Actions

Work Header

Dear Countess

Work Text:

I.
Arthur Genaro didn’t care much for school. He and Stefan ended up in Arthur’s house, sunburned, after spending the morning fishing and the afternoon hiding from the truant officer in Farrow Ridge. Stef had nicked some gum-leaf from his uncle, and they were both still jittering and restless when they snuck back into the house for provisions before Arthur’s mother returned from the woolery. Arthur was rifling through his father’s dresser, looking for more gum-leaf, when he found it and brought it out to Stef.

“Who’s she, Art? Your pa has time for a second wife?” Stef taunted. He swung the locket casually back to his friend, and grabbed another loaf of bread before heading out the door.

Arthur stood in the doorway, gazing at the photo in the sunlight. She was more beautiful than any woman he had ever imagined.


II.
Princess-and-Countess Olivia Vorbarra Vorkosigan. She appeared mostly in descriptions of Yuri’s Massacre, and as Count Piotr’s angel in the house as he slogged to victory in the First Cetagandan War. She was always mentioned as a friend to Ezar; never a breath about sharing the madness of her other relations. Arthur found these accounts wholly unsatisfying; they were stories, written by men who didn’t really know her. If she was an artist and a poet as the historians claimed, where was her art? Where were her letters? She had been to Farrow Ridge only once, just two years before her death, just a few weeks before his father had been born. Da couldn’t possibly even remember her, though the whole District had been wracked with grief far out of line with what one would expect for a mere Countess. After Countess Olivia, there had been none other for fifty-one years, and anyone who had been alive to know her would privately confess that the wild and baffling Countess Cordelia was no substitute. Countess Olivia had been their royalty.

Stefan had snuck up behind him. “You reading about your girlfriend again, Art?” he teased. “Isn’t she a little old for you?”

Stef had first began needling his friend in earnest after Arthur earned his first “B” in history class. Arthur suddenly wanted to show up to class, instead of heading out to swim or throw snowballs, and Stef didn’t understand the appeal.

“Next you know, you’ll be headed out to Hassadar to turn into one of those goggle-eyed writers. She’s just an old Countess, Art, been dead fifty years! You’re gonna go blind.”

Arthur glared at him.

“I mean, reading all those history books and crawling around moldy attics? Blind, I tell you,” Stef grinned, not quite backing down.

The truth was, Arthur hadn’t even been reading that much lately. He’d been helping out his Ma’s friends, earning a spare coin here and there by moving furniture and carrying stores from cellars. Sometimes he got the opportunity to hear stories from the old men holding down the porch, sometimes he got to nick a forgotten souvenir from a closet. He was developing a collection of Countess Olivia’s images, signatures, and announcements, but none of them really showed him what he was looking for. At least with the old uncles he could dare to ask a question or two.

“Was she as beautiful as the pictures made her?” he would ask shyly. The old men would just smile and shake their heads.

“She was always a beauty. Quiet, like she was listening to something you couldn’t quite hear. She’d gotten tired by the time she made it out to Farrow Ridge, but she was still a princess to the bone.”

III.
In the end, Arthur didn’t go to Hassadar, but won a scholarship to the University of Vorbarr Sultana.  There, he could finally begin to relax. At home, the only time he’d announced that he wanted to be a historian, he was met with snickers and rolled eyes. Here were other people who wanted to study for its own sake, with whom he could almost feel comfortable. They studied systems of power and geopolitical change; they wanted an audience for their many insights. Arthur was an oddity; he didn’t want to publish, wasn’t inspired to teach, just gobbled up every primary source he could find on Countess Olivia.

After marrying Count Piotr, the Countess had given up writing and oils and turned to more domestic pursuits; according to her letters she nursed soldiers in wartime, and gardened, directed parties, and rode horses in peacetime. Arthur found a portrait of her on horseback, dark hair shining in autumn light, a modest green ring glinting on her right hand. He tried to imagine the sound of her voice, the smell of her hair. After his third trip to the portrait gallery, the guard at the front of the hall shook his head.

“You boys from Vorkosigan’s District,” he chuckled. “You’re all the same.”

IV.
In his second year of university, Arthur found the ring and spent his entire term’s earnings on it. He kept it in the top drawer of his dresser, and every so often would pull it out and slip it over his fingertip. The narrow ring rested comfortably on his first knuckle, and he imagined holding it for milady.

It wasn’t until his third year at university that he stopped to consider his family, and why his father kept the locket. Lewis Genaro was a taciturn man, but Arthur knew that after some mead he might be persuaded to share a story or two.

“She’s not what you make her out to be, boy. She’s just another Vor, no different than another. Close up your fairy tale and get to some work.”
“This is my work.” Arthur scowled.
“You’ll be hungry all your life, if the only thing you build is more stories. You’ll end up back in Farrow Ridge, living off the kindness of your brothers, before I live out my days.”
“Belike.” In truth, Arthur preferred Vorkosigan District to Vorbarr Sultana. While most of the neighbors in their farm town couldn’t understand academic life, they at least shared his history.

Arthur got no more details out of his father. Three months later, his father had passed away and the family gathered in Farrow Ridge to burn the first offering. His mother handed him a sealed packet with his name on it and walked away without a word. Inside Arthur found a stack of yellowed envelopes, unmarked, save for a date on the corner. They had been sealed with the initials “AG”--Arthur’s grandmother--but each had been carefully cut open. Arthur picked the earliest date and began to read.

Dear Countess,
It was an honor and a privilege to receive you and your household in Farrow Ridge last month. On behalf of my town, I thank you. The baby boy continues to be fat and strong, and will be crawling by first snow. You spoke rightly, that it was a stroke of luck you managed to find him unharmed on your path, and so deep in the woods. I am certain he will work hard and credit our town.


With gratitude,

Alinda Genaro


Arthur opened the letter dated one year following.

Dear Countess,
May we thank you for your generous gift this midsummer? The water scrubber was a stroke of great fortune for our town, as ours had recently broken beyond repair. Farrow Ridge is once again thriving, and the harvest promises to do your District proud.

The foundling who arrived with you last autumn survived the winter, and he took our family name this spring. Young Lewis
--Arthur paled-- is still strong and growing every day. He had a touch of dysentery in June but is quite recovered. I do wonder at what might have befallen Lewis’ mother, to disappear her and leave him so untouched. As I watch him grow, I can only see that his mother was beautiful and his father was brave. We will honor your compassion by raising him.

Your faithful subject,

Alinda Genaro


The next letter was dated just twelve days after Yuri’s Massacre. Arthur opened it with shaking hands.

Dear Countess,
News reached the hills just this week, and the black sashes on the doors will be up until the moon is full. The first messenger reported that the Emperor’s men had taken all the children along with you, and all night I lay awake wondering whether they were on the march to Farrow Ridge. The next messenger gave word that the Count and Lord Aral had survived; perhaps we’re buying our safety out of their danger, or perhaps no one is safe. Lewis is too young to understand why everyone is so somber. We’ll tell him about his Countess when he’s older.


AG


There were a dozen other unsent letters in the box, along with a note in his father’s hand: Your grandmother’s letters, for your private collection. Arthur sat back, stunned. His grandmother had met Countess Olivia? His grandmother had taken in a child from her household? In secret? His grandmother--

Arthur stopped, resealed the package, and didn’t touch it again for a month.

V.
Lady Ekaterin Vorkosigan strolled through the galleries of Vorhartung Castle while Miles finished his appointment with Gregor. She’d finally stopped being intimidated by the endless parade of Counts and Countesses, though she still couldn’t wrap her mind around the idea that someday Miles’s portrait would hang on this wall. Worse, someday her portrait would hang on this wall.

Ekaterin fought down a wave of disorientation as she approached the Vorkosigan portraits. As soon as he stopped to consider the portrait hall, Miles would begin a campaign to re-decorate, so their portraits could be shown to best advantage. What he’ll want, Ekaterin mused, is enough natural light to draw the eye, without enough glare to bleach the colors. Perhaps across from the skylight?

This train of thought was so distracting that Ekaterin almost bumped into the young student by Princess-and-Countess Olivia’s portrait. The young man murmured, “Pardon me, milady,” and placed his hand over his heart, though his head never quite turned away from the image before him. The green ring glinting on his right hand was copied in Countess Olivia’s portrait.

“No, certainly. I beg your pardon, Mr... ?” Ekaterin trailed off in invitation.

“Genaro, milady. Arthur Genaro of Farrow Ridge, at your service.” He bowed to her, as was proper, but did not look particularly Vor-struck.

“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Genaro. We had occasion to visit Farrow Ridge last spring--a new school in your town, is there not?” she inquired politely.

“So my mother tells me. I’ve been teaching at the University, so I haven’t been able to see it in person yet. Hopefully I’ll get to see it at Winterfair, milady.”

“I see. I hope that as we begin adding more higher education, you might consider returning to the District to teach.”

“The district is never far from my mind, milady. Thank you.” Arthur returned his gaze to Countess Olivia, and Ekaterin took the hint and withdrew.

Later that evening, Ekaterin began a search on Arthur Genaro. She uncovered a modest academic record; a thesis on the role of Vor families in resistance to the Cetagandan occupation; a purchase report from a Vorbarr Sultana auction house on a small emerald ring offered for sale by the family of one of Count Piotr’s troops. The ring she’d seen today, Ekaterin realized.

None of these records really answered the sense of déja vu she felt on hearing his name. She ran an internal search, idly, wondering if he would appear in any open household records. Almost immediately she found two matches, in a financial statement of all places:

Genaro: Observation
Genaro: Education


The amount budgeted to the education line was respectable. Ekaterin highlighted both items and sent a query to Tsipis. Though it was an hour after dinner, he answered immediately.

“Good evening, milady. You had a question on the Genaro lines in the budget statement?” The financial manager was still in his office, dressed for the day. Ekaterin wondered whether he wore those clothes to bed.

“Yes, thank you. I don’t have much detail on these two lines; can you tell me what they’re for?”

“Certainly.” Tsipis tapped at his keyboard briefly. “They’ve been present in the House budget for the last fifty-eight years under Domestic Expense. Amounts are funded by District investments and indexed to currency changes. There’s a brief note on the education line: To support the education of Lewis Genaro and all male descendents. The observation line routes directly back into salary for one of the District liasons, operating out of the Farrow Hills. Both line items are active, within budget, and are set to operate for another forty-two years.” Tsipis blinked, owlishly.

Ekaterin tried to think back fifty-eight years. “But Tsipis... who set these up?”

Tsipis let only a brief look of puzzlement escape. “I can check the records, milady. Laud was meticulous in his notes, I’m sure they’ll have the answer. Would you like this tonight?”

“No, thank you. Just put it on the agenda for our next meeting, please.” Ekaterin was loath to imagine how many hours Tsipis might spend combing notebooks, or what hour he might wake her with the answer.

“Thank you, milady. Good night.”

Ekaterin cut the comm and tried to recall the man she’d met that afternoon. One of those men who fall hopelessly in love across time... She tapped a finger to her lips, considering.