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Captain Vorpatril's Plotbunnies (1)
Miles flew down, quite suddenly one day, and practically kidnapped the poor woman out of her semi-retirement.
(Ch. 10)

Yevgeniya D’Aubade considered the conjunction of deep brown oxide and invasive cowbane dispassionately. It was serendipity that her garden abutted an area of sulphides and oxides whose dull but determined colours she found pleasing, and chance that a cowbane spore could blow so far west and take root just where its lustrous ochre should so compliment the oxide. But it was also beautiful, a conjunction only South Continent could produce, and both the speckled texture of the oxide and the wartiness of cowbane would lend themselves well—very well, in fact—to micromosaic figuration. She used her wristcom to record the image, but in doing so was obliged to notice the blinking message light. Resignedly she keyed the accept.

“What is it, Mila?”

“Inbound aircar, Yeva. Big and shiny, with stingships.”

Stingships?” Yevgeniya was startled. She hadn’t seen a stingship out here since the War of Vordarian’s Pretendership, and that had been streaking overhead.

“Yes, stingships. Almost here, now. I called you five minutes ago.”

Made to attend, Yeva could hear the noise and looking up realised that the aircar—which was indeed big and shiny, in a way only imperial vehicles managed—was already descending towards the airpad at the front of the house ; the stingships slipped into a holding pattern high above. She considered, and shrugged.

“Whoever it is, Mila, they’re turning up unannounced so they can take us as they find us.”

The conjunction of oxide and cowbane was as honourably Barrayaran as anything could be, in the planet’s own speech, and her conscience was clear ; nor was it still the days of Grishnov and the Political Officers, when anyone might disappear. But her heart stuttered a little all the same when Mila came into view escorting … a small horde, in fact. Given the stingships, the black ImpSec uniforms of the two bodyguards weren’t unexpected, but the men with them in brown-and-silver livery carrying large boxes were, and so was the short figure who advanced amid all, wielding a silver-knobbed cane and looking intently about him at her garden with what seemed to be approval. His head was too big for his body, his shoulders slightly hunched, and even in her Southern retreat his face had of late become familiar from the nightly holovid news. What was not familiar at all was the man’s sheer physical presence as he came to a halt before her, tilting that oversize head and considering her with fine grey eyes before flicking a glance at Mila. Yevgeniya glanced herself, waiting on Mila’s introduction, but her partner was staring entranced at the boxes the Armsmen held, which had a variety of very enticing aromas. The man smiled, rather smugly Yevgeniya thought, and brought his gaze back to her.

“Do I have the honour of addressing Madame D’Aubade?”

She blinked. “I don’t see there’s any honour involved but my name is D’Aubade.”

“Then the honour lies in your artistry, Madame, and the use you have made of it.” He bowed, without the awkwardness one might expect. “Miles Vorkosigan, at your service. Whenever you may need it. In the meantime, I wondered if I might invite myself to tea? You have a most delightful parterre, I see, and I have brought some comestibles to help excuse my rudeness in imposing.”

He smiled up at her hopefully and rather charmingly, and she felt her thoughts slither into even greater confusion. Neither the man nor anything he’d said were remotely what she’d expected, and the idea of being descended upon by a Lord Auditor—this Lord Auditor—bearing by proxy patisserie boxes was … ridiculous. The aromas were very tempting, though, and lunch suddenly seemed longer ago than was quite fair.

“Of course. Mila, would you show Lord Auditor Vorkosigan’s Armsmen to the kitchen, please?”

Mila nodded, still with an eye on the boxes, and left trailing the liveried men. Yevgeniya fell in beside her guest and headed for the parterre, very conscious of his stick and shortness and seeking to match his pace rather than impose her own loose stride. His eyes met hers with cool appreciation.

“Thank you, Madame. I’m not actually wearing my Auditor’s hat today, though ; only my Lord Vorkosigan one.”

“Oh.” She wasn’t sure that helped much but a little of her alarm eased. “I’m sorry. I assumed from the stingships …”

“A permanent fixture these days, alas.” He grimaced. “Auditors tend to make enemies who care little what hat they may be wearing, so Gregor insists. And as my wife agrees with him I can’t really argue.”

She blinked. He must mean the Gregor. “Might you otherwise, my Lord?”

“Not about security. Too much is a bore, and costly, but too little is likely to be very costly.” His eyes gleamed. “In principle, though, yes, I might argue with Gregor. Auditors are his firemen, you know, not yes-men. But I have the wit, usually, to refrain from arguing with him and Ekaterin together.”

They arrived at the parterre with its neat table and chairs—clean, for a mercy, as she and Mila used it quite often in this mild season. He held her chair for her both automatically and elegantly, and swung himself neatly into his own while the ImpSec men formed a perimeter of sorts, scanning the flowers as if even shorter assassins might lurk under them. She found his shrewd gaze on her again.

“Highly trained habit. It has little to do with probability, I’m afraid. Nor with any particular suspicion of that rather lovely stand of Poor Man’s Blood and Pickleflower.”

Memory clicked. “Your wife designed that beautiful Barrayaran garden, didn’t she? I saw news clips, and later a rather good article in one of the journals about her work.”

He beamed at her. “The Barrayaran Horticultural Review piece? It was good, wasn’t it? Judicious, well-written, and appreciative. It gave Ekaterin a lot of confidence. Though not quite enough, it seems, which is rather why I’m here.”

“I’m sorry?”

“She doesn’t dither about gardens any more, nor anything much I’m happy to say, but she has been dithering about contacting you. An attack of admiration nerves, I suspect, from having been bowled over by your work when she was a girl. As well she might have been. And perhaps some needless worry about messing with the architecture.”

From amid this babble Yevgeniya picked the one thing that made sense to her. “Ah. This is about a commission, then? I’m afraid I don’t take them anymore.”
“So we understand, but I’m hoping to change your mind. May I show you a hologram?”

She sat back. “If you like, my Lord, as you’ve come all this way, but it’ll do you no good.”

He shrugged. “Neither will not trying at all.” His enthusiasm returned full bore, its impact palpable. “And it’s a marvellous idea.”

He slipped a sleek holoprojector from his pocket, positioned it, and tapped a stud. An image sprang up, astonishingly vivid for such a small machine, showing a vast hall in the old style—dark oak panelling framing three arched exits and a black-and-white tile floor ; a wide staircase rose and divided out of sight.

“The entrance hall of Vorkosigan House. Perfectly functional, but rather gloomy. It’s been that way as long as my Da remembers. A building like Vorkosigan House has a lot of inertia to resist refurbishment, y’see, especially when the running costs are breaking the bank anyway. Fortunately, however, my clone brother turns out to be the most financially competent Vorkosigan in generations, while Ekaterin has both a splendid eye and the right to set her stamp on things.”

“She wants a mosaic set in that floor? I don’t think my style would work with those black-and-white tiles at all, my Lord.” And however good a garden designer Lady Vorkosigan might be, her talents did not extend indoors if she had thought so. “Even if I did still accept commissions.”

“Not quite, Madame. She’d like you to replace the floor entirely, and work with a botanical artist who’ll deal with the walls. Something like this.”

Reaching through the hologram tiles he tapped again and the image transformed. A riot of colour washed over the black-and-white tiles as silk wallpapers in lustrous hues replaced the panelling and banished gloom. Fascinated, Yevgeniya peered more closely, and gasped. Her mosaics usually showed the southern landscapes she loved, so Barrayaran plants, low and usually some shade of red, as well as Terran imports were a common element—and though most of her pieces were in private homes, almost every plant she remembered having done seemed to be present, pasted in from scans, presumably, to fill the whole huge floor area. Natural and terraformed ecosystems twined together, and where they reached the walls thrust upwards in painted splendour. It was almost a trompe-l’oeil effect, drawing the beholder in. And the botany was exact, she noticed, plants that preferred shade clustering around and under the staircase while the sun-seekers glowed in the middle of the floor. She pulled her jaw closed and tried to think, but he was speaking again and she heard his words through a whirl of utter astonishment and appalled calculation of the labour that would be involved.

“Ekaterin likes blending ecosystems. She’s rather hoping the, um, more horizontal nature of Barrayar’s and more vertical nature of Terra’s can be mapped, as it were, onto floor and walls. My mother very much hopes so too. She has a particular dislike for the tiles, y’see.”

His mother was the Vicereine of Sergyar, and not by all accounts a woman to disappoint. She could feel the force of his personality enfolding her and desperately imagined her heels digging in. “It would take me years.”

“Perhaps not, Madame. I can provide considerable resources. Still, here’s tea.”

Tearing her eyes from the riotous hologram Yevgeniya looked up to see a veritable procession, Mila and both Armsmen bearing large trays heaped with the most astonishing array of pastries, cakes, tartlets, buns, biscuits, and who knew what, the teapot and hot-water-pot lost among them with the cups and saucers. Lord Vorkosigan thoughtfully shifted the holoprojector so its image lay beyond the table, and the Armsmen with deft skill unloaded the trays until the little table almost groaned. Mila was staring wide-eyed at the hologram but was still wide-nosed and almost drooling at the magnificent spread, and when Yevgeniya invited her to join them smiled blindingly before falling to.

For some while there was little conversation though Yevgeniya noticed that Lord Vorkosigan was frugal in what he took while looking quite wistful. If he had access to this sort of baking every day perhaps he needed to be, but her artist’s eye had already seen that his stick was not an affectation, and picked out the fine scars that covered his hands and seemed to reappear at his neck, so there might be other reasons for a controlled diet. Her own tended to the frugal only because of her isolation out here, and presented with the chance to indulge she did so shamelessly—not hard, when the temptations were as exquisite as these. But at the same time her artist’s brain had gone right on estimating the dimensions of the hall and the scale of the work that would be needed, and astonishing and intriguing as she thought the project it was out of the question. Eventually replete, she sat back and eyed the potent little man who waited patiently.

“These confections are a fabulous bribe, my Lord. The best I’ve ever eaten. Where do they come from?”

“My cook.” He grinned cheerfully. “A most wonderful Greekie materfamilias. Have you come across maple ambrosia yet?”

“Once, at an arts reception last year. It was delicious.”

“Also one of Ma Kosti’s. Her royalties would allow her to retire anywhere she wanted but she says she likes cooking for me.” He looked thoughtful. “It’s true my guest lists are pretty varied these days, and there’s a constant challenge of blending Barrayaran and galactic cuisines, but I suspect she’s simply grateful that I noticed what her sons had come to take for granted.” His glance was amused, with subtleties lurking. “Were you to accept Ekaterin’s commission you would eat well enough for the duration.”

“I’d become as fat as a pig.” Yevgeniya sighed, for more than one reason. “But I meant what I said, my Lord. It’s a delightful idea, but it would take me, at a conservative estimate, three years. And I can’t afford to be away for a week, never mind longer. I’m sorry, but it’s impossible.”

“Mmm.” He frowned. “Forgive my ignorance, Madame, but what are the parameters of your time calculation?”

“Making the design, finding and selecting the stone, arranging for it to be prepared and transported—with the quantities involved here I doubt I’d be able to start setting within two years.”

“So apart from the design phase, most of it is logistics? The actual setting would be a year or so?”

“About that.”

“Mmm. Then I would think the rest can be expedited considerably. Ekaterin wants to use rocks from our District where possible, y’see, and she’s already matched a lot of the colours she wants. The geologists know where to look, and by definition there’s no problem with permission, nor any delays in processing and transporting. And if we do need anything from anyone else’s District I’ll just have a word with the relevant Count.” His look became at once rueful and oddly sardonic. “I doubt even Boriz Vormoncrief would deny me a few rocks, though he’d probably rather throw them. And it can’t be that much rock, in absolute terms, surely? A few tons?”

“Three or four, yes.”

“I guarantee, Madame, I can have four tons of rock processed for use in micromosaic shifted from the District to Vorkosigan House in … well, let’s say two weeks, never mind two years. Eh, Pym?”

The older of the Armsmen nodded judiciously. “I would certainly hope so, m’Lord. M’Lady is clear about what she wants and the gravel-works east of Hassadar has the crushing equipment.”

“Quite so. Be a nice change for them, I expect. Micromosaic tiles rather than gravel, I mean, useful as gravel is.”

Yevgeniya had done work for rich people who’d helped as they could with the many delays that attended gathering, processing, and transporting one-off orders for microtiles, but never, she realised, for someone with this kind of power. Blanket permission to gather alone would save months, and the man owned the machinery to which she’d so often begged and schemed access. Her fingers began to itch at the thought of a wall-to-wall mosaic, and she knew her vanity was tickled by the idea of the people who’d see it, galactics and all. His Majesty, even—he and Lord Vorkosigan were old friends, after all, and the little lord had been his second at his wedding. But it was still impossible and she turned to find him forestalling her.

“But that’s all by the by isn’t it, Madame, if you cannot afford to leave here even for a week. May I ask why that is so? It sounds rather inconvenient.”

“Oh it is, my Lord. But The Hills are worth it.”

“The hills?”

The Hills.” She gestured west. “Between here and Xavgrad. The only hills for a thousand klicks in any direction, until you hit the rise to the Black Escarpment. A little bubbling of the crust from a temporary hotspot, they think, but wherever they came from they’re beautiful, and a unique resource.”

“For stone?”

“No, walking, thinking, resting your eyes from the horizon.”

“Ah. Yes, indeed. But why should they not go on being so in your absence?”

“Because, my Lord, there’s a fool of a Vorling who wants to turn them into a race-track for grav-carts.”

His eyebrows rose. “You protect them physically?”

“Near enough. Petition and counter-petition have been submitted to His Majesty, but the Vorling would like a fait accompli and while those damned carts aren’t banned from the Hills he can manufacture one. They put off the walkers and the botanists and the family outings, deliberately buzzing people, ripping up the ground and disturbing the microclimate. No walkers or picnickers, no reason to stop the carts.  So there are a few of us who make sure someone’s there every day, to register complaints and call the Imperial Land Office in Xavgrad when it looks like he might try again to pre-empt the construction permits he’s seeking—facilties for the carts and the like.”

“Well that won’t do at all. And Gregor doesn’t care to have any of his decisions pre-empted, I assure you. Who is this, ah, fool of a Vorling? Nice phrase, by the way.”

Stars went off in Yevgeniya’s brain. This man was a friend of His Majesty’s and a Lord Auditor—he could … but no, Auditors didn’t interfere in such things any more, largely thanks to this man’s father. But the imperial connection might add a powerful voice to the counter-petition. She had the disconcerting impression that he’d followed her thoughts with dry approval.

“Mikail Vortornier is the petitioner, and the one whose idle wealthy set actually likes the carts, but the development money is from a business consortium led by a man called Arturo Antonopoulos, who has every intention of being Speaker of Xavgrad and no doubt higher things.”

“Mmm. Never heard of either of them, but we can find out how things stand.” He swivelled. “Pym, can we have the secure comconsole, please.” The Armsman took off at a lope. “Briefly, Madame, is any compromise possible?”

“Not over The Hills, my Lord. They’re unique. But though I hate those carts, it’s only the location that matters. Vortornier and Antonopoulos prate about economic benefits, but it’s specious. There’s flat, undeveloped land everywhere, and with the grav-lifters construction work now uses it’d be perfectly possible to build a track or even a whole nest of them on the other side of Xavgrad, towards Fort Vormeyer. And I can see the attractions—life here is slow, peaceful, and dull, and whizzing about at high speed has always been attractive to the young. The men at Fort Vormeyer would like it too, I imagine, and I dare say it would attract tourists and in itself be no bad thing. But using The Hills doesn’t boost that—it just boosts the private profits by cutting the construction costs.”

He nodded. “Good point. You’re right about grav-lifters, too. Making mountains is still a tall order but something sufficient to challenge any grav-cart rider is straightforward. And about Fort Vormeyer.” He frowned, obviously calculating. “If using The Hills would be financially viable in terms of attracting customers, including military ones, I don’t think costs would be prohibitive, either, even on a strictly commercial basis—it’d just mean a longer repayment period. Ah, here’s Pym back. Let’s see what’s what.”

He briskly shuffled empty plates to one side and the liveried Armsman set down a not so small, black, and shiny comconsole. There was a flash of gold as Lord Vorkosigan set something to its read-pad, and then his hand, at which a shielded display came alive.

“First things first.” His hands flicked off the holoprojector and moved rapidly over a virtual keyboard. “Mmm. Hmm. Ah. Nothing known against Vortornier, except reckless driving, ground and air, but Antonopoulos has been looked at once or twice over complaints of shady dealing. And an attempted bribe, I see, though nothing seems to have been done beyond a stern warning. Low level. And the Imperial petition is logged with a cross-reference to … yes, the counter-petition. Right-ho. Onwards.”

He entered a callcode and sat back, waiting. Yevgeniya wasn’t sure he should be saying such things aloud to her and an intent if silent Mila, but the man’s efficiency was impressive and knowledge that Antonopoulos already had a smear against his name, however low-level, was both confirmation and potential ammunition. Lord Vorkosigan’s face flickered with light as his call was answered.

“Ah, Ser Manier, good afternoon. Do you have a moment?”

Yevgeniya couldn’t hear any reply—superb directional sound engineering—but slight surprise crossed Lord Vorkosigan’s face, followed by a thoughtful look and a fractional glance at her and then Mila. His hand flickered over a control and the display became visible to all, showing a neatly suited man with greying hair and an interesting, lined face Yevgeniya would have liked to sketch.

“Then if you’re sure I’m not interrupting anything, Ser Manier, I’d be grateful if you could tell me if Gregor’s made any decision about a petition and counter-petition submitted from Xavgrad, concerning the development of a grav-cart racetrack in an area known as The Hills. And if he hasn’t, and you know, how he might be considering them.”

This time surprise flickered on Ser Manier’s face—a wise, patient face, Yevgeniya decided. The voice was crisp, the accent as Komarran as the name and courtesy address

“His Majesty has made no decision of which I am aware, my Lord.” He glanced aside then looked back, pursing his lips. “I think it would be fair to say that in general he looks favourably on development in South Continent, for obvious reasons, but that he was, ah, given some pause by the … frivolity of the proposed project, and by the strength of the wording in the counter-petition. May I ask how the matter has come to your attention, my Lord?”

“It’s private business, Ser Manier, nothing auditorial. Someone has been bending my ear about it, with just that strength, or rather passion, that you mention. Persuasively so, in fact.”

“Really? On which side, Miles?”

The display abruptly widened to include a lean, slightly saturnine face that made Yevgeniya’s heart stutter.

“The counter-petition. Hello, Gregor—I wondered if you were lurking. Your poker-face isn’t quite up to scratch, I’m afraid, Ser Manier.”

“I don’t often get the chance to eavesdrop on my Auditors, Miles.”

Lord Vorkosigan grinned. “Spot-check all you like. I should warn you, though, that you have other auditors just now.”

“Oh? Who? And are you in South Continent, Miles? It looks like it.”

“I am, not far from Xavgrad. I brought a large batch of Ma Kosti’s best bribes to try to persuade Madame D’Aubade to accept Ekaterin’s commission, but it turns out she and her companion feel they cannot leave their home for more than a few days at a time because of the behaviour of the petitioner.”

That face was still for a moment. “The micromosaic lady? Do put her on.”

Yevgeniya found Armsman Pym drawing back her chair for her and somehow wafting her round the table to sit again by Lord Vorkosigan and look into a gaze that made her straighten her shaking shoulders as she found her voice.

“Sire.” She bowed as best as she could seated at a table still covered in the detritus of tea.

“Madame D’Aubade.” He nodded to her, warmly. “Your work is wonderful. I was inadequately aware of it until Lady Vorkosigan showed me the scans she’d assembled. Breathtaking.” He smiled, at Lord Vorkosigan as much as at her, she thought. “She has also made me aware of the rare value of people who see the beauty of Barrayar.” Imperial eyes rested aside for a moment and came back to her. “I see you are among the signatories of the counter-petition, Madame. Did you help to word it?”

She took a breath. “Helped, yes, sire, but words aren’t my thing. Master Vormesurier wrote most of it. He’s a lawyer in Xavgrad.”

“Mmm. If you’ve persuaded Miles over tea I take leave to doubt you have no way with words. But in any case you should certainly not be being inconvenienced by the petitioner. How does that come about?”

She looked helplessly at Lord Vorkosigan but he only smiled, numinously, and laid a small, well-manicured hand gently on her arm. “Simply tell him, Madame, what it means to rest your eyes from the horizon, as you told me.”

Somehow the small, scarred hand bestowed confidence, courage even, and she knew she had a chance she could never have expected. Taking a deep breath she began to speak, and the passion she genuinely felt for the low, red beauty of The Hills, the chuckle of streams that did more than meander across flat plains, flowed into her voice, as well as her scorn for the grav-carters who cared nothing for the life their amusement disturbed and destroyed, nor for the ordinary, quiet people trying to walk  or picnic in peace whom they harassed and scared. Her knowledge of the science was her base, the microclimate The Hills generated in their valleys and water-carved rock, but he’d spoken of Barrayar’s beauty and it was that she pitched to him as the resource that was being squandered. Eventually she wound down, uncertainty returning though Mila’s eyes were glowing at her across the table, and made herself look back at her emperor’s grave face.

“An eloquent case, Madame.” He sighed, lightly. “South Continent is not as easy to develop as my ancestors supposed.”

“Oh it gets better, Gregor.” Lord Vorkosigan’s grey eyes rested on her. “You have shown your passion. Now add your reasoning.” He gave an airy gesture. “Grav-lifters to the south and those fattened profit-margins.”

Rather more faintly though still, she hoped, clearly, she laid out the case for building a grav-cart course in the flatlands, managing to add Lord Vorkosigan’s earlier remarks about its commercial feasability. His Majesty’s expression went slightly blank.

“You suggest they build some more hills, Madame?” He shook his head. “How long have you been there, Miles? You were here this morning so it can’t be more than an hour or two.”

“Enough time to discover self-interested abuse of one of your microclimates and devise an answer, thanks to Madame D’Aubade’s superior vision and imagination.” The emperor laughed and the slight glint in Lord Vorkosigan’s eyes was replaced by a … different glint. “And anyway, Gregor, how long is it since General Galyev last pestered you about the need to try out some enormous new piece of equipment he’s screwed out of requisitions? You can’t tell me oversize grav-lifters aren’t among them.”

There was an increasingly thoughtful Imperial pause before the emperor nodded.

“A hit, a very palpable hit. Say on, Macduff.”

Lord Vorkosigan grinned. “No damnations involved, happily. Though a minor bit of justice and some forward planning, perhaps.” He sat forward. “Thing is, Gregor, the financial backer and I’d bet prime mover of the petition, this fellow Antonopoulos, tried to bribe a Safety Directorate inspector of a building he was throwing up in Vorbarr Australis, about ten years ago when he was first hitting real profitability. The inspector reported it, and his superior gave Antonopoulos a formal warning, verbal and written.” A shrug. “Fair enough too, I suspect. I only had a glance at the file but the man’s hauled himself up from not a lot, through a rough school, and it was a minor if expensive fault he was trying to cover-up, not anything safety critical. Though still. But here he is ten years later, making another would-be cheap decision.” A third variety of glint appeared. “Conniving in the abuse of one of your microclimates and inconveniencing Madame D’Aubade, who besides so happily suggesting a means of giving both parties what they most want remarked on his deeply held ambition to become Speaker of Xavgrad and points north. Which implies a dialogue with his Count. And he has an eye on grav-carting customers from Fort Vormeyer, which is discerning of him but implies a dialogue with ImpMil. Both of which might begin, I thought, with an Imperial offer he really couldn’t refuse, involving larger, longer-term financing at a fraction under the going rate through the Imperial Bank and a close working relationship with General Galyev.”

The thoughtful—intent—imperial pause continued for a while, until the Emperor slowly smiled, and Yevgeniya’s heart leaped.

“Thank you, my Lord Auditor. That is very neat, though quite whether my ends or yours are served only incidentally is a pretty puzzle.”

Lord Vorkosigan shrugged. “Who cares, Gregor, if they’re the same? Do you like those dreary black-and-white tiles any more than m’mother? And actually, that’s only three-quarters of it.”


“It solves the immediate problems, but it doesn’t protect The Hills against some later lazy entrepreneur who can’t tell a microclimate from a mark. Tell me, d’you know about what the Terrans and Escobarans call National Parks?”

“Um, I think so. In principle.”

“Barrayar doesn’t have ’em, for obvious reasons, but that’s what we need here—reservation of The Hills against any future idiocy. And what we do have instead is you, and ImpMil. So”—he counted a moment on his fingers—“let’s make it six birds with the one stone. It’ll need, um, three words and a map from you, adding The Hills to the Black Escarpment Training Area. Allow a single building, somewhere Madame D’Aubade approves, that lets people coming to walk or whatever know what they can and can’t do, and let the CO of the BETA’s permanent staff decide who gets to be posted there and for how long.” Glint number four appeared. “If they sent a detachment tonight to take position and start thinking about it all, Madame D’Aubade would be able to make a free decision about Ekaterin’s commission all the sooner. They can base at Fort Vormeyer pro tem.”

The Emperor’s smile became openly admiring. “And again, my Lord Auditor. Tonight might be a little soon, but by tomorrow, certainly. Providing …” His gaze moved to her and she felt her shoulders straightening again. “Did you follow that, Madame? Lord Vorkosigan proposes that I declare The Hills a part of those Vorbarra territories I assign to military use, which would mean any subsequent petitioner would be petitioning against the General Staff. To satisfy form, there would be a small military post, disguised as Visitor Reception, which would be staffed by men who usually work at the Black Escarpment Training Area – senior NCOs, for the most part, who are mountain specialists but find the weather and, ah, limited facilities … a trifle dull. With access to Xavgrad—and its new grav-cart track—The Hills would become a reward detail, and I could then give an Imperial as well as a Count’s Order determining what activities are and are not allowed there, grav-cart racing being first among the nots.” He waggled a hand. “I cannot say no successor of mine will decide otherwise, but for the duration of my own reign the matter would be closed.”

Yevgeniya tried to clear her head, reeling from the swiftness of it all. “That is more than I had ever hoped for, sire. Thank you, most sincerely. That would be … wonderful.”

“Good.” An Imperial glint was different again, she discovered. “Irrespective of your decision about Lady Vorkosigan’s request, I suspect Laisa or I will be in touch on our own accounts soon enough. And I do assure you that there will shortly be a military presence at The Hills, so your circle of defenders may stand down, with Our thanks.”

How he had sounded the capitalised ‘Our’ Yevgeniya was at a loss to understand, but the warmth of His approval blossomed in her breast and she nodded.

“Thank you, sire. That is extremely satisfactory.”

“The pleasure is mine, Madame. And General Galyev’s, oddly. Miles, I think you deserve to be present when I explain that I’d like him to build me some hills. For grav-carting. I’ll let you know.”

Lord Vorkosigan gave an odd, sketchy salute, and the image blanked. The salute converted into a sideways tap, and the hologram blazed back to life, riotous with its colourful flora.

“Well, Madame? A year is a long time, I grant, but it’s less than three. The fee will be princely. If it matters to you, fame will be assured. As of tomorrow, anyone grav-carting about your Hills will find themselves in water hot enough to deter permanently. And there is Ma Kosti’s cooking to consider. You and Madame Mila will be most welcome and honoured throughout your travail.”

She looked at him helplessly, emotions churning, and said the first thing that came into her head. “I have a cat.”

He regarded her gravely, though there was laughter in his eyes. “I have about thirty, at the last census. Yours will be very welcome too, though I can’t guarantee he or she won’t be taught bad habits.”

Neither she nor Mila could stop their smiles, and he rose.

“Just so. If you’d care to prepare some valises for a few days’ travel and secure the cat, I’ll warn the pilot.”

Following him back towards the house the word that came to Yevgeniya’s mind was hijacked. But with a truly imperial as well as a princely bribe. Safe Hills, new hills, and more of Ma Kosti’s cooking awaiting them, as well as what she imagined would be a slightly flustered, very happy, and extremely interesting Lady Vorkosigan. Being hijacked in this style might not be so bad. And it was a really interesting idea for a micromosaic, when all was said and done. Her fingers itched, and the shades of oxide and cowbane swirled in her mind.

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Hi, Rymenhild, and very good to hear. I hope the pilgrimage thesis is behaving itself, or has done so.

And you're right about the advantage of Miles, of course, but I was quite careful to make his interference perfectly proper. Much of Miles's dark art is sorting things so everyone not villainous gets enough of what they want, I think. It's just that he does it by, um, unilateral negotiation.



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