Kristina Vorkleves watched Miles' dinner party spiral out of control with the same slightly sick fascination she'd have felt watching any other kind of wreck. The evening had started out normally enough; she, her husband Rodrick and their sister-in-law Countess Anastasia Vorkosigan Vorkleves had arrived just after the hour and been ushered by armsman Jankowski into a library full of Koudelkas. They'd barely had time to exchange greetings when Miles and Mark made their entrance accompanied by Simon Illyan. Mark headed straight for Kou and Drou which said volumes to Kristina. Clearly the younger Vorkosigan brother's relationship with the youngest Koudelka daughter had survived contact with Beta Colony's sexual mores – or lack of same. She exchanged significant communications via eyebrow with Anastasia. Rodrick glanced from wife to sister-in-law before ostentatiously disassociating himself by going to talk to Illyan. Matchmaking was female business. A wise man didn't get involved.
Mark presented a special challenge given his peculiarly horrible early life which had left him with a number of issues that no innocent Barrayaran maiden could be expected to cope with. On the other hand after a year on Beta Colony Kareen was most likely neither innocent nor a maiden. At least she didn't seem to have been traumatized by her experiences as all too many off-worlders – not to mention lots of Betans - were. There was a reason the planet was famous for its therapists.
Miles was hanging around the door as if he were waiting for somebody. He brightened to attention at the sound of voices in anteroom but his face fell visibly as the Count and Countess Vorbretten were ushered in. The Koudelka girls promptly sucked in the little countess – rather like an amoeba engulfing a food particle – and Miles pulled himself together and performed his hostly duty by introducing young Rene to Lady Alys only to break away abruptly and dash out the door.
"Miles is expecting somebody," Kristina observed to Anastasia who had also caught the byplay and wandered over to join her.
"And very impatiently," her sister-in-law answered, eyes on the door.
A few minutes later Miles re-entered with a tall, beautiful dark haired woman in a deep gray silk gown on his arm. "Good heavens," Anastasia murmured, "Miles too?"
He saw them watching and brought his lady friend over. "'Stasia, Kristina, I'd like you to meet my friend Madame Ekaterin Vorsoisson," he said with ill-disguised pride. "Madame, this is my sister Countess Anastasia Vorkleves and her sister-in-law Lady Kristina Vorkleves. Madame Vorsoisson is making a garden for me" he added explanatorily.
"Ah," Anastasia said, enlightened. "That's what happened to the empty lot. We were wondering if you were building a bomb shelter, Miles."
"A great deal of land moving seems to be going on," Kristina added.
Madame Vorsoisson was clearly willing to discuss her garden at length but apparently that didn't suit Miles' plans for the evening. He disengaged the two of them with an excuse and a bow and led his lady over to where Alys and Illyan stood chatting with poor Rene Vorbretten. Professor and Professora Vorthys immediately took their place.
"Good evening, Helen," Kristina said. "Please don't misunderstand but I'm surprised to see you at a 'family' dinner at Vorkosigan House."
Helen Vorthys smiled like a skinny female Buddha in evening dress. "Madame Vorsoisson is our niece."
"Ah," said Anastasia with lifted eyebrows. "And when did that start?"
Helen of course followed perfectly though her husband seemed slightly confused. "During Miles' last case, two months or so ago on Komarr. Ekaterin's husband was – involved. He died."
"We can't say much more than that I'm afraid," Lord Auditor Vorthys put in apologetically.
Anastasia waved that away. She'd grown up in an atmosphere of state secrets. "That complicates things."
"Yes," Helen agreed ruefully. "It was not a happy marriage and his death was – ugly. Ekaterin is not ready for a new relationship. Not yet."
"Miles is not good at waiting," Miles' sister observed.
"I've noticed," Helen Vorthys answered dryly. "Fortunately Ekaterin seems blind to his interest." All three women looked over to where Miles was watching Ekaterin Vorsoisson chat with a tall and obviously dazzled young man in off world evening dress. Jealousy was written all over Miles' face. They shook their heads in group disbelief.
"She must be very traumatized," said Anastasia
"And in serious denial," Kristina agreed.
Lord Auditor Vorthys looked worried and baffled as men usually did when faced with emotional complexities. "I don't want Ekaterin to be hurt - or Miles either of course."
"A messy denouncement does seem inevitable," his wife agreed, sighing. "Still, at least it will clear the air."
"How many times did you trip over your own feet courting the Professora, sir?" Anastasia asked with a twinkle. Vorthys thought and began to grin sheepishly. "It isn't necessarily fatal as your lady has said."
"It might even be for the best," Kristina murmured half to herself. "Miles seems to have worked himself into a false position -"
"Lord Ivan Vorpatril," Pym interrupted from the doorway. "Lord Dono Vorrutyer."
Who? Kristina knew of only one Lord Dono Vorrutyer, the third son of the soon to be Count Richars, and this strikingly handsome bearded man somewhere between thirty and forty was certainly not him. And why was Ivan acting like his companion had some dire and contagious disease?
"Oh my God," Anastasia wheezed as if the breath had been knocked out of her, clinging to Kristina's arm and shaking with laughter or horror or maybe both as Miles, still accompanied by Ekaterin Vorsoisson, moved to greet the newcomers. "Oh Donna!"
"What?" Then Kristina got it too. "Oh my," she understated staring at the brand new man, formerly the Lady Donna Vorrutyer.
The Vorthys were clearly still out of the loop, looking curiously from Kristina to Anastasia trying to understand their reaction. 'Lord Dono' detached himself from Miles and came to join them, bowing elaborately over Anastasia's hand and bestowing a resounding kiss upon it.
"Are you insane?" she asked.
"No, Auntie, just desperate," he (?) replied and nodded to the Vorthys. "Won't you present me?"
"Professora, my Lord Auditor, allow me to introduce you to my cousin the former Lady Donna Vorrutyer, recently returned from Beta Colony." Anastasia said, effectively compressing all necessary information into one brief sentence. Helen Vorthys' eyes widened and you could hear the synapses clicking as she made the necessary connections. Her husband just looked stunned and slightly appalled.
Lord Dono bowed to the Professora without any hand kissing. "Lord Vorkosigan was good enough to recommend you to me as an expert in political history, Madame Professora."
"Of which you are about to write a new chapter," Helen Vorthys guessed. "May I compliment you on a remarkable and completely unprecedented strategy?"
Dono grimaced. "Only if it works Madame Professora." He looked back at Anastasia. "Miles also recommended I compare notes with Rene Vorbretten, what is his problem?"
"Also genetic, it turns out his grandfather was sired by some Ghem-lord during the occupation." Anastasia answered.
Lord Dono's shapely eyebrows shot up, "Dear me, almost as embarrassing as a change of sex. Miles could be right perhaps we can help each other. Won't you present me?"
It was Anastasia's turn to raise her eyebrows. Perhaps that was where the former Lady Donna had picked up the habit. "You mean there is a man in Vorbarr Sultana you don't know, Donna?"
White teeth flashed, "One or two, dear Aunt, one or two.
They shed Lord Auditor Vorthys on their way across the room and poor Ivan literally fled to cover behind the bar as they passed near him – he seemed to be taking his former lover's shift in gender very hard. Presumably it was a very special shock to those who had been intimate with the formerly female Lord Dono.
Rene Vorbretten stood his ground like a man, having recaptured his little countess from the bevy of Koudelkas with her hand tucked securely in the crook of his arm. He blinked rapidly but otherwise assimilated Dono's new sex with creditable composure. "I see a daring tactic, my dear fellow."
Dono smiled, clearly pleased by the easy masculine address, "Only if it works, Vorbretten."
"There is precedent of a sort," Kristina mused aloud looking questioningly at Helen Vorthys. "'Count' Petra Vorhartung for one and 'Count' Annalise Vorlakial for another. The only difference is in this case we are dealing with a very literal rather than fictitious legal change of gender."
The Professora frowned. "Not good precedents, both were overturned as I recall if very much after the fact in the case of 'Count' Petra."
"Still, anything done twice on Barrayar becomes a tradition."
"I am very sorry to hear about your problem, Vorbretten," Dono continued to his fellow man, "A nasty time bomb to have exploded under you."
"I don't see why it's problem," Anastasia said almost irritably. "Young Rene is seven eights Barrayaran Vor and given how interrelated we all are he has as much right to the Vorbretten name as any other. And nobody can say Ghem-genes aren't good genes!"
The little countess beamed and Vorbretten bowed, "Thank you milady but you have a logical mind – I fear few of my fellow Counts do."
"A female trait," Anastasia agreed and turned to her former niece. "Have you noticed any deterioration of the mental processes yet, Don –Dono?"
White teeth flashed. "The mood swings do make rational thought more difficult," he admitted. "And I'm afraid what we women have always suspected about men's minds being on one thing and one thing only is quite true."
"Dono!" Rene Vorbretten cried in faux-indignation. "Please remember you belong to the Male gender now. No giving away our secrets to the enemy!"
The burst of laughter drew in the Koudelka women, Lady Alys and even Ekaterin Vorsoisson managed to escape Miles to join the crowd. The men seemed to be staying well clear as if they were afraid X chromosomes were somehow catching. "What's it like?" pretty Olivia Koudelka asked, wide-eyed.
Dono's gaze rested on her with something more than casual interest. "I don't feel quite at home in my body anymore. I'm clumsier than I was – though they tell me that will pass as I become accustomed to my new center of gravity – All my old mannerisms are wrong, and I've got this thing dangling between my legs tripping me up!"
Madame Koudelka laughed out loud as her girls melted into cascades of giggles. Dono turned to Rene Vorbretten. "That's not giving away gender secrets is it?"
He shook his head. "No, they know all about the dangly thing." And got a laugh all his own.
Olivia Koudelka looked over her shoulder at the other men huddled defensively at the opposite end of the long room. "They look worried."
"Of course," said Lord Dono with one eye on Rene. "Men are terribly insecure."
"They know that too, I'm afraid." Vorbretten sighed. "Come now, Dono, how about some female secrets?"
"Oh you wouldn't!" cried little Tatya Vorbretten.
Dono smiled wickedly at his female audience. "Tremble ladies, think of the mysteries I may reveal; exactly why hats are so important; what a woman really means when she says nothing is wrong; or even that ultimate mystery the ladies' retiring room!" his audience's mock horrified protests were interrupted by Pym announcing dinner was served.
As Miles had failed to indicate who was to take who in to dinner there was some confusion as people sorted it out for themselves. As senior host Miles should have given his arm to Alys, or Anastasia or even Helen Vorthys. Instead he promptly reclaimed Ekaterin Vorsoisson and that achieved clearly could have cared less how the rest of his guests paired themselves off. Married couples linked up in default of other instructions, and the unmarried too; Alys with Simon Illyan, and Duv Galeni with Delia Koudelka. The skinny off-worlder stood around looking bewildered until claimed by Martya, the most assertive of the Koudelka girls, and Dono gallantly offered his arm to Anastasia. Mark and Ivan were nowhere to be seen forcing Kareen and Olivia to tack themselves onto the end of the procession, partnerless until the two missing men rejoined the party in the maple drawing room just before they passed through the final door to the dining room.
The confusion continued as people tried to find their seats. The logic of Miles' arrangements escaped Kristina. Of course having two hosts, instead of a host and hostess complicated matters – as did the unexpected sex change of one of the guests – but this seemed downright random. And oddly Miles had not seated Madame Vorsoisson next to him but one place down between Illyan and Duv Galeni. Then Kristina put the way Miles was glaring the length of the table at his brother together with the dinner procession's encounter with Mark and Ivan coming from the dining room - Ah. That explained it.
Kristina herself was most interestingly situated between Lord Dono and Lord Auditor Vorthys with Duv Galeni directly opposite. Rodrick was on the other side of the table seated between Drou Koudelka and Delia. And Anastasia was all the way at the end on Mark's right hand with Kareen opposite her. Vorthys continued his library conversation with Kou talking across Olivia and leaving Kristina free to address Lord Dono.
"You must have been very unhappy as a woman."
He blinked and beyond him Alys rolled her eyes. "Honestly, Kristina, sometimes you are every bit as bad as Cordelia!"
"But in this case quite correct," Dono's moustache shifted in a grimace. "I was a failure as a woman, Kristina. I'm sure you will agree, Lady Alys."
Alys was clearly trying to think of a polite answer to that. Kristina said; "Promiscuous behavior is not a sign of emotional health. At best it indicates a selfish sensuality.
"Or emptiness," Dono said softly.
"Or," Kristina said, eye fixed on Alys who was looking down the table at her son, "rebellion against a parent who has been a little too insistent about settling down."
Alys took the point and ostentatiously turned her shoulder to engage Miles in conversation, interrupting his moon-calf like contemplation of Ekaterin Vorsoisson.
Dono was looking at Ivan too with no mischief at all his electric brown eyes. "I hope I didn't do that boy any harm. Most of my lovers deserved the worst I could dish out. Ivan didn't. He was just sweet and eager."
"And very resilient, I wouldn't worry about Ivan," Kristina said reassuringly and took a dutiful sip of the chilled cream soup Jankowski had just set in front of her. "Oh my, this is delicious!"
Dono lifted an eyebrow. "You sound surprised, Kristina. Miles' cook is famous in Vorbarr Sultana. At least four different people told me how lucky I was to secure an invitation to partake of her masterpieces."
"All true. But I don't normally like cream soups." Kristina took another, larger spoonful this time loaded with finely diced bits of melon and orange. "So sweet, just like a dessert."
"The flowers are a nice touch," Dono agreed studying the candied violet floating on his spoonful before downing it.
"Do you anticipate any trouble performing with a woman?" Kristina asked, having exhausted the soup as a subject.
Dono didn't quite choke on his latest mouthful and laughed. "Dear God, Alys is right, you are as bad as Cordelia!"
"Sexual orientation does not necessarily follow sexual equipment," Kristina pointed out.
"True," Dono conceded. "As it happens however I have always been somewhat attracted to women, though I rarely acted on it I did wonder sometimes if that was a contributing factor to the ruin of my marriages."
"Not all of them," said Kristina.
"No," Dono agreed. "If Geoff had lived…" he visibly shrugged off regrets. "Well he didn't and here I am."
"Olivia Koudelka seemed to catch your eye."
Dono look down the table though he couldn't have seen Olivia past Kristina and Vorthys except in his mind's eye. "I always admired blonds…So sweet, so fresh. I was never like that, never."
"Then be careful not to damage her," Kristina said seriously.
Dono met her eye direct and sincere. "I won't. I intend to be a much better man than I was a woman, Lady Kristina. This is my second chance and I'm not going to waste it."
The empty soup dishes were whisked away, replaced by plates of salad covered with a cream dressing dotted with bits of chicory. Kristina did not hesitate to take a big bite and was rewarded by another burst of culinary delight. A fragrant breadbasket and a small pot of some pale spread were placed between her and Dono. He skimmed off a bit of the spread with his own knife and rolled it around on his tongue.
"The same base I think, but I'd swear it isn't dairy," he said after a thoughtful moment.
"Whatever it is I love it," Kristina answered swallowing a large bite of bread and whatever-it-was. "I do hope Ma Kosti will share the recipe."
Roic collected their salad plates. Down the table the skinny off-worlder tapped his glass for attention and rose to beam slightly nervously upon them. "Thank you for your attention…" he cleared his throat, "I've enjoyed the hospitality of Vorkosigan House, as I'm sure we all have tonight -" he paused and the table filled the silence with encouraging sounds of agreement. "I have a gift of thanks I would like to present to Lord – to Miles, Lord Vorkosigan -" He looked very proud of himself for getting the title exactly right. "- and I thought that now would be a good time."
Miles, to judge by his expression, emphatically disagreed but there was nothing he could do about it. The off-worlder – and who was he anyway? – put a small box down between Miles and Lady Alys. The ImpSec contingent on the other side of the table tensed in trained, professional paranoia as he lifted the lid.
Alys recoiled, nearly turning her chair over backward, and swallowed a scream emitting a choked squeak instead. Illyan came to his feet in alarm and Dono leaned around her for a look. His eyebrows shot up and Kristina pushed back her own chair to peer over his shoulder.
Her first thought - after 'Yuck' - was to wonder why this off-worlder would present Miles with a trio of oversized cockroaches – then the rich brown color of the wing carapaces and the delicate maple-leaf and mountain design in silver registered. Oh. Oh dear.
Miles seemed frozen in horror. His armsmen crowded behind his chair to see for themselves then paled or reddened according to their various temperaments.
Dono said uncertainly; "Are they …are they perhaps a weapon?"
The bug donor gave a high, excited crack of laughter. "No indeed quite the opposite. These beauties have been genetically engineered to turn vegetable waste into nutritious and palatable food for human beings. Bug curds, as we call them, formed the base of the delicious soup, spread and dressing we've been enjoying."
Kristina dropped back into her chair and picked up her half eaten slice of bread contemplating the herb flavored bug goo she'd so generously spread over it. Don't be a fool, Kristina. You know where honey comes from, not to mention eggs and milk, caviar... It's delicious bug goo – do you care if it comes from the ugliest insect ever made by man? "No," she said aloud and took a big bite.
The bug scientist burbled happily on about improvements to the biological suite that transformed things like grass clippings or wood chips into 'curds' and the genetic tweaking he'd performed to produce these special Vorkosigan bugs as a gesture of thanks to Lord Vorkosigan for his generous support. Yes the changes were permanent and would breed true. This was an entirely new sub-species ….
Dono was practically swallowing his napkin in an effort to restrain his chortles. Poor Alys had edged her chair farther from the box and was looking slightly glassy eyed, her superb social poise shattered. Mark appeared abruptly at his brother's shoulder, looked into the box and blanched. As for Miles, he was looking like a dark cloud about to burst – until he chanced to glance down the table at Ekaterin Vorsoisson, her pale face shocked, almost frightened.
Miles sucked in a deep breath, let it out slowly and managed to produce a smile. "Thank you, Enrique. Your talent leaves me speechless. But perhaps you ought to put the girls away now. You wouldn't want them to get….tired." He gently replaced the lid on the box and handed it back to the proud papa. Mark took Enrique by the arm and marched him back down to their end of the table where the entomological geneticist promptly lifted the lid and made the same speech, or nearly, to his seatmates. Anastasia's jaw dropped and she flung her little brother a smoking look but she managed to restrain herself – for now.
"The Vorkosigans do not seem to appreciate the honor Enrique has done them." Dono murmured, drawing Kristina's attention back to her own end of the table.
"But they are sparing us a scene, thank goodness," she whispered back.
"I wouldn't care to be Enrique after dinner, though."
People settled back in their seats and started breathing again. The next course appeared; poached and chilled salmon. To Kristina's disappointment it was dressed with lemon slices instead of another delicious bug butter sauce. She teased off a few almost transparent flakes for the sake of politeness – she didn't like fish – and spread a third piece of bread.
On the other side of the table the hitherto silent Madame Vorsoisson launched her first conversational gambit at Duv Galeni; "It's unusual to meet a Komarran in the Imperial Service," she said innocently. "Does your family support your career choice?"
Everybody who knew Duv Galeni's background – which was nearly everybody at that end of the table – winced. Duv himself directed a dire glance at Miles before returning his attention to poor Madame Vorsoisson who was clearly beginning to realize she'd said the wrong thing. "My new one does."
Delia breathed out a sigh and leaned forward to award her fiancé a smile. Ekaterin looked towards the famous Lady Vorpatril for help but Alys was still recovering from the butter bugs and in no condition notice much less save the situation. Kou gallantly threw himself into the breach like the brave officer and gentleman he was; "So, Miles, speaking of Komarr, do you think their solar mirror repair appropriations are going to fly in council?"
Miles gave him a grateful smile. "Yes, I think so. Gregor's thrown his weight behind it, as I hoped he would."
"Good," said Galeni in his usual, measured way. "That will help on all sides." He wasn't a smiler but he gave Ekaterin Vorsoisson a small nod to let her know all was forgiven.
Rodrick, opposite Kou, was just opening his mouth to pursue the subject when the bug breeder's penetrating voice floated up table; "- will make so much profit, Kareen, you and Mark can buy another one of those amazing trips to the Orb when you get back to Beta. As many as you want to in fact." His voice dropped wistfully. "I wish I had somebody to go there with."
Kou choked on his wine, spraying the table then buried his face in his napkin as he wheezed. Olivia patted his back worriedly and ineffectively. Drou started to rise as if to go to his aid and Kou lifted his crimson face from the white linen to force out; "You took my daughter to the Orb?!"
Beta Colony's notorious 'Orb of Pleasure' could best be described as a high-class medically supervised bordello but there were facilities where couples could enjoy themselves together too.
"It was part of his therapy!" Kareen blurted in panic
Not helping, Kareen!
"We got a Clinic discount…!" Mark added, even more panicked.
Seriously not helping, Mark! Kristina tried desperately to think of something to say that would help. Nothing came.
Anastasia thought of something to say. How helpful it was, was debatable. "Thank you, Kareen. Mark seems to be much the better for your aid." She put a hand protectively over her younger brother's, "As for you, Kou, stop hyperventilating! What the devil did you expect when you sent your girl to Beta Colony? Sit down Drou and both of you eat your dinners!"
Drou sank back into her seat and a rather dreadful silence fell – full of things unsaid. Anastasia glared defiantly down the table, a veritable tigress defending her young or at least her baby brother.
Alys had had sufficient time to pull herself back together. She cleared her throat for attention and presented the table with an uncontroversial, impersonal topic of conversation with all the authority of an empress – or rather she started to. "The presentation of the mirror repair as a wedding gift has proven most popular with - Miles, what has that animal got in its mouth?"
The animal in question was the black and white kitten from Zap the Cat's last litter thundering on tiny paws across the oak flooring hotly pursued by its all black sibling. It definitely had something in its mouth and wasn't about to give it up. Unfortunately for itself it snagged a toenail in the carpet just behind Lord Auditor Vorthys' chair and flipped over. The black kitten pounced and as the little black and white fought it off a couple of feebly waving insect legs became visible and part of a brown and silver wing.
"My butter bug!" Enrique pounced on the struggling kittens with a somewhat melodramatic "Give it up, you murderess!" He crooned over the butter bug in his palm but it was clearly beyond help. The black and white kitten dangled from his other hand, cheerfully grabbing at its tail, and the black kitten tried to climb his leg. Kristina, remembering the pulls on Rodrick's trousers, carefully detached it. Enrique, still grieving over his bug, didn't seem to notice.
"Dr. Borgos," Miles said with careful calm, "where did that cat find that bug? I thought you had them all locked down. In fact you promised me they would be."
"Ah…" Enrique's eyes widened in sudden, horrible surmise. "Oh. Excuse me. There's something I have to check in the lab." He dropped the black and white kitten on his chair, favored the table with an unconvincing smile and headed at full speed for the back stairs.
"I think I'd better go with him," Mark threw down his own napkin and followed leaving the table to contemplate the nature of an emergency dire enough to pry Mark Vorkosigan from his food. Miles followed his brother, grim-faced.
Kristina thought about Vorkosigan butter bugs on the loose in creaky old Vorkosigan House and shuddered. She cuddled the black kitten and fed it flakes of her unwanted salmon.
Alys downed a recuperative swallow of wine before beginning again with a look of grim determination; "As I was saying the gift of the mirror has proved quite popular with our Proles if not the Vor – Kristina put that animal down!"
"Yes Alys," she put the kitten down next to her chair, along with most of her salmon on the bread dish, and wiped her hands on her napkin. "Pym," she said as he leaned between her and Dono to refill their glasses. "Could we have more bread please?"
"Of course, milady."
"Kareen -" Commodore Koudelka began.
"I think I'd better see what's happening downstairs." Kareen interrupted. "I'm Enrique's assistant after all." She fled the field in disorder. Ekaterin Vorsoisson murmured something inaudible and followed her.
Alys glared after them. "As I was saying-" her determined efforts resuscitated the conversation though the wine may have helped too. It moved briskly from the mirror to the imperial marriage which everybody – including Galeni - agreed was an important step towards Komarr re-imaging herself as a partner in the Empire rather than a conquered territory. Kristina ate more bread and bug-goo. Pym kept busy refilling glasses.
Miles eventually returned with Madame Vorsoisson on his arm all but driving Kareen and Mark ahead of them. They resumed their seats but Enrique did not reappear. Nobody had the courage to ask what they'd found below stairs and they didn't volunteer the information. Alys continued to work the wedding. Mark and Kou eyed each other edgily. Anastasia glared protectively and Pym plied them all with red wine to go with the main course, a filet of beef. Kristina scraped off the pepper and spread bug-goo on another slice of bread.
It had been a bumpy evening but the diners settled down, lubricated by plenty of wine and soothed by the topic of Gregor's wedding. Prompted by Alys Kristina described some of the trials of an interplanetary royal wedding from the bride's point of view, companioned by her husband's version from the groom's. Rodrick's dry remark on the virtues of elopement led Dono to tell the story is his – then her – elopement with Geoff Vorwulfen which had the entire table laughing.
The party definitely seemed back on track by the time desert was served. Oh good, more bug-goo, frozen and decorated with glazed fruit. Kristina dug in happily. Oh. My. God.
"Good?" Dono asked.
"Heavenly, better than chocolate."
"That good?" He tried a spoonful and his eyes widened in appreciation. "Yes it is."
Conversation faltered for a moment as various diners struggled between temptation and prejudice but all eventually chose to close their eyes and think of Barrayar. Miles, who was not eating himself, told an entertaining little anecdote about the difficulties involved in transporting his district's wedding present, a life-sized sculpture of a guerilla soldier in maple sugar, without breaking bits off. Eye fixed on Ekaterin Vorsoisson he was clearly about to try to draw her out a little when Illyan beat him to it.
"Speaking of weddings, Madame Vorsoisson, how long has Miles been courting you? Have you awarded him a date yet? Personally I think you ought to string him along and make him work for it."
Kristina cringed, really cringed, as Ekaterin's face froze and Miles' purpled. Her heart went out to the look of bewildered alarm dawning in poor Simon's eyes as he realized he'd said something very wrong.
"I thought we weren't supposed to mention that yet." Olivia piped innocently and unhelpfully.
"Hush, lovie," her father muttered.
Dono turned in her direction. "What weren't we supposed to mention?" Kristina acquitted him of serious malice. He couldn't be expected to know just how dire the situation was.
"Oh but if Captain Illyan said it, it must be all right," Olivia burbled on, caught Miles' eye and swallowed. "Or maybe…"
Miles panicked. Nothing short of raw terror could excuse what he said next. "Yes, ah, heh, quite, well, so, that reminds me, Madame Vorsoisson, I'd been meaning to ask you - will you marry me?"
Everbody froze. Even Dono sat in silent horror. Kristina restrained an urge to crawl under her chair. Alys buried her face in her hands and poor Simon looked from Miles' sickly grin to Ekaterin's marble composure desperate to somehow make it right but not knowing how.
"How strange," Madame Vorsoisson said at last, voice cool and distant. "And here I thought you were interested in gardens. Or so you told me." Then she pushed back her chair, placed her napkin with care and deliberation next to her bowl of melting bug-goo turned and began to walk towards the drawing room doors. She paused to address her aunt, her voice exquisitely audible in the dead silence. "Aunt Vorthys, I'll see you at home."
"But dear, will you be all right…."
No, she won't, Helen.
Ekaterin accelerated from a measured walk to a near run as she covered the remaining length of room. The Professora looked an appeal at Miles. You did this, fix it! His chair fell over backward with a resounding bang. "Ekaterin, wait, we have to talk -" She didn't wait but she did leave the door open behind her. Miles slammed it as he passed through.
"She didn't say no."
Kristina looked at Dono, "I noticed that."
Alys and yes - Galeni of all people! – were trying to reassure Simon:
"It's not your fault, sir -"
"We didn't explain, you didn't forget, darling, you never knew -"
"Oh my, oh my," Lord Auditor Vorthys said over and over again. "Helen, Helen what are we to do?" his wife shook her head tight lipped.
"And what about you, Vorkosigan?" Kou demanded hostilely. "Have you proposed to my daughter?"
"No, of course not -"
"Of course not?" Drou echoed, eyes flashing.
"You mean she's not good enough for you?"
"I didn't say that!"
"Da, please -"
"Stop putting words in my brother's mouth, Kou!" Anastasia blazed.
Dono said quietly in Kristina's ear. "I don't know if following her was a good idea. Miles may just dig himself in deeper."
"I doubt he could say anything worse than he already has," but Kristina pushed back her chair. Anastasia was busy defending one brother maybe she, Kristina, had better see to the other. Knowing Miles he might do something idiotic at that…
Kristina found she wasn't quite as steady on her feet as she usually was. Too much wine, damn you Pym. She almost lost her way in the series of drawing rooms – which she knew like the palm of her hand - but finally emerged into the hall.
Ekaterin's raised voice, cracking on held back tears, declaimed: "Pym. Open the damn door and let me out." in an impressive tone of command, tears or no, and Kristina wasn't at all surprised when Pym snapped to attention and hit the necessary control with a smart "Yes milady!"
Ekaterin stormed out the doors. Miles lurched after her and Kristina stumbled across the black and white marble tiles to catch up with them both reaching the doorway just in time to see Ekaterin rebound from the stocky, aging form of Count Vorkosigan. Oh good, Aral's back. Kristina thought slightly hysterically, Cordelia too of course.
The Countess looked tired, rumpled and quite understandably confused. "What in the world….?
"Excuse me, miss, are you all right?" Aral asked gallantly and unnecessarily. He knew a distraught woman when he saw one. He gave Miles a piercing look over her shoulder.
"No," Ekaterin choked, self-control failing. "I need – I want an auto-cab, please."
"Ekaterin, no, wait," Miles entreated tumbling down a few steps.
"I want an auto-cab right now." The tone of command was back.
"The gate guard will be happy to call one for you," Cordelia said soothingly shooting suspicious looks at her son. "And see you safely into it. Miles, why are you harrying this young lady?" then dubiously; "Are we interrupting business or pleasure?"
Kristina tried to stuff a laugh back down her throat. Neither, Cordelia, not business and it certainly hasn't been a pleasure!
"My dinner party," Miles grated. "It's just breaking up."
Sinking with all hands more like. Kristina smothered an inappropriate but irresistible guffaw with both hands.
"Mother, Father," Miles continued with a visible effort to pull himself together, "let me introduce – she's getting away!"
Kristina gave up all efforts at self-control and collapsed against the door post wheezing with slightly hysterical and slightly drunken laughter. The Koudelkas chose that moment to roll en-mass into the hall, quarrelling as they came.
"You will come home now. You're not staying in this another minute in this house." Kou snarled at his youngest daughter.
"So Beta Colony is safe and suitable for Kareen but Vorkosigan House isn't?" Anastasia demanded acidly.
"I have to come back. I work here." Kareen wailed.
"Not anymore you don't," Kou snapped. "As for you Anastasia Vorkleves this is no business of yours -"
"Please, sir, Commodore, Madame Koudelka, you musn't blame Kareen -" Mark pleaded.
"I won't have them blaming you, Mark." Anastasia interrupted.
"You can't stop me!" Kareen caroled. At which point her father finally noticed the Vorkosigan parents standing in the hall, wondering what on Barrayar they'd come home too.
"Ha - Aral!" Kou snarled. "Do you realize what your son has been up to?"
The Count blinked mildly at his old friend, "Which one?"
Mark looked at his father with something like awe, as if a dream he'd never dared hope for had suddenly come true. Kristina smiled sentimentally through her giggles and hiccups.
Kou began to tell Aral, in indignant detail, exactly which son had done what. Behind him Olivia turned back to talk to the Vorbrettens who had just emerged from the drawing rooms together with Dono. The four of them edged their way around the quarrel towards the door, Olivia clinging to Dono's arm as if for protection. They paused momentarily so she could tug on the sleeve of her distracted mother and beg permission to spend the night at the Vorbrettens.
Kristina raised her eyebrows at Dono and he gave her a half wink and a twist of the moustache in return. Olivia got permission and the party continued to the door but, of course, Dono couldn't resist a last word with their beleaguered host; "Thank you, Lord Vorkosigan, for a most memorable evening."
"Who was that?" Aral asked momentarily distracted from Kou and Drou who were now arguing heatedly with Cordelia. "Looks familiar somehow…"
Before Kristina could pull herself together enough to answer the question – Miles clearly didn't intend to – Enrique wandered into the hall looking wildly distraught and waving some evilly scented stuff on a stick at the baseboards while crooning; "Here, buggy, buggy. Come to Papa, that's the good girls…" The jar he was carrying in his free hand was empty. Clearly the girls didn't feel like being good. Kristina felt another fit of giggles coming on. "Buggy-buggy….?"
"Now ….that cries out for explanation," Aral murmured watching in fascination. Kristina whimpered agreement but was quite incapable of articulating one.
"Pym," the harried Countess fixed the armsman in her sights. "I seconded you to look after Miles. Would you care to explain this scene?"
"No, milady." Pym answered honestly after a moment's thought and a look round at the chaos.
Kristina wobbled a few steps to the bench at the foot of the grand staircase and collapsed onto it burying her giggles in the brocaded upholstery. Lying there enjoying her own little bubble of peace she heard Miles calmly inform his father he was not drunk – yet – and depart upstairs to drown his sorrows in traditional Vor fashion. There was a certain amount of shouting from various Koudelkas before the front doors finally slammed behind them then a brief, restful silence broken by footsteps clicking across the marble floor to her.
She pulled herself upright with an effort. The Countess was standing over her and she did not look at all happy. "Welcome home, Cordelia," Kristina said, and giggled.
Cordelia Vorkosigan frowned. "Kristina Vorkleves…are you drunk?"
"I'm afraid so," She blinked owlishly up at her friend. "It's all Pym's fault. No it's Miles'. He filled us up with wine so we wouldn't notice things but we did anyway."
Cordelia sat down on the bench next to her. "I gather Miles' dinner party was not a success?"
"Just the most catastrophic social event since Varadur Tau's Bloody Banquet," Kristina agreed and giggled. "I'm sorry I wouldn't be laughing if I wasn't drunk. It's all quite tragic really, star-crossed lovers. 'Two houses alike in dignity –'" she might have broken down into tears at that point but fortunately a happy thought buoyed her up; "At least nobody died. Well only a bug. Poor Enrique…"
"Yes, what bugs would those be?" Aral had wandered over to join them. He had an arm around Anastasia as if restraining her. She looked like she needed restraint, her eyes were slightly insane and her hands were still clawed as if ready to tear out throats.
"'Stasia's mad at Kou and Drou because they don't think Mark is good enough for Kareen," Kristina explained solemnly to the Vorkosigans. Adding to her sister-in-law; "Don't kill them 'Stasie, you know you'd regret it in the morning."
Anastasia blinked. "Kristina, are you drunk?"
"Absolutely," she giggled. "It's rather fun. I should have tried it years ago."
"About the bugs," Aral prodded with gentle persistence.
"They're Enrique's. They're very ugly but they make the most delicious goo, Cordelia. You really must have some." Kristina explained.
"You don't want to see the bugs," Anastasia assured her father seriously. "Really, trust me on this."
Enrique emerged from under the staircase. His jar was still empty and his eyes held a touch of panic. "I think some have gotten out," Kristina said. "Yuck."
Rodrick veered around Enrique on his way to join them at the bench. "Most of the survivors have gone home to sleep it off," he said to Aral and Cordelia. "But Alys wants to talk to you two. And the Vorthys have asked for a word as well."
Aral frowned. "Lord Auditor Vorthys? This is official then?"
"Oh no, very unofficial," Rodrick assured him.
"The young lady who stormed out of here is their niece," Kristina explained helpfully. "Miles wants to marry her." She blinked round at them all. "I think I'd like to go to sleep now."
"I think I'd like more wine. A lot more wine," Anastasia said grimly.
Rodrick gave his wife a surprised look, quickly narrowing into an assessing one. "Sweetheart, you're drunk."
"Yes, I know."
"I think you should all sleep here," Cordelia said firmly. "We can talk in the morning. Jankowski, please show Countess Vorkleves and Commodore and Lady Vorkleves to the east wing guest suite and supply them with whatever they might need for the night."
Rodrick picked Kristina up bodily. "I'm going to feel awful tomorrow aren't I?" she said looking wistfully up at him.
Rodrick smiled tenderly down. "I'm afraid so. We'll nurse our bad heads together, love. The navy has some top secret hangover cures you know."
"Good," she snuggled into his arms. "Maybe we'd better take the lift."