Private Mail, Confidential Courier Only
I hope that things are well with you on Beta Colony, and that you are not too terribly annoyed that I have been so long in sending you a letter. I'm sure you've seen the news releases from Barrayar and know all of our official news -- but from a personal level things have been ten times worse. The things that we can never tell for fear of starting a revolution on this crazy planet -- which I would support if a revolution would do any good. Unfortunately, the ones leading the revolution would be the ones most likely to undo all the good Aral has done.
As I am sure you have seen in the official vids, Gregor's wedding came off quite well -- in fact, it was downright lovely. All Vorbarr Sultana was garlanded in white ribbons and red roses. Cooks from every sector were brought in to please the palates of ambassadors and delegates from every friendly government in this arm of the galaxy. Even the Cetagandans were there, though I don't recall inviting them, as well as a pair of quite delightful young men from Athos. Quite delightful. The bridesmaids wore red silk dresses, the groomsmen were in royal livery, and the Bridal dress was truly stupendous. The train stretched out for the entire length of the cathedral, and it was made all of beaded lace over white satin. Such workmanship, Mother -- and just think how many schools could have been built in the back hills with the money! Still, there's nothing that pulls a people together like a truly ostentatious celebration -- or so Aral says.
The wedding lasted a full hour and a half, and the reception lasted for two days. The cake was as large as a gazebo, with a full-sized fountain of wine in the center. The gifts filled the entire library and dining room -- with the exception of the small asteroid from the Quaddie delegation which had to remain on the front lawn. The most unusual gift was the one from Athos: a dozen frozen embryos, all guaranteed to be quite special. Miles and Elli both seemed a little disturbed by that one. And then there was the one that no one has confessed to: the barrel of frozen newts.
The wedding was lovely, quite lovely, but we are so happy to see it over and done with. Dear Simon is gone -- the last anyone saw of him he was walking out the door muttering something about a vacation. No one knows where he is -- and no one blames him. I do hope he is all right.
But back to the wedding. One of the reasons that it was so hectic is that it was quite sudden. Aral and I had just finished supper ahout four months ago when Gregor called him and stated that he had set the date for his wedding. He had chosen a bride, just like that, and could Aral please help him with the diplomatic guest list? We were happy to hear the news, for the political stability of the strange planet depends on there being a surplus number of heirs to the throne, but it was all so sudden.
Aral asked Gregor what the bride was like. He replied that her name was L.ydia Kelvar, and that she was the daughter of a prominent Komarran politician, free of all physical and genetic abnormalities, clean of scandal and emharrassment, and had finished fourth in her academic class. He then reeled off a list of figures and statements that promised both social and political compatibility.
"But what is she like?" I asked him, with all the impatience of an adopted aunt. "What does she look like?"
"I have a holovid right here." He held it up to the screen. "She's, uhm, five-foot-four, a hundred and fifteen pounds, light brown hair to her shoulders, a nose that..."
He was talking about her as if she were a job candidate! And knowing these Barrayarans, that's probably how he thought about her, as well. "Have you ever met the girl?" I asked sharply.
"No," Gregor admitted. "But she has a great data file."
"Then how do you know you love her?"
Gregor looked puzzled. "What has that got to do with anything? She's Komarran -- that's important."
Aral didn't seem to be shocked. He even seemed to be supportive of the idea. "The union might help, ah, certain political policies."
Well, Mother, Gregor made his offer and the poor girl accepted -- though how cheerfully I'm not sure. Political pawns are never given much choice. And then, because Gregor wanted a quick wedding date, Simon set to work on her background while Aral and I drew up the guest list. By the end of the month everything was set, and the Emperor announced his engagement and sent out the invitations.
We all could have used a break at that point, but a new problem faced us: the problem of bringing the bride to Barrayar. Honor dictated that the Emperor's Own Honor Guard should be her bridal escort, and honor dictated that the escort should be led by a brother or a close male relative of the Emperor. Unfortunately, Miles was with his troop of irregulars, a good three jumpholes away, and could never get back in time to lead the Honor Guard away from Barrayar -- so the job fell to Ivan. I'm sure you can see the problem with that! (If only Ivan weren't what he is, or at least if he weren't someone she would have to see time and again for the rest of her life.) We decided that the best thing would be for Ivan to lead the guard out to Komarr to pick up Lydia, and there he would be met by the Triumph, which would then shadow the Prince Serg all the way home. The Dendarii would see to it that Ivan stayed honest, and Admiral Naismith would have a good excuse to attend an event that Miles would die to miss. For good measure I had a little talk with Ivan before he left, outlining the consequences of failing his duties. I'm sure he understood -- what happened was not his fault. Not really.
Simon looked relieved, almost happy, the day he called to tell us that the Prince Serg was in orbit. I'm afraid that the man is getting old, mother: he's starting to show a little emotion at times. But he's still quite good at what he does and has many productive years left in Imperial Security -- if he ever comes back.
Vorbarr Sultana met the bridal shuttle with all the fanfare required for a new empress The runway was lined wiith Imperial Soldiers in crisp formation, and at the head a three-hundred piece band readied its music. Behind the soldiers stood the crowds, pushing and shoving to get their first glimpse of the future Empress of their world; I sat with the other Vor-lords on the rose-decked Imperial pavilion.
I prayed that Lydia had been warned.
When the shuttle engines were quieted and the red velvet carpet rolled out to the hatchway and strewn with white rose petals, the doors were opened and the Imperial Honor Guard, Barrayar's finest, marched out in tight formation. And twice as many as had gone out. The extras were Dendarii mercenaries, I suddenly realized -- for most of them were females. On one side of me Simon turned white and let a small breath out between his lips, on the other dear Aral had a sudden coughing fit. I felt a sudden surge of pride, of hope: perhaps Lydia was the woman to help rule Barrayar, after all.
But that's why the vids showed no close-ups of the Honor Guard.
Next out were the bridesmaids, looking like so many pink silk roses in their fancy traveling dresses. Crumpled roses -- shuttles and dresses do not go together, not at all. They were obviously smudged and tired, but the performance had only just begun. Smiling smartly and waving cheerfully to the crowd, they marched up to the pavilion, where each presented a flower to Gregor. To each one he gave a polite, official smile.
Then Lydia appeared, shining in a white silk dress, flanked on either side by both Ivan and Miles, all three marching in perfect step, proud and official. My boy never looked taller. The men escorted her down the red velvet, and them with a double bow presented her to their liege lord and emperor.
Gregor and Lydia looked upon each other for the first time. He gazed into her eyes, and I could almost see him melt as a new fire was awakened in his breast. Our boy would be a lover and a fighter, I thought, and here was a woman worthy of him.
Then Lydia looked back at Ivan. Gregor looked up toward the shuttle, toward the half-female Honor Guard, and smiled with unanticipated surprise and pleasure. Neither half of the bridal couple seemed very interested in the other, and the feeling of revolt hung pregnant in the air.
As soon as I could, I got Ivan into a room alone. He didn't look happy -- rather, he kept looking at my hands as if they held a nerve disruptor or a plasma gun. I tucked them behind my back, stared down at his white face, and demanded, "What happened?"
"I, I don't know, Aunt Cordelia." He spread his hands. "I was only polite to her during the ceremonies on Komarr. I didn't even touch her. But as soon as we got on the Prince Serg together, wham! I couldn't get rid of her. "
I felt my throat tighten. "And what happened on the Prince Serg?"
His eyes were wide as he shrugged. I saw bewilderment on his face, not guilt. "As little as possible. I spent most of the trip on the Triumph, supposedly enamored with their weaponry systems. Usually that turns the girls off -- but not Lydia. Whenever I returned, she demanded to know everything I had seen."
A little worry flickered into my mind. Lydia's security check had been squeaky clean, and Simon was the devil's own expert at finding moles, but still, there is always the miniscule chance that someone might slip by. "Did you tell her?"
"I threw out a lot of random specifications that I had learned in the academy -- numbers, terms, meaningless facts jumbled together. Usually, after a few minutes of that, people politely change the subject -- but she would listen for hours. I don't know, Aunt Cordelia. I'll be quite happy to see her married and settled with Gregor, and I can just send greetings from Earth."
"And what if she follows you there?" I wondered out loud.
"What? She'd have to sneak halfway across the galaxy!"
"It has happened," I said, suddenly feeling very sad. I like this planet, with its open sky, fresh breezes, and mountains on the horizon. I enjoy walking in the natural sunshine among plants that have established themselves without the okay of a dozen planning boards. But -- Beta Colony is home, and often I miss it, miss you.
I looked back at Ivan. "Can you assure me that nothing compromising happened between you and the future Empress of Barrayar?"
"As my word as a Vor," he gulped, and he looked as if he meant it.
"Very well. And if you see Miles, tell him I'm in here."
Ivan nodded. "There's something else you might want to see. Don't let Simon know, but Elena and her husband were part of the Honor Guard."
"I'll see that he knows not to know."
Elena. Before I go any further, I must tell you about her. Mother, she has grown, and in more ways than physically. No longer is she the girl I once knew, and partly raised. She is a woman now, in mind and soul and determination. When I looked into her eyes I saw her father, enough that it scared me. She has his heart, his sense of loyalty, his honor -- and some of his anger. Not so much, however, that she can't control it. I hope that's the way it stays. Or perhaps she is winning against it, for she did set upon the planet of her birth talk to those of us that she swore to leave behind.
Next time, perhaps, she will even visit his grave. I hope that there will be a next time -- my heart ached so to see her leave. I wished that I had borne a daughter of my own. It's not too late, is it?
When I next saw Simon, he had a pinched, worried look. He was studying close-ups of the Honor Guard, of the extra soldiers.
"You don't have to concern yourself with these," I said, taking the holo sheets out of his hands. "Miles has given me his personal word for each of his soldiers."
He looked at me blandly, making me think of a cow chewing her cud. Then, "I know who they all are. Every one of them is security cleared. It's just that one of them seems to have caught Gregor's eye, and I'd like to know who."
"One of the girls has caught Gregor's eye? Do you really think that's what the problem is, Simon?"
"Not by half, m'lady. But she can only make things worse."
But back to the wedding festivities. There were many things left to do even after the bride arrived on planet, and so it was a full three weeks before the ceremony took place. Those three weeks were filled with dinners and engagements for the royal couple, arrivals of and receptions for ambassadors and dignitaries, and a whirlwind of other activities. Ivan had to attend everything, and when he did the bride could not keep her eyes from him, even though he constantly paraded his old girlfriends before her. Gregor appeared to be searching for someone he could not find, and neither spent much time looking at each other. Every time I saw him, Simon looked paler and more worn.
Something was bound to happen.
Three nights before the ceremony, it did.
We were having a quiet dinner, mostly family and close friends. The afternoon had been spent at a reception for the Cetagandan delegation -- whom nobody could remember inviting, so the reception had been arranged rather hastily -- and it was obvious that Gregor was more than a little drunk. Still, it was the reserved, upright type of drunk proper for the Emperor of a planet, and it was just the few of us, so no one really cared that he seemed to look often at Ivan's escort. What man wouldn't look twice? She was a singularly handsome woman, with a strong face, a slim figure, and an extremely flattering dress that dropped loosely to her calves. She was well mannered and pleasant, and from her accent, a Betan. Something about her bothered me, but since Miles and Elli seemed to know her, I placed her as one of the Dendarii and assumed that she was Miles' responsibility.
After dinner we gathered in the library, where I took some time to talk to Miles. Then I saw that Ivan was pinned in the corner, alone, with Lydia, and went to break that up. Ivan seemed glad to see me, and took the chance to pull me aside. "Elli has told me where I can go to that Lydia can't follow me. She swears that it's fool-proof, and that I'll be perfectly safe there. Tell me, do you know ir we have an embassy on Athos?"
I looked at him gently. "Are you sure you want to go there?"
A slight suspicion clouded his face. "What's wrong with it? Elli says that it is a beautiful place."
"I've heard that it is. All the buildings are supposed to be pastel colored. You might fit in better, however, among the Betan hermaphrodites."
His face grew a little bit dark. "Look, I only brought Bel here tonight as a personal favor to her, him -- what do they call themselves?"
"Bel," I stated, suddenly realizing what I had almost noticed about his escort earlier. I looked around the room for her.
"Yes. Bel wanted to meet..."
"Where is she?" I cut him off. And another, greater fear bit me, as several pieces came together. "And where's Gregor?"
An impromtu search party was formed. Several frantic minutes later we found the pair in a small, cozy sitting room. They were together on the couch in a close, though not altogether compromising, position. When he saw us, Gregor rose wobbily to his feet and announced to all, "I've found her! I've found the true love of my life! This is the woman I love and will marry! I herewith renounce my engagement to Lydia Kelvar of Komarr, and announce my engagement to Bel Thorne of Beta. Go home, Lydia -- Bel shall be Empress of Barrayar!"
With that, he collapsed on to the couch and passed out.
Beside me, Miles cycled from red to purple.
Elena dashed from the doorway, shaking and holding her hand over her mouth.
Lydia threw her arms over her head and began to cry.
Simon nearly fainted..
Behind me, Aral simply said, "Betan. It could work." I don't think he quite understood the situation.
And Bel smiled back at all of us with a polite, deadly smile. Then she, or he, said, "Lady Vorkosigan. I would like very much to talk with you -- in private."
And I wanted very mucb to have a private talk with Bel.
"Nothing happened," Bel told me across the tray of coffee and tea cakes. Aral and the house guard had taken Gregor up to a spare bedroom while the others dispersed. "And nothing will. If the young man -- and he's too young for me despite the rejuvenation treatments -- remembers any of this in the morning, I will remind him that he neglected to ask my opinion on things. I am the captain of my own ship, and I have no intention of giving that up to be a mere wife. You understand, don't you?"
I looked into my coffee, remembering. "Once..."
"Oh, I suppose that if I met the right man -- or woman -- or hermaphrodite... But Gregor isn't it. Still, when the Emperor of a planet asks you to join him in a private chat, how can you be rude enough to refuse? But anyway, you're the person I wanted to meet."
"You've been a hero of mine for a long time, Captain Naismith."
I was too stunned to reply.
"I wasn't even ten when you returned from the war with glory and honors, and you were decorated by Steady Freddie himself."
"But," I broke into protest. "I didn't feel honored by my actions! I still don't. War isn't glory -- its people maimed and dying and..."
Bel wore a peculiarly hard, grim smile. "You don't have to tell me that, Captain. It wasn't your return, but what you did after that. You could have pressed yourself into the ready-made mold that our culture had prepared for you -- but instead you broke away. You left. You followed your higher calling."
Then Bel raised her cup to me. "A few years later, I did the same. Thank you Captain."
Hard as we try, we can't help it when other people make us heroes and responsible for their actions.
Fortunately, the only person who believed the ramblings of the inebriated Emperor was the bride-to-be, who realized quite abruptly that she could be jilted and sent packing with her entire wedding party. She spent all of the next day crying, and when we did tell her the truth it was with the jagged edge of what might have happened. Afterwards, things went much more smoothly between the nuptial couple.
Miles and I agreed that we should not tell Gregor the truth about Bel, unless he asked us directly. He was worried that the news might trigger an old insecurity of Gregor's. I agreed that it wouldn't do to tempt fate.
And we had other things to worry about. The wedding was only two days off, there were guests all over the Vorbarr Sultana and gifts everywhere, and Simon was worried sick about the Cetagandans. And the other three dozen delegates that nobody could recall inviting -- including the young Athosians and their "special" gift. And then there was the sick cake decorator, and the girl that ripped her dress, and the candles that blew out in the middle of the ceremony, and the Quaddie that crash-landed on the roof -- but no one noticed those things. They never really do.
I talked with Gregor for a few minutes at the reception, while Lydia was off changing into her traveling dress. He was standing beside the remains of the cake, whose superstructure we plan to make into a garden gazebo. "So what did you think?"
"The wedding was lovely," I replied.
"I mean, about Bel Thorne." He pointed to where Bel, now dressed in a sharp suit, was talking animatedly with one of the young Athosians. The other had Ivan trapped by the fountain.
"Oh -- well, I really don't think that she thought anything serious happened that night."
"Of course not. Bel was the best we could think of: a rival for Lydia who would be such a ridiculous choice that no one would be able to take her -- her, him, whatever -- seriously. And someone who had absolutely no desire to take Lydia's place. For me, I had only to claim that I was blind drunk and not in control of my senses." He laughed into his drink. "The hard part was gettine the timing right -- it had to happen at a function that was just public enough to mortify Lydia, but not so big that it might be taken seriously. "
"So this was planned?" I was shocked. The political climate here is a powderkeg, and these children were playing with matches.
He nodded. "Elena called me on a private channel as soon as the Triumph hit orbit, to tell me the news. She already had the plan in mind, but as time was short we had to wait until after the shuttle arrived to work out the details. That meant that she had to come down on the shuttle itself -- but fortunately that gave us the way to smuggle Bel in, as well." He smiled that particular smile that I have seen far too many times on this politics-torn planet.
"And Bel Thorne agreed to the plan?"
"She bargained with us. She said she'd do it if she could have the chance to talk with you. Was it a good talk?"
"Enlightening. Very enlightening. And who else knew of this plan, besides you and Elena? And Bel?"
He shook his head. "That's all we told -- though I think Uncle Aral suspected. He was much too calm throughout the whole thing."
Indeed. Simon, however -- I wonder if he will ever recover. Or will he be like Koudelka, a pawn crippled in the games of the kings?
"So," I said as lightly as I could. "Everything is well between you and Lydia then? There won't be any more trouble?"
"I think we've come to an understanding," he replied seriously. "I think we'll learn to live with each other, and raise the necessary heirs. And if not --" he smiled politically as he gestured towards the Athosian -- "we do have the frozen embryos that we could pop into the incubator."
"But I doubt that the people here would accept an artificial heir!"
He swirled his drink in his hand. "Lydia doesn't have to know that -- does she?"
The wedding was lovely. Barrayar is safe, for another generation -- if it can only survive this one.
And so, Mother, that is the story of what was behind those pretty pictures that were shown all over the galaxy We've certainly had an exciting time here -- and I pray that it will be awhile before the next one. Though with Miles around, one never knows.
Take care of yourself, and write when you can.
Your Loving Daughter,
© 1991 by Helen E. Davis (email@example.com)
Current version by Michael Bernardi, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Last updated: July 14th 2001