The big groundcar jerked to a stop centimeters from the vehicle ahead of it, and Armsman Pym, driving, swore under his breath. Miles settled back again in his seat beside him, wincing at a vision of the acrimonious street scene from which Pym's reflexes had delivered them, Miles wondered if he could have persuaded the feckless prole in front of them that being rear-ended by an Imperial Auditor was a privilege to be treasured. Likely not. The Vorbarr Sultana University student darting across the boulevard on foot, who had been the cause of the quick stop, scampered off through the jam without a backward glance. The line of groundcars started up once more.
"Have you heard if the municipal traffic control system will be coming on line soon?" Pym asked, apropos of what Miles counted as their third near-miss this week.
"Nope. Delayed in development again, Lord Vorbohn the Younger reports. Due to the increase in fatal lightflyer incidents, they're concentrating on getting the automated air system up first."
Pym nodded, and returned his attention to the crowded road. The Armsman was a habitually fit man, his graying temples seeming merely an accent to his brown-and-silver uniform. He'd served the Vorkosigans as a liege-sworn guard since Miles had been an Academy cadet, and would doubtless go on doing so till either he died of old age, or they were all killed in traffic.
So much for short cuts. Next time they'd go around the campus. Miles watched through the canopy as the taller new buildings of the University fell behind, and they passed through its spiked iron gates into the pleasant old residential streets favored by the families of senior professors and staff. The distinctive architecture dated from the last un-electrified decade before the end of the Time of Isolation. This area had been reclaimed from decay in the past generation, and now featured shady green Earth trees, and bright flower boxes under the tall narrow windows of the tall narrow houses. Miles rebalanced the flower arrangement between his feet. Would it be seen as redundant by its intended recipient?
Pym glanced aside at his slight movement, following his eye to the foliage on the floor. "The lady you met on Komarr seems to have made a strong impression on you, m'lord ..." He trailed off invitingly.
"Yes," said Miles, uninvitingly.
"Your lady mother had high hopes of that very attractive Miss Captain Quinn you brought home those times." Was that a wistful note in Pym's voice?
"Miss Admiral Quinn, now," Miles corrected with a sigh. "So had I. But she made the right choice for her." He grimaced out the canopy. "I've sworn off falling in love with galactic women and then trying to persuade them to immigrate to Barrayar. I've concluded my only hope is to find a woman who can already stand Barrayar, and persuade her to like me."
"And does Madame Vorsoisson like Barrayar?"
"About as well as I do." He smiled grimly.
"And, ah ... the second part?"
"We'll see, Pym." Or not, as the case may be. At least the spectacle of a man of thirty-plus, going courting seriously for the first time in his lifethe first time in the Barrayaran style, anywaypromised to provide hours of entertainment for his interested staff.
Miles let his breath and his nervous irritation trickle out through his nostrils as Pym found a place to park near Lord Auditor Vorthys's doorstep, and expertly wedged the polished old armored groundcar into the inadequate space. Pym popped the canopy; Miles climbed out, and stared up at the three-story patterned tile front of his colleague's home.
Georg Vorthys had been a professor of engineering failure analysis at the Imperial University for thirty years. He and his wife had lived in this house for most of their married life, raising three children and two academic careers, before Emperor Gregor had appointed Vorthys as one of his hand-picked Imperial Auditors. Neither of the Professors Vorthys had seen any reason to change their comfortable lifestyle merely because the awesome powers of an Emperor's Voice had been conferred upon the retired engineer; Madame Dr. Vorthys still walked every day to her classes. Dear no, Miles! the Professora had said to him, when he'd once wondered aloud at their passing up this opportunity for social display. Can you imagine moving all those books? Not to mention the laboratory and workshop jamming the entire basement.
Their cheery inertia proved a happy chance, when they invited their recently-widowed niece and her young son to live with them while she completed her own education. Plenty of room, the Professor had boomed jovially, the top floor is so empty since the children left. So close to classes, the Professora had pointed out practically. Less than six kilometers from Vorkosigan House! Miles had exulted in his mind, adding a polite murmur of encouragement aloud. And so Ekaterin Nile Vorvayne Vorsoisson had arrived. She's here, she's here! Might she be looking down at him from the shadows of some upstairs window even now?
Miles glanced anxiously down the all-too-short length of his body. If his dwarfish stature bothered her, she'd shown no signs of it so far. Well and good. Going on to the aspects of his appearance he could control: no food stains spattered his plain gray tunic, no unfortunate street detritus clung to the soles of his polished half-boots. He checked his distorted reflection in the groundcar's rear canopy. Its convex mirroring widened his lean, if slightly hunched, body to something resembling his obese clonebrother Mark, a comparison he primly ignored. Mark was, thank God, not here. He essayed a smile, for practice; in the canopy, it came out twisted and repellent. No dark hair sticking out in odd directions, anyway.
"You look just fine, my lord," Pym said in a bracing tone from the front compartment. Miles's face heated, and he flinched away from his reflection. He recovered himself enough to take the flower arrangement and rolled-up flimsy Pym handed out to him with, he hoped, a tolerably bland expression. He balanced the load in his arms, turned to face the front steps, and took a deep breath.
After about a minute, Pym inquired helpfully from behind him, "Would you like me to carry anything?"
"No. Thank you." Miles trod up the steps and wiggled a finger free to press the chime-pad. Pym pulled out a reader, and settled comfortably in the groundcar to await his lord's pleasure.
Footsteps sounded from within, and the door swung open on the smiling pink face of the Professora. Her gray hair was wound up on her head in her usual style. She wore a dark rose dress with a light rose bolero, embroidered with green vines in the manner of her home District. This somewhat formal Vor mode, which suggested she was just on her way either in or out, was belied by the soft buskins on her feet. "Hello, Miles. Goodness, you're prompt."
"Professora." Miles ducked a nod to her, and smiled in turn. "Is she here? Is she in? Is she well? You said this would be a good time. I'm not too early, am I? I thought I'd be late. The traffic was miserable. You're going to be around, aren't you? I brought these. Do you think she'll like them?" The sticking-up red flowers tickled his nose as he displayed his gift while still clutching the rolled-up flimsy, which had a tendency to try to unroll and escape whenever his grip loosened.
"Come in, yes, all's well. She's here, she's fine, and the flowers are very nice" The Professora rescued the bouquet and ushered him into her tiled hallway, closing the door firmly behind them with her foot. The house was dim and cool after the spring sunshine outside, and had a fine aroma of wood wax, old books, and a touch of academic dust.
"She looked pretty pale and fatigued at Tien's funeral. Surrounded by all those relatives. We really didn't get a chance to say more than two words each." I'm sorry and Thank you, to be precise. Not that he'd wanted to talk much to the late Tien Vorsoisson's family.
"It was an immense strain for her, I think," said the Professora judiciously. "She'd been through so much horror, and except for Georg and myselfand youthere wasn't a soul there to whom she could talk truth about it. Of course, her first concern was getting Nikki through it all. But she held together without a crack from first to last. I was very proud of her."
"Indeed. And she is ...?" Miles craned his neck, glancing into the rooms off the entry hall: a cluttered study lined with bookshelves, and a cluttered parlor lined with bookshelves. No young widows.
"Right this way." The Professora conducted him down the hall and out through her kitchen to the little urban back garden. A couple of tall trees and a brick wall made a private nook of it. Beyond a tiny circle of green grass, at a table in the shade, a woman sat with flimsies and a reader spread before her. She was chewing gently on the end of a stylus, and her dark brows were drawn down in her absorption. She wore a calf-length dress in much the same style as the Professora's, but solid black, with the high collar buttoned up to her neck. Her bolero was gray, trimmed with simple black braid running around its edge. Her dark hair was drawn back to a thick braided knot at the nape of her neck. She looked up at the sound of the door opening; her brows flew up and her lips parted in a flashing smile that made Miles blink. Ekaterin.
"Milmy Lord Auditor!" She rose in a flare of skirt; he bowed over her hand.
"Madame Vorsoisson. You look well." She looked wonderful, if still much too pale. Part of that might be the effect of all that severe black, which also made her eyes show a brilliant blue-gray. "Welcome to Vorbarr Sultana. I brought these ..." He gestured, and the Professora set the flower arrangement down on the table. "Though they hardly seem needed, out here."
"They're lovely," Ekaterin assured him, sniffing them in approval. "I'll take them up to my room later, where they will be very welcome. Since the weather has brightened up, I find I spend as much time as possible out here, under the real sky."
She'd spent nearly a year sealed in a Komarran dome. "I can understand that," Miles said. The conversation hiccuped to a brief stop, while they smiled at each other.
Ekaterin recovered first. "Thank you for coming to Tien's funeral. It meant so much to me."
"It was the least I could do, under the circumstances. I'm only sorry I couldn't do more."
"But you've already done so much for me and Nikki" She broke off at his gesture of embarrassed denial and instead said, "But won't you sit down? Aunt Vorthys?" She drew back one of the spindly garden chairs.
The Professora shook her head. "I have a few things to attend to inside. Carry on." She added a little cryptically, "You'll do fine."
She went back into her house, and Miles sat across from Ekaterin, placing his flimsy on the table to await its strategic moment. It half-unrolled, eagerly.
"Is your case all wound up?" she asked.
"That case will have ramifications for years to come, but I'm done with it for now," Miles replied. "I just turned in my last reports yesterday, or I would have been here to welcome you earlier." Well, that and a vestigial sense that he'd ought to let the poor woman at least get her bags unpacked, before descending in force.
"Will you be sent out on another assignment now?"
"I don't think Gregor will let me risk getting tied up elsewhere till after his marriage. For the next couple of months, I'm afraid all my duties will be social ones."
"I'm sure you'll do them with your usual flair."
God, I hope not. "I don't think flair is exactly what my Aunt Vorpatrilshe's in charge of all the Emperor's wedding arrangementswould wish from me. More like, shut up and do what you're told, Miles. But speaking of paperwork, how's your own? Is Tien's estate settled? Did you manage to recapture Nikki's guardianship from that cousin of his?"
"Vassily Vorsoisson? Yes, thank heavens, there was no problem with that part."
"So, ah, what's all this, then?" Miles nodded at the cluttered table.
"I'm planning my course work for the next session at university. I was too late to start this summer, so I'll begin in the fall. There's so much to choose from. I feel so ignorant."
"Educated is what you aim to be coming out, not going in."
"I suppose so."
"And what will you choose?"
"Oh, I'll start with basicsbiology, chemistry ..." She brightened. "One real horticulture course." She gestured at her flimsies. "For the rest of the season, I'm trying to find some sort of paying work. I'd like to feel I'm not totally dependent on the charity of my relatives, even if it's only my pocket money."
That seemed almost the opening he was looking for, but Miles's eye caught sight of a red ceramic basin, sitting on the wooden planks forming a seat bordering a raised garden bed. In the middle of the pot a red-brown blob, with a fuzzy fringe like a rooster's crest growing out of it, pushed up through the dirt. If it was what he thought ... He pointed to the basin. "Is that by chance your old bonsai'd skellytum? Is it going to live?"
She smiled. "Well, at least it's the start of a new skellytum. Most of the fragments of the old one died on the way home from Komarr, but that one took."
"You have afor native Barrayaran plants, I don't suppose you can call it a green thumb, can you?"
"Not unless they're suffering from some pretty serious plant diseases, no."
"Speaking of gardens." Now, how to do this without jamming his foot in his mouth too deeply. "I don't think, in all the other uproar, I ever had a chance to tell you how impressed I was with your garden designs that I saw on your comconsole."
"Oh." Her smile fled, and she shrugged. "They were no great thing. Just twiddling."
Right. Let them not bring up any more of the recent past than absolutely necessary, till time had a chance to blunt memory's razor edges. "It was your Barrayaran garden, the one with all the native species, which caught my eye. I'd never seen anything like it."
"There are a dozen of them around. Several of the District universities keep them, as living libraries for their biology students. It's not really an original idea."
"Well," he persevered, feeling like a fish swimming upstream against this current of self-deprecation, "I thought it was very fine, and deserved better than just being a ghost garden on the holovid. I have this spare lot, you see ..."
He flattened out his flimsy, which was a ground plot of the block occupied by Vorkosigan House. He tapped his finger on the bare square at the end. "There used to be another great house, next to ours, which was torn down during the Regency. ImpSec wouldn't let us build anything elsethey wanted it as a security zone. There's nothing there but some scraggly grass, and a couple of trees that somehow survived ImpSec's enthusiasm for clear lines of fire. And a criss-cross of walks, where people made mud paths by taking short cuts, and they finally gave up and put some gravel down. It's an extremely boring piece of ground." So boring he had completely ignored it, till now.
She tilted her head, to follow his hand as it blocked out the space on the ground plan. Her own long finger made to trace a delicate curve, but then shyly withdrew. He wondered what possibility her mind's eye had just seen, there.
"Now, I think," he went on valiantly, "that it would be a splendid thing to install a Barrayaran gardenall native speciesopen to the public, in this space. A sort of gift from the Vorkosigan family to the city of Vorbarr Sultana. With running water, like in your design, and walks and benches and all those civilized things. And those discreet little name tags on all the plants, so more people could learn about the old ecology and all that." There: art, public service, educationwas there any bait he'd left off his hook? Oh yes, money. "It's a happy chance that you're looking for a summer job," chance, hah, watch and see if I leave anything to chance, "because I think you'd be the ideal person to take this on. Design and oversee the installation of the thing. I could give you an unlimited, um, generous budget, and a salary, of course. You could hire workmen, bring in whatever you needed."
And she would have to visit Vorkosigan House practically every day, and consult frequently with its resident lord. And by the time the shock of her husband's death had worn away, and she was ready to put off her forbidding formal mourning garb, and every unattached Vor bachelor in the capital showed up on her doorstep, Miles could have a lock on her affections that would permit him to fend off the most glittering competition. It was too soon, wildly too soon, to suggest courtship to her crippled heart; he had that clear in his head, even if his own heart howled in frustration. But a straightforward business friendship just might get past her guard....
Her eyebrows had flown up; she touched an uncertain finger to those exquisite, pale unpainted lips. "This is exactly the sort of thing I wish to train to do. I don't know how to do it yet."
"On-the-job training," Miles responded instantly. "Apprenticeship. Learning by doing. You have to start sometime. You can't start sooner than now."
"But what if I make some dreadful mistake?"
"I do intend this be an ongoing project. People who are enthusiasts about this sort of thing always seem to be changing their gardens around. They get bored with the same view all the time, I guess. If you come up with better ideas later, you can always revise the plan. It will provide variety."
"I don't want to waste your money."
If she ever became Lady Vorkosigan, she would have to get over that quirk, Miles decided firmly.
"You don't have to decide here on the spot," he purred, and cleared his throat. Watch that tone, boy. Business. "Why don't you come to Vorkosigan House tomorrow, and walk over the site in person, and see what ideas it stirs up in your mind. You really can't tell anything by looking at a flimsy. We can have lunch, afterward, and talk about what you see as the problems and possibilities then. Logical?"
She blinked. "Yes, very." Her hand crept back curiously toward the flimsy.
"What time may I pick you up?"
"Whatever is convenient for you, Lord Vorkosigan. Oh, I take that back. If it's after twelve hundred, my aunt will be back from her morning class, and Nikki can stay with her."
"Excellent!" Yes, much as he liked Ekaterin's son, Miles thought he could do without the assistance of an active nine-year-old in this delicate dance. "Twelve hundred it will be. Consider it a deal." Only a little belatedly, he added, "And how does Nikki like Vorbarr Sultana, so far?"
"He seems to like his room, and this house. I think he's going to gets little bored, if he has to wait until his school starts to locate boys his own age."
It would not do to leave Nikolai Vorsoisson out of his calculations. "I gather then that the retro-genes took, and he's in no more danger of developing the symptoms of Vorzohn's Dystrophy?"
A smile of deep maternal satisfaction softened her face. "That's right. I'm so pleased. The doctors in the clinic here in Vorbarr Sultana report he had a very clean and complete cellular uptake. Developmentally, it should be just as if he'd never inherited the mutation at all." She glanced across at him. "It's as if I'd had a five-hundred-kilo weight lifted from me. I could fly, I think."
So you should.
Copyright © 1999 Lois McMaster Bujold.
All rights reserved.