Miles and Ekaterin were sitting in the front parlor, drinking coffee and looking out at the snow falling and covering the mundane world with its white magic. The limbs of the trees, the gates of Vorkosigan House, the street and sidewalks—all were white in this first embrace of winter. By tomorrow there would be brown slush from the groundcars, and icy globs thrown up by snow plows, but today all was crystalline tranquility.
An agitated nursery maid hurried up to them.
“Please, Lord Vorkosigan, Lady Vorkosigan, come to the nursery. Sasha and Helen are in a terrible state.”
Miles raised his eyebrows as he got up a bit stiffly from the chair. His anti-inflammatories weren't working as well today. As far as he knew, Sasha and Helen were being visited by Mark and Kareen, who'd come bustling in an hour ago, bringing the smell of snow and carrying presents wrapped with glistening paper and trails of green and red ribbons. Winterfair wasn't for another week, but Mark seemed determined to shower his niece and nephew with baskets of toys.
“What's the matter?”
“Oh, it's terrible, one of the books has made the chooks sad, they're a-crying.” The Dendarii girl was twisting her uniform, the brown and silver braids rumpling. Ekaterin gently reached out her hand to the girl's arm and she settled down.
In the nursery (or the children's quarters, as Miles was trying to remember to say; Sasha and Helen had insisted they were too big to be in a nursery) the children sat on an old green sofa, Kareen between them. She was stroking Helen's hair, while the girl had actual tears down her cheeks. It must be something serious then, because Hellion never cried, even when the kittens scratched her, even when Sasha clouted her in the eye. He got a bigger bruise before the attendants could separate them.
Mark was sitting on a sofa on the other side of the fireplace, looking down at a fancy children's book with a stunned expression.
“What's going on with the book?” said Ekaterin, sinking down to sit by Mark.
'It's all wrong—I thought—it's a Winterfair book, it was all in the middle of the shop display and I thought”—
Miles caught up with Ekaterin, wincing a little as he settled down beside Sasha.
“It's”—Mark showed them the title.
“The Steadfast Tin Soldier, an Old Earth fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. That sounds fine.”
Miles read the beginning:
THERE were once five and twenty tin soldiers, all brothers, for they were the offspring of the same old tin spoon. Each man shouldered his gun, kept his eyes well to the front, and wore the smartest red and blue uniform imaginable. The first thing they heard in their new world, when the lid was taken off the box, was a little boy clapping his hands and crying, “Soldiers, soldiers!” It was his birthday, and they had just been given to him; so he lost no time in setting them up on the table. All the soldiers were exactly alike with one exception, and he differed from the rest in having only one leg. For he was made last, and there was not quite enough tin left to finish him. However, he stood just as well on his one leg as the others on two; in fact he is the very one who is to become famous."
“I thought”—said Mark, staring at Miles' knees, correctly interpreting the slight wince Miles had given as he sat down. “I thought—you know, that he'd be the hero. And there's a heroine, a ballerina, sort of frozen—with her leg up so high the tin soldier thinks she only has one leg, like him.”
“So what happened?” Miles read quickly through the book—an evil goblin or jack-in-the-box pushed the soldier out of the window and he was too proud to call out to his searchers because he was in uniform. “What?” thought Miles. Then the soldier was put in a paper boat, sailed down a gutter, was menaced by a rat, and then swallowed by a fish.
"Oh! how dark it was inside that fish; it was worse than being in the tunnel, even; and then it was so narrow! But the tin soldier was as dauntless as ever, and lay full length, shouldering his gun.
"The fish rushed about and made the most frantic movements. At last it became quite quiet, and after a time, a flash like lightning pierced it. The soldier was once more in the broad daylight, and some one called out loudly, “a tin soldier!” The fish had been caught, taken to market, sold, and brought into the kitchen, where the cook cut it open with a large knife. She took the soldier up by the waist, with two fingers, and carried him into the parlor, where every one wanted to see the wonderful man, who had traveled about in the stomach of a fish; but the tin soldier was not at all proud. They set him up on the table, and, wonder of wonders! he found himself in the very same room that he had been in before. He saw the very same children, and the toys were still standing on the table, as well as the beautiful castle with the pretty little dancer.
“And—not happily ever after?” said Miles, trying to understand.
“Read the end of it,” said Kareen hoarsely.
"She still stood on one leg, and held the other up in the air. You see she also was unbending. The soldier was so much moved that he was ready to shed tears of tin, but that would not have been fitting. He looked at her, and she looked at him, but they said never a word. At this moment one of the little boys took up the tin soldier, and without rime or reason, threw him into the fire. No doubt the little goblin in the snuffbox was to blame for that. The tin soldier stood there, lighted up by the flame, and in the most horrible heat; but whether it was the heat of the real fire, or the warmth of his feelings, he did not know. He had lost all his gay color; it might have been from his perilous journey, or it might have been from grief, who can tell?
"He looked at the little maiden, and she looked at him; and he felt that he was melting away, but he still managed to keep himself erect, shouldering his gun bravely.
"A door was suddenly opened, the draught caught the little dancer and she fluttered like a sylph, straight into the fire, to the soldier, blazed up and was gone!
"By this time the soldier was reduced to a mere lump, and when the maid took away the ashes next morning she found him, in the shape of a small tin heart. All that was left of the dancer was her spangle, and that was burnt as black as a coal."
“Good lord!” said Miles, and scowled at Mark. “Didn't you read this?”
“I read it when I was little,” said Kareen, and Miles realized she also was choked with tears. “It—had a different ending. The goblin went into the fireplace, not the soldier."
Miles drummed his fingers on the couch. Sasha looked blank, but there was a set to his eyes Miles didn't like. What was Mark about, to bring such a thing to them?
“Ah,” he said, standing up and beginning to pace around the room a bit, circling back to the children. “What we have here is only half of the book.” He held his palms together and mimed opening a book. “We don't have the rest of it, but I know how it goes.”
He'd once spun a tale for a mercenary fleet, taking them over by sheer verve. He'd liberated a prison camp with nothing but his words and an imaginary hat with a plume. He could do this.
“The boy and the other soldiers thought that the steadfast tin soldier and the ballerina burned up in the fire, but it was actually a wormhole. When the tin soldier and the ballerina got to the other side, the goblin-imp followed them, and they fought him.”
“After the ballerina had changed into a uniform and warm boots,” added Ekaterin.
“But she still had her scarf with the spangle,” cried Helen.
“Of course she had the spangle,” said Miles, pressing his lips together to prevent a snicker.
Sasha said firmly, “and they had newer and bigger ships which the tin soldier had on the other side of the wormhole.”
Exactly, mused Miles, “because they didn't take a wormhole jump to hell—sorry,” said Miles—
—“and all the other tin soldiers also came through the wormhole,” said Mark, “but he was the leader and the most important and NOT DEAD this time.”
“And they had all new green and red dress uniforms, and the steadfast tin soldier had all his medals on and it had SPARKLES!” said Helen.
“No they didn't, stupid,” said Sasha. “Because they were fighting, so they'd wear ship knits, or undress green. Nobody would wear those tall boots on a ship!”
They fell to arguing across Kareen, who restrained them from actual fighting. She said with a gurgle in her voice, “mmm, and the tin soldier was actually able to conquer his enemies by economic leveraging of the sugar plum supply”—
“Really?” said Ekaterin. “I thought it was the ballerina who did that.” She put her fist to her mouth but could not stop an actual snicker.
“Well, yes,” said Kareen, sneering a little, "and then they beat back their enemies through the wormhole by a higher profit margin.”
Sasha and Helen were losing the thread here, and stared at her.
“And they got more gold!” she improvised. “More gold!”
“And they got to capture one of the goblin's ships and take it as a prize!”
Miles didn't know Sasha had actually gotten to swashbuckling tales yet, but good for him.
“And they had morrrrree poiiisoonnsss,” hissed Mark.
“Yes, poisons!” chorused both children.
“Grown on special poison-bushes, I have no doubt,” murmured Ekaterin.
Miles sat down beside her, brushing her hair back from her brow, leaning in to kiss her, as the children continued the tale with help from Mark and Kareen.
Mark glanced up at Miles, with a slightly strained expression, questioning, and Miles nodded. It was all right. It was all completely right, just now. The snow continued to fall and cover the house in a white embrace.
The one-time half-made soldier, and the one-time frozen ballerina sat warmly together.
“Yes, okay, spangles, but they have to have bigger guns, too.”
“Yes, but they have the battle unicorns, too, with very sharp horns, and they can spear anybody. And stomp on them too, with their cloven hooves. And then spear them some more.”
“Okay, battle unicorns.”
“And they have to have cappp—capp—caparisons with”—
—“okay, okay, with spangles!”
And there was love, and it was all here, and not, not burned away.