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Disclaimer: Cordelia. Alys and their universe belong to Lois McMaster Bujold, not to me. I'm just borrowing them for my and (I hope) my readers' amusement only and have no intention of trying to make money off of them in any way, shape or form.

Warnings: None to speak of.
Fandom: Vorkosigan Universe
Rating: G

Author: The RCK
Last updated: 4 July 2006

I wrote this for the Thelma and Louise ficathon (female buddy fics) in response to Kerlin's request for a story involving Cordelia and horses. I didn't manage the horses, and I apologize for that.

Thanks to my husband, Olna Jenn, Thette and Truth for beta reading and other help.


Lady Alys Vorpatril smoothed her skirt over her knees, then frowned at it and twitched the fabric so that the seam lay straight. Then, deciding that fidgeting wasn't going to do anything but make her look undignified, she looked out the window of the groundcar. No need to be nervous. Cordelia doesn't expect-- I don't know what she expects, really. Not the way I would if she were Barrayaran. Not that being Betan is bad, just... different. She sighed and glanced at the driver. He'd introduced himself, but she couldn't remember his name. She'd been too busy trying to make sure that Ivan's nurse remembered all of her instructions. I could have brought him. Cordelia said I should, but-- No. Ivan's better off at home. Next time. She said she wanted to talk, and I don't think she meant about babies.

The groundcar passed through the gates to the Imperial Residence. "A minute or two longer, my lady," the Vorbarra armsman told her.

"Thank you." Alys wished she remembered the man's name. She ought to. That will change. She stared out the window. This isn't the most direct way. Oh-- Of course. She looked down at her hands rather than study the burnt remnants of the wing where Princess Kareen had died. So many lost parents. At least Gregor has Aral and Cordelia. Ivan has me. It will have to be enough.

She waited patiently as one of the guards assigned to this particular entrance came and opened her door. She placed a black gloved hand on his, accepting his assistance in exiting the groundcar. "Thank you, lieutenant."

The lieutenant stepped back and bowed. "This way, my lady."

She more or less ignored both the security scanners and the discreetly appraising and approving looks from the watching guards. As a widow, a respectable widow, she had no obligation to respond to such attention with a show of embarrassment. It's an easier thing to be a Vor wife rather than an unmarried Vor daughter and an easier thing still to be a Vor widow rather than a Vor wife. The expectations are... less rigid. I-- Marrying Padma was supposed to be a safe choice, and I never wanted to be a widow. She blinked once, the only external response to her memories of Padma's death. He wouldn't thank me for crying. Or maybe he would. He's beyond telling me, either way.

She entered the building and followed a servant towards the room Cordelia had selected for their meeting. I hadn't thought of it that way before, but I don't have to do anything. Well, except take care of Ivan. For now at least, it doesn't take much to please him. And I'm his mother. He's going to have to worry about pleasing me.

She was so caught in this line of thought that she almost didn't see Cordelia leaning out through a partly open door. "You shouldn't do that, Cordelia," Alys said, falling back on habit and offering social advice. Habit from before wearing black, before Ivan, before... "It's undignified. How do you expect anybody to respect you if you don't respect yourself?"

"Oh, I respect myself well enough." Cordelia stepped back to allow Alys into the room. "Don't mind the mess. I haven't figured out where to put everything yet."

Alys frowned at the boxes cluttering the edges of the room. "Well, at least you've room for us to sit." She pulled in her skirt so that it wouldn't brush the boxes and walked to the center of the room, where a long couch and several chairs guarded a space empty apart from low table that held a tea tray. She stopped in front of one of the chairs to wait for Cordelia to join her.

Cordelia pushed the door shut. "No Ivan?"

"I thought…" Did she really just want to see him? Alys couldn't help smiling. "He's doing well. He's gained another half pound." She hesitated, not sure if she should ask after Miles. There was nothing in the etiquette she'd been taught to offer any guidance. A damaged child, one not yet exactly born but also not in the womb. She knew what to say for a miscarriage, for a stillbirth, for the death of a sickly child. But he's not a mutant, and the old rules... They give way before her. She bit her lip.

Cordelia gave her a penetrating look. "Oh, do sit down. You make me nervous, hovering like that."

Alys raised her eyebrows. "You do outrank me."

"I suppose." Cordelia sounded sad. She seated herself on the couch. "I think I still need a native guide."

Alys sat down as well. "You do pretty well." I don't know any Barrayaran woman who could do what you've done. You see what needs doing and get it done. Unlike me. I knew Padma shouldn't go out, but I let him. She folded her hands in her lap. "And Aral is the Regent. As his wife, you can--" She waved a hand to indicate possibilities. What do you want?

Cordelia pursed her lips. "Perhaps." She poured two cups of tea then turned the tray so that one of them lay easily within Alys' reach.

Alys raised the cup to her lips. What do I say now? She cleared her throat. "Is Aral well?"

"Well enough." Cordelia smiled. "Very, very busy." She set her own cup down. "He's put me in charge of Gregor's education." She looked directly at Alys.

She wants to see how I react. "That's quite a responsibility."

"It's not one I'd expected." Cordelia continued studying Alys' face. "I can't afford my ignorance of Barrayar, not if it might cause trouble for either of them."

"I can't advise you on politics." If I'd thought about politics, would I have married Padma? But it's the politics that made him a good catch. Alys sighed. "Well, I can't advise you on Aral's battles." She bit her lip then took the plunge. "The women of the high Vor aren't going to forgive you for Miles."

"Miles is non-negotiable." Cordelia's voice was hard and sharp and cold.

Alys shrugged. "They won't live forever, and they won't fight you on it, not after Vordarian." They're scared of you. You killed him. What might you do to their men if they cross you? She met Cordelia's eyes. "Change is... measured in lifetimes."

Cordelia nodded, and Alys rather thought that she understood what remained unsaid. "Teaching an emperor is... not something I ever expected. Of course, I also never expected to choose a world like Barrayar. I don't want to let Barrayar eat our children. Will you help me?"

How? Alys stared at Cordelia for a long moment, trying to figure out what she'd be agreeing to. Finally, she shrugged. I trust her. "I'm not sure how much help I can be, but I'll try."

"For now... You're respectable. Will you teach Gregor etiquette? The rules here still seem bizarre to me, and I'd rather not teach what I don't know."

Alys blinked. "I..." She hesitated. Mama and Da want me to marry again. If I do-- I don't want to remarry. But I might change my mind. "What you're asking needs the Dowager Lady Vorpatril, Cordelia." Do you understand the price you're asking me to pay? "This... This isn't something Alys Vor-whatever can do."

"I know." Cordelia looked away. Then she said very softly, "If you remarry, Alys, will they let you keep Ivan?"

A sudden rending terror gripped Alys, holding her immobile for a long moment. She allowed no sign of it to show on her face or in her body language. "Probably not. Not with his... proximity to the throne. I suppose it would depend on who I married." I knew that. I just... I didn't-- don't-- want to think about it. She lifted her cup again. "So, I must remain Lady Vorpatril."

"It's an advantage right now." Cordelia put a hand on Alys' arm. "I'm glad, though, that Lady Vorpatril is you, Alys. I know that we can work together. The rest of the Vor--" She waved a hand. "I don't know which of them I can trust, which of them I can talk to without offending. Or being offended."

Alys managed a soft laugh. "You do have some... communication issues."

"I want to see Barrayar change. I know it won't happen quickly." Cordelia poured more tea for herself and raised her eyebrows to ask if Alys wanted more.

Alys shook her head.

"If it helps... Aral and I won't be having any more children either." Cordelia set down the teapot and looked at her own hands. "If we have more sons... Aral says that we'll risk having the Council of Counts reject Miles as heir. He suggested daughters, but I..." She frowned. "I think Barrayar is harder on its daughters than on its sons."

Alys looked at the walls but didn't see them. Instead, she recalled Cordelia laughing as they searched for a bathroom together, before the solitoxin, before Vordarian. There'd been joy in her. She wanted a large family. Something about Betan laws... "I wanted more children, too." She looked at Cordelia and let her grief and uncertainty show. "This isn't the future I expected." I miss Padma.

Cordelia's lips curved just a little. "No, but it's what we have." She held up one hand then opened it as if letting something go. "Let Aral fight his war for reform through the Council of Counts and through laws." She gave the word 'war' just the slightest twist. "I think we can accomplish a great deal in other ways. If you're willing..."

Am I? Alys folded her hands in her lap. She thought about her baby at home, about Gregor. My husband's cousin not mine. Even this, I can only really do because of Padma. No. He gave me his name, but the name doesn't make me capable. It just opens the door. "To do nothing... Padma was not a great hero or a particularly... wise... man, but he wanted the best for me, for Ivan. Failing to use what he gave me..." She blinked tears away. "It would be wrong to do nothing."

"It won't be easy." Cordelia tilted her teacup, keeping her eyes on the liquid inside. "I don't want to lie to you. You're right about change coming in generations. I don't think either of us will see the end of the road."

"Is there an end?" Alys asked the question more to show Cordelia that she understood than to get an answer.

Cordelia smiled. "I don't think there is, not as long as you're going in the right direction."

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