By Scott Washburn
This is a fan fiction story set in the world of Lois Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan. This story is written without Ms. Bujold's permission or knowledge.
"What are you doing?!"
Long before she became a countess, Ekaterin had sworn that she would never shriek at either her husband or her children. It was a promise she had generally been able to live up to—through two husbands and five children—but the sight that greeted her now had pulled a shriek—a small one—out of her throat.
The four children produced by her and her second husband, froze in place amidst the debris, their eyes wide and their mouths slightly open. None of them replied.
"Well?" asked Ekaterin, carefully damping her voice down into the not-shrieking range.
Taurie, age two, recovered first. She simply went back to playing with the piece of loot she had in her hands. Lizzie, age 4, tried to follow her lead, but kept glancing between her mother and her two older siblings. The Twins, Alex and Helen, both age seven, were exchanging looks and shuffling their feet nervously. Finally, Alex looked at Ekaterin and produced the standard answer:
"Nothing? Look at this mess! And those are your father's things! You had no right to take them!"
"Da said we could…" said Helen.
"He said you could carefully play with his old uniforms in the upstairs closet! He did not give you permission to rifle through everything he owns!"
"Oh…" said Alex.
"Oh…" said Helen.
"Oh," added Lizzie. Taurie kept playing.
"And where is Anna?" The maid Ekaterin had charged with watching the children for a while was nowhere to be seen.
"Dunno," said Alex, spreading his hands and shrugging theatrically, but just then the young woman came dashing into the room, her expression shifting from relief to horror in an instant.
"There you are! I… oh dear! Oh no! My lady! I'm so sorry!"
Ekaterin pursed her lips, noted the small medical scanner in the woman's hands, and then said: "What happened, Anna?"
"I… we were in the playroom, my lady," she gasped breathlessly. "Lizzie said she had a stomach ache. So I went to get the scanner to check." She displayed the device for emphasis. "But I couldn't find it in its usual spot. By the time I found it and came back, they were gone! I ran all over the house looking for them before I heard your voice, my lady. I'm so sorry!"
"Not your fault," said Ekaterin, "you were decoyed." She turned back to the children. "Right?"
"Uh…" said Alex.
"Ummm…" said Helen.
"Yes!" said Lizzie brightly. "It worked, too!"
"Lizzie!" cried the Twins.
Ekaterin let out a long sigh. "That was very wrong—especially hiding the medical scanner! But we will discuss this later. You will go with Anna now, back to your rooms. You will stay there until I say you can come out."
"Aw, Ma!" cried Alex.
"But lookit all this good stuff!" cried Lizzie.
"Good stuff!" agreed Taurie, holding up a treasure.
A stern look quelled the brief rebellion, and the children allowed Anna to herd them out—after relieving them of any purloined items. The maid looked back. "Once I get them secured… settled, I can come back and clean this up, my lady."
"No, no," said Ekaterin. "After you have them in lock-down, go get yourself a cup of tea and relax for a bit. I'll take care of this."
"Yes, my lady," said Anna, smiling. "Thank you."
Alone, Ekaterin surveyed the carnage. The children had gotten into her husband, Miles', private office. All the lower cabinets and drawers had been opened up and much of their contents scattered around. Fortunately, the dangerous items, several swords and Miles' seal-dagger, were all stored high up, out of reach, but there had been plenty of other things at the proper height for young hands.
A quick check did not reveal any actual damage, just a large amount of disarray. Anything that looked remotely interesting—or anything obstructing access to something that looked interesting—had been removed from its spot and placed on the floor for further investigation. These investigations had resulted in things being scattered all over the room. Ekaterin began collecting the items and sorting them into categories.
The flimsies would have to be left for Miles to re-file. She stacked them neatly on a table. The other items—the 'good stuff'—were mostly nick-knacks acquired by Miles on his many journeys, or gifts from the multitude of people he had met during his career. Some of them Ekaterin could put back in their proper places on the desk or on low shelves or in cabinets. Others, again, would have to wait for Miles. Many she had seen before, but a few of them were interesting enough to grab her attention for a few seconds—or a few minutes. She started at the east end of the room and worked her way west. How could they have made this big a mess? They couldn't have had more than ten minutes!
She finally had it all done except for a pile of objects strewn around a very old and beautifully crafted wooden chest which stood beneath one of the windows. The lid was open and just about everything had been emptied out of it. As she looked closer at the objects, she suddenly realized what they were. Souvenirs from his ImpSec days!
A quick look-through didn't reveal anything dangerous and she didn't think any of the children had carried anything off… Better have Anna frisk the little thieves! After relaying that order—and interrupting the maid's break—she came back to look at the pile more closely. There were a few holocubes, mostly filled with pictures of smiling and uniformed groups of soldiers. From the color of the uniforms Ekaterin suspected they were with the Dendarii Free Mercenaries, a group which had been very important to Miles at one time. There were a couple of close-ups of Admiral Quinn. She had been very important to Miles, too.
Ekaterin eased down on a chair and looked at the image of the very attractive, very fit, and apparently very competent woman who had once been her husband's lover. She had resolved not to ever be jealous of Miles' former loves. Those had been over before she had ever met him. He belonged to her now. And she to him. She couldn't imagine Miles being jealous of her late husband, but… Tien was no Elli Quinn. Miles' former loves had just been so much more interesting than hers.
And maybe that was it. It wasn't the women themselves that sparked her envy, it was the circumstances under which the affairs occurred. Her husband had experienced things in his youth which she could scarcely imagine. Not that she really wanted such adventures. The one time—er, well, make that two times—she had gotten involved with Miles' work had both been terrifying enough to cure her of any desire for more. Still…
She snorted and shook her head and put the holocube into the chest. I bet Quinn couldn't handle our four little hellions half as well!
Many of the other items were ordinary enough that she wasn't sure why Miles wanted to keep them. A small T-shirt with the message: I'm with Stupid and arrows radiating off in all directions puzzled her. It must have been a gift and the giver was more important than the gift. Other items were clearly gifts, too. A metal drinking mug had the engraved message: To Admiral Naismith, best commander in the Nexus. It must have come from his troops and she could understand why it was important to him. Winning the respect of the people he commanded would mean a huge amount to Miles; he had to work so hard for that respect everywhere he went. Or he thinks he does.
A bound stack of flimsies seemed like they belonged with the other documents, but on closer inspection it turned out to be some sort of battle plan dated from fifteen years earlier. Ekaterin was wondering why Miles kept a hard copy instead of an electronic one until she flipped through to the last page and saw a hand-written notation: Well done, Boy! It was in his father's distinctive handwriting. She very carefully put it back in the chest.
She had nearly everything else put away when she noticed a small, Maplewood box sitting open on the floor. It had some exquisite inlay on the lid and the sides and it was lined with red satin. But it was empty. None of the other remaining items would fit in it. Had the children gotten away with something? Or was the box itself important?
A faint scratching sound to her right made her turn her head. An orange tabby was batting at something dark with his paws and sliding it across the floor. It was a small round hoop, like a bracelet or something. "Stefan! What do you have?" She got up and pursued the cat, but this only prompted the furry beast to pursue his prize harder and one final bat slid the object under a chest of drawers. Stefan mewed in frustration and stuck his paw under the chest.
Hoping she wasn't about to grab something disgusting—or which would bite, claw or sting—Ekaterin slid her hand under the chest, probing for whatever the thing was. At first all she encountered was Stefan's paw, but then she touched something soft and smooth and managed to get her fingers around it. She drew it out, but before she could escape, Stefan's claws snagged it and she was engaged with a brief tug-of-war before the feline gave up and darted from the room.
She looked at the thing: A tightly wound ring of what looked like black hair, covered in dust balls from beneath the chest and with one section badly snarled by the cat's claws. What was it? And why had Miles…?
She looked back the box and the chest.
"Oh dear," she sighed.
Dinner that night was subdued. Ekaterin rarely used the wait-til-your-father-gets-home ploy, but in this case she didn't need to. With barely any prompting, the children confessed what they had done and all except Taurie looked properly remorseful. Miles handled it perfectly, reminding them that they had no right to take, or even play with, other people's property without their permission. "And I'm particularly upset with the trick you played on poor Anna," he said. "She has responsibilities toward you, responsibilities I know she takes very seriously. You gave her a bad scare. And this matter of hiding the medical scanner; it's not a toy. What if someone had gotten hurt and needed it and couldn't find it?" He frowned at the Twins and they squirmed in their seats.
"I'm sorry, Da!" said Alex, not quite in tears.
"We won't do it again, Da," added Helen.
For once Lizzie had the sense to keep her mouth shut. Taurie was making funny shapes with her mashed potatoes.
"All right then," said Miles. "As for your punishment, your mother informs me you've been confined to quarters for most of the day. So we'll limit it to forfeiting your deserts for the next two nights."
"Well, that's not fair!" protested Alex. "Taurie never eats her desserts anyway!"
"Shut up, Alex!" said Helen. Her brother subsided.
"The matter is closed," declared Miles.
After dinner, Ekaterin and Miles surveyed the damage in his office and he agreed it was not serious. "I can probably get rid of most of these flimsies," he said, gesturing at the piles. "Gives me an excuse to do some housecleaning."
"I never knew housecleaning required an excuse," said Ekaterin.
"For men it does."
"Hmmm, that would explain a lot."
Later, after the children were in bed, the two found themselves sitting comfortably close together on a small sofa in front of a crackling fire that Armsman Roic had built for them in the fireplace of the Yellow Parlor. A late-autumn storm was gusting outside, but no hint of it reached through the force screens protecting the mansion. Even so, the fire was very cozy. Glasses of wine were near at hand and all was well. Or almost. There was something she needed to talk to Miles about and she wasn't sure how to go about it.
"So how was your day?" asked Ekaterin, to get things started.
Miles laughed. "Calmer than yours, I guess! Just the usual nattering in the Council of Counts."
"Oh, there was a beautiful row between Count Vorglanov and one of the new Komarran delegates. But I stayed out of it."
"What was the argument about?"
"Well, it wasn't exactly an argument. You need two sides to have an argument and the Komarran wasn't arguing. Which made Vorglanov all the angrier, I think." Miles paused and took a sip of his wine. "Actually, come to think of it, none of the Komarrans will argue. They don't have a vote in the Council, but they are allowed to talk and they are very good at it. They have the knack of asking innocent questions that will set the Barrayrans on their ears. I think Komarr must have sent their best debaters rather than their most skilled politicians."
"I fact, I was just telling Dono the other day…"
"Hmmm?" He looked at her, eyebrows arching up quizzically.
"Miles… there was one bit of damage in your office I didn't tell you about."
Ekaterin turned and slid open a drawer in the small table which held her wine. She took out the Maplewood box and handed it to him. He looked puzzled and then jerked in surprise.
"Oh…" He opened the box and his face took on that sort of scrunched up expression he got when he was told that some particularly delicious Ma Kosti delicacy was made with Bug Butter.
"I'm sorry, Miles. One of the cats got to it before I could rescue it."
"It… it doesn't matter…"
"Yes it does. I could unwind it and try to comb out the tangles and then re-wrap it."
He started to protest again, but then stopped and looked at her. "You… know what this is?"
"I had a guess. Your reaction here pretty much confirmed it. A memento from a certain 'unrequited mad crush' with a Cetagandan empress?"
"Rian," he breathed. "When did I ever mention her to you?"
"On the transfer station at Komarr."
"That was, what? Nine years ago? You remember that?"
"Well, that's hardly fair."
She picked up the lock of hair from the box. "From what Tej has told me about her grandmother—about haut women and their hair—isn't it rather unusual for her to have given you a gift like this? You must have made quite… an impression."
"I… I helped her out with a crisis in the Celestial Gardens. It was actually the first part of that same crisis that we got caught up in at Graff Station." He gestured to the hair. "She didn't have anything else to give me."
"Was she as beautiful as the haut Pel? I saw Pel at Gregor's wedding and then a lot more on her ship at Rho Ceta."
"Surely you're not jealous of her!" said Miles. "I was twenty-two! Didn't you have any mad crushes on handsome holo-vid stars when you were young?"
"At twenty-two I was already married to Tien," said Ekaterin. "But when I was a teenager, yes… maybe once or twice. There was… huh, I can't even remember his name now." She looked closely at her husband. "But you remember Rian."
"Yes," he admitted. "Yes, I do."
"And she was beautiful."
"She was haut. Is haut. To a young lout like me, she was stunningly beautiful. Literally. It knocked me to my knees. But…" He shrugged.
"The effect… well, I was going to say it wore off, but that wouldn't quite be true. But I found myself rubbing elbows with a dozen haut women for several days and their effect grew much less. Some weren't very likeable at all, really."
"What about Rian? Did her 'effect' lessen?"
"By God, you are jealous!"
"Maybe a little," she admitted. "Should I be? What was she like?"
Miles hesitated for a while but then said: "She was beautiful. Dark hair, as you can see, and you know how much I like dark hair." He smiled at her. "She was frighteningly focused and competent within her world, within the Star Creche, but surprisingly naïve and… vulnerable outside that zone. She needed help and…"
"Ah!" said Ekaterin. "A Damsel in Distress, was she? You've never been able to resist one of those have you?"
He grinned lopsidedly. "One of my many failings." He took her hand and squeezed. She squeezed back.
"A Damsel in Distress and she gave her Knight in Shining Armor a token." She pointed at the lock of hair. "A token of her love?"
"No," said Miles firmly. "When I said unrequited, I meant exactly that. She couldn't love me. Both her nature and her nurture made that impossible." There was no bitterness in his voice and Ekaterin was very relieved by that fact; but he went on: "In this fairy tale the Frog Prince could never be anything but a frog." Now a tiny edge did creep into his voice, but she knew it didn't have anything to do with the haut Rian. It was something that had been with him his whole life.
"Really?" she said. "Are you sure? Let's test that out!" She put her arms around him and pressed her lips firmly against his. The kiss lasted quite a while and when they finally pulled apart she said: "Well! What have we here? A prince! I knew it!"
Miles laughed. "No, just a count, I'm afraid."
"Well, I'm not a princess, so I guess my kiss is only good enough to produce a count!" She laughed in turn.
"More than good enough for this count!" He pulled her close and they kissed again.
Quite a while later they sat back and sipped their wine. The fire was burning low. Ekaterin was smiling and so was Miles. "I think this fairy tale is going to have a happy ending," she sighed.
"But it's not a fairy tale," said Miles. "It's real and that's better." He picked up the ring of dark hair and regarded it. "This is the fairly tale. I prefer reality." He drew back his hand with the lock as if he was going to toss it into the fire.
Ekaterin's hand darted out and caught his wrist. She leaned close and said:
"Don't you dare."
She took the lock out of his hand, put it back in the box, and firmly closed the lid.