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Love and Marriage

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"Well, what did you think of her?" Padma slid his arm around her shoulders in the rear of the lightflyer and gave a boyish smile. "Quite the Betan, isn't she?"

Alys settled into his comfortable embrace, her gaze turning from the distant night-glow of the capital to her husband.

"Very much so," she said. "She's clever, of course, and utterly besotted with him." She gave a little laugh. "A love-match, who would have thought it after all these years? She'll have a lot of instant enemies amongst all the girls who've been trying to catch Aral this past decade and more." Alys had been amongst those girls for a short time, until her grandmother had acidly suggested that she observe Aral's behaviour towards men. Alys had made the correct deduction and decided to try for the younger and handsomer cousin instead. A Betan, she supposed, would be more flexible about those kinds of things.

"But you'll make her welcome, won't you?" He cupped a protective hand over her womb and added, "As much as you have the energy for, I mean. You have to look after yourself right now."

Alys smiled. "Of course I shall." She had gone to the wedding prepared for anything, and Cordelia had left her profoundly relieved. Aral could have chosen much, much worse. "All in all, I liked her." The other thing Alys had instantly concluded was that she didn't want Cordelia for an enemy. Whether she would be a friend ... was a harder question to answer. But Alys intended to try. "It'll certainly stir things up if we get a Betan for Regent-Consort," she added.

"If Ezar names Aral," Padma said cautiously. "He might be laying a false trail for us all, planning to spring some other candidate out at the last moment. It would be like him."

"Kareen used to want Count Vordarian, it's true, but even she's been talking Aral up lately. And I can't see how any of the other plausible candidates could stand up to Aral. Especially since Negri supports him."

"He does?" Padma turned to look at her properly. "How do you know that?"

"Did you notice that little ImpSec commander who was there today? He left halfway through the reception," she added with a disapproving frown. "Anyway, I've seen him at the Residence. Kareen tells me he's Negri's right-hand man, and Negri's been sticking him to Aral at every opportunity. He wouldn't do that without a reason."

"Ah. We don't hear much about ImpSec's internal arrangements in Ops." Padma shrugged. "I hope Princess Kareen won't hold it against Lady Vorkosigan that she fought on the other side of the war."

Alys raised her eyebrows a little. "I hardly think that likely." She glanced sideways at Padma, and he looked away.

"Well, yes." Prince Serg's behaviour had been a topic nobody mentioned in polite company. He had married Princess Kareen just before Alys came out, and she had lamented the lost opportunity and not understood why her mother had seemed relieved. The first time she encountered Serg at a party, it became clear. After that she learned to keep her distance from him. Parties at the Residence would be much more enjoyable now.

There was a silence, whilst Padma absently stroked her arm and Alys allowed herself to enjoy his warm presence at her side. Watching Cordelia and Aral repeat their vows had reminded her of her own wedding, though Aral's had been a tiny affair whilst the Vorpatril match had been the biggest event of the season. And that was not the only contrast. Aral and Cordelia were a love-match. Alys didn't think Aral had sent a Baba to Cordelia's family even as a formality. Whatever Cordelia saw in Aral, it was not his rank or his title. Alys hadn't been entirely convinced that Cordelia even understood who Aral was in Barrayaran society. She would be in for a shock when Aral took her back to the capital.

"But apart from all the politics," Padma said after a while, "I think she'll be good for him. And after these last few months, it's wonderful to see him ... more himself again."

Alys put her hand over Padma's. "I agree. He does seem much better," she said, and felt Padma relax. He loved his cousin, but whatever had been eating at Aral since Escobar, Padma had been unable to help. The night they'd heard about Aral's attempt to kill himself by crashing his lightflyer, Alys had seen Padma weep for the first time.

She had comforted Padma that night, and never spoken of the wondering voice in her mind that said that perhaps it would be she who would sit in the Residence if Aral did manage to kill himself one day. Padma had wisely stayed well clear of the discussion of the Regency, and he wasn't a good candidate as things stood, but if Aral had died he would have been a much better one. Alys was genuinely fond of Aral, and didn't want any harm to come to him, but there was always a part of her that calculated about things like this. She had learned early on that to speak about these things was unwomanly, but her grandmother had saved her from believing that it was unwomanly to think them. But she could never share that part of herself with Padma.

"I hope," Padma said, smiling again, "they will be as happy together as we are." He leaned forward and kissed her cheek. Alys let him draw her close and rested her head against his shoulder. Of all the men she might have caught, she thought she had found the best. Padma might be further from the throne, but he wasn't a pervert, wasn't a drunk, wasn't married to his career. He was honest and loyal and clever, he treated her with unfailing respect and he listened to her advice. And over time she was coming to love him, perhaps not passionately, but warmly. What more could she want?