The next morning Cordelia awoke to find Vorkosigan already gone, and herself facing her first day on Barrayar without his supportive company. She decided to devote it to the shopping project that had occurred to her while watching Koudelka negotiate the spiral staircase last night. She suspected Droushnakovi would be the ideal native guide for what she had in mind.
She dressed and went hunting for her bodyguard. Finding her was not difficult; Droushnakovi was seated in the hall, just outside the bedroom door, and popped to attention at Cordelia's appearance. The girl really ought to be wearing a uniform, Cordelia reflected. The dress she wore made her near-six-foot frame and excellent musculature look heavy. Cordelia wondered if, as Regent-consort, she might be permitted her own livery, and bemused herself through breakfast mentally designing one that would set off the girl's Valkyrie good looks.
"Do you know, you're the first female Barrayaran guard I've met," Cordelia commented to her over her egg and coffee, and a kind of steamed native groats with butter, evidently a morning staple here. "How did you get into this line of work?"
"Well, I'm not a real guard, like the liveried men—"
Ah, the magic of uniforms again.
"—but my father and all three of my brothers are in the Service. It's as close as I can come to being a real soldier, like you."
Army-mad, like the rest of Barrayar. "Yes?"
"I used to study judo, for sport, when I was younger. But I was too big for the women's classes. Nobody could give me any real practice, and besides, doing all katas was so dull. My brothers used to sneak me into the men's classes with them. One thing led to another. I was all-Barrayar women's champion two years running, when I was in school. Then three years ago a man from Captain Negri's staff approached my father with a job offer for me. That's when I had weapons training. It seemed the Princess had been asking for female guards for years, but they had a lot of trouble getting anyone who could pass all the tests. Although," she smiled self-depreciatingly, "the lady who assassinated Admiral Vorrutyer could scarcely be supposed to need my poor services."
Cordelia bit her tongue. "Um. I was lucky. Besides, I'd rather stay out of the physical end of things just now. Pregnant, you know."
"Yes, Milady. It was in one of Captain—"
"Negri's reports," Cordelia finished in unison with her. "I'm sure it was. He probably knew before I did."
"Were you much encouraged in your interests, as a child?"
"Not . . . really. Everyone thought I was just odd." She frowned deeply, and Cordelia had the sense of stirring up a painful memory.
She regarded the girl thoughtfully. "Older brothers?"
Droushnakovi returned a wide blue gaze. "Why, yes."
"Figured." And I feared Barrayar for what it did to its sons. No wonder they have trouble getting anyone to pass the tests. "So, you've had weapons training. Excellent. You can guide me on my shopping trip today."
A slightly glazed look crept over Droushnakovi's face. "Yes, Milady. What sort of clothing do you wish to look at?" she asked politely, not quite concealing a glum disappointment with the interests of her "real" lady soldier.
"Where in this town would you go to buy a really good swordstick?"
The glazed look vanished. "Oh, I know just the place, where the Vor officers go, and the counts, to supply their liveried men. That is—I've never been inside. My family's not Vor, so of course we're not permitted to own personal weapons. Just Service issue. But it's supposed to be the best."
* * *
One of Count Vorkosigan's liveried guards chauffeured them to the shop. Cordelia relaxed and enjoyed the view of the passing city. Droushnakovi, on duty, kept alert, eyes constantly checking the crowds all around. Cordelia had the feeling she didn't miss much. From time to time her hand wandered to check the stunner worn concealed on the inside of her embroidered bolero.
They turned into a clean narrow street of older buildings with cut stone fronts. The weapons shop was marked only by its name, Siegling's, in discreet gold letters. Evidently if you didn't know where you were you shouldn't be there. The liveried man waited outside when Cordelia and Droushnakovi entered the shop, a thick-carpeted, wood-grained place with a little of the aroma of the armory Cordelia remembered from her Survey ship, an odd whiff of home in an alien place. She stared covertly at the wood paneling, and mentally translated its value into Betan dollars. A great many Betan dollars. Yet wood seemed almost as common as plastic, here, and as little regarded. Those personal weapons which were legal for the upper classes to own were elegantly displayed in cases and on the walls. Besides stunners and hunting weapons, there was an impressive array of swords and knives; evidently the Emperor's ferocious edicts against dueling only forbade their use, not their possession.
The clerk, a narrow-eyed, soft-treading older man, came up to them. "What may I do for you ladies?" He was cordial enough. Cordelia supposed Vor-class women must sometimes enter here, to buy presents for their masculine relations. But he might have said, What may I do for you children? in the same tone of voice. Diminutization by body language? Let it go.
"I'm looking for a swordstick, for a man about six-foot-four. Should be about, oh, yea long," she estimated, calling up Koudelka's arm and leg length in her mind's eye, and gesturing to the height of her hip. "Spring-sheathed, probably."
"Looks a bit . . . I don't know." Flashy. "How does it work?"
The clerk demonstrated the spring mechanism. The wooden sheathing dropped off, revealing a long thin blade. Cordelia held out her hand, and the clerk, rather reluctantly, handed it over for inspection.
She wriggled it a little, sighted down the blade, and handed it to her bodyguard. "What do you think?"
Droushnakovi smiled first, then frowned doubtfully. "It's not very well balanced." She glanced uncertainly at the clerk.
"Remember, you're working for me, not him," said Cordelia, correctly identifying class-consciousness in action.
"I don't think it's a very good blade."
"That's excellent Darkoi workmanship, madam," the clerk defended coolly.
Smiling, Cordelia took it back. "Let us test your hypothesis."
She raised the blade suddenly to the salute, and lunged at the wall in a neat extension. The tip penetrated and caught in the wood, and Cordelia leaned on it. The blade snapped. Blandly, she handed the pieces back to the clerk. "How do you stay in business if your customers don't survive long enough for repeat sales? Siegling's certainly didn't acquire its reputation selling toys like that. Bring me something a decent soldier can carry, not a pimp's plaything."
"Madam," said the clerk stiffly, "I must insist the damaged merchandise be paid for."
Cordelia, thoroughly irritated, said, "Very well. Send the bill to my husband. Admiral Aral Vorkosigan, Vorkosigan House. While you're about it you can explain why you tried to pass off sleaze on his wife—Yeoman." This last was a guess, based on his age and walk, but she could tell from his eyes she'd struck home.
The clerk bowed profoundly. "I beg pardon, Milady. I believe I have something more suitable, if Milady will be pleased to wait."
He vanished again, and Cordelia sighed. "Buying from machines is so much easier. But at least the Appeal to the Irrelevant Authorities at Headquarters works just as well here as at home."
The next sample was a plain dark wood, with a finish like satin. The clerk handed it to her unopened, with another little bow. "You press the handle there, Milady."
It was much heavier than the first swordstick. The sheathing sprang away at velocity, landing against the wall on the other side of the room with a satisfying thunk, almost a weapon in itself. Cordelia sighted down the blade again. A strange watermark pattern down its length shifted in the light. She saluted the wall once more, and caught the clerk's eye. "Do these come out of your salary?"
"Go ahead, Milady." There was a little gleam of satisfaction in his eye. "You can't break that one."
She gave it the same test as she had the other. The tip went much further into the wood, and leaning against it with all her strength, she could barely bend it. Even so, there was more bend left in it; she could feel she was nowhere near the limit of its tensile strength. She handed it to Droushnakovi, who examined it lovingly.
"That's fine, Milady. That's worthy."
"I'm sure it will be used more as a stick than as a sword. Nevertheless . . . it should indeed be worthy. We'll take this one."
As the clerk wrapped it, Cordelia lingered over a case of enamel-decorated stunners.
"Thinking of buying one for yourself, Milady?" asked Droushnakovi.
"I . . . don't think so. Barrayar has enough soldiers, without importing them from Beta Colony. Whatever I'm here for, it isn't soldiering. See anything you want?"
Droushnakovi looked wistful, but shook her head, her hand going to her bolero. "Captain Negri's equipment is the best. Even Siegling's doesn't have anything better, just prettier."
* * *
They sat down three to dinner that night, late, Vorkosigan, Cordelia, and Lieutenant Koudelka. Vorkosigan's new personal secretary looked a little tired.
"What did you two do all day?" asked Cordelia.
"Herded men, mostly," answered Vorkosigan. "Prime Minister Vortala had a few votes that weren't as much in the bag as he claimed, and we worked them over, one or two at a time, behind closed doors. What you'll see tomorrow in the Council chambers isn't Barrayaran politics at work, just their result. Were you all right today?"
"Fine. Went shopping. Wait'll you see." She produced the swordstick, and stripped off the wrapping. "Just to help keep you from running Kou completely into the ground."
Koudelka looked politely grateful, over a more fundamental irritation. His look changed to one of surprise as he took the stick and nearly dropped it from the unexpected weight. "Hey! This isn't—"
"You press the handle there. Don't point it—!"
"—at the window." Fortunately, the sheath struck the frame, and bounced back with a clatter. Kou and Aral both jumped.
Koudelka's eyes lit up as he examined the blade, while Cordelia retrieved the sheath. "Oh, Milady!" Then his face fell. He carefully resheathed it, and handed it back sadly. "I guess you didn't realize. I'm not Vor. It's not legal for me to own a private sword."
"Oh." Cordelia was crestfallen.
Vorkosigan raised an eyebrow. "May I see that, Cordelia?" He looked it over, unsheathing it more cautiously. "Hm. Am I right in guessing I paid for this?"
"Well, you will, I suppose, when the bill arrives. Although I don't think you should pay for the one I broke. I might as well take it back, though."
"I see." He smiled a little. "Lieutenant Koudelka, as your commanding officer and a vassal secundus to Ezar Vorbarra, I am officially issuing you this weapon of mine, to carry in the service of the Emperor, long may he rule." The unavoidable irony of the formal phrase tightened his mouth, but he shook off the blackness, and handed the stick back to Koudelka, who bloomed again.
"Thank you, sir!"
Cordelia just shook her head. "I don't believe I'll ever understand this place."
"I'll have Kou find you some legal histories. Not tonight, though. He has barely time to put his notes from today in order before Vortala's due here with a couple more of his strays. You can take over part of the Count my father's library, Kou; we'll meet in there."
Dinner broke up. Koudelka retreated to the library to work, while Vorkosigan and Cordelia retired to the drawing room next to it to read, before Vorkosigan's evening meeting. He had yet more reports, which he ran rapidly through a hand viewer. Cordelia divided her time between a Barrayaran Russian phrase earbug, and an even more intimidating disk on child care. The silence was broken by an occasional mutter from Vorkosigan, more to himself than her, of phrases like, "Ah ha! So that's what the bastard was really up to," or "Damn, those figures are strange. Got to check it out. . . ." Or from Cordelia, "Oh, my, I wonder if all babies do that," and a periodic thwack! penetrating the wall from the library, which caused them to look up at each other and burst out laughing.
"Oh, dear," said Cordelia, after the third or fourth of these. "I hope I haven't distracted him unduly from his duties."
"He'll do all right, when he settles down. Vorbarra's personal secretary has taken him in hand, and is showing him how to organize himself. After Kou follows him through the funeral protocol, he should be able to tackle anything. That swordstick was a stroke of genius, by the way; thank you."
"Yes, I noticed he was pretty touchy about his handicaps. I thought it might unruffle his feathers a little."
"It's our society. It tends to be . . . rather hard on anyone who can't keep up."
"I see. Strange . . . now that you mention it, I don't recall seeing any but healthy-looking people, on the streets and so on, except at the hospital. No float chairs, none of those vacuous faces in the tow of their parents . . ."
"Nor will you." Vorkosigan looked grim. "Any problems that are detectable are eliminated before birth."
"Well, we do that, too. Though usually before conception."
"Also at birth. And after, in the backcountry."
"As for the maimed adults . . ."
"Good heavens, you don't practice euthanasia on them, do you?"
"Your Ensign Dubauer would not have lived, here."
Dubauer had taken disruptor fire to the head, and survived. Sort of.
"As for injuries like Koudelka's, or worse . . . the social stigma is very great. Watch him in a larger group sometime, not his close friends. It's no accident that the suicide rate among medically discharged soldiers is high."
"I took it for granted, once. Now . . . not anymore. But many people still do."
"What about problems like Bothari's?"
"It depends. He was a usable madman. For the unusable . . ." he trailed off, staring at his boots.
Cordelia felt cold. "I keep thinking I'm beginning to adjust to this place. Then I go around another corner and run headlong into something like that."
"It's only been eighty years since Barrayar made contact with the wider galactic civilization again. It wasn't just technology we lost, in the Time of Isolation. That we put back on again quickly, like a borrowed coat. But underneath it . . . we're still pretty damned naked in places. In forty-four years, I've only begun to see how naked."
Count Vortala and his "strays" came in soon after, and Vorkosigan vanished into the library. The old Count Piotr Vorkosigan, Aral's father, arrived from his District later that evening, come up to attend the full Council vote.
"Well, that's one vote he's assured of tomorrow," Cordelia joked to her father-in-law, helping him get stiffly out of his jacket in the stone-paved foyer.
"Ha. He's lucky to get it. He's picked up some damned peculiar radical notions in the last few years. If he wasn't my son, he could whistle for it." But Piotr's seamed face looked proud.
Cordelia blinked at this description of Aral Vorkosigan's political views. "I confess, I've never thought of him as a revolutionary. Radical must be a more elastic term than I thought."
"Oh, he doesn't see himself that way. He thinks he can go halfway, and then stop. I think he'll find himself riding a tiger, a few years down the road." The count shook his head grimly. "But come, my girl, and sit down and tell me that you're well. You look well—is everything all right?"
The old count was passionately interested in the development of his grandson-to-be. Cordelia sensed her pregnancy had raised her status with him enormously, from a tolerated caprice of Aral's to something bordering perilously on the semi-divine. He fairly blasted her with approval. It was nearly irresistible, and she never laughed at him, although she had no illusions about it.
Cordelia had found Aral's earlier sketch of his father's reaction to her pregnancy, the day she'd brought home the confirming news, to be right on target. She'd returned to the estate at Vorkosigan Surleau that summer day to search Aral out down by the boat dock. He was puttering around with his sailboat, and had the sails laid out, drying in the sun, as he squished around them in wet shoes.
He looked up to meet her smile, unsuccessful at concealing the eagerness in his eyes. "Well?" He bounced a little, on his heels.
"Well." She attempted a sad and disappointed look, to tease him, but the grin escaped and took over her whole face. "Your doctor says it's a boy."
"Ah." A long and eloquent sigh escaped him, and he scooped her up and twirled her around.
"Aral! Awk! Don't drop me." He was no taller than herself, if, um, thicker.
"Never." He let her slide down against him, and they shared a long kiss, ending in laughter.
"My father will be ecstatic."
"You look pretty ecstatic yourself."
"Yes, but you haven't seen anything until you've seen an old-fashioned Barrayaran paterfamilias in a trance over the growth of his family tree. I've had the poor old man convinced for years that his line was ending with me."
"Will he forgive me for being an offworlder plebe?"
"No insult intended, but by this time I don't think he'd have cared what species of wife I dragged home, as long as she was fertile. You think I'm exaggerating?" he added at her trill of laughter. "You'll see."
"Is it too early to think of names?" she asked, slightly wistful.
"No thinking to it. Firstborn son. It's a strict custom here. He gets named after his two grandfathers. Paternal for the first, maternal for the second."
"Ah, that's why your history is so confusing to read. I was always having to put dates next to those duplicate names, to try and keep track. Piotr Miles. Hm. Well, I guess I can get used to it. I'd been thinking of . . . something else."
"Another time, perhaps."
A short wrestling match ensued, Cordelia having previously made the useful discovery that in certain moods he was more ticklish than she. She extracted a reasonable amount of revenge, and they ended laughing on the grass in the sun.
"This is very undignified," Aral complained as she let him up.
"Afraid I'll shock Negri's fisher of men out there?"
"They're beyond shock, I guarantee."
Cordelia waved at the distant hoverboat, whose occupant steadfastly ignored the gesture. She had been at first angered, then resigned to learn that Aral was being kept under continuous observation by Imperial Security. The price, she'd supposed, of his involvement in the secret and lethal politics of the Escobar War, and the penalty for some of his less welcome outspoken opinions.
"I can see why you took up baiting them for a hobby. Maybe we ought to unbend and invite them to lunch or something. I feel they must know me so well by now, I'd like to know them." Had Negri's man recorded the domestic conversation she'd just had? Were there bugs in their bedroom? Their bathroom?
Aral grinned, but replied, "They wouldn't be permitted to accept. They don't eat or drink anything but what they bring themselves."
"Heavens, how paranoid. Is that really necessary?"
"Sometimes. Theirs is a dangerous trade. I don't envy them."
"I'd think sitting around down here watching you would constitute a nice little vacation. He's got to have a great suntan."
"The sitting around is the hardest part. They may sit for a year, and then be called to five minutes of all-out action of deadly importance. But they have to be instantly ready for that five minutes the whole year. Quite a strain. I much prefer attack to defense."
"I still don't understand why anybody would want to bother you. I mean, you're just a retired officer, living in obscurity. There must be hundreds like you, even of high Vor blood."
"Hm." He'd rested his gaze on the distant boat, avoiding answer, then jumped to his feet. "Come on. Let's go spring the good news on Father."
Well, she understood it now. Count Piotr drew her hand through his arm, and carried her off to the dining room, where he ate a late supper between demands for the latest obstetrical report, and pressed fresh garden dainties upon her that he'd brought with him from the country. She ate grapes obediently.
After the Count's supper, walking arm in arm with him into the foyer, Cordelia's ear was caught by the sound of raised voices coming from the library. The words were muffled but the tones were sharp, chop-cadenced. Cordelia paused, disturbed.
After a moment the—argument?—stopped, the library door swung open, and a man stalked out. Cordelia could see Aral and Count Vortala through the aperture. Aral's face was set, his eyes burning. Vortala, an age-shrunken man with a balding liver-spotted head fringed with white, was brick-pink to the top of his naked scalp. With a curt gesture the man collected his waiting liveried retainer, who followed smartly, blank-faced.
The curt man was about forty years old, Cordelia guessed, dressed expensively in the upper-class style, dark-haired. He was rendered a bit dish-faced by a prominent forehead and jaw that his nose and moustache had trouble overpowering. Neither handsome nor ugly, in another mood one might call him strong-featured. Now he just looked sour. He paused, coming upon Count Piotr in the foyer, and managed—just barely—a polite nod of greeting. "Vorkosigan," he said thickly. A reluctant good evening was encoded in his jerky half-bow.
The old count tilted his head in return, eyebrows up. "Vordarian." His tone made the name an inquiry.
Vordarian's lips were tight, his hands clenching in unconscious rhythm with his jaw. "Mark my words," he ground out, "you, and I, and every other man of worth on Barrayar will live to regret tomorrow."
Piotr pursed his lips, wariness in the crow's-feet corners of his eyes. "My son will not betray his class, Vordarian."
"You blind yourself." His stare cut across Cordelia, not lingering long enough to be construed as insult, but cold, very cold, repelling introduction. With effort, he made the minimum courtesy of a farewell nod, turned, and exited the front door with his retainer-shadow.
Aral and Vortala emerged from the library. Aral drifted to the foyer to stare moodily into the darkness through the etched glass panels flanking the door. Vortala placed a placating hand on his sleeve.
"Let him go," said Vortala. "We can live without his vote tomorrow."
"I don't plan to go running down the street after him," Aral snapped. "Nevertheless . . . next time, save your wit for those with the brains to appreciate it, eh?"
"Who was that irate fellow?" asked Cordelia lightly, trying to lift the black mood.
"Count Vidal Vordarian." Aral turned from the glass panel back to her, and managed a smile for her benefit. "Commodore Count Vordarian. I used to work with him from time to time when I was on the General Staff. He is now a leader in what you might call the next-to-most conservative party on Barrayar; not the back-to-the-Time-of-Isolation loonies, but, shall we say, those honestly fearing all change is change for the worse." He glanced covertly at Count Piotr.
"His name was mentioned frequently, in speculation about the upcoming Regency," Vortala commented. "I rather fear he may have been counting on it for himself. He's made great efforts to cultivate Kareen."
"He should have been cultivating Ezar," said Aral dryly. "Well . . . maybe he'll come down out of the air overnight. Try him again in the morning, Vortala—a little more humbly this time, eh?"
"Coddling Vordarian's ego could be a full-time task," grumbled Vortala. "He spends too damn much time studying his family tree."