Note: This was originally part of a larger fic that consists of three scenes from three different 'verses, joined together under the title "Triptych." Since it's not a crossover - each scene stands on its own - and this site seems to allow crossovers between only 2 'verses anyway, I've divided the scenes into separate fics.
Ekaterin looked up from her workbench at the sound of voices. Though her view was distorted through the glass that covered the greenhouse, she could see her daughter speaking to a group of people over the paddock fence. They weren't wearing any House livery that she could recognize, nor had she heard any approaching vehicles. Had they come up from the village by the lake? How had they got past the Armsman at the gate? Curious, Ekaterin washed the soil from her hands, shaking off the excess moisture, and stepped outside.
Helen waved to her mother, startling the young horse beside her, causing it to toss its head and snort. Ekaterin watched as Helen stroked the filly's muzzle, calming it with low murmurs and placating it with a treat from her pocket. In return, the horse butted against her arm, begging for more.
Ekaterin smiled proudly. Miles would be amazed at how much progress Helen had made in training the foal he'd presented as a Winterfair gift to her nearly two years ago. Helen had spent practically every waking moment since Midsummer with the filly, feeding it, grooming its coat to a gloss that outshone even Pym's mirror-polished boots, and, under the stable manager's watchful eyes, introducing it first to a soft halter, then a lunge line. By now the two were virtually inseparable; Ekaterin feared which of them would suffer the greater loss when Helen had to return to Vorbarr Sultana, and school, in three weeks' time.
As she approached the paddock fence Ekaterin could see about a dozen men, their ages ranging from early-twenties to probably around Uncle Vorthys' age, standing there with Helen. They were dressed in simple homemade clothes that one still occasionally saw on the residents of the more remote regions of the Dendarii Mountains, though some wore boots that were clearly machine-made. "Good afternoon, gentlemen," Ekaterin said to them upon approach. "Is there something we can help you with?"
One of the older men stepped forward and looked her up and down, no doubt taking in her grubby appearance--well, she had been working in the greenhouse since lunch, a little dirt beneath her fingernails was to be expected--but his gaze was curious, not critical. "Begging your pardon for the intrusion, m'lady. We've come to see Count Vorkosigan. The man at the gate said he won't here, but told us to come up this way anyway."
Ekaterin hesitated only a moment before answering, "My husband is away on business at present." It had been less than a year since Viceroy Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan passed away, his name and legacy now in the hands of the historians and myth-makers. Ekaterin had yet to grow accustomed to wearing the mantle of Countess Vorkosigan. Her predecessor had left some tremendous shoes to fill.
The man dipped his head in acknowledgement of her status, an unspoken apology for not recognizing her before. "Is there someone who speaks with the Count's Voice here? Lord Vorkosigan, perhaps?"
She smiled thinly. "Aral is with his father. I speak with the Count's Voice, however," she continued, straightening in response to the low mutters that arose from the assembled men. "I would be pleased to hear your petition."
The man's bushy eyebrows went up. "You, m'lady?" She nodded. "Hm."
"Mama, perhaps they'd like some tea?" Helen interjected. "They've come a long way."
Judging from the look on his face, the man hadn't realized that the teenage girl he and his companions had first approached was his Count's eldest daughter. Given the grass- and manure-stained riding breeches Helen wore, with battered, knee-high boots to match, it was understandable that he might have taken her for an ordinary stablehand.
"Helen, please ask the cook to prepare something for our guests. Bring it down to the gazebo when it's ready." Obediently, Helen freed the filly of her halter, clambered over the fence--Ekaterin refrained from pointing out the paddock gate was only a few meters away--and trotted up the hill, her long auburn ponytail swinging from side to side. Though she was nearly fifteen, her figure remained slim and boyish, only a slight curvature at the hips to hint at the budding woman within.
Ekaterin led the men towards a vine-draped pergola with a table and several chairs beneath it; she and Helen had often taken meals out here during their summer stay, joined at times by friends seeking escape from the crowds, noise, and heat of Vorbarr Sultana. Ivan was a regular guest. She directed the apparent spokesman of the group to sit opposite her, which he did stiffly, then took her own seat. The other men arranged themselves behind their companion, giving Ekaterin the unsettling sensation that she was facing down a review board.
"What brings you to Vorkosigan Surleau?" she asked once her interlocutor was as settled as seemed possible. "What matter requires the Count's authority?"
The man glanced over his shoulder at his companions, perhaps for fortitude. He then leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees with his hands clasped between them, and cleared his throat. "Y'see, m'lady," he began hesitantly, "it's a matter of some delicacy."
"Naturally. Otherwise you would not be petitioning the Count directly."
His lips thinned in a tense smile. "Just so, m'lady."
Ekaterin leaned back, trying to give the appearance of ease, and draped her hands over the arms of her chair, a position she'd adopted from Cordelia. "You have my word, I will treat your petition with the gravity it requires. Go on."
"Well," he said, then cleared his throat again. "It's about these new-fangled uterine replicators."
Ekaterin schooled her features to camouflage her surprise. Uterine replicators were still something of a novelty among Barrayar's lower classes, though they had been making inroads in recent years. Upon his induction as Count, as a token of the type of progressive rule his father had demonstrated and he intended to continue, Miles had founded several obstetrical clinics, each equipped with the latest generation of uterine replicators and experienced technicians to service them, throughout the ridges and hollows of the Dendarii Mountains. "First we'll free those mountain women from the shackles of body birth," he'd declared, his eyes bright with the fever of conviction, "then we'll introduce them to the miracle of gene therapy. I want the fear of mutation completely wiped out by the end of the decade."
"Are they malfunctioning?" Ekaterin asked the man. "Do you need a replacement? Another technician? Whatever you need, the Count has authorized me to grant. Those new clinics are his--our--highest priority."
"No, no, m'lady." He sat upright and held up his hands, palms facing her, as if to ward her off. "We've got two allotted for our village, and as far as I can tell they work just fine. Several families have used them to add to their numbers since they first arrived. My new granddaughter came out of one last spring, and she's as healthy as anyone can imagine." He leaned forward again. "The problem is that they work a little too well, if you catch my meaning."
"I'm afraid I don't, er--?"
"Dmitri Giorgos, m'lady. 'M Speaker for the village of Shady Hollow."
She smiled. "Speaker Dmitri, I'm afraid I don't understand what you're implying. How are your village's uterine replicators working too well, as you say, if they're functioning as promised?"
"It's our womenfolk," one of Dmitri's companions blurted. A young man who'd been hanging at the back of the group, leaned against one of the gazebo's support columns, came forward. "Ever since those damn machines came to our village, well, our wives have got some mighty strange ideas into their heads."
She couldn't help raising her eyebrows. "What kind of strange ideas?"
"They won't--" He paused at a cough from Dmitri, then forged ahead. "They won't--They won't lie with us, m'lady. The way men and women are supposed to do."
Ekaterin blinked. "Oh."
Dmitri reclaimed his role as designated speaker. "Thing is, m'lady, now that t'womenfolk have these replicators to do all t'work of having babies and whatnot, well, they seem to have got this silly notion in their heads that there's no point to having sex at all." His hands twisted between his knees. "Some of us haven't--" His hands made a gesture that might have been construed as obscene, but clearly indicated the level of his frustration. "--in nearly a year."
"It's not proper," another man muttered to a chorus of agreement. "Unnatural."
"Oh my." She hid a smile behind her hand. "What do they--" She considered how to phrase her question. "Did your wives give you any particular reason for why they think it's not necessary or worthwhile to have sexual relations with you?"
"My Hilde says she don't need to be doin' her wifely duties no more, since she got a machine to do it for her," said one. Several of his companions muttered in agreement. "Says if we got a machine to make babies, then what's the point in goin' through the motions? She says it's like mixin' up a cake and tossin' it into t'woods."
"Mine just rolls over and goes to sleep," said another. "Or pretends to."
Added a third, "Petra has taken to sleeping in another bed entirely."
"Lucky you!" complained his neighbor. "My Lenore makes me sleep in the barn!"
Ekaterin raised her hand to restore order and waited for the uproar to quiet down. "I see," she finally said. "And what have you done to communicate to your wives why you believe they're mistaken?" She was met with a wall of blank looks. "Why is it so important that your wives lie with you?"
"It's t'natural order of things!" spluttered Dmitri.
Ekaterin wondered if he was more indignant at her apparent ignorance--after all, the Vor had their own way of doing things, or so their critics were known to assert, and she wouldn't be surprised if Dmitri and his compatriots believed they'd given up sex entirely as an activity for the lower classes--or at her maneuvering him into explaining himself.
"Why get married at all if you can't lie with your woman?" Dmitri continued. His fists clenched atop his knees. "M'lady, these replicators are going to be the ruin of Barrayar."
"If t'women think that having replicators means they don't have to lie wi' us, then how much longer before they stop marrying us entirely? Then what are we s'posed to do? Bugger t'livestock?"
"Oh, I doubt it'll come to that," Ekaterin said soothingly while trying not to laugh as one of her brother Will's adolescent jokes about sheep and men from Vorrutyer's District bubbled up to the surface of her memory. "After all, they've had replicators on Beta Colony since the Time of Isolation, and people there still get married all the time. Same for Escobar and Komarr. Even Emperor Gregor and Empress Laisa used a replicator to produce the Crown Prince."
"Yeah, but do they ever have sex?" one man asked.
Ekaterin hoped they couldn't see the flush she felt creeping up the sides of her neck. "I can't provide any first-hand witness accounts, but I think it's a safe assumption they do. They do love each other, after all." She wasn't about to say, Miles and I certainly do, and we used replicators for our children.
She leaned back and folded her hands before her. "Have any of you ever thought to--has it even occurred to you--to raise the subject of love to your wives?"
"Love?" Dmitri asked. "Why? What's love got to do with anything?"
Only everything that matters. "Surely you understand that sexual relations aren't only about producing the next generation, or preserving your herds from... unwelcome advances. It's not just your needs that count, your pleasure that sex serves." She fixed him with a firm look. "Have you even tried to show your wife how much you appreciate her as more than the mother of your children?" He opened his mouth as if to reply, but fell silent at her querying look. "I mean in bed. Do you pay attention to whether or not she's enjoying herself?"
"Um." His weathered face had turned quite dark. Several of the other men became suddenly fascinated by their footwear as Ekaterin's gaze flicked over them.
"I thought not." Did Cordelia ever have to deal with situations like this? If she had, Ekaterin had no doubt how she'd have resolved them: directly, almost surgically, without worrying about social niceties. Even on Barrayar, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.
"The uterine replicators are not to blame for your marital troubles," Ekaterin began, keeping her voice firm. "You are." She lifted the first two fingers on her right hand to quash Dmitri's retort. "You have treated your wives as if they were little more than replicators themselves, concerning yourselves only with passing on your genes and satisfying only your desires. Little wonder that when the machines arrived, women began to act as though nothing else was expected or required of them from the marriage bed."
"What do you suggest we do, Countess?" asked the younger man.
A smile played about Ekaterin's lips as she imagined telling Miles about today. Should she record a message to be sent to him on Sergyar, where he was investigating complaints of corruption against the new Viceroy, or wait until he returned?
Wait. This is something he deserves to hear face to face, body to body, skin against skin. She'd have to time it just right, for maximum effect.
She leaned back, once more copying Cordelia's regal posture. She wondered if the pose would ever come to feel as natural for her as it seemed to look for Miles' mother. "My order to you, in the Count's Voice, is this: return home, and make love to your wives. Show them that they are desirable and valuable in ways no machine can ever duplicate. Help them to understand that uterine replicators are tools, meant to make their lives easier by freeing them from the risks inherent to pregnancy and childbirth. Let them know there's more to sex than procreation. Share a little of that pleasure you've been hoarding for yourselves."
"What if they still won't lie with us?" Dmitri wanted to know.
"Then send them to me. Tell them not to even ask for the Count, but to speak to me personally." A chorus of "Yes, m'ladys" acknowledged her instructions.
She looked up to see Helen headed down from the house, followed by Mistress Roic and two of the kitchen staff, all of them carrying trays laden with tea and sandwiches. "Ah, gentlemen," Ekaterin said with a smile, "please make yourselves comfortable and refresh yourselves before your long journey home. It would do me and your Count great honor to have you as our guests for tea."