Kareen was thirsty, her feet hurt, and her cousin was annoying her by telling his friends how she used to play soldier with him and his brothers, racing around their woods and falling out of trees. The condescending laughter from the young officers in his audience made it ever harder for her to keep from saying something of which her aunt would surely disapprove, and her cousin was paying no attention to her subtle attempts to redirect the conversation.
One of the lieutenants - she hadn't bothered to learn all their names yet - said, "Well, I'm certain she knows better now."
His tone was just a bit too patronizing for Kareen's taste, and her aunt's plan to marry her off to one of these twits had never appealed to her anyway. "Yes and no," she said quietly.
The officer blinked in surprise, the expected answer having been a simpered, "Oh, yes, of course I have. I was such a silly child then, but now..." or something of the sort that would have given him the opportunity to tell her she was much too beautiful to be climbing trees.
"I am content to leave soldiering to men, but I still believe women are as capable and as much responsible for the survival of Barrayar as men. Perhaps more so," she said firmly. Met with blank looks of incomprehension all around, she continued, "Who raises the men? Who keeps everything running while the men are" playing soldier "fighting? And even though most of the work women do is unpaid and unremarked, it is vital for both the social and economic stability of-"
Her attempt to enlighten the flabbergasted coterie of junior officers and their escorts was cut short by her aunt bearing down on the group.
Kareen permitted herself to be towed away, for once almost grateful for her aunt's interference. She followed her aunt through the glittering throng, dutifully making the acquaintance of all the "right" people, smiling and nodding and saying nothing of substance. She thought, once, that she caught the Emperor's eyes resting speculatively on her as she endured introduction after introduction, but she dismissed the idea as a ridiculous fantasy. He had known her father well, of course, but he had no reason to pay any attention whatsoever to her.
She managed to escape from her aunt for a few minutes of blessed quiet in the lavatory, from which she emerged only reluctantly to stand at the edge of the crowd, wondering how long it would be before she could leave and sit down and take off her shoes. And if she could manage to avoid her aunt that long...
Deciding that a trip to the refreshment table for punch would provide an acceptable excuse for postponing her return to her aunt's side, she stepped backward and almost collided with a dark-haired young man with a rectangular face and far too much gilt on his dress uniform.
"Oh, excuse me," she began automatically, ending rather weakly, "Your Highness."
"My fault entirely," the Prince said with a slight bow. "So that you may see I am not always so clumsy, may I have this dance?"
Kareen stared at his outstretched hand for an instant before the only possible answer occurred to her. "Of course. It would be my pleasure," she said, placing her hand in his and letting him lead her to the dance floor. She had been introduced to him as well as to the Emperor, of course, on her arrival, but he hadn't really even looked at her then. Just another girl in from the country, his bored expression had said all too clearly - so why was he asking her to dance now?
They took their places, and fortunately the dance was one that did not encourage conversation. Afterward he escorted her from the floor to the refreshments and procured a cup of punch for her from a hovering servant. He had wine.
"May I call you Kareen?" the Prince inquired over his glass.
"Of course, Your Highness."
"If I am to call you Kareen, surely you may call me Serg," he said, with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Thank you for the dance, Kareen."
"It was my pleasure. Thank you, Your- um, Serg," she said, a little awkwardly.
They spoke briefly of Vorbarr Sultana and her home district; Kareen was uncharacteristically quiet and cautious of giving offense, since something about Serg put her ever so slightly on her guard. Perhaps it was the curiously measuring yet expressionless intensity with which he was regarding her - she had the sudden image of a tightly coiled snake, in the instant before it strikes. She discarded it immediately; this was, after all, the Prince, and he was only a man, a little taller than she was, with rather attractive hazel eyes and an apparent fondness for riding, judging by what he had to say about his stable. She relaxed a little at finding a safe topic of mutual interest, and smiled while he talked of horses, until another officer came up to them and was introduced as Ges Vorrutyer.
The Prince - Serg - excused himself, and Vorrutyer asked her to dance. He was polite, and he had beautiful eyes, but Kareen did not like the way those eyes wandered down her body as they danced, and she was relieved when the song ended and she could decorously retreat to her aunt's side.
Even though she then had to endure her aunt's endless twittering because she had danced with the Prince, and surely other Vor gentlemen would be flocking to court her now...
The next month brought a seemingly endless round of parties and dinners, during which her aunt took pains to introduce Kareen to unmarried young officers, then to not-so-young officers, and finally to every other eligible Vor male in Vorbarr Sultana. Kareen spent her time dismally contemplating the two options open to her - marry the first remotely suitable man to offer for her, or subsist on her aunt's charity, and then her cousins', for the rest of her life. Both choices appeared equally unpalatable. Assuming she had a choice, that was; it appeared increasingly unlikely that she would even receive any offers - after all, there was little demand for impoverished Vor women of eccentric upbringing and no particular beauty, no matter how high their birth.
She met Prince Serg again, once or twice, and was surprised when he remembered her name and spoke to her with cool politeness. She usually managed to avoid Ges Vorrutyer.
She had, in fact, just managed to avoid him again at a garden party at the Imperial Residence and had begun talking with cheerful Lord Vorpatril and stocky Admiral Vorkosigan, whom she remembered as having expressed some interesting ideas about the Komarr situation at an otherwise intolerably boring dinner party, when Vorrutyer and Prince Serg joined them. Admiral Vorkosigan and Vorrutyer began bristling at each other immediately. Lord Vorpatril looked a bit alarmed as they faced off, but the Prince merely curled his lip and steered Kareen away. She noticed that a nondescript woman separated herself unobtrusively from the crowd and followed them, staying a polite twenty or thirty steps behind.
They strolled the grounds, and he asked her inconsequential questions about her stay in Vorbarr Sultana, her life with her aunt and uncle, and her childhood. He listened more intently that she would have expected as she talked about being an only child of older parents in a remote district, and he even said sympathetically, "Surely that must have been rather lonely for you, Kareen?"
"Not really, no. I read a great deal..." and oh, wouldn't her aunt be angry if she knew Kareen had admitted that, but the Prince didn't appear to be troubled.
On the contrary, he smiled and commented, "Found more friends in books than people, did you?" with unexpected warmth.
Kareen blinked. "I suppose I did," she admitted, wondering just what it was in his reaction that seemed off before she decided she had simply misjudged him. He didn't appear to be the kind of man who would love books, or who would understand someone who did, but that must have been her own prejudices speaking, because apparently he understood well enough to be sympathetic...
Their conversation was interrupted by the sudden appearance of one of the ubiquitous staff officers saying, "Excuse me, Milady. Sir, you are required in the Residence."
"Of course," Serg answered with a slight frown, which softened slightly as he bowed over Kareen's hand. "I expect I shall see you later this afternoon, Kareen." He didn't bother to introduce the officer, merely said, "You will escort her back to her friends and family, Lieutenant," in a tone that indicated it was an order rather than a request, and he barely waited for an affirmative response before he strode away.
Kareen was still wondering how her aunt would expect her to address an unfamiliar junior officer on whom she had been unceremoniously dropped without benefit of an introduction - or whether she were supposed to make conversation with her unacknowledged chaperon instead - when the officer in question said, "The Emperor would like to see you, Milady," and gestured at a gap in the hedge.
He led her to the Residence along a path miraculously free of anyone other than the palace servants. Kareen was relieved that he didn't appear to expect any sort of conversation, because the only thing she could think of to say was "Why?", and she didn't expect her taciturn guide would be willing to enlighten her even if he were able to do so.
The lieutenant bowed her into a small, comfortably appointed room, and Emperor Ezar rose to greet her as the self-effacing woman slipped into a tiny, glass-enclosed booth in the corner. The Emperor asked her to sit, and she noticed inconsequentially that his eyes were the exact same shade as his son's, but somehow warmer. She perched stiffly on the edge of her chair, but she endured his scrutiny without flinching.
"You must be wondering why I asked you to talk with me today, my dear," he said at last.
"I would like to know what you think of my son," he said.
"Prince Serg?" Kareen said, then blinked. How stupid - as if he had another son!
But Ezar only smiled slightly and said, "Yes, Serg. Tell me what you think of him."
"Well, he..." Kareen's thoughts tangled into incoherency. What did she think of Serg? She could hardly tell the Emperor that she'd barely given him any thought at all...
She settled on, "I scarcely know him, Sir, and I am not certain why you are asking me about him."
Ezar's eyes on her face were piercing. "Do you know, when I talked to your parents about you years ago, they told me that you were a very outspoken young girl?"
She replied, only a little bitterly, "I learnt caution, these last few years."
He smiled thinly. "And a very intelligent one, as well. I am surprised you did not go to university."
"I" expected "wanted to, but it was...not possible." She had no desire to explain why, and she was increasingly certain that he already knew anyway.
The light glinted on Ezar's hair, much more silver than it appeared in the holovids, as he settled back into his chair. "Serg is willing for me to send a baba to your uncle," he said bluntly.
Kareen realized she was gaping and closed her mouth. She couldn't very well say "Are you crazy?", or even "Are you sure?", to the Emperor. The best alternative she could manage was a rather weak, "He is?"
Ezar chuckled. "He is. So you can see why I thought you and I should become acquainted. Now, I ask you to tell me plainly - that booth is soundproof and not even Captain Negri is listening to us, so you may be certain that anything you have to say will remain strictly between the two of us - what do you think of Serg?"
"He is...very charming," Kareen said slowly.
"But?" Ezar asked gently.
Kareen looked at him and, deciding that he would not be satisfied with anything less than the truth, gave up her attempt to manufacture a polite response. "But I am not certain what he is under the surface."
Ezar shifted slightly in his chair, a quick, restless movement. "I am not certain either, my dear," he replied gravely. "I think perhaps he is not yet fully formed, and can still become any of...several men." He looked past her for a long moment, his expression distant, and Kareen wondered if she had offended him, but he suddenly blinked his thoughts away and smiled slightly at her, saying, "Which brings us to our current point - I understand you have something of a passion for service to Barrayar." He leaned forward and continued, "I understand it may not be the kind of service you anticipated, but could you find it in you to serve Barrayar as Serg's partner, as Crown Princess and Empress, and as the mother of the heir?"
His words seemed to echo faintly in the quiet room - Princess. Empress. Mother. Could she?
Ezar poured tea for both of them and passed her a cup, and she was too grateful for the respite in which to gather her thoughts to worry about how improper it was for the Emperor to wait on her. Clutching her cup, she said, "Sir, I'm honored, but I never... I mean, I hadn't thought-"
Kareen gave up the battle to be proper and asked what she really wanted to know. "Why me?"
"Because you are a strong, intelligent, and well educated young woman." He paused, his expression unreadable, before continuing, "And you are acceptable to Serg. You are Vor, of impeccable breeding but not closely related to Serg, and your respective genetic profiles indicate that the two of you have an excellent chance of producing a child that is...healthy in every respect."
A little of Kareen's shock at the idea that the Emperor had accessed her medical records - no, she had never seen a genetic counselor, he must have somehow had a gene scan performed that she hadn't even known about - must have shown on her face, because Ezar gave her a wry smile. "You see, my dear, I am not speaking to you on a whim. You are a very considered choice, for an extremely important position. There is no question that an heir is required, and soon, for everyone's peace of mind and Barrayar's stability. More than one would be excellent, but at least one is essential."
Kareen felt blank.
Ezar leaned back in his chair, still watching her. Eventually, he said, "I will not mislead you; being the Crown Princess - and eventually the Empress - will sometimes be a dangerous and...unpleasant job. Just as being the heir is dangerous - which is all the more reason why we need someone strong and intelligent as Princess to protect and teach her son."
Kareen watched his fingers tap the arm of his chair as he spoke. "Having a capable woman as Empress is vital to the stability of Barrayar, even if few people realize how essential her part is. You would fill the role well."
Ezar stood, indicating the interview was over. Still feeling dazed, Kareen climbed to her feet and listened to his parting words.
"Please consider it carefully, my dear. You would be performing a great service for Barrayar, and I should like to have you for my daughter-in-law." He bowed politely over her hand. "Serg will be waiting for you. If you indicate that you would view his suit favorably, I will arrange matters with your uncle, as is proper." That there was no way her uncle would withhold his consent remained unspoken.
The same young officer was waiting in the corridor, and as she followed him, Kareen considered the astounding offer she had just received. Was to receive.
Should she marry the Prince? She hardly knew Serg - but apparently even his father didn't quite know him. She felt a moment's gratitude that her own parents, had they lived, would certainly not have said that of her.
Marriage to Serg - it would be a leap in the dark, but perhaps all marriages were like that. And at least this would be a marriage for more purpose than mere self-preservation. She could make a contribution to the future of Barrayar. Do something worthwhile, not just survive...
And so Kareen met Serg in the gardens, and when he hinted delicately as to whether a baba sent to her uncle would be welcomed, she smiled when she gave him her answer.
© 2005 by MusIgneus (musigneus_at_gmail.com)
Current version by Michael Bernardi, email@example.com
All comments or queries about this Web page to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Last updated: March 20th 2007