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Five Strays Elizabeth Naismith took in (and One That Got Away)

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Dear Cordelia,

It seems that I last wrote you to say that Miles and Sergeant Bothari had arrived safely, and now it's well into the second quarter. Time goes faster the older you get, they say.

I'm sure I don't need to tell you that Miles is a charming and intelligent young man; I've been enjoying his company immensely. Before he came, I'll admit I was concerned about how he would fit in here, coming from such a different culture—and considering your own reserved adolescence. Do you remember how you disappeared from your coming-out party to finish reading your five-space math textbook? But it seems I needn't have worried. He's made plenty of friends, and taken to the social opportunities at school with a great deal of verve. (For more details, please see the attached disciplinary reports from Principal Hatter.)

He even had a girlfriend for a while—and this does worry me, Cordelia. I don't want to alarm you, but I hardly know what to say. The girl herself seemed perfectly lovely, but when it ended, as these things will, Miles took it very hard.

My friends say I am overreacting, and that teenagers in love are like that, and maybe they're right. I never had to deal with it with my own children, thank God. You were so shy, and Isaac was so easygoing. But he barely talks, he barely moves, he barely eats—well, barely eats is standard for Miles, but the rest is most atypical, as I'm sure you know. And I'm sure that something has happened that neither Miles nor Sergeant Bothari will talk about.

If only I could convince Miles to get some therapy! But whenever I mention it, his face goes very closed, and he brings up his Class Three diplomatic immunity. Which is hardly the point! But that would be your training, Cordelia. I know you have reasons for feeling the way you do, but it breaks my heart to see him so lost, when something could so easily be done.

I do think that part of the trouble is homesickness—even for so adventurous a young man as Miles is, it must be difficult to be far away from everything you know and love. Maybe you could come see him for a surprise, at semester break? I know you will bring up that old assault charge, but that nice Lieutenant Croye at the embassy has made so many minor criminal charges go away for Miles, I'm sure he could do the same for you. There must be some use in being married to the Regent of Barrayar, after all.

Love,

Mother

#

Dear Cordelia,

I'm glad to hear that things are back to normal on Barrayar—although when I consider that "normal" on Barrayar means "death by starvation is still a legal penalty," I wonder how glad I can be. I wish Miles the best in his studies. Maybe the Imperial Service will manage to keep him out of mischief?

Isaac's Vicki has started wearing exclusive-partner earrings, and she and her young herm are talking about moving in together after graduation. I have no objection to it personally—it's very nice, and clearly dotes on Vicki—but I do wish they'd wait a bit longer. Twenty-five seems awfully young.

I saw Elli Quinn off yesterday, and I miss her already. As you can see from the holos, Ayoub has outdone himself on her face. It's been a lot of fun, taking her around and showing her the sights, now that she can see again. I haven't felt this young in ages.

The only sour note is that Ayoub's work—and Quinn's refusal to wear clearly-marked earrings—have left her open to the sort of lout who assumes that tourists only come to Beta Colony for the kinky sex. Fortunately, Quinn's method of dealing with these people is more subtle than Elena Bothari's, though equally effective.

We did have a bit of trouble with that poor fellow Miles bought the ship from. He filed a complaint against Quinn, but luckily, he swore he could identify her as his assailant—by her face. Well, she didn't have that face at the time, so the charges were dismissed. Incidentally, Cordelia, it turns out the statute of limitations on category two assault without a previous or subsequent record of antisocial violence is twenty years. Why don't you come for a visit yourself one of these days?

Love,

Mother

#

Dear Cordelia,

Make sure you're sitting down when you read this—you're going to be a big sister!

No, I haven't gone and bought a third-child license. But back when Professor Soo was soliciting donations for the University's gene-bank, I donated an ovary. I was flattered to be asked, although I didn't think anything would come of it—this was when the new designer gene lines were starting to come in, if you remember.

So imagine my surprise last week when I got a call from a young man who wanted my genes! Well, he didn't call me for that—he could have gotten them from the University without consulting me, after all. He said he wanted to discuss an article I'd written for the Betan Journal of Reproductive Medicine. He had such technical questions—and let me tell you what a pleasure it is to have one's work actually read and understood—that I couldn't answer them all over the com, so I invited him and his partner for coffee.

Over coffee, Dr. Urquhart mentioned that this was his first trip off his home planet, and it seems Athos is such a conservative society—I couldn't let them stay at one of the tourist hotels. They would have gotten quite the wrong idea about Beta Colony, besides being robbed blind. So I made up the guest room. The next day, Dr. Urquhart had an appointment with the University Ethics Board prior to purchasing his cultures; when he admitted he could use some moral support, I offered to come along. I have at least as much interest in what becomes of those cultures as the Ethics Board.

("I don't see why Ethan should have to justify himself to a bunch of officious corridor-crawling busybodies," was his partner's contribution to the conversation. Young and gorgeous as he is, Dr. Urquhart's partner reminds me strongly of your Sergeant Bothari. It's not just the contempt for Betans; it's the way his eyes move when he comes into a room.)

I needn't have worried about Dr. Urquhart's performance at the ethics hearing—he did splendidly. He didn't turn a hair when one of the panelists said that she was concerned that there were no women on Athos.

"I understand you sold a gene bank to Hornsby," he said. The University does like to brag about that in its literature, although I personally doubt that Betan genes had much to do with Hornsby's music industry—and it is still mostly a small mining colony. "What percentage of Hornsby's population is hermaphrodites?"

"In point of fact, none," said Dr. Deketh, who was the only herm on the panel.

"Then I don't see what the problem is," said Dr. Urquhart. "Unless women are more valuable citizens than hermaphrodites, of course."

Cordelia, I wish you had been there to see the faces of those old dragons. You would have laughed your head off.

Afterwards, Dr. Urquhart asked if I felt odd, having sons I would never meet, but I told him you never can tell about these things. If any of my sons, stranger or not, showed up on my doorstep, he'd be home. And the same goes for my daughter, of course.

Love,

Mother

#

Dear Cordelia,

I couldn't be prouder of Kareen if she were my own granddaughter—though none of my descendants have ever been half so sensible and down-to-earth.

(Which reminds me, Vicki's Olwen was sent home from school with a note to the effect that whatever they do on Jackson's Whole, on Beta Colony "but he has two kidneys and besides I only asked a broker's fee" is no excuse to auction off your friends' organs on the public com net. I must remember to ask Mark what other stories he's been telling the children.)

As Kareen's scholarship sponsor, you'll already have seen her grades—but you won't have seen her when she first saw them, pink and glowing and so surprised, as if she hadn't worked herself half to death for them! And she'll have been too modest to mention the xenozoology internship she was offered at Agate Zoo, or the fact that her council representative has been pestering her to run for the foreign student's spot when he graduates. She's turned them both down—quite reasonably—saying she wants to have a broader course of study before she settles on a specialty.

As you are not Mark's sponsor, I will let him tell you his grades or not, as he sees fit. I will only tell you that he was satisfied with them—and you must know how rare it is to see Mark pleased with himself.

It is really very sweet to watch the two of them together—to listen to him help her make sense of galactic customs, or her talk him through the aftermath of a difficult therapy session (I'm sure I don't hear the really difficult ones.) And I do approve of how slowly they're taking their relationship. Though I had to bite my tongue when I realized that Kareen had never had sex, not just with Mark, but with anyone . . . . Nineteen, Cordela, with no contraceptive implant!

Well, that at least has been solved. Kareen decided—quite on her own initiative—that she wanted to come out over semester break. She applied herself to the human sexuality course with her usual diligence, and I went with her to get her hymen cut and the implant put in yesterday. Afterwards I was very good and bought her the committed-partner earrings she wanted without saying a word. Then we went to that new Lairouban bakery—it's where the tattoo parlor used to be—and got qatayef and coffee. It was really quite lovely.

I wish your coming-out had been more like it. I wish I'd given you room to figure out what you wanted for yourself, rather than assuming that you wanted the ready-to-experiment earrings, and a party, because that's what all your school-friends got. Maybe if I had . . . well, there's no use in that.

Kareen tells me that Mark's therapist has recommended an LSPT to her for more hands-on learning. Isn't it cute when young people blush?

I was glad that you and Aral were able to stop over on Escobar on your way to the new appointment—it was so good to see you, even if the demands of setting up your administration meant that it could only be a short visit. I hope you'll be able to come for a longer stay once things are more settled on Sergyar.

Love,

Mother

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Dear Cordelia,

Thank you for the holos of Helen Natalia and Aral Alexander; they're adorable little embryos. Miles had to show me a similar set of holos, a few weeks advanced, as soon as he was cleared by customs. I believe he's nearly as proud as you are.

Afterwards, I got to reminiscing about the days before you kids were born. We were so excited, your father and I, when we finished the parents' course—I carried my license around with me for days, and showed it to anyone would look.

"A parents' course isn't mandatory on Barrayar, of course," said Ekaterin. "I thought about taking one when I was pregnant with Nikki, but . . . well, Tien thought it was silly. He said, what were we going to do there, study patty-cake diagrams?"

"We could take one now, couldn't we?" said Miles. "The refresher course, for parents expecting their second child?"

Miles really ought to be taking the full course—co-parenting a ten-year-old is not the same as caring for two (!!) babies. But I didn't bring it up. I don't think taking a parents' course was what Miles was hoping to do on his honeymoon. However, he's determined that Ekaterin should have whatever she wants, and he's determined to be Not Tien. Maybe he can even see the wisdom of taking the course before starting the job for once in his life.

Between studying, and sightseeing, and sex—I hadn't thought that one could simply take up residence in the Orb for a year, but that's apparently what Miles and Ekaterin intend—they're keeping busy. Still, they stop by for dinner fairly often, together or separately. Once Miles came in, declared despondently, "She's getting a tour of a greenhouse, she won't be back for hours," and started to take down my wall paneling. When Ekaterin came by to collect him, he was asleep on the couch, and the faucet in the kitchen no longer had that problem where it took nearly a minute to heat up.

Another time, it was Ekaterin, with a bottle of maple mead and the news that Miles was getting together with a group of old friends. Cordelia, tell me the truth—maple mead is a practical joke played on unsuspecting Betans, isn't it? But Ekaterin drank it with every appearance of enjoyment, and I must admit, my fifth shot went down easier than my first.

We got to talking about pregnancy—I hardly remember how—and then about her first marriage. She made the most appalling things sound funny, or perhaps that was the maple mead. Then she said, "But the worst thing he ever did—the worst—was getting himself killed in that dramatically stupid way."

"Oh," I said, "I know."

It's been years since I've talked about Miles—my Miles—and I don't remember the last time I cried for him. Ekaterin has a talent for listening. I really like her.

And it was a brilliant idea she had, coming to Beta Colony for the honeymoon. You and Aral never had one, did you? I don't think getting shot at by half the planet counts.

Love,

Mother

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Dear Cordelia,

I'm so very sorry, my love. I wish there was something I could say. There never is, but you have to try to say it anyway.

I never knew Aral as well as I would have liked to. I remember the first time I saw him, coming out of the ground car on the way from the shuttleport. The whole place was crawling with these grim-faced security guards, and the two of you were laughing like schoolchildren because your silly Barrayaran skirt had gotten caught in the door. I could see from that moment how much you loved each other. He seemed twice as alive as most people; it's hard to believe he's gone, and so young.

Cordelia—this may not be the right time for this, but there may never be a better one—I'm sorry I didn't try harder to understand about you and Aral when you came back from the war. I'm sorry I gave my consent for you to go into therapy. I don't regret the paths your life has taken, any more than I regret my own, but I was wrong, and I'm sorry.

I know it's too soon to ask what you're planning to do next. But when the time comes to think about it, please remember that you've got a mother back on the old sandbox who loves you very much, and who misses you.

Love,

Mother