Lord Mark Vorkosigan proudly surveyed the formal dining room, from the elegant china, crystal and silver place settings, to the elaborate (but low) flower arrangements of earth roses and lilacs set at intervals on the damask tablecloth. Both flowers, he had been told, were not allergens to his brother and progenitor, Miles. This party would be a rousing success, he assured himself. It had to be. He needed it to be, not only to make up for his part in the disastrous homecoming party Miles had given for him and Kareen last month, but also to prove to everyone that, despite his unfortunate origins, he could fit into proper Barrayaran society. Mark had never had a family; now, the prospect of belonging to not just one but two wonderful families was within his grasp.
He clasped his arm around Kareen's waist, looked up at her beautiful face and asked a bit anxiously, "Are you sure it looks properly elegant?"
Kareen gave him a squeeze back, and said reassuringly "Mark, it looks wonderful, as does the entire house. You have outdone yourself, with a little help, of course."
"Everything seems to be going according to plan." The menu, the guests, the decorations, it all seemed to be coming together, a masterpiece of organization worthy of its honoree. Everything had to be perfect. "Let's go check on the dinner preparations, shall we?" Mark had decided this was a good opportunity to beta test Dr. Enrique Borgos' latest product innovation, a heat stable version of the Butter-bug butter. The Glorious Bug, he corrected himself, thinking fondly of the beautiful redesign Ekaterin had done for MPVK Enterprises.
The original butter was stable in cold preparations, but tended to seize up if subjected to heat. It was still a formidable product, one that was going to make him and his investors a great deal of money. Having a product that could be used in both hot and cold food preparation was now his holy grail. Enrique had given his assurance that this version was the one, and their genius chef, Ma Kosti, had pronounced it acceptable. Best of all, using the butter in the birthday dinner menu made the entire evening a business expense.
The starter was to be tiny cheese puffs, followed by a satiny pumpkin soup, creamy cucumber salad, and ivory turbines of shrimp and pasta. All of his sub-personalities were feeling a bit restless under the stress of the evening, but Gorge was particularly happy about the promise of an evening of non-stop gourmet feasting.
"Nikki, you need to get those kittens out from under my feet, and you need to do it now." Ma Kosti's voice could be heard from the kitchen all the way into the dining room. Mark and Kareen looked at each other.
"I guess we had better head to the kitchen," Mark said, trying to sound casual. He felt his anxiety level go up a notch.
"Don't worry, everything is going to turn out fine," Kareen said soothingly. God, how he envied her that sunny optimism. He needed that in his life, now and forever more.
In the large well-lit kitchen, Nikki and his school friend Arthur were down on their hands and knees teasing the kittens, dangling long strings with small catnip-filled mouse-shaped toys attached to the ends, in front of their small whiskered noses. The kittens were batting at the mice, only to have them jerked away by small boy's hands.
"Ow! That hurt!" Nikki put the injured finger up to his mouth and began sucking on the scratch.
"Serves you right for tormenting those kittens with that catnip. They are in a frenzy. Now get them out of here before I turn them into kitten stew." This threat produced peals of laughter from the boys.
"Where are we going to take them, Lord Mark? Pym says they can't go in the living room or the dining room or the hall," Nikki said seriously.
Armsman Pym was correct. Where could they go that would be out of the way, and safe for the tiny beasts? Mark made a command decision. "Let's take them down to the basement."
Kareen looked dubious. "Are you sure that's a good idea? I'm not sure Enrique likes kittens."
Actually, Kareen was right, not after the scientist had witnessed one mangle one of his precious bugs. Mark's stress level was dialing up. Not to a dangerous level, but still. "What's your suggestion?" Mark said calmly. We could drown them in the toilet, Killer suggested. Shut up! Mark told Killer.
"Are you okay?" Kareen said, putting her hand on Mark's arm.
Oops. Mark hadn't meant to say that aloud. "I'm fine. Let's take them there for now. When--Mother--gets home, we'll ask her." Every time he said "mother," it got a little easier. He had a mother. A father, a brother. And Kareen. It was all so unexpected, and he was still worried that it all could be taken away. Deep breath, Mark. She's not going anywhere.
Down in the basement lab, Dr. Borgos was sitting at the desk in front of the comconsole when they all trooped in, carrying the kittens. He stood up and tried to block their entrance. "What are you doing? Why are you bringing those things into my laboratory? They like to hurt my babies."
Mark tried to channel Miles. He wouldn't have any trouble managing the man. "Dr. Borgos. Step aside. The kittens just need to be here until we figure out a better place to keep them during the dinner party. The bugs will be safe here. They're locked away from the cats." He tried to sound reassuring, like Kareen, but it came out just sounding angry.
"No, no, no. You don't understand. Please, wait," Dr. Borgos pleaded.
But Mark was still moving forward, his short but bulky frame providing its own momentum, the kittens squirming and nipping at his fingers. The two boys were right behind, with Kareen right behind them, all holding onto kittens. Then he saw it, and stopped short, swaying a little.
Butter bugs. Everywhere. On the counters. On the desk. Even a couple scurrying around the floor. Oh no. Not again. Mark tried to keep his tone even, but really, the man could not be left alone for ten minutes. "What are you doing? Why are they out of their cages?"
Dr. Borgos smiled shyly. "These are my new fluorescent variety. I thought this might be a nice night to unveil them. They look very festive with the lights out. I was trying to figure out the best way to display them."
Kareen spoke next. "What a lovely idea, Enrique. But can you put the bugs away for now? Mark, let's take the kittens up to your room. Come on boys, let's go."
"Thank you, Miss Kareen. My babies thank you, too. Come darlings, you have to go back inside now." He cooed at the bugs as he replaced each one in their cage.
On the way, they met Count Aral and Countess Cordelia, accompanied by Pym, who was carrying several brightly wrapped packages.
"Hello, Kareen. Mark. Nikki and Arthur, too." Cordelia smiled warmly.
Nikki was fairly bouncing up and down. "He's spending the night. Mama said he could come home with us tonight after the party."
"We're taking the kittens up to Mark's room. For the party," Arthur said helpfully.
"Oh. Is there a party in Mark's room?" Aral inquired mildly. Cordelia gave him a look.
"Good idea," Cordelia said briskly. "That will keep them out of Ma Kosti's hair. Mark, isn't it time to get ready for your guests? And when are Miles and Ekaterin expected back from the country?"
"Yes. It is time. Seven o'clock for the guests. Eight or a little after for Miles and Ekaterin." Everything is going to be fine. Now Howl was mocking him. Great.
Kareen pushed open the door to Mark's bedroom, deposited two kittens, and shut it again, quickly. "Oh, Mark. Goodness. I had better go get ready. I'll be back before seven, don't worry." After kissing him rather perfunctorily, he thought, she left for home.
"Pym, can you set the packages in the study, then help herd the cats into Mark's room, and take the boys up to Miles' room to get ready. Mark, I'll see you downstairs." Cordelia kissed Mark, then followed her husband into their room.
After a few anxious moments, the kittens were plopped into Mark's tub, after he lined it with a blanket pulled off his bed. He arrived downstairs shaved and pressed, wearing his best black suit, dark blue dress shirt and high black boots. His parents were already in the front parlor, along with Kareen. She was wearing a long, blue dress, embroidered with a darker blue thread in a flowered pattern. Her ash brown curls were piled high on her head, with tendrils of hair falling loosely around her ears and forehead. He came up and put his arms around her and kissed her tenderly. Cordelia took Aral's hand as he did.
By seven-thirty, all of the guests had arrived and were happily drinking good wine, and nibbling Ma Kosti's cheese puffs.
"These are quite good, Mark," Ivan Vorpatril said enthusiastically.
"I would never have guessed they were made with bug vomit," Byerly Vorrutyer whispered conspiratorially.
His father and mother were sitting together on one couch with Kareen's parents. Seated across from them, Lady Alys Vorpatril quietly held hands with Simon Illyan, talked with her old friends and kept her eye on Ivan. Lord Dono Vorrutyer was in the corner with Olivia, chatting with her old school chum Tatya and her husband Lord Rene Vorbretten. Martya had gone down to the laboratory to retrieve Dr. Borgos and make him presentable. Duv Galeni sat on the loveseat with his fiancé Delia, smiling fondly at her, and nodding tolerantly at Mark. Father was right. Always start off with the good wine.
His new silent partner, Lord Vorsymthe, had gone into the kitchen to see what wonders had been wrought with the glorious Bug Butter, and not been seen again.
At eight o'clock, they switched the lights off in anticipation of Miles and Ekaterin's imminent arrival.
By nine o'clock, they had turned the lights on, drunk the rest of the good wine, and finished the cheese puffs, as well as some hastily improvised crudités.
Pym cleared his throat. "Lord Mark, Ma Kosti said to inform you that dinner will not hold forever." Mark sighed. Kareen looked sympathetic.
"This isn't your fault. You couldn't have predicted weather delay, not this time of year." Kareen tried to raise his spirits, rubbing his neck and back in slow semi- circles.
"Dinner is ruined. Ma Kosti is furious that her work has gone to waste. Apparently the heat stable bug butter isn't as stable as we thought. Everyone is starving. This was not supposed to happen," Mark said tightly.
"Excuse me, Lord Mark. I think I may have the solution to the spoiled dinner problem. May I use your concomsole?" Lord Vorsymthe smiled.
A mere thirty minutes later, two young men arrived, carrying a number of large flat boxes. The contents were removed and plated, while the long suffering dinner guests were called in and seated.
Lady Alsy, like the rest of the guests, was working enthusiastically on her third piece. "Lord Vorsymthe. What is this marvelous dish called?"
"It's a new import product. On Earth, they call it "fast food." This particular variety is called "Pizza Pie."
"I love pizza. I want to have it for my birthday party," Nikki announced.
Lord Vorsymthe just kept smiling. Mark wondered if there was still time to get in on the ground floor, because he could tell already, this was going to be a money maker.
At last Pym announced, "Excuse me, Lord Mark. I just got the call. They are on their way."
Miles and Ekaterin had spent three wonderful days together. And nights. He didn't think he had ever had a better birthday. Vorkosigan House looked dark as pitch. Well, it was pretty late. Miles opened up the door.
"Surprise!!!" rang out from across the room, as loving arms brought him and Ekaterin forward. Every candle in Barrayar had been brought in and lit, it seemed. Across the room, his name shone in a soft, fluorescent glow, along with the words, Happy Birthday.
"Lord Miles, Mama, come in. We're eating Pizza Pie for birthday dinner!" Nikki pushed forward and hugged first his mother and then Miles.
Sitting across from Mark, eating his third piece of freshly delivered pizza, Miles looked around at his assembled friends and family. He cleared his throat. "Mark. I don't know what to say. This was a great party. Pizza. What an excellent invention. I can't believe I didn't get to try this while I was there."
Mark was beaming. "Wait until you see my gift. You can consider it an engagement present, if you like. It cost a pretty penny, but I think you'll agree it was worth it."
Miles felt a little spark of worry, which grew even bigger when Mark handed him the envelope. He slit it open and carefully removed the small chit. "This entitles you to an all expenses paid vacation for two at The Orb of Unearthly Delights."
Ekaterin looked at the chit. Her eyes got wide, then she whispered, "Happy Birthday, Miles."
The next morning, as Mark was about to walk into the breakfast room, he heard his name through the murmur of conversation. They were talking about him. No one sounded upset.
"Mark did a heck of a job organizing that party for you." The voice sounded proud and happy. That was his father. And Miles. He held his breath.
"Yeah. I'm pretty proud of my baby brother. Can't let him know, though. It'll just go to his head. Do these pancakes seem extra good this morning?"
I think you just did, Big Brother. Mark smiled confidently as he walked in to greet his family. Happiness was no longer merely within his grasp, it was here, and it was better than he ever could have imagined.