The birth of Kareen Vorbarra's second child was was well-attended, as befit that of an Imperial Heir. A handful of women formed a protective screen--her bodyguard, her mother, the midwife--which nonetheless failed to disguise the ring of exalted men all crowded 'round to ascertain that the child issued forth from her own womb with no clever switch-offs. Captain Negri; the Prime Minister; the Emperor himself; her husband, the Crown Prince Serg, who she had not seen since her pregnancy was confirmed, who was watching her with parted lips and glittering eyes. Had he never seen the fruition of this process that so vilely fascinated him? Had he never realized, Kareen wondered, dropping her head back to groan at a contraction, that the natural end of it was its own kind of torture?
There were forms to follow, a strange mixture of the old and new. The midwife pulled her child from her body, held him up for all to see his dangling prick, slapped his bottom to make him draw breath and cry out. Kareen drew in her own breath, held back her own cry. Her mother took him, tied off his cord and cut it, checked him over, declared him whole and hale, in the old phrase, and then the ImpMil surgeon took a pin-prick of blood from his heel to test for all the mutations they knew how to identify, in the new style. The boy cried all the harder for it, and Kareen said, "Give him to me," arms out beseeching.
"Be patient, girl," said Emperor Ezar, who was old enough to get away with it, despite the manifest proof of her womanhood.
Serg took the boy into his arms and uttered a handful of official phrases, recognizing him as his son and heir. The boy's wails rose, as Kareen's thought her own might, if she had found herself in Serg's arms.
"Give him to me," she pleaded.
Ezar lifted the baby from Serg's hands--Kareen wasn't sure Serg would have let go for anyone else, and even that was a near thing. His mouth looked hard with held back anger. His hands were sticky with blood and vernix, but he made no move to wipe them off, and Kareen closed her eyes against the thought that he'd plunged his hands readily in worse.
Her mother accepted the baby from the emperor's arms, and at last returned him to Kareen's. Kareen guided the baby to her breast, and he finally ceased crying as he began to suck. Kareen thought might weep in relief. The midwife stepped between her legs, shielding her and tending to her both, and said, "Milady."
No one asked her what she meant to name her son. There was no question.
Kareen had been taught the forms for both Imperial son and daughter name day ceremonies during her pregnancies; now that she had given birth to a son, Negri had finalized the script for the full circus and all attendant security for an Imperial son, and briefed her accordingly.
There were some changes he permitted her to make. At the suggestion that Kareen bear her son in her arms for five hours, standing, Drou put forth the idea of a sling. "Perhaps in Vorbarra colors," said Ezar, "embroidered," which was as good as request and require, for Negri noted it down without further complaint.
There was a point in the ceremony when Kareen would have to hand her baby off to Serg for him to pubically acknowledge, as he had at the birth. She said, "I want someone by him, to see that he doesn't--doesn't harm him."
"It's already done," Negri assured her. "His security has their instructions."
Kareen nodded. "Then there's only one more thing," she said. She held out the twentieth page in the stack of flimsies to him, the heart of the naming ceremony itself. "The name is wrong."
Negri took it, frowning. "Ezar Philippe? Philippe is your father's name, isn't it?"
"My son's name," Kareen said, "will be Gregor Alexei."
"His name is Ezar Philippe," said Ezar.
"Your namesake lies buried in the East garden," said Kareen.
Ezar's lips thinned. "Do not mistake this for a suggestion, girl," he said. "The boy's name is Ezar Philippe."
Kareen said, "Sire," and bowed her head. If the emperor took that as capitulation, then he was a fool.
It fell to the mother, in the name day ceremony, to first pronounce her child's name. Others would have to follow, and confirm; the child's father would have to speak the chosen name to acknowledge the child and declare him heir. But that first naming was the mother's, was Kareen's power to wield if she chose it.
And she did.
In full view of Counts, the Ministers, the vid pick-ups, in short, too many witnesses for Ezar to make her eat her words, Kareen stepped forth and named her son Gregor Alexei Vorbarra, the son of Crown Prince Serg.
Negri looked dead white. He took a step forward as if he could stop her, and recalled himself. Ezar was flushed with fury. Serg, who should have been the most disturbed that Kareen had spilled his secret before all, wore a manic grin, all teeth and bright eyes. He took Gregor from her and repeated the name, slotted it into the script, presented little Gregor Alexei Vorbarra to his father, so that Ezar had no choice but to accept him, second son's name and all.
Despite Negri's horror, he had prepared a half dozen stories to spread.
The rumor was, Kareen had had a miscarriage last year.
She'd borne a mutant. Her genes were suspect. Serg's genes were suspect. The first child had been stillborn. The first child had lived for three days before maidservants could wrest the blighted thing from her and kill it.
Gregor was her first child, but his father was some other man, because her husband was unable to perform with any woman. Kareen had given the bastard his proper name, and Serg had taken him for a son anyway, rather than attempt to father his own. After all, hadn't everyone heard she hadn't shared a bed with him in the past year?
Gregor was her second child after all, but her first had been the bastard, Kareen had taken some lover and Serg had killed the bastard and the lover both.
There was, Kareen supposed, a grain of truth in all of them. The best lies, Negri told her, were intentionally constructed so.
Drou held Gregor in her arms while Kareen burned an offering. There was no headstone on the grave, just two scratched letters on a pavement stone by sculpted rose bush, ЕФ. Kareen had put a lock of her own hair into the fire, and a curl of Gregor's fine, dark fluff. A half dozen silver hairs drifted into the flame, breaking her concentration. She looked up, and was shocked to see Ezar standing over the brazier.
"What will you tell him, my grandson, when he's old enough to ask you why he has a second son's name?" Ezar asked her.
"Why not the truth?" said Kareen. "That his father ripped his brother from my womb untimely, for no reason other than his own perversion? That he is the second son?"
"What makes you think," said Ezar, "that he is the second? Serg's second? Or even his third, or fourth, or fifth?"
Kareen stared at him bleakly. No, she should have known. Serg had been too well-practiced, when he took her first son from her. He had cut her too perfectly for it to be his first son.
"I think," said Ezar, "that once upon a time, the first time, he had some notion that he was protecting our line from bastard blood, forcing an abortion on his mistress. I thought he still believed that, or I would have guarded you from him sooner. I am sorry for this." He gave a little gesture at the brazier, at the rose bush, at the pavement stone.
"Oh, God," Drou breathed, barely voiced, but Ezar caught her words anyway, turned to look at her. Caught, Drou asked, "What happened to her? The mistress."
"She bled to death," Ezar said. "Perhaps that was a kindness."
"How many?" said Kareen, at last. "What should I have named my son?"
"He's your second son," said Ezar. "He bears your father's second name. Be satisfied."
"And all the women whose sons he killed?" Kareen asked. "Who speaks for them?"
"No one," said Ezar. "It should never have been spoken of at all."
"How can there be justice," Kareen demanded, rising from her knees, "if no one speaks of it? How can he be stopped, if no one knows?"
"Girl," Ezar said in a tone of weary patience, "even if the people knew he'd killed a hundred sons, they would not believe it's as you said--'for no reason other than his own perversion.' Our people kill their sons all the time, and believe they have every reason. They might think him a mutant, if he sired so many, but they would never think he was wrong. No. Justice will not come from that quarter. Mine is the only hand high enough to strike a blow for justice--even yours has not the reach, for all you tried. But I will deliver you your justice. Trust me."
"Trust you?" Kareen asked bitterly. "Trust you? This whole house is--insane!"
"The taint is in our blood," Ezar agreed. "But not in yours. Raise a worthy son, Kareen. Serg cannot, but perhaps you can."