“Was I always so jumpy?” Simon Illyan wondered aloud as he lay awake in the comfortable bed where General Count Piotr Vorkosigan had breathed his last. “Without the damned chip, am I forgetting always being on alert? Or is it because I’m here, in an old house that creaks and groans and has people wandering around at all hours?”
“Mrrreow,” his companion responded.
“This is pathetic,” Simon scoffed. “I’ve got access to the finest doctors on the planet and I’m talking to a CAT!”
A loud noise woke the slumbering occupant of one of Vorkosigan House’s most elegant suites.
“There’s something in our room!” Howl screamed.
“Maybe it’s the blonde maid. I want to do lots of things to HER,” Grunt salivated.
“I’ll take care of it,” Killer offered eagerly.
“Do it!” Gorge urged. “I’m hungry!”
“Calm down, everyone,” sleepy Mark ordered the Black Gang. “It’s a cat. M’brother won’t like it if we do anything to his pets.”
“Yes, love?” she yawned, glad to be back in their comfortable bed after the long trip from Sergyar.
"Exactly how big did Dr. Borgos say those mutant bugs get?” the Viceroy questioned.
“Queen’s about 4 inches, workers are much smaller. Honestly, Aral, if it were ordinance, you’d remember the specs,” Cordelia groused. “Why are you asking?”
“Dear Captain, if I may draw your attention to your right, you’ll see that my trousers are moving. I’m debating if I want to risk bug guts on my favorite armchair.”
“Aral, we definitely need to visit ImpMil and have your senses checked,” the Vicereine decreed. “Butter bugs don’t have tails. Or purr. That’s not a butter bug. You dropped your pants on top of one of Miles’ blasted kittens.”
It was a lovely wedding. Months of hard work had restored the groom’s neglected ancestral home in Vorbarr Sultana to a pristine condition worthy of hosting most of the Council of Counts, from Vorhalas and Vorkalloner to the Vorbarras and Vorbrettons. The groom had long memorized the vows; the bride’s momentary stumble was quickly corrected by her oldest sister, who was serving as Coach while Lady Alys stood in the first circle beaming with joy.
Lord Vorkosigan and his lovely fiancée were beaming, too. Part was personal – Miles had, after all, known the bride since the day she left her replicator. A larger part was patriotic – by assisting the groom in securing his countship, Count Vorkosigan’s heir had played a key role in moving Barrayar closer to galactic standards of inheritance and gender equality. They’d also gained a political ally and friend In the process. One worthy of what was rapidly becoming their signature gift for life events – a pet whose fur matched the House colors.
“Where the hell is he?” the bride fumed after she’d changed into a blue negligee that matched her eyes and the hangings on the huge bed she was anxious to rumple for the first time.
In his dressing room, the groom was wondering why, after months of painful abstinence, he was delaying claiming his bride. “Virgin nerves!” he berated himself as he opened the bedroom door. Three steps in, he tripped over a pile of gray fur and went flying.
“Dono,” Countess Olivia Vorrutyer said disgustedly, “Pull yourself together. You’re screaming like a girl.”
“Delivery for you today, sir,” the doorman reported as Ivan stamped his feet and shook snow off his regulation overcoat before entering the building. “Something from Vorkosigan House. We put it in your apartment.”
Ivan pondered what it might be as he crossed the lobby and entered the lift tube. Miles and Ekaterin were still honeymooning at Vorkosigan Surleau, so it wasn’t from them. Was Nikki sharing his fireworks? Or maybe Tante Cordelia had taken pity on a hungry bachelor and sent leftovers from last night’s reception? With the storm, quite a few people hadn’t ventured out to honor donors to Sergyar’s fledgling university.
All thoughts of Ma Kosti’s delectable pastries vanished when Ivan reached his floor and his ears were assaulted with the wailing of cats in heat.
He should never have ordered the humping ice rabbits.
“What the hell is that?” Elli Quinn demanded, staring at the ventilated bag sitting atop the pile of her subordinate’s luggage at Kline Station.
“A gift from the Adm…Lord Vorkosigan and his lady wife, Sir,” Sergeant Taura replied.
“Why is it moving?”
“Kittens do that, Sir,” her subordinate grinned happily, showing plenty of fang. “They’re ever so cute. Born spacers. Don’t get jumpsick, love null gee, eat anything, always use their litter box. It’s totally enclosed, Sir. So’s their feeder. Won’t be any mess at all.”
“Plural?” Admiral Quinn gasped. “You’re planning on breeding them?”
“Oh, no, Sir, they’re both female. And they’ve been neutered. Lady Vorkosigan insisted.”
“Taura, we’re a mercenary fleet. Mercenaries don’t have pets!”
“Except for the menagerie in sick bay,” Taura snorted. “Maybe Skelly will finally find the lab mice the last medic lost.”
“Skelly? What kind of name is that?” Elli asked, resigned to losing this fight.
“It’s short for skeletum. It’s this strange plant that grows way taller than me. She’s the calico. The black and white one’s Elly. Lord Vorkosigan named her after you, Sir.”
“Enrique, we’re supposed to be on vacation!” Martya hissed as she entered the kitchen of her parents’ beach house.
“We are, love, I just need another few minutes….” her husband responded without looking up.
“That’s what you said an hour ago. Damn it, Enrique, the tide’s about to turn!”
“Martya, you know I don’t really like the water…”
“And Da doesn’t like you bringing work here!” Martya shot back. “He’s very annoyed you disobeyed a direct order. Why are you defying a man who carries a sword?”
“But I’m so close to synthesizing the new strain that can survive on Barrayaran foliage,” Enrique protested.
“We don’t care,” spat his wife’s reinforcement. Delia Galeni’s eyes shot fire as she surveyed the scene, the cages and notes strewn all over the table she’d set for the next meal before going swimming. “Two minutes, Enrique. Two minutes to get all that crap away and the table disinfected or I SWEAR I will open the laundry room door.”
“You wouldn’t!” Enrique gasped.
“If she doesn’t, I will,” Commodore Koudelka stated coldly. “Solve the problem once and for all. Maybe if the cats eat your precious butter bugs, you’ll learn to leave the damn things in the lab where they belong!”
“Tante Cordelia, I’m really worried,” Nikki announced as he marched into the library where his new grandparents were finalizing Sergyar’s annual budget proposal.
“Why, love? Something happen at school?” Cordelia questioned.
“No, it was something I heard here. You know the medtech came today to service the babies’ replicators?” Both Vorkosigans nodded. “He told the maid that the babies wouldn’t be safe here because of all the cats. That they’ll get smothered.”
“Just an old wives’ tale,” Aral rumbled reassuringly. “Cats don’t steal babies’ breath.”
“No, the old wives do,” Cordelia sniped. “A lot of mutant infanticide on Barrayar probably still gets blamed on the household pets.”
“Maybe some places, but not in our District,” Count Vorkosigan refuted. “Thanks to our son.”
“Because people think he’s a mutie?” Nikki questioned. “I’m a mutie. My Da was one, too.”
“That’s nonsense!” Cordelia snapped. “You and your father had a treatable medical condition. And there’s nothing genetically wrong with Miles! Just like we’ve always told people they’d be, all the embryos are perfect. Someday, Nikki, you’ll have six brothers and sisters. Maybe then this house will finally feel full.”
“So what did Miles do to stop people from killing mutie babies?” Nikki asked.
“Nikki, do you remember meeting Harra and Lem Csurik at the wedding?” When his grandson nodded, Aral began, “Miles had just graduated from the Academy when they had their first baby. It was a little girl named Raina…..
“Miles, we need a favor,” Kareen Koudelka announced as she entered the nursery at Vorkosigan House.
“Who is we?” her almost-brother-in-law asked, looking up from the sprawling block castle and his wife were building with their twins. “Is it a Koudelka we or a Mark we?”
“Does it matter?” Kareen asked as she dropped to the floor and hugged Sasha and Helen. “Actually, it’s neither. It’s MPVK.”
“And what can we provide that Mark’s company doesn’t have or can’t buy?” Ekaterin laughed.
“Chemical-free extermination services,” was the rueful reply. “Apparently mud wasn’t the only thing that seeped into our newest investment property. Ventilation system suffered, too. So until that’s fixed and the whole thing’s been declared free of potential bio-hazards, we can’t risk the usual methods.”
“Let me get this straight,” Miles said as he fought – and failed – to contain a wide grin. “My brother thinks all it will take to delouse Cockroach Central is CATS?”
“We shouldn’t laugh,” said the Empress.
“Absolutely not!” her husband agreed, his solemn words at odds with his dancing eyes.
“Our son was very naughty. We can’t allow him to prank our guests.”
“Very poor form,” Gregor agreed. “We don’t want any diplomatic incidents.”
“But it’s all so ridiculous! Why would anyone scream like that?”
“Laisa, Cetagandans make kitten trees. They don’t eat them. Especially not live!”
“How’d he do it, anyway?” the Empress wondered. “How did a 5-year-old switch out a vat of kittens for the model of Eta Ceta IV? Chef Antoine’s very angry, Gregor. He worked on that dessert for weeks.”
“I’m more curious as to where our son got that much pie dough,” Gregor admitted. “Part of me wants to blame Miles, but it’s really your parents’ fault. If only they hadn’t brought that book of Old Earth nursery rhymes.”
And with that, the Emperor and Empress of three worlds succumbed to the laughter they’d held back at the sight of the Cetagandan ambassador’s face when two servers lifted the massive silver dessert dome to reveal four and twenty kittens baked in a pie.
“Roic?” Taura whispered weakly. “Where are Elly and Skelly?”
“They’re by your feet, sweetheart,” he answered. “Don’t want them playing with your breathing tubes.”
“Doesn’t matter. I want to hold them.”
“But the medic said,,,,” Roic began, only to stop when his liege lord scooped up the enormous creatures – the entire crew spoiled their pseudo-mascots terribly – and gently placed them on Taura’s belly.
“Oh, that’s good,” Taura said almost inaudibly. “Miles, you’ll take care of them, right?”
“They’re not going anywhere,” Admiral Quinn contradicted. “They’re not leaving the Dendarii. The Triumph is their home.”
Those were the last words Taura heard before she slipped into a coma. Elly and Skelly didn’t move for hours, their purring warring with the hum of medical equipment, as Miles, Roic, and the Dendarii admiral kept vigil.
And when it was finally over, after the funeral ceremony and Taura’s remains were obliterated, as the Triumph left Escobar space, two cats crept into the cabin Lord Vorkosigan and his armsman shared. Master and man each clutched an oversized feline as they unashamedly wept for a woman they loved.