The Best Wet Nurse in Hassadar - A Barrayaran Folktale

by Susan Profit

This was originally posted to the lois-bujold mailing list in March 2002.

On the day you were born little chickadee mine, the Great Countess Vorkosigan founded a hospital to teach doctors and nurses how to take care of her people.

Now, as you know, part of the annual Harvest Fair is the contest for the best Wet Nurse in the district. And this made the people from the hospital very nervous. It seems that they want a mother to nurse her own child, and the Countess Herself nursed her dear little Miles, so we couldn't say it was wrong.

Now, that year there was a young woman come in from the back of the beyond, and she needed money to finish her schooling so she could be a nurse in her home village. She hadn't been married but about a year when her husband died in the war. With a new born baby to feed, and no sure way to get money enough to feed them both, she entered the Harvest Festival Wet Nurse contest.

But she was just a bit of a goose my sweetness, so she babbled to her neighbor about how she was a mother alone. Now, Ma Kirov was a good woman, but she realized that this meant that the young woman wasn't taking the baby to class with her. But she also wasn't leaving the baby alone to cry, so Ma Kirov watched to see what the young mother did. For four mornings she watched, and on the fifth, she saw the young mother kiss the child on the forehead and wrap him up in a blanket of the softest palest green. And that baby was transformed into a necklace of green stone that she hung around her neck and headed off to school.

Ma Kirov wasn't a bad woman, but she knew it wasn't good to have a baby going to the hospital and maybe getting sick. So she went to the head of the school and told him what she had seen. The head of the school was a kind man, but he agreed with Ma Kirov that this was not a good thing. And so they called the young woman into his office and told her she would have to give them her baby to raise until she was through with her schooling. The mother wept so piteously that they told her she could come and see the baby in the morning on any day she did not have school. What could the poor mother do?

So every morning, she went to see her baby boy and fed him and held him and sung sweet songs to him until it was time to go. But more than ever, she was convinced she HAD to enter and win the contest for the best Wet Nurse in the District. She studied hard, she ate all the things she was supposed to eat, and went every day to feed her poor son.

The night before the Harvest Festival was supposed to begin, a strange man appeared at her door. He spoke in a soft voice, so soft that snowfall makes more noise, and he told her he had a gift for her. He gave her a watch made all in silver. And then he went away. But he came back the next day and give her a watch made all in gold before he went away. On the third day, the day before the Wet Nurse contest, he gave her a watch made all of diamonds. And then he said "Tomorrow, ask the judge to let you feed the baby behind a screen. Offer them the watch of silver. Then ask them to let you sing to the baby and offer them the watch made of gold. And last of all, ask them to let you choose the baby to feed, and offer them the watch made all of diamonds. When you are done, turn your son into the necklace you will win the contest." She started to thank him, but he said "Vorkosigan Vashnoi has secrets still, you did not see me and you will not speak of me to anyone or you will lose."

When the young mother went to the Festival, she offered the judge who was taking the names of all those who had entered the watch made all of silver if she could feed the baby behind the screen. Then she offered the judge who gave her the smock to wear if she could sing to the baby and gave him the watch made all of gold. And finally, she offered the judge at the door of the room the babies were in the watch of diamonds if she could pick out the child to feed.

In the door she went, and what did she see but her own dear baby boy among all the others. She picked him up, carried him out to the open room and sat down behind the screen. There she offered him her breast and sang softly to him of all that her heart held of love for him. The baby made no noise but the sounds of his suckling. When he had done eating, she wrapped him in the soft green blanket, turned him into a necklace and got up to leave.

She heard a soft sound behind her, the sound of silken skirts. She turned about and who did she see but the Countess Vorkosigan herself! Oh, dear little cabbage, she went pale. She sat down, and she bowed her head, waiting for the Count's Justice to fall on her.

"Why did you conceal the child?" she heard the strange voice ask. So the young mother told the Countess of all that had happened to her. The Countess replied "Barrayarans!" And after a moment more, she said, "Wait right here, don't move."

When the young mother looked up again, the Countess was striding back into the room with the three judges, Ma Kirov and the head of the school running along behind her. Looking at Ma Kirov, she asked "When you saw this young woman had to conceal the child as a necklace to keep him safe, why didn't you offer to care for him?" Ma Kirov turned red with shame "I didn't think of it." "No, you didn't think."

Looking to the head of the school, she sighed and said "Why didn't you offer to care for the child while she was in class?" "He turned pale with shame and said "I did what I thought was the best." "Do you still think it?" "Nooooo."

Then she turned to the judges and asked them to hold out their hands. Seeing the three watches just as the young mother had described them, she frowned and said "Is this the way you serve the honor of the Vorkosigan? Taking BRIBES!?!" The hung their heads, and she made a motion with her hand.

Her armsmen took the three into custody, and marched them out of the room. She looked at the head of the school and said "I will pay her fees until she is finished. YOU will pay for the child to be watched when she is at school." She turned to Ma Kirov and said "YOU will watch the child for her." She turned to face the young mother and said "Give me the baby." The mother removed the necklace from around her neck, said a few words and it was her own dear baby boy again. She handed the child to the Countess.

The countess smiled and made baby fingers at the child. "Follow me" she said over her shoulder as she marched out the the people waiting to hear who had won the prize. "I declare this woman to be the best Wet Nurse in the district. For she has been forced to be wet nurse to her own babe by fools, but was still willing to give everything she had just to be near him." One woman started to open her mouth to object, but the crowd shushed her and started clapping. I was the loudest one.

And that my dear chickabiddy is why your sister who was born the next day came to be named Cordelia, after our great Countess Vorkosigan, whose wisdom and compassion pours forth onto her people in great and endless measure.

© 2002 by Susan Profit (

Current version by Michael Bernardi,

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Last updated: June 20th 2002