Women of Barrayar

by Stella Lindblom

Cordelia sat beside Miles in his bed. The poor boy had had an accident investigating the fastest way of getting down the spiral staircase, and his arms were now in two neat packages and on top of this he had caught a cold. She was reading Ivanhoe, an ancient, pre-isolation book originally from Earth, to him. He loved it.
"I want to be a knight when I grow up, mom", he said with glowing eyes. She checked if he had a fever, but the temperature seemed to be normal.
"I'm sure you do", she said, disbelieving. What had she wanted to be herself when she was nine? She couldn't remember now. Her pager beeped.
"The guests have arrived, milady", a voice proclaimed. She left her son to play with his tiny toy horses and knights on the cover of his bed. She could hear him screeching, banging and neighing far down the corridor.

Countess Marya Vorinnis stood in the foyer with her daughter and son, servants in brown and silver helping them out of their heavy winter garments.
"Dear Countess Marya. Welcome", she said and realized just how much she meant it. The little woman was so different from Alys and the other barracudas she mostly socialized with.
"I'm so glad we can put everything behind us now", Marya said with a shy smile. The three remaining members of the Vorinnis family had been quasi-prisoners at ImpSec for almost two weeks of ghastly interrogations. Cordelia had no illusions about ImpSec's methods against either enemy or friend, and the little herd in front of her looked worn out. Now that they were freed from charges of Conspiracy Against the Empire, Cordelia had invited them to rest at the Vorkosigan House, and to come to Vorhartung Castle for the Winter Fair Ball. They look as if they need this, she thought, and motioned them into the drawing room next to the library.
Cordelia's beeper sounded again. "Mom, where is the little lord you said was coming. Is he here? Does he want to play knights?" She smiled.
"He is here, yes, but you will have to wait a little bit, love. If you don't want to come down here, that is."
"Naw." They signed off.
"My son is in bed after some surgery", she said to Marya and turned to Arnau. "Would you like to go up to his room to visit? He is about your age, you know." The boy looked a little more interested and a servant was called for to take him up the stairs.
Another servant came carrying a tray with tea. Cordelia served her guests and said:  "My husband is off on his tour to visit some more Counts, while I decided to stay here, now when Miles is ill again. What would you like to do the rest of the week, before the Ball? If you would like to go to the city to buy some nice dresses, I'll be glad to accompany you." She looked at the old and battered dresses they both were wearing. They wouldn't pass for Vor in this city, she decided icily. Not that it did matter to her, but she frowned thinking of the stiff-necked high Vor society.
"That would be lovely, but I brought everything we will need", said Marya with an evasive gesture.
Cordelia thought of the clothes she had seen at Vorinnis Castle and drew a breath to allow a diplomatic answer. "I'm sure your dresses are lovely, Countess Marya. I just wanted you to know that the dress-code is somewhat different here. Especially for the Ball."
"Oh, Lady Vorkosigan. Lord Vorinnis was very generous and gave me more money than I have ever seen at one single time in my whole life. And he told me to ask for more if I needed any. I don't know... " She looked strained.
"... if you can really spend it freely?", Cordelia filled in the blanks. Marya sighed.
"Know what?", Cordelia said encouragingly. "Let's go out and just look at the city." Marya looked relieved.
They heard some distant banging noises from above, which made Cordelia call her son.
"Miles, I heard that. Are you up?"
"Naw, s'just Arnie ca-chomping, mom."
"Y'know, the jumpies that Ivan gave me last birthday? Arnie likes them!"
Oh yeah, the ingenious gift that had broken yet a couple of more bones in her sons body. The gear had been stashed away ever since. Ca-chomping... She'd better check on the little lords before something more bizarre happened.
The three women ascended the stairs and peeped into Miles's room. He was sitting in his bed ordering Arnau to do this and that. "Hey, ma, I'm his riding teacher. He doesn't know dressage. I'm teaching him", her son was radiating. Arnau's face was hard to read.
Cordelia let out a silent breath and smiled cautiously. "You don't say. I'll have Bothari hang around you boys, just in case... Just in case."

The three women sat in silence in the ground car. Lilly's mouth was hanging open most of the time, Countess Marya looked generally astonished, and Cordelia tried not to giggle at her guests' goggle.
"There are so many people", Lilly said faintly. "And the houses... Mother - look!"
"Yes, dear, I see. I have been here before you know."
The ground car stopped in the snowy street in front of the "Tall Mall" a twenty storey building not far from Vorhartung Castle. It contained most things a Vor Lady could ever need or want and then some. The Entrance Lounge was huge, occupying most of the ground floor. It was guarded by Tall Mall Security. They looked scrutinizingly at the Vorinnis couple and planned to stop them, but backed away when they recognized Cordelia. She saw them in the angle of her eye. Dress code was the word, and Lilly's and Marya's clothes wasn't up to the Vor standards of Vorbarr Sultana. How could Cordelia help them without hurting them? By simply showing them how things were done here. To make them want to change themselves, she guessed.
They left their out-door garments to the Wardrobe Warden and took a lift to the top floor and the restaurant there. The waiters were busy and almost all tables were taken, but Cordelia could see how two younger women were tactfully ushered away to another table just before the head waiter came to guide them to the vacated places at the windows. The little queue at the sign "Please, wait here for assistance." had vanished when they arrived, and was now forming up again.
"Oh, how lucky we are to get this  table", chirped Lilly. "Yes, very lucky", said Cordelia softly.

After some tea and pastries, and a lot of "oohs" and "aahs" from Lilly, they left for the seventh floor. Mirrors and lamps made a kaleidoscope of all the fabric on endless shelves and tables at "Fabrizio's". Cordelia was instantly met by an elderly clerk and they walked slowly further into the store. She saw how Lilly stretched out her hand to touch a violet velvet, and heard her argue with her mother.
"Behave now, child."
"Mother... Look at the others. Everybody's touching and feeling the fabrics."
"I just don't want you to make a fool out of yourself, dear. Be careful. We can't afford this."
Cordelia drew further away from them to let them have some privacy.

Marya was looking for a price tag, but couldn't find one. A saleswoman was closing in on her and Marya fidgeted, searching for Cordelia.
"Could I help you, madame?", said the woman. Marya saw the name tag: Mrs. Kostetska. She didn't know if this meant that the woman had been introduced, and if she was supposed to give her name as well. She glanced at the calm and secure Cordelia heading futher down the aisle, and decided on a way to cover her discomfort. "No, thank you very much, Mrs. Kostetska. I am merely here with Lady Vorkosigan."
Mrs. Kostetska looked the little woman up and down. Marya didn't know how to interpret the smile...no, smirk on her face, and when the clerk told her to come look for nicer things closer to the exit, she let herself be led there. A few meters from the exit a finely clad woman came... floating in through the gates. Dark red robes flowed around her. A retainer followed with some bags in his hands. Marya couldn't keep from staring at the valkyrie passing her. Mrs. Kostetska made a quick curtsey and went on with her task of getting the woman out of the store.

Lady Alys Vorpatril came up close to Cordelia before recognizing her.
"Why, Cordelia, love. I didn't expect you to come here on your own", said Lady Vorpatril and slowed down. Cordelia turned and caught a glimpse of Countess Vorinnis being led away from the store. "Oh, my... rescue mission, Alys" she said and nodded toward the exit. The saleswoman had taken a firm grip around Countess Vorinnis's upper arm and tried rather brusquely to lead her out of the gates. Alys and Cordelia hurried to the silent struggle.
"Countess Vorinnis, I'm very sorry I neglected you", Cordelia said lowly to Marya. "Would you like to look at something that might suit Lilly, over here?", her eyes stared angrily at the clerk, who went white as paper and let go of Marya's arm. Alys looked amused, but raised her left brow to stare with one eye at the saleswoman. They smoothly grabbed one of Marya's arms each and steered her back into the store. None of the scattered customers seemed to have noticed what had happened, but Cordelia was convinced that a garbled version of this would probably reach her ears within the week.

"Now really, Cordelia, shame on you. How could you let poor Countess Vorinnis come here clad like this? Cheesecloth...."
Cordelia winced. Marya looked frightened.
"And don't you look surprised", Alys carried on. "Countess Vorinnis, I apologise for my dear friend. I am Lady Alys Vorpatril", she said as if that explained everything and put a comforting hand on Marya's arm. "Come here, dear Countess. I will help you find some more suitable things. You'll blend in perfectly - you'll see." Alys motioned Marya in the direction of the elderly clerk, who moved her further into the depths of Fabrizio's.
Cordelia stopped and Alys said from the corner of her mouth:
"Cordelia, dear. They need guidence!"
Cordelia smiled. "My prayer was answered when you arrived, my friend. You're an angel."
"A fat little thing with wings?", Alys asked consternated.
"No, not a cherub - you are more like an archangel decending from the skies to intervene in ordinary people's lives", she said, still smiling.

Cordelia looked around and found Lilly at the purple and violet section. She was holding a fine, billowing satin in her hands. Cordelia cleared her throat, and the girl whirled around but relaxed when she saw who was coming.
"Don't you want to look over here, at the models, before you decide on color?", she asked. "Wouldn't you like something in your House colors?"
"I guess I should, but this...it's so beautiful. I have never seen anything like it. If I can just have one dress, I want it to be this color."
"Just one dress wouldn't do, dear. Come."
They trotted over to an enclosure with sofas and vid-screens.

Back at Vorkosigan House, mother and daughter Vorinnis disappeared into their guest quarters to look at, and show each other, all the new clothes. It was totally amazing. A machine had sewn it all while they had gone to buy shoes and a diversity of toiletries and jewelery, and to have their hair done.
Marya felt like laughing or crying, and did both. With tears streaming down her cheeks, she fell into a lump on the floor. Lilly didn't know what to do and sat down beside her mother's shaking body, cautiously patting her arm.
"I'm sorry, mother", she said on the verge of crying herself. Marya looked up at her.
"Don't be sorry, girl. I don't know why I'm crying - I'm happy, I think. It's just too many changes in a short time." She tried to rise, but fell back to the floor, and Lilly sat there hugging her until the tears stopped trickling over her cheeks.
"I did swear an oath to follow your father whatever happened to him, to serve him loyally and to care for the succession of his House. But whatever I do I will break that oath. If I follow your father I will die with him, but I must also take care of Arnau." A twang of pain shot through Lilly's stomach. Always Arnau, never her.
"Mom, you swore to follow him as long as he lives, not when he dies. That would be preposterous."
"Yes, but I should at least be in prison with him now." She drew a few sobbing breaths. "But I am so glad to be rid of him", she said darkly, "and I loathe myself for even thinking like that. It's all so confusing..."
Lilly helped her mother to bed and sat looking at all the new things, thinking. She could understand her mother being sad, but personally she was glad to be rid of her father. She didn't want to return to Vorinnis Castle either, she wanted to stay here.

Meanwhile, Bothari made a short report to Cordelia on the strategic status in Miles's room. The boys were friends at the moment. A fight had started when Arnau got tired of being directed by Miles, but Bothari had made it clear that he wouldn't allow Arnau any kind of physical reprisals, only verbal. He had also told Miles what was right and proper when another Lord was visiting. The boys being equally rebuked had formed a new pact and were now playing a game of some sort.

The days passed quickly. The female troika, sometimes extended by Lady Vorpatril, went to places like The Time of Isolation Museum, The Prince Xav Memorial, The Museum of War and History and the Terraforming Institute. They looked at the bronze plaque in the street of the Caravanserai where Lord Vorpatril had met his destiny and had coffee in a little confectionery, saw the grave of the Lady Auditor Agnes-the-Vicious and a dozen other places of interest.

Two days before the Ball, Captain Lord Francis Vorinnis called on comconsole from his desk at Galactic Affairs, ImpSec HQ to make sure his sister-in-law was well. Cordelia answered the call herself and when she heard that he had returned to Vorbarr Sultana, she invited him to the informal dinner with close friends the same night.
"Thank you, milady, but I don't know if I can be counted as a close friend, can I", he said defensively. "I met my sister-in-law a bare three weeks ago. I must admit that we became quite good friends in spite of the situation, but less than two days isn't much time. I just wanted to make sure that everything is fine with her and the kids."
"They are just fine, and I think they would like to see you again."
"It's an opportunity for you to get to know the family better." When he didn't answer anything to this, she continued. "Put on your dress greens and come here, Captain."
"Oh, I can't disobey a direct order, can I?" He smiled broadly.

Marya's first reaction when she heard that Lord Francis would come, was fear. "What will he do when he sees all these clothes", she whispered in terror. She had put those fears aside after the breakdown the first day, but now they bubbled up.
"He will see that you have become true Vor, milady", said Cordelia to soothe her. "He will be proud", she added. Marya looked disbelieving at her.
"Did he give you any orders on how to use the money, when you received it?", Cordelia asked.
"No, not really. He said that I should take care of myself and the kids, and have a good time - as good as was possible during the circumstances."
"There you go, then. He's not Jaque, you know. He's Francis - another person altogether. He even ran away from Jaque. I don't think you have to fear anything from him."
Marya sighed deeply. "Yes, I guess you're right. I just react with my spine."
"Couldn't be", Lilly said abstractedly from her surfing at the comconsole. "You don't have one, do you?"
Marya looked angrily at her daughter, who very calmly gazed back at her, a sad smile on her face. Cordelia choked on a laugh and Marya drew down her brows, anger dissipating into thoughtfulness. "You know what, Lilly - I think you're right. Lady Cordelia, where can I buy myself a new spine? And I want it to be strong."
"I think it's in store for you", Cordelia said. "And it will cost nothing more than effort and accepting some new thoughts."

Lilly had put on a light blue dress embroidered with white pearls. The little scare-crow from Silvayne had turned into a petite little lady. But the big surprise was Marya. She was wearing a yellow dress, the color of a buttercup. The new dress, the new hair-do, make-up and the chin raised more proudly than ever before made the picture complete, but when she saw herself in the mirror she slumped her shoulders.
"Is this me?"
"I can see your spine growing by the hour, dear Marya", said Cordelia comforting. "Stretch it and give justice to the dress. Any day now we will have to go shopping again, to buy an even more magnificent dress that can do you  justice." Marya looked disbelieving at her hostess.
"It's all a question of attitude, anyway", Cordelia said. "Fake it till you make it."
Marya looked into the mirror again and put her shoulders back. Yes, she thought, I grew smaller at Vorinnis Castle. Jaque made me crumble. But he's not worth it.  And she smiled at herself, a smile that she hadn't seen for many years.

The scene was dazzling. Francis recognized Lilly in a heavenly blue dress and Lord Arnau in Vorinnis livery.  Lady Alys Vorpatril sat gingerly on a sofa talking to a stunning woman reminding him of Marya. One of her sisters perhaps. Admiral Lord Aral Vorkosigan was standing at the mantelpiece talking to a bland man in dress greens. He hadn't seen Illyan as close up before, but recognized him instantly. Lady Cordelia was talking to a boy, a young man - they seemed close to one another, her son maybe. But wasn't he supposed to be a cripple? Lord Francis looked at the boy again and realized that he was looking at Emperor Gregor. Francis had not been prepared for this and felt the situation gliding away form him.
Cordelia smiled and came to greet him. The Admiral noticed him too and welcomed him and they informally introduced the last guest to the others.
The presentation went well, but when they came to the lady in yellow, the hostess didn't say anything. Francis took the unknown woman's hand, and looked inquiringly at Cordelia, waiting for a cue, looked again and gasped.
"Countess Marya", he said silently and nodded pensively. He smiled at Cordelia; "What have you done with her, mylady?" Marya's face turned to stone. "I'm sorry, mylord, I shouldn't have...", the words faded away into a whisper.
"Shouldn't have what?", he said softly with glowing eyes. "You're... you're beautiful. Heavens, I didn't recognize you." Alys looked possessively victorious.

They had the informal dinner around a square table. Aral and Cordelia sat on one side facing Gregor who had Lilly to his right. On the other axis Illyan and Alys sat opposite Francis and Marya. The boys were excused and had their supper in Miles's room. Miles wasn't in shape to sit at the table yet, and Arnie would undoubtedly be more comfortable where he was, not to speak of the probable nuisance he would be downstairs.
Lilly was feeling absolutely awkward at the beginning of the evening. To have dinner with the Emperor was not on her wish list to Father Frost. He didn't say much, Emperor Gregor. A very timid person indeed. She soon stopped being awed of sitting next to her emperor, the boy seemed normal enough - and boring. She looked instead at Lady Cordelia, wondering about the things she had found about her on the comconsole, wanting to know if it was true.
"Where are you flying, Lilly? You haven't even touched your food." She was called back from her reveries by her uncles voice. "You seem lost among the clouds." She gave a short laugh and turned to him.
"I was wondering about what it is like to be grown up", she said. She was amazed that Uncle Francis was so nice and easy to talk with. He understood. She was never afraid with him. "I want to do things, learn things." She frowned and said: "Promise that you won't give me away to the first schmuck that asks for my hand, Uncle Francis."
He was taken aback by this. "I wouldn't dream of it."
"Good", she said and started eating.

Lady Alys was pleased to have good old Simon at the table, but soon noticed the strained silence to her right. "Gregor", she said, "you are more shy than befit an Emperor. You could at least try to make friends with Lilly." She returned her focus to Illyan again.
Gregor looked side-wise at Lilly and was relieved that she was in the middle of an animated discussion with her relative, Lord Vorinnis, but that soon ended. He gathered what courage he could muster.
"Is this your first visit to Vorbarr Sultana?", he sputtered out, blushed and felt pretty stupid. He knew it was her first visit here. She knew that he knew, and he knew that she knew that he knew. He looked down and sawed decisively at the steak to cover his embarrassment. I should change my name to Gregor Embarra, he thought glumly. She looked at him, felt his predicament and whispered, loudly and mischievously:
"Could you keep a secret, sire?"
He nodded.
"It's really my third visit here. I'm a secret agent for the Barrayaran Women's Liberation Army."
Alys and Cordelia lifted their gazes and frowned at each other. Gregor choked on the meat in his mouth, and didn't know what to make of it. For all he knew, they were supposed to be servile and boring, the Vor maidens. Then he tried a little smile and looked up at her.
"Are you serious?", he asked. She looked very serious indeed, but suddenly a laugh was in her eyes and she put her hand to her mouth. He smiled and then they both broke out into uncontrolled paroxysms of laughter.

After dinner the party, except for Illyan who received a call and left for HQ, moved to the Library to have coffee and some stronger liquids. Gregor and Lilly were now discussing highlights in Barrayaran history. She was looking for evidence for her theories in the many books, while Gregor searched the comconsole to find proof to gainsay her.
"Where is Gregor staying tonight, Cordelia?", asked Alys.
"I thought you were taking him back to the Castle", said Cordelia. They both looked at the young couple. "No, let the poor child stay here", said Alys and started to put her things together to leave. "Eventually he has found someone his own age to have some fun with. I have better get home and see how my little baby is."
"Your little baby will turn ten next time, Alys. Before you know it he will be a grown man."
"I know, but...he will always be my baby. All that I have." Suddenly she looked aged, but smiled hastily and rose. "I'll tell Security about the change of plans."
Francis picked this moment to say good-bye, too. After the greetings were done, and Alys and Francis had left, the remaining diners found their way to the kitchen for some late-night snacks.
"Well, Countess Marya", said Aral, "are things as they should be back home?"
"I'm so grateful. Lord Francis has hired a new staff and Count Vorsoisson has lent us his majordomo to train the new people. There are some new armsmen, too, and Lord Francis has started to train them himself. He is worried though." She looked around for support. "He didn't say anything, but I'm not sure he knows what to do. He has a job here and has vowed never to set foot at Vorinnis Castle again. It must be hard for him..." She trailed off and stared at her half-eaten sandwich. Suddenly she smiled again. "But he really liked the dress, Cordelia, as you said - he did. He wanted me to have even more money, but I haven't spent half of it yet... How much money can he spend like this? Where does it come from?"
"I don't know", said Aral, "but Silvayne District isn't poor. Considering the circumstances, I'd call it "Vorinnis money" and let the issue rest."
"I'd say it's a kind of restitution. Some money he thinks that the Count owes you", Cordelia filled in.

The light was out, but neither Aral or Cordelia could find sleep.
"What are you thinking, love?", he asked.
"Marya. She has changed so much. It is as if Jaque never existed, she's deep into denial. I think she hurts terribly, everything hanging in the balance like this."
"I had the final report on Count Vorinnis just before dinner. I didn't want to tell you. Should we tell her before or after the Ball, do you think?"
"Tell her what?"
"Jaque is deemed to be mentally unstable, but sane enough to be able to take responsibility for his actions."
"And there are some bad tidings about Arnau, as well..." Aral sighed. "It's easier this time, though. Executing Carl Vorhalas was worse - he wasn't a monster." The old tormenting ghosts of the past were still haunting the living. "It won't be public, you know. A strictly confidential matter. He will have died from that strange disease. We can't execute people without a good reason, but this reason should stay classified. Openness about it will be counterproductive."
"So, it will be an ImpSec murder, you mean? Without a proper trial?"
"He has had a proper trial, don't you worry, but a secret one."
"And what about all the secrecy?"
"I wish Barrayar were stable enough, so that schemes like this could be brought out into the open. But if it were, there would not be schemes like this..."
"Cetaphobia, yes?"
"Mainly. The old terror of civil war breaking out again. This incident shows that I have relaxed too much."
"You have to show trust to get trust."
"Ah, Betan to the bone." He thought of what she had said for a moment, but was cut off in his reverie.
"You said there were bad tidings about Arnie. Exactly what tidings?"
"His profile shows anomalies."
"And just how different will he be when, or if, he becomes Count, that's what I would like to know."
"What do you mean if ?" Cordelia turned her head to look at Aral.
"Let's say that we are discussing contingencies, that's all."
"Are we talking psychological anomalies here? What about applying some therapy?", she asked grimly, thinking that more people than Arnau would need some.
"If I could choose who will become the next Count Vorinnis, I'd choose a sane man before an insane ten year old boy. You'll have to excuse me for that. And, what's more, I am  in the position to choose, and I will not change my opinion." His voice was tense.
She thought about this for a second and said: "Barrayaran internal affairs. Anybody not wanting to shoot at me or my family can have my vote any day. I'm sure you will do your best. Anything else on your mind?" She looked at her husband who flicked a smile upon his lips.
"Well, the number of nine has repeatedly bounced up into my consciousness several times today", he said, grinning at her.

Winter Fair day started with a crisp mid-winter sun shining through some daring snowflakes slowly circling down through the air. The sky was mostly blue and the white still clean snow, lay heavily on branches and roofs.
They were gathered in the dining room, scattered leisurely around the table, sleep-in style, intermittently stuffing their mouths with the eclectic smorgasbord of traditional foods from the Dendarii District; pork-legs, grilled ham, patês, pickled herring and the like, and the Silvayne District; salted sturgeon, caviar, nuts and pirakka. Cordelia had even succeeded in bringing in some vat cubes from Beta Colony, but no-one but she showed them any interest. The initial hunger for food had dissipated into a laid-back waiting for something to happen.
"Mommy, can we have the PRE-sents soon", Miles was running around in circles in and out of the room, flapping his casts as wings.
"Aral, could you make your son sit still for a second or two, Marya's getting a headache", said Cordelia and looked at the ceiling as Miles passed behind her back with a "vroooom!!".
"He's got too much pent up energy from staying in bed for so long. Let him wear himself out", Aral responded, took her hand and kissed it.
She put out her other hand to catch her son on his next round. "Miles, save some energy for tonight, will you?" He tugged at her arm and looked up, cocking his head to the side, charming her with one of his blazing smiles. "I do." She shook her head and let him go before he would do something to disturb Elena who was sitting silently in Cordelia's lap, neatly braiding her foster-mother's hair into thin plaits.
Arnau stood by the window, counting snowflakes.
The door chimed and soon Ivan came running in. He stopped short when he saw Arnie, and leapt after Miles on his next loop through the diningroom, a parlor and the kitchen.
Lilly and Gregor were playing Five in a row with groats and sugarlumps on the checkered table cloth while Countess Marya was eating with glazed eyes, trying to ignore the noise around her.
Lord Francis entered the room with Lady Alys on his arm. Marya gave a shy smile that didn't reach her eyes and Aral rose to make room for the new-comers.
Miles came running to their side. "Did you see Father Frost, Aunt Alys?", he asked at the top of his lungs.
"Yes, as a matter of fact - I did", she answered.
"Is he HERE?", Miles looked around him frantically.
"No, not yet", she answered slowly, "but he told me that he would come when young Miles Vorkosigan was sitting properly at the table, doing his best to get well." She nodded slowly to underline the gravity of the situation. Cordelia looked gratefully at her. Miles spun round to run away again, stopped, spun back, sighed and sat down on the closest chair. "Mom, where IS Father Frost?", he whined. Cordelia decided that he should go back to bed right after Father Frost's visit. He was never whining like this when he was well. She put her hand on his forehead - he was hot. She looked into his feverish eyes. Aral saw it too and held out his hands to him. Miles curled himself up in his father's lap.

Suddenly there was a sound of heavy, rhythmic treads in the parlor. A dark voice roared and a huge white-clad figure came in leaving heaps of snow on the floor. All the kids jumped and Miles and Ivan screamed with excitement. The teenagers looked up, and Gregor smiled benignly at Father Frost. Arnie's jaw dropped.
"Have you been doing what is right and proper, this year?", the figure asked Miles with a deep, guttural voice. He nodded vigorously, and received a package. The scene was replayed for each child. Even Lilly got a present. Father Frost turned to Gregor who sighed and looked at Cordelia. "Don't you think I'm getting a little bit too old for this, Aunt Cordelia?"
"So, let it be the last year for you, then", she said, smiled and thought about the day before the dinner. Then he had been looking forward to this, but of course he didn't want to be childish in front of a girl.
Father Frost didn't say much - as usual. After a swig of brandy he returned out into the cold. A few minutes later Bothari came into the room and took up post at the kitchen entrance. Elena looked morosely at him, big dark eyes, and looked as if she knew the source of her gift and didn't appreciate it. She played idly with a necklace of pink stones, while Miles had found new energy to fire his toy stunner at one after another. Aral motioned to Bothari to see Miles to bed.
"Bothari, you missed Father Frost", said Miles, as they wandered out of the diningroom.
"Hm, yes, someone had to hold his horses", Bothari answered.
"Is that why he was so late?"
Cordelia looked wonderingly after them. "Doesn't he understand, after all these years?", she said. Aral smiled, "Probably. I don't think he wants to spoil the show, doesn't want to hurt the sergeant."

Gregor returned to the Castle, and the rest of the inhabitants of Vorkosigan House returned to their rooms to prepare for the Ball. Aral went into the bathroom to take a shower, and Cordelia sneaked after him.
"Hey - company", Aral said enthusiastically. "Do you have a battle plan, Dear Captain?"
She laughed and kissed him. "Actually, I'm worried."
"Now what?", Aral said with water in his mouth.
"Marya's not really with us today. I was wondering if it's time to drop the bomb now, before we go. It will be a grisly thing to do, but I don't think she can take the waiting any longer."
"Maybe you're right. You're the expert in that field. Can I have the soap, please?"
"Back?", she said and turned around. He caressingly soaped her back.
"There's another thing that is complicating the matter", he said. "I just got an attachment to the report on Jaque..."
"Arnie is not Jaque's son."

Alys and Francis had sat down in the parlor to wait for the rest of the company.
"May I assume that you, mylady, have been holding one of the magic wands around Marya the past week?", he said.
"No magic required, mylord. Countess Marya is Vor - we merely helped her on her way, if I may say so."
"She has changed, hasn't she? The woman I met at the Estate was a subservient, frightened person. The woman yesterday was so alive, comparably. Whoever is responsible for the change should have a medal."
There was a slight pause.
"Do you plan to move down to the Estate?", she asked inquiringly, hiding her eager curiousness.
"I don't want to think about that before I know if Jaque survives or not. Everybody here seems to be sure that my brother will die, but what if he doesn't?"
"Cordelia mentioned that if  he survives, which wasn't very likely, it will take years before he's well enough to come home, if ever", said Alys.
"Years?", Francis looked baffled. "He could afford the best medical treatment, even galactic help. Why should it take years?"
"I understand he isn't very fond of galactic inventions", she said. "Why don't you ask him. He must have access to a comconsole. If he's conscious that is. Or uses them..."
"He was a bastard, you know. That's why I left home", he said pensively. "Can't imagine he has changed very much over the years. Don't see why I should talk to him now." He thought back on his return to Vorinnis Castle.
"I swore on my name as Vorinnis, never to go back there as long as Jaque was alive. I backed on that word when I heard that he was practically dead and had a young son. And a young wife." He made a pause. "And a daughter."
"I can't figure the Countess, though", he said inquiringly. "You have met her more than I have. You have done wonders with her. Is she sorry for Jaque? I haven't dared talk about him. I don't want her to lose that smile."
Alys looked smugly sideways at him and saw his contented smile.
"She doesn't talk much about it", she said. "Cordelia says she is denying, whatever she means by that."
"Blocking it all out. That's what it means. It's too much, so she is blocking it out, denying that it happens at all."
They sat contemplating in silence for a while, until Alys's curiosity made her ask:
"Would you consider moving to the Estate if Count Vorinnis died, then?"
He smiled at her, wondering what kind of an interrogator she might have become in the Service, had it accepted women. She was focused, and intent. He thought about military personnel he had met from other planets and wondered how long it would take Barrayar to accept women on military posts.
"If Jaque dies, I will have some obligations to the District. I already have obligations enough to fill my days, so I will need to sort out which obligations take precedence over the others."
"Obligations to what?"
"Oh, my work at ImpSec, mainly."
"No other obligations?" The question sounded innocent enough.
"None that springs to mind, no." He started to wonder what it was she wanted to know.
"So you are free to go wherever it pleases you, then", she said, contented.
"Where it pleases the Service to send me, at least."
"And your ... domestic habits wouldn't be interfered by moving to the Silvayne Estate?"
It suddenly dawned on him what she was implying. "Well, no. I don't have much of any domestic habits. I'm not attached to any domestic obligations, Lady Vorpatril. And I'm used to pack lightly and go places with short notice. I think I might be able to split my time between Vorbarr Sultana and Silvayne", he said as lightly as he could.
Alys looked squarely at him. "Was there ever a Lady Vorinnis, Lord Vorinnis?"
He looked back at her, calculating possible futures and pasts. "No, we didn't... she never... no."
Alys sank back, subdued by the sudden shift in his moods. She was walking in an emotional mine-field and needed something else to talk about.
"Taking care of the upbringing of a boy all alone, is not something I would recommend to any woman. Especially not a boy who is going to be a Count with his own district", Alys said slowly. "I think we need some tea", she said suddenly.

Sipping from her cup, Alys resumed the friendly questioning.
"What would you do if Jaque were hospitalized for an extended period of time?"
He took his time to answer. "I think that depends on the Countess."
"How could that depend on Marya?", she wondered.
"Well. I wouldn't want to... how shall I put this ... intrude in the life of somebody if that person didn't want me to intrude."
"And Marya wouldn't want to have you in the house, you mean?" Alys barked a short laugh.
"Of that I know nothing." This won him a reproaching glance.
"And if she would want to have you in the house?"
He glanced at her, not sure how to interpret that question.
"I wouldn't dream of jumping to premature conclusions, but..."
"Yes? But...?"
"She is rather likable. But she is also my brother's wife."
"Rather likable", muttered Alys under her breath. "What do you think of the District, then? Is it well kept?", she asked.
"Lots of things could be modernized, of course, but it's not poor in any way. It strikes me as odd, though", he said, "that there were no servants at the estate when I got there. And the only guards were ImpSec men, who took Marya and the childen to ImpMil shortly after I arrived... and the goons acted as if they were arrested." He had been thoroughly occupied by all the chores at the estate, to not consciously notice this earlier.
Before Alys could find an answer for him, a retainer entered and asked her to come and assist Countess Vorinnis.

Francis was left alone to his thoughts, and he was thinking hard. He stood up and started to walk slowly in a circle, talking out loud to himself.
"Scenario one: Jaque falls ill, the local doctor can't do anything and calls ImpMil. ImpMil gets test and finds that Jaque has caught an epidemic disease, and sends ImpSec goons to isolate the place. The servants are moved to quarantine, but Countess Vorinnis stays with her husband. Jaque is sent to ImpMil PDQ, but Marya and the kids stay to wait for me. Then the goons take them here for tests." The logical chain had a very weak link somewhere... He stopped.
"Why did they wait for me? Why have they held the family for two weeks of isolation at ImpMil, but have not taken even a blood-sample from me? I met them - I can be ill, too", he said with a streak of worry in his voice. He calmed down and started to walk again.
"The goons must've had orders to detain anyone who was at the estate if there is an epidemic going on - something's missing."
He walked two more rounds in silence.
"Scenario two; Jaque falls ill..." He stopped again. This was the weak link. If Jaque was truly terminally ill in an epidemic disease, there was no way ImpSec could have left him to walk around freely like this.
"So, if Jaque is not ill... what is happening?", he said with emphasis.
Aral cleared his throat. The sound made Francis about-face to stare into a set face with gleaming eyes. Lord Vorinnis came to attention, stared out the window and said "Sir!" before he knew what he was doing. A little too late he remembered that he was a guest in this house, but he didn't dare move now.
"And what exactly do you know about your brother?", the Admiral asked lowly not far away from his ear.
Francis gulped. "Nothing, sir." Something was amiss.
"At ease", said Vorkosigan with an almost normal voice. "Sit down. Tell me; why did you say that Count Vorinnis is not ill?"
Vorinnis gave an account of his analysis, and fell silent. Aral looked at him for a long while, then nodded slowly.
"The conclusion you made is considered top secret, and I want you to swear on your honor as Count Francis Vorinnis that you say nothing of this to anyone, without my permission to do so, before we leave this room."
Francis wondered for a fleeting second if he would dare to demand to be in the know before doing what the Regent wanted, but sighed and said:" I swear, on my honor as Lord -" Francis hesitated. The Regent had said 'Count', hadn't he?   "eh, Francis Vorinnis not to mention anything about my theories about my brother Jaque to anyone who is not personally concerned about this matter."
"Very well - you will be told, what you need to know, when you need to know it", Aral said. "But we'll leave that for now - today is Winterfair."

When Aral left their rooms, Cordelia ordered a servant to go get Marya for her. She felt like the Betan Astronomical Survey Captain again, dealing with her crew's personal problems.
"Please sit, Countess Vorinnis. I think you'll need that." said Cordelia when Marya walked through the door. She motioned to the bed and sat down beside her guest, took her hand and searched for eye-contact.
"It's over", she said and looked at Marya, whose head swayed.
"Jaque is what they call 'mentally unstable', but he is deemed to be able to take responsibility for his actions. Are you with me, Marya?"
Marya's head swivelled even more and suddenly she turned her eyes upward and fell backward. Cordelia caught her in mid-air. The body was limp and heavy, but Cordelia simply put her on the floor and held up her feet. It helped within seconds.
A tear was running across Marya's cheek when she was helped up on the bed again. Cordelia took Marya's head between her hands and looked into her eyes.
"Do you understand what I'm saying? He is deemed responsible, punishable for high treason. Do you understand what this means?"
Marya breathed deeply. "Yes", she smiled and a stream of tears welled up from her eyes. "It means that I'm free." She closed her eyes and started to cry. Cordelia grabbed a handkerchief before the snot reached the new dress. Cordelia held her until the tears subsided and Marya sat upright by herself.
"I'm terribly sorry for my behaviour", she said.
"Not as sorry as you will be in a minute, I guess", said Cordelia warmly. "Marya, there is a thing to complicate this even more. It's not a problem for me, mind you, but it will be for the Barrayarans. I frankly don't care, but here goes; when ImpSec did their usual tests, they found out that Arnie cannot be Jaque's son." Marya gasped. "This is strictly confidential and limited knowledge."
Marya nodded. "I never thought -", she gasped.
"Never thought what?"
"That anyone would find out."
"Want to talk about it?", Cordelia said in a voice that wouldn't take 'no' for an answer.
Marya draw a deep breath and said: "Jaque was so hard. When I had given birth to Lilly he punished me for giving him a daughter. I thought I was going to die. Never wanted him to ever touch me again, and that was not right. I should give my husband sons." She made a pause, and Cordelia waited patiently.
"Then there was this man - he was so nice, so gentle." She started to cry again. "I loved him so. I didn't want to. I thought that if he could touch me, I wouldn't be so scared anymore. Then I got pregnant... I went to Jaque, so he never suspected anything... Don't know what I was thinking of, keeping this child. " She had stopped crying now.
Cordelia went to the bathroom to find the bottle of Magic Eyes. She hadn't used it for a long time and wondered if it still worked. She gave the bottle to Marya. "Takes away the red eyes", she said.

They gathered in the parlor to have a drink before the trip to Vorhartung Castle. Aral looked like a caged lion, Francis looked thoughtfully quashed, Marya was staring beyond the walls. Alys looked inquiringly at Cordelia. Lilly was fully occupied by her marvellous new dress in that wonderful lilac satin, and Arnie was sitting in his red and gold livery deeply buried in the book Father Frost had given him. Cordelia said: "A drink anybody? I'll have a stiff one..."

The ballroom was crowded. Illyan alertly saluted Aral when he and Cordelia entered.
"All's well, except for one little detail", he said.
Cordelia smiled tartly at Illyan, thinking 'You don't say'.
"Nice to hear", Aral said and wondered what it was Illyan wanted him to know. "Excuse me, Dear Captain. I need to exchange a few words with Simon", he said and wandered away with Captain Illyan.
Cordelia barely glanced after them as she waved Marya and their little school of children to come with her to a group of women and children further into the ballroom. Alys Vorpatril had already found an audience and stretched out both her hands toward Marya to introduce her to the awaiting matrons.
"Marya dear, meet Lady Vortienne, Countess Vorbohn, Lady Voronova and Madame Koudelka". Drou and Cordelia exchanged short nods and Cordelia signed to her that she wanted to talk, privately. They slowly drifted away from the group, while Countess Vorinnis and her daughter were gradually accepted into the wider echelons of High Vor society.
Miles and Ivan took Arnau with them, setting off to find something more interesting to do than hanging around their mothers.

"We have to meet soon." Cordelia looked genuinely worried, thought Drou. "Can you get the others to come for tea tomorrow, or day after?"
"Has it something to do with Countess Vorinnis?", she asked.
"Yes, and her daughter. I was wondering if you could invite Lilly to stay with you, maybe help with the girls, for a while. Would you?"
Drou looked at her former employer, now one of her best friends. Cordelia's expression was one of deliberation.
"I'll do what you want", said Drou and nodded. They returned to the group, but Drou soon dropped off to summon the Women of Barrayar to a tea party.

Lilly was nervously looking right and left. Her mother and she were introduced to the entire Vor society of Vorbarr Sultana, but the only one she was interested in meeting hadn't shown up yet. Suddenly someone tapped her shoulder. She turned.
"Hi there, Lilly", said Lord Michel Vorsoisson.
"Mik!" She gave him a spontaneous hug.
"You're glad to see me, I can see", he said with a laugh. "Meet my friend, Lars Vorberg." A young man in the same outfit as Mik looked her straight in the eyes and bowed. Her heart made a double beat. He wasn't strikingly handsome in the way Mik was, but it was something about the eyes. She looked down at the floor, blushing slightly. And I who thought that Mik was the only one I would ever look for,  she thought to herself, surprised that she didn't feel that grinding feeling in her stomach anymore when she saw him.
"Lilly Vorinnis, my cousin - sister almost - Lars Vorberg, cadet at Imperial Academy and my best friend", said Mik.
"Lars, would you mind looking after Lilly for me. I'll go and find us something to put into our mouths", Mik said and left them.
Vorberg started to follow him, saying: "Hey, I can get the snack. It was you who wanted to meet her, remember? Why don't you stay and look after her?" He watched the dashing young thing in a deep violet, glimmering dress. She made his brain melt and he needed to get away from her, fast.
Lilly saw the two young men discussing, but couldn't hear what they said. After some waving of arms and pointing toward the buffet, Vorberg returned to her, barely looking at her. Mother and Lady Cordelia had said she was looking splendid, but here was the second young man to obviously not want to stay close to her. They waited patiently for Mik to return, but soon the silence started to be painful.
"Nice ball", said Lars and immediately felt very silly.
"Yes, if you like walking around saying nothing to a lot of unknown people, one could call it nice I guess." She instantly knew she was out of line. "I mean, not that you don't seem to be nice, but -" She clamped her mouth shut before she put her foot in there any deeper. The first remark had been rude, and the second didn't make things better.
"Well", he said, showing his canines nervously, "if it's that bad it can only get better." His little laugh turned into a cough and they both looked away to gaze at the surroundings.
She turned back to see what he was doing. He looked ordinary in an unusual way, she decided. Shorter than Mik, but not as slender as he. She wondered if the rest of her life would be like this - falling in love with every new man she met? She intensely hoped that it would not be like that. She wasn't in love with Gregor, she reminded herself, but he was not really a man yet, but still manly in some ways.
Lars was mostly looking at the floor, occasionally lifting his head. Looking for Mik to give her back, she presumed.

A wave started to move across the sea of heads. Up in a gallery Emperor Gregor Vorbarra walked slowly toward a huge stairway. He looked solemnly out over his subjects. Down on the Ballroom floor Lilly caught his eyes for a second, and she could see the corner of his mouth lift a few millimeters. He had told her that this always scared him. He felt so small and insignificant, and still everyone was staring at him with their awed expressions, as if he was not of this world, not one of them.
The Emperor descended the stairs, and was met by the dignitaries of the imperium who gathered around him. He started to move again, stopped sometimes to greet a Count or a young lord. The group of men moved slowly but decisively toward Lars and Lilly. Vorberg started to look around, wondering who the Emperor was on his way to, ready to move to make room for the entourage to pass him and this extraordinary but unaccessible girl. Mik had been right. This one was stunningly beautiful. But she didn't like him. Pocket fluff. He was pocket fluff to her. He sighed.
Gregor walked straight up to Lilly. Lars Vorberg almost fainted.
"Nice to see you again, Lilly" Gregor said.
"Hi, Gregor", she answered and smiled. She was certain that this was not the correct way to greet an emperor, but she just didn't know what else to say to one of the few friends she had in this city.
"Having a good time?", he asked her.
"It was nicer the other night, really", she said. "The library at Vorkosigan House has so much more funny stuff than my father's library."
"Then you should see the library here at Vorhartung Castle", he said, talking faster. "Will you visit me, later this week maybe?"
"Sure. I'll give you a re-match in Five in a row, too", she said giggling.
"Agreed, then", Gregor said smiling shyly, sketching a bow. She made a slight curtsey. The Emperor left them, and she looked smiling after him. Vorberg stood with his mouth open, staring at her. As the Emperor walked away, she turned again toward him. His expression had changed completely. Instead of a bored face and eyes flicking in search for something more interesting, he looked incessantly at her.
"You're... He's...", Lars said.
"What?" She looked him questioningly straight in the eye.
"He just asked you to visit him. Here."
"Isn't he a little too young?", he asked.
"Too young for what? He's only one year younger than me", she said. "He's pretty grown up for being so young, I think. Not that I have too many other friends to compare him with."
"Friend, eh?"
"Well, we have just met the two last days, actually. But it has been fun. I would like to get to know some other people too, though", she said and smiled at him. "Some older people, belike", she said and lifted her eyebrows.
"We... I... Would you... I mean -"
"So, you're the best of friends now I hope." Mik arrived with three glasses and a little bowl with snacks. He puffed at Vorbergs arm with his own. "Sicelia Vorananin's over there", he said and jerked his head in the direction of the buffet. "Cool as ever." He laughed. "Sorry Lilly, I'm forgetting we have a lady in the room. What about a dinner for four? You two, myself and Sicelia?"
Lilly felt betrayed somehow. Mik was doing everything he could to tell her that she wasn't wanted. He was even talking about another girl like that in front of her.
"I should find mother", she said drily, and Mik could see her eyes turning lilac before she turned away whisking the skirt free from her striding feet.
"Mik, did you see her eyes?" Vorberg asked.
"Yes", said Mik. "Look out when she does like that."

Lilly walked around looking at all the people, looking for she didn't know what. Suddenly she caught a glimpse of Lady Alys and started to follow her. Maybe she knew where to find Lady Cordelia and her mother.
Lady Alys walked briskly toward the archways leading to the dining hall. Lilly hurried but didn't catch up with her. She saw Lady Alys slowly wander between the tables with the seating list in her hand, checking the seating cards. Lilly hid herself behind a heavy curtain at the doorframe and saw how Alys took one card and started to walk to another table, where she switched cards, returning to the first place.
Alys finished her business, went back through the archway and stopped to look for someone. It was close enough for Lilly to hear her mutter; "If you want something done properly, you have to kill Baldrick first." This made Lilly widen her eyes. She knew that expression; from the barracks of her father's armsmen. And what was it that Lady Alys thought should be done differently? Lilly shrank further into the heavy curtain to remain unseen. When Alys had dissapeared through the throng Lilly looked around and started to enter through the archway, but was immediately stopped by a servant, kindly informing her that dinner wasn't to be served yet. She sullenly moved around until the official call for dinner sounded.

The dinner was spectacular as always with all the guests in their splendid outfits. Lilly was totally overwhelmed by the measure of it all. The food was delicious, the drinks were fabulous. The best thing though; she sat two tables away from Lars Vorberg and had the opportunity to see his face from behind the back of someone sitting in between. The young lordling at her side was very handsome indeed, but thank heavens she was not interested in him at all. She felt relieved. Falling in love with every new man she met was not something she would have to fear.
At Lars' side sat a young woman, raven-black hair hung straight around an oval face with eyes grey as a nerve disruptor's muzzle. She looked hard, cold, and not very interested in Vorberg at all. That was good news. Lilly smiled to herself. Without warning Lars looked up at her and met her smile. She blushed and looked away, thus missing seeing him do the same.

Not far from Vorberg were Countess and Lord Vorinnis.
"Isn't it awfully unexpected, that I would find myself at the side of the only gentleman I know, in this enormous gathering", she said happily.
He thought about this good fortune for a second. "If you really want to know, I can calculate the probability when I get back to work. I would imagine it to be pretty small, though. It's so infinitessimally small, I wouldn't be surprised if it is not pure chance at all."
"Oh...?" Marya wondered what humanly powers were intervening in her life.
"Do you mind having me beside you?" he asked.
She gave a short laugh. "Not at all. But if this isn't pure chance, I have one or two ideas to who might be 'helping' us get better aquainted."
"You do, don't you? Who then?" He raised a suspicious eyebrow that clashed with his smile.
"Ah, I'm thinking of... no. Do you suspect someone?" She giggled.
"I have someone in mind that have proven to be interested in our welfare, who is partly responsible for the ball and who has the edge to pull off a thing like this."
"So who do you think it is, then?", she said conspicously.
"I have two names on my short list", he said, analyst's style,
"Me too."
"So, it's either one of them", he said conclusively.
"Or both", she said lightly. He turned his head.
"Mmm, clever woman. I've better watch my step." She laughed and put her hand on his arm. The joyfulness faded, their eyes interlocked, seconds passed without them noticing.
Francis cleared his voice and looked away. Marya pulled back her hand to take the fork.
"Lady Alys was very interested in my plans for the future earlier today", he said seriously. "I didn't know what to say to her... don't know what to do, to be honest", he sighed.
"Don't decide anything until Jaque passes away, then."
He snorted. "Passes away. I don't know what is hap-", and suddenly remembered his oath to Admiral Vorkosigan. "Do you have any plans for Lilly, by the way?", he said in a conversational tone of voice. In a lower voice he added, tilting his head toward her, "Some things shouldn't be discussed in public. I'm sorry."

After dinner the guests moved heavily and even staggeringly in some cases, toward the hall and the orchestra.
Mik had succeeded in getting three dances with Sicelia Vorananin.
"That's because nobody else wants to dance with her", teased Lars.
"Why wouldn't they?", Mik asked surprised. "And you were sitting beside her for almost two hours, you luck pot."
"It wasn't that  fun", Lars said tartly. "She may be nice to people she likes, but she obviously doesn't like me. Those steely grey eyes of her's makes me uncomfortable."
"Good. I like them. As if I can actually feel that she is looking at me."
"And mother urged me to go look for the future Lady Vorberg tonight. Would you imagine?", said Vorberg, looking as he had just bitten a lemon.
"Well, did you?", Mik asked laughing.
"No. I will have ship duty. I will have ship duty. I will.", Lars repeated it like a mantra. "Don't marry before ship duty", he said matter of factly. That was the unofficial motto of their class at ImpAc.
"I saw that Lilly was strategically positioned for you to spy on. What do you think of her?", asked Mik thoughtfully.
"Oh, don't ever mention her again", said Vorberg with a groan. "She hates my guts, believe me. I hope she isn't allowed to wear a knife. She'd cut me in pieces if I as much as said 'sandwich' to her."
Mik laughed. "Hey, buddy! You're afraid, aren't you? Afraid of my little cousin, a fifteen year old gurl. Come on, soldier."
"Not afraid. It's just that she's -", Vorberg didn't know if he dared tell Mik about her dating the Emperor. "If Sicelia wasn't around. Would you do anything about Lilly then?", he asked instead.
Mik looked amused. "Well, you know." He looked at the indignant Vorberg. "She's just fifteen. I'll have a year or two to court the young maiden Sicelia Vorananin, before Lilly even starts to think in terms of marrying. And if I keep her interested, without actually doing anything - just to see what kind of a woman she turns into - then I have her as a back-up if nothing else works. I am a heir to a District, let us not forget that. What more could she get", he said teasing Vorberg back for his earlier remark.
"If she doesn't pick someone higher up", said Vorberg ominously.
Mik continued in his airy voice and acted vanity. "What can be better than a Count with a District, old friend." He moved his hand as if he was smoking a cigar.
Vorberg gave him a stern look.
"Oh, shit -", said Mik. "Don't say... But how do you know?!"
"When you were courting the young maiden Sicelia Vorananin at the buffet, Emperor Gregor himself bloody asked Lilly for a bleeding date", Vorberg spat out.
"Ouch", said Mik folding over his stomach, leaving Vorberg a free line of sight pointing directly at the oncoming forms of Lilly Vorinnis.
"Here she is now so would you please sssshut up!", he said and planted an inane smile on his countenance.
Mik bowed to the ground before her. "Would my cousin mind a dance?", he asked solemnly, straightening his back. She looked at Vorberg, who looked away. Mik decided that he might as well save whatever there was to save and offered her his arm.

Francis looked into the eyes of Countess Marya, as they danced the mirror dance, hand to hand, face to face.
"I have never seen such light blue eyes on Barrayar before", he said softly. Only on Earth had he seen that; Anna. She was long gone now. He had been in love then, prepared to stay on Earth for her sake, but he had been nothing but another notch on the barrel for her. He had seen her type at the spaceport on Beta Colony too, but never been seduced by that kind of open baiting. Anna had been different. He hadn't realized what she was doing before she told him to "hit the road, Jack". He never understood where she had gotten that from. He was Francis - not Jaque. How could she know? He hadn't even mentioned his brother to her.
These blue eyes were different. They were longing, sad, honest. Maybe staying at the District wasn't such a bad idea.
"I'm thinking, maybe moving back to the Estate wouldn't be such a bad idea. All considered."
Marya stumbled, and perforce did he. Their lips were mere centimeters apart. She felt dizzy and pulled back from him. He followed her moves, but was an inkling of a second faster in the next move getting himself closer to her again.
"Don't look at me like that, Lord Vorinnis", she said turning her head, looking over her shoulder. They froze in this somewhat uncomfortable position; they could no longer see one another, to follow the other's moves.
"We can't just stand here like this, Marya. Come", he said and took her by the arm to lead her out to a quiet gallery overlooking Vorbarr Sultana's shimmering lights.
"Something is bothering you", he said sadly. "And if it is me, then I want you to say so. Then I'll get out of your sight."
She turned her head and looked at him for the first time since the dance. "No, don't. I need you here. I ... don't know. I shouldn't be here, I should be with Jaque, not here. He's ill, I swore an oath to stay at his side until death would take either one of us." She sounded frightened.
Francis face turned from sad and worried to angry. "He's not ill", he said lowly. "I don't know what is happening as I started to say at dinner, but he's not ill. And you know that, or else you would be sitting at his side at the hospital, not dancing away the night at the Emperor's Castle."
She looked at him with a set, defensive face.
"A broken oath for a broken oath", he said quietly. "You are breaking your oath to him right now. And I will break my oath to Admiral Vorkosigan, that I would not talk about my theories about Jaque. But I will."
He felt tired and motioned her to sit down on a bench by the wall. He took her hands in his and said:
"Jaque is not ill. He has done something to enrage the Regent and to turn you away from him. Whatever it is he has done, it will be very bad for his health, terminally bad. There are things going on behind the walls, planning concerning me and you, and we are not let in on those plans. I will be told what I need to know when the right time comes, the Regent said to me today. He even called me 'Count Vorinnis'. Was that a lapse from his side, or a way to plant an idea? I don't know." He sighed and tried to estimate how many seconds that speach had taken. He was pretty sure ImpSec would react to the key-words he had uttered. "Come, we'll go back to the dancefloor", he said casually, stood up and offered her his arm. She took it and they slowly started to walk. After a few seconds he stopped, put his finger over his mouth and pointed back in the direction to the bench, urging her to walk faster. They walked by the bench and stopped by an alcove some ten to fifteen metres further away. He pulled the lightbulb out of the socket of a lamp dangling above them and whispered in her ear. "Wait and don't say anything."
Nothing happened. They stood absolutely still, side by side, looking down along the gallery. Marya started to giggle.
"Sssh!" he urged her, but she didn't stop. He put a finger over her mouth, but that made her giggle even more. He feared that she would start laughing and was abruptly surprised when she suddenly couldn't resist the temptation any longer and bit him in the finger. His eyes had adjusted to the dark and he could see her big eyes turned innocently at him. His last thought before he started kissing her was "To hell with it all..."
They were so lost to the outer world that none of them saw the servant walking searchingly past the bench, up to their little dark alcove. They didn't see his amused smile when he passed them on his way back to Captain Illyan to report that the mission was accomplished.

The quality of the holo wasn't very high. One might think that ImpSec could do better than that. Jaque snorted at the picture. A gallery, a vor officer on a bench. His obliterated fuzzy features like a ball of mist beside his wife's clear countenance. Who he was wasn't important. An unattached vorling hunting for a woman to woe. She could have told him anything. Lured him into her dark schemes, like she had betrayed himself. Bitch. He held the plastic flimsy with Arnau's DNA analysis hard in his hand.
His empty eyes turned toward his wife. She was standing, shaking, beside the regent, the prime minister and the doctor.
"As these men are my witnesses, I thee divorce. Our vows are null and void. I renounce my fatherhood of Arnau and leave nothing to either one of you. My brother will have everything."  His gaze wavered. "Get out of my sight, you bitch." He heard the scufflings from her being led out of the room.
Marya almost fell into Cordelias arms outside the door. It slammed shut, leaving them in a silence disturbed by nothing more than the hollow hissing from a ventilation shaft.

Not even an hour later, Illyan marched briskly into the drawing room at Vorkosigan House. He handed an envelope to Vorkosigan and sat down between Cordelia and Vorinnis. Marya was standing by the window, unable to sit down.
"Lord Vorinnis", Vorkosigan commenced. "I promised that you would get to know more about what's going on. Now is the time." Aral made a prolonged pause. "As you see, I keep my word", he let the last sentence hang in the air and let a flimsy fall down on the table. "Your oath to me . . . I'm not so sure you did break it, by the way." Vorkosigan let his features become less harsh. "To be utterly honest with you; I did the same thing once upon a time." He smiled looking sideways at Cordelia, muttering: "The things we do for love. . ."
"Our eyes betrayed us, as they betrayed you", Cordelia said to Marya.
"Your analysis about Jaque though, was quite on target", continued Vorkosigan. "He is not ill. Your brother committed high treason. Took myself and Lady Vorkosigan hostage during our visit at the Silvayne residence. He committed a crime that normally leads to a sentence of death. Bearing in mind the circumstances for this treason, I sought to find circumstances to rule life-time imprisonment in this particular case, but things became . . . complicated." He looked at Illyan and encouragingly waved his hand.
"As the Admiral says, there are some things to take into consideration in this case. One thing is that Count Vorinnis is mentally unstable and his condition is deteriorating. He doesn't share our view of the world, to put it mildly. He is still aware of his crime, but will not see that he did anything more than was expected of him. If he would be set free, he'd do it again, he claims." A shuffling of feet was heard and the men raised their brows and nodded to each other as Vorkosigan spoke again.
"In the interrogations with the family, Countess Vorinnis described a behaviour that I, as Regent, am unwilling to accept in a man with the Count's responsibilities", said Aral. "And he has passed some of his worse traits to the boy. Reports say that the child is damaged. We are concerned about Arnau. He is too young to become Count. We thought it would be best if you could step in." Everyone sat quiet.
"Step in?", asked Francis after a pause.
"Well, to be utterly honest with you -"
Aral shifted his gaze to look at Marya.
"- Jaque replaced Arnau with you in some kind of last will. It turned out that Arnau isn't Jaque's biological son."
Francis gasped. "Is my brother dead already?", he asked.
"No, the execution will take place when all legalities are over and done with. It will be secret, though. He is guilty of high treason, attempt to usurp the Regent's office etc, etc. All crimes are classified. I tried to find a reason not to do this, but -"
Marya's face was grey when she looked up at Aral. "Life will be easier when he is dead. It's as simple as that. It's not like it's a murder - he did it to himself."
"I don't understand his accusations of Marya", Francis said, disbelieving.
"What is it you don't understand?", asked Marya calmly.
He turned to look at her. "How can he say that Arnau is not his son?"
"Because he isn't", said Marya listlessly and closed her eyes.
The blood drained from Francis' face and he sat down again. "Not Jaque's son, heh." He brooded on the possibilities. "Doesn't look as if I have much of a choice then", he said after a while. He turned to Marya and looked at her at length. "What happened?", he said. "Tell me you -" His eyes was turning to slits. "Please, tell me you're not the kind of woman that -"
"He who is without sin - throweth the first rock", said Cordelia tartly. "You don't have all the facts, ImpSec Analyst. I hope you do a better job at work."
He jerked his head in her direction. "I'm sorry. You're right. Would you mind leaving us alone for a while?"

When the last person had exited the drawing room, Francis slowly went to stand in front of Marya. He took her hand and put it to his cheek. "Things are happening too fast. I feel as if I'm dragged into a maelstrom, pressing me to pieces. Talk to me, Marya."
Finally her eyes met his. "Talk to me."
She told him the whole gory history. Her hopes at the betrothal, her astonishment as newly wed, and her growing anxiety peeking at the birth of Lilly. The aftermath and her own kind of therapy to dare come back to a loathed husband.
When she finished, all Francis could feel was his cold stomach and his warm heart. She was so frail. And so strong. He put his arms around her. Slowly her hands found their way around his neck. He started to rock her, saying soothing things. Finally he stopped and said:
"I don't care what happened before I met you. Now is now - then was then. Would you consider to, actually. . . marry me?"
She couldn't keep from giggling. She didn't know what to say. Had she even heard correctly? "Jaque was so icily angry with me at the hospital, divorcing me, disinheriting Arnau, giving you everything."
"But by divorcing you, he gives me more than the 'everything' he believes he is giving. The only thing he did was to make it easier for us to marry." A horrid thought struck Francis: "If you want to, that is... You don't have to answer me now. What am I thinking of? I'll take it back, if I could."
"Ask me again tomorrow", she said.

The women came to the Koudelka mansion in the early afternoon two days after Winterfair. Koudelka himself was on duty down-town, not expected to arrive home yet for a couple of hours.
There were Drou and Cordelia, the tall and serious Countess Luan Vorrolshoven, the good-humoured and witty Countess Vladimira Vorcartwell and her daughter Lady Basia Vorananin. At the lower end of the table was Basia's old teacher Mrs. Yana Jevgenij and Countess Voronova, Count Voronovs betan wife. The Voronovs was a family so bound by tradition that they had even kept the old ways in naming, but not as traditional that they didn't marry for love from time to time. Countess Liz Voronova was Beta Colony's earlier ambassador in Vorbarr Sultana.
"It might be a coincidence", Cordelia's voice hushed the others, "but at a dinner four nights ago young Lilly Vorinnis was joking to the Emperor, mentioning the nick name of our group; Barrayaran Women's Liberation Army. I can't imagine where she got it from, but I want to investigate that there is no leak in our midst."
They were not many in their little army. Women of Barrayar was the usual, but semi-official name, used partly as a front for the more long-term goals, which were to gently steer Barrayar into the galactic culture without having a tenuous backlash with oppression against women as had been so common throughout history.
The Women of Barrayar on the other hand had quite a few members. Charity was it's main area and it was popular among many families.
"I want to find out just how much Lilly knows, if there is a leak or if this was just a coincidence", Cordelia continued. "To evaluate this she is to stay with Drou, officially to unload her mother during Count Vorinnis's illness."
Basia Vorananin turned to Drou. "I could ask Sicelia to come visit her, and keep her company. It must be awful for her, with her father and all...", she trailed off looking sad.

The execution took place later that night and was of an expedient nature. The only witnesses was the medtech, Dr. Patel and Aral Vorkosigan. Vorinnis had no last good-byes to say, no special people whom he wanted to meet before his last breath.
Count Jaque Vorinnis received a shot that put him to sleep. A deep sleep. So deep that his breathing slowly expired.

Shortly after breakfast the day after, Cordelia turned on the comconsole to check the news broadcast. "Late last night Count Jaque Robert Vorinnis passed away at the age of fifty-three. He died from complications of an infectious disease contracted near his residence outside the city of Laughing Water in the Silvayne District. Medical expertise at the Imperial Military Hospital in Vorbarr Sultana, the location of the Count's demise, says that there is no need to fear an epidemic. The Countship will be inherited by Count Jaque's younger brother Lord Francis André Vorinnis."
That was all. Cordelia sighed. That the truth could be hidden so lightly.

This story started in The Silvayne Incident.

This story is based upon characters and concepts created by Lois McMaster Bujold. All additional characters and all scenarios shall be considered the property of Ms. Bujold, and used by permission.

© 1998 by Stella Lindblom (stella@dendarii.com)

Current version by Michael Bernardi, mike@dendarii.co.uk

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Last updated: November 20th 2002