“The emperor,” said Simon Illyan disapprovingly, “has no clothes.”
Aral looked at the three dark-haired boys playing at the edge of the lake, a tiny five year old, a six year old much taller than him, an eleven year old still taller. They were splashing water at each other, and now the two younger ones had ganged up on the older one. A bucket had been produced from somewhere, and dumped by Miles on Gregor. Actually, just thrown at him, since of course Miles barely came up to his waist. From the way Gregor jumped back and made a face brushing muck off, the pail might have once contained fish. None of them had clothes on, although they'd been put into swimsuits an hour ago.
“They certainly don't need clothing. It's hot enough to fry an egg on a sword.”
Aral was trying to frown, but failing.
Cordelia was openly laughing, lying back in the lounger wearing a swimsuit tiny enough to bug the eyes out of the young ImpSec guards.
“Do we have to make them change, Aral? I didn't even know Barrayar could get this hot.”
“Why did Gregor—no, I'm not going to ask. How did Miles convince Gregor it would be a good idea to, to”—Simon was fuming.
“Go skinny-dipping?” Now Cordelia was smiling impishly at Simon.
“I thought there weren't any lakes on Beta!”
“No lakes, but more swimming pools than you'd think.” She tried for casually experienced, like she had been to many nude parties, but Aral was suspicious. He knew his wife well enough by now to know that she'd exaggerate Betan life-styles to shock folks. Most of the time her appalling pronouncements were completely innocent, but he could catch a little sparkle from those big gray eyes when she was teasing. He'd bet there were plenty of pools on Beta, and plenty of nudity, but that she had been too shy and awkward to get invited to those types of parties. Even if she'd been invited, he wondered whether she would actually feel comfortable enough to take off her clothes in semi-public. She played a good Betan game, scandalizing the prudish Barrayarans, but he'd never forgotten the story she'd told on Sergyar, when it wasn't Sergyar yet, just some hell they had to march four days through while he tried not to die from blood poisoning in his leg.
She'd told him a story about "this girl," supposedly one of her friends, who had been socially inept and then panicked when everyone seemed to be finding their soulmates. She panicked, quite anxiously, and had gotten into a relationship with a man who abused her trust and cheated her of a ship command—it was still strange to think that Betan women competed with their men for command—her lover cheated her. Not with another lover, but by lying to her about giving her a child.
Maybe they did all swim without clothes on Beta, and she'd been to a hundred parties, socially inept or not. He momentarily was distracted by this thought, wanted nothing so much this moment as to take her out into the Long Lake and strip her...he drove the thoughts away furiously.
But it didn't give them more honor. No one had given this brave, amazing, infuriating, sexy-as-hell woman a child, which he had. Which he would have given her more of, many more of, until the soltoxin. Then this boy was born, so tiny, so frail, so odd looking. Aral was afraid he would never walk, never run, their son, who had survived his first five years on drive and charm, and could now, apparently, smilingly bamboozle the Emperor himself.
He agreed with Simon. There was no doubt who'd been creator of the scenario before them. It was funny for a few minutes, but it wasn't right. He had to guard the young Emperor from danger, but he needed to start guarding him from people trying to control him. Even quite tiny people.
“Miles! Gregor! Ivan! Get out of the lake now!”