Miles was only too visible in the row of recruits, a sudden dip in altitude from over six foot to not quite five and spindly with it.
"I've got a bad feeling about this," Livie muttered, short nose to the thick polarized glass of the groundcar's dome.
Lizzie pulled back to wipe the mist of her breath from the glass before reapplying her own slightly bent nose, "He's worked so hard for it."
"I know, why do you think I'm worried?"
Miles had driven everybody in Vorkosigan House half crazed studying and training for this moment. They'd all known that the written tests would be a breeze – there was nothing at all wrong with Mile's brain, very much the contrary! – His body of course was a miserably different story. If he could just get through today without breaking anything the relay tomorrow was well within his powers. He lacked speed but he had endurance to burn.
Lizzie knew Miles would gladly kill both of them – if he could catch them! – for watching his physical test but the suspense would have killed her, and Livie too, so they'd played hooky from the Princess Kareen Female Academy and talked their way past assorted sentries to get onto the ImpAcad grounds. Happily Miles hadn't spared the unmarked ground car Ana'd lent them a first glance much less a second, and everybody else was ignoring it too.
Across the stretch of trampled grass the recruits were being divided into pairs, Miles with a typical hunk of Barrayaran meat. Lizzie tensed as a proctor crossed the field to them.
"They're calling Bothari over," Livie said nervously, "why?"
"Miles is taking off his braces," Lizzie rejoined in dismay. "Oh, I don't think that's a good idea!"
"You think he'd have learned better by now," Livie all but moaned, "dear God his legbones will be crazed as an old vase by the time he finishes the course."
Lizzie pounded her head gently against the thick glass. Oh Miles!
Livie cried, "They're off!" And Lizzie stopped pounding to watch her brother and his partner head for the first obstacle, a wall.
Miles couldn't run worth a damn but he could climb like a cat. There was nothing at all wrong with his muscles and his small hands and feet could make use of the tiniest of cracks. He got to the top well before his partner despite the latter's head start. The hulking recruit topped the wall just after Miles, jumped down and launched himself toward the next obstacle. Miles still hadn't moved – what was he waiting for? – suddenly he hurled himself into the air.
Lizzie gave a little scream and covered her eyes. "And he lands with a sickening grunch," her sister narrated, voice hot with anger and fear. "The damn fool, what was he thinking? You can look now, Lizzie, he's sitting up. He's dragging himself out of the way of the next pair. Bothari's reached him…"
Lizzie took a quick glance between her fingers in time to see stretcher bearers heading for the sand pit, then curled herself into a ball moaning; "Oh God, oh God, why?"
"Because, sister dear, our big brother is a grade A, one of a kind idiot!" Livie snarled, furious with disappointment.
Cloth rustled on fine leather upholstery as the third occupant of the ground car finally stirred into action. Livie and Lizzie's own personal dragon, their counterpart to Miles' Bothari, leaned forward to touch the intercom button. "Vorkosigan House please, Beaufou."
The car purred into motion and Lizzie uncoiled herself, dabbing away a few tears of frustration and empathy. It was just so Miles to work himself half to death for a chance – and then throw it all away in one impetuous moment. Whatever were they going to do with him? "We can't go home, Talie. Mama will have it all out of us in five seconds and Miles has the right to tell them in his own way."
"He's welcome to it," Livie agreed and looked questioningly at their adult companion.
Talia Ivanova was a sturdy Dendarii hillwoman with a square unexpressive face and bobbed blond hair, dressed in a short jacket cut like a uniform tunic and full calf length skirt in both in the Vorkosigan colors. She was one of the newly fashionable breed of female bodyguards for Vor ladies, and was proud of having been trained by Madame Koudelka nee Droushnakovi herself. Like Miles' Bothari she had been with the twins quite literally from birth because it wasn't any safer to be a daughter of Aral Vorkosigan than it was to be his son - or his wife. Talie pursed her lips and studied her charges for a moment before leaning forward to punch the button again. "Belay that, Beaufou. Take us to Vorkleves House instead."
The armsman who opened the front door to them took one look and a shadow of guarded sympathy passed over the drilled impassivity of his countenance. Lizzie glanced sideways at Livie, oh yeah, they were that transparent. Oh well, it would save long explanations anyway.
The doorwarden handed them off to another armsman in the black and silver Vorkleves livery. The three of them followed him across the huge marble rotunda, past yet another armsman in the Vorbarra purple and gold posted at the foot of the east staircase and down a long, bright gallery lit by tall windows overlooking a little green courtyard. Vorkleves House was chock full of high Vor come for the Emperor's Birthday, all of them relatives in various degrees. There was Aunt Yelizaveta Vorbarra, Princess and Dowager Countess Vorkleves; Uncle Aubrey Count Voraldin; and a phalanx of Vorkleves/Voraldin cousins ranging from middle age to toddlerhood. Along with all their armsmen and servants they made the place hum like a beehive, very unlike the hushed halls of thinly populated Vorkosigan House.
The armsman opened the door to Ana's personal room. Most Vor ladies had one, usually called a morning room or sometimes a boudoir. A few serious minded ladies had studies. The Countess Anastasia Vorkosigan Vorkleves had a studio. It was a large room and rather thinly furnished with an easel holding a draped canvas placed under the un-curtained south facing windows; a paint stained workbench against one wall; a pair of easy chairs and a chaise lounge, all covered in Anastasia's favorite muted gray-blue, grouped around a low coffee table in front of the fireplace.
Their big sister had been sitting at the workbench grinding her own colors. She turned on her stool to look at them and promptly jumped to the same correct conclusion as the doorwarden, "Oh dear, what happened?"
Livie flopped into one of the chairs. "Miles jumped off a wall." The door shut discretely behind them as the armsman departed to quietly spread the word and Talie turned herself into part of the decor.
It said something about their brother Lizzie reflected that Ana didn't look at all surprised though she did wince, "How bad?"
"He was sitting up when we left. The idiot," Livie answered. "We assume he's going to live."
Ana leaned her head on her hand. "What are we going to do with that boy?" she asked echoing Lizzie's own thought.
"At the moment I feel like murder," Livie answered. "But I'll get over it."
"All that time, all that effort," Lizzie mourned, tucking her knees under her chin as she curled into the second chair.
Ana heaved a sigh and touched a button on her workbench. The door to the bedroom promptly opened and a neat capped head poked through; "My lady?"
"Coffee, Aimee, we require a restorative."
The maid's lips pursed in sympathy but no surprise. Word had spread. "Immediately, my lady," she hesitated. "Lord Miles will be all right, won't he?"
"Just bitterly disappointed," Ana answered ruefully. "Broken bones are an old, sad story."
Aimee grimaced in sympathy and disappeared.
Everybody knew Miles, Lizzie meditated. Mama and Da might have limited his contacts to family and sworn servants if they could but Gran'da wasn't standing for that and Miles himself had insisted on riding gymkhana – and winning more often than he lost too. It had been pretty grisly at times but it had paid off. Miles was known and accepted – more or less – by his peers and by the district. And well thought of by people who mattered. All Da's influence wouldn't have bought him a chance at the academy if certain senior officers hadn't known him and believed in his potential.
And then he throws it all away in one moment of rampant idiocy. Maybe I'll help Livie murder him!
Ana rinsed the paint dust off her hands and came to sit on the chaise facing her little sisters. "We must confer," she said. "No doubt Miles will fall into one of his depressions. Fortunately his injuries will keep him from doing anything more idiotic before we decide on an alternate future."
Lizzie and Livie nodded gloomy agreement. Miles had occasional suicidal impulses but there was no need to worry about him giving way to one when he was in hospital and by the time he was released the worst should be past.
The coffee arrived on two silver trays, one with the coffee service proper, the other a selection of sandwiches and pastries, carried in and arranged on the low table by Aimee and a footman, both suitably lugubrious.
Men thought they ruled Barrayar but women ruled the family. Miles was his sisters' responsibility and it was up to the Vorkosigan daughters to decide on a career for their problematic brother. Lizzie loaded her coffee with cinnamon and cocoa powder and secured a pate sandwich and cream covered lemon tart before curling back into her chair. It was Da's fault they were spread out like this with an elder sister old enough to be the twins' mother – well not entirely his fault. He'd married young like a good Vor heir, but Ana's mother had died not long after she was born and she'd had been all grown up and married herself before Da met Mama. He certainly wasn't to blame for the solytoxin attack that had nearly killed Miles in Mama's womb and permanently crippled him. It had damaged Da's reproductive organs too and for the longest time they'd thought they would have no more children. But when it became clear that Miles was not going to be a total invalid they'd decided to have the daughters Mama had always wanted even though it had needed all the Betan expertise they could import to get them.
Lizzie and Livie had the distinction of being among the first Barrayaran childen to be gestated in uterine replicators. They weren't even the result of ordinary in-vitro fertilization. Instead Mama and Da's chromosomes had been recombined in petrie dishes to precise specifications. Da had wanted two little girls exactly like their mother. Mama on the other hand had been determined that at least one should resemble her father. They had compromised and so the twins shared Mama's lovely red hair and her gray eyes. But Lizzie had also had her strong chin and high ridged nose, the latter slightly dented by a fall in infancy, and Mama's tendency to freckle inflicted on her. Not that Livie was any better off. Her complexion was more sallow than ivory, her eyes were long and heavy lidded, and she had Da's full underlip as well as the characteristic Vorkosigan square jaw which somehow managed to look so much better on Ana. She had the luck to take after her mother, a notable beauty, with a perfect complexion, like thick cream, a softly curling mane of chestnut hair and the most marvelous almond shaped eyes of an elusive gray-blue. And she was still very beautiful in spite of being so old.
So here they sat, the three Vorkosigan girls, one all of thirty-nine and two just thirteen in solemn conclave over their most problematic male relative. What were they going to do about Miles? They'd just come to a decision when Mama finally called to give Ana the bad news not knowing she'd been anticipated.