"There's a fairy-tale on Beta, about a child whose daemon settled as a fish, and had to leave home forever, travel to worlds without desert."
"Why didn't they carry the daemon around in a bowl?" Helen wants to know.
"Because it's a fairy-tale," Cordelia says, and laughs, thinking of the early days of spaceflight, how astronauts were required to have daemons that could wrap close to their bodies. It's still a joke people make, when a child's daemon settles as a snake or a mouse. "It's a very sensible idea, Helen. I'm sure that's what you'll do, if your daemon settles as a fish."
Cordelia remembers telling the same story to Elena, many, many years before. Elena had said, wonderingly, "I thought my daemon had to be a dog?" – and Cordelia had wanted abruptly to hit something. There is a persistent belief among the Vor that servants' daemons are dogs: servile, fawning, trotting at their masters' heels. Simon Illyan's daemon is a dog, a graceful pointer with sharp, alert eyes; Sergeant Bothari's was a raggedy, tough little pit bull, tenacious and soulful.
"Helen, darling," she says seriously, echoing her own words to Elenafrom so long before, "your daemon is part of you, beautiful unique and astonishing you, and he will be anything and everything you want him to be."
There is something in the air around Ekaterin, always: an aura of caution, of subtly restrained worry. When she came to learn of Ekaterin's history, Cordelia understood it, and understood as it softened and mellowed over time. In rare moments, it still returns, and Cordelia has learned to read her daughter-in-law's daemon, watching the deer pick his way carefully across the garden with all of Ekaterin's grace.
"Countess Vorkosigan." Such is the nature of her caution, then; something is leading her to take refuge in formality. "I'd like to ask your advice."
"Come and sit down next to me," Cordelia tells her. It's summer, early in the morning, and they're taking breakfast in the garden at Vorkosigan House. "What is it, dear?"
"I don't want to bother you," Ekaterin begins, hesitantly, but Cordelia waves an impatient hand.
"Don't be ridiculous. I always wanted daughters who would bother me all day. What is it that's worrying you?"
Ekaterin breathes out, and by reflex, places a hand on the soft fur of her daemon's neck. "It's Helen. She's nearly fifteen, and her daemon hasn't… hasn't settled. Mine did at twelve, and Miles's…"
"At ten," Cordelia supplies. "I was eleven, I think. It varies." She whistles briefly at Chloranthus, who dips a wing.
"But this much?"
Cordelia thinks about it. "Speaking as one scientist to another, you know there's no reasonable and rational explanation for it. It's a thing that happens, and that's as far we can go."
"I'm no scientist." Ekaterin is smiling, looking embarrassed. "A horticulturist, perhaps. A gardener."
Cordelia places a hand on hers. "And who better to know about small, growing souls?"
Ekaterin chuckles, and some of the worry surrounding her lifts. "I can feed her," she says a little doubtfully, "and water her, and place her in the sunlight…?"
"There you are." Cordelia nods, and pours out the tea.
It's in the late evening, the golden hour when Ekaterinn is a dim figure working in the garden that she built, that Cordelia allows herself to think about it.
Cordelia's first sub-orbital hop was as a babe in arms; when she was thirty, she commanded a ship of the Betan Astronomical Survey into deep space. When she first came to Barrayar, the shift in gravity shifted her mind as well as her bone density, the dresses weighed her down, and around her the might of tradition, honour and the Imperium exerted implacable pressure.
On the day the pallbearers walked slowly across the frozen ground, she remembers she looked up to the flinty sky, at the flash of red that was the only colour against the whiteness of the sky. Chloranthus's name means "green", but he is a scarlet macaw, a fact that Cordelia has trotted out at dinner parties, dutifully, for years, giving the requisite little laugh, afterwards, and clasping her hands together, delicately, on her dress, and that's why, she supposes, that no one has ever noticed. She's lived on Barrayar for half her lifespan, and she has always held on to the part of herself that can fly.
"Mine didn't settle until I was sixteen," Alys says matter-of-factly.
"Really?" Cordelia asks, surprised. People often are surprised at Alys's daemon: the stocky, firmly-muscled Xavier has none of Alys's surface delicacy, her refinement. But Cordelia learned to know Alys truly during Vordarian's Pretendership. She looks with fondness at the wolf curled by the fire, and remembers Miles as a toddler shrieking "Doggie!" and her subsequent embarrassment; she'd expected Alys to be horribly offended, knowing the prejudices of the Vor. But Alys had merely looked at Miles seriously, and said, "That's right, Miles, we live to serve."
Miles had been impressed by her tone if not her meaning, and his own Elisaria always looked upon Alys's daemon with respect. She settled as a hummingbird, eventually, tiny, sparkling and never still. Cordelia smiles to herself.
Alys shakes her head firmly and brings Cordelia back to the present. "No. He wanted to try everything." She laughs, a rare moment of reminiscence bringing softness to her face. "Helen's daemon is likely just the same."
Cordelia laughs in return. "Chloranthus wasn't nearly as enterprising. Helen is clearly a trailblazer."
"Xavier spent a month as a lizard," Alys says. "My father was horrified." She reaches out and touches her daemon's soft head. "You remember."
Almost casually, she reaches out in turn to the pointer at her feet, caressing its ears. Even Cordelia's Betan upbringing hasn't inured her to the moment of shock at that easy touch of another person's daemon. Across the room, Simon Illyan breathes in sharply: a quick movement that you would only see if you were looking for it.
Cordelia grins. "Alys," she begins, and thinks better of it.
"Nothing." Who, after all, would question Alys Vorpatril on a point of etiquette?
"Maybe he'll be a Vorkosigan-liveried butter bug," Miles says thoughtfully one afternoon, and Helen swats him on the shoulder.
"He won't be!" she shouts, and above her, her daemon shifts from blackbird to bat to hummingbird to squirrel, landing on her shoulder and clinging on with tiny claws. "He'll be, he'll be…"
She's not sure, her mouth opening and closing with outrage, and Miles laughs gently. "I didn't mean it, darling. Whatever he'll be, he'll be beautiful."
She's still not sure. She's not sure, and she's not sure, on the ordinary day she wakes just before breakfast, trudging sleepily down the stairs with Felix trotting slowly behind her, and sits down to her eggs, and her da looks at her with something unreadable in his expression.
"Felix?" she says, feeling small and confused, and he trots over to her, pushes his furry head into her lap so she can stroke his tufted ears. Neither of them say a word, and her da stands watching.
They take her to see Gregor that afternoon. He listens to Miles's brief, to-the-facts explanation, and then waves them all away. "Helen," he says, softly, "will you and Felix come here?"
He's her uncle and she loves him, but it takes a little courage even so to go forward, cross the space in front of his chair and stand in front of him, at eye level as long as he stays sitting down. Felix, too, trots forward for inspection. Nimue walks around him, tail flicking deliberately from side to side. She's bigger and leaner than him, with silver threads in her rich, thick fur, and a calculating expression. Her image has appeared on stamps, heralds, galactic addresses. She is the most well-known daemon in three worlds. She's bigger than Felix, with different tones in her coat. Otherwise there's kinship in those sharp ears, the economical grace with which their muscles slip over their bones. Otherwise, they're identical.
"Imagine," Simon had said, in the days after she settled, "if Nimue had decided to be, I don't know, a beetle. Or a warthog. A lynx, we can sell."
Gregor regards Helen for a long moment, and then Nimue returns to him, softening as he strokes her head.
"Perhaps," Gregor says, in his quiet way, "you will bring the gifts from your House, this year."
In the back of the room, Sasha looks relieved; Miles is smiling; Ekaterin is thoughtful. Helen is aware that the way she's holding onto Felix is the same way her Emperor holds on to his daemon; she finds it a strange thought, as though Gregor, too, is sometimes frightened, and sometimes worried, and sometimes doesn't know what to do.
"Helen," Cordelia prompts.
Helen stands up straight, and says, "Yes, Sire. I will."
When they go out in the garden, afterwards, the grown-ups are still talking amongst themselves, quietly, as thought they don't want her to listen. She hears her da say her name, though, Lady Helen Vorkosigan, and she feels something inside her rise and take flight.