Lois McMaster Bujold - Vorkosigan 12.5 - Winterfair Gifts

By Rose Morris,2014-10-31 10:47
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Lois McMaster Bujold - Vorkosigan 12.5 - Winterfair Gifts

"Winterfair Gifts"


    * * *


    From Armsman Roic's wrist com the gate guard's voice reported laconically, "They're in. Gate's


    "Right," Roic returned. "Dropping the house shields." He turned to the discreet securitycontrol panel beside the carved double doors of Vorkosigan House's main entry hall, pressed hispalm to the read-pad, and entered a short code. The faint hum of the force shield protectingthe great house faded.

    Roic stared anxiously out one of the tall, narrow windows flanking the portal, ready to throwthe doors wide when m'lord's groundcar pulled into the porte cochere. He glanced no lessanxiously down the considerable length of his athletic body, checking his House uniform: half-boots polished to mirrors, trousers knife-creased, silver embroidery gleaming, dark brownfabric spotless.

    His face heated in mortified memory of a less expected arrival in this very hall- also of LordVorkosigan with honored company in tow- and the unholy tableau m'lord had surprised with theEscobaran bounty hunters and the gooey debacle of the bug butter. Roic had looked an utter foolin that moment, nearly naked except for a liberal coating of sticky slime. He could still hearLord Vorkosigan's austere, amused voice, as cutting as a razor-slash across his ears: Armsman

    Roic, you're out of uniform.

     Worse, the Escobarans' invasion had been a security breach, and whileHe thinks I'm an idiot.

    he'd not, technically, been on duty- he'd been dammit- he'd been present in the houseasleep,

    and therefore on call for emergencies. The mess had been in his lap, literally. M'lord haddismissed him from the scene with no more than an exasperated somehowRoic... get a bath,

    more keenly excoriating than any bellowed dressing-down.

    Roic checked his uniform again.

    The long silvery groundcar pulled up and sighed to the pavement. The front canopy rose on thedriver, the senior and dauntingly competent Armsman Pym. He released the rear canopy andhurried around the car to assist m'lord and his party. The senior armsman spared a glancethrough the narrow window as he strode by, his eye passing coolly over Roic and scanning thehall beyond to make sure it contained no unforeseen drama this time. These were Very ImportantOff-World Wedding Guests, Pym had impressed upon Roic. Which Roic might have been left todeduce by m'lord going personally to the shuttleport to greet their descent from orbit- butthen, Pym had walked in on the bug butter disaster, too. Since that day, his directives to Roichad tended to be couched in words of one syllable, with no contingency left to chance.

    A short figure in a well-tailored gray tunic and trousers hopped out of the car first: LordVorkosigan, gesturing expansively at the great stone mansion, talking nonstop over hisshoulder, smiling in proud welcome. As the carved doors swung wide, admitting a blast ofVorbarr Sultana winter night air and a few glittering snow crystals, Roic stood to attentionand mentally matched the other people exiting the groundcar with the security list he'd beengiven. A tall woman held a baby bundled in blankets; a lean, smiling fellow hovered by herside. They had to be the Bothari-Jeseks. Madame Elena Bothari-Jesek was the daughter of thelate, legendary Armsman Bothari; her right of entree into Vorkosigan House, where she had grownup with m'lord, was absolute, Pym had made sure Roic understood. It scarcely needed the silvercircles of a jump pilot's neural leads on midforehead and temples to identify the shortermiddle-aged fellow as the Betan jump pilot, Arde Mayhew- should a jump pilot look so jump-lagged? Well, m'lord's mother, Countess Vorkosigan, was Betan, too; and the pilot's blinking,shivering stance was among the most physically unthreatening Roic had ever seen. Not so thefinal guest. Roic's eyes widened.

    The hulking figure unfolded from the groundcar and stood up, and up. Pym, who was almost astall as Roic, did not come quite up to its shoulder. It shook out the swirling folds of a gray-and-white greatcoat of military cut and threw back its head. The light from overhead caught theface and gleamed off... were those fangs hooked over the outslung lower jaw?

     was the name that went with it, by process of elimination. One of m'lord's oldSergeant Taura

    military buddies, Pym had given Roic to understand, and- don't be fooled by the rank- of some

    particular importance (if rather mysterious, as was everything connected with Lord MilesVorkosigan's late career in Imperial Security). Pym was former ImpSec himself. Roic was not, ashe was reminded, oh, three times a day on average.

    At Lord Vorkosigan's urging, the whole party poured into the entry hall, shaking off snow-spotted garments, talking, laughing. The greatcoat was swung from those high shoulders like abillowing sail, its owner turning neatly on one foot, folding the garment ready to hand over.Roic jerked back to avoid being clipped by a heavy, mahogany-colored braid of hair as it sweptpast, and rocked forward to find himself face to... nose to... staring directly into anentirely unexpected cleavage. It was framed by pink silk in a plunging vee. He glanced up. Theoutslung jaw was smooth and beardless. The curious pale amber eyes, irises circled with sleekblack lines, looked back down at him with, he instantly feared, some amusement. Her fang-

    framed smile was deeply alarming.

    Pym was efficiently organizing servants and luggage. Lord Vorkosigan's voice yanked Roic backto focus. "Roic, did the count and countess get back in from their dinner engagement yet?"

    "About twenty minutes ago, m'lord. They went upstairs to their suite to change."

    Lord Vorkosigan addressed the woman with the baby, who was attracting cooing maids. "My parentswould skin me if I didn't take you up to them instantly. Come on. Mother's pretty eager to

    meet her namesake. I predict Baby Cordelia will have Countess Cordelia wrapped around her pudgylittle fingers in about, oh, three and a half seconds. At the outside."

    He turned and started up the curve of the great staircase, shepherding the Bothari-Jeseks andcalling over his shoulder, "Roic, show Arde and Taura to their assigned rooms, make sure theyhave everything they want. We'll meet back in the library when you all are freshened up orwhatever. Drinks and snacks will be laid on there."

    So, it was a lady sergeant. Galactics had those; m'lord's mother had been a famous Betanofficer in her day. But this one's a bloody giant mutant lady sergeant was a thought Roic

    suppressed more firmly. Such backcountry prejudices had no place in this household. Though,

    she was clearly bioengineered, had to be. He recovered himself enough to say, "May I take yourbag, um... Sergeant?"

    "Oh, all right." With a dubious look down at him, she handed him the satchel she'd had slungover one arm. The pink enamel on her fingernails did not quite camouflage their shape as claws,heavy and efficient as a leopard's. The bag's descending weight nearly jerked Roic's arm out ofits socket. He managed a desperate smile and began lugging it two-handed up the staircase inm'lord's wake.

    He deposited the tired-looking pilot first. Sergeant Taura's second-floor guest room was one ofthe renovated ones, with its own bath, around the corridor's corner from m'lord's own suite.She reached up and trailed a claw along the ceiling and smiled in evident approval ofVorkosigan House's three-meter headspace.

    "So," she said, turning to Roic, "is a Winterfair wedding considered especially auspicious, inBarrayaran custom?"

    "They're not so common as in summer. Mostly I think it's now because m'lord's fiancee isbetween semesters at university."

    Her thick brows rose in surprise. "She's a student?"

    "Yes, ma'am." He had a notion one addressed female sergeants as ma'am. Pym would have known.

    "I didn't realize she was such a young lady."

    "No, ma'am. Madame Vorsoisson's a widow- she has a little boy, Nikki- nine years old. Madabout jumpships. Do you happen t' know- does that pilot fellow like children?" Mayhew was boundto be a magnet for Nikki.

    "Why... I don't know. I don't think Arde knows either. He hardly ever meets any in a freemercenary fleet."

    He would have to watch, then, to be sure little Nikki didn't set himself up for a painfulrebuff. M'lord and m'lady-to-be might not be paying their usual attention to him, under thecircumstances.

    Sergeant Taura circled the room, gazing with what Roic hoped was approval at its comfortableappointments, and glanced out the window at the back garden, shrouded in winter white, the snowluminous in the security lighting. "I suppose it makes sense that he'd have to wed one of hisown Vor kind, in the end." Her nose wrinkled. "So, are the Vor a social class, a warrior caste,or what? I never could quite figure it out from Miles. The way he talks about them you'd halfthink they were a religion. Or at any rate, his religion."

    Roic blinked in bafflement. "Well, no. And yes. All of that. The Vor are... well, Vor."

    "Now that Barrayar has modernized, isn't a hereditary aristocracy resented by the rest of yourclasses?"

    "But they're our Vor."

    "Says the Barrayaran.Hmm. So, you can criticize them, but heaven help any outsider who daresto?"

    "Yes," he said, relieved that she seemed to have grasped it despite his stumbling tongue.

    "A family matter. I see." Her grin faded into a frown that was actually less alarming- not somuch fang. Her fingers clenching the curtain inadvertently poked claws through the expensivefabric; wincing, she shook her hand free and tucked it behind her back. Her voice lowered. "Soshe's Vor, well and good. But does she love him?"

    Roic heard the odd emphasis in her voice but was unclear how to interpret it. "I'm very sure ofit, ma'am," he avowed loyally. M'lady-to-be's frowns, her darkening mood, were surely justprewedding nerves piled atop examination stress on the substrate of her not-so-distantbereavement.

    "Of course." Her smile flicked back in a perfunctory sort of way. "Have you served LordVorkosigan long, Armsman Roic?"

    "Since last winter, ma'am, when a space fell vacant in the Vorkosigans' armsmen's score. I wassent up on recommendation from the Hassadar Municipal Guard," he added a bit truculently,challenging her to sneer at his humble, nonmilitary origins. "A count's twenty armsmen arealways from his own district, y'see."

    She did not react; the Hassadar Municipal Guard evidently meant nothing to her.

    He asked in return, "Did you... serve him very long? Out there?"In the galactic backbeyondwhere m'lord had acquired such exotic friends.

    Her face softened, the fanged smile reappearing. "In a sense, all my life. Since my real lifebegan, ten years ago, anyway. He is a great man." This last was delivered with unself-consciousconviction.

    Well, he was a great man's son, certainly. Count Aral Vorkosigan was a colossus bestriding thelast half century of Barrayaran history. Lord Miles had led a less public career. Which no onewould tell Roic anything about, the most junior armsman not being ex-ImpSec like m'lord andmost of the rest of the armsmen, eh.

    Still, Roic liked the little lord. What with the birth injuries and all- Roic shied away fromthe pejorative mutations- he'd had a rough ride all his life despite his high blood. Hardenough for him to just achieve normal things, like... like getting married. Although, m'lordhad brains enough, belike, in compensation for his stunted body. Roic just wished he didn't

think his newest armsman a dolt.

    "The library is to the right of the stairs as you go down, through the first room." He touchedhis hand to his forehead in a farewell salute, by way of paving his escape from this unnervinggiant female. "The dining's to be casual tonight; you don't need t' dress." He added, as sheglanced down in bewilderment at her travel-rumpled loose pink jacket and trousers, "Dress up,that is. Fancy. What you're wearing is fine."

    "Oh," she replied with evident relief. "That makes more sense. Thank you."


    Having made his routine security circuit of the house, Roic arrived back at the antechamberjust outside the library to find the huge woman and the pilot fellow examining the array ofwedding presents temporarily staged there. The growing assortment of objects had been arrivingfor weeks. Each had been handed in to Pym to be unwrapped and to undergo a security check,rewrapped, and as the affianced couple's time permitted, unwrapped again and displayed with itscard.

    "Look, here's yours, Arde," said Sergeant Taura. "And here's Elli's."

    "Oh, what did she finally decide on?" asked the pilot. "At one point she told me she wasthinking of sending the bride a barbed-wire choke chain for Miles, but was afraid it might bemisinterpreted."

    "No..." Taura held up a thick fall of shimmering black stuff as long as she was tall. "It seemsto be some sort of fur coat. No, wait- it's a blanket. Beautiful! You should feel this, Arde.It's incredibly soft. And warm." She held a supple fold up to the side of her head, and adelighted laugh broke from her long lips. "It's purring!"

    Mayhew's eyebrows climbed halfway to his receding hairline. "Good God! Did she... ? Now,

    that's a bit edgy."

    Taura stared down at him in puzzled inquiry. "Edgy? Why?"

    Mayhew made an uncertain gesture. "It's a live fur- a genetic construct. It looks just like oneMiles once gave to Elli. If she's recycling his gifts, that's a pretty pointed message." Hehesitated. "Though I suppose if she bought a fresh new one for the happy couple, that's adifferent message."

    "Ouch." Taura tilted her head to one side and frowned at the fur. "My life's too short forarcane mind games, Arde. Which is it?"

    "Search me. In the dark, all cat blankets are... well, black, in this case. I wonder if it'sintended as an editorial? "

    "Well, if it is, don't you dare let on to the poor bride, or I swear I'll turn both your earsinto doilies." She held up her clawed fingers and wriggled them. "By hand."

    Judging by the pilot's brief grin, the threat was a jest, but by his little bow of compliance,not an entirely empty one. Taura observed Roic, just then, refolded the live fur into its box,and tucked her hands discreetly behind her back.

    The door to the library swung open, and Lord Vorkosigan stuck his head out. "Ah, there you twoare." He strolled into the antechamber. "Elena and Baz will be down in a little- she's feedingBaby Cordelia. You must be starving by now, Taura. Come on in and try the hors d'oeuvres. Mycook has outdone herself."

    He smiled up affectionately at the enormous sergeant. While the top of Roic's head barely cameup to her shoulder, m'lord just about faced her belt buckle. It occurred to Roic that Tauratowered over himself in almost exactly the same proportions that ladies of average heighttowered over Lord Vorkosigan. This must be what women looked like to m'lord all the time.


    M'lord waved his guests through to the library but, instead of following them, shut the doorand motioned Roic to his side. He looked thoughtfully up at his tallest armsman and loweredhis. voice .

    "Tomorrow morning, I want you to drive Sergeant Taura to the Old Town. I've prevailed upon AuntAlys to present Taura to her modiste and fix her up with a Barrayaran lady's wardrobe suitablefor the upcoming bash. Figure to hold yourself at their disposal for the day."

    Roic gulped. M'lord's aunt, Lady Alys Vorpatril, was in her own way more terrifying than anywoman Roic had ever encountered, regardless of height. She was the acknowledged social arbiterof the high Vor in the capital, the last word in fashion, taste, and etiquette, the officialhostess for Emperor Gregor And her tongue could slice a fellow to ribbons and tie uphimself.

    the remains in a bowknot before they hit the ground.

    "How t' devil did you- " Roic began, then cut himself off.

    M'lord smirked. "I was very persuasive. Besides, Lady Alys relishes a challenge. With luck, shemay even be able to part Taura from that shocking pink she favors. Some damned fool once toldher it was a nonthreatening color, and now she uses it in the most unsuitable garments- andquantities. It's so wrong on her. Well, Aunt Alys will be able to handle it. If anyone asksfor your opinion- not that they're likely to- vote for whatever Alys picks."

    I shouldn't dare do otherwise, Roic managed not to blurt aloud. He stood to attention and

    tried to look as though he were listening intelligently.

    Lord Vorkosigan tapped his fingers on his trouser seam, his smile fading. "I'm also relying onyou to see that Taura is not, um, offered insult, or made uncomfortable, or... well, you know.Not that you can keep people from staring, I don't suppose. But be her outrider in any publicvenue, and be alert to steer her away from any problems. I wish I had time to squire hermyself, but this wedding prep has gone into high gear. Not much longer now, thank God."

    "How is Madame Vorsoisson holding up?" Roic inquired diffidently. He had been wondering for twodays if he ought to report the crying jag to someone, but m'lady-to-be had surely not realizedher muffled breakdown in one of Vorkosigan House's back corridors had included a hastilyretreating witness.

    Judging by m'lord's suddenly guarded expression, perhaps he knew. "She has... extra stressesjust now. I've tried to take as much of the organizing off her shoulders as possible." Hisshrug was not as reassuring as it might be, Roic felt.

    M'lord brightened. "Anyway, I want Sergeant Taura to have a great time on her visit toBarrayar, a fabulous Winterfair season. It's probably the only chance she'll ever have to seethe place. I want her to look back on this week like, like... dammit, I want her to feel likeCinderella magicked off to the ball. She's earned it, God knows. Midnight tolls too damnedsoon."

    Roic tried to wrap his mind around the concept of Lord Vorkosigan as the enormous woman's fairygodfather. "So... who's t' handsome prince?"

    M'lord's smile went crooked; something almost like pain sounded in his indrawn breath. "Ah.Yes. That would be the central problem, now. Wouldn't it."

    He dismissed Roic with his usual casual half-salute, a vague wave of his hand in the vicinityof his forehead, and joined his guests in the library.


    Roic had never in his whole career as a Hassadar municipal guardsman been in a clothing storeresembling that of Lady Vorpatril's modiste. Nothing betrayed its location in the Vorbarr

    Sultana thoroughfare but a discreet brass plaque, labeled simply ESTELLE. Cautiously, hemounted to the second floor, Sergeant Taura's massive footsteps creaking on the carpeted stairsbehind him, and poked his head into a hushed chamber that might have been a Vor lady's drawingroom. There was not a garment rack nor even a mannequin in sight, just a thick carpet, softlighting, and tables and chairs that looked suitable for offering high tea at the ImperialResidence. To his relief Lady Vorpatril had arrived before them and was standing chatting withanother woman in a dark dress.

    The two women turned as Taura ducked her head under the lintel behind Roic and straightened upagain. Roic nodded a polite greeting. He couldn't imagine what m'lord had said to his aunt, buther eyes widened only slightly, looking up at Taura. The second woman didn't quail at thefangs, claws, or height either, but when her glance swept down the pink trouser outfit, shewinced.

    There was a brief pause; Lady Alys shot Roic an inquiring look, and he realized it must be hisjob to do the announcing, as when he brought a visitor into Vorkosigan House. "Sergeant Taura,my lady," he said loudly, then stopped, hoping for more cues.

    After another moment, Lady Alys abandoned further hope of him and came forward, smiling, herhands held out. "Sergeant Taura. I am Miles Vorkosigan's aunt, Alys Vorpatril. Permit me towelcome you to Barrayar. My nephew has told me something about you."

    Uncertainly, Taura stuck out one huge hand, engulfing Lady Alys's slender fingers, and shookwith care. "I'm afraid he hasn't told me too much about you," she said. Shyness made her voicea gruff rumble. "I don't know many aunts. I somehow thought you would be older. And...and notso beautiful."

    Lady Vorpatril smiled, not without approval. Only a few streaks of silver in her dark coiffureand a slight softening of her skin betrayed her age to Roic's eyes; she was trim and elegantand utterly self-possessed, as always. She introduced the other woman, Madame Somebody - notEstelle, though Roic promptly dubbed her that in his mind- apparently the senior modiste.

    "I'm very happy to have a chance to visit Miles's- Lord Vorkosigan's homeworld," Taura toldthem. "Although, when he invited me to come for the Winterfair season, I wasn't sure if it washunting or social, and whether I should pack weapons or dresses."

    Lady Vorpatril's smile sharpened. "Dresses are weapons, my dear, in sufficiently skilled

    hands. Permit us to introduce you to the rest of our ordnance team." She gestured toward a doorat the far end of the room, through which presumably lay more utilitarian workrooms, full oflaser scanners and design consoles and bolts of exotic fabrics and expert seamstresses. Ormagic wands, for all Roic knew.

    The other woman nodded. "Do please come this way, Sergeant Taura. We have a great deal toaccomplish today, Lady Alys tells me..."

    "My lady?" Roic called in faint panic to their disappearing forms. "What should I do?"

    "Wait here a few moments, Armsman," Lady Alys murmured over her shoulder to him. "I'll beback."

    Taura, too, glanced back at him, just before the door eased silently closed behind her, theexpression flitting over her odd features seeming for a moment almost beseeching- Don't

    abandon me.

    Did he dare sit on one of the chairs? He decided not. He stood for a few moments, walked aroundthe chamber, and finally took up a guardsman's stance, which by dint of much recent practice hecould hold for an hour at a stretch, his back to one delicately decorated wall.

    In a while Lady Vorpatril returned, a pile of bright pink cloth folded over her arm. She shovedit at Roic.

    "Take these back to my nephew and tell him to hide them. Or better, burn them. Or anything,but do not under any circumstances allow them to fall into that young woman's hands again. Comeback in about, oh, four hours. You are by far the most ornamental of Miles's armsmen, butthere's no need to have you lurking about cluttering up Estelle's reception room till then. Runalong."

    He looked down on the top of her perfectly groomed head and wondered how she could always

    make him feel four years old, or as though he wanted to hide in a large bag. For hisconsolation, Roic reflected as he made his way out, she seemed to have the same effect on hernephew, who was thirty-one and ought to be immune by now.

    He reported again for duty at the appointed time, only to cool his heels for another twentyminutes or so. A sub-modiste of some sort offered him a choice of tea or wines while he waited,which he politely declined. At last, the door opened; voices drifted through.

    Taura's vibrant baritone was unmistakable. "I'm not so sure, Lady Alys. I've never worn a skirtlike this in my life."

    "We'll have you practice for a few minutes, sitting and standing and walking. Oh, here's Roicback, good."

    Lady Alys stepped through first, folded her arms, and looked, oddly enough, at Roic.

    A stunning vision in hunter green stepped through behind her.

    Oh, it was still Taura, certainly, but... the skin that had been sallow and dull against thepink was now revealed as a glowing ivory. The green jacket fit very trimly about the waist.Above, her pale shoulders and long neck seemed to bloom from a white linen collar; below, thejacket skirt skimmed out briefly around the upper hips. A narrow skirt continued the long greenfall to her firm calves. Wide linen cuffs decorated with subtle white braid made her handslook, if not small, well-proportioned. The pink nail polish was gone, replaced by a darkmahogany shade. The heavy braid hanging down her back had been transformed into a mysteriouslyknotted arrangement, clinging close to her head and set off with a green... hat? feather?anyway , a neat little accent tilted to the other side. The odd shape of her face seemedsuddenly artistic and sophisticated rather than distorted.

    "Ye-es," said Lady Vorpatril. "That will do."

    Roic closed his mouth.

    With a lopsided smile, Taura stepped carefully forward. "I am a bodyguard by trade," she said,evidently continuing a conversation with Lady Vorpatril. "How can I kick someone's teeth inwearing this?"

    "A woman wearing that suit, my dear, will have volunteers to kick in annoying persons' teethfor her," said Lady Alys. "Is that not so, Roic?"

    "If they don't trample each other in the rush," gulped Roic and turned red.

    One corner of that wide mouth lifted; the golden eyes seemed to sparkle like champagne. Shecaught sight of a long mirror on a carved stand in one corner and walked over to it to staresomewhat uncertainly at the portion of her it reflected. "It's effective, then?"

    "Downright terrifying," Roic averred.

    Roic intercepted a furious glower from Lady Alys behind Taura's back. Her lips formed the words

     No, you idiot! He shrank into cowed silence.

    "Oh." Taura's fanged smile fled. "But I already terrify people. Human beings are so fragile. Ifyou get a good grip, you can pull their heads right off. I want to attract... somebody. For a

    change. Maybe I should have that pink dress with the bows after all."

Lady Alys said smoothly, "We agreed that the ingenue look is for much younger girls."

    "Smaller ones, you mean."

    "There is more than one kind of beauty. Yours needs dignity. I would never deck myself in pink

    bows," she threw in, a little desperately it seemed to Roic.

    Taura eyed her, seeming struck by this. "No... I suppose not."

    "You will simply attract braver men."

    "Oh, I know that. " Taura shrugged. "I was just... hoping for a larger selection, for once."She added under her breath, "Anyway, he's taken now."

    What he? Roic couldn't help wondering. She sounded rather sad about it. Some very tall admirer,now out of the picture?Larger than Roic? There weren't too many men of that descriptionaround.

    Lady Alys rounded out the afternoon by guiding her new protegee to an exclusive tearoom, muchfrequented by high Vor matrons. This proved to be partly for the purposes of tutorial, party torefuel Taura's ferocious metabolism. While the server brought dish after dish, Lady Alysoffered a brisk stream of advice on everything from gracefully exiting a groundcar inrestrictive clothing to posture to table manners to the intricacies of Vor social rank. Despiteher outsized scale, Taura was naturally athletic and coordinated, seeming to improve almost asRoic watched.

    Drafted as practice gentleman, Roic found himself coming in for a few sharp correctionshimself. He felt very conspicuous and clumsy at first, until he realized that, next to Taura,he might as well be invisible. If they drew sidelong looks from other diners, at least thecomments were low-voiced or far enough away that he was not compelled to take notice; besides,Taura's attention was entirely upon her mentor. Unlike Roic, she never needed the sameinstruction twice.

    When Lady Vorpatril removed herself to consult with the head server about some fine point,Taura leaned over to whisper, "She's very good at this, isn't she?"

    "Yes. The best."

    She sat back with a smile of satisfaction. "Miles's people generally are." She regarded Roicappraisingly.

    A server guided a well-dressed Vor matron shepherding a girl-child about Nikki's age past theirtable toward their own seating. The girl stopped short and stared at Taura. Her hand lifted,pointing in astonishment. "Mama, look at that gigantic- "

    The mother captured the hand, shot an alarmed glance at them, and began some hushedadmonishment about it not being polite to point. Taura essayed a big friendly smile at thegirl. A mistake...

    The girl screamed and buried her face in her mother's skirts, hands frantically clutching. Thewoman shot Taura a furious, frightened glower and hustled the little girl away, not towardtheir table but to the exit. Across the tearoom, Lady Alys's head swiveled around.

    Roic looked back at Taura, then wished he hadn't. Her face froze, appalled, then crumpled indistress; she seemed about to burst into tears but caught herself with a long indrawn breath,held for a moment.

    Tensed to spring- where?- Roic instead eased back helplessly in his chair. Hadn't m'lord specifically detailed him to prevent this sort of thing?

    With a gulp, Taura brought her breathing back under control. She looked as wan as though she'dbeen wounded by a knife thrust. Yet what could he have done? He couldn't very well draw his

stunner and pot some Vor lady's terrified kid...

    Lady Alys, taking in the incident, returned quickly. With a special frown at Roic, she slidback into her seat. She smoothed over the moment with some light comment, but the outing didnot recover its cheerful tone; Taura kept trying to shrink down and sit smaller, a futileexercise, and whenever she began to smile, stopped and tried to hold her hand over her mouth.

    Roic wished he were back patrolling Hassadar alleys.


    Roic arrived with his charges back at Vorkosigan House feeling as though he'd been run througha wringer. Backward.Several times. He peered around the tower of garment boxes he carried- therest, Madame Estelle had assured Taura, would be delivered- and managed not to drop themgetting through the carved doors. Under Lady Vorpatril's direction, he handed off the boxes toa pair of maidservants, who whisked them away.

    M'lord's voice wafted from the antechamber to the library. "Is that you, Aunt Alys? We're inhere."

    Roic trod belatedly after the two disparate women just in time to see m'lord introduce SergeantTaura to his fiancee, Madame Ekaterin Vorsoisson. Like, it seemed, everyone but Roic, she hadapparently been warned in advance; she didn't even blink, holding out one hand to the hugegalactic woman and offering her an impeccably polite welcome. M'lady-to-be looked fatigued thisevening, although that might be partially the effect of the drab gray half-mourning she stillwore, her dark hair drawn back in a severe knot. The garb went with the gray civilian suitsm'lord favored, though, giving the effect of two players on the same team.

    M'lord regarded the new green outfit with unfeigned enthusiasm. "Splendid work, Aunt Alys! Iknew I could rely on you. That's a stunning look with the hair, Taura." He peered upward. "Arethe fleet medicos making some new headway with the extension treatments? I don't see any grayat all. Great!"

    She hesitated, then replied, "No, I just got some customized dye to match it."

    "Ah." He made an apologetic motion, as if brushing away his last words. "Well, it lookslovely."

    New voices sounded from the entry hall, Armsman Pym admitting a visitor.

    "No need to announce me, Pym."

    "He's right in there, then, sir. Lady Alys just arrived."

    "Better still."

    Simon Illyan (ImpSec, retired) entered upon these words, bent to kiss Lady Alys's hand, then tucked it through one arm as he straightened. She smiled fondly at him, and he snugged her inclose to his side. He, too, absorbed his introduction to the towering Sergeant Taura withunruffled calm, bowing over her hand and saying, "I am so pleased to have a chance to meet youat last, Sergeant. I hope your visit to Barrayar has been pleasant so far?"

    "Yes, sir," she rumbled back, apparently controlling an impulse to salute the man only becausehe still held her hand. Roic didn't blame her; he was taller than Illyan, too, but theformidable former Chief of Imperial Security made him want to salute, and he'd never even

    been in the military. "Lady Alys has been wonderful." No one, it seemed, was going to mentionthe unfortunate incident in the tearoom.

    "I'm not surprised. Oh, Miles," Illyan continued, "I've just come from the Imperial Residence.Some good news came in when I was saying good-bye to Gregor. Lord Vorbataille was arrested thisafternoon at the Vorbarr Sultana shuttleport, trying to leave the planet in disguise."

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