn, limped back to her chair, and sat down in it, leaning her crutches against the table. "Tell me," she said.
The old Simon Illyan wouldn't have gardened. Cordelia watched him for a while, standing under the spring sun, staring at a rose-bush. For a brief moment she suspected him of talking to it, before realising that he was methodically checking it for aphids.
After a while, she made her way quietly across the garden and settled herself on the grass. "Good morning, Simon," she said, and laid the crutches beside her.
"Good morning, Countess Vorkosigan." He turned and smiled and made to take off his gardening gloves, but she waved him away.
"Don't stop on my account," she said, and stretched herself out to take in the sun. "And call me Cordelia, Simon, how many times must I tell you?"
He smiled. "I don't know in what capacity you've come to see me, yet," he said mildly, and went back to his rosebush, reaching for some pruning shears by his feet.
"As a friend," she said. "Aral sends his regards, by the way. He's down in the District."
"So I understand. How are you recovering?" He waved in the direction of her injured foot.
"Fine," she said. "I was bored for a time, what with all the sitting my physician insists on, but between them Alys and Gregor gave me plenty to do."
"Their industry is contagious," Simon said, set down the shears and came to sit beside her. "Gregor is happy, I think. So is Alys. It's something I enjoy seeing."
"Me, too," Cordelia said, honestly.
"Gregor, especially," Simon went on. "I had to see him every morning for fifteen years, give him a security briefing that was never full to the brim with good news, shall we say. It's good to see him happy."
Cordelia nodded. "And Alys?"
"She's busy," Simon said. "And she thrives on it. This Imperial wedding – it's the logistical nightmare of a lifetime, but I suspect that in some ways she's been looking forward to the challenge all her life."
Cordelia nodded. "You know her very well, Simon. It's clear to me how fond you are of her. Now why have you been ignoring her?"
He looked surprised for a moment at the sudden turn in conversation, and then something closed in his expression. "I haven't..."
"Simon, Alys asked me to ask you why you haven't been spending time with her. Because you haven't been around for her to ask you herself. That's pretty damning, don't you think?"
"Cordelia," he said, a little helplessly. "I really don't want to talk about these matters."
"Perhaps – I make you no promises – I'd leave you alone if this were on my own account. But it's not, and besides, I wouldn't want you to throw away what might be, oh, the best thing that's ever happened to you." She smiled at him. "Now, tell your Aunt Cordelia."
Simon laughed, suddenly. "We're the same age, Cordelia. And it's a clever move of Alys's, setting you on me. She knows you'll never give up."
"Simon." She would have tapped her foot, if she'd been standing; as it was, she fixed him with her best disapproving look. "For a moment, could you not think like a military strategist, and try thinking like a human being."
He leaned back, letting the garden wall support some of his weight, and the sun beat down on them both. There was silence for a while.
"I still forget things, you know," Simon said mildly. "My short-term memory as well my long-term memory are shot. Over time I forgot how to have my own brain remember things, and now it seems as though it's too late to learn how again."
"Alys... reminds me, when I forget things. She leaves notes for me, if she thinks I'm going to forget things. After... it happened, I wasn't sure what to do with myself, afterwards, and she gave me gardening tools and sheet music and romance novels and a good frying pan and informed me that she hoped one of them would stick."
Cordelia laughed. "That sounds like her."
"She's a magnificent lady. And it occurs to me... she doesn't need someone else to look after, in her life. She has Ivan for that, and Gregor, and now Laisa, and the entire Imperial household and the whole city of Vorbarr Sultana to some extent or another. She needs someone... who can get through a day without help."
Cordelia said, "Who are you to tell her what she needs?"
He glanced at her. "Cordelia, I thought..."
"You thought wrong," Cordelia snapped, and then sighed. "Simon. Alys doesn't need anything. She wants to be needed. She wants to be loved. And she wants you."
He said nothing, but Cordelia heard the inward catch in his breathing.
"And I," she said, softly, "and you, and as you mentioned, the entire city of Vorbarr Sultana, trust her taste in all things. Why not in this, too?"
Simon was still looking directly at her. "What do you think I should do?"
"I think you should be honest. I think you should take her out, and tell her you think she's a magnificent lady, and feel free to throw in some more adjectives there, too, And then I think the two of you should go home and fall into bed."
Simon smiled, wryly. "Cordelia, please never change."
"At this late stage I'm not likely to." Cordelia sighed. "And tell me, what do you want in exchange?"
"Exchange?" Simon said, with a flash of devastating vagueness in his eyes, and Cordelia immediately explained about the pre-Isolation artefacts, the contraceptive implant, the party invitation, before he could start to think it was something he'd forgotten. At the end of the tale, he was smiling. "So. I get something in return."
"Why not," Cordelia said. "Why the hell not. Would you like another rosebush? An elephant? How about a planet named after you?"
Simon was still smiling, but there was an edge to it. "Remind me of something," he said, and the silence hung for a moment, charged with expectation.
Cordelia lay down full-length on the grass, and thought for a moment. "Something happy?" she asked.
"I don't think," Cordelia said, "it ever works out well, anywhere in the Nexus, where two brothers, or foster-brothers, have an age difference so that one of them is seventeen while the other is thirteen. When the brothers in question were Miles and Gregor, it worked out just as badly as you might expect. Gregor was – well, Alys had just decided that the finishing touch he needed on his education was some instruction in dancing. It made sense, I suppose. He was attending diplomatic functions and Winterfair balls and all that hoopla about his own birthday a few years before his majority, it made sense he should learn to dance.
"So she acquired a dance instructor from somewhere, a little old man who'd taught me to dance, back when I was a newly-minted Lady Regent, so at least I could vouch for him. But Gregor hated it. You know how he gets even now, when faced with a some ball or other? He's had fifteen years to practice that perfectly expressionless look. Back then he hated it with a fervour unmuted by experience.
"But you know Alys. She was determined. The only concession Gregor managed to get out of her was that the dance lessons should take place at Vorkosigan House. So at least it would be home-like, he said, and he didn't have to make an idiot of himself in public in the Residence. I thought that was reasonable, so that's what we did. His dance partner was an adorable plump Count's daughter from the Southern Continent, and I don't doubt her father's vote was sewn up for Aral and the Progressives that Council session.
"Now at that time it had been a couple of years since Miles had had any surgeries, and he was just coming into his growth and feeling invincible. And he'd been tormenting Gregor for a while in a proper little-brotherly way, and I think he was feeling apologetic, and something about Gregor's dance lessons aroused his sympathy. Or something. So there they were, Gregor and this girl, dancing sedately around in the library of the house, and suddenly, the lights went out. It took ImpSec a few moments to realise that not only were the lights out, so was all the electricity – including their own private sources. And in the five minutes it took for the emergency generator to come online, the Emperor and his lady friend had vanished. We found them ten minutes later, sitting up in one of the attics, Miles, Gregor, Ivan and the girl, all eating ice-cream stashed there beforehand and looking very pleased with themselves. Well, especially Miles. And he stayed that way even as we explained to them exactly how much trouble they were in.
"The thing that always stuck in my mind, though, was that the amount of trouble they were in was nothing compared to the amount of trouble we were in. Aral was away on Komarr, and ImpSec had been out in full force because of Gregor, and even though it had only been ten minutes, the fact did remain that they'd lost the Emperor. You were in charge of them, and I was in charge of Vorkosigan House… so. So we both ended up standing in front of Alys like naughty schoolchildren, explaining ourselves, and I remember thinking clearly that you were probably trying as hard not to laugh as I was, and hoping that you were."
Simon was smiling. "Thank you," he said. They sat comfortably on the grass, under the sun's warmth.
"Countess Vorkosigan," said the man in the Vorbarra livery, "the Emperor would like a moment of your time."
"Of course," she said, and followed him, past the rows of mingling people, the dancers, the footmen with their trays of champagne glasses and canapés, out through the terrace doors. It was a soft, thoroughly spring-like night, with pots of night-blooming flowers scenting the air.
"Gregor," Cordelia called softly, and he turned. So did Miles and Ivan, both sitting on the benches with Gregor, and the dim shadow on the other side must be Laisa, Cordelia realised.
"Cordelia," Gregor said, making room for her to sit. "It's good to see you on your feet again."
"I never was off them," she corrected him. "But not using crutches is very refreshing, it's true. I see you've got a party within a party, here," she added, waving at Laisa, who seemed to have been struck with shyness in her presence.
"Best kind," Miles agreed, and pulled a bottle of wine out from under the bench. "Would you like some, Mother?"
"No, thank you, but it's good to know you're remembering your manners," she said, tartly, and then relaxed. The warm night air was working on her, too. "Gregor, they said you wanted to see me?"
"Oh, just to thank you for the magic you worked on Count Vorcini," Gregor said, easily, and Cordelia noted that he, too, was looking soft around the edges, more relaxed than she'd seen him in years. "The Imperial Science Institute were delighted beyond measure, and so was I, of course. Thank you very much."
"It was my pleasure," Cordelia said, standing up and turning to go back to the party. "Now, be careful you don't let your Aunt Alys catch you out here" – but there was a rustle of terrified movement behind her.
"Gregor!" Alys said, coming through the terrace doors, and Cordelia noticed Laisa standing up and slipping quietly away. "Miles, Ivan! You're supposed to be inside mingling, not sitting out here being anti-social."
"Alys," Cordelia began, placatingly, but stopped when something changed unexpectedly in Alys's expression.
"Be back inside in five minutes," she said, but without sharpness, and then ruffled Ivan's hair and kissed Miles and Gregor each on the cheek. "You're dear, sweet boys," she said, and went back in.
There was a long, stunned silence.
"Maybe she's dying," said Ivan in a strangled voice.
"Maybe's she's happy," said Cordelia, and followed her through the terrace doors. After the relative silence outside, the noise hit her hard, and for a wistful moment Cordelia wished for her crutches back. With those, she could at least clear a way through the mass of people. As it was, she lingered, wondering whether she could force her way through to a side-table and get a drink and something to eat.
"Countess Vorkosigan!" said a high, breathless voice.
Cordelia turned around to see a girl in a tulip-red dress. "Lady Alessandra," she said, with a genuine smile. "It's good to see you."
"The pleasure is all mine," Alessandra said formally, and then looked around her, glancing over her shoulder before turning back. "I can't thank you enough," she said quietly. "I don't know how you did it, but, oh, thank you. It means so much to me."
Impulsively, Cordelia put her arm around the girl's shoulders. "Do you see over there?" she said. "The man carrying the swordstick, surrounded by women?"
Alessandra nodded, her gaze following Cordelia's pointing finger. "Yes. Are they all related?"
"They're the Koudelka girls and that's their da," Cordelia said. "The fourth sister, Kareen, isn't here tonight because she's away on Beta Colony for her education."
"Oh," said Alessandra, a wealth of emotion in her voice.
"I run a scholarship programme for bright girls who want to go offworld," said Cordelia, "and I think you should apply for it."
"Oh, but," Alessandra said, "I couldn't possibly..."
"Call me in the morning to discuss it," Cordelia said, firmly, and let her go. With a wondering, happy smile, Alessandra disappeared across the dancefloor in a rustle of skirts. Cordelia shook her head, and thought again about that drink and something to eat.
"Countess Vorkosigan," said a new, unfamiliar voice, "I couldn't help but overhear what you were saying to that young girl."
The tone of the voice was disapproving. Cordelia turned to face a tall woman dressed in austere grey, hair drawn back from her face in a style that showed off high cheekbones and large eyes the same shade as the dress. "I'm sorry," she said, "I don't believe I know..."
The woman regarded her with a long, cool look. "My name is Lady Primrose Vorlotta," she said. "I understand you're a philanthropist."
"I'm involved with a number of scholarship programmes, that's so," Cordelia said, a little baffled, taking refuge in factual formality.
"Charity," said Lady Primrose, and there was the faintest possible edge to her voice.
Cordelia sighed, and understood. "Lady Primrose, I had the pleasure of meeting your husband a few days ago. He did me a great service."
"He did?" It was a spontaneous answer, not studied; in the moment of relaxation Cordelia saw some beauty in her face.
"He did," she said, firmly. "I was in a difficult quandary, and he was of great assistance. As a token of my regard, I sent him an invitation for himself and his lady wife to tonight's little gathering." She paused, thought about it, and tossed in the grenade. "I thought it the honourable thing to do."
"Oh," she said, with pink in her cheeks.
Cordelia nodded, and opened her mouth to say, I know it's hard, believe me I know and I wish I could make it easier for you, and felt the words glance off the surface of this woman's pride even before they were spoken. She said, "Lady Primrose, have you ever visited Beta Colony?"
"I have not."
"Perhaps you should," Cordelia said. "I have a suspicion you'd find it interesting." And a liberation.
"Thank you, Countess Vorkosigan," said Lady Primrose. "I'll bear that in mind."
She drifted away, then, offering small apologies, and Cordelia sighed and turned her mind once again to the project of crossing the floor.
"Countess Vorkosigan," said a voice, and she groaned to herself before turning to face whoever it was now. "What's a wonderful lady like you doing in a dull place like this?"
She wheeled around. "Aral," she said, happily, and let him enfold her.
"How are you, dear Captain?" he murmured in her ear.
"My feet are killing me and I really want a drink."
He grinned into her shoulder. "I'll see what I can do."
"This," Cordelia said, raising her champagne glass in a toast to the stars, "is going straight to my head."
"Good," Aral said. "It was quite the military manoeuvre getting it for you. In the end I resorted to a surprise-attack-and-grab operation."
"Thank you," Cordelia said, a little dippily, she thought to herself, but without concern. Gregor, Miles and Ivan had obeyed orders and gone to mingle, leaving their bench on the terrace empty. It was still deliciously fragrant outside, the night air suffused with blooming jasmine.
"Aral," Cordelia said presently, "what are you doing here? I thought you weren't back until tomorrow morning."
"I left early." He smiled. "I dealt with absolutely everything I could deal with, I delegated some other things, I made noises about urgent duties in the capital. And I might have mentioned my sadly injured and incapacitated wife, I confess."
"I was fine," Cordelia said, indignantly.
"I know you were." He drew her close, and seeing no one about, she kicked off her shoes and put her feet on the bench, half in his lap. "I checked in with Gregor just as I was arriving, and tomorrow after lunch we break orbit for Sergyar, but right now" – his arm around her shoulders tightened – "we're all each other's."
"Out in the garden among the flowers," Cordelia said, reflectively. "What luxury."
He nodded. "I heard that Miles is back from Komarr? I'll have the chance to see him in the morning. That's good."
She smiled. "Yes. He'll be happy to see you."
A companionable silence settled on them both. Cordelia leaned against him, enjoying the feeling of weight and warmth at her back. "The stars are bright," she said, after a while. "It's not often I get the chance just to sit. Just to sit up and look."
He nodded. "Not often that I do, either."
Cordelia smiled. "You know, I was reading Gregor's prospective mother-in-law's doctoral thesis..."
"Cordelia," he interrupted gently, looking at her, "I presume that at some point you're going to explain how you came to be reading Gregor's prospective mother-in-law's doctoral thesis?"
Cordelia considered. "It's a long story. There's a shorter version, though."
"Let's have that, for now."
"I was curious."
He grinned. "That'll do." When she was silent: "So, you were reading this doctoral thesis..."
"It's about history," Cordelia said, still thoughtful. "About early Barrayaran history, about the colony ship, Kamal. Did you know that there's a school of thought that says that that wasn’t the ship's name?"
He stirred. "No, I didn't know that."
"Some academics argue that it wasn't the name of the ship, it was actually the name of the pilot, and the two have been confused with time. Kamal. Kamal. You can see how it might happen."
Aral nodded. "Yes."
"And then I was thinking about her. Kamal, I mean. The jump-pilot. If that was her name. I was thinking about how she must have felt, when the colony ship was getting ready to leave with fifty thousand people on board and just one pilot. How she must have felt, bearing that responsibility, for everyone, for a whole world. It all depended on her. What a weight it must have been, and what a joy."
Aral looked down at her with softness in his eyes. "Would you like some more champagne, my Captain?" he asked. "Or would you like me to carry you home?"
"I don't need to be carried," Cordelia said definitively.
"Of course not," Aral said. "What would you like?"
"I think I would like to dance," Cordelia said. "For a while, and then we can go home."
"Home," he echoed, and lifted her to her feet. They went in together, arm-in-arm, past Simon and Alys, Gregor and Laisa, and she leaned against him as they danced slowly, her head on his shoulder, his hand on her hip, in a circle around the floor.