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The coffee hours of insurrection were conducted with the utmost propriety, chaperoned by an elderly aunt and a noncommittal Armsman, and well-supplied with ravani, bird’s nests and kourabiedes.

“Actually it’s not insurrection,” Noemi said, early on. “Nothing military. Nothing violent. Nothing oppositional, even.”

“What…wh…what w-w-would…call…it, th-then?”

She thought. “Separatism. Secession. No, not yet. Differentiation?”

Aris put a hand up, meaning she should wait while he found the words. She helped herself to a cookie and licked the powdered sugar carefully off her fingertips.

“Autonomy,” he said finally, obviously having concentrated in order to get the word out in one piece.

“Perfect.” Noemi wiped her fingers on an embroidered napkin, snapped pointedly onto her lap by Aunt Paraskevi, and sipped her coffee. “After all, even in English the word has Greek roots.”

Aris smiled. “G-G-Greeks…are any…everywhere. So…” He thought. “N-not mil…military, then…h-how…”

She waited to make sure he was planning to leave the sentence trailing. “Well. Economic. Geographic. Greekie hicks, right?” quoting the uncomplimentary English phrase standard in the capital. “Out in middle-of-nowhere backcountry, right, that makes Vorkosigan’s District look like a dainty little suburb, Dendarii Mountains and all. Our consolation prize for being late to the planet.”

Barrayaran Greek tradition insisted that the Greek contingent had arrived last of the colony ships, and found all the promising-looking land claimed already: they had been left with the widely scattered, unattractive parcels of backcountry that the English, Russians, and French had turned up their assorted noses at. Records confirming or denying this had, of course, been lost for good somewhere in the Time of Isolation, but it was as good an explanation as any for the non-contiguity of the Greek Districts and for their ongoing poverty. And rebellious nature, Noemi added silently.

“There has to be a benefit to hickdom,” she went on aloud.

“What they d-d-don’t…no, note…see, is…ours,” he filled in, pausing to move the ravani dish courteously closer to Aunt Paraskevi. “Ec…ec…money. Olive oil, w-wine…”

“Olive oil for the French.” Noemi’s own family made its modest income from their olive orchards. “Wine too?”

Aris gave her a very sour grin. “Not…F-French. G-Greekie wine…”

“The French have somewhat rigid ideas on oenoculture,” Aunt Paraskevi put in, pursing her mouth in disdain. “They feel, I gather, that Greek grapes are good only for producing grapeleaves.”

“Well, at least they know that much.” Stuffed grapeleaves were the representative food of the District: each household had its own recipe, and every child was raised on them. Noemi remembered longing for them in Vorbarr Sultana, where there were Greek restaurants but none that a young Vor lady could show her face in. “Too bad for them if they’re too fussy to drink our wine. So who does buy the wine, then?”

“The various Russian Districts,” Aunt Paraskevi murmured, her expression smoothing out somewhat.

“Oh. Okay. That makes more sense.” Noemi shrugged. “Well, that’s two good sources of revenue, depending on what we buy in return. How much do we produce ourselves?”

“Food?” Aris gestured for her to lay out what they knew.

“Rice around the Lakeshore, wheat near the mountains.” Noemi licked her fingers again and counted on them. “Vineyards. Fruit. Olive and lemon orchards. Chickens, a little pork, goats for meat, milk and cheese. How is Lake Karla doing for Earth-origin fish and seafood these days?”

Aris grinned and scratched his head. “Fishing for, for…s..sport. With…those…” Not seeming to find the word, he gestured explosively, and Noemi got the idea and grinned back. “B-but, not…not, enough…large pop…peop…population.”

Such a shame,” Aunt Paraskevi said regretfully, in her refined old-fashioned dialect. “We have always been an island people, after all. How ironic that on this planet we should have become a nation of farmers.”

“Na…nation,” Aris repeated carefully. “How…how many people…of your, your age, g-generation…think?”

“Are you counting up your allies, Lord Aristide?” Aunt Paraskevi dabbed honey daintily off the corner of her mouth. “People of my age have seen many things your generation has not. We grew up, after all, at war with the Cetagandans. Certainly this District suffered less than some—“

“—on account of the Cetagandans couldn’t find it on the map—“ Noemi put in sotto voce.

“—but it is a very disconcerting experience to spend your youth under attack from a foreign power. And then, at the time we were raising our own children, there was Yuri’s War.” She made a moue. “Such a distasteful man. I hold no brief for Ezar Vorbarra, but he certainly did the planet a service in disposing of Yuri.”

“So—“ Aris sighed. “Your…y-your generation…m-more inclined…follow the…Im, Imperium?”

“Oh no, I certainly did not intend to leave that impression.” Aunt Paraskevi looked primly distressed. “You understand, Lord Aristide, neither the Cetagandans nor Yuri had any quarrel with our District, now did they? We suffered under them through being a part of the Imperium.” She set down her coffee cup. “We owe the Imperium nothing, you understand.”

Noemi marked another item on her mental list of “elderly Vor ladies, moments not to be messed with,” which she was half-consciously preparing against the day when she became one herself.

“Even the men who fought with Ezar?” she wondered aloud. “No brothers-in-arms-type loyalty left?”

“Of those who remain alive, you mean?” Her aunt sniffed. “Have you noticed any excessive loyalty to old Service acquaintances in your father, my dear?”

Noemi couldn’t recall noticing excessive anything in her father, ever; he seemed to have shriveled like an old fig, some time before she was born. But his circumstances were exceptional.

“The C-Count my father…” Aris picked up a bird’s nest and doodled absently in the air with it. “Council of C-C-Counts…hates going.”

“He was grumbling about it the last time we were given dinner at the Residence,” Noemi remembered, calling up Count Kharalambos’ ouzo-roughened voice growling Way the other Counts look at you, you’d think it was a sin to be poor. Or a joke. Stand up in front of them to ask for more funds for terraforming—can’t even use a civilized language, have to garble English or Russian—and see them snicker behind their hands. Greekies, always out-at-elbows and down-at-heel, they say… No, the Count didn’t seem to have much in the way of lingering military loyalty to the other men of his rank.

“What about…about K-Komarr veterans?” Aris wondered. “C-c-conquering…g-glory…still f-fresh in mind.”

“Ask your brothers,” Noemi recommended. “If they ever come home on leave again, that is.”

“Lord Vorharopoulos remembers his duty to the District, I hope.”

“You mean, begetting the next Count,” Noemi interpreted. “You’ve got two nieces so far, right, Aris? Lady Nantia must be some frustrated.” She devoted herself hastily to a sticky slab of ravani, in order to avoid her aunt’s censorious gaze.

“Another…g-good reason…not m-m-military, against…Imperium. If…K-Komarr…”

“If they can crush a whole damn planet, they wouldn’t have much trouble repressing one backcountry District,” Noemi filled in. “It’s been tried before, with varyingly spectacular degrees of failure, after all. Okay, then, so let me recap a little, the geezer-class Greekies—excuse me, Aunt, the older generation—will go along with the idea on the whole, which is important, since most of them are still alive and around and, you know, running bits of the District.”

Indeed.

“Food and water supplies are provided by the grace of our ancestors’ hard work terraforming,” she went on. “And at least the Cetagandans spared us a scenario like Vorkosigan Whatsit, the old district capital that glows in the dark now? And it’s not like most people ever leave the District anyway, honestly.”

“Men…the Service.” Aris’ face (conventionally, unexcitingly attractive from a Greekie perspective, rather too hawk-nosed and swarthy from an outsider’s point of view) was unreadable.

“That’s right.” She took another piece of ravani for some time to think.

“D-doesn’t…en…encourage autonomy,” Aris said finally. “Loyalty outside…D-District…t-time away, p-pay from…Imperium…”

“You feel, Lord Aristide, that it would be desirable for the District to curb its military participation?” Aunt Paraskevi asked.

“P-possible…but… .”

“The thing is—“ Noemi frowned. “I know some people in the military, you remember my cousin Theo? I think if we write it off as a drain on the District’s manpower, we might be in for an unpleasant surprise or two. Excuse me, Armsman, um—“ to the liveried man at the door.

“Katsoulas, miss,” he supplied, expressionless. He was raw-boned and leathery-faced, probably a twenty-year man now in his forties.

“Armsman Katsoulas. Do you mind if I ask you a personal question or two?”

“At your service, miss,” in a tone that suggested the words “personal question” came from a language he was unfamiliar with.

“When did you learn to read?”

Armsman Katsoulas pursed his lips slightly. “In the Service, miss. Eighteen. Joined up just after Yuri’s War. Backcountry boys couldn’t none of us read, so they taught us that in basic training.”

“In classrooms? With blackboards?” Noemi asked, suddenly curious about the mechanics of a system she’d already had a general idea of. She found herself remembering the Vor children’s dameschool she and Aris had both attended, and picturing strapping young hillmen jammed uncomfortably into those child-size desks and chairs, reading laboriously from “Vanya and Marie Visit Vorbarr Sultana” and other edifying texts.

“Classrooms at first,” Katsoulas acknowledged. “Teach us the alphabet. Then they give us books and leave us be for a while.”

“What kind of books?”

“Well now…” The Armsman hesitated, glancing at Aris and away again, suddenly unwilling to meet Noemi’s eye. “Books for…you know, now…well…men’s books, you see, miss.” He looked relieved to have found a formula. Aris was biting back a grin, his color just visibly higher. Aunt Paraskevi seemed to have been afflicted by instant deafness.

“I see.” Noemi kept her voice disinterested. “The military equivalent of Mademoiselle Vor and its sister magazines, I take it.” Aris made a choking noise, just barely keeping his face straight; Armsman Katsoulas, to his credit, did better at a deadpan.

“Might say that, miss. Only they was in English, or Russian—depended on your regiment—so us Greekies couldn’t, er, make the most of them.”

“You l-learned l-l-languages…same t-time?” Aris asked suddenly.

“Wouldn’t say learned, m’lord. Military words, so as not to go left when the platoon was going right, or fire when we’d ought to be retreating, and so forth. Hear it all around us, of course, so most of us could get by in the regiment’s tongue when we was there. Forgot most of it by now, since I been back in the District.”

“I wonder.” Noemi sipped her coffee, tasting grains of sugar and thinking. “The thing is, the Vor-class children in the District learn these things in school—we even have comconsoles now. But the prole children—begging your pardon, Armsman—rely on the Service for what education they get. That is, the Imperium.”

“The prole boys, dear,” Aunt Paraskevi corrected suddenly, making them all jump. “And that only in the last generation or so—during the Cetagandan War, reading was not considered one of the more essential skills. Even the Service moves on, it appears. But we are speaking of the modern day--tell me, Armsman, does your wife read?”

Armsman Katsoulas looked more disconcerted than he had done at any of Noemi’s questions. “My Dora, madam? What does she need with reading? The Mail brings her news from her sister up north, gets it off by heart, or she’ll use one of them new vocodisks. Women have their fair share of work, madam, they don’t need to have to read on top of that.”

“The M-Mail…” Aris frowned. “Imperial…duty.”

“But District men riding the circuits,” Noemi pointed out, catching his drift. “They have to, no one else knows the roads. That’s a service easily enough…autonomized.”

“Do remind us of your original thoughts on bringing this up, dear,” Aunt Paraskevi put in pointedly.

“Oh, right. Look, leave the Vor class out of it for a moment, that’s a low-to-negligible literary rate among District women, yes? And the reason it’s higher among the men is that the Service teaches them to read…through its own, er, tried and true methods. So if we start either discouraging District men from the military altogether, or instituting an in-District private military—“

“H-hold, it.” Aris scowled. Noemi passed him the cookie plate and he took one unthinkingly, still frowning. “Nei…neither…good option. T-tell men…c-can’t go for…soldiers…they w-won’t… satisfied. Self…self-image…s-s-soldiers are real m-men.” He was holding the cookie as if he’d forgotten it was edible.

Noemi looked at him narrow-eyed. “What is so great about being a soldier anyway? Honestly, this is one I’ve never understood. Basic training sounds appalling, am I right, Armsman?”

“…Wasn’t a laugh, no, miss,” Katsoulas allowed after a moment, sounding, however, extremely doubtful.

“And then you spend the rest of your time in the Service being ordered around, never having time or space to yourself, never getting your own opinion, sleeping rough if you’re in the ground forces, being locked up in a tin can out there somewhere if you’re in the space forces, and risking your life occasionally for no good reason?” Noemi paused for breath. “This is desirable why?”

One corner of Aris’ mouth was pulled up in a very wry grin. He crunched down on his cookie as if to give himself an excuse not to speak. Armsman Katsoulas shrugged. “That’s life in this man’s army, we used to say.”

Noemi looked at her aunt for help. “Am I supposed to understand this?”

Aunt Paraskevi raised her eyebrows. “Certain things are only vouchsafed to men to understand, dear. I would like to point out, though, that the first half of your description of Service life sounds a great deal like the way many women experience marriage, though.”

“How lucky I am to be spared both experiences,” Noemi growled.

Aris cleared his throat. “S-second option, though…”

“Keeping military service within the District?”

“B-bad idea. Very…y-you know…l-law--” He gestured in frustration.

Oh,” she realized after a moment, biting back a word her aunt would probably prefer her not to know. “Vorlopulous’ Law.”

Aris nodded, grimly.

“Better known as the Anti-Greekie-Separatists Act,” Noemi added, for her own bitter satisfaction. “You should hear the way they talk about it in the capital. Count Vorlopulous and his so-called feud with his neighbors!”

“Two thousand cooks,” Armsman Katsoulas added unexpectedly, in tones matching hers. “They love that in the Service. Got your butcher knife, Greekie? Big joke.”

Aunt Paraskevi set her coffee cup on its saucer with a delicate ring of porcelain. “My father was well acquainted with the Count—I remember clearly how disturbed he was at the time of the conviction, although I was only a child myself. And even more so when the old Count’s successor was a third cousin with a Russian mother. Vorlopulous’ District is now, I fear, Russian in all but name.” She sighed. “Whether Emperor Dorca’s original intention was aimed at the Greek population alone, I really cannot say—“

“But effectively, it was—I mean, when was the last time you heard of French separatists, say? The Greeks are the only ones who’ve stood out against Vorbarr Sultana. Nobody tells stories about Count Vormercier and his goddamn army of pâtissiers, excuse me, Aunt. I mean, I don’t think any of the Counts Vormercier ever had such a thing, but you follow me.” Noemi shook her head, realizing she was getting a little carried away. “Anyway. The thing is. There are several problems with the military issue, and one of them is that the prole men can only get their education in the Service. What we really need is a whole network of Vorharopoulos District—Vorharopoulos Autonomous District Regional Schools, for boys and girls.”

“Fine.” Aris nodded sharply, his eyes gleaming. “You’re h-h-hired. District ed…ed…educational officer.”

“You can’t do that!”

“Yes, I c-can. Who…m-manages District m-m-money?”

“Well, the District financial officer, for God’s sake, what’s his face, my father knows him, Christakis? He’d have to authorize it, how could he, do you have any idea what kind of expenditure that would mean? This District doesn’t have that kind of money, we never have. The budget would explode. No it wouldn’t, because the Count your father’s head would explode first, because you couldn’t take it to Christakis without getting the Count’s approval beforehand, and the chances of that are about—“

“My dear Noemi,” said Aunt Paraskevi, rather more loudly than was her wont. “Babbling is not ladylike.”

Noemi breathed out carefully. “Ladylike isn’t at the top of my list of attainments.”

“N-no,” Aris agreed, grinning openly now, and she glared at him, but he wasn’t finished. “P-prac…pr…practical is. That’s wh-why…want you…organizing.”

“Aris, look. If you approve of my overweening practicality, then listen to me when I’m being practical at you! You can’t just decide something like that, on the spur of the moment. Even if the Count your father gave his approval, which he wouldn’t, and if the budget stretched to it somehow, which it couldn’t, setting up a network like that—it would take years. Decades. Millions of hours of work.”

“A little…f-faster than…terraforming,” Aris agreed wryly. “You’re n-not…wrong. But…D-District d-d-day-to-day…management…m-my job. You kn-know.” His grin twisted. “B-b-busywork for…useless…s-son. But…m-means…w-work with Ch-Christakis, Mavros…”

Noemi didn’t recall the name. “The District agronomy officer, dear,” her aunt murmured helpfully, seeing her frown.

“Oh, right.” In a landlocked backcountry District like theirs, the financial officer and the agronomy officer between them could hold as much power as the Count, apart from not having Armsmen at their beck and call. “So—you plan to get them on your side and take on your father that way?”

“Our…side,” Aris corrected, not smiling any more. “Look. Schools…k-key. No education…c-can’t build, can’t…design…d-dependent on Imperium…each…g-g-generation.”

Distracted, Noemi giggled. “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Show him how to rig a hand grenade, and…”

Even Armsman Katsoulas cracked half a smile at that, and Aunt Paraskevi raised her coffee cup to her lips a little too hastily. Aris’s mouth turned up at the corners, but his eyes stayed serious.

“Look,” Noemi said again, finally. “In the astoundingly unlikely event that Christakis and the Count were actually to approve such a project? And, granting the premise that far, that they accepted your nomination of a superannuated Vor bud with no relevant qualifications whatsoever? By now we’re down to hundredths of a percent, I should think, but say this happened? I’d do it. I’ll do it. If it really is for autonomy, not for turning out more Imperial subjects.”

Aris’ face was utterly still now, the cheekbones set like stone. “I w-wouldn’t…have it…any other…w-w-way.”

That seemed to wrap up the day’s discussion. Aris promised to get in touch with her (“and y-your aide,” he added, teasing Aunt Paraskevi in a way Noemi herself wouldn’t dare do) as soon as he’d spoken with the Count and the financial officer. After the appropriate courtesies, Armsman Katsoulas, who had returned to his unreadable expression, escorted Aunt Paraskevi out to her carriage. Noemi insisted she’d rather walk home; it wasn’t as if the Vor neighborhood of Chrysostom, their little countryside excuse for a District capital, was so very sprawling.

Left momentarily alone, she and Aris both took the opportunity to polish off the rest of the sweets. She felt shy with him, for the first time in years, not sure what small talk to make after their various momentous decisions.

“Noemi.” As far as she could remember, Aris hadn’t used her first name since they were both young enough to take their shirts off when they went swimming together. It made her jump. “What…wh-why…what…different…for you? Why…D-District autonomy…d-d-do you care?”

“Why shouldn’t I?” she parried. “I’m as much a subject of the Count your father as you are, and as much a Greek. Or are you being afflicted by a spasm of ladies-don’t-belong-in-politics?”

His eyebrow quirked. “A little…lit…late for that. You and y-y-your aunt…for…formidable… enemies, I…I think.”

“Thank you,” she said, wholeheartedly. Considering him, “You’re not the average Vor lordling, Aristide Vorharopoulos.”

Both Aris’ eyebrows drew together, this time. “H-heard that…that one…before…. S-some say…not…real m-m-man at all. Never…s-soldier… .”

Noemi knew his stammer had kept him out of military training. At a party in Vorbarr Sultana she’d once heard two Vor lieutenants talking about a similar case, one snorting “Imagine a commander who needs five minutes just to yell ‘Fire’—“.

“I didn’t know,” she muttered now, “that they handed out the you-know-what along with the green uniform and the shiny boots. Could have sworn you showed me yours when we were eight, no military sponsor necessary.”

Aris choked on a mouthful of bird’s nest, spraying flaky pastry and ground nuts into a hastily acquired napkin. Noemi pounded him helpfully on the back. “You must have…b-been…b-b-big hit…Vorbarr Sultana,” he wheezed, wiping his mouth.

“I think you may be overestimating the sophistication of the capital.” She sighed. “If you’re disqualified from manhood because you’ve never been a soldier, I’m definitely not a real woman because I’m not fit to marry. An onlooker in the marriage tournaments.”

“If…I had been…oldest son…” He gazed into a subjunctive past for a moment. “C-Count’s line…ended there, perhaps.”

Noemi shrugged. “No one’s ever seriously thought you were a mutant.” She had been ten or so when she found the family records with her brother’s name in them: Klavdis Alexios Vorliakou, born Dorca 36, died Dorca 36. She’d known about the brother-already-dead for as long as she could remember, but it had been strange to have a name for him. She still didn’t know, and probably never would (even Aunt Paraskevi refused to talk about it, and there were no medical records left), what the mutation had been: something terrible enough to kill a baby all of itself, or something as simple as the cat’s mouth, requiring outside cooperation.

“Be grateful for your older brothers, then,” she added belatedly. “And hope they hurry up and have sons.” The current Lady Vorharopoulos had left the capital to get married the year Noemi arrived there to start school; she was waiting for a chance at a son while raising her two daughters, conceived during the brief periods when Lord Vorharopoulos got around to taking time off from his military duties to see to his marital ones. The middle son was such a military madman he hadn’t even married yet.

“F-follow…f-footsteps…Prince?”

Noemi reached for the last slice of ravani, using her fingers instead of a fork. Her mouth filled with strong sweet honey, the crunch of semolina, the tang of rosewater. Two months before, the comconsole news and the newssheets shipped in from the capital had been all blaring headlines: FIRST SON BORN TO CROWN PRINCE AND PRINCESS, IMPERIAL LINE CONTINUES, CAPITAL REJOICES… Seen on the newscast with its backcountry lag, so that the newscasters’ voices never matched up with their mouth movements, the Crown Princess’ face had been an unfamiliar maternal blur bent over a bundle of swaddling clothes in the Vorbarra colors, weighing down her arms.

“You asked me what autonomy means to me,” Noemi said, finally, swallowing the last corner of cake. “Aris, the Emperor is already an old man. One day he’s going to die, like we all do, and his son will succeed him. I can bear being a subject of Imperial Barrayar, but I will not call myself a subject of Serg Vorbarra. Ever. Ever.”

 

She remembered her own voice that day, four years on, when the newscasters came on dressed in black and quivering with distress: the Escobar defeat (they didn’t use that word, of course, but what else were you supposed to call it, the little twinkly ship-and-star charts made it all too clear) and the death of the Crown Prince. Died heroically defending the honor of the Imperium, said the newscasters piously. There were shots of a pale, stern Emperor Ezar (“My son knew the risks he faced as a soldier”), and zooms-in on the now-Crown Prince Gregor, four years old and pulling doubtfully at the sleeve of an obviously new black suit. The solemn confusion on his face made Noemi feel bad, just for a moment, about the giddy grin making her cheeks hurt.

Surely the camera would move to the Crown Princess (no, the Dowager Crown Princess) next—but while the focus was still on Prince Gregor, the comconsole chimed for an incoming call.

Kareen, Noemi thought, for a split second, her heart catching in her throat even though she knew rationally it couldn’t be. This model, like all the ones in the District, didn’t have newfangled attributes like split-screen: when she hit accept, the newscast disappeared and was replaced with the phone screen. Not Kareen. Of course not. Aris, from one of the few other comconsoles in the District, in the Count’s Residence.

“You saw the newscast?” She was too keyed up to wait for him to speak. “Who would have thought it—something good coming out of this idiotic bloody mess with Escobar—we owe the Escos more than—“

Aris raised a hand to ask her to wait for a moment, and the gesture made her realize there was no good news on his face: he was as pale as the Emperor (allowing for a darker skin tone to begin with) and looked, she saw with increasing disturbance, as discombobulated as small Gregor Vorbarra.

“M-message…from Es…Es…Escobar,” he said finally, the stammer very pronounced. “My b-b-b…” He couldn’t get any further.

Noemi felt her grin slip away. “Your brother? The Count, or--?” Aris’ father had died during the run-up to the war, making his oldest brother Count, acceding to his position in absentia while his hands were tied by ship duty.

Aris drew a long, shaky breath. “Both…my b-b-brothers,” he got out, harsh-voiced with the double strain of enunciation and content. “I…I…”

“You’re the Count,” Noemi realized. “Oh, Aris. I’m sorry. I never thought….” Aris’ brothers, respectively six and eleven years older than he was, had treated him more like a cherished pet puppy than a peer; Noemi herself had hardly known them, but she couldn’t imagine them both gone.

“Lot of p-people…” His face was convulsing, working between not-quite-tears and a hard, bitter grin she’d never seen on him before. “…s-sorry…s-s-stuck with…Count…me.”

“You know that’s not what I meant!”

Aris closed his eyes for a moment, nodded. “Right. Not…n-not you. But…”

“A lot of people don’t know much,” she told him, with spirit renewed. “You’ve been doing the job since your father died, or hadn’t you noticed?”

His eyes were still closed. “Not…my own…” He shook his head, visibly struggling for coherence. “Not on m-m-my own.”

“You’re still not on your own,” Noemi snapped, which at least got his eyes open. “Or should I consider myself fired?”

Aris shook his head hard, not risking his voice.

“Then calm down and…and grieve your brothers. The Countship you can handle…we can handle, you and me and the District officers and my aunt.”

She saw his lips move, still without voice, and read a thanks and something else she couldn’t follow, before he seemed to pull himself together. They promised to meet and talk, soon, of both worries and strategy, and the link broke. Noemi flicked her comconsole back to the news, but it was just more newscasters now, with the featurelesss outside hulls of warships in the background.

Aris’ grief and unease hadn’t left her mind completely, a dark tension now struggling with the sense of release she’d felt when she first saw the news. I can have Kareen back! said a giddy voice in her mind—a sixteen-year-old Noemi, going on half a lifetime ago. I have work to do, said another voice flatly—the voice of twenty-nine-year-old District Educational Officer N. M. Vorliakou, with not enough teacher trainers available yet this year and no transportation figured out for the children in the Lessaka valley and two scholarships personally promised with only half the funding found so far.

Yes, but Kareen! said her younger voice, dancing through the inside of her head.

Whatever’s left of her after Serg Vorbarra, said the other voice.

Whatever he took away from her, she’ll have time now to get it back!

Yes, time, Noemi’s harder self answered. You’re both still young. There are years to come. You can still meet her for that monorail ride at sixty.

But it’s such a waste to wait until then.

Noemi turned the comconsole off and sat down in the nearest chair, then stood up again and paced round it in little tight circles. After a moment she realized she was chewing on a stray lock of hair, a habit she had outgrown at thirteen or so.

Are you going to give up, she asked herself, everything we’ve worked for in the last five years, because Kareen Vorsefta is a free woman now?

To this her younger self had no answer, other than I want—

And what does Kareen want? Can you swear you know that?

Noemi bent her head over the dead comconsole screen, images streaming across her vision. An old newscast scene of Crown Princess Kareen Vorbarra in a white cloak and hood, hands lost in a fur muff, standing still and quiet as Emperor Ezar christened his grandson with the ritual three immersions in icy water. The baby Prince Gregor had screamed once, shrill and sharp, and then fallen as silent as his mother, the camera momentarily zooming in on wide, dark eyes. Last winter in the District on Pamphalos Hill outside town, Vors and proles alike giddy with sleds and snowball fights: Lady Nantia and her daughter, Aris’ oldest niece, struggling up out of a snowbank together, the usual neat prettiness in total disarray, laughing so hard their faces were scarlet against the snow. Aris’ jaw quivering, just slightly, on the comconsole not ten minutes ago. A tailor’s second son who wanted to go to Vorbretten’s District to study botany, telling her with sudden flaring enthusiasm about the tomatoes he’d produced in a backyard greenhouse and what could be done with only a little more terraformed land. Kareen Vorsefta on the balcony at some dance or other with a dozen hairpins in her mouth, trying patiently to fix Noemi’s impossible hair while her own stayed glossy and pinned up high, then spitting out hairpins when Noemi made her laugh. A letter stamped across the envelope with Undeliverable as addressed. Imperial Mail, Vorbarr Sultana Bureau, Vorhartung Castle Subpost. The big Ordnance Survey map of the District on Aris’ office wall, much scribbled over and plastered with little sticky notes and varicolored magnetic pins, with his broad dark-skinned hands moving across it, sketching in h-here…h-high school, th-this river…b-bridge, job for n-new District C-C-Corps…Engineers…and her own voice chiming in but not until they’re damn well good and ready. I like my bridges solid.

She sat down again, letting out a long breath, closing her eyes for the relief of darkness.

The Count is counting on me, squeezing her eyes tighter shut for a moment at the sheer idiocy of the pun. The silly phrasing made the truth easier to absorb. And Kareen…Kareen hasn’t called on me. She chose an autonomy of her own.

Kareen’s autonomy or ours. There’s only one I have the right to choose.

 

The chaos in the capital, confusingly reported through cautious newscasts and newssheets arriving on increasingly irregular schedules, proved a useful impetus to make things official in the District at last. No one in Vorbarr Sultana, whether Lord Regent Vorkosigan (if that was still his title) or Count Vordarian (or Emperor Vidal or whatever he was styling himself at this point), was going to care what the backcountry Greekies were doing right now. They should, Aris argued, use the chance to get as much recognized among themselves as they could, in the face of this clear demonstration of the Imperium’s unexpectedly shaky foundations.

Half Noemi’s mind was taken up with wondering frantically whether Kareen actually supported Vordarian (and if so, whether she was right to do so) or had just happened to be there when he made his move. She was the Dowager Crown Princess, he couldn’t do anything to her, could he—except maybe marry her, and after Prince Serg, Vordarian would be a walk in the park, wouldn’t he? Or did she, Noemi, know as little about Vordarian as she and Kareen had known about Serg at first? Or had Kareen finally found true love, if there was such a thing, which even at sixteen they’d been doubtful of? And if so, would Vordarian touch off a planetwide uprising in order to have a politically untrammeled path to romantic happiness? And would any man who did such a thing possibly make a half-decent husband? And what about the young Emperor—Kareen’s little boy?

She shook off the endlessly circling fears and concentrated on the present context. The audience hall of the Count’s Residence was roughly similar in design to the Council of Counts, if about a sixth of the size and with none of the elegant decorations. The ladies’ gallery, built up over the back third of it like the afterthought it was, had narrow unpadded benches with high backs, very poor sightlines, and a lot of dust. Noemi hoped she wouldn’t sneeze out loud. Aunt Paraskevi, showing a Vor lady’s be-prepared tendencies, produced an inflatable cushion and made herself comfortable with her crocheting.

At the very front of the room, Aris in the big Count’s chair—it didn’t look much more comfortable to sit on than their benches, but he sat straight and still. He was big-framed, physically imposing like all the men in his family, at thirty probably safe from a paunch for another few years. The more senior of his Armsmen were lined up at his shoulders on either side of the chair. Between them they were a chartreuse-and-scarlet wall; like everyone in the District, Noemi had taken the Vorharopoulos livery for granted until she came to Vorbarr Sultana and discovered it was something of a laughing-stock among those Vor who had ended up with more subdued House colors.

Across from the entrance there was a little wooden box, chest-high, for the major non-Vor functionaries: Christakis the District Financial Officer, Mavros the Agronomy Officer, and Pannis the Officer of Justice. Christos Christakis—with whom, by now, Noemi had an excellent working relationship—was a tall, bony man in his fifties, seeming whether he stood or sat to have about half again as many joints as anyone else, the whole topped by an upstanding shock of stiff grey hair. Mavros, whom she knew less well, was stocky and broad-shouldered, with a permanently wary expression and a farmer’s big calloused hands. Pannis was white-haired and quiet, nearing retirement age, inclined to provide what he was asked for and stay out of the way.

“Why do you think they have to sit in the little box?” Noemi wondered, nudging her aunt. “What’s wrong with, you know, a bench?”

“Tradition, my dear.” Aunt Paraskevi was too well-bred to shrug.

“Maybe it’s to keep the financial officer from getting to the door too fast,” Noemi mused. “In case the Vors had a thing or two to say to him, back when.”

“A not unlikely surmise.” The crochet hook flashed. “More to the point, dear, should there not be a seat there for you? I am given to understand, after all, that as the educational officer you rank equally with Mr. Christakis and the others.”

Less proper than her aunt, Noemi shrugged. “Aris offered,” she said carefully. “We decided it wasn’t a good idea. Me being, you know, a woman and all that. One step at a time, you see. No reason to give my father’s generation anything extra to object to.”

Aunt Paraskevi looked down her nose. “I hope you have noticed, my dear, that little boxes to sit in are not only for the District officers. The ladies’ gallery is hardly an open environment.”

“You’re not wrong,” Noemi sighed, “but this is hard enough without fighting on any more fronts. Can’t do everything at once.”

“I do hope you will reconsider that notion. Women of your mother’s generation found childbirth in wartime very stressful, for example, but they were hardly able to apply to Emperor Yuri for a nine-month détente.”  

“Heh. I’ll think about it. Anyway, let’s see how things go today. I think they’re ready to start.” Much to her relief, since she didn’t have a valid retort for that line.

Aris’ major-domo, a little mouse-faced man with a twitchy chin whose name was either Antonopoulos or Antonakis, Noemi could never remember which, had moved to stand in front of the speaker’s circle. He craned his head back and announced, in a surprisingly resonant voice, “The Count’s Audience will now begin! Silence in the audience hall! Silence!”

His gaze was fixed on the space under the ladies’ gallery and therefore invisible to them, where the Vor of the district (including Noemi’s father) and a minor selection of prole grandees sat. Sounds of shuffling feet and various private conversations gradually died away, and the audience on autonomy began.

In the months since acceding so unexpectedly to his position, Aris had worked out various effective methods of reducing the amount he had to speak in public. Not…I m-mind, he had explained at some point, equitably. T-too slow. Antonopoulos, or whatever his name was, and the District officers could cover most of the relevant material, suitably briefed, with Aris putting in just enough to make it clear he was the guiding force. (Though some, still, would probably never believe it.)

And so today Aris stood up, waited (like a teacher, Noemi thought, having spent a lot of time lately observing at the backs of classrooms) for complete silence and attention, and said clearly and slowly, “This D-District…will es…establish…autonomy…f-from the…B-B-Barrayaran Imperium.” And sat down.

The rest of the official announcement was made by Christakis, standing up in his “little box” to run briskly through a list of plans, some already well under way: food and drink—with a few words added by Mavros in his thick Lakeshore drawl—roads, a carefully considered selection of factories and industry, the Regional Schools network (“overseen by District Educational Officer Vorliakou,” with a little bow toward the ladies’ gallery, at which Aunt Paraskevi’s crochet hook stopped moving for a moment while Noemi jerked her chin up and didn’t meet Aris’ eyes), the District Autonomy Corps (open to men of military age and unmarried women, offering training and employment of various kinds in terraforming work and the other projects mentioned), eventual plans—in a decade, or three—for a shuttleport and a way offplanet direct from the District.

“When this last objective has been reached,” Christakis reached his peroration, “it will be time to inform the Imperium of our stance. We’d like to consider Imperial taxes and other Service, therefore, strictly temporary measures at this point.” He bowed again, more deeply, in Aris’ direction this time. “Thank you, m’lord Count,” and sat down.

“The Count will take questions at this time,” Antonopoulos announced.

Here’s the hard part. Most of this should not have come as news to the listeners: over the last five years there had been a lot of one-on-one meetings and on-site conferences, sometimes with the old Count, sometimes with Aris and the District officers alone. Little of what they’d accomplished so far could have been done without, say, the most successful prole farmer’s agreement to stop shipping his wheat to the big bakeries in Voraronberg’s District and sign on to a complex five-way barter-and-cash system involving small District bakeries and dairy farmers and the Chrysostom Town Council and something else Noemi couldn’t remember just now, or the Vor landowner who had committed several acres to what would hopefully someday after a lot of hard work be an electronics factory, or the pledge of a Lakeshore village speaker to convert his old barn into a village school and send his seventeen-year-old daughter for teacher training into the bargain (subject to the daughter’s agreement, Noemi had insisted. “Agreement?” the Speaker had said. “She’s been pestering me about getting work for months now!”). The foundation stones of autonomy were already being laid all over the District; but not everyone had known, until now, what kind of structure they were to support.

The first few questions were reassuringly concrete points about land profits, District-internal taxes and terraforming—all issues well-discussed over time which Christakis, Mavros and Pannis among them dealt with easily. Aunt Paraskevi, apparently recognizing all the questioners (mostly her own generation) by voice, didn’t even bother to raise her head from her crochet.

The audience was almost an hour gone, and Noemi had started to think it was going to be just that easy, when there was a scrape from under the gallery as of several booted men standing up at once. “A question for the Count!” said a sharp tenor.

Antonopoulos pushed his chin forward, looking toward the back of the hall. “Lord Yannis Vorharopoulos,” he identified the questioner. “The circle is yours.”

Noemi and her aunt exchanged glances. Yannis was a few years younger than she was, some kind of second or third cousin of Aris’—there had been a Count Vorharopoulos just at the end of the Time of Isolation with eighteen legitimate children, fourteen of them sons, meaning that at this point about one in four of the District’s Vor population bore the same name as the Count. There was quite a bit of family resemblance, she thought, as Yannis strode into the circle. From his age he had to be still in the Service—back on a post-Escobar furlough, probably—but he was in his House uniform rather than dress greens. A handful of other young men had followed him from the back of the hall and now formed a phalanx by the east entrance. Some were familiar faces, old schoolmates or dance partners in the capital, wearing House uniforms as Yannis did; the few proles among them wore best-for-church approximations.

Yannis stood foursquare in the speaker’s circle, hands braced at his belt—where his stunner and plasma arc would be when he was on duty. “Autonomy,” he said, spitting out the word. Lighter and higher than Aris’ hesitant baritone or Christakis’ grainy bass, his voice strained to fill the room. “Three decades more, shackled to the Imperium? Is that the best, the most inspiring future for the District you can come up with?”

A few nervous chuckles sounded—impossible to tell whether they were laughing at Yannis or with him—but faded quickly into silence as he went on. “Look at what’s happening in the capital. This is a chance that will only come to us once, a chance for real freedom, independence—to strike back at the bloody Russkis and Français and Anglos, show them what they’ve been laughing at all these years, what ‘Greekie hicks’ really means!” He was hitting his stride now, wide-eyed, voice rising and strengthening, the air humming along with it. “We have men who can fight—march to the capital, tell Vidal Vordarian that he may yet lead Barrayar, but this is one corner of the planet that neither he nor any Vorbarra emperor will rule again! Back up the words with plasma arcs when we have to, and when he sends troops here, fight at the borders!” He was out of breath, his voice starting to shake. “Fight in the streets if we must, here in this hall, from end to end of the Lake, everywhere! Until the Imperium learns it has no place here. That’s what independence means—freedom with honor!”  

Oh right, violence. They had ruled out that option so early on, Noemi had forgotten there was any other path to autonomy—to independence—than slow, painstaking negotiation and bureaucracy. She glanced from the speaker’s circle to the District officers’ box, and found her eyes meeting Christos Christakis’: his eyebrows flicked upward momentarily, and she thought she saw the hint of a smile. They’d learned there really wasn’t any other way. Not for them. Not under Barrayar’s sky. Did Yannis really not know that?

Yannis turned now to face the men under the gallery straight on, his back to Aris. “You’ve borne arms, you understand the duty that lies before us as men. Tell the truth and shame the Slanderer--we all know the Count isn’t one of us, a man among men, he’s never been a soldier. What can he know about this?” It wasn’t a taunt made for effect: Yannis was barely in control of himself, his dark skin suffused. “What about our honor?” His voice broke.

What makes you think soldier and honor are inextricable? Noemi drew breath in spite of herself, and opened her mouth.

Enough.” The one word was directed at Yannis, but it silenced her as well, and the growing voices around the hall. It was the only time she had ever heard Aris raise his voice, in a single word forceful enough to keep them all frozen (Noemi was still holding her breath) as they waited for him to find more.

“I…am not…interested…in honor.” One syllable at a time, painfully slowly, but free of the stammer, and with a stone weight in each word. Noemi made herself breathe out, and then in again, before she suffocated; the room felt as if the air pressure had changed on the instant. “Interested in…in being…free…to survive.” Aris took a breath so deep it was visible from where she stood. “One District…cannot…against the Imperium…m-military…force.” No one blinked at the slightly garbled sentence.

“Vordarian did--!” from Yannis.

Aris raised a hand, his habitual gesture, but again with that unprecedented weight of authority. “He has…troops, half…half ImpS-Sec, other C-Counts…c-c-capital…hostages…”

Like the Princess, Noemi added silently, momentarily forgetting the tableau before her. God, Kareen, you survived Serg Vorbarra somehow, can you sit tight for another miracle? Or is Vordarian what you want? She imagined the fine-boned pale face, lips set, last seen on the newsdisplay during the announcement of the Vorkosigan Regency, and wondered if she would still recognize it if they met on the street.

“Our District…” Aris was still speaking. “…no such…resources.” He paused, not struggling for words but letting them sink in. “Armsman…Tsirnis.”

The Armsman two men to his left stiffened and stepped forward: short, stocky, cropped hair and beard heavily grizzled, a puckered scar over one cheekbone. “M’lord Count.”

“You…twice t-twenty. Our District…f-fight against Imperium…how fast…d-destroyed?”

Tsirnis scratched his beard, producing an audible rasping as of steel wool. “Against Vordarian’s men or Vorkosigan’s, m’lord?”

Aris shrugged slightly, gesturing either.

“Depends on which side ends up in power,” Tsirnis began, seemingly untroubled by speaking impromptu in front of the assembled greats of the District. “If it’s Vordarian, well, he’ll likely have his hands full for a while, starting from scratch as you might say, he might let us go our gait for a while. If we was to march on the capital, though—come out strong against him—well, he’ll have his eye out for other Counts doing just what he’s done himself, won’t he? Let us get away with something like that and he shows he’s losing his grasp, or never had it to begin with. Don’t see him coming down hard on the District itself, though, nothing in it for him. Kill or press the fighting men, execute you for treason, m’lord, and call it a day’s work.”

The entire room was listening avidly. Yannis’ shoulders were so rigid they seemed about to tremble. Aris’ face was unreadable.

“And V-V-Vorkosigan?”

Tsirnis lifted his hand from his beard, held it before his chest for a moment and let it fall to his side. “The Butcher of Komarr, m’lord?”

Aris let a bubble of silence form and burst in the room before saying “Thank you, Armsman.” The senior Armsman stepped back to his place.

After a moment of uncertainty, Yannis squared up to him again, fists clenched at his sides. “There are other ways than straight-on assault. Subornation—a few well-placed explosives—“

“No. Think…through. The end…end result…same. …Crushed.” Aris looked deliberately across the line of Armsmen, then beyond Yannis to the Vor seats, where Noemi’s father sat and the other men of his generation, and their sons in Yannis’ group by the wall—soldiers or ex-soldiers all. He was waiting for someone to contradict him, to ally openly with Yannis, she realized, giving them a good long time. She cursed the placement of the ladies’ gallery, making it impossible for her to see the men below. Were some of them rising to join Yannis at this moment? The Armsmen stayed still, as did Aris’ expression. The three District officers sat, impassive. Yannis stayed where he was.

“He’s going to get away with it?” she whispered to Aunt Paraskevi.

Her aunt’s crocheting fingers were working faster than ever. “He well may,” she whispered back, rather loudly. “For now. They see he is not the Count in name only. They will, if nothing else, want time to regroup.”

“I wouldn’t want to follow Yannis into battle, that’s for sure. Or anywhere.”

Aunt Paraskevi sniffed in amusement. “He is a very young man. We all have our foolish times of life.”

“Some more foolish than others,” Noemi muttered.

Below, Aris rose to his feet. “Th…thank you, gentlemen,” he said clearly. “Please…c-consider…not…military plans. We need…D-District, together…for…f-freedom.”

After that, the audience was very shortly over. As the men below stood up and creaked and grumbled and hurried out, or lingered in small groups to talk (just like Vor girls in the capital after a dance, Noemi thought), Aris said suddenly “Yannis. One…word,” and beckoned the younger man to come up to him.

He spoke in his ear for what seemed a long time, although it might have been a long message or simply Aris’ slow speech. Yannis, listening, went visibly paler, clay-colored. I didn’t—Noemi read on his lips. Unexpectedly, Aris grinned at him, the heavy mantle of Count Vorharopoulos’ dignity seeming to fall away altogether, and clapped him on the shoulder. He said something else, briefly, and moved away toward the Armsmen, leaving Yannis standing there blinking as if he’d just come out the wrong end of a wormhole jump.

“What did you tell Yannis, at the end?” Noemi asked the first time she had a chance, but Aris only smiled and shook his head.

 

If anyone had still needed to be convinced that violence didn’t make independence, the nasty, brutish and short Vordarian Pretendership would presumably have done the trick. As usual the news filtered out to the District on a long lag, but they heard soon enough of the outcome, in all its detail.

Noemi was in the Count’s Residence at the time, clustered around the big comconsole there with Aris and Christakis and an electrician from the Lakeshore and a Vor lady of Aunt Paraskevi’s vintage who had taught dameschool arithmetic for many years. The fine points of the fighting seemed extremely confused, but it was clear that Vordarian was dead and the post-Ezar status quo restored. The electrician, a onetime enlisted man, shook his head and mumbled about knowing better than to go up against a strategist like Vorkosigan. Aris made to answer him with something, and the newscaster, standing against the soot-smeared timbers of what had been half the Imperial Residence, discarded a vaguely sanctimonious look for a somber one and began, “Tragically, however…”

Noemi could never remember the exact wording of the rest of the sentence, only the slow ice that spread over her cheekbones and down her throat, cold and hard in her belly and trembling along her legs. Wait, change it back, you have to change something, go back and make it come out differently, this is the wrong answer, something different has to happen! said her brain foolishly, at a level just below words, but the ice chill knew better.

Kareen.  

A hand on her elbow and the sound of her name, repeated, eventually got her attention. “Miss Vorliakou,” in Christakis’ deep voice. “Let me take you home.” She let him, because it didn’t matter, registering without reacting to the gentleness in his hold on her arm and the concern in Aris’ eyes. He must have said something to her father when they reached home, but she didn’t hear that either.

On the comconsole in her room she watched the official newscasts again, that day and the next, lightheaded and numb. The major news foci were on the death of Vordarian and the reestablishment of the Vorbarra Imperium and Aral Vorkosigan’s Regency, but at a late hour—the time difference from the capital--there was live coverage of the funeral of Dowager Princess Kareen Vorsefta Vorbarra. The picture was a little fuzzy and the crackly voice-over all in Russian, for some reason, but it didn’t matter. Next to the five-year-old boy they called Emperor Gregor was Vorkosigan’s red-haired Betan wife, who was supposed to be the one who actually killed Vordarian. Of course a Barrayaran woman couldn’t have done it, Noemi thought vaguely. They wouldn’t let her. She still didn’t know whether Kareen had loved him or not, and now she never would.

The camera zoomed in on Gregor’s face, and—perhaps because of the poor transmission quality—Noemi saw Kareen in him for the first time: the pale skin, the high cheekbones and dark almond eyes. Goodbye, Barrayar, she said to him silently. I hope she left you more than she did me. And then the screen showed only the flames of the offering pyre.

In the end, when the newscasts started to repeat themselves, she did what Noemi-at-sixteen-in-the-capital would have done: turned off the comconsole and the lights, drew the curtains tighter shut, lay down on the bed, and waited until the long, slow uprising of tears reached her outer shell. It seemed to take hours before she could finally stop crying, then, and finally she dropped off into a sleep not quite like death. When she woke at last it was the middle of the night: she leapt out of bed, sat down at the comconsole in her nightgown with her hair a heavy tangled corona on her shoulders, and worked furiously until the late winter dawn. By that time she had come up with provisional solutions for three of the knottiest problems in her file, and made two more plans far-reaching enough that she would need the Count’s approval to implement them. She had no doubt that it would be given.

 

Her eyes were still red the next day when the Count and his Educational Officer had their regular audience. Aris was kind enough not to comment on it.

They went over a few loose ends from the last meeting, and then plunged into the work she’d done during her long night. Noemi had learned over five years that Aris’ working style was very different from her own (not that she’d known she had a working style until being flung into this position): where she liked to have the big idea, get it outlined and then fill in the blanks, Aris’ approach to any given problem was as slow and painstaking as his speech, addressing all the small individual issues before taking a look at the big picture. He found more than a few places in her vehement solutions where holes had to be woven over with research and recruitment before anything could proceed, but nothing was turned down altogether.

By the time they finished for the day, the sky outside the big bay window was turning the pale lavender of a cloudy twilight. Noemi put her flimsies neatly in order and stretched cautiously, rubbing her sore eyes. Aris pulled the big old-fashioned bellpull hanging by his desk, and went to the door to speak briefly to the servant who appeared.

When the woman—one of the motherly local ladies, mostly Armsmen’s wives, who seemed to take shifts handling domestic affairs at the Residence—reappeared, she was balancing two glasses in one hand and a large platter on the other. Aris cleared her a space on the big worktable and she set her burden down, bobbed a curtsy to both of them, and left.

Aris handed Noemi a glass with a polite half bow, and she took it automatically, cool against her skin.

“N-not…w-winter drink, b-b-but…” He shrugged, and she looked down at the sparkling lemonade in the glass, a slice of lemon floating against the ice cubes, and swallowed hard. This was what they had drunk as children, before they were old enough to start on coffee. “And…” Aris shifted the platter a little toward her. “Thought we…c-could use…snack.”

The stuffed grape leaves were arranged in neat concentric circles, a hefty enough “snack,” but then both of them had hearty appetites, especially when they’d been working. On a normal day. Noemi smiled at him, picked up one of the little forks, and helped herself.

Tears came to her eyes with the first mouthful, unstoppable. She was eight years old again, sitting on the floor in the Residence attics, facing a nine-year-old Aris across a huge platter of grape leaves cadged from the kitchens, laying bets on which of them could eat more. They had little Russian and no English because their whole world spoke Greek, Vorbarr Sultana was a faraway fantasy place where nobody ever went, Aris’ big brother Mitros—gorgeous in his newly commissioned dress greens—would be the Count someday, and Aris was her best friend and always would be. If she had met Kareen Vorsefta that year, they wouldn’t have had a common language.

Lemon and coriander coruscated across her tongue. Of course she had eaten stuffed grape leaves in the intervening twenty-two years, many times, but somehow—by chance—never at the Residence. The cooks must have changed since then, but the flavoring was the same.

Noemi swallowed her mouthful, sipped her lemonade, wiped her eyes on her sleeve without trying to hide the tears. “Thank you, Aris,” she said, surprised at how steady her voice was.

Aris looked across at her as he had then, the same calm dark eyes, set in laugh lines and stress lines that had appeared in the interim. “The D-District…cares…f-for its own,” he said, with a slow emphasis that made her hear “The Count” layered on “The District.” “And…re…remembers debts.”

“You don’t,” she said, and found her voice wasn’t steady any longer. She ate another grape leaf, managing not to choke on it, and drank a deep swallow of lemonade, and managed to finish the sentence. “You don’t owe me anything.” If she sounded husky, it could be the citric acid.

Aris raised his own glass of lemonade to her, letting the gesture serve as contradiction. Noemi clinked her own against it, a little roughly as her hand shook. For a little while they ate and drank in silence.

Blood sugar replenished a little, Noemi thought she might be able to talk again. She remembered something else from the newscasts, which had only grazed her subconscious then but seemed startlingly significant now. “You heard about the Republic of Northeastern Barrayar?”

“All…t-two hours of it? I d-did.” Aris shook his head. “The n-new C-C-Count Vorgier…not p-pleased.”

“And,” Noemi added, “you heard about what the Regent said to him?”

Aris smiled at her with singular sweetness, and opened a hand in her direction, nodding as she repeated Vorkosigan’s comment. “’Imperial troops will be reserved at this time for non-District-internal matters…’”

“That gives us,” she went on slowly, “quite a free hand.”

“At this…t-time. Autonomy…” Aris sighed the word. “…only g-goes s-so far. F-five years…just… b-beginning. How long…in…independence?”

“You told the District maybe thirty years,” Noemi remembered. “That’s an optimistic estimate, isn’t it? Genuine independence, free of the Imperium in every sense—you and I might just about live to see it, if we’re lucky.” We’re already lucky, living to see today.

 

Time passed. That year’s pre-Winterfair fasting was a blessing, a mourning period of grace. Winterfair passed, the year turned, Epiphany passed, and the nights shortened.

After the immediate public and private trauma of the past year had settled down, Noemi found herself in possession of another fresh grief, and a startling amount of money, which did not balance one another out. Aunt Paraskevi died, unexpectedly, in the small hours of a late-winter night (very neatly, of a heart attack), and it turned out that she had left her not inconsiderable fortune (by District standards) entirely to Noemi.

“So I’m going off-planet,” Noemi said to Aris, back at work in the Residence, a few days after the funeral. (She had wept genuinely and generously over her aunt’s grave, with painful relief at the chance to grieve a life that had run its course.) “I wouldn’t think of being that frivolous, as she might have said, but honestly she left me no choice.”

Aris nodded. “I h-heard…will.”

Aunt Paraskevi’s last will and testament, apart from leaving her holdings to Noemi (possible, as she had no male heirs or assigns to speak of), had specified that a certain percentage thereof was to be put only to Noemi’s personal use, and only for travel and related expenses. The rest Noemi planned to dump straight into the District’s education budget, but this… . “Maybe she always wanted to travel,” she said absently. “I wonder why else she’d have done it?”

“Wh-where…go?”

“Komarr.” Aris’ eyebrows went up; Noemi had surprised even herself with the quick answer. “I want to learn about independence,” she said.

“What…n-not…to d-do.”

“As you say. Poor blessed Komarr with its perfect position in space. Once Barrayar laid eyes on them, they didn’t have a chance.” She bit her lip, hearing echoes. “Better to be like us and beneath the Imperium’s notice in the first place.”

“Always.” Aris sighed the word.

“To be demanded of gives us honor,” Noemi reflected, knowing she’d heard the words somewhere but not immediately remembering where—the Lord Regent, yes, of all people the Butcher of Komarr, in his first news conference after Ezar’s death, back before Vordarian. She remembered Aris’ voice, steady and hard, telling Yannis I am not interested in honor. “The Imperium had nothing to demand of either of us, did it?”

“D-denying us…honor,” Aris affirmed. “S-so I was…and y-y-you were…always…au… autonomous. No…no choice.”

“Each of us an empire unto ourself,” Noemi murmured. “With the occasional internal pretendership as well.”

Aris nodded, his eyes turning dark and inward-looking for a moment. She wondered what his own inner insurrections were, and knew she wouldn’t ask.

“I’m coming back,” she said, instead, because she needed to say it. “I just…it would help to see something that isn’t Barrayar. For a little while.”

“K-Komarr…also B-B-Barrayar now?”

“Oh, I know. But it’s different. New scenery. I’ve never seen anything but the District and Vorbarr Sultana in my life, and it’s time I did.”

Aris sighed. “Never…even s-s-seen…Vorbarr S-Sultana.”

“Really? Oh…” Vor girls went to the capital for finishing school and to make their debuts. Vor boys went to the capital for preparatory school, prior to entering the Imperial Military Academy. Aris had stayed behind. “Eventually you’ll go,” she said, “to tell the Emperor thanks and goodbye.”

He didn’t smile at that, but moved slowly to the big bay window at the back of the room (security had never been much of a factor in this backcountry District where everyone was a cousin anyway), turning to look out so that the weak winter sunlight haloed his shoulders.

“Look,” he said after a moment, without moving from the window.

Noemi came to stand next to him, looking out at the hill which rose behind the Residence. Bright diamonds danced over it, mandarin-orange, clear white, lilac, yellow sharper than today’s sun and blue deeper than the pale winter sky, early-spring green, and unashamed red. It was forty days before Easter and the children of the District were out flying kites, Vor and prole together. Aris’ nieces would be on the hill somewhere (Eirini was almost too old for it now, but she would be there to look after little Roula), along with the little vineyard girls from the new Chrysostom Open School for Children, and long-widowed Christos Christakis’ toddler grandson too.

“I’ll be back in time for the fireworks,” she said quietly, after a while.  

“F-forty days…short t-t-trip.”

“Don’t need a longer one. I have work to do here. And I don’t want to see Easter in on Komarr. They don’t have fireworks there. Can’t, I guess.”

“Not…in that s-sense,” Aris agreed obscurely. “P-plenty…in war-t-time.”

“Well, that’s all in the past now.” Noemi ran her fingers through her hair. “Maybe I’ll burn some offerings while I’m there.”

“There?” Aris turned from the window in surprise.

“I don’t want to do it here,” she said, swallowing once, her mind stumbling over the effort to put inchoate self-knowledge into words. “Offerings are for remembering, I’ve had as much of that as I can take. I want to let it all go, someplace new and different where I’ll probably never go again anyway, and come back and look forward.” She laughed in embarrassment. “Listen to me. I sound like I was sixteen.”

Aris reached over unexpectedly to lift a strand of her impossible hair out of her eyes, his touch full of the steady, unromantic affection of lifelong friendship. “No…h-harm.” His mouth quirked suddenly. “While y-you…g-g-gone…I’ll k-keep…Ch-Christakis company. He…m-m-miss you.”

“Aristide Vorharopoulos!”

Aris grinned at her and made a little gesture with hands and eyebrows that said quite clearly What? I’m just drawing your attention to the plain truth, don’t blame me.

Noemi lifted her chin. “Liege lord or no,” she said with all the dignity she could muster, “that is none of your business. Anyway,” picking up speed, “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about. In the first place.”

He just nodded solemnly, his face still not quite straight, and Noemi glared at him. “Now who’s acting like a sixteen-year-old?”

Aris shrugged, the humor fading from his eyes. “N-not much…fun…s-sixteen. N…never…” He shook his head once.

Sixteen. She had been in Vorbarr Sultana, doing her duty as a Vor bud in training…with Kareen. Inseparable. Noemi swallowed hard, driving grief back to where it waited for solitude, and realized that Aris was struggling with more words.

“No…d-d-dreams…soldier, h-hero…”

Imagining all the other Vor boys she’d known at that age—and older, what of Yannis?—she understood him.

“Wh-when we…kids. Vid…L-Lord V-V-Vorthalia…”

“Vorthalia the Bold,” Noemi filled in. “I remember.” The Count’s Residence had been the only place in the District with a comconsole back then, and every now and then old Count Kharalambos had found himself with a crowd of his youngest son’s Vor dameschool classmates in his office, hanging eagerly on every frame of the adventures of the Legendary Hero of the Time of Isolation. “Now that I think about it, I’m amazed your father was so patient with us.”

Aris smiled, biting his lip. “I s-said…s-same…to him…later. He said…w-w-wanted us to see…G-Greek hero.”

Noemi laughed in astonishment. “Do you know, I never even thought of that? Vorthalia, right, when you say it of course it’s a Greek name. I took it for granted.” The dialogue, she recalled, had been in scratchy, uneven Greek, badly dubbed in by some minor Greekie broadcasting channel over the original English (or had it been Russian?). “Lord Vorthalia the Stealth Greekie. Good on your father.”

“I th-thought…” Aris paused and rubbed at his face with the heel of one hand, not a typical gesture of his. “Never…a v-vid series…’Lord V-Vorthalia the B-B-Bold Ad…Administrator.’” He laughed out loud, something else he didn’t do often, a quick light sound compared to his speaking voice. “No role…m-models.”

Noemi paused, in the way that had become second nature, to listen between the lines. Aris compensated for his labored speech with careful implications. “Nobody plans to grow up to be a legendary bureaucrat,” she concluded, drawing breath against flickers of rekindled pain at the thought of the dreams of youth. “But you have done.”

“What…” She saw him concentrate on clear speech. “What other…choice…did I have?”

“None,” she said, easily. “You do what you have a gift for. What else is there?”

Aris grinned, suddenly and wryly, with private pain of his own behind it. “Other p-people…honor. We…” He emphasized the plural, looking at her to make sure she took his meaning. “We do…what…what we…c-can.”

“In all senses,” Noemi agreed.

She held out a hand to him, and then changed her mind and made it both hands. Aris blinked at her, disconcerted, then got her point. He took her hands in his own—large, warm, soft-skinned except for the pen callus—and held them for a moment, liege-swearing and comfort in one motion. Then, as if rehearsed, they both let their left hands fall and gripped right hands hard, shaking on the silent promise to keep on doing what they could.  

 

The monorail didn’t run as far as Vorharopoulos District, of course. Noemi took hoppers and carriages the long, jouncing route to Vormuir’s District, awkwardly avoiding the gaze of the ghost of her fourteen-year-old self in the next seat. At St. Andrey, the Vormuir District capital, she parted ways with her past self and bought a ticket in the raw new station there for the long trip to the planetary shuttleport.

“Change twice, Miss,” the ticket attendant told her, handing over the folder of tickets, and she blinked, badly disconcerted, before realizing it was simply instructions for the monorail route.

“Thank you,” she said, in the English she hadn’t spoken since Vorbarr Sultana, and went to find the platform.

For the first hour of the train ride, she looked down at her hands in her lap, feeling that by looking out of the window she would be betraying the old promise. The empty seat beside her should have been Kareen’s. There was no compensatory logic that could make sense out of the loss of Kareen.

Waiting around for Kareen’s ghost to show up wouldn’t make her come back, though. It wasn’t as if they’d done that weird galactic freezing thing on her—on either of them. Noemi jerked her chin up and looked out of the window. And almost laughed: the fields of unterraformed Barrayaran shrub, drab reddish-brown and fluttering slightly in the wind of the train’s passage, were not exactly a sight to move the heart and commemorate the moment. At least the familiar mountains were still there in the background.

She spent the rest of the trip watching out the window as new green alternated with red-brown and the train’s shadow lengthened, occasionally dozing off to dream a parade of people living and dead doing gentle, improbable things—Yannis Vorharopoulos flying kites on the hill with the District kids, Aunt Paraskevi waltzing with Aris’ father, Christakis polishing a string of worry beads, Kareen up in the front carriage driving the train.

At dusk the train pulled into Joie de Vivre Station, the capital of Vorbretten’s District, where she would have an hour and a half to transfer for the shorter ride to the shuttleports. It was a bit larger than St. Andrey Station, middling crowded, with stalls up and down the concourse selling hot crepes, filled baguettes, soup, and coffee. Like a good Greekie, Noemi turned her nose up at the latter (that wasn’t coffee coffee by her standards), although she gave in and bought a cornet of lemon-and-sugar crepes.

Near the transfer point, there was another stall manned by two older men in Imperial Rail livery. The banner read “Commemorative Tickets (Not Valid for Transport).” She moved closer to look, half-curious, and saw the standard ticket squares, printed with “To Joie de Vivre (One Passenger)” and today’s date.

“What are they commemorating?” she asked the Rail men.

The two exchanged glances. “For good luck,” one told her, in English with a heavy Barrayaran French accent. “To Joie de Vivre, eh? Lot of people, they want that. Two marks, m’selle.”

Noemi had never had more than a finishing-school smattering of French; it took her some concentration to realize the double meaning of the city’s name.

“I’ll take one,” she said. “…No, two please.”

The second train was much more crowded than the rural line; she had a seatmate, an exhausted-looking young man in undress greens, who showed every sign of falling asleep peacefully on her shoulder for the duration of the trip. Noemi wondered whether he was still recovering from a particularly stressful Pretendership (weren’t they all) or was a ship-duty man who had gotten a little carried away on ground leave. She let him sag in her direction, and hoped he wouldn’t drool.

It was full dark outside, and the window showed only a dusky reflection of her own face: strong nose and thick dark eyebrows, strands of fine uncontrollable hair obscuring her forehead. She would cut her hair on Komarr, just a little, enough to burn three small offerings.

One, an offering of her genes to the one who had almost shared them, dead before she lived. She’d thought a few times that if Klavdis Vorliakou had been born differently, he might have been one of those young men standing over there with Yannis that day, hotly demanding violence and clear straightforward answers. She wouldn’t have been there to see it, though: they’d have married her off long since. Not a “good” marriage to one of the capital crowd (thank God, saving her from Kareen’s fate even in this alternate reality), her family might be Vor but they were still, as a few of the less discreet town clowns and ladies had put it, Vorgreekie Vorhicks; and she wasn’t pretty enough to make up the difference. She’d have ended up with one of the Vor boys from the District, most likely. Maybe even Aris, as long as he had still been the stammering third son, with no prospects to speak of. She tried to imagine herself as Countess Vorharopoulos, now or ever, and failed.

So her brother and his death had helped to give her the life she had now, then, for good or ill. “Grateful” was the wrong word, but she owed a debt to pay by living.

The second offering would be for Aunt Paraskevi. Grief over an older aunt seemed more natural, less wrenching, than the loss of a contemporary; but Noemi would miss her most when she got back to Barrayar and her work. Aris’ teasing “your aide” all those years ago had been only the truth. The fire she burned to Aunt Paraskevi would be a thanks-offering, for every kind of support, for teaching her how to be an adult woman and a Greek and—Aris’ word again—an administrator, how to live on Barrayar as all of those things.

It was the third offering that she’d bought the commemorative tickets for. She would burn them together, of course, along with another few strands of hair. (How many hours had Kareen spent trying to get Noemi’s silky, unmanageable hair to stay up in an appropriate Vor-do? How she’d envied Kareen’s heavy, glossy curtain of hair, not because it was beautiful—though it was—but for the way it always stayed where Kareen put it the first time and looked good in the process.)

The hair would burn fast, and then she’d watch as the letters pointing the way to joy in life burned down to clean ash. She could come no closer now to the monorail journey they’d promised each other; the only thing to do was hope the ticket was an envoi, messenger and goodbye.

With Kareen lost, her autonomy from Barrayar could come to completion. As with her brother, she wouldn’t have willed it that way for the world. For their world. But it was what was left to her now, and surely it was her duty—to Kareen and to Aunt Paraskevi, to her brother, to Aris and Christakis and the children flying kites and the teenage girls teaching school on the Lakeshore and even Yannis—to make the most of her independence.

 

 

Reference Materials

 

1.

VORHAROPOULOS, Aristide Georgios. Born Ezar 1, deceased Gregor 19 (aged 50; aneurysm). Countship dates Ezar 30--Gregor 19. Third son of Count Kharalambos Vorharopoulos, youngest brother of Count Mitros Vorharopoulos. Became Lord Vorharopoulos and subsequently Count Vorharopoulos in Ezar 30 on the deaths of both older brothers in the Beta-Escobar War. Never married, no issue (succeeded by current sitting Count, Yannis Vorharopoulos, a second cousin once removed). Military service: none. Bills proposed in Council: none.

Personal information: Severe speech impediment from childhood, making military service impracticable. Very rarely attended the Council of Counts and was considered there at best a political nonentity and often something of a figure of fun. Voting record (sparse) inclined to Conservative rather than Progressive, but without strong tendencies either way. Apparently well-regarded by District subjects, although information from within Vorharopoulos’ District is notoriously difficult to obtain (records show that upon his accession, the current Count decreed a period of public mourning in addition to proclaiming his intention to maintain the policies of his predecessor; observers report, as well, scans of Count Aristide remaining alongside those of Count Yannis in multiple private homes and commercial facilities at the time of publication).

Source: Rutyer, B. R. V., ed., A Catalogue of Counts and Connections, 2nd edition. Vorbarr Sultana: Vorparadijs and Son Editions, Gregor 27.

 

2.

VORLIAKOU WOMEN’S COLLEGE. Chrysostom, Vorharopoulos District. Medium of instruction: Greek only. Secondary curriculum (all-female), tertiary education in primarily professional and technical fields (all-female; see list of majors below), postgraduate program likewise (coeducational). Founded in Gregor 5 as Chrysostom Secondary School for Girls; added postsecondary education in Gregor 10 and became the Vorharopoulos District Professional College for Women; recently renamed again to honor the founder on her retirement from District work. Now with a planetary rank in the second tier in agricultural/terraforming and architectural fields, as well as a growing space-and-five-space technology program.  

*Applicants should be aware that Vorliakou Women’s College generally accepts only residents of Vorharopoulos District. Those resident in other Districts must sign a pledge committing them to five years’ (paid) professional service within the District post-graduation in order to matriculate.

Source: Lefroi, Elisabeth, and Hanna Kazin, The Young Woman’s Guide to Further Education. Joie de Vivre: CNVK Endowment Press, Gregor 34.

 

3.

(…) I would be remiss not to point out a curious anomaly in the data: since data collection began, Vorharopoulos’ District has held a place in the bottom ten districts with regard to entering TL, and in the bottom three districts with regard to exiting TL. This is a statistically significant difference from the TL rates, particularly exit rates, of districts with similar geographic conditions and economic indices (compare Voregorov, Vorfolse, Vorjakopian).14 Extensive study of this issue, sometimes referred to in passing as the “VH anomaly,” remains to be done and would constitute an interesting subject for fieldwork, if not perhaps one with great potential for academic recognition at the major universities. Theories presented so far usually reference ethnic/linguistic nationalism as the possible main cause, a topic which external incidents (concerned by respective era with Cetaganda, Komarr, and Escobar) and internal complications (likewise with ex-Emperor Yuri and Imperial pretender Vordarian) have relegated to the background during most of the history of sociology in post-Isolation Barrayar.

14When these data were brought to the Emperor’s attention by an independent observer, two Imperial Auditors were dispatched to produce a field report. They were able to confirm that no undue coercion (whether physical, military, or economic) was being placed upon subjects of Vorharopoulos District, and the matter has rested there since. I would like to thank my secondary dissertation advisor, Professora H. L. V. Vorthys of the History Faculty, for bringing this incident to my attention.

Source: Castell, Sophie Y., Voting With Our Feet: Twenty Years of the Transfer of Liege Law. Ph.D. thesis, Faculty of Sociology, Vorbarr Sultana University. Vorbarr Sultana: Vorbarr Sultana University Press, Gregor 31.