"Grace of God!"
"Piotr have some startling news?" Anastasia Lady Vorkleves nee Vorkosigan looked across the breakfast table at her husband and promptly lost herself in those blue, blue eyes. That still happened after two years of marriage. That is when she didn't find herself contemplating that strong yet sensual and completely delicious mouth, or the elegant line running from cheek to jaw, or that finger tingling mass of dense and silky hair of a perfect soft black…
"Anastasia?" Rene Lord Vorkleves prompted
"What?" She pulled herself together, "Oh, Father's married."
Rene put down his coffee cup with an audible clink. "I thought Aral was drinking himself to death down at Vorkosigan Surleau?"
"Not any more he's not." Anastasia consulted the letter again. "Gran'da is very relieved."
Rene was too judging by his expression. He was annoyingly devoted to Aral Vorkosigan, like most men who'd served under him. Which was a trifle awkward as Anastasia was most distinctly not. In fact she didn't even like her father. But he had saved Rene for her – and Roland too. Mama wouldn't mind her being grateful to him for that.
"Who is the lady," Rene continued, agog. "Anybody we know?"
"Only by reputation, it's Cordelia Naismith."
Her husband's reaction was all Anastasia could have desired. "What? You mean the heroine of Escobar? How in the name of all that's holy did he meet her?"
She grinned mischievously; "According to Gran'da Father walked in just after she finished disposing of Uncle Ges. Being naturally grateful he hid her in his cabin until the prince immolated himself leaving him – Father that is – in command and making it safe to return her to the brig. Remember he was confined to quarters himself which gave them some days in very close contact. "
"And that did it," Rene said.
"Apparently," I hope she knows what she's getting into Anastasia added cynically to herself.
Anastasia tried to forget the matter, as she usually did anything involving her father. This time she wasn't allowed to. Aral Vorkosigan's marriage to a Betan was the juiciest gossip on the Vor circuit and they were, unfortunately, right in the middle of the season.
It was thus Anastasia found herself at yet another boring ball – boring because Rene was off talking business instead of dancing with his wife - perched on a straight backed gilt chair careful of her dress and sipping at a lemonade. A shadow fell across her; "Have you called upon your new stepmother yet?"
"No I have not. I've never met her and don't know anything about it!" Anastasia snapped back before even looking up.
It was her old friend Alys Vorpatril, dazzling in pure white, with a very pretty girl in pale violet satin with a striking head of dark red hair in tow. Alys raised an eyebrow. "Well you needn't take my head off!"
Anastasia struggled for composure. "Sorry, I'm just very tired of being asked about my father's affairs. If Vor society doesn't know by now that we are not on terms of confidence –"
Alys raised a hand. "Say no more. Let us change the subject," she turned to her decidedly uneasy protege. "Do you know Marjorie Voraldin, Ana?"
"Only by reputation, like my stepmother," Anastasia made an effort at a friendly smile and some of the alarm faded from the girl's dark eyes. "If I can believe Count Aubrey you are a veritable prodigy, Lady Marjorie!"
She laughed and relaxed all the way. "You can't! I apologize for Da boring you."
Anastasia smiled back. "He does a little but your Da is a regular darling and it's sweet to see how devoted he is to you." Anastasia had a weak spot for Das who doted over their daughters, her own being so conspicuously lacking in that respect – not that she'd ever given him the chance to! Gran'da was a doting as any girl could wish and he hadn't killed Mama. "Why haven't I seen you before, Marjorie?" she asked patting a chair next to her.
The younger girl settled herself, arranging her skirts carefully so they wouldn't crease. "I just came down with Da," she explained. "I wasn't to come out until next year but sitting in alone in that rundown old barn on Starbridge Avenue while Da did politics had no appeal."
"And Marjorie is quite old enough to go out," Alys added from the chair on the girl's other side. "So I just carried her off!"
"My aged Aunt," Marjorie said straight faced.
Alys hunched her back into an imitation of a dowager's hump and put a hand to her ear. "What was that, niece?" All three women laughed.
"I'm having trouble seeing you as a duenna, Alys," Anastasia said.
"Why so? Am I not a respectable old married woman?"
"Finally!" It had taken Alys long enough to make up her mind, or maybe she'd enjoyed playing the field. But the social opportunities of a Vor bud were miniscule compared to those open to a Vor matron and Alys talents and ambitions in that direction were unlimited. Now that she was well if not spectacularly married Anastasia confidently expected to see her friend queen of Vorbarr Sultana society by next season at the latest.
She spotted one of her brothers in law nearby, caught his eye and beckoned imperatively. "You're not doing your duty by your protégé, Alys. She should be dancing not sitting with the chaperons!"
"I don't have a quiver full of handsome brothers in law," Lady Vorpatril answered giving Roland Vorkleves an approving once over as he bowed himself before the three of them.
Anastasia saw Marjorie's eyes widen a little. The reactions of both ladies were more than justified. The Vorkleves were a very handsome family, if Anastasia did say so herself. The combined genes of the willowy blond Princess Yelizaveta Vorbarra and her dark, stocky and ruggedly handsome husband, the Count Xavier Vorkleves, had resulted in the breathtaking elegance of her Rene and three almost equally gorgeous younger brothers of which the one currently standing before them was the second. Captain Lord Roland Vorkleves was just as tall and black of hair as his elder brother if slightly heavier of build and bone, fairer skinned but with the same chiseled Vor features and deep set blue eyes. And he was clearly as struck by Marjorie's crown of darkling flame colored hair and shimmering satins as she was by his undoubted attractions as set off by dress greens.
"Lady Marjorie Voraldin, may I present my brother in law. Roland, ask your cousin to dance."
"Gladly," he breathed and offered his arm; "If you would favor me, milady?"
She blushed, mumbled something at random and they moved off together. "Hmmmm," Alys said thoughtfully.
"One look was all it took to convert me to the idea of an arranged marriage," Anastasia observed. The fact that Father had been dead against it hadn't hurt either but there was no denying the sheer masculine impact of the Vorkleves brothers on any healthy woman.
"Cousins," Alys mused a little doubtfully.
"Second cousins, like Rene and me – or for that matter Padma and me."
Alys nodded. Vor matchmakers were all too aware of the dangers of inbreeding but second cousins had generally been considered safe, "And in only one line of descent even if it is the same one as Mad Yuri." She shrugged. "We're getting ahead of ourselves. Marjorie might want to do better than a second son."
Anastasia smiled. "I'll wager my pearl and ruby set that you like so much she won't."
Alys tried to think of a matching stake. "Against my beach house at Bonsanklar," she said at last. "You have a bet, my girl!"
They shook on it. "No fair sabotaging Roland's chances," Anastasia warned.
"Introducing Marjorie to other prospects doesn't count as sabotage," Alys retorted.
The bet gave a much needed grace note to what was developing into the most harrowing social season since Mad Yuri's last year before the revolt. It had kicked off with the state funeral and planetary mourning for the 'heroic' Prince Serg whose death was regarded as an unmixed blessing by those in the know, or would have been if not for the other casualties. Only a few, including Anastasia, suspected that it was a far from an unintended, or at the very least unhoped for, consequence of brief disastrous Escobar war.
The return of the prisoners of said war had brightened things up for a bit then the arrests had started inspiring rampant paranoia in the gentlemen and wrecking havoc upon the ladies' guest lists.
"This must stop!" Anastasia said with vigor to her guest of honor. "Look at my table, Count Vortala!" They both did so and a commiserating expression rearranged the old prime minister's multitude of wrinkles.
The state dining room at Vorkleves House was hung with red silk brocade. Two chandeliers blazed with light setting the gold coffered ceiling all a glimmer. The famous U-shaped table was spread with a magnificent openwork cloth showing a vermillion lining and could seat fifty guests. Anastasia had invited only thirty, just enough to fill the outside of the U allowing everybody to see everybody else, but less than half the chairs were occupied leaving her remaining guests scattered in little lonely islands around the table's circumference.
"You have my deepest sympathies, dear lady, but what can I do?" Old Vortala asked reasonably.
Anastasia sighed. He was right of course. Nobody but Ezar himself could control Captain Negri and since, as was well known, Negri did nothing without Ezar's consent and command it was clear that the arrests were the Emperor's own doing. "I can't say I much miss anybody who's disappeared – at least to date," she admitted.
"Thankfully our real friends are all safe," Count Xavier, agreed from her left projecting a warm smile around the table his blue eyes twinkling. But the tension was telling on him too, surely there hadn't been that much grey in his hair before Escobar?
While there was no love to be lost between the ministries and the Council of Counts those arrested would not be missed by anybody, Vor or Prole. Emperor Ezar's sensible enough attempt to encourage meritocracy in government as well as the military and been a most qualified success. Some of the proles so shoved into prominence had shown themselves to be parvenus of the worst description - and corrupt with it – but not all. Anastasia was happy to see the scattered survivors of her dinner party included Quintillan of the Interior – one of the good 'uns – and his lady. Old Vortala and his Countess were the only other political guests. Everybody else was family. Not that her family wasn't most unwillingly political as well.
Princess and Countess Yelizaveta was the last of the direct Vorbarra line being the sole surviving child of Prince Xav's son Dorca, which put her four sons uncomfortably close to the succession – if you ignored the agnatic rule that is and given the precedent set by Dorca there was no reason not to. Anastasia herself was granddaughter of the Princess Olivia, Prince Xav's oldest daughter which would give her children and Rene's a double claim – God and their ancestors help them!
Anastasia looked around the table. Roland was smiling happily at Marjorie, seated beside him with her father Count Voraldin on her other side then an empty seat, then Padma Vorpatril. As the only the only surviving child of Xav's younger daughter Princess Sonia his claim ranked behind both the Vorkleves and Vorkosigans if not nearly far removed enough to suit someone seeking a quiet life. Marjorie's mother had been Padma's sister, the late Countess Parvati, putting her fat in the fire as well – maybe a marriage between her and Roland wasn't such a good idea after all. Alys, seated on the other arm of the U opposite her husband, was Anastasia's cousin on the Vorkosigan side and most thankfully not in the line of succession unlike her younger brothers in law, Rodrick and Regis, forlornly islanded by empty seats farther down the table.
Anastasia tapped her glass with a silver knife and raised her voice "Move up everybody, never mind the place cards. Let's be friendly!" And it would be a nice, friendly dinner in spite of the formal setting she reflected. Maybe the ruin of her careful arrangements wasn't such a bad thing after all.
"And where is Yelizaveta tonight?" Vortala asked, as if he couldn't guess.
Anastasia confirmed his suspicion. "With Ezar, she hardly leaves his bedside these days. I do believe she's the only person on Barrayar who will mourn him as a man rather than a symbol."
"Not the only one."
"Oh of course, I was forgetting Negri."
Agnatic; male line descent only as opposed to 'cognatic' descent through both male and female lines, what Aral calls 'Salic' descent rules.