Project Goldfish

by Jeff Melcher

This was originally posted to the lois-bujold mailing list in July 1998.

I have tasted defeat before, thought Miles to himself. Bile and gall and the grainy bitter dust-in-the-teeth taste of defeat, I have tasted and spat and sometimes, had to swallow. But this! He sipped politely from the silver bowl of a monogrammed Vorkosigan spoon. Defeat is the taste of cream-of-asparagus soup.

At their host's signal, his six guests dipped into their own soupbowls. The Professor Lord Auditor Vorthys sat to his right, and the lovely Professora on his left. Her lips still curled in a smile as she sipped soup. Ivan, at her left, was being as entertaining as usual. At Ivan's side, Aunt Alys beamed fondly across the table at Simon Illyan, who beamed back. Strange to see how such intense lights had mellowed. Between Simon and Vorthys, Ivan's latest flame, some ImpSec civilian analyst. Marya Pandro-- something.

And across from Miles, at the end of the table, an empty chair. Anguish! Rage! Vile and bitter disappointment.

It had been one of his most masterful plans, too. A week's notice to Ma Kosti that "we might have a little formal dinner next weekend sometime..." An exclusive Friday night ticket to a holo-show about wormhole physics at the University Planetarium. A hint to Lady Alys, an invitation to Vorthys, (and family... oh God, and family.) with a gift of the ticket for their youngest. A directive to Ivan lowered the average age at table to something more comfortable, and his trap was set.

Then Friday morning his prey entangled herself in her own snare of redrash creepers. She'd rescued the kitten, though. Turns out Zinc's fur protected him. Bare human skin was not so lucky. This evening Miles' "date" was lying in bed, (don't think about that bed, boy) slathered in calomoid gel and wearing oven mitts to keep from scratching. I might have volunteered to go scratch her... he thought. "So, Marya," Lady Alys began. "You haven't met Simon at work?"

Ivan's girl had obviously been keeping an extra centimeter's distance from the recently retired ImpSec's chief. "Captain Illyan's office was several levels higher than mine, milady."

Truly, Miles thought. Literally and figuratively true, and at very worst, merely understated.

"And, I've only been working at there a short time." Marya glanced interestedly into her soup. She stirred it. She was quiet.

Simon graciously filled the silence. "Civilian analysts are a new idea for us ... for ImpSec. I think the most senior of you has been in position only three years."

"The most senior was hired last Winterfair," Professora Vorthys chimed in. "When old Doctor Nyberg retired from University over Vorandropov's tenure fight, your ImpSec recruiters hired him on the spot."

"Ben Nyberg," Marya agreed. "I'd studied econ from him, and his work led to our current project."

"Ah, Project Goldfish!" Miles said. "Ivan, there have to be at least TWO stories behind that name you haven't told me yet."

"And I'm not going to," Ivan growled. "Even Auditors don't have 'need-to-know' on this."

Simon chuckled. "Miles, how you learn names of things even I don't hear... you really shouldn't push it. And announcing it like that, even here, is good reason for not telling you more."

Vorthys had finished his soup, as usual the first to do so. Having a moment with no food before him, he joined the conversation. "True enough. A good Auditor, like Miles here, ought to figure it out without being told. For example, why do you say 'two' stories?"

"No!" Miles' aunt jumped in. "We will NOT let you men talk shop all evening. Pick a topic that lets me get to know Marya, here." She smiled at the girl, somewhat predatorially, Miles thought.

"I'm part of the shop, too, milady, " Marya offered. A wisp of dark curl escaped the mass of her hair and hovered by her left eye.

"But that's secret, and not very interesting anyway," Alys countered. "Tell me who else you knew at University. I still have some sorority ties there."

"Mother!" Ivan complained. "Marya didn't, I mean, not everyone, well..."

"You mustn't assume, Ivan," Marya chided. To Alys, she said, "But in this case, he's right. I'm afraid I was much too busy during school for most of the social frivolities."

Uh-oh, Miles thought. A faint crease had appeared between his aunt's brows. "Activities", he thought. She wouldn't be so challenged if the girl had said, "Activities."

"The sororities do sometimes seem frivolous, dear," the Professora said. "But perhaps it's not obvious, now, how important they were to Lady Alys or to me, when women were so unwelcome in the 'men's' classes."

"That fight hasn't changed much, Professora. And I never saw how girl's choir practice helped." She brushed at her hair. "Frankly, I had trouble enough studying, after six hours an evening teaching algebra and French Grammar to wild twin Vor-ettes--."

"The Vorbouchards!" Alys recognized. Well, Miles supposed, how many female Vor twins of that age range could there be? Who spoke French? His aunt's talents were wasted on what, he agreed with Marya, were frivolities. "I think we must have met, after all. You were the governess."

Now lines creased Marya's brow. "I was the tutor." Her spoon clattered to the saucer. "Yes, perhaps we have met. Part of my syllabus was to set a good example by nibbling cookies and balancing a teacup on my knee when the girls met ladies such as yourself."

Oh, let's talk shop, Miles thought. His mind raced for suitable segue. An unsuitable one. Anything.

Ivan beat him to it. "Miles' cook, here, makes the most excellent cookies. Little fish-shaped things." The excellent family mind, performing under pressure. Miles was almost proud.

"Little yellow pastries," Miles agreed, setting up the shift, "fruit-filled --"

"Lady-like behavior requires such strength," the Professora interrupted. Miles boggled. Had he been interrupted since he'd been appointed Auditor? Of course, an Auditor's wife probably interrupted an Auditor all the time... "Teenagers naturally are too lazy to enjoy it. As are men."

"Yellow fish-shaped cookies?" Simon chimed in, helpfully. "I haven't had those --"

"Tea is not about enjoyment," Alys interrupted Simon. It was a contagion. It was asparagus poisoning. "Tea is a venue, a network --"

"For those wired into the system," Marya put in. Heavens, now they were interrupting each other. "Those sipping. For those who have have to pour --"

"The idea of the sorority was no one was too good to pour --"

"Not that anyone is so good or otherwise --"

"Will we have fish, tonight?" Vorthys interrupted his wife and demonstrating the value of an equal opportunity marriage.

Miles clattered his own spoon into a saucer, signalling a footman to clear bowls. He silently praised his fellow Auditors' grace to heaven. Whether it arose from wisdom or appetite. "I think there's trout. No goldfish, I'm afraid."

Oh, do shut up about goldfish, Miles," his aunt scolded. "I warned you about shoptalk."

Defeat, doom, destruction. The evening was cursed.

"I've been trout fishing with my Father," Marya offered. "They're wonderful, fresh and cooked over a woodfire." Her curl was loose again. Three cut-shell combs retained the intricacies of her hair. The center one was slightly off-center.

"Have you?" Simon asked. He eyed his tablemate appraisingly. "I've only lately learned to appreciate the sport."

"An excuse for beer, in my opinion," Alys sniffed.

"Oh quite," Marya agreed. "For my father, too."

A point of rapprochement, at last. Miles hoped.

"Fortunately, I rather like beer."

Oh, no....

"One of the first things I learned to love about you," Ivan said, earning a severe motherly look. He wasn't fazed. "Brainstorming still, after work, quaffing a foamy one at that little tavern down from cockroach central..."

"I don't believe I've ever been in there," Alys said, in a tone implying no one else should have ever been, either.

"Pasta!" Vorthys cried in delight. "I'd expected a rice course, but this looks marvelous." The footman had served from the host's right, first, ignoring the logistic advantages of starting the fastest last. Miles wondered if he should flout convention and honor the Professora with place, next dinner. If there could ever be a next dinner.

"You've turned that women into the best cook in the city, Miles," Simon said.

Strands of pasta, fine as fiberoptics, golden as the groats from which it originated, nestled in a transparent sauce flecked with a dozen colors of herbs. Miles had once watched his cook stretch the dough, doubling and doubling and pulling and re-doubling and pulling again. The sticky ball became thousands of infinitesimal strands in less than a minute. He'd tried it. His stickyball broke into two lumpish wads and left dough stuck to every finger... There was some telekinetic component to the talent, he was sure.

"I don't pay her enough to be this good," Miles agreed.

Marya startled. "But? If you know that, why --"

"Marvelous, marvelous." Ivan interrupted. What was it with the interruptions tonight? Miles wondered in irritation. Ivan was making a big production of taking his own serving from the footman's hands, leaning back into the Professora to do so. Contact with Ivan had the same effect on her it did on most women, evidently. She smiled, anyway. Ivan's shirttails pulled partway loose from their tuck into his trousers. Before he leaned forward, seating himself properly again, Miles noted his bottom shirt button was undone.

Miles poured and sipped the next wine, then passed the carafe along the table. Professora Vorthys allowed the footman to serve her as he finished with the pasta. "Your cook has put Vorkosigan House back on the social radar, Miles. As has your enduring bachelor status. I've had rather broad hints from at least three young women wondering if I could get them invited in here."

I'd rather you'd heard three hints from one young women, Miles thought, sadly.

"And it's such a waste," Lady Alys said. "This table, for instance, extends to seat twenty-eight. And I know where Cordelia has stashed the chairs. As much as I adore intimate little family dinners like this," she circled a dismissive pinky over the gathering, "We have certain responsibilites to host more formal occasions, and more regularly."

Marya shook her head fractionally, dislodging another jet black curl from her center comb. "Twenty-eight? But how would we be able to talk?"

Lady Vorpatril's chin elevated a degree. "You would chat with Simon through the meat course, then with Lord Vorthys until dessert, naturally. And you would refrain from footling with my son under the table across from you."

The girl's ivory cheeks bloomed. She has good color, Miles thought, and wonderful circulation. Ivan's landed a healthy one, at least. Wonder why she can't keep her hair straight?

"Nevermind my mother," Ivan countered. "If she hadn't been footling Simon alongside you there, she'd never have noticed."

Ivan wasn't the least bit embarrassed, Miles noticed. But Simon seemed to be redder than usual.

"Poor Miles," Professora Vorthys murmured. "With no one across the table to be footled..."

Dammit, his own circulation was probabably on display, now. He shoveled a bite of pasta. It was marvelous. His guests seemed to be engrossed in the dish, as well. Except for the Professora, who seemed to be considering her husband with unconcealed affection. She'll have to wait. Once he's finished his pasta he'll notice her toes, Miles thought.

Ivan twitched. Again. Since he'd shifted around to take his second course he seemed uncomfortable in his seat. He'd finished his pasta a close second behind Vorthys and was patiently waiting for Miles to get the meal moving on. Miles hoped, in this brief lull, Ivan could start the conversation down a new line. He'd nearly done it before. Ivan finished his wine, then winced as he set down the glass. He hooked his thumb under his waistband and ran it around, smoothing, hitching. "Ah," he said in satisfaction, and extracted an offending object. He set it on the tablecloth to examine. A small, squarish, sharp-looking thing. A comb. A cut-shell comb.

Ivan looked at the comb, then at Marya, then at his mother. Alys's eyebrows couldn't be more perfectly arched.

"Oh, Ivan, what a surprise," Marya said, smoothly. "I'd wanted another of these, for, well, I'm not sure how long." She turned to Alys and spoke confidingly. "They're so hard to find, you know."

"I'm sure it depends on how much time you have to look, dear," Alys responded.

Be careful what you hope for, Miles told himself. "It's shell, isn't it? From a fresh water fish or an ocean fish?" Maybe he could swing it...

"Typically, matching combs are all cut from one large shell," Lady Alys informed a spot just between, and over the heads of, Simon and Marya. "It's almost impossible to add to an existing set."

"Yes, that's right," Marya told Professor Vorthys. "That's why I'm so lucky these are the cheaper sort, cut from smaller, separate shells. Freshwater mussels, as Lord Vorkosigan suggests." The formality level was rising as fast at the temperature was dropping. "They're difficult to match, but Captain Vorpatril has an excellent eye for such detail."

Lady Alys twisted her gaze from a point in space and aimed it, with a smile, at Ivan. Right between his excellent eyes, to judge from how Ivan's neck tensed to meet that gaze. "You must tell me, then, where you were able to select such a beautiful, inexpensive and so closely matching gift. The stock assortment must be remarkable."

Ivan met the challenge gamely, Miles had to admit. Long practice, no doubt. "I'll take you there. Next weekend, if you're free. I found a place in the old caravanserai, and I'm pretty sure I can find it again."

"You made no note of the name, of course?"

"Of course."

Miles seemed to sense some sort of discorporate sabers disengaged, then raised in salute, as Ivan and his mother backed away from the exchange.

"You should make notes of such things, Ivan," Simon advised. "I've been lost down there again recently, and that's with a map. The signs aren't always intact."

"It's so much better now than it was, though," Professora Vorthys said. "When I was a student we felt quite daring to go in at all."

"Are we ready for fish?" Miles asked, and signaled the footman without waiting for reply. "But speaking of old places, Ivan and I were stationed together briefly in Old London, back on Earth. Remember Ivan? Now there were some warrens. I've been wondering, lately, why Duv Galeni, back then, had you counting --"

"Did you and Simon catch these trout, Miles?" Ivan asked.

"They'd have had to have been frozen some while," Simon answered, while Miles was still getting over his shock. Ivan, interrupt? I do believe in asparagus poisoning. I do. I do. His mind spun.

"I bet these are as fresh as possible for a city dinner," Marya said, as the footmen served fish to her plate. "I think we've established the standard Kosti maintains."

After two courses? Miles wondered. Or had that reputation the Professora mentioned penetrated to the non-Vor circles in which the -- what was it, Pandroupous? -- yes, the Pandroupous family operated? Surely the table talk itself hadn't established THAT high a confidence. Maybe he and Simon HAD caught these trout. He tasted his own. Fresh. No doubt. Kosti's standards were exemplary. When had Pandroupous heard the name?...

"A higher standard than the staff at Vorhartung, right now," Lady Alys sniffed. "Honestly! I have never seen such inattention among the catering contractors."

"Mother!" Ivan complained. "Anyone would think you were trying to butt in and run the show."

"One would think..." Simon murmured.

"Well somebody should," Alys said. "The wedding is the most important event at Vorhartung since Ezar's funeral. And these upstarts push into a service contract with no experience, no sense of tradition--"

"I taste smoke," Marya said. "Were these trout cooked over a wood fire after all, Lord Vorkosigan?"

Miles gaped at her. A tutor of decorum both interrupting AND commenting directly on the food before them? "Ah, I'm not quite--"

"I don't think there's a smoky taste," Vorthys countered. "The merest bit of maple sweetness, perhaps."

"Miles, tell that story about your Armsman Jesek," Ivan put in. "Cooking on Beta Colony."

"Oh, how is Elena, Miles?" Alys added. "Has she had her baby yet?"

The rapid changes of subject were making his eyes water. And half his guests were gazing at him in puzzlement. "The Jeseks are fine. Elena still has a month's wait." He turned to the Professora to fill in, "They were liegefolk of mine until recently, and good friends." Miles glanced down at Simon. "You might meet Baz, finally, if they make it to the wedding."

"You mean they might not come?" his aunt said. "If the headcount of the guestlist keeps changing those incompetent caterers will ruin things for certain, and then--"

"Tell your goldfish story, Miles." Ivan interrupted, again. Was that why Marya was so startled? Surely everyone was used to this new form of manners by now.

"No shop talk!" Alys snapped.

"I think I know this story, Alys." Simon said. "It's nothing to do with Miles' job." He wiped his lips with a linen napkin and Miles thought he heard Illyan mutter, "and it's not that funny, either."

But it was certainly a lot safer than some of the previous conversational landmines he'd seen set off. Miles opened the next carafe of wine and poured. "Ivan, a deal? I'll tell my goldfish story if you'll tell yours."

Marya nearly exploded. "Ivan you can't!  The Emperor --"

"The Earth goldfish, darling." Ivan jumped in. He eyed his cousin speculatively. "If I do, will you quit prying into current projects? Your interests and Operations' and even Gregor's are NOT interchangable."

Miles returned the speculation. So Project Goldfish affected Gregor directly? That was fascinating, especially since it started with a civilian economics professor and a low-level ImpSec analyst. Miles wondered if he could keep a bargain that inhibited him from asking more. Hmm.

"Ivan, if we swap old stories, I promise I won't ask either you or Marya another question about your current project for the rest of the evening." He flashed a grin. "Afterwards, of course, I'll pester you just like always. Deal?"

His cousin considered. "I still won't tell you. And if it wasn't this, you'd pester me over something else anyhow." He hesitated. How could Ivan be so suspicious? What had Miles ever done to deserve this? "One, you swear to this deal by your word as Vorkosigan. Two, you tell your story first. And three... no questions about my projects for a full week. You tell me, is it a deal?"

When had Ivan been assigned to Jacksons Whole? Miles reviewed the terms quickly and decided. He stood, (hopping down slightly from the heavily cushioned chair that put him at eye-level with his companions) put a theatrical hand to his chest and intoned, "I swear by my word as Vorkosigan I will keep my promise to Ivan and honor the conditions he specifies for both him and Ms Pandroupous." He grinned again and pointed at his surprised cousin. "But we'll want the full story. No one-liners."

Ivan gulped. "Deal."

Miles hiked back into his chair. A small victory, but it helped wash a bit of that asparagus taste away. Careful, boy! Don't celebrate your victories until..."

"Some of us might not want to hear either story," Simon groused.

But Simon was generally overruled, and Miles proceded to recount his youthful adventures in recruiting an Armsman. An unwittingly extravagant Armsman who cooked 100 Mark goldfish over 1000 Mark fires, if he'd been tasked to purchase replacements. Marya asked how goldfish tasted. Professora Vorthys wondered how long Baz had managed in the undocumented economy. The conversation proceded for minutes without embarrassment, and, miraculously, without anyone interrupting anyone else.

Miles noticed, perhaps belatedly, that his guests were all finished with trout and hastily signaled for vegetables. Ivan stalled as the guests were served, and further, until his wineglass was refilled. Vorthys, oblivious to etiquette, rhapsodied over his portion of tiny glazed carrots, crisp peas, and some rare beans Miles instantly forgot the name of, all garnished with sliced prize. Prize was one of the very few native Barrayaran roots that were tasty to the human palate. Ivan stirred his together.

"When Ivan was about five," his mother confided to Marya, "He learned about allergies from Miles here, and the two of them--"

"Mother, please!"

"-- decided to put the information to use. Ivan found the taste of prize a bit too much, I suppose. So he and Miles tried to persuade me that Ivan had developed an allergy."

"Aunt Alys, is this really--"

Simon interrupted. "I've read that some off-worlders are allergic to prize. They simply died. No warning."

"Well the boys didn't know that. They decided Ivan would break out into spots, and stole a brush from my vanity to paint his face with. An eyeliner, actually."

Marya began to giggle.

"I think Miles must have done the painting. Very subtle, with a very few, carefully painted dots here and there on Ivan's face. Green ones."

The girl dipped her head and hastily put a napkin to her mouth. Her shoulders shook. She giggled without excessive jiggling, Miles approved. Could his cousin's taste in women finally be improving?

"Your goldfish story, Ivan?" Professora Vorthys prompted. What a saintly couple, Miles thought. I'm never going to have another conversation without a Vorthys present. Or one of their kin. If I can swing it.

Once begun, Ivan's story progressed famously. Marya was unperturbed by the revelation that her new beau could distinguish women by their scent, and/or the texture of skin, and/or body temperature. Miles wondered how much practice that took. Ivan told how his report that the shah's four permits were distributed in use among six identical wives had been nearly discounted entirely, until Galeni's test. "He knew all along how many goldfish the embassy had paid for; but he wasn't sure anybody could tell them apart, on the go as it were, well enough to count. I nearly couldn't." Goldfish, it turned out, have no particular scent, texture, temperature, or other features of interest to Vorpatrils. Ivan made his accurate count seem more like good luck than careful observation.

"So then they went, stopped, and counted wives, too?" Vorthys asked.

"Six. Beautiful and identical. I'd actually begun to wonder if there were more that I hadn't yet met. But it turned out the shah never went anywhere without all of them. And that always left two undocumented for whatever roaming around he'd ordered. With all electronic surveillance gear washed in the noise from scores of privacy generators, the only way to get the count was in person."

"Clones, I presume." Simon said.

"Actually, not. If they had been, I'm not sure even I could have noticed a difference." Ivan shrugged. "He'd collected his set from all over Earth. Turns out on a planet of nine billion --"

"There were clones on Earth, too, Ivan." Miles interrupted. Oh my, now I'm doing it, he thought. He hoped he hadn't restarted the trend. "You were lucky."

"Maybe the shah just craved subtle variety," Marya suggested. "I've known men like that." She smiled across the table. "The scents, the textures, the--"

"Variety is vastly overrated," Alys declared. "Consistancy--"

"Except at table," Vorthys gestured at Lady Alys place, since he had finished his own serving. "Any one of those vegetables alone would be--"

"Women go through a variety-seeking phase, too, I believe," his wife said. "And if they settle for consistancy too early--"

Marya jumped on that. "But not with the craving that men do--"

"Early is certainly better than never--"

"Now, Mother, you'd promised you--"

"What will the meat be, Miles?" Simon asked. "I'd hoped--"

"I'd smelled venison when we came in." Vorthys said. "Is-- " He broke off. Interrupting himself with abrupt silence, Miles guessed. The conversation came to a halt as the guests debated about how to interrupt that.

Dammit, Miles thought, he'd done it. He'd known he'd done when he did it but he'd really done it. No one would ever finish a sentence at this dinner again.

"Are we ready?" he asked. He gestured for the next course. It was venison. The Vorthys nose was as keen as Ivan's, if differently attuned. Miles wondered what his own nose was tuned to. Not weather, he'd learned that early enough. Not women, really. He sniffed surreptitiously to determine what his nose would tell him.

Not surreptitiously enough. "It does smell wonderful," Professora Vorthys agreed, as the footman served her. The man vanished with his salver towards the kitchen and the Professora stomped on the remaining bits of shattered etiquette by remarking, "and you have a wonderful footman."

"He's mine," Lady Alys growled. Miles was minded of a small dog protecting a large bone. "Aside from his cook, Miles has completely neglected staff. I believe the only reason he invites me to these soiree's is to attach to my serving men."

"There's Pym," Simon offered. "He's coordinating all the security men, offering a lot of institutional memory to the team."

"Armsmen are not serving men," Alys said. "Besides, Pym is Aral's. Miles needs staff of his own."

"It turned out that there were twenty-two goldfish," Ivan chirped. "The embassary had ordered two dozen, but a couple--"

"Yes, very funny, Ivan," his mother dismissed. "Miles, I would even have some of my people train yours, if you would staff this building properly."

"The shah was from off-Earth, wasn't--?" Marya asked, just as Ivan said, " -- the other two reportedly had fin-rot --" They both stopped, confused.

Alys continued to press Miles. "There should be a secretary to arrange your correspondence, a valet -- you had a batman throughout your Service, didn't you? A permanent driver, your own footmen, chambermen --"

Ivan and Marya tried again, switching topics. Ivan babbled something about someplace called Kashira VI and Marya asked if rot affected the other fish. Again they cancelled each other out. Miles wondered, why did they bother?

Simon stepped into the momentary silence and advised, "She's right, Miles. You ought to think about Armsmen of your own, too. Your personal security is important."

"And it's good for the economy," Professora Vorthys added. "We'd mentioned Doctor Nyberg earlier; Miles, have you heard of his work on the multipier effect regarding Vor and Vassalage?"

"Not really," Miles began, just as Marya opened her mouth, then said, "ack!" As if someone had footled her shin rather forcibly. Hmm. Marya wanted to distract this line of conversation, and Ivan thought that Marya's distraction would focus Miles attention to it. Hmm. Nyberg was now an ImpSec consultant... I smell a secret, he thought. Now I know what my nose is tuned to. "Sounds fascinating. Tell me all about it."

Two University professors describing the work of a third, "in layman's terms" as they put it, was much tougher chewing than Kosti's excellently aged and marinated venison. Frankly, Miles followed little of it; though he noted with great interest certain points that drew pained, stricken, or angry responses across a certain ImpSec Economic Analyst's face. A fluid, infinitely expressive face. Miles could easily see why Ivan was so engrossed. Apparently Marya had tuned her "impassive" shield specifically to repel embarrassment from High Vor Ladies and had already used most of her energy in that duel. There seemed little reserve left to protect professional confidence. Alys made little ha noises of agreement with various technical points indicating the societal value of servant-dense holdings. Ivan seemed bored with the whole discussion. Ivan was well practiced at "bored", though. Miles noted Simon blandly making his own observations. Simon rarely did "bland" anymore . He must be drawing some conclusionsof his own, too. Good. A cross-check.

Vorthys drew breath, before continuing on to another subtlety of the multiplier effect. Miles decided one more interruption this evening wouldn't kill anyone. "Salad?" he asked.

General agreement led to clearing another layer of china from the table. They'd come more than halfway through the dinner so far.

Ivan and Simon are a bland and bored pair
Alys and Marya are not pulling hair,
The Vorthys are well fed
and despite a rash, red
Poor Miles has not killed himself from despair,

Miles mentally shook his brain to clear the doggeral. Where does that stuff come from?

"Tell me if I have this straight, then," Miles asked the Professora. "Let's use my father and me for examples. Now, he has most of the House Vorkosigan staff with him on Sergyar."

"Which, from the Count's perspective, is exactly the most economical course," the Professora agreed. "The low population density, the rural areas; it's all very much like the Time of Isolation. It's simply cheaper for him to keep staff, even liege staff, than it would be for you."

"Which Nyberg showed," Vorthys continued, "is a significant cultural driver of the liege-oath system. It was cheaper for the old Counts to swear in vassals than pay salaries."

"But not for me," Miles complained.

"No, far from it," the Professora agreed. "Now, in a modern, urban area, with all the competitive pulls for manpower, you pay a higher wage to begin with. THEN, the costs to you of livery, equipment, fealty gelt--"

"On top of your legal retirement contribution," Vorthys added.

"-- arms if appropriate, training, schooling for the envassaled dependents... all in all you'd nearly double your wage cost here."

"That would make it a stipend-cost, dear," Vorthys said.

"WhatEVER." The Professora waved aside distinctions. "Nyberg's work showed, though, that every Mark you pour into the urbanized vassal system generates over, (what was that figure?) seven additional Marks in the local economy, above the regular multipliers. Which raises District revenues, as well."

"And provides a check against inflation," Vorthys added, "because your costs are costs in kind rather than in cash, and the people employed are disinclined to go chasing after other, or a series of other, employments."

"They'd better not," Alys said. "Anybody I've brought into my service who left chasing some rainbow would be standing awfully wet awfully damn quick."

"Now, Mother," Ivan sighed. "You haven't sworn any of these people. You can't."

"If you mean a knee bent before me and hands between mine," Alys glowered, "You're right. But I have promised my people certain things, and they have agreed, and I. Expect. Cooperation."

Simon spoke. "I've been present when Alys does her new servant orientation. And I've been present when Counts make oath to the Emperor. Frankly, I think Alys' exchanges are more binding."

"Lady Vorpatril is exceptional," Vorthys said.

"She shouldn't be," his wife countered. "If liege employment is good for the economy why should't I, for instance, swear in some retainers? We could afford it."

"Barrayaran women traditionally have neither taken nor made oath, beyond the marriage oath," Miles said.

"So much the worse for the women and the oaths," Alys objected. "Why would you even trust us with THAT oath if we can't be trusted with less?"

Simon turned to his left. "But, Marya, you've taken loyalty oaths as condition of employment with ImpSec, haven't you?"

"To the Emperor and to the Imperium, generally," Marya agreed. "But not to any immediate authority. Not like, say, Captain Vorpatril to his Ops commander."

"That's a bit different," Ivan said. "I'm Vor, and he's Vor, and I'm sworn to obey his lawful orders, in Gregor's interests, insofar as they don't conflict with my Count's orders or interests. It's an oath that opens and offers me loopholes I wouldn't have if he weren't Vor. Now, when Miles was sworn to obey Simon, here, he had no such loopholes."

"Craters and barndoors and ulcerous bleeding holes in my gut, but no loopholes..." Simon muttered.

"So in principle I could swear in retainers," the Professora insisted.

"In principle," Vorthys agreed. "And it would raise our household expenses, but would benefit the economy near University."

"And Miles, who can also afford it," Alys concluded victoriously, "should hire on retainers and aides and a full score of armsmen. As part of his obligated service to the Imperium, if nothing else. And he should oath swear each and every one!"

Marya looked stricken. Again.

"He can't," Ivan said. "I mean, uh, for instance, he's already got Armsmen among--"

"One," Miles interrupted. His secrecy regarding the Dendarii was old habit by now. "And he's missing in action this month." Miles allowed himself the luxury of a moment's peevishness. "I sent direct, written orders that he should come here, and he seems to have taken a notion to come by the longest possible way around."

"Sounds familiar, somehow," Simon muttered. He'd taken to muttering a lot, lately. Miles looked at him darkly, and Simon, being bland again, picked up a wine glass and sipped.

Miles looked away and elaborated for Ivan. "Quinn says the message got garbled during transmission and Arde may have misunderstood."

A strangled noise from Miles' far right made him look back at Simon. Wine was leaking from the man's nostrils and he seemed to be having some sort of minor fit. He waved Marya's concern away and gestured for Miles to continue.

Ivan beat him to it. "When you consider the best communication gear in the Nexus is Betan, it's surprising how much bad luck they have receiving orders."

Miles nearly agreed, then stopped himself and double checked Ivan's expression. Smooth. Too smooth. If you impugn my mother and me you'd best be ready to duel...

"Your Armsman is from Beta Colony?" Marya asked. "That must be unique. Tell us about him."

Miles mentally rejected this suggestion on the spot. Whatever Ivan's girl suggested was a distraction from Ivan's secret, he was sure. Besides, if he continued talking he'd never finish his salad. After his one bite, the icy cold greens and the sword-sharp lemon-and-vinegar dressing had been crying for more attention. "Aunt Alys, may I?" Miles asked.

"Certainly not," his aunt said, as expected. "You're trying to change the subject, which is getting Vorkosigan House properly staffed."

"Why can't I just hire caterers, like Gregor?" Miles asked.

"Don't get me started," Alys said, and drew breath to start in on exactly the lecture Miles hoped to hear.

"She's right, Miles," Simon jumped in. "When Alys starts talking shop it's nearly as bad as when you do."

Betrayed! Simon had recovered from wine exhalation and cut off the inquiry Miles had expected him to help pursue. Miles himself nearly choked. If sprouts were as fluid as wine his own nose would be leaking.

"But I want to hear," Professora Vorthys said. "We don't do much entertaining but Drescher catering has worked out well for us. Why can't they handle the castle too?"

Blessed woman, Miles thought. Two desserts for you!

"Drescher didn't win the bid," Alys practically snarled. "Nor Burbidge, nor Cearly, nor an alliance among them. Instead of choosing an established firm, the Imperium is depending on a jumped-up consortium of third-string hopefuls who've pooled their funds to buy entry into a game they simply are not ready to play."

"How--?" Marya began, then hesitated.

Miles felt sympathy, swallowed his bite, and asked the question the ImpSec analyst would not. "How can you tell they're buying business?"

"Miles, you haven't been listening," his aunt said. Slanderously. "Training is expensive, livery is expensive, proper equipment... it takes years to grow into this level of business. This new corporate bunch, Yakovitch, is still scrambling with the simplist problems."

Some distant bell in the depths of Miles' memory resonated to the sound of that name. Miles waited for the bell to peal. It didn't.

Vorthys chuckled. "Miles, I think we Auditors must be doing our job too well. If Gregor's wedding depends on the low bidder, there's some shortsighted cost-watcher looking for us over his shoulder."

"Well, if I could order an Audit into this mess, I would," Alys declared.

"I'm sure that won't be necessary," Marya said.

"As am I," Simon agreed. "Though we seem to be in the middle of one even so, aren't we Miles?" He fixed his erstwhile subordinate with a familiar glower.

He must be out-of-practice, Miles thought. That almost doesn't hurt anymore.

"I beg your pardon?" Vorthys asked, leaning back to look at Simon.

The conversation proceeded literally behind Marya's back. "Miles, here, would be about three breaths away from inveigling me to interrogate Marya about ImpSec's background checks on these caterers. But, as I hereby refuse," the infuriating man ironically bowed forward to Miles, then leaned back to Vorthys, "He's now only one breath away from asking the same of you. His word is pledged against him asking either Marya or Ivan directly, of course."

Vorthys looked at Miles in surprise. Miles wrestled with himself briefly, torn between the embarrassment of proving Simon right versus the need to extract detail about  security, caterers and oath sworn servants. Miles lost.  A hazard of wrestling oneself... "That would seem to be an interesting line of question," he offered.

"Ivan's Project Goldfish is to investigate the caterers!" the Professora exclaimed in delight, catching up and informing anyone else at table who might not have figured it out.

"You have just blown the lid off my Imperial Secret, Miles," Ivan said disgustedly. "It's boring, it's tedious review of civilian personnel files, it's faintly ridiculous, it's too trivial even for ImpSec, but it's necessary, and it's mine. Are you satisfied, now? Can we just drop it?" He dropped a salad fork into his plate with a clatter. An audio-visual aid for emphasis, Miles assumed. It was almost convincing.

Is Ops in the habit of wasting Captains so, cousin? There had to be more, Miles was sure. But what more?

"Ivan's right, Miles. Let the Service handle things." The former head of ImpSec defended Barrayar's organizations with offhanded confidence.

"It doesn't really seem to be our kind of case," Vorthys agreed. "At this point, it might be more of challenge to guess what kind of fruit we're having. After this wonderful salad, I'm primed for more citrus."

"Please, Lord Vorkosigan," Marya added. "Really, I'm the only one here you need trouble yourself to impress. Everyone else knows your genius from former, first hand experience. From working with Ivan I had assumed it must be so, and now I see that it is. But please, let us do our jobs."

The dratted girl locked gazes with him, and the empty chair in his peripheral vision seemed to mockingly endorse her plea. Who, after all, was he trying to impress? Ripping secrets away from Ivan was one thing, but bulling into this young woman's first major inquiry might be a violation of honor she could never forgive. How did Gregor's catering problems touch his own interests, after all?

"You and your cousin are not boys sparring for attention anymore, are you?" the girl pressed.

She's too insistant, Miles knew. There's something here I should be seeing...

"Aunt Alys?" he asked. "Would my mother advise me to grow up and leave this to the professionals?"

The Dowager Vorpatril, acknowledged leader of polite society on Barrayar, seemed still to be considering the implications of official intrusion into her purview. She was silent a moment. Then, more imperiously than the Emperor, she declared, "Fruit."

Miles blinked as salad plates began disappearing in deft hands. "Watch this, Miles," his aunt continued. "Now, I love your mother as much as my own sisters --"

"More than Aunt Agnes," Ivan suggested, in a last desperate effort to derail conversation from its destined ends.

"-- but I would never presume to speak with her voice."

Miles thought, but did not say, "You had no qualm about speaking with mine, just now, at my own dinner."

"And I have not seen either you or my son display any signs of increasing maturity since you both sprouted chin hair." At that, Ivan might have spoken, but his mother knuckled him swiftly in the sternum. "I can only speak for myself. Now ordinarily, I could speak until I'm blue in the face and you would pay absolutely no attention. But dear Marya, here, has changed all that."

"I have?" the 'dear' asked.

"Yes, dear," Alys granted the girl a smile. "Thanks to you, Miles is beginning to see there are forms of service besides his precious armies and navies. And he has questions to ask. Questions he has promised not to ask you; questions that no one here will ask for him." She turned the smile towards Miles. I've looked down the business end of less frightening nerve disruptors, he thought. "If Miles continues his little inquiry, he will have to direct his questions to me, and listen seriously to my answers. This is, I believe, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. I intend to enjoy it." Her smile broadened, and Miles felt his nerve shrivel. "Shall we continue, Miles?"

"You've earned this, boy," Simon muttered. He sounds like my Grandfather, Miles thought.

A blossom, petals constructed of miniature grapefruit sections, with yellow cheese stamens and pistils and mottled green cheese leaves, magically appeared before Miles. The cheese crumbled at his touch. How had Kosti built it? How had it been delivered without damage? A telekinetic cook deserves a teleporting footmen, he guessed.

"Now that you've watched, what questions do you have, Miles?" his aunt interrupted his thoughts.

He couldn't ask about teleporting, could he? He hadn't seen much. "Uh," he began.

Lady Alys sniffed. "I thought so. Tell me, when you were served, was the footman gloved or barehanded?"

He hadn't noticed. Miles had noticed gloves folded into the man's belt earlier. Had he started wearing them? Were was he? Miles eyes darted.

"No peeking!"

Surely a serving man wouldn't want to leave fingerprints on the clear crystal of the fruit plate. But would he risk food staining white cloth gloves? Miles ventured, "I think he had--"

"No guessing! If I were holding a plasma arc to your head, would you like to guess whether it was charged?"

Lady Alys had been listening to his stories whether he'd reciprocated or not, it appeared. "I didn't notice," Miles admitted.

"Marya did," his aunt stated. "Was the form correct, dear?"

Having Miles targeted at the downrange end of the conversation had improved the girl's spirits enormously. Miles discerned a smirk leaking through Marya's correctly demure smile. "Perfectly, Lady Alys."

"So, Miles, given that the footmen served properly, should he have been gloved or barehanded?"

No help for it. "I don't remember, Aunt Alys," he admitted.

She sniffed. "I doubt you ever learned." She turned to Simon and declared, "You ought to have taken care of his training."

"Funerals, embassy postings, state dinners," Simon listed. "He's had the complete course. I could only lead the horse to water, darling,"

"How is it important, Aunt Alys?" Miles asked, interrupting his aunt's comment about the other end of the horse before he or Simon discovered which of them she meant.

"How is proper uniform important to your beloved soldiers?" his aunt countered. "Would you send a man on a mission without boots? Or with boots but no training about when to wear them, and when to sneak along in stockings?"

Miles was relatively sure there were no Service Uniform Regs regarding stocking-footed sneaking, but he took his aunt's point, and shook his head.

"And if you encounted a company of soldiers, where some were barefooted; some had pistols without holsters, or holsters without pistols; where someone in private's insignia issued instructions and captains leapt to obey, what would you do?"

I have recruited such for my Dendarii, Miles did not tell her.

"Lady Alys," Marya broke in. "These privates issuing orders," she looked at Miles, calculatingly, then pressed on. "Is this a valid analogy? You've seen such among the Yakovitch teams?" As Lady Alys nodded Marya went on more excitedly. "Could you identify them?"

"Dear, if you can do something about them," Alys assured her, "I will walk up and attach tags to their ears."

"Mother!" Ivan complained. "Thank you, but--"

"Photographs, Lady Alys. Can you identify them as well by flat, 2-D images as in person?" She glanced at Miles and filled in, obligingly, "We couldn't conceal holo-gear but did manage to get flats."

"And not by the livery, Aunt Alys," Miles put in. "That's important. I think I have a question or two of my own now."

"I'm sure I can tell good servants from poor ones, Miles," his aunt answered. "No matter how they're mis-attired."

"The livery is the key isn't it?" Miles persisted. "The people coming and going, some of them have extra gloves or aprons or whatever, that they shouldn't--"

" 'Whatever', indeed," Alys groused.

" -- and others that should have whatever, are missing it. The uniforms are literally that, uniform, all looking alike." Miles had it, now. "Instead of a serving captain, a table chef, a server and a busman, each with distinct accouterments, there are simply four interchangeable servants identically dressed. They do each others's duties, besides --instead of standing in place and doing a particular job, each is always in motion. They do things that may or may not be necessary just then, and are rarely part of the traditional tasks. Is THAT how incompetent they are?" Is that HOW they are incompetent? he wondered. He knew.

His aunt eyed him speculatively. "Miles, how can you describe service you haven't even seen so much better than the service you just have seen here tonight?"

Goldfish, he thought. I'm describing a bowl of goldfish. "And because they're new, and not very good at their jobs, the company sometimes puts five or six people onto a four man team, to make up for it, don't they? Or just extra, floating servants moving between tables and rooms."

"Stop that," his aunt commanded. "You may not paint another stroke of the Vorhartung picture until--"

"But Security originally issued four permits, or keys, or whatever, per room or table... didn't they, Ivan?" Oops. "Don't answer that! I didn't ask. I know. It's the shah's wives all over again. A guard looks at the camera, and sees a man in caterer's livery, and decides he must be okay. Guards look at the locators, and all the personnel tracking transponders show all the caterers are right where they're supposed to be. It's all okay. Except for the extra people, running loose... this is brilliant."

"Marya was brilliant to figure it out the caterers would go broke doing this mission." Ivan looked pained with Miles rather than proud of his civilian colleague. " I was brilliant to figure out who was extra and what they were up to." He dismissed Miles's analysis. "You have merely been a pest."

Professora Vorthys asked, "But if the caterers are somehow violating castle security, why hasn't ImpSec stopped them?"

"Operations has arrests scheduled for next Thursday, don't they, Ivan?" Miles said. Oops, again. "Don't answer that." Damn that oath. But, surely his cousin wouldn't want to gloat, with Miles unable to ask appreciative questions, for more than one day. To the Professora, he explained, "ImpSec will give everyone who may be involved a chance to betray themselves on camera. If Marya and Aunt Alys can also identify the leadership, so much the better."

"But what can anyone have accomplished, even given free run of the castle?" Vorthys asked. "If they wanted to plant bombs or some such surely there are easier ways."

"We really shouldn't be discussing this," Simon warned, again.

"They hardly need bombs," Alys said. "To give up on  the Yakovitch staff this late in the wedding planning could ruin the event just as thouroughly."

The little bell that still resonated in the back of Miles' mind finally chimed. "Yakovitch," he said. "Jack's Son -- the catering corporation was set up and funded by operatives out of Jacksons Whole."

Ivan turned to Simon in disgust. "Why do the rest of us even bother writing damned reports, much less classifying them? He pulls the information out of thin air whenever he wants it."

Miles hopped out of his chair, pacing and lecturing and ignoring Ivan. "Jackons Whole has no military interests in us, and wouldn't risk offending us seriously on anyone's behalf. So what would they want from inside the castle?" He nearly tripped over Alys' footman. Damn, the man was invisible. "Except, to be inside the castle. And in that warren of nooks and crannies there's noplace for Marya to hide holo gear? No safe place. The good places to hide holo gear were either already taken, or would be discovered, by someone ELSE hiding holo gear."

He paced back toward the table. Marya looked at him wide eyed. He wasn't sure that was admiration. "Profit to a Jacksonian House, how?" Pacing off again. "Easier to get holos of important people far away from the ceremony. Separately. So. Important people, together -- the ceremonies themselves! Offworld News Services. The wedding would be big news for the tabloid press on Beta Colony, or Escobar, or even the Samzidat on Komarr. If they could get pictures..." He whirled as the shock overtook him, "God, they couldn't get cameras into Gregor's bedroom?" Marya and Ivan looked pained. Miles relaxed. "Oh. Good. That wasn't a question, by the way." Well, he did trust ImpSec, after all. He paced towards the wall again. There was still something missing. He could smell it. It would drive him crazy. He circled the footman. The man's hands were bare, right now. How had he served the fruit? Miles was nearly overcome with tempatation to go find an etiquette or protocol book on the spot and do research.

He heard Marya murmuring to Vorthys. "Does he get like this often?"

Vorthys murmured back. "I've only seen it three times. But then, I've only known him a few months."

Months. Time. Alys says it's already too late to change caterers. And ImpSec was delaying the arrests?

"How long would the best caterer need to take over the wedding, now, Aunt Alys?" Miles asked.

"Drescher?" Lady Alys was still boggling a bit. Miles realized he had displayed an unexpected ideosyncratic reaction to his aunt's nerve-shrivler, and she was a bit stunned by the backlash. Whew, with luck she'd never try it on him again. "They'd want a month longer than they have. They'd NEED at least a fortnight more." She shook her head. "Miles, these political concerns are all very interesting, but it might be better to leave the Yakovitch staff in place." She grimaced like a drill sergeant. "...And do some serious remedial training..."

"Calm down, Miles." Ivan begged. "You and Mother have butted into this situation, but believe me, it's under control. If nothing leaks out, at least."

Miles looked at his cousin. Ivan did seem pretty calm, given the circumstances. Miles crossed back towards the table, and studied Marya as well. She, well, she wasn't calm exactly, but didn't seem worried in Lady Alys's direction. So how had the replacement caterer's question been resolved? He pulled himself up into his chair. "Sweets?"

He made a point of watching, this time. The footman cleared the crystal fruit plates with bare hands. Well, fingerprints wouldn't matter on plates headed straight for the dishwasher, would they? The man arranged the empties on a silver salver, balanced on his left arm, as he cleared with his right. For small parties such as this, one all-purpose footman.

For larger parties, a busman would be clearing in synchronization with another servingman bringing in the next course. And, despite his aunt's despair, Miles did understand something of the logistics of large parties. He realized in the huge rooms of Vorhartung Castle, the food needn't travel all the way from the kitchen. Like any good logisitician, the master cook would stage or pre-position the nearly-ready food at a small workstation, (Miles supposed Alys would tell him the technical term for this cooking unit, if he'd dare ask) nearby the table, for a table chef to complete. A bad table chef could ruin the best cook's work. But a good table chef was as much entertainer as cook, putting on a display of flying food, flashing blades, and flame. It could be scary to watch. (And a well-mannered guest was not supposed to watch, or at least to be seen watching.) The better mannered the guests, the flashier the table chefs would become. And, at events where several table chefs were working different tables with sight of one another, Miles had seen competitions spring up among them, as they performed to impress each other. On one memorable occasion, a chef a few tables from Miles' had overdone the brandy in a flambe'; and literally blown a dessert to bits. The more chefs, the more competitive, and the more risky the shows became. Miles was suddenly struck with the comical image of Vorloupulous's Army of 2000 cooks, each armed with a brandy bottle and a huge pastry knife. How long before they started sending up little exploding "mushroom clouds" from various saute' pans and juggling the blades between them?

He blinked. He'd been so entranced by his own vision of Vorloupulous's cooks he'd missed the footman again! Served last, his portion of chocolate cherry cheesecake had arrived on his remaining china plate without him noticing the hands wielding the serving utensils. But surely such a creamy, fluffy confection wasn't served up by gloved hands?

Miles smiled at his guests. Vorthys was practically quivering, waiting for Miles to twitch sufficiently that he might take it as a signal to begin. Miles picked up a fork.

He froze with a bite halfway to his lips.

Vorloupulous' cooks are on the march,
hurrah, hurrah,
They don't serve fats and they don't serve starch,
hurrah, hurrah!
They don't serve fruits and they don't serve sweets,
Just lots of slices of red rare meats
No one goes unserved when Vorloupulous hosts a meal.

The Barrayaran children's folk song rang thru his mind, but the lyrics shifted:

The Yakovitch chefs are quite bereft,
hurrah, hurrah,
Since ImpSec's arrests there's no chiefs left,
hurrah, hurrah,
The manpower's there, they just need cadre,
and a  *Master*  chef to point out the way,
So My Cook's. Not. Safe. When the recruiter's a Vorpatril.

If I were Gregor, Miles realized, I'd want Alys to just orchestrate the whole operation, just as she's asked. I'd give her a free hand. I'd appoint her Ninth Auditor for the purpose... and throw Ivan into the deal for continuity to Security and his experience as an Auditor's Donkey. Ohmigawd. If I was *Ivan* that's what I'd recommend to Gregor, just in case he hadn't already thought of it. And a Auditor could command help from anyone. If I was *me* that's what I'd recommend; except --

"Has there ever been a woman Imperial Auditor before?" Miles butted in to the table talk, which had been going on while he was oblivious. Well, whatever the subject had been, he'd changed it.

Vorthys wiped creme from his lip and considered the question seriously. "Just the once, Miles. I'd have thought you'd know the story."

Miles shook his head, and the Professora picked up the theme. "Early in the struggles for Unification, some of Dorca the Just's troops were accused of a particularly vicious series of gang rapes in the old Vorhalas District, including an attack on the Count's Daughter."

"Nobody could manage that on Susan Vorhalas, these days," Marya said.

Professora Vorthys continued. "The charge, naturally, threatened alliances with the other Counts. So Dorca appointed a Vorhalas kinswomen, Agnes Vorvayne, as Ninth Auditor to hear the women's tales first hand and report."

"Dorca-the-Just's Agnes-the-Vicious," Ivan agreed. "Aunt Agnes is named for her." What was he smirking abou-- ? Oh. He knew this.

Miles was only begining to remember. And he began to wonder if that was the same line of the Vorvaynes... Stick to the problem, boy.

"That nickname was not quite fair," Vorthys complained. "Her victim's interviews offered very good evidence about which captain had allowed the rapes before her tortures extracted--"

"There's precedent, then," Miles interrupted. If anyone was offended he'd blame the asparagus.

"It's a precedent that has discouraged a repetition," Vorthys said.

"It's a good precedent," Lady Alys declared. "If Gregor ever asks me --" she stopped. Her eyes tilted up to examine a vision that hovered over Vorthys' head. Tension lines evaporated from her brow and a smile distinctly unreminiscent of either nerve disruptors or sabers softened her lips.  Miles recognized a face enlightened by the radiance of a brilliant solution.

The Vorpatril team will save the day,
hurrah, hurrah,
But nobody'd better get in their way,
hurrah, hurrah,
They'll commandeer talent by hire and draft
And if they want 'em; they'll steal your staff,
And my cook's not safe when the Vorpatrils plan a meal.

"Actually, that sounds like it might be a good idea," Professora Vorthys said. Being the last to pick up in this company put her only about a half second behind, Miles realized. "If Lady Alys were Auditor--"

"There are limits on an Auditor's powers," Miles hastened to remind everyone. His mind whirled as he tried to think of some.

"The third thing will be to ferret out the miserable little bean counter who decided Vorhartung Castle couldn't afford permanent serving staff," Lady Alys mused aloud.

Oh drat, if her list is that far she's probably already got Kosti pegged. "And the Ninth Auditor's commission is temporary," Miles said frantically.

"But the recommendations are forever," Alys said firmly. She stabbed at her cheesecake. "I hope the recipes are already recorded--"

Alys would definitely make the history books, Miles saw. And it would be good thing for the Imperium. The highest level appointment, for exactly the kind of thing even the old Vor acknowledged as a "women's" issue. But then, Gregor could point to the economic benefits of staffing the castle correctly. Etiquette and economics in alliance. With a sucessful modern precedent confirming the old, there'd be be very few posts where a woman could not be at least considered. The Vorhalas inheritance fight, for instance. This was even more of an advance than when Mark swore in Elena as leige-"woman". But Imperial interests and those of House Vorkosigan are not interchangable. As Ivan had pointed out.

"I wonder if she's ever trained anyone," Miles understood who Alys meant.

"This is conversation, not an ops-planning session," Simon attempted to warn her.

"It's a lot more conversation than I expected to hear tonight," Marya demured.

"I did try to warn you," Ivan said.

"Not hardly hard enough," he was told.

"We can clean up and keep the Yakovitch livery..." Alys went on.

Folksong kept bouncing off the inside of Miles' skull

Now Emperor Dorca's grand decree,
Hurrah, Hurrah,
Was no more private livery
Hurrah, Hurrah,
So Vorloupulous sent his soldier's home
But his cooks make sure he won't feel alone,
No one goes unserved when Vorloupulous hosts a meal.

That's it, that's IT. Miles relaxed. Not brilliance, but speed and brute force were all that he needed.  He wouldn't be alone, at least not for long. He'd have to speak to his tailor. Or perhaps find a good seamstress. He took a big bite of cheesecake to catch up. "It's too bad there's not a more modern precedent for swearing women to office," he said, spraying a few crumbs.

"Dorca's example isn't good enough?" Ivan asked.

"Not recent," Miles said. "But if a Count, say, had sworn in an Armswoman--"

"Everyone would assume she was a concubine," Simon countered.

"You're right," Miles admitted. "The liege oath system disguises a multitude of sins. How did Nyberg address that question?" he asked Professora Vorthys.

His guest boggled a bit, as the question refered back to conversation from several courses back. "Well. As I recall, his analysis took the liege relationships at face value. A liegeman confidential secretary was assumed to be a secretary, for instance. Slanders about Vorvolk notwithstanding..."

"But say I had sworn in young Martin Kosti, who was helping me awhile back. He did duty as driver, footman, chamberman... given multiple duties, what oath applies?"

Vorthys jumped in. "You know how academics are, Miles. Nyberg was making the strongest possible case for his 'multiplier' analysis. He assumed that if ambiguity existed, higher order obligations prevailed."

Perfect, an economist's justification. It was good for the Imperium. "And what is the highest liege oath, aside from Armsman?" Miles pressed, threatening Vorthys with his fork.

"Chamberlain," Alys answered, absently. "Higher, in fact. But, keeping track of Castle Vorhartung's funds is not a problem. The real risk is in scullery. We haven't time to procure more dishes, but to wash and return--"

The Service Logistics Corps ought to study his aunt's mind, Miles thought. But 'chamberlain' was a bit much. Though Kosti had been handling the food budget. The cook's budget. "What oath did the Vorloupulous Armsmen make, when they became cooks?" Miles asked.

Silence. His guests looked at him as if he were odd. Well, it was no stranger a bit of trivia than had come up before in the evening's conversation. He'd been sure someone would know. "Nevermind, I'll look it up. And tomorrow morning, Kosti and I will exchange oaths and go shopping for livery."

Lady Alys beatific glow dimmed behind thunderclouds of thwarted plans. She wrenched her gaze from heaven, leveled a charged finger at Miles, and re-knit her brows. "Miles! You cannot hog that woman's talent during this crisis!"

"It's after the crisis I'm worried about," Miles answered. "Once you got her, would you give her back?" He saw the question strike home.

"You'll swear a woman directly as vassal?" Marya asked.

"If she'll have me," Miles temporized. "For all I know, she may want to move on."

"Miles, your timing is terrible," Alys groused. "You'll spend the next few days in ceremony and outfitting with the woman when I need her for planning--"

"For the next few days," Simon insisted, "This entire conversation is to be strictly forgotten. You all seem to be ignoring that an Imperial Operation, led by Captain Vorpatril here, is in full swing. ANY conspicuous changes to routine among any kitchen related activity, in my view, is a major risk to that operation. Even  IF  you're all full of HORSESHIT about what the operation is, who is affected, and what Gregor will do next."

Thirty years' authority over Imperial Security was sufficientl to silence the immediate conversation's progress, anyhow. Several seconds passed as Simon's forceful advice was digested, along with dessert.

"Nuts?" Miles asked.

"I'm sure you are," Ivan answered.

"Captain Illyan?" Professora Vorthys asked. "My niece was supposed to come with us tonight, and when she wasn't able, Miles here offered to send over a tray. But she insisted I also bring back any good stories we might have heard. Does your prohibition against speaking of tonight's, ah, speculations include her?"

"I'm afraid so," Simon said. "Considering how thoroughly the project has been examined on the basis of the name alone, I'd advise against repeating any part of tonight's talk outside this room."

Bile and gall and the grainy bitter dust-in-the-teeth taste of defeat, Miles thought. He'd been brilliant tonight, for nothing. No one was impressed, even second-hand. Everyone was mad at him. He couldn't even protect Kosti until after the arrests, and Alys would be hovering to jump in first. He closed his eyes in despair.

When he opened them, a small bowl had appeared at his place. Delivered by gloved or ungloved hands? He still didn't know. The evening was a complete waste. He pinched up a bite and crunched, morosely.

Nuts. He certainly was...

© 1998 by Jeff Melcher (
For the original text of Vorloupulous' Cooks see the filk archive.

Current version by Michael Bernardi,

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Last updated: December 2nd 2001