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Odd Men Out

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Mark stepped out onto the balcony, shivering slightly at the contrast in temperature. Miles had briefed him on the all the rich and influential people who were attending this party, and why Mark needed to attend, but he hadn’t really been paying attention. As the alcohol from the required toasts to the Emperor over-loaded his system, Mark had lost all ability to keep track of who he was meant to talk to about what.

He’d monologued about his latest business proposal to anyone who would stand still long enough, working on the theory that if he asked every possible potential investor, some of them were bound to say yes and the rest would leave him alone. Unfortunately, Lord Vor-somebody or other, who clearly despised Mark, kept talking to him anyway, making snide little remarks about him and Kareen. Killer’s interest had spiked suddenly in the middle of the conversation. Mark had no idea why, which was both terrifying and a good reason to take a break.

Mark was working through one of his breathing exercises when the door opened suddenly behind him. He spun around into a defensive crouch, hands open and ready to protect himself, and recognized the figure highlighted against the bright lights as Dono Vorrutyer.

“You move much quicker than I would have expected, given your size,” Dono commented, closing the door behind him and plunging the balcony back into darkness.

Mark blinked so his eyes could re-adjust and stood back up, tugging the jacket of his house uniform straight. Vorrutyer should be safe. Politically, he was solidly in Miles’ camp. Socially, Mark had met her a few times before, as Donna. She’d aggressively flirted with him; Ivan had warned him not to take it seriously. Dono, from what Mark had seen tonight, only flirted with Olivia. Which displayed both good manners and a fine sense of self-preservation, in Mark’s opinion.

“Uh, thank you? Congratulations on your confirmation, by the way,” Mark said.

“Mmmm. You know, I’ve always wondered. What is that all about?” Dono asked, making a wide, circular gesture in the direction of Mark’s … everything.

“I like to eat?”

“No, you don’t,” Dono countered. “Or perhaps you do, but that’s not the point. The food tonight was excellent, but you weren’t the least bit selective about it. You cleared your plate, and then asked for seconds – not of a favorite dish, mind you, but seconds of everything, and you ate every scrap of that, as well. That’s not the mark of an epicure.”

Mark shrugged, not bothering to defend what was, for him, perfectly normal behavior.

“Were you starved, before Miles found you? Or – oh, it’s a control thing, isn’t it. Control over your own body.”

That was a little too close to home. “Is this something you and Byerly do when you get bored at parties? Wander around picking at people, trying to guess their secrets, seeing if you can rile them up?”

Dono barked a laugh. “It is, actually. Whoever gets a drunk to swing at them first, wins. By used to have an unfair advantage, since a Vor must be very drunk indeed to assault a woman in public. I’ve nearly caught up to his score recently, though, thanks to surgical intervention and the emotional insights you can only get from a very good Betan therapist.”

“Does she keep trying to get you to leave Barrayar?” Mark asked curiously.

“What, because the entire planet is ‘unsupportive, unsafe, and obsessed with archaic definitions of gender’? No, it’s given up on that. Now it’s recommending that the Imperium should offer free therapy to all its citizens, as a basic right. Apparently, I’m perfectly sane, but the rest of the planet needs help.”

“I think Cordelia suggested that, at one point. If she couldn’t get free therapy through the Council of Counts, I don’t think you’ve got a chance.” Oh. He’d called her Cordelia again. He kept trying to think of her as ‘mother’, and sometimes even pulled it off, but it never felt natural in conversation unless he was playing Miles. “I think it’s best for everyone if I never, ever get mistaken for Miles again.”

“What – oh, your weight. Yes, that’s true.”

The two of them stood there looking out over the lights of the city. Mark wasn't sure if it was a comfortable silence, or an awkward one.

“Are you doing better now?” Dono eventually asked. “You looked a little panicky when Lord Vorfolse had you cornered in there.”

Mark nodded. “The breathing exercises work, when I remember to use them.”

“I’m glad,” Dono replied. “It’s good having you here, in the capital. The Conservatives can’t decide who they hate more, you or me. It confuses their target acquisition.”

“As a sitting Count, you must be a higher priority target,” Mark suggested. That was basic tactics. Eliminate the greatest threat first. Unfortunately, Barrayarans were rarely so predictably rational.

“Ye-es, but there’s the clone thing, and you don’t even try to hide your Jacksonian origins. You pretty much shove your existence, and the fact they’d no choice but to confirm you as heir, down their throats every time you walk in the room, Lord Mark.”

“I know I’m a freak,” Mark said calmly. “Can’t really hide it, so I might as well use it.”

“I do like your style.” Dono tilted his head, listening to a change in the music inside. “That’ll be the last mirror dance of the night. Olivia and Kareen will be looking for us. You ready to go back in?”

Come to think of it, since Dono was dating Kareen’s sister, they were probably considered family, and therefore natural allies in the Barrayaran sexually-transmitted power-structure. Maybe. He should ask Miles about that. Or, better yet, mother. She was better at explaining the oddities of Barrayaran culture to an outsider.

Mark nodded. “After you, my dear count,” he said, opening the door for him and executing a bow that was only used when addressing a lady of higher rank.

Dono snorted and responded with what would have been a sweeping and gracious curtsy, had he been wearing a dress. “Double-points if the Vor who tries to punch you is a Count or his heir,” he murmured, and then swaggered back into the ballroom.

Double-points? Mark noticed that Kareen had already found a partner for the mirror dance, and that Lord Vorfolse was standing over by the punch-bowl. Kareen had mentioned something about Lady Vorfolse’s excitement about reserving a uterine replicator. Mark was pretty sure a comment about the various Jacksonian remedies for men who weren’t able to get it up for their wives would be enough to get at least one good swing out of him.

He’d let Howl and Killer squabble over whether to take the punch or ‘accidentally’ nail Vorfolse in the balls before the crowd pulled them apart. After that he could take Kareen home, a fight being one of the three traditional ways to exit a Vor party. He’d no particular desire to vomit, and waiting until dawn would mean Kareen was too tired for sex. Double-points or not, he owed Dono for coming up with the idea.