Princess Sonia Vorbarra Vorpatril was afraid.
She hid her fear with a smile while she dismissed the servants, carrying the tea tray up the stairs herself. She had been careful to do this every once in a while, so that no one would suspect anything unusual today. She found her family already gathered around the table in her sitting-room, waiting for her.
Ivan picked up his cup and smiled at her. Watching him, Sonia could almost fool herself into believing that everything was all right, that this was nothing but a quiet family tea-party. At any moment her parents would walk through the door with Olivia and Piotr close behind them, and her mother would hug her children and grandchildren and serve them one of her Betan cakes, and Olivia’s children would run shrieking round the house and stuff themselves with food and try to teach Padma to walk, and they would all be happy again, as they used to be.
Ivan’s eyes were on her as she sat down, watching her as if he could read her doubts. Sonia feared that he could. She was not sure when she had started fearing Ivan. Perhaps soon after Padma's birth, when she had realized that her husband was not what he seemed to be.
Her mother had been against the match. Her mother had all but begged her to go back to Beta, at least to finish college, to not do what Olivia had done. But Ivan had wanted a quick marriage and Sonia had loved him. And now Olivia was happy and Sonia was afraid and the world was going mad around all of them.
Ivan would be ideal, she had assured her mother. He wasn’t a politician. He wasn’t marrying her for her title. He was a minor Vor landowner from a good family who would keep her away from the intrigues of the capital, who would give her a household to run and children to raise. Yuri had given Ivan a title as wedding-gift, and surely the words Lord Vorpatril would satisfy any desire for status that her husband might conceal.
She had been wrong. Everything had changed when Padma was born, when Ivan started seeing himself as the father of a potential heir to the Imperium.
On the sofa by the fireplace sat her brother Dmitri, one arm around the shoulders of his pregnant wife. The golden light of the flames softened his features and seemed to take years away from his face. Watching him in that light, Sonia could almost see him as he used to be, not the quiet ruthless Dmitri who wanted to be the Emperor, but Dmitri her big brother whom she loved, Dmitri who had protected her and played with her, who had always been the favorite of their aunts and Uncle Yuri.
Where did you go, brother? Sonia wondered, as Dmitri took his tea and thanked her affectionately. What happened to you?
In all their years Dmitri had never spoken of his private grief; now he spoke openly. Their father had been born first, he had whispered to Sonia. Their father had been made legitimate – why then was Yuri seated on the throne? Was not their father better qualified? Would he not have done a better job?
His words had terrified Sonia. "You have a high position at court," she had protested, begging him never to say such things again. "You have wealth and influence. You have command of an army. Isn’t it enough?"
Dmitri had smiled gently and kissed her forehead. “You don’t understand, little sister.”
But Ivan had understood. Ivan had whispered in Dmitri’s ear, Ivan had held Dmitri’s hand and guided him across that small step from I should be Emperor to I can be Emperor.
In the shadows behind Dmitri stood Prince Xav’s sister, Princess Annalise Vorbarra. She was the most beautiful of Dorca’s five children, but today the expression in her eyes was ugly. Sonia shivered. The past months had convinced her that Aunt Annalise was mad, mad with envy and hatred and the twisted Vorbarra genome. That she had been mad ever since her sister Constantia had betrayed her lover and Yuri had executed him for passing information to the Cetas.
Ivan was talking now, describing the news from the capital. Sonia made herself sit straighter in her chair and pay attention. Yuri, it seemed, had thrown the castellan of the Residence and half his staff in prison, and ordered his armsmen to search the Residence from top to bottom for snakes. He was convinced that someone would try to kill him by slipping a serpent in his bed, and no one could persuade him otherwise.
Yuri was not wrong to be afraid, thought Sonia. But his fear was misplaced; Annalise was the one in charge of the Imperial kitchens. Annalise was the one who slipped Cetagandan drugs into the Emperor's food.
Rumors were spreading in the army camps, Ivan continued, and many of the Vor commanders grew increasingly nervous. “They whisper that the Emperor has gone mad,” he said, and Aunt Annalise’s eyes gleamed.
The problem with the Emperor, Sonia thought, was that he hadn’t grasped the fact that the war was over. Her parents and siblings and even Piotr Vorkosigan had adjusted to the new reality; Yuri was still a guerilla fighter in his mind. He had spent his life in caves and bunkers; he could not understand court politics. He grew up knowing that to be seen in public was to risk Cetagandan assassins. Now his seclusion only lent credence to the rumors spread by his opponents. He had learned to give no quarter to the enemy; no one had told him that an Emperor in peacetime must show mercy.
It was so easy to spread slander when it contained an element of truth. Especially for Aunt Annalise who lived in the Residence and knew all the stories, who could weave truth and lies and speculation together with such deftness that even Sonia, when her friends whispered of the Emperor’s strange behavior, couldn’t tell where the truth ended and the lies began.
Given all this, Sonia thought it a great wonder that Uncle Yuri wasn’t mad. Harsh, yes; strange, yes; indeed, her uncle had walked upon the edge of madness for a long time. But he hadn’t fallen yet.
We are the madmen, she thought, lifting Padma from where he lay asleep. There is madness in our blood, and it has taken all of us. It will take our children.
She sat in silence and rocked the baby as Ivan spoke of allies and armies, her thoughts turning over and over to Beta Colony. She had rehearsed the whole thing in her mind. She knew how she would take Padma and flee to the Betan Embassy, how she would step into an emergency shuttle, how she would keep her child alive and safe from this madness.
But every time she steeled herself to do it, she couldn’t. Sonia had been educated on Beta, had always thought of herself as Betan and rational. But in the end, when she held her child in her arms and stood at the end of the road to the Betan Embassy, she had discovered herself to be Vor.
Her first loyalty was to her husband. She had sworn oath to Ivan and she was bound.
Dmitri's wife said something about Olivia, about Piotr Vorkosigan and his soldiers and how useful they could be. Sonia looked up and met her brother’s eyes across the room. “No,” she said firmly. “Not Olivia.”
She had tried and failed to change their minds. But she could do this. She had held firm to this in every single meeting: Olivia must not be involved. They could not trust Piotr Vorkosigan. Piotr Vorkosigan would not betray his Emperor. Piotr Vorkosigan would destroy them all. Once Yuri was dead Piotr must support Dmitri, and Ezar would follow where Piotr led.
It was too late for Sonia, but she would do whatever she could to keep her sister safe. At least one of Xav Vorbarra’s children would have a chance of survival.
No one had ever suggested bringing Sonia's parents into the conspiracy. None of them doubted what would happen then. Prince Xav would go straight to his brother and tell all, and damn the consequences to his own children.
Dmitri leaned across the table and covered Sonia's hands with his own. “Dear sister,” he whispered. “Don’t be afraid. Yuri will never find out. Even if he does, it’s too late. By the time he could gather the evidence to put any of us on trial, it will all be over.”
Sonia did not answer. She pictured her uncle, thought of his precarious mental balance, thought what it would take to push him over the edge.
She looked down at the baby in her arms and thought, He will kill us all.