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A Different Kind of Conquest

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When Gregor woke up, he smelled this wonderful yet mysterious fragrance. As soon as he thought of something which might be like this scent - sandalwood, musk, vanilla - he realized it did not smell like whatever he was comparing it to after all.

The mattress - or whatever he was lying on, he was not sure if it was really a mattress - was very firm, yet seemed to yield to the contours of his body in the most comfortable way possible.

It sounded like there were birds singing, yet Gregor had never heard birds sing such a melancholy, quiet, yet sublime melody.

He opened his eyes, sat up, and looked around. It was a very simple and plain room. And yet the little details - such as the flower vase in the corner, the black-and-white painting of a mountain landscape above the flower vase, and even the quality of the mat woven from fine reeds which covered the floor - all indicated that someone had dedicated a great deal of effort to acheive some kind of aesthetic effect.

The last thing Gregor remembered before waking up in this room was being stunned aboard the Kurin's Hand, the ship controlled by that mercenary commander, Cavilo. He knew he should be worried about what was happening to Miles, about what was happening in the Hegen Hub, about what was happening on Barrayar. And yet that all seemed like it was part of a different lifetime, and that this room was a world apart. Gregor could not help but feel a deep sense of calm.

A minute after Gregor woke up, the sliding door opened, and someone came in. Gregor could not tell whether this person was male, female, or neither.

"Greetings, Emperor Gregor Vorbarra of Barrayar," the person said. "My lady will be here shortly."

The person set down two green pillows on the floor - the most exquisite pillows Gregor had ever seen, which considering the quality of the pillows at the Imperial Residence was saying quite something. The person then set up a table, and then laid out various instruments which Gregor guessed were for brewing tea. The person did all this with the poise and grace of a professional dancer.

The person finished setting up, and then retreated to the corner opposite from the flower vase and painting. The person kneeled, pressed its forehead to the floor, and then extended their arms forward, lying on the floor.

And then, at the entrance to the room, was the most beautiful sight Gregor had ever seen in his entire life. How could any woman possibly look so divinely gorgeous?

"Greetings, Emperor Gregor Vorbarra of Barrayar," the woman said. "I am haut Eefay Meytyan. Shall we have tea?"

"Yes, milady," Gregor replied.

Eefay did not so much as walk to the table as float toward it - oh, that was because she was in a float chair. She descended gracefully upon the pillow. The servant who had retreated to the corner came back up and poured tea into two cups, one for Eefay and one for Gregor.

"Let us drink," said Eefay.

Gregor sipped the tea. He had never drank a tea with such a full-bodied of flavor before - yet there was not the slightest hint of tannins, which meant that the brewing must have been perfect. And even with the boldness of it, Gregor could still discern many subtler flavors which harmoniously complemented each other.

"This is magnificent tea," Gregor said.

"It's a strain of Iron Goddess tea, known as Six Seasons Fragrance, which the Imperial Tea Cultivators have been improving for centuries," Eefay replied. "It originally came from a place on Earth known as Mùjà."

Eefay continued to talk about the process of oxidizing and roasting the tea leaves. It did not matter what she was talking about, the sound of her voice and the beauty of her looks had Gregor's rapt attention.

"Surely you have some questions for me," Eefay finally said.

"I do," Gregor said. "Where are we?"

"The Celestial Garden, on Eta Ceta."

Gregor had guessed by now that he was somewhere in the Cetagandan Empire, but he was surprised to learn that he was in the Celestial Garden itself. "How did I come here?"

"We bought you from those mercenaries who captured you," Eefay replied. "Though paying money for a member of any imperial family is terribly vulgar, it was the most expedient means to ensure your safe passage, so we hope you will forgive us for this particular breach of etiquette."

"Safe passage?" Gregor asked.

"Our empires are at peace with each other, and we intend to stay at peace with your empire," Eefay said. "We have already informed your people that you are our honored guest so that they do not take any rash actions which might upset the harmony which currently exists between us."

Gregor translated that in his mind as the Cetagandans are keeping Us hostage so that Our subjects will not do anything to threaten Cetagandan interests. At another time, he would have found that thought profoundly disturbing, but with the enforced calmness of the room, the splendid quality of the tea, and this goddess of a woman before him, he found that he did not mind this situation.

"I have always been fascinated with the genetics of the Barrayaran people," Eefay said. "I have spent a great deal of time analyzing data gathered from the time of the ninth satrapy, and it has long been a dream of mine to move to Barrayar so that I can delve deeper into this research."

"You would be most welcome on Barrayar, milady," Gregor said.

"Ah, but there is protocol," Eefay said. "I cannot move to anywhere out of the Cetagandan Empire without permission from our own emperor. And he has said that the only circumstance under which he would permit me to move to Barrayar is ... if I were to marry the emperor of Barrayar."

Gregor's eyes went wide. "Milady, I would be extremely happy to marry you."

Eefay's face lit up with a smile. Gregor basked in the warmth of that smile. "Really? Why, that would be pefect, yes! Yes, I would like to marry you!"

And thus Emperor Gregor Vorbarra and haut Eefay Meytyan were betrothed.