Happily Ever After
The servants flinched from the sounds upstairs. They tiptoed around the corridors. The maidservants who had to deliver breakfast each morning regularly arrived in the kitchen crying. The armsmen--combat trained--were tense, jittery with the nerves of men who knew what warfare sounded like and were unused to being mere spectators.
In their private quarters, Gregor sat in his armchair, white and withdrawn.
'I don't understand.' He sighed again. 'You have the children. You have charities and welfare work. We spend every day working on papers together and I value your contribution enormously. How can you be bored?'
Laisa looked at him in bafflement. How could a man, so smart, so perceptive, be so utterly clueless? She tried again:
'Gregor, the children are five years old. I've spent five years being a good Vor mother. On Komarr I'd have been back at work within six months. Charities? Welfare work? I sit on committees with high-brow Vor ladies who would look down their nose at me if Lady Alys weren't there. And the committees are mostly for show anyway. You don't think they do the administration? No, that's what the non-Vor administrative staff are for, and' she spoke grudgingly and resentfully here 'some of the younger Vor women.' Laisa sniffed, partially out of indignation on their behalf, partially because her nose was running most unattractively, 'secretarial work is deemed nice and respectable until they get married, when, of course, they'll promptly drop it to sit on committees.'
Gregor opened his mouth to comment, but Laisa was in full flow.
'Gregor, I have a PhD in economics. I ran my family's Barrayaran business interests for almost five years, and now I'm supposed to be content 'helping' with your work?' Laisa ended on a high note. She could feel the anger turning to hysteria. That was useless. When she did that Gregor switched off. He was culturally programmed to switch off she had realised. Emotions were what women did, and when women did emotions, men went hunting. Laisa sighed. She pulled out her handkerchief--this morning the frills annoyed her even more than usual--and wiped her eyes. She could feel Gregor eyeing her, wondering what she would do now.
'I'm going home.'
There, that got his attention. Gregor now sat bolt upright, alarm on his face. Before he could protest Laisa clarified.
'Not forever. But for at least six months. I need to be where people regard me as an intelligent human being, and not a delicate china doll atop a brushed and polished white pony.' That was a low blow but Laisa wanted to see Gregor squirm. The more uncomfortable he felt the easier it was for her to get what she wanted.
'We'll see Alleyne today and start the process. I won't take the children this time. My parents will be sorry not to see their grandchildren, but I'll bring them back with me when I come home.'
Gregor looked at her, with an expression of profound relief.
'You will come home then? This isn't some kind of trial separation?'
Laisa decided he needed a break and went over to him. Kneeling on the floor at his chair she took his hands. I can't promise you that I will never want to leave Barrayar, but I never want to leave you.'
'But I am Barrayar.' Gregor murmured as he looked down on her.
'But I am not.' She responded. And kissed his hands.
Laisa's arrival on Komarr was, at first, almost as stifling as the Imperial Palace. Her parents were both delighted to see her and worried. The absence of the children upset them and she had to reassure them repeatedly that everything was fine with her marriage to Gregor. Yes, she still loved him. Yes, he still loved her. Only after the first flurry of visiting and being visited by aunts, uncles, old school friends and near neighbours was she able to sit down with her parents and discuss the real reason for her visit.
'I need to find work. Real work. Not the kind of make work a Vor Lady indulges in. I'm trained in business. I know I can't work in the family firm. Our role in the Barrayar-Komarran trade routes would expose both you and Gregor to accusations of favouritism, at the very least. But I have to do something, and I have six months to work out what. I need your help.'
Sir and Madame Toscane had both been in business all their lives. They had survived the Komarran revolt by keeping their heads down and being too useful to both sides to be dispensed with--some called it collaboration. Looking for opportunities was what they did.
Her father smiled.
'What are you thinking of? An investment in a going concern? A start up? Domestic? Inter-galactic? Something that requires you to travel or something you can do 'from home' as they say?'
'I'm constrained by so much. I knew what I was signing up for when I married Gregor, but I really didn't think through the consequences.'
Her mother looked at her worriedly: 'I'm not sure any of us do my dear. We all assume we know what our marriages will be like, but then his job intervenes, or the children, or an educational opportunity, or a depression. But I admit, this is rather different.'
Her father took her hand: 'We need two lists: the first, of constraints. The second, of opportunities.'
Several hours, and a number of flimisies later, the three of them sat back, all three of them holding a curious mixture of depression and elation. Madame Toscane vented a sigh of frustration.
'The big stumbling block is clearly travel. Travel means bodyguards, bodyguards mean you will be very public, and hence a very public target even with the body guards. You'd keep Imp Sec in a permanent ferment of paranoia, and I'm not sure it would be very good for Gregor's digestion. The next real issue is that if you use the family money to begin any kind of trading business, there are going to be accusations of corruption, and nepotism. And as you aren't connected to the Vor except through Gregor, it won't be their nepotism. I know that Gregor and the Vorkosigans have been trying to promote a meritocracy, but as most of the Vor haven't yet caught on to the idea of the inequities of cultural capital, much of their efforts are simply reinforcing the current class structures.'
Toscane smiled, 'We aren't immune from that my dear. How may working class children do you see rising to the top of Komarr society?'
Madame Toscane smiled back. 'I know, and thirty years after the upheavals of the revolution, the gaps which created social mobility seem to have closed up. But at least we know the recipes: new industries, lots of development and as good an education system as we can provide at the primary and tertiary levels.'
Toscane went silent for a moment. When he spoke again, it was slowly and cautiously.
'If we look at what opportunities and resources Laisa has, I wonder if we aren't thinking of this the wrong way. We've been looking for trading opportunities, and because we trade in material goods, we've been thinking that way also. But in a way, we don't trade in materials. Materials are often too expensive to transport. What we mostly trade in is patents, in the form of plans, instructions, and occasionally personnel. I wonder if Laisa, who, as we all know has as her principle asset her education, should not seek to market that.'
Laisa sat up, startled.
'What on earth do you have in mind? I can't start work as a teacher or a trainer! Gregor would have a fit. I gave three lectures at the university in Hassadar as a favour to the Business Studies department and Imp Sec ran a security check on every single student, frisked them at the door, and monitored their communications for a month.'
'I wasn't thinking of teaching at all. Or not directly. You're a business woman Laisa. You might enjoy teaching occasionally, but you'd find a university stifling. But what if what you sold was education? In a way, it's what Lady Vorkosigan did when she began offering scholarships to her liege people. But you could do it as a business. The Empress Laisa's Business School, perhaps? Or even--given what we've been discussing about the lack of access to education for so many--the Emperor Laisa's Business School, Residential and Correspondence?'
Laisa smiled. 'Non-profit of course. I'm pretty sure the empress isn't going to be allowed to turn a profit. All the profits could go to scholarships and' she smiled 'to bringing in galactic specialists.'
Madame Toscane spoke up, 'And if you got the Vorkosigans and some of the other more enlightened Vor Lords involved, you might be able to get the Lords competing in the number of scholarships they offered their people.'
'So' Toscane asked. 'What's our next step?'
'Our next step' Laisa smiled in what her parents recognised as her most wickedly amused fashion, 'is to bring in our favourite non-Barraryaran expert on cracking Barrayaran business.'
'Lady Vorkosigan?' Madame Toscane asked, comforted by the thought of such a sensible business partner.
'Oh no!' responded Laisa, 'If I’m going to do this, I want it to be Big, and I don't have the time for the softly, softly approach of Cordelia, much as I admire it. I meant Lord Mark.'
'Chancellor of a University?' Mark's eyebrows rose in surprise. 'Why on earth would you want me to be chancellor of a university? What do I know about universities?'
'Well' Kareen spoke before Laisa could,' You have just graduated from one.'
'That' Mark replied, 'As you well know, is almost the opposite of a qualification.'
'But it isn't a Barrayaran university', Laisa said with a sniff. 'And I'd never get away with a Galactic as chancellor. But you, for all people may regard you with suspicion, are indubitably a Vorkosigan and therefore, as much as they may hate to admit it, one of theirs.'
Mark muttered under his breath, 'A monster, but their monster.'
'Well yes' Laisa replied cheerily, 'And Barrayar has been traditionally very fond of its monsters. Plus, you are a rich monster, and while the Vor effect to despise money, most of them are flat broke and would quite like their younger sons to learn how to make some. They might not mind their daughters doing the same if it comes to that, particularly if it prevents them from emigrating to Beta colony.' Laisa smiled at Kareen. 'I gather that isn't helping the population imbalance.'
'What exactly is your proposal?' Kareen asked. 'You can't just want to set up another college. Those are opening up all the time now, and most of them aren't worth the money the students pay.'
'Exactly' Laisa responded. 'I went through this with my parents and we decided that we needed a university that offered a Betan class education. If we model it too much after Komarr, Barrayarans will balk, but Beta Colony is a name to conjure with. So we use their curricula, and offer courses in maths, sciences, and the liberal arts, and, in order to prevent us promptly losing all our graduates to other planets, compulsory business studies with particular attention to setting up your own business, contract, patent and employment law. We also--and this is why Mark would be such a good choice as Chancellor--seek to match our students both with employers and backers.'
By this time, Mark was looking more enthusiastic. Kareen, however, looked doubtful.
'I'm just not sure that most Barrayaran's have the education to cope with a Betan style education. I know I didn't. It took me most of the first year just to catch up and the next two years to feel like I was coping. Your drop out rate would be horrendous and without the culture in place to lift the standards, it might be a struggle.'
Laisa looked pensive but replied, 'We've thought of that and we have some ideas. The first is that admission will at least initially be upon completion of a year long correspondence course. The opening of the university will wait upon the first trenche of students to complete that. We can use the new satellite array systems to deliver teaching packages. As the places will be free to the students, that will also give us the chance to find the students local and business sponsorship. It will make it competitive without making money the criteria, or connections. If it takes off, we'll let traditional Vor patronage' she screwed up her face 'sponsor some places, but it will be better if we can keep the majority of patronage under institutional control. Although I fully expect someone to start scrutinising the intake for regional representation.'
Mark looked at his notes.' So to sum up. I get to be the figure head,'
'At a very good salary' Laisa interrupted.
'On a commission for every student above a certain standard I recruit, and another fee when they graduate at a pre-agreed standard.' Mark corrected. 'The standard to be set by what...current entry requirements for the Betan military?'
Laisa nodded. 'Yes, that works. It doesn't have to be the actual graduation pass level. Perhaps make that the requirements for the Betan civil service? Less maths. But Honours should be the Betan military.'
'And the Senior Executive Officer is you?'
Laisa nodded. 'Yes. We'll need a board as well, but I have no intention of being a silent partner. The whole point of this is to have something real to do. Something that contributes to the well being of Barrayar. At the moment, none of our universities are good enough to attract galactic students. If this one is--starting with Komarrans-then the others will see it's worth while raising their game. And if we get galactic students coming, some will settle, and that will all help in the general push for change.'
Kareen smiled. 'If you advertise the birth imbalance I can think of a fair few planets with the opposite problem to ours who might be interested in student swaps. All those tall, handsome young Vor boys? A few posters in the right place...'
Laisa looked taken aback.
'Oh come on Laisa' Mark snorted 'Use the resources you have. And while you're at it, Kareen's available to be our first marketing officer.'
By the time Laisa and Mark were ready to call the first board meeting, Gregor was not only accepting, but enthusiastic. That Laisa was so much happier pleased him enormously. That she had come up with an idea that which did not call for a major security operation, delighted him. That it had the potential to get his most conservative counts competing to improve their own education provision struck him as inspired. He had already discussed with Laisa and the Liberal wing of the Counts the possibility of the government offering half funding for every student who received 50% of fees from their Count. In effect, each District could get two students for the price of one, and he was willing to roll it out to all students who completed the correspondence course, even if they ended up taking a place in another university. With luck, even those who failed to get a place at the new Empress's College as Laisa had decided it would be known, would contribute to lifting the standards of others. It might take a year or two to trickle down, as entrance became more competitive with time, but the new test would change the game, and move the emphasis away from a military education and towards a civilian and technical one. Considering all the young Vor Lords filling an over large peace time military, Gregor saw this as a solution to a problem that would loom large within a generation at least. Aral Vorkosigan hadn't just given him military histories to read. He'd read of far too many societies which had been brought down precisely because their lack of real social change was accompanied by too large a military with too much time on its hands. More regimes had been toppled by coups than by revolutions.
The servants in the palace were happy too. Not only was life a lot more peaceful, but they had more to do, and saw more people coming and going. Laisa had established an office at the opposite end of the palace to Gregor's offices.
'I know I can't work outside the palace without creating difficulties--although eventually we will have to address that--but for now, I need to feel that I'm going to work. By the time I've walked down the corridors of this place, or even through the park, I might have well taken a bus to downtown Hassadar.'
Laisa and Mark had interviewed for, and appointed, a secretary to the board, and had appointed a nice young man originally recommended by By Vorrutyer. They had discussed the possibility of him being a spy for Imp Sec, and decided that this merely assured that he would be as competent as he and his references claimed. 'And at least a friend of By's not likely to get hankering for glory and off and join the army.' Mark pointed out. 'Or leave to get married?' joked Laisa. They both laughed. One of the unexpected developments in the previous weeks was how much they enjoyed each other's company. Laisa loved Gregor, and she really valued the Koudelkas and the Vorkosigans and many of the other young marrieds she met among the Counts, particularly now the generations were really beginning to shift, but it was only in Mark's company that she had been able, not just to be herself, but to be a Komarran, a galactic with a Betan education and a pretty laid back notion of personal relations.
The next stage had been to appoint a board to oversee the structuring of departments and the hiring of faculty. She and Mark had undertaken a lot of research on the establishment of universities, and decided to keep the number of faculties small to begin with, but to provide mechanisms in advance by which they could divide as they reached a certain size. Crucial was to avoid overspecialisation at this stage. Crucial also for the life of the faculties would be to hire across the age ranges. What they didn't want was to have an almost complete turn over in thirty years time. So, first they had to decide on the faculties, then the heads of department, then on down. And not forgetting of course all the support staff. Board meetings were rapidly beginning to feel like a military operation and Mark had, with no hesitation, suggested they pull in Miles for this stage of things: 'He's the best person on Barrayar for being able to simultaneously handle huge amounts of detail while keeping the big picture firmly in mind. Also, he's a start up person. We don't need to fear he'll take over because as soon as things settle down he'll be bored stiff and looking for a new challenge.' As a recommendation, Laisa realised that she'd heard worse. But she also realised that for Mark to ask for Miles' assistance was a big step in Mark's own personal development.
Laisa stormed into the room riding a crest of fury and flung the morning's news reports down onto the board room table. Mark, absorbed in the latest hiring reports from the personnel department, looked up, startled at the crack of the flimsies on the polished maple wood. Miles, still the possessor of military trained reflexes even after several years of retirement and four children, caught them as they began to slither from the table to the (even more polished) floor.
''Someone has decided we are a moral danger to Barrayar' Laisa ranted. 'Although whether we are going to be draining Barrayar of its best brains, corrupting them with off-world education, or just flat out corrupting them through the importation of Betan floozies--that's exchange students to the rest of us--I cannot tell.'
Kareen frowned and walked around to lean over Miles shoulder. Miles, flicking through the flimsies looked up at her, and then handed them over. Kareen went back to her seat and began making notes.
'We had to expect this' Miles commented. 'We've had an easy ride so far, but we're now a year from our first intake and the entry syllabus just went out. I suspect a lot of people are realising that their little Vor buds couldn't cope.'
Mark snorted. 'Yeah. And you know we've had to open a special division of the recruitment office just to handle all the "but he's terribly well connected" calls." Laisa did not look appeased.
'Kareen, you're our PR person. How did this happen?'
Kareen continued to make notes for a moment. ' Oh Laisa, for heavens sake, you've just forgotten what it's like. You've been in a protected position for five years! As 'the mother of the heir' you were untouchable, but only as long as you were willing to be only the mother of the heir. Now you've stepped out of your role, and done so in a way that clearly reminds the more conservative that you aren't Vor and you're an off worlder to boot, there was bound to be a backlash. The issue now is whether we ignore it all with dignity--I think that would be a mistake--defend ourselves--a worse mistake--or go on the offensive.'
Mark smiled: 'Well my love, it's clear what you would prefer. Sometimes you know, you sound positively Miles-like.'
Kareen flashed a wicked grin, and a sidelong glance at Miles, 'It's all that early training doing drill in the Vorkosigan ballroom, and watching Miles hatch devious plots against his enemies the gate guards.'
'Always nice to know I have a future as a trainer if I ever want one' Miles retorted. 'But what do you suggest?'
Kareen bit her thumb, a habit of hers when thinking that Mark found endearing. 'Well, first of all we need to find out where this response is coming from. Is it direct from the newspaper's editor? Lord Vorbrun is conservative enough. And if so does he feel he's capturing the mood of the nation or trying to stir it up? Then we also need to start digging among the council of counts and the more political Vor to see what's going on there.'
Laisa, now a little calmer, thought. 'I wonder if our secretary has any reach among the younger Vor? Are there people out there who are resentful enough to want to block opportunities they think they won't have?' She laughed. 'Of course there are. You're right. I'm losing touch.'
Miles threw in, 'We might also need to get some information on what's happening in our other target market, the working poor, 'artisans' I think m'mother calls them. Our worst case scenario is that this bilge' he waved a hand in the direction of the flimsies 'deters the group we really want. Does anyone know how many requests we've had for the syllabus?'
Kareen nodded: 'Uptake has been very good in some regions, not so good in others. The best --and unexpected response--has been from school teachers who intend to use the syllabus to shape their school's curriculum. I know we meant to set a new standard for university entry, but we may end up having an impact on schooling more generally.'
'Ah' said Miles. 'That's the key. That's where we've got people's backs up. Ironically because we aren't being elitist enough. This isn't an education that will keep 'em down on the farm... Paree beckons.'
'Mi-les' moaned Liasa, 'that's been a cliche for at least ten centuries.'
'But still true' Miles smirked. 'So, how do we begin the counterattack Kareen?'
Lady Vorkosigan looked over the new list of travelling sales men and women. 'Interesting. All mine. Or ex-mine. Have much trouble persuading them?'
Laisa grinned. 'No, they are not only very loyal to you milady, you seem to have made them very loyal to the notion of education. When we tracked the propaganda back, what every resentful District had in common, was that it had none of your people ensconsced. I know you intended mostly to improve education in Vorkosigan District, but enough of your people have married out in the past twenty years to have had a considerable effect.'
Lady Vorkosigan smiled. 'The Vor Lords used to laugh you know? Teacher training and Nursing. You can hardly change the world with that! They really do neglect anything but military history. Entire countries have been changed by the unleashed energies of 'surplus women'. And we did it without even the surplus women 'problem'." She laughed. 'Actually, that's another line of attack you know, 'What do we do with our surplus men?' But I suppose that would step on their pride a little too hard.'
'Actually' Laisa said, 'We have been using that. Gregor is quite keen to reduce the size of the military and it will be a lot easier if there are new choices for younger sons. He and his friends have been talking the College up at every dinner party they can. We think that most of the resistance however, is coming from the grandfather generation, not the fathers.'
'Oh yes' murmurmed Cordelia, 'Always easy to resist what doesn't benefit your sons.'
Cordelia looked at Laisa with interest: 'That's a point you know, this will affect your sons. You can't resist little Ezar from being pressed into the military I'm afraid, they are very hot on military emperors here, but your other children will have more choices.'
Laisa nodded. 'That's always at the back of my mind. My sons... and my daughters. Most definitely my daughters.' She finished grimly. Just for a moment, Cordelia shared the look.
'I sometimes wonder, if I had had daughters would I have been so content on Barrayar? Life was very difficult for Miles, but everybody agreed that what he wanted, was worth wanting, and that it was appropriate for him to want it. His chances may have seemed limited but they remained in accordance with Barrayaran ideas of a man and a Count's heir. Could I have borne to watch a daughter fight against an entire culture of assumptions? Could I have borne to watch her not fight, to become, at best, a Vor Lady like Lady Alys, impressive though Alys is?'
'That' Laisa murmured, 'is my fear for myself.'
Cordelia looked up suddenly.
'Have you not thought of going out into the field yourself?' Laisa looked startled.
'But we've been through this. If I attempt to go out and meet ordinary people, even the kind of people I would have socialised with on Komarra, who weren't exactly ordinary, I trigger a full scale security operation and Gregor gets what I can only describe as his hurt puppy look in which he wouldn't tell me no, oh, he'd never do that. He'd just look at me until I dropped the idea.'
Cordelia gave a shark like grin: 'Would he indeed. We must do something about that one of these days. It's really not a fair way of fighting. But no, I wasn't thinking of you joining our little seduction force. As soon as anyone found out who you were, they would clam up in a paroxysm of deference and that would be the end of anything you could achieve. What I wondered, is if it were time for you to begin using Lady Alys's network of women who lunch. You still haven't seen many of the districts, apart from all those awful formal banquets after your marriage. Time, I think, for a little holiday. A women's holiday. You, me, Lady Alys, Kareen. Imperial Security will come along of course but they know how to be discreet on this kind of trip. And we'll need a couple of men for escorts but not I think Gregor, Aral or Ilyan or even Mark or Miles. All of them are far too intimidating for a 'just us ladies' tour. How about Ivan?'
Laisa smiled. 'Yes, he's the perfect spare dance partner if we need one. And of course, if we bring Ivan, we really must bring Byerly.'
Cordelia shot her a shrewd look. 'I'm not sure you're supposed to know about that my dear.'
Laisa retorted, 'Well, I know you aren't, but honestly Cordelia. Barrayarans might be blind but the rest of us aren't. Anyway, it's perfect. We take two men but not four, so that we don't cause resentment about contributing to the excess of male dance partners, quite the opposite in fact. And we take two men who are beautiful dancers--so the Vor ladies will be very happy with our choices--and two men who are both in their ways anxious to dance with as many women as possible. And finally, we take two men who will be terribly happy to have time together and won't be causing the usual kind of Vor scandal throughout the district.'
Cordelia laughed, 'Although you can't be absolutely sure of that with Ivan of course.'
Ivan growled at Byerly. 'M'mother's done it again. I'm being sent on escort duty with Empress Laisa and her cronies out to the districts. I'll be gone for months.'
Byerly smiled as Ivan walked in the door, bristling with annoyance and five o'clock shadow.
'There, there. Get showered and shaved and we're off out for dinner. That should appease you. Dinner and dancing no less! Lots of pretty Vor ladies to flirt with,'
Ivan was unappeased. 'Aren't you annoyed too? We had plans for the next month! A lake remember? A boat on the lake. Solitude, privacy. Fishing!'
'Well, I was never too keen on the fishing if you remember.' By smirked.
'By!' Ivan moaned.
'Oh, I suppose I should put you out of your misery.' By slipped his hands around Ivan's waist and leaned in to murmur into his ear. 'I'm coming too.'
Ivan held By tight around the waist and growled. 'For that I intend to punish you' and pushed By towards the bedroom.
A little later, as they recovered, Ivan asked. 'Why both of us? I mean, I can guess that m'aunt figured it out long ago, but why did m'mother ok it? And more to the point, how did you get released from work?'
By sat up. 'Your mother ok'd it because Alleyne did. And Alleyne ok'd it because it gives him an Imp Sec person on the inside of the party--one Laisa trusts, not just professionally, but personally--and because Alleyne is deeply suspicious of some of the hostility that has emerged against the Empress's College.' Ivan began to interrupt, and By raised his hand, 'No, we expected some hostility. We expected resistance. But there is something about the tone of this that isn't right. It doesn't have the feel of the Conservatives, they mostly ought to be fawning over anything done by the Emperor and Empress. It's coming from the newer press. Some of it is the search for shock horror headlines, but some of it seems to be linked to what Imp Sec feels is worrying signs of 'Little Barrayarism', a more generalised hatred of foreigners that could make things very difficult as Barrayar opens up, and which could easily be directed against the Empress and perhaps more seriously--from Imp Sec's point of view--the Crown Prince. If Barrayar as an imperial expansionist power is a worrying idea, 'Barrayar for the Barrayarans' could be a lot more dangerous.'
They continued the discussion discreetly over dinner, in between moments acting as dancing partners for increasingly young Vor buds. Ivan was even more bored than usual. By might be able to carry off this flirtation with mindless eighteen year olds, but he was really beginning to wonder what he had ever seen in them. His little dalliances seemed more and more an exercise in proving something to himself. Ivan was not used to this level of self-examination and it made him uncomfortable. As long as he didn't have to think too hard about him and By, it was mostly alright. But he did have to think. His mother kept making him think. And he was increasingly beginning to think of fatherhood. For some reason he didn't quite understand, By's discussion of the future of Barrayar prompted to consider his part in that future. Did he want one? Did he want to contribute to its genetic future? He was suddenly reminded of his aunt Cordelia's saying, 'All true wealth is genetic.' He could think of a number of people who had contributed much to Barrayar without ever having children, so he wasn't sure Cordelia was right in general, but he had a nasty feeling she was right when it came to him. After all, what else could he contribute? His military career certainly wasn't something to shout about. In a sudden spasm of alarm he gripped the hand of his dance partner a little too hard and she squeaked. He looked down, smiled apologetically into startled blue eyes, and dragged himself back to his duties.
Although the party undertook the first stage of the journey to the Vorpatril district by flyer, it had been agreed that they would enter each District on horseback. 'So much more impressive' Lady Alys had decreed. Cordelia and Laisa had sighed. Cordelia had never liked riding, 'Try it pregnant' she had told Ivan when he sniggered, while Laisa regarded it as a lovely way to spend a quiet day in the palace parks, not as a means of transport. Still, Lady Alys was right, they did look impressive, Cordelia in her trademark dark green and golds, Laisa in layers of pink and Kareen in blues while Lady Alys was every inch the grand lady in purple. Ivan and Byerley, the former in his dress greens, and Byerly in his house colours offered the classic Barrayaran foil, and the crowds who came out to watch the Empress and her entourage (and its security) looked impressed.
Byerly, riding by the Empress's side as her equerry, made sharp comments to her as they rode, keeping her laughing at the crowd. There was only one odd note. In a District noted for loyalty to its Count and Emperor, sprinkled in among the small flags of Counts and Emperor's colours was another, one Laisa didn't recognise.
'That's Prince Serg's old personal ensign' Byerly commented lightly, striving to smile. 'Haven't seen that in a long while.'
Laisa looked at the enthusiastic crowds, 'Yet it's mostly children carrying them. Odd.'
'Maybe not so odd' Byerly said quietly. 'Children don't get arrested. The most that would happen is that their flags would be removed, and if they cried in a picturesque manner, the newsfeeds would be all over it. "Empress's body guards brutalise children!" It's a win for someone, whatever way it falls out. No reaction, and the little flags get seen in the news, over-reaction, and the little flags get extra coverage.'
It was a small matter but it was a more sober than expected company that arrived at the Vorpatril residence. Having survived the Cetaganda invasion without the nuclear attack that had devastated the Vorkosigan district, the Vorpatril residence was a handsome example of Time of Isolation architecture. Laisa eyed it from the outside with trepidation.
'They couldn't get the walls thicker? Or a few more spiky things around the top? May be a portcullis would lighten the mood?'
'Think of this as a Kommarran pressure dome' remarked Cordelia as their horses trotted over the bridge. 'It's just that the pressure they are trying to keep at bay is mostly political.'
Laisa gave her a look. Although after five years she was mostly acclimatised to living on an inhabitable planet, open windows still caused her to flinch--a habit which Imp Sec was more than happy about--and her preference for a leisurely stroll tended to involve the biodomes and conservatories of the new Botanical Society of which she had become patron on her marriage.
'I know there are some worries about the mood on Barrayar, but I trust we will not be needing those kind of defenses.'
Ivan, overhearing, cast a worried look towards his mother, who had dropped behind to discuss practicalities with the Captain in charge of their cavalry escort.
'You can never tell m'lady. But if anything did happen, you really would be grateful. Even in these days of sonic canon, a nice thick wall is a good thing to have, and these walls have been reinforced with the latest resistant meshes.'
Laisa, slightly shocked, followed his look. 'Is Lady Alys worried? I thought Alleyne had checked everything thoroughly.
'No' Ivan spoke carefully, as he realised that Laisa, even after five years on Barrayar, might have missed this detail of Vordarian's Pretendership, 'but I don't want to bring back bad memories. M'father died because they couldn't get out of the city to the family home. He had left the safe house to try and find a midwife for her.'
Laisa became suddenly subdued.
'Oh. I beg your pardon Ivan. I had not made the connection between your mother's widowhood and that... incident.'
'Nothing to worry about m'lady, I never knew my father. But I don't like my mother to be distressed, although it's a long time now, and she seems very happy with Illyan.'
Laisa smiled, 'You've accepted it then?'
'Well, it was a bit of a shock and it took a while for us to get the hang of friendly conversation, but as more than one person has pointed out, m'mother has rather stopped chasing me to get married. She has someone to look after now.' From behind Ivan heard Byerly supress a snigger. He supposed he should be grateful it was suppressed. The look he got from Laisa however was rather unnerving. Did all the galactics know? Was it that damn obvious? But before he could react, Laisa turned into the courtyard, headed for the mounting block, and accepted the first offer of hands at her stirrup.
'Not one moment more do I spend on that animal. He may be beautiful, but whoever thought horses were for long distance riding, was clearly desperate...and yes, before any of you say anything, I know, they were desperate.' Laisa brushed her hands down her dress. 'I need a bath and clean clothes. And I want to call Gregor. And the children. And then I want dinner.' Lady Alys, coming up still on her horse and looking not even slightly inconvenienced by the ride, laughed.
'This is why Vorpatril house is our first stop. It will be the last time you can truly relax. After this, you will be in the hands of our esteemed Countesses, and from the moment you arrive, you will be performing.' She smiled down at the suddenly pensive Laisa. 'You have an excellent supporting cast and we will make sure you get both luxuries and privacy.'
'Both', whispered Byerly suddenly close to Ivan's ears, 'something we should make use of also.'
When Ivan woke, suddenly, in the night, it was from dreams of By's hands. They were beautiful hands and Ivan still hadn't quite got over the way he had felt the first time he had held them. Just held them, no sex, no lust, just holding. It had been the first moment he had realised this might not be simply an experiment. But it wasn't By who had woken him. By was curled up, twisted into the sheets, his slightly bony chest rising and falling in the rhythm of sleep. What was it then? He hadn't heard a noise, and he didn't tend to wake to noise anyway. A light? That was it, the light from the corridor, which usually shone low all night, had gone off. Ivan had been sensitive to changes in light all his life. On at least one occasion it had saved his life. So, was this something to investigate, or was it a normal part of the house's night time routine? He glanced at the chrono, 3am. If it were Lady Alys, he knew, the formal closing down of the household would take place rather earlier. He had long moved out of the house, but he didn't think her marriage to Illyan would have changed her habits that much (in fact, he doubted if she had been the one to change her habits at all).
Ivan slid out of the bed, careful not to disturb By for what might, after all, be nothing more than a broken circuit. Unfortunately his dressing gown was in the closet, and the squeak as it opened caused him to pause, but By didn't wake. He slipped it on, and then, as an afterthought, rummaged for underwear and socks, and put on both.. He realised that if anyone saw him, he might end up as a figure of fun but--he smiled grimly--the Empress's clown was an upgrade on serving as Miles's clown, and at least he would be covered. Modesty, however, was not really a defense against trouble. He took off the dressing gown, and instead put on his trousers and added his boots and a shirt. All this was taking time, but, he reasoned, if it wasn't trouble then it didn't matter, and if it was, a pair of boots would make the difference in a chase. His side arms maybe more. With an inward sigh Ivan thought 'to hell with it' and put on the rest of his uniform.
The corridor, when he entered it, was dim. Ivan had dressed in the dark to avoid waking By and still had his night vision, but with no windows and light coming only from the emergency and night lights which Lady Alys had insisted to Count Vorpatril he install, it still felt darker than the bedroom. Ivan paused to listen. The house breathed. And then he heard it, just a whisper of sound from the right, from the very end of the stairs, where, he realised, there was indeed a fire escape, another new innovation in this castle which had always assumed that in an emergency, the last thing people would want to do was to leave.
Ivan walked as quietly as riding boots would allow, down the hallway to the exit, and was somehow not surprised to discover that it had been propped ajar with a small piece of multiply folded paper. He reached down to pull it out, and as he grasped it in his fingers, he heard a sound behind him briefly, before the blow to the head. Ivan moved, then wished he hadn't as the short stave (a truncheon he thought) caught him sideways on his ear. It stung! He swung round, tried to grab the assailant, but the man slipped past him, yanked at the fire escape and was through. His ear still stinging, Ivan followed. The man was already half way down the stairs and as Ivan began to follow, flung himself over the bannisters down through the stairwell. Ivan heard the thump as he landed and the scrabble as he regained his footing and went through the exit at the bottom. Ivan kept going, knowing that he that he would not be able to catch him, but assuming that the guards in the grounds could contribute to a pincer movement. Arriving in the grounds winded, and wondering when he'd got so unfit, he was startled, however, to find nothing.
Ivan paced up and down the drawing room the next morning.
'Please sit down Ivan' his mother asked. 'You're wearing a hole in the carpet. And it's a very old carpet.'
Ivan glowered. 'Wearing a hole in the carpet should be the least of your concerns. There's a huge hole in security. The gate guards swear they saw nothing and Imp Sec seems to have been asleep on its collective feet. Nothing, they say, could have come in last night and nothing got out.'
Byerly, lounging on a chaise longue designed for the fainting femininity of an earlier era, pressed his fingers together in thought.
'Ivan, you do realise that doesn't necessarily indicate incompetence on the part of our security? Or at least, not the section that is guarding us. If no one is seen to go in or out of a building then it is a reasonable supposition that they did not. Which means that the person we are looking for is quite probably still in the building.'
Ivan grunted. His ear hurt and he suspected that the only reason he hadn't been accused of night terrors and sleep walking was that it was bright red where he had been hit.
'Imp Sec do at least still have that paper you picked up. Well done Ivan. Holding on to that was very useful.'
Ivan looked at By for signs of sarcasm, By's affection for him hadn't blunted his tongue one little bit and sometimes he wondered if By wanted him around mostly in order always to have someone to bait.
'No really' By said, in light tones. 'Whoever it was, decided to use a political leaflet as a door wedge. I doubt he was the printer, probably just had it in his pocket, but it gives us somewhere to start... which of the staff, for example, have been attending political meetings lately? Which of the staff have been known to say things, perhaps not too complimentary of overseas visitors? I doubt we'll find anything very incriminating. Count Vorpatril's staff have after all been checked over more than once, but it's a small piece of unravelling thread, and sometimes they are worth pulling.'
The miscreant, as Lady Cordelia insisted on calling him, with an air of amusement, turned out to be the boot boy. A mild misnomer as he was all of seventeen and like a lot of very junior staff in the great houses of Barrayar these days, simply serving out some time while he waited to take up his place in the army. Faced with the wrath of Imp Sec, he quickly admitted to being the man with the cosh, but claimed that he had thought Ivan was a burglar, and had panicked when he realised the man he had hit was wearing uniform. He became rather more uneasy, however, when shown the leaflet. This, it became clear, he had acquired the previous week at a small meeting in a the centre of town. The meeting, already known to Imp Sec, consisted of the usual rabble rousers, but also, as the leaflet testified, to a speaker from out of town, who had been very interested in chatting to the boy about his work at the residence.
'We aren't sure, but we think he asked him to report on where you were sleeping' the captain of the guard reported to Ivan. 'He's in a lot of trouble, and pretty much spilling his guts--this could prevent him getting his army place after all--but he seems a bit baffled himself as to why anyone would care.'
Lady Cordelia looked concerned. 'He's very young, and I think a black mark to take with him on his record is the right approach. Wrecking someone's career at the outset makes criminals, it doesn't deter them. But why Ivan's room? And why the cosh?'
'We don't know why Captain Vorpatril's room. That may come clear later. The cosh, however, seems to be something the group is encouraging its people to carry. We had heard the rhetoric of 'being prepared' but I think this is something new. We thought we'd start by finding out where they are being made and use that to come at the problem from both sides.'
By made approving noises. Later, when they were alone, he raised the unspoken thought.
'You do realise we may have been the target?'
Ivan wanted to feel surprised and shocked, but somehow he wasn't. They'd weathered the original Vor gossip when By had been courting him--enough public romancing of young women had scotched that and as far as he could tell, most people now thought it had been some kind of bizarre joke. As far as he knew, only his Uncle Aral knew, although he was not unaware that Kareen, Mark and Laisa had probably guessed. A nasty part of his hind brain also kept whispering You really think Aunt Cordelia doesn't know? While another part merely insisted that if he didn't interfere with his mother's sex life, she shouldn't interfere with his. Ivan knew all of this was probably delusional, but, I like my delusions he thought, whenever he became uncomfortable. To acknowledge that many people probably did think of he and By as some kind of couple was to go further than he was quite ready to do himself. He loved By. Yes, he did. But one day he'd have to marry, and he'd fall in love with a girl--although he never really had, when it came right down to it--and then he and By would have to go their separate ways.... Ivan stopped his train of thought, hurriedly, it didn't bear thinking about.
Ivan pulled his thoughts together and realised By was looking at him in some concern.
'So, you think it's because they think we're queers?'
'Ivan', By said gently, 'We are queers.' Ivan went to protest that By might be but he wasn't, but luckily, before he could say it, and regret it, and want to hurt himself to make up for the hurt in By's eyes, By said it for him,
'Ivan' these kind of people don't care that you've been with women. If anything, that's worse. You might pollute women you sleep with. Corrupt them. These people aren't rational you know?'
Ivan, for some reason the discomfort of the armchair, it's springs poking into odd places, feeling like some kind of metaphor for his own, spiritual discomfort, protested, 'But they are petty little nationalists. How did' he gestured 'us, get into all this?'
By sighed, 'You do so like things to be rational Ivan. In the minds of nasty little bigots everywhere, people like us are always a sign of corruption from outside. If they were Kommarans, we would be the Barrayaran disease--all those men in uniform they'd say. Definitely fishy. I mean' By's accent slipped into a creditable imitation of middle-class Komarran, 'what else do they have to do cooped up on those ships?' Ivan grinned. 'But as they are Barrayaran, and as we seem to have this huge great fear of galactics, of course this is an off world import. You don't think upright, manly Barrayarans would ever behave like this do you?' By's sly smile slipped. 'Your Aunt says she thinks the way people react to homosexuals around here is very closely tied to the way they treat women. No respect for women, so absolute terror of being thought to be like one, or to be treated in any way like one'.
Ivan, aware that his own dealings with women were often a lot less respectful than By's, shifted uneasily. But apart from the Koudelka sisters--and he'd missed his chance there--he'd never really met any women who didn't seem a bit silly. Although Ekaterin Vorkosigan was alright. And no one could call Laisa, Alys or Cordelia silly. Maybe if he could meet a woman like that? He shuddered unconsciously. They terrified him.
'So what do we do?'
'Nothing. We leave it to security. Try to be discreet and don't go into the town without knowing where our security detail is. Talking of which, would you care to go dancing tonight? I've found a bijou little club where we can let our hair down, or unlace our boots, or unbutton our collars, or whatever metaphor you prefer' By smiled wickedly in a way that made Ivan's stomach lurch, 'And it doesn't even have to stop at metaphor.'
The next morning, the party gathered in the dining room to consider their plan of action for Impressing with the Empress, as By had casually described it. Naturally most of their itinerary had been put together by Lady Alys 'With Miles's advice' she added. 'He really is turning into the the consumate diplomat. Quite a surprise really.'
The plan involved a series of lunches. 'Not dinners?' Ivan asked.
'No' Kareen responded. 'Men are present at dinners, but lunch is something women do on their own. Delicately. China. Tea. Small sandwiches.'
'Oh' the light dawned for Ivan 'frilly food!' Kareen laughed.
'Yes, frilly food, the kind men tend to dislike but women either like or feel they ought to like. But the key thing about these kinds of lunches is that there is neither enough food nor enough alcohol to suppress talk, and talk, more than anything else, is what we are interested in here. We don't want to show off the Empress as such, we want the Countesses, their daughters and their nieces, to feel intimate with the Countess. We want them to say thing like "but the Countess is so nice and very sharp. And if little Ivan isn't going to go into the military like his big brother, it would be so good for him to get a little polish. And just think, a galactic education without having to leave the planet? And if in the course of these lunches, their daughters start to get ideas, well, even better."
Ivan looked puzzled, 'OK, I get that this is a pincer operation on the counts, but if this is meant to be an all ladies' lunch, what do you need us' he waved at Byerley 'for'?
Kareen was unembarrassed, 'You, my dear Ivan, will accompany us to all the lunches and then quietly withdraw. At the point where we take a stroll, you will rejoin us, and you will' she looked stern 'do what you do best.' Ivan heard the unmistakeable sound of By stifling a giggle 'flirt like mad.'
Alys snorted, 'Yes, you've had lots of practice my boy. Time to put it at the service of your Empress.'
The first lunches were not, in fact, with a Countess. They were after all in the Vorpatril district and there was no resident Countess, but Lady Alys felt that it would do no harm, and Lady Vorkosigan thought it might do a great deal of good, for the Empress to begin her luncheons by meeting the local civic dignitaries' wives.
'These women' Lady Cordelia noted 'Are often in control of a deal of patronage in the city. If we capture their interest, we could begin diverting some of the artisan class into the college. It's a very neglected group, and that's a source of social instability: generally speaking, peasants don't organise revolutions. Well educated craftsmen do.'
'And we won't make this worse by educating them?' Ivan asked.
'Perhaps' commented Laisa, 'Or perhaps it will provide an incentive to the Counts to support Gregor's other reforms. Provide opportunities to own part of society, and people tend to be less willing to destroy it. If the new civilian civil service Gregor wants begins to take off, then there will be all sorts of new routes to prosperity. There already are, thanks to Lady Vorkosigan. Teaching and nursing are beginning to emerge as professions, and are a small step on the ladder for peasants and workers into the middle class. The more we fill the gap between the Counts and the people, the more stable the society will be. Barrayar is actually in a dangerous place politically: it looks modern but socially it has a lot in common with nineteenth century Imperial Russia.' She paused to see if she needed to explain, but everyone there had been a victim of Aral Vorkosigan's passion for Earth and military history.
They prepared carefully for the lunch: impressive but not intimidating was the rather challenging criteria. Laisa, studying her wardrobe before the tour began, had decided the subtle signals of Vor caste lady's wear were too much for her and had given herself up to Lady Alys and Kareen. The result was what later in the year she would come to think of as the Visiting Suit. Or ten of them. Each identical except for the colour.
'Believe me dear, for all you want to look pretty, you don't want to have to think every time, "I can't wear what I wore on the last occasion because it's been in the newsheets". What you want is for them to get used to you. Let the Counts' daughters compete for the fashion pages. You need to look elegant and to look like the Empress. We are going to create an image for you.' Lady Alys smiled, and took charge. The result was, Laisa admitted, both smart and comfortable and all she really had to do was randomise the colour choices, and remember to tell Lady Alys and Lady Cordelia what she was wearing so that, as her (temporary) attendants they and Kareen could wear the accompanying outfits, similar and in complementary shades so that she always stood out. She had felt uncomfortable about this, but Kareen had assured her that on Barrayar, attendance on the Empress was an honour. No one would question the status of her attendants, 'It's a sort of parallel processing of status, and either way Alys and Cordelia are in the stratosphere.' Later, she could begin to think of people to appoint permanently. She had rather avoided the issue before, but was beginning to realise that the role of 'official intimate' was actually rather valuable for both recipient and donor.
When they left Vorpatril House it was a cool, cloudless spring day. Perfect for their planned destination, the luncheon rooms at the Botanical gardens, security checked, and with a section to be roped off for their private party, so that they could be seen by all, and not, Cordelia had insisted, been seen to be closing to the public a municipal provision. As they drove through the streets of the District in the Count's lightflyer, Laisa had the opportunity to observe the differences between this and the capital. Dusty, a dryer climate, it was built in a different stone, and showed far fewer signs of Cetagandan war damage. This was, she knew, both an advantage and a disadvantage, it meant it was richer, but also had had less opportunity to rebuild. Many of the buildings she saw were hard to update with modern communication systems and already there was tension between those who wanted to tear things down, and those who wanted to preserve at any cost. Like so many architectural debates, it was exposing the fissures among both the progressives and the conservatives. The conservatives in particular, were vulnerable on this, split between the Old Vor and the emerging industrial interest which could be conservative on labour issues but rather less so when it came to changing the landscape.
The Botanical gardens, on the other hand, were an almost perfect mix of old and new. Running across several acres, they were a homage from Barrayaran's botanists both to the desire to save something of the variety that the original settlers had brought with them from Earth, and to the post-Time of Isolation's growing interest in the native Barrayaran ecology. Ekaterin Vorkosigan adored this place and had undertaken her student internship here. Liassa, not quite so attuned to botany, was non-the-less fascinated by the biodomes which rose over the park land. Although not so hermetically sealed as the biodomes of home, and with a very definite conservatory look, they still looked enough like home to give her a small twang of home sickness. Entering through the arches into the first of them, she could feel a little bit of herself that never quite relaxed in the open air, giving a little sigh of relief. This place, she thought, could easily be one of her favourites on Barrayar. Followed by the now instinctive thought, I wonder if I could hire the Director to teach at the College? There was enough land on the site for at least a small biodome, surely? That was the nice thing about starting one's own college, one could to a small extent shape the direction of its specialities, and it would make a nice addition to a college whose intention was to send people into the civil service. Barrayar could use a few good environmentalists and ecologists.
Still musing Laisa realised she had not been paying attention. By this time, they were in full receiving line mode. As Lady Alys introduced her to the line of staff waiting to shake her hand, she pulled herself together and concentrated on being charming. Luckily, this was not hard. When she came to the Director, who had positioned himself last in line, unusual for a head of a department on Barrayar she had found, she took his had firmly, and said, 'Dr. Jedvsky, I would very much like you to escort our party around the gardens when we have had lunch.' She was rewarded by his flush of pleasure.
'My Lady, I would be delighted.'
'Bring some of your scientists. Some of them are friends of Lady Ekaterin Vorkosigan I believe and we' she gestured at the party, 'would be delighted to make their acquaintance.' Laisa could feel the ripple of delight along the row. Already the afternoon felt promising. Behind her Cordelia and Alys both broadcast their approval.
The Luncheon Room at the botanical gardens was everything that Laisa had been led to expect, and one of the reasons they had chosen it as the very first venue for the Empress's Lunches. Although the biodome it was in, was built from the best of modern materials, the lunch room was an interior skeleton of wrought iron.
'It's based on some very old designs from Earth' the director offered, as the party stopped, awed. 'Descriptions just don't do it justice.' There were murmurs of agreement at this comment. The frame of the luncheon room was a tangle of girders, each of which must have weighed many tons but which soared into the air as brambles and roses, effortlessly supporting the reinforced glass. The iron itself rose from forests, the luncheon room was itself a biodome, supporting lush plants from the rainforests of Earth, humid, close, and teeming with life. Nothing else like it existed on Barrayar. Laisa, more accustomed to biodomes, was perhaps less overawed by the forest itself, but as a parakeet flew across the lunch room, she grinned with delight. From behind her she heard Cordelia exclaiming to one of their escorts, and explaining in her distinctive tones, the problems of free flying fowl in space stations.
The lunch tables, Laisa was relieved to see, each had their own light cream canopy. A glance at the Director brought the explanation,
'We don't want bird droppings on the tables, obviously, and the canopies can be washed and disinfected each night.' Laisa nodded, very sensible and a practice she realised she could introduce to the family picnics. Neither she nor Cordelia had ever been very comfortable in the great outdoors, and this was a practice she could introduce as a fashion. The Vor men would despise it, she was sure, but if it kept the native life at a safe distance from the sandwiches, she would be very happy.
Around the luncheon table sat eight women, each a couple, with a space in between. Laisa, recognised the genius of this, one of them, to two of their hosts. All of the women stood as they arrived, and one, a woman who from her bearing Laisa recognised as the local Lady Alys, moved away from the table to greet them and make the introductions.
Ivan and Byerley sat at a table slightly to the side of the luncheon party, half listening to the talk--which was very much the traditional talk of Vor ladies everywhere, of their sons and nephews and their prospects--and otherwise admiring their surroundings. Out of the corner of his eye, Ian noticed Laisa suddenly pause in a mouthful, bring her napkin to her lips and carefully transfer something from her mouth to the cloth, then fold it up and place it, not back on her lap, but by the side of the plate. Ivan nodded to By, who nodded back, He had seen it too. By looked over to one of the Imp Sec Lieutentants standing by the wall, who in turn nodded to a maid that Ivan realised he recognised as one of the clerks from the pool at Imp Sec. The maid, carrying a pot of tea, took a discreet circuit around the garden, stopped at a station to collect something, and then swung around to do a pass over the Empress's table. Smoothly, and without interrupting the conversation, she swapped the Empress's napkin for a new one, poured more tea from the silver pots which bedecked the table and gently retreated.
Ivan was impressed. 'Where did a clerk learn to do that?' he asked rhetorically. Byerly answered anyway, 'Probably from your mother, but she isn't a clerk. Or hadn't you realised?'
Ivan's eyebrows rose.
'The Empress’s plans for sexual equality may be public, but that doesn’t mean Gregor isn't trying to change things. His mother had a female body guard remember? He doesn't have to be convinced that women are capable. And he's been relying on your mother's unofficial contribution to security for three decades, and Countess Vorkosigan.'
'Yes' Ivan protested, 'But informally. Surely you aren't telling me that there are women in Imp Sec now? I mean, I know women are competent and all that' he paused to swipe at By's grin with his napkin 'but Imp Sec? Women.... women chatter! How on earth can they be trusted to keep secrets?’
By took a sip of his tea, an Earth import from China and one of the specialities of the Botanical Gardens, who devoted a large and expanding bio dome to its cultivation.
'Yes, women chatter. And they pass a huge amount of information that way Ivan. But it's a status game, and women are rewarded in the circles they move in, in direct relation to the gossip they can pass on. Which means a high status woman can garner a lot, and a low status woman who is clever, can pass on meaningless gossip while reaping real knowledge, or can even, as the maid demonstrated, become such a part of the furniture that anything can be said in front of her without anyone thinking twice. Oh, if the gossip turned up in another household or on the newsheets, she'd be fired of course, but who is going to realise she's reporting to Imp Sec?'
Ivan looked quizzically at By. 'Why are you telling me all this? I'm not Imp Sec. And surely you've just blown her cover?'
'Oh, that would have happened anyway.' Said By. 'You'll be meeting her later for the debrief, there was clearly something happening over there. And I would have introduced you later. I've wanted you to meet her for a while. I think she and you might get on. Now' he responded to Ivan's increasing look of puzzlement, 'eat your eclair like a good boy, and you can have an ice cream to finish.'
Ivan refrained from sticking out his tongue.
'Captain Vorpatril, I'd like you meet Captain Vorjean, who is the Imp Sec captain who has been accompanying us, not, as I introduced him recently, simply captain of the guard. Also Miss Lesnik, who holds the position of Auxiliary Lieutenant, a position we hope to see formalised in the near future,' By and Miss Lesnik smiled, Captain Vorjean merely nodded. Ivan, always drawn to a pretty face, found himself wondering why he was drawn to this one. Miss Lesnik was not pretty. But she wasn't plain either. She had mild features, the kind one would not necessarily notice--an advantage in Imp Sec Ivan conceded--but surrounded with a short cap of shiny black hair, and punctuated with very dark green? yes, green eyes. In repose she was ignorable. But as she took his offered hand, there was a sparkle there, and a look he never saw in women, or at least not women who looked at him: intelligence? Oh yes, intelligence. Here was a woman that Miles would adore. Ivan felt an unusual flicker of ... what? He'd worry about it later. But he wouldn't be in a hurry to introduce Miss Lesnik to Miles,
Captain Vorjean stirred. 'We should get on with the meeting. As you surmised, there was indeed something of significance in the napkin. Miss Lesnik?'
The kitchen staff room, located in a small and not very clean section of the kitchen, was humid with the venting of cooking liquids and fats. It wasn't somewhere Ivan could imagine being for very long.
Miss Lesnik took out a small plastic bag which contained a scrap of paper.
'It's not very big, and the writing is very small, but it is, of course, a threat. Tucked into a watercress sandwich no less, it tells the Empress to go back to Komarr and take her corruption with her.'
By sighed. 'The message is not a surprise, the location is,'
Miss Lesnick nodded. Ivan noticed a tightness around her mouth. She must, he realised, felt responsible. He glanced at Captain Vorjean, he did not seem to so worried, Ivan realised that he must be used to this kind of thing by now, but still, his security had clearly been breached.
By sat at the table in his characteristic pose, his fingertips arched together and a look of laconic amusement in his eyes.
'We'll check the writing against the kitchen and serving staff of course, but when we find him or her' Captain Vorjean's eyes flickered in surprise, he clearly hadn't thought of a political crime as a woman's crime 'all it will do is expose a very minor member of whatever local nationalist organisation is stirring up trouble. We need to get closer to the organisation, and we need to figure out how they broke security and got people in to place.'
Miss Lesnik offered, 'If we can get enough people into the organisation, before they know where they are, they'll have more spies than real members.'
By laughed and Ivan felt himself warm further to the interesting Miss Lesnik. By didn't laugh, real laughter, enough. Oh, he sniggered, and he had his little, high pitched laugh for those times when he wanted to entertain, rather than be entertained. But he didn't laugh for sheer humour all that much, and Ivan had never quite the knack of it. By, he thought with just an edge of disgruntlement, too often joined in laughing at Ivan, not with him, So why he thought am I not resentful that this woman can make him laugh?
As Ivan mused, and found his thoughts straying alternately to the way Miss Lesnik's hair neatly swept her jaw line, and how beautiful By's hands were, the two of them became engaged in an animated conversation about the history of infiltration. Across the table, Captain Vorjean shot him a sardonic look and gestured with his eyebrows. Ivan, catching the signal, stood up at the same time as the Captain and the two them excused themselves and headed out of the kitchen staff room.
'That's a relief' Vorjean sighed. 'I'm not sure what was getting to me more, the heat and smells, or those two flirting.'
Ivan almost started in surprise but caught himself. By, flirting with a woman? For real? The thought hadn't crossed his mind. Surely not? But maybe this was why By was introducing Ivan to her. It might be possible. By would have to marry sooner or later. They both would. He felt a pang. He tried very hard not to think about these things, if he did, he remembered his mother, and then he remembered the odds of him finding a Vor woman in his own age range, and the thought of finding an off planet bride depressed him. He had watched Miles try to persuade Ellie Quinn to settle on Barrayar and it had been heart breaking. Even Mark--who admittedly had other reasons--had gone for a native Barrayaran not an offworlder. And Duv Galeni and Delia didn't count. Duv was working very hard at being Barrayaran. In fact, only Martya Koudelka, of all his acquaintances, had married an import and Martya had wanted someone who would gain her access to the intellectual world her sex denied her. Ivan's thoughts wandered. Martya was one of the best damned reasons he'd come across for the College. Maybe if she'd had her own work to get interested in she'd be a little less frightening.
As he and Vorjean wandered across the luncheon room once more, it occurred to him to ask where they were going.
'I thought we'd join the Empress's party touring the grounds' the Captain responded. 'The security detail is well briefed, and I doubt there are any real causes for concern, but it's as well to take a look in. Voruttyer and Lesnik can join us later if they wish, but at the moment they seem thoroughly engaged.
The lunch party had been a success. The ladies around the table all had children or grandchildren in their mid to late teens, and all of them were aware of the limitations of a society in which the military was still the only real route to enhanced social status. For many of them, what the Empress's college would offer was not so much new careers for their children, but a new context for those careers, and potentially, a route to either enhancing family industries or to work in the professions. Laisa was aware that in some ways this was misleading, only the first generations of graduates would gain a real advantage over their contemporaries, after that it would begin to even out as the other universities revamped their curricula and an expanding student body ensured that what right now would be the elite, in a few years would be merely the entry level for professional work. But then that was the point: use an elite college to up the standard of everyone.
More significant perhaps than the ladies' plans for their own children was that several of them could see the point of sponsoring the ambitious children of their husbands' firms, charitable organisations and craft groups.
'Any scholarship tied, say, to five years service' one of them had mused, 'would go a long way to demonstrating the value of such support. And if they were sound, and an employer sensible, this could prove a very good investment.'
Laisa smiled at this kind of thinking. Too long surrounded by the structures of patronage and Vor ethics, it was actually a relief to hear someone talking in terms of profit and loss, and seeing people as part of a complex accountancy which did not diminish people, but enhanced them.
It had been a shock to find the paper in her scone, tucked between the cream and the jam. She had very carefully deposited it in the napkin and noted the young woman who had deftly removed it. Miss Lesnik had been introduced to her earlier and she had rather taken to her. But there was nothing she, Laisa, could do about it until her duties were over and she had carried on making that strange mix of light conversation and politics in which Lady Alys had schooled her. It was, however, rather a relief when lunch was over and the party was taken on tour of the biodome complex.
Laisa, now escorted by the Director, while some of his assistants entertained Lady Vorkosigan and Lady Alys and the rest of the party behind them, felt mildly drunk on the combination of an afternoon tea and the sounds and scents of the biodomes. The warm, humid air of the sub-tropical Earthlike zones, had been superseded by the aridity of desert climes, which then in turn gave way to the sharp climates of southern mountains. Each dome in turn had been planted carefully, and although the Director was interesting--remembering, courteously she thought--that her real interest was in engineering and reliably pointing out some of the more innovative constructions, she rather wished Ekaterin were there. Ekaterin had a dry wit that somehow captivated the attention even when talking about plants.
They had been strolling for half and hour when Captains Vorjean and Vorpatril joined them. Vorpatril looked bored but his eyes lit up when he saw the ladies and moved smoothly to attach himself to the most charming of the city maidens. Laisa smiled to herself. Whatever his relationship with By Vorrutyer, Vorpatril continued to enjoy the company of women a great deal more than he appeared to enjoy the massed company of men. She knew that he had wanted ship duty, like so many young Vor, and found herself wondering if he would really have enjoyed it. It was quite possible that the assignment corps knew its business.
They were approaching a small pavilion, where, she had been told, they regularly held tea dances, when it happened.
'Down! Milady' yelled Vorjean, and she was caught around the waist and hurled to the ground. The noise was loud, but somehow didn't sound quite like a bomb. When it subsided she gently pushed Vorjean off her, and stumbled to her feet.
'What happened? Is everyone alright?'
She was relieved to hear the voices of Lady Vorkosigan and Lady Alys, both of course, had lived in a military and militarized context all their lives and had immediately dropped to the floor.
'Quite alright' Lady Alys reported, 'but that is more than I can say for our dresses.' Which was the point at which Laisa realised that something very odd indeed had just happened. Laisa, covered by Captain Vorjean, was almost clean. Alys, Cordelia, and Ivan, who had dropped on order, were spattered by red, but Kareen, the Director, and most of the city ladies were drenched. Not the red of blood: Kareen, picking herself up off the ground was unharmed, but the dripping, staining red of dye.
Some of the younger women were crying and the Mayor's wife, who had been so keen on the College, was clearly in shock. Ivan rose to the occasion, Taking his handkerchief out and delicately dabbing at the poor woman's face, he succeeded in rousing her from her paralysis. She turned to Laisa,
'This' she declared in shaking but unmistakable tones 'Is, I suspect, by way of a warning not to get involved in your College. Yes, we've all received the leaflets and the anonymous messages! Well, we' she gestured to the women behind her 'may not be Vor, but that does not make us cowards. Your Grace may count on our support. Send us the training materials. There will be a preparatory college in the City by the end of next month if I have to lay every brick myself. You hinted you wanted it to be open access?' Laisa nodded. ' Then I will propose to the City Guild that fees be charged as a lien on the first five years' of a graduate's income, to begin either after they find work on graduating from the preparatory college, or upon graduation from the Empress's college should they go that far. We have enough hereditary privilege on Barrayar, we don't need more.' She laughed at the look on the Empress's face. 'We are not all social conservatives my lady. Some of us read. Most non-Vor are restless in a system that still values land and arms over education and industry. Many of us understand that a changing society that cannot accommodate people's aspirations is heading for trouble. I think we would have supported you anyway, most of us have children to find places for, but this settles it. We will not be intimidated.'
'Well, that was a turn up for the books' Kareen commented later that evening when, washed and changed, the party retired to its private quarters. 'Perhaps we should be staging such events everywhere we go, hmm?'
'I don't have enough frocks my dear' remarked Alys, 'and I did rather like that particular gown. Red dye will not improve deep purple.'
'And there is the little issue that where someone could plant a dye bomb, they could also plant explosives?' chided Cordelia.
By looked meditative, 'I'm not sure that's true. The dogs are trained to sniff out explosives, and many poisons, and the entrances all have metal detectors. No, I think we were safe from anything truly dangerous. The desire here was to humiliate.'
'But how did they get in? Ivan asked. 'That's the second time we have been infiltrated.' By looked bored, 'Oh for heaven's sake Ivan. Of course it is an inside job. We weren't infiltrated in that sense. But there is a chance someone at the gardens was suborned. The question is by whom.'
'So,' Cordelia asked, 'What next. We move on to Vorhalis tomorrow and out of one of our most protected and historically loyal areas Not until we get back to the Vorbretten district will we be as comfortable.'
Laisa smiled, 'Ah, beginning and ending with the best Cordelia?'
Cordelia smiled, 'The very best will be the final stop at Vorkosigan Surleau. We can't miss them out just because they are the most loyal. But yes, if things do get depressing, at least we are sure of a warm welcome at our last two destinations.
Ivan noticed that By was looking mischevious.
'I think we need to change our arrangements a little. There is someone I want to bring on the inside, to detail specifically to investigate our investigation.'
Cordelia looked at him quizzically., 'Do you have a reason for this.'
By hesitated, 'I'm not sure. But something feels off kilter. I will assume that our loyal Count Vorjean will discover that a garden boy, or some equally lowly employee will have planted the bomb. Also that he will have been recruited by a rabble rouser in the town. There will be arrests. But arrests cause resentment where none existed before. What if that, rather than the humiliation, was the direct aim? Captain Vorjean is an excellent man, but his job is security. This feels more like politics. I want to bring in our political operative.'
'Miss Lesnik?' Alys asked.
By nodded. At the mild query on his countenance Alys added, 'I have met her once or twice with the Emperor. She is a fascinating young woman. Very unusual.' She looked nostalgic, 'In another time and place, I would have thrilled to a career such as hers.' Cordelia took her hand.
'But you have had a career such as hers. Unpaid and unacknowledged, but who else has monitored the Emperor's political safety all these years? It is on the shape of your contribution that Alleyne set out to groom Miss Lesnik. We cannot sit back and hope that the perfectly polished social judge will always be someone coincidentally close to the Emperor and his Empress.'
'Miss Lesnik' Laisa greeted her with hand outstretched. 'I gather you are closer to the party than I realised. Would you permit me to welcome you as one of our intimates?'
Miss Lesnik took the hand firmly. Ivan, watching from his favoured position, lounging laconically against the wall, extended his favourable impression.
'Miss Lesnik, within this small party, and when not in public we are all known by our first names. We would prefer it if you would join in this small relaxation. I am Laisa.'
Miss Lesnik nodded. 'I am Helen.' she responded. Ivan realised, to his surprise, that he had been rather keen on finding out Miss Lesnik's name. Helen, yes, it suited that intelligent face. A graceful name. A classical name. This Helen would never need rescuing. A bit disappointing that. Or maybe not. He bet she had her own large handkerchief as well. Did she rescue damsels in distress? He pulled himself out of his reveries, feeling guilty, and glanced at By.
By was focused on Helen Lesnik.
'Helen, could you provide us with your impressions of today's events?'
Helen settled herself back in the deep sofa to which she had been ushered by Laisa.
'As long as you realise they are impressions. I was not a witness to the intrusion last night. I did not witness the planting of the note, and I was not present when the dye bomb exploded. However, there were aspects to all three that were odd. All three events took place at the maximum time for embarrassment, and not, as one might expect, the moment of easiest access to the Empress.' She paused in thought.
'For example, a note is not easy to plant in exactly the right scone. Had it been written in more general terms, it could have been placed in any one of the ones being served, but instead, it was precise, to the point, and targeted at the Empress. Any one else reading it, might have been outraged but they would not have been personally shaken. The dye bomb was targeted in a different way. Had it gone off in the street during a public walk, it would, ironically, have been less embarrassing if more outrageous. More people would have been affected, but the spectacle of the city's leading ladies being escorted home to change would have been lost, as all the witnesses--those in a crowd--would have been affected also.'
Cordelia leant forward, 'Do you have any analysis of this to offer?'
Helen Lesnik did not answer immediately. Laisa, seeing her hesitancy, poured a cup of tea from the pot into the delicate china that Alys favoured, added lemon and sugar and handed it over. Helen received it, all the while seeming not quite focused, took a sip, and then responded.
'I think that looking for an outside agitator as such may be a misdirection. I agree with By' she glanced over and smiled at By. Ivan felt an unreasonable rush of jealousy, 'that this is an inside job, but what if it is an inside job whose outside handler is in turn handled by someone inside?'
Kareen looked puzzled and Helen continued.
'One of the notorious problems for any kind of subversive organisation is maintaining security, as By and I were discussing earlier today. There is more than one organisation which discovered that it had more police infiltrators than it had real members. Even if they are using the three-cell method', Kareen and Alys looked blank, Cordelia with her Betan education and Laisa, child of a planet with an almost constant rumble of revolutionary activity did not, 'where each person knows only their own cell and one other person from another cell, it is really surprising how fast one can unravel pertinent links.'
'But how does that help us?' Ivan heard himself asking 'It doesn't really give us any lead.'
Helen turned to him, and smiled warmly and he realised that he had spoken less to ask a question and more so that she would turn those astonishing eyes on him. He almost missed her answer.
'It helps because we have people inside the major nationalist organisations, and certainly inside the one that young man was meeting with. We can begin by checking our own people, checking both them I mean, and what they know. Crucially, we can triangulate all the people that we know we have on the inside in order to find out if there are any of our people on the inside who shouldn't be.'
Ivan looked baffled and she laughed in a way he should have found hurtful but didn't.
'We are looking for someone in the military who should not be attending the meetings.' she clarified.
'Or' Ivan said slowly, 'a relative of someone.'
It was so unusual for Ivan to contribute analysis that the party turned to Ivan in mild surprise, although, he noticed, Helen looked merely expectant.
Shamefaced he offered, 'I can't be the only chap with a brother or cousin who always seems to inveigle him into doing things he really knows he shouldn't.'
Helen nodded approval. 'It widens our data but if we handle it as a separate task, and focus on those names that come up as connected to anyone working on security at the moment, it's manageable.' she turned to Ivan 'Which way do you think it's working Ivan?'
Ivan thought about it. 'My guess is that you are still right. It's going to be someone on our team who is pulling the strings, and crucially, providing access. What their colleague will be doing is finding the right donkey to do the dirty work.'
In bed that night Ivan lay there, pensive, while By was in the bathroom. When By finally came to bed, he did not pull him into his arms as he usually did.
'What's wrong?' By leant over him. Ivan looked up at By.
'What's with Helen?' he asked.
'Should there be anything with Helen' By asked teasingly, and drew his fingers down Ivan's chest to his navel, in a way that triggered an involuntary shudder. Ivan grasped By's hand.
'Please' Ivan realised he was hoarse with a day's tension and, if he was honest with himself, distress. 'Don't tease. Helen is.... There's something you aren't telling me. I've seen you flirt with women and this isn't like that.'
By lifted himself up and looked at him with cool appraisal, then swivelled round so that he was sitting cross legged on the bed, and looked at Ivan. Ivan raised himself against the pillows.
'You do take notice of some things then. Good. I do sometimes wonder.' He paused. 'I'm courting Helen.' Ivan winced.
'Maybe I should have spoken earlier, but I needed to know what you thought of her. You like her don't you.'
Ivan thought about lying but this was By. Possibly the only person--until, he realised, Helen--not to treat him as a bit of a clown.
'Yes, I like her.'
'More than like her?' By pressed.
'By, what is this? Yes, I more than like her. She's smart, she's beautiful. Miles would have gone for her in a shot if he'd met her before Ekaterin...'
'Oh Ivan, you can be so transparent sometimes. You won't be competing with Miles for Helen and you never would have been. Nothing to worry about there,'
Ivan sat up suddenly, and found himself in that weird, pre-sex close proximity to By's naked body that could shake him so.
'By, what is going on. You tell me you are courting a woman and then don't seem to expect me to be upset. You ask me what I think of her, and don't seem worried about that either. What on earth am I missing here?'
By sniggered. Ivan wanted to strangle him but instead grabbed him by the shoulders, pushed him back to the bed clothes and whispered fiercely. 'If you don't tell me right now, I am going to do things to you that will make you scream for mercy. Starting with this' and leaning down nipped By's left nipple.
By let out a yip, 'Mercy! Mercy! Or maybe not. Promise that you'll do all that if I do tell you?'
Ivan laughed with relief. That was more like By. He kissed By firmly on the mouth, restraining himself from the always, ever, constant desire to take the most casual kiss deeper, and sat back again.
By composed himself, rubbing the nipple now slightly reddened, and then, teasing, drawing his fingers across it gently. Ivan grasped his hand.
'Oh, alright then, but sometimes you are no fun...' By smiled at Ivan.
'Helen Lesnik is a lovely, well bred Captain's daughter. Her family are distant relations of the Koudelkas. When she showed no signs of marrying at eighteen, they had to find something for her to do, and after some discussion, several rather explosive experiences with various charitable works, and a recommendation from Captain Koudelka, Alleyne took her into Imp Sec.'
Ivan responded to this clear tease by adding some teasing of his own, delicately tracing the veins on the inside of By's thigh. By grabbed for his hand, paused, then moved it slightly to the left. Ivan grinned, what he loved about By was his utter lack of sexual embarrassment.
'The key to all of this of course is why Helen was not snapped up at eighteen, like all the rest of our generation.' Ivan squeezed gently, as an encouragement. 'By gave a small moan, and swatted Ivan. Ivan ducked, but did not release his hold.
'Helen Lesnik is what our Betan friends call bi-sexual.' Ivan's eyebrows shot up.' I believe you've come across the concept?' By asked wickedly. 'Uncle Aral and all that?'
'By' Ivan muttered, 'I know what bisexual is. Yes, I'm bi-sexual. Is that what you want me to say? Yes, I've said it now. OK?'
By looked at him, thoughtfully. 'Actually yes, I did want you to say it. But I didn't think you would. I thought you'd carry on telling yourself 'it's just By' until the day you left me, either for some Vor girl your mother found, or a nice young cavalry officer. Don't stop what you're doing!' Ivan had paused, realising not for the first time that By really was shockingly insecure about their relationship, and that whatever Ivan protested in the heat of the moment, there was good reason for that.
'Ok,' he said begrudgingly, 'I'm bisexual. So where does the bisexual Miss Helen Lesnik' he savoured the name 'come into this. Why does she come into this in a more than professional sense.'
'Ah!' Byerley mused, 'but that's exactly it. Does she come into this? More to the point, does she come in to us?' By laughed at the look on Ivan's face.' I've shocked you. How lovely.'
'By, what are you saying?' Ivan was horrified. Was this a weird new fetish for threesomes?
By sighed. 'Look Ivan. One of these days you need to marry. You really, really do. I may be able to get away without it. There is enough of a woman shortage that us confirmed bachelors are frankly a blessing, but you are the end of your line, and while your mother has let off some of the pressure since she married Ilyan, I've seen the way she looks at prams. She wants grandchildren, and she wants them while she is young enough to enjoy them. Now one option is that you have an arranged marriage, mix up the babies in a vat, and end up hating each other for the rest of your lives as you keep cheating on her with someone or other.... best case scenario, you and I try to be friends but end up being more, she finds out and all hell breaks lose. In any conventional arrangement, there is going to be trouble. Not helped by the little problem that, Ivan, while you seem to really like women, you don't much like very young women, and that's mostly what's out there right now.'
'So what are you suggesting?' Ivan had a feeling he already knew, and while the idea scared him crazy, it was so not what he had ever heard of before, it made a weird kind of sense, and, well, Helen was fascinating.
'I'm suggesting you marry Helen, properly, not just a marriage in name, and that we all come to an arrangement.'
Ivan let out a breath.
'And what does Helen think of all this?'
By looked at him, 'You don't think this was all my idea? Helen is under just as much pressure as you. Her parents want her to marry. She rather likes men, but is really sceptical of the chance of her keeping her marriage vows, and she is honest enough not to want to lie her way through a marriage. She actually has a girlfriend by the way, a rather dainty little person, who for all her extreme femininity is not bisexual, so don't get any ideas in that direction. For Helen and Reena the ideal would be for Helen to marry someone she actually likes, who is in a similar position. Reena is under less pressure simply because she is younger, but if this were to work out, well, I would be happy to marry someone I just liked, and never, ever had to sleep with.' By looked pensive. 'I haven't spoken about it much, because it didn't seem possible until very recently, but I would like children. I'd like lots of them. I'd like my own, and, if it could be done, I'd like yours.'
Ivan realised that the normally flippant, cheerful By actually had tears in his eyes. He leant forward and with one finger, wiped them away.
'By, I love you,'
He wasn't sure if he'd said it before. Seeing the hurt on By's face, he realised that it was quite possible he never had. He repeated it. 'I love you. I want to stay with you. If there was something I didn't dare think about it was that. I've always assumed that this would have to end one day. I just didn't know when, or how or why. If this gives us a chance of staying together, I'll give it a go.'
Ivan felt By relax, this was as scary for him. 'What next?'
'Well, next is that we are going to take a day off. Tomorrow, after we are all packed up, but before we leave Vorpatril house in the evening, you and I are going double dating. A lunch date. Very formal. There are two challenges here: do you and Helen like each other enough to marry, and can Reena and I cope with our feelings if you two like each other enough to marry.' By looked pensive. Ivan, always hopeless with words, leaned over and kissed him, this time letting that desire that never seemed to dim wash over them, pushing By back on to the bed, where Ivan could use his hands and mouth to reassure By as much as he possibly could.
Ivan hated packing. He particularly hated packing when he was so very, very nervous. God, he hadn't been this nervous since his very first date when he was seventeen. For heaven's sake, dating Helen Lesnik, beautiful, intelligent, didn't seem to think he was someone's donkey, would hardly be a hardship! Except that it might actually be the first time he had dated anyone other than By in a very, very long time who he wanted to impress, to be more than just a good looking man in uniform, but someone who he desperately, intensely wanted to like him as him. He looked at his chrono. He still had an hour to go. By had finished packing ages ago and taken the household flyer to collect Reena. Apparently, she worked as a teacher in the city and couldn't take time off very easily. Ivan, in a moment of disgruntlement, wondered if even the route of the tour had been a set up. Get him softened up at the start, then have the entire tour to get used to the idea. Once they were back in the capital, there would be distractions. Yes, By wanted to make sure this was sown up in the next month. Ivan wanted to be resentful but as usual he could see By's genius. If they were to claim a whirlwind romance, then a month in close proximity was the obvious excuse. And if he were honest with himself, being able to do this--if he decided to do this--without the perceptive eyes of all the Vor matrons was a relief. Never mind the general gossip about him and By, or even him and his precious bachelor status.
Ivan stuffed another pair of socks into his cases. Most of the luggage had been packed by the staff, and all his uniforms were already stowed with military precision by one of the Guard Captain's aides, but he had never yet failed to find a pair of socks under the bed, and given his relationship with By, he had lost enthusiasm for having his more intimate belongings disordered. Lost in thought, he almost didn't hear the gentle knock on the door. The knock was repeated and then the door pushed gently open.'
'Ivan?' His aunt Cordelia put her head around the door. He hesitated, then invited her in.
'Ivan, do you need to talk?'
Ivan looked at his aunt, still hesitant on the doorway, an odd posture for her, she was usually brashly self-confident, exuding a general air of amusement at Barrayar and all its ways. He thought of saying 'no', the conversation with Uncle Aral last year had been difficult enough. He still wasn't sure which had been worse, Aral's acceptance of the situation, when he had been braced for Barrayaran outrage, or his own shock that his Uncle Aral was bisexual. It was bad enough coming to terms with the idea that parents had sex (and he still wasn't sure how he felt about Alys and Illyan). That they had sex with members of their own sex? It was all to radical for Ivan. He mostly coped with his own feelings and his own situation, he knew, by riding straight over it. He still felt exposed by the things he'd said last night.
Ivan shrugged. 'Probably.' This was all the excuse Cordelia needed. She walked fully into the room and settled herself down in the bedroom armchair. Feeling young and gangly, all of fifteen years old--and remembering his relationship problems then he shuddered--Ivan settled on the bed.
The two of them looked at each other. Each waiting for the other to break the ice. As Ivan had known she would, it was Cordelia who broke first.
'Let's begin with saying I know about you and By.'
Ivan shrugged again. She was Betan. He'd always assumed that if anyone figured it out it would be Cordelia.
'I also think I know what By has in mind.' She paused. 'Helen is a young woman I would welcome into the family, if it's any help. I would also' Cordelia hesitated, 'support the marriage as public cover, and help you create a front for your mother if that was what you decided. I am aware that Barrayar, for all it is changing, for all we are seeing it change even this week, may not be quite ready for either a publicly homosexual couple or for the kind of marital arrangement that is being suggested. Perhaps especially for this kind of arrangement. You are, I suspect, not looking for a marriage in name only?'
Ivan was not shocked. He'd given up being shocked by Cordelia shortly after she had explained forcibly to him and his latest girlfriend, when they were all of fourteen, what a condom was. He just nodded, resigned to Cordelia's forthright brand of advice.
Cordelia waited for him to comment and when he didn't went on. 'I suspect you've thought of all this, or By has. Is there anything else I can do to help.'
Ivan caught up in his own nervousness, hesitated, then blurted out, 'What if she doesn't like me?'
Cordelia laughed, 'Oh Ivan!' Shook her head, stood up, kissed him firmly on the cheek and said, 'She likes you. Whether she likes you enough we'll have to see. But it is a very good sign that you want her to. I don't think I've ever heard you worry about that before.'
After Cordelia had left, Ivan took a deep breath, pushed the last sock into the trunk, took one final look in the mirror, drew himself up and went downstairs.
Helen was waiting in the drawing room, and Ivan, prepared to be the one waiting, felt awkward, as if he had missed a stepped. She rose as he came in, and again, he felt off balance, but went forward and this time when he took her hand, bowed to kiss it. Helen smelled faintly of rosemary, an unusual scent, and not perfume, just the scent from a bush which she had run her hands through. It combined with the scent of her skin in a way that caused his blood to rise. As he relinquished her hand--reluctantly he realised--he looked up and into her eyes and realised that the amusement was coloured by pleasure.
'Shall we go?' Ivan asked. 'I believe By and Reena are meeting us at the tea room.' Helen smiled.
' Yes, let's'. she responded. 'Reena gets impatient. She doesn't get much time off from teaching, and she dislikes wasting any of it.' As they left the drawing room, Helen tucked her hand under his arm, and the two of them exited the house and into the waiting flyer that one of the house armsmen had drawn up.
As Ivan steered the flyer into the traffic of downtown he glanced across at Helen to discover her considering him thoughtfully. The look unnerved him and he swerved slightly.
'Ivan, there is a park just over there. Pull up. I want to talk before we meet By and Reena.'
Ivan laughed nervously, 'But we've been talking.'
Helen smiled. 'About work, about my family, about yours. But not really about us.'
The 'us' word alarmed Ivan it was so often code for 'Ivan, you don't love me!' in all his previous relationships with young women, But Helen wasn't so young after all, in her mid-twenties, and so far talking with her had been very different from his usual conversations with women. Helen teased and joked, she wanted to talk about the military. She wasn't, he realised, all that interested in politics except as it affected her role as security, and he realised he was relieved. At times she reminded him of Lady Alys and he didn't think he could have coped with someone as fascinated with the political scene as his mother. He preferred to leave the family involvement in politics to Miles and Mark, although if uncle Vorpatril didn't marry soon he could well find himself occupying a countship--now that was a worrying thought (and an enlightening one as it occurred to him why Vorpatril might never have married).
At Helen's suggestion, they left the park, and with a quick glance at her chrono to ensure that they did indeed have half an hour, 'Reena is always late', Helen gently steered Ivan into the park.
They wandered through the arboretum for some time before Helen turned to Ivan and gestured to a bench hidden slightly back on the path behind a large rhododendron. Ivan, now so nervous he wasn't sure he could concentrate on anything she said to him, sat there rigid. Helen looked at him, and then, without warning, took his hand in hers, leant forward, and kissed him firmly on the lips.
Ivan hesitated, and then responded. Opening his mouth he discovered that Helen was already doing it for him. There was none of the coyness, none of the expecting him to lead that was his usual experience of women. He felt Helen slide a hand across and around his waist, to take up position at the base of his spine, and he grew warm and hard. She leaned in further and the kiss seemed to take him over. He was about to pull her on to his lap, when to his surprise and delight, she pulled him towards her, and he felt her move until she was in a position to sit astride him. Helen pulled back, leaving him gasping, and looked down. 'By said you might like that.' She commented. It was like a cold dash of water and he rose to the surface of his emotions and feelings spluttering.
'What?' By told you what to do?'
Helen moved in his lap and he felt himself harden again. 'No, don't be silly. But what he said, was that he wondered if you might like a woman who preferred to be in charge.' Before Ivan could comment she bent her head and kissed him again, forcing him back into the bench. He could feel the pattern of the iron roses in his back. He put his hands on her waist and felt the warm heat from between her legs and was just wondering how far they could go in fifteen minutes when they both heard voices from the path. Helen moved astonishingly fast and by the time the voices rounded the corner, they looked like any demure courting couple. When they had gone, Ivan and Helen looked at each other, and both burst into laughter. Ivan realised it was the first moment of real laughter and relaxation they had shared. He took her hand. 'Come on, we have a lunch date.' Helen looked up, pulled his head down, kissed him lightly and then whispered into his ear. 'Call that a down payment for later.' And they left the park with Ivan feeling that this might actually work. That this lively, intelligent, and rather assertive woman was quite possibly the most intriguing person he'd met since By.
The lunch was a success. Reena turned out to be small, pretty and blonde, an arrant flirt with a sly wit to match By's. Ivan liked her, liked the way she and By interacted, with none of the contempt By received from the more ignorant Vor, and with a great deal of warm friendship. Should they get that far, he could imagine Reena and By as a public couple and in private being part of a warm unit of four (how would they manage the housing he wondered, and then realised that By and Helen would probably have already thought of that, would manage it, and he did rather like being managed, however he protested). Helen, on the other hand, was happy to chat about the things he knew about, the military, strategy, horses--she rode well it appeared--even fishing. 'Brothers' she explained. As the meal progressed, she occasionally trailed her fingers along his leg, discreetly hidden under the table cloth. Once, she drifted into his inner thigh, touched his crotch and he almost jumped. By and Reena caught the movement and smiled understandingly. He went scarlet. Even more so when he realised that By's hand had moved to his other leg. Ivan was not used to being the centre of attention, he was used to being the attentive one. This was all a bit overwhelming. So when the noise began to build outside, he was almost relieved to break off the lunch so that they could go and see what was happening.
Leaving the cafe and it's cool, quiet environs, they were assailed by the sound of a marching band, cheers and jeers. The cheers Ivan understood, military bands were a traditional part of Barrayaran culture. Jeering at the military however was Not Done and he felt himself bristle. As they rounded the corner, however, they found themselves come up against the backs of hundreds of by-standers, cordoned off by civilian guards who were clearly becoming increasingly stressed. By, who had maneouvred himself ahead, glanced back at Ivan.
'The band. They're wearing Prince Serg's colours.'
Ivan's eyebrows shot up. The children's flags, that had been odd. That a band should be sporting the Prince's insignia was plain weird. Ivan found himself struggling to analyse a message that was at once both patriotic--Serg had been crown prince after all--and yet subtly treasonous in its implication that Serg was somehow a better, more righteous prince than his son. Ivan wondered also how much the organisers of this march knew about Prince Serg. He had avoided asking Uncle Aral for the full story, when Aral had been in full confessional mode, but what he had heard suggested that Serg was not necessarily an ideal figurehead for a patriotic movement.
The mood of the crowd, Ivan noted, was uneasy. The older people there were a mix, some uneasy and quiet. The marching band was accompanied by pretty young girls with banners, adorned with slogans calling for a Greater Barrayar. Ivan realised that for some, this would simply bring back bad memories of service in an unwinnable war, or for the even older--and the grimmer faces were those of the most elderly--of the vicious and painful, even if ultimately victorious, fight to expel the Cetagandans.
It was among the youngest he saw the most enthusiasm, jeers and cheers both. Whatever was going on here, this was to be a young people's game. Ivan realised that what he was seeing wasn't new. He'd not really been paying attention to Laisa's plans, as usual, he regarded himself as the family donkey, and was perfectly happy to be loaned out as such to the Empress. But looking at the crowds, and feeling the mood, he realised that the Empress's College was both a response to, and an attempt to undermine, the kinds of rhetoric that were emerging in reaction to the new and increasingly liberal Barrayar he had grown up taking for granted. Ivan was not used to thinking of himself as privileged, but looking around at the crowd he noted the tension on people's faces, the lines of strain, and realised that he might well have been protected from much of the fallout of what he had more than once heard described as 'the Vorkosigan reforms' even now Emperor Gregor was fully in command of his throne, and had pushed them even further.
'Ivan' Helen whispered fiercely, 'Ivan, I need to get closer. I'm going to leave Reena with you. Meet me back at the castle later.' Before he could protest, Helen was off, and, he realised, By had already disappeared. The mood was getting uglier and as he tried to figure out what to do, the first of the missiles was thrown from out of the crowd into the band.
'I think we'd better go, don't you Ivan?' Reena took his arm, and as he was looking back to see members of the band peel off and run at, and past the guards, fists raised, ready to take on the crowd themselves, too ready he realised, Reena pulled him out from the sidewalk and into a public building, pushing him in front of her so that his uniform could act as a shield and a pass for both of them. They spent the next hour in the marble halls of a local council office, with a number of other refugees--and that was an unnerving word--the huge double doors shut and barred as the band and spectators turned a lovely sunny afternoon into a riot.
By the time Ivan and Reena made it back, Byerly and Helen were already there, both pacing the drawing room in anxiety while their elders made gentle reassuring comments. Yet despite their front, Ivan could tell that both Cordelia and Alys were worried. Cordelia turned to look at him as he came in to the drawing room, relief marked clearly on her face.
'You made it back. Did you run into any trouble?' Reena looked a question at Helen who walked over and gave her a short, sharp hug.
'Am I glad to see you' Without warning, Helen turned to Ivan and hugged him. 'You too.' Over her shoulder he saw his mother's eyebrows shoot up, and Cordelia place a hand reassuringly on Alys's arm. Helen turned back to Reena.
'The march turned into a riot, which turned into a running three way battle with the police, the marchers, and a surprising amount of opposition. The shopping district became the focus of much of the trouble. Some of the marchers seemed to feel that luxury imports are threatening the Barrayaran way of life.' Cordelia snorted,
'Taking our jobs, our women and our manhood?'
'More or less in that order, yes.' By responded. 'I'm not sure if that's a break down of categories or an indication of priorities.'
'Cordelia' Alys murmured, 'this has stopped being funny. We've been aware of this patriot movement for some time, but last year it was just people waving flags, and the occasional piece in one of the lower class newsheets. How have we moved this fast? How have we moved this fast and Gregor has not intervened?' Cordelia's response was to look pointedly, first at Helen, then at By. Helen coughed.
'I am the Emperor's intervention ma'am. So is Byerly as I think you may already have guessed, he is, after all, part of your' she paused, 'cell?' Alys looked uncomfortable: much of her life had been spent appearing to be nothing but the Emperor's aunt. To all intents, she was merely the Emperor's aunt. For Alys, the Vor game was the women's game, never quite acknowledged, but essential to the good running of the Empire.
'But the question remains' Helen continued. 'How did it explode in this way, at this moment? I've checked the reports and the Vorpatril district, previously one of the most loyal districts on Barrayar, appears to have become the focus for a peculiarly loyal form of treachery.' At their blank faces Cordelia inserted, 'The King is a wonderful man and we wouldn't say a thing against him, and we are of course loyal citizens, but his counselors are evil men who have led him astray.' Alys, Kareen and Reena looked enlightened. Ivan, as he always felt when politics of this kind came up, just felt dismayed. Unlike Miles, he had never really reconciled 'the politicians' of the newssheets with his Uncle Aral, and the various Counts whose children he had played with or served with over the years. He always wanted to leap to someone's defense with 'but he's a jolly good chap!' and at the same time struggled with some of the things his 'jolly good chaps' seemed to think and do. Looking at Helen, he realised that it would be quite nice to have someone around who could see through all of this, who didn't make him feel small and stupid the way the family so often did. Ivan realised he was losing the thread of the conversation.
'We are increasingly convinced there is an agent provacateur at work here.' Helen was finishing up. She held up her hand to forestall Cordelia, 'it doesn't mean that we are ignoring some of the very genuine grievances that have arisen in the past few years--the College is, after all, an attempt to improve Barrayar's position in the galaxy's education economy--but this is something different. And that it seems to be following the Empress around supports this view. Today, the Empress stayed home, so the trouble followed her friends instead. We've checked. Shortly after By booked the cafe the march was rerouted by the Guards so that it went straight past that particular building.'
'An insider then.' Laisa said, rather than asked.
'Yes, but to be honest, we already rather suspected that after the last two incidents. Whoever it is may have made a mistake however: with the previous incidents there was a question as to 'inside which institution?' Now, however, we know we are dealing with one of our own.'
Laisa's pretty face looked grim. 'I hate these. They always, always think they are doing their best for the Emperor. I've yet to meet a traitor who realised they were a traitor.' Ivan and Alys both shuddered at the memory of Hiroche, a man whose attempt to serve his Emperor had cost Illyan his career and almost his life. Alys still lived with the cost of that every day. It occurred to Ivan that the righteous traitor might well be the most dangerous type, because they were least likely to limit their actions to a single task, but instead to get caught up in a spiral of their own need to prove their righteousness. Suddenly, he realised that many of Miles's actions during that horrible case made perfect sense.
'We need to find a way to pinpoint this person, or persons,' Helen went on. 'We are now very sure that there is someone in the household who, if not the instigator of a conspiracy, is thoroughly tied to a move to destabilise the empire. We know that this person is sufficiently high up to know of our movements in advance, that restricts the possibilities. I will ask Imp Sec to re-run checks on the senior officers of the household, all the senior staff, and the officers who accompanied us. I'm going to follow Ivan's suggestion, that we look for relatives and friends with dubious connections.' Ivan felt an unexpected gratification.
'Tell 'em to look for childhood friends' he added, 'It's astonishing how the habits of childhood carry over.' He swapped a wry grin with Kareen. 'I bet Kareen here still knows how to drill.' The laughter that followed dispelled some of the tension, and as the meeting moved on, Ivan was aware of the unusual and pleasant feeling of basking in both his mother's and his aunt's approval.
Helen continued, 'While we do that, we need to sift what little we know, and from this end it really does seem to be very little, and we need to think of some way to force whoever it is to give themselves away. For that, we need to construct a false schedule.'
'Several false schedules.' By suggested.
'Yes, we have the real schedule, and we have however many versions we need, each with a different change. That both allows us to work through the real schedule, and for Imp Sec to monitor specific moments along the route. The tricky thing, is that it needs to be only a one day schedule--anything longer will give the game away--and there needs to be a number of fairly obvious moments in it when it would be possible to embarrass or intimidate the empress. Public meals, walk pasts, outdoor meeting with dignatories. That sort of thing.'
'Try to keep the number of people present low,' pleaded Laisa. 'Sooner or later these people will get violent and I don't want anyone hurt.'
'They've already begun the violence ma'am. There were sixty three people in the hospital at my last enquiry. One old man, who rather took exception to the insistence that there was a glorious expansionist war available for his grandson, was beaten around the head with batons and may not recover. There is a conspiracy to murder charge waiting for someone.'
The delay in vacating Vorpatril house had caused a sussurus of conversation below stairs. As Lady Alys had explained to Laisa, who had never actually had to organise a great house, the Palace coming complete with a very competent housekeeper, such places ran on rails. For much of the time, however much they ran for its owners, its owners would be expected to fit in with the patterns laid down by the seasons, custom and practice and the senior staff. When a household was half packed up, re-opening the rooms was a major headache. As they had decided that they needed the ballroom, more than one maid who had been involved in the cleaning and wrapping of every single section of the major chandeliers was currently muttering oaths perilously close to disloyalty. It behooved them all to ignore such feelings, broadcast goodwill and leave very large tips when they finally departed. By and Helen had acquired several nice looking young men, all with the proper credentials, who would be acting as additional staff, but who came direct from Imp Sec and not, as those credentials implied, from the municipal guard.
The party had agreed that if they were to pin down the mole, they needed to reduce the variables, so the schedule had been reorganised and while it meant a day fewer in the Vorrutyer District, Laisa had assured the city officials that the fireworks she had arranged for the Emperor's purse to pay for would more than compensate. For the extra day in the Vorpatril District Laisa had arranged a surprise tour of some of the public facilities. Some hospitals, some secondary schools, and the major parks would receive unexpected visits from the Empress this day. They had done this with some qualms as it seemed to guarantee large numbers, but the more Helen and By had considered it, the more essential it had seemed that Laisa been on show for much of the day. Small private gatherings would be much harder to use to create the variety of movement and route that they had planned. 'But not elementary schools' Laisa had said, 'They may involve small children. We don't.' The day would end with the impromptu ball. If they were right, and they were looking for someone in the household staff or security, this provided plenty of tempting opportunities for embarrassment and did not involve splitting off any of the party.
'I'm not sure' By had commented, 'but I think when the four of us were known to be out on our own, it may have legitimated a more serious event, because our loyal traitor could act in the full confidence that he or she was not physically harming the Empress.'
'Who harms mine, harms me.' Laisa had retorted. 'But I see your point. If one is engaged with the 'evil courtier' theory of politics then such casuistry must come naturally.'
The trickiest element of the day had been working out the alternative schedules and, with the help of Imp Sec, planting them on the most likely candidates. This list numbered five, a total which Laisa contemplated with shock, and By and Helen with relief. Alys and Cordelia were both merely resigned.
'There will never be a time when there isn't some kind of resentment and some kind of plot, my dear', Cordelia told Laisa. 'All you can do is to constantly whittle away at their support. Depending what the issue is, one can undercut their demands by pre-empting them--widening a franchise for example-- or deflect it by turning their supporters interests elsewhere, away from, for example, Xenophobia and towards the opportunities on offer to those willing to take them. The danger, is always that one will reverse the strategy and end up in bed with nasty little bigots, desperately trying to out-bigot them. More than one government has discovered that that is the path to Hell. And it doesn't work anyway: the bigots always have more and more extreme ideas just waiting to outbid you.'
On the list were one member of the household staff, one of the junior household guards, two of the gardners, and, the most surprising, the Imp Sec captain of the guard, Captain Vorjean.
'Surely all of these people were security checked before they were assigned?' queried Alys. By looked thoughtful.
'It was Ivan who gave us the lead.' Helen responded. 'Apparently, Imp Sec does a very thorough job of checking blood family and friends, but it doesn't usually dig back into childhood. All of these people have at least one childhood friend who is a member of the league and with whom they have sporadic contact. You know the kind of thing, meeting for a drink if one of them happens to be in the other's town, attending major personal occasions, but not actively socialising. In each case these seem to be isolated friendships--not part of a wider friendship circle--and hence not easy to spot if one isn't actively looking for them. And except in periods of high tension, Imp Sec does not dig for this kind of data, it just ends up overwhelming the patterns without usually contributing anything significant.'
Laisa looked thoughtful.
'I realise it is much too early to predict which of them it is. Even if it is anyone of them, but may I suggest that we give the best spot on this plan to Captain Vorjean?'
'Any particular reason?' By asked.
'I am reluctant to sound too confident about this' Laisa said, 'But apart from the fact that of the list he is the one with greatest access to me, and also the person with the best access to the means to harm, harass and embarrass, I would have sworn' she paused, 'I would have sworn that when he pushed me down in the Gardens, that the bomb had not yet gone off,'
There was a shocked silence.
'Why didn't you tell us this before ma'am?' Helen asked finally.
'I really, really wasn't sure.' Laisa responded. 'I am aware that some people have finer reflexes than others. I also know that if one is trained to be attuned to trouble, that one might well react earlier than most. But it's been bothering me for a while, and now his name has come up through a different route, it seemed worth mentioning. We need a third data point for any kind of triangulation, but then, that's what tomorrow is about.'
When tomorrow dawned it was light and sunny. Despite or perhaps because of the underlying motive for the busy day, there was an air of excitement about the proceedings. Kareen, entering the drawing room before the other women that morning declared to Ivan that she hadn't realised that Laisa turned to clothing when she got jittery.
'I left her trying to decide which of two apparently identical dresses she was going to wear. Which was particularly bizarre because they were made to be more or less identical as part of this idea Alys had that her life would be much easier if for public events she basically wore the same thing but in different colours.'
Ivan, long an expert in women's clothing, was surprised.
'And she went for that? But doesn't it take all the fun out of being empress?'
'You'd think so' Kareen said as she sank into the sofa, 'but Lady Cordelia supported it and I can see the point. Whatever Laisa wears she gets photographed in, so if something is too distinctive, she can't wear it twice. Better to save fun outfits for private, and for really special occasions and create an 'image' for the public yours. It's almost like having an Empress uniform when you think of it!' She ended brightly. 'You know, dress greens for inspections. Only this time the inspections are the other way round with everyone trying to figure out if she has her lapels straight and the handbag matches.'
'Believe it or not, there is a certain amount of that when the Generals come to call. They may think they are checking us out, but we're eyeing them up too.'
'Who's eyeing who up?' By came in, walked across the room and dropped a kiss on Ivan's upturned face, before turning to eye Kareen, who, a frequent tourist to Beta colony with Mark, batted not so much as an eyelid. When Helen entered the room and did the same, and then gave By a brief hug, however, Ivan flushed at the flicker in Kareen's eye, but he couldn't help feeling smug. 'Look!' he wanted to say, 'A man I love and a woman I really like! And they both want me!' After several years of writing off his heterosexual sex life and being written off by so many of the women he knew, it was all very satisfying.
The first two visits, to a hospital and a hospice, went without incident. Although Laisa found the Hospice particularly stressful.
'It wasn't that people were dying' she explained to By as they sat in the flyer on the way to the next venue, 'It was the positively ghoulish behaviour of the press. I found myself wanting to avoid the people most in distress and pain because I didn't want them to have to perform for the camera, and then had to remind myself that this probably wasn't how they felt. For them, the pictures taken with me were something to leave to their families. If I missed them out, I'd be seen as ungracious and even unpleasant.'
It was at the third stop that an attack came. They had pulled up at a small park in one of the poorer suburbs where it had been arranged that Laisa would visit a children's terraforming project--which looked a lot like a vegetable garden to Laisa's newly Ekaterin tutored eyes. A small girl approached with a bouquet, and as Laisa bent to take it, there was a small puff of sound, and Laisa, the small girl, and Helen and Kareen who had been standing behind her found themselves coughing and sneezing as the pepper bomb filled their eyes, and throats. By and Ivan, in what they later agreed was a masterly display of, well, masterliness, came quickly to the rescue with large military handkerchieves and they were all, including the little girl, swept off to the nearest bathrooms in the nearby school.
'Bother! Achoo! Or do I mean Excellent?' Laisa tried to speak without sneezing. 'Which one of them does this event triangulate too.' She looked up and saw Helen and By looking downcast. 'Oh, don't tell me! This wasn't one of the mis-directions?' She didn't wait for the obvious answer. 'Is there any luck with the little girl? The pepper bomb was in the bouquet wasn't it?'
'Yes ma'am and we have her and her mother in custody right now, but the child is hysterical and can't be questioned. Her mother is a widow, so there is no direct link to any of our suspects, but we are currently checking out her brother who, it seems, visited the house yesterday and is the little girl's favourite uncle.' Helen looked abashed. 'I know we need you to be a target ma'am, but that was a little too close. Like the paint bomb, there is that worrying feeling that if someone can manage pepper they can manage cyanide gas.' Laisa looked up, alarmed.' It isn't quite that simple' Helen corrected with haste, 'The technology for delivery would show up on our scanners, but we don't want anyone getting any ideas.'
It took them about an hour to recover. Laisa felt she would have liked longer but if they delayed any more the entire schedule would change in its entirety and they would be back where they started. All they could do now was to continue on, 'And check every bouquet we see' Cordelia commented grimly, 'although it feels a lot like shutting the stable door. No one is going to use the same delivery vector twice.'
It was with that in mind that Laisa tried to maintain her calm when faced with rows of window boxes at a retirement home, each carefully cultivated by one of the residents and displayed with great pride. This, she thought, was why she really did need to wrench Ekaterin away from her own projects to go with her on her next tour. When she wasn't comforting the sick, she always seemed to be admiring gardens. Brought up to regard terraforming as their heritage, Barrayarans seemed to be obsessed with gardens. It was odd in a way that Kommarans were not, but ensconsced in domes, there was little opportunity for free-gardening. Laisa wondered if a future generation of Komarrans, released into the new atmosphere, would take to gardening with the same feelings of 'this is my little patch of soil'. She hoped so, and resolved to ensure that the children each received gardening lessons and their own little space in the palace gardens. It would be nice to have a bit of them that wasn't dedicated to formal walks and displays. As they walked out of the retirement centre she realised she was succumbing to the inevitable scaling up of plans that she never seemed to be able to avoid and contemplating whether it would be possible to open a children's garden in one of the city parks, in which the city children could experience the pleasure of more than window boxes, and perhaps a children's garden could be the Empress's birthday present to every dome on Komarr? She was enjoying the delicious feelings that these small exercises of power gave her, when it happened.
As Laisa stepped back on to the carpet which led back to the car, the rest of the party following her, she felt the carpet slide from under her. There was no one for her to grab, and Kareen and Helen were that bit too far behind to stop her falling. By the time they reached her--seconds that felt like moments, they too were sliding, By and Ivan immediately behind them. Later, they would all be thankful that Cordelia and Alys, both older, both, though they would never admit it, frailer, had stopped an unofficial moment more to speak with an elderly woman whose husband and served the Vorpatrils in the Cetagandan war. They missed the opportunity to end up in an ungainly and newsworthy heap on a sidewalk in full view of their hosts, passersby and journalists. The only satisfaction Laisa could draw from the disaster and her throbbing right ankle was that as Vorjean rushed to come to her aid, four members of Imp Sec materialised by his side and before he got within a foot of her, had whisked the astonished man off.
The explanation, which was delivered in fine drawing room style by a Captain Vorharris from Imp Sec, was anti-climactic and in retrospect, rather embarrassing. Captain Vorjean had talked of course, everyone talked under fast-penta. As she received the report Laisa was grateful that she had decided not to be present for the interrogation. She couldn't help notice the way By and Helen were refusing to meet her eyes, and the amused look on Cordelia's face was flat out annoying.
Captain Vorjean it was clear, was no petty nationalist. Unfortunately, one of his old sports club friends from his teen years was. They had been members of a sport team, a variation of an obscure ball game played in only one or two places on Earth even at the height of its success. As far as Laisa could tell, it had been an excuse for a lot of communal violence redeemed only by its protective padding. It also seemed to be accompanied by a lot of drink, but she realised that this should not surprise her.
The embarrassing bit, was that it wasn't hatred his friend had manipulated, but its opposite. Captain Vorjean fancied himself in love with the Empress.
Laisa choked on her tea when Captain Vorharis, abashed, explained this little twist. Vorjean it seemed had been in the honour guard for the wedding and had conceived a blinding passion. From then on, he had been desperate to impress her to the degree that one had to question his sanity, certainly, Imp Sec doctors were doing just that. It had been Vorjean who was supposed to find the intruder in Vorpatril House, not Ivan. He was supposed to deal with the pepper incident, and he had hoped to be the person by Laisa's side when the threatening note appeared, and again when the carpet, whose grips had been thoroughly greased, slid from under her. The unexpected fly in his ointment had been Helen. From the moment it had been her, and not him, who took the note from the table he had been shut out of the investigation. Not even shut out, Laisa realised, it just hadn't occurred to her to include him. Poor man. She hadn't even noticed him that much. By the time that Imp Sec caught up with Vorjean, he had conceived a dislike of the Empress's entire circle and had been more than willing to tell the interrogators all about the ways in which Barrayar was threatened by designing women and... Captain Vorharis had stopped there with an embarrassed look at By and Ivan.
Ivan, who had concluded his own conversations and negotiations the day before, had stepped smoothly in, 'Captain Vorharis, you don't have to mince words. Everyone here has heard them before, the Empress in Komarr, Lady Vorkosigan in Beta colony, even Miss Lesnik, one of the penalties of the Imperial Service I fear. However, as we all know, such rumours are frequently misleading.' Ivan had thought his words through carefully, he was determined not to publicly deny his relationship with By, and By had agreed that this was a neat bit of phrasing. 'By the way, you will be the first to know outside our own circle, Miss Lesnik has done me the honour of accepting my proposal of marriage. I hope you will wish us happy?'
Captain Vorharis had flushed to the roots of his Barrayaran dark hair, congratulated them, and taken refuge in the rest of his report, which mainly explained how Vorjean's friend had conceived of the idea by which Vorjean allowed his friend to 'play tricks' from which Vorjean would rescue the Empress and infect her with his undying love. 'Sadly for him' Vorharis concluded 'his timing seems to have been off on more than one occasion' and even more sadly for his friend, the connection is going to allow us to begin unravelling one rather nasty little group of people.'
'They are a threat then?' Cordelia asked.
'Oh, yes' Vorjean replied. 'They aren't a big group, but they have already stepped over the usual line and have been intimidating local people, making certain pubs their own and seeking to control the streets. We'll choose carefully, we don't want to create martyrs, but we'll be cracking down on certain crimes in the area--no political charges you understand?--and if we get the ones in their twenties, the ones in their teens will find other things to do.'
Laisa nodded. 'Time, I think, for the gift of a youth club. One with lots of mindless games, plenty of physical exercise, and maybe even a library with an open door? And a scholarship or two perhaps? I even have a university in mind.' She smiled. 'Let's see if we can deflect some of that passion into something more useful.'