Miles had hundreds and thousands of files to go through after his father died. His father even had reams of paper flimsies, the very existence of which was probably illegal, Miles reflected. And the instruction, destroy after reading, was implicit in the fact that these were kept on paper, rather than in more durable electronic format. Given the content of many of the manila coloured folders which dated back to the Regency, Miles was almost certain the Simon Illyan had not known that his father had kept these detailed records.
Miles didn’t know what he was looking for, wasn’t even sure why he was going through them all. Perhaps it was just to get Duv off his back about the historical significance of the cache. His mother had acquiesced to Miles’ desire to bring what had gone to Sergyar back to Vorbarr Sultana, but had done so reluctantly. And her expression had gone completely flat when Miles had asked for access to his father’s private study in the upstairs suite. What she was afraid of, Miles did not know, but whatever it was, she was concerned enough to ask him to let it alone.
But then Miles had pointed out that if he didn’t vet the papers and files first, they would undoubtedly fall to Allegre to sort out, given the security implications.
“Then go through them, Miles,” his mother had said. “Go through them carefully. I don’t know what you’ll find in there, but whatever you find, promise you me you’ll do the right thing.”
“What will be the right thing?” Miles had asked.
“You’ll know,” Cordelia had ended cryptically.
What his mother had thought he’d find, Miles dared not guess, and he actively hoped he wouldn’t find it.
The first week had been mostly Sergyar. Ekaterin was patient with him as he spent most of his day locked away in his father’s private study. There had been some secrets there, but nothing outside the realm of ordinary diplomacy and intelligence work. By the second week, Miles was well into his father’s reign as Prime Minister, and there were actual juicy bits there. Miles read with interest a handwritten summary, in his father’s own hand, of being approached by members of the general staff about rising in rebellion if Gregor had ordered Miles’ execution during the Tau Verde affair. Miles wondered why his father had written the account at all, unless he intended to turn the general staff in…to save his own head? Prove his loyalty even as he starved to death in the Great Square? For if Vordrozda had had his way that was undoubtedly where it would have ended.
And then Miles got into the files on the Regency. There was real historical interest here. Duv would give his right arm to get at a lot of that stuff, but much of it was too sensitive to see the light of day for years, or even centuries yet. Records on the rapprochement with Escobar, Komarran integration, secret negotiations with the Cetagandans, an early plan for a Hegen Hub alliance, years ahead of its time, but with the goal of creating an offensive alliance against the Cetagandans instead of one for containing them.
And there were secrets. Domestic reports. Plots that involved people still living. Negotiations with army officers during the Pretendership, even some documents with Captain Negri’s signature on them, reports about the Vordarian Pretendership, produced apparently for his mother, reports about the Vorhalas brothers, Carl’s execution, and Evon’s attempt to kill his father, which resulted in Miles’ deformities, as well as other assassination attempts.
But the real secret was when Miles dug even further back, to before his father had officially become Regent. The strongbox he’d uncovered in his father’s private study had been dusty, and sealed with the Regent’s code, but Miles’ Auditorial Seal had opened it easily enough.
The files detailed meetings with Ezar and Captain Negri, and occasionally Illyan or Commodore, then Lieutenant Koudelka. They were Ezar’s instructions on the Regency, a sort of last will and testament.
The folder had been ordinary enough, stamped simply “General Order 12387”, and it showed a distribution to Captain Negri, his father, Emperor Ezar’s personal file. Curiously, the file bore a notation that the document was for distribution only at the Regent’s discretion or at Captain Negri’s (or his successor). More ominously, there was a notation that the file was NOT to be distributed to Emperor Gregor, or any future Emperor.
A datacard fell out of the file as Miles opened it, and he picked it up from the floor. He thought it was as good a place to start as any, and he placed it in the comconsole. The file was coded, but again, his Auditor’s Seal made short work of it.
The card contained a single file, and it was a video recording. When Miles started it, it appeared to be a bedroom. There was quite a bit of medical equipment near the bed, and with a start, Miles realized the man in the bed was Emperor Ezar. Miles turned up the audio.
He looks more frail every day, Aral Vorkosigan thought. There was nearly no time left, no time left at all. The doctors had protested all the way out the door, but Ezar had ruthlessly ordered them out, suggesting that hanging about now would result in punishments so severe they dared not bear contemplating.
Negri was the only other man in the room. He was holding a set of file folders, and Aral did not like the look of this conference at all. It was all too familiar…like the green silk room all over again.
“Captain Negri is having this conference recorded, Lord Vorkosigan,” Ezar wheezed.
Aral was immediately wary. “By whom? And why?”
Negri’s eyes glittered. “I have had occasion to employ a deaf man on my staff. He is watching in the security room. When I raised my hand a moment ago, he began recording. When I raise my fist, he will close the recording. It will go directly on a data disk, which he will deliver personally into my hand, on pain of death. There will be only one copy of this recording.”
“As for the why, it is for you,” Ezar added. “You may have occasion to need it someday, though I pray not.” He nodded to Negri. “Show him.”
Negri handed Aral the folder. On the front was the legend General Order 12387. Aral opened the folder and began to read the top page. His blood ran cold.
“No,” he breathed. “Not again.”
Ezar shook his head. “I know the boy seems well enough now, but there are enough bad genes still in the Vorbarra line to be concerned.”
“I will not,” Aral said firmly.
“You must,” Ezar barked, and for a moment, the steel and the iron will that had held Barrayar together in the aftermath of Mad Yuri’s War was there again. “Barrayar will not endure another Yuri. We are fortunate that we have no Emperor Serg! If the worst comes to pass, you will follow my instructions!”
“It is treason,” Aral said.
Ezar gave him a look which Aral clearly read as annoyance. He had already committed the highest of treasons, at Ezar’s order. What difference did one more make?
“Madness in the service of the Imperium is treason. The Imperium must be stronger than any one man. And that includes the Emperor.”
“But what you are asking me…” Aral faltered.
“What I am ordering you.” Ezar wheezed, his voice failing him again. He coughed for a moment, and both Aral and Negri watched him, despair in their eyes. “What I am ordering you to do,” Ezar continued where he had halted. “In My Own Voice,” and at this Aral realized he was looking directly at the security camera, recording it for posterity, so that there would be no question, if he ever needed to produce it. “Lord Aral Vorkosigan, soon to be Regent of Barrayar, if Emperor Gregor, or any future emperor that you serve, is judged to be insane, then I order you to remove him. By any means necessary. A series of contingencies is laid out in General Order 12387, and you may plan any actions with the support of Captain Negri, or his successor.”
It was formal, as if in a play. But Aral knew, that if the worst came, he could show this to the counts, or anyone else whose support he needed, and he would have it.
“I will not give Barrayar another Yuri,” Ezar declared. “Or another Serg,” he added, more quietly. “This is a charge I give to you, Lord Regent.”
Aral said nothing, but bowed his head.
“Your word, Lord Vorkosigan,” Ezar demanded sharply.
“This will condemn me,” Aral said jerking his head up, suddenly angry. “Me and my family. Damnit, is this your revenge on my father? Putting his son on the throne as revenge for his putting you there?”
Ezar ignored him. “I will have your word that you will follow my instructions, Lord Vorkosigan.” When Aral didn’t respond right away, Ezar added ruthlessly. “And may I remind you, Lord Vorkosigan, that if Emperor Gregor does go mad, his first likely act will be to have you and your family killed…just as Yuri tried to.”
Aral ground his teeth. “You have my word as Vorkosigan,” he said finally. “I will carry out your instructions.”
Ezar seemed to sink back into the pillows, and shrink, as if he had been holding himself up for this interview. “There. That wasn’t so hard.” He nodded to Negri. “You many stop the recording now, Captain Negri.”
Negri’s fist went up and the video stopped, leaving Miles sitting in front of the comconsole in a cold sweat, might have beens racing through his mind. Would his father really have gone through with it? Would Mother have allowed it, especially after they had become Gregor’s guardians? No, she would have shipped him off to Beta instead, for therapy…there’s something Ezar probably hadn’t counted on. But if his father hadn’t…would Negri? Miles knew the stories of Negri, and the idea was faintly, horribly possible that Negri could have arranged a quiet “accident”, if he thought Gregor was insane. What would have been the threshold? Frying ants on the sidewalk with a magnifying glass? Psychotic episodes?
Miles flipped through the file, seeing some of his questions answered. There was even a patient diagnostic questionnaire that looked like it had been copied directly out of a Betan medical textbook. Check this many boxes, and the emperor dies.
Perhaps this was what his mother had been afraid of. There was no need for any of this to see the light of day now. It hadn’t happened, and wasn’t likely to, now that Gregor and Laisa’s children had all been born out of a uterine replicator, and had gone in with genes certified as 100% clean by the best med-techs that Barrayar could import from Beta. And the techs had been paid a princely sum for their total and complete silence. They had been slightly offended at the suggestion that they would talk, given the Betan devotion to medical ethics, but had accepted the payment cheerfully enough. Miles was one of the few people on the planet who had known what had gone into the creation of the princes and princesses of Barrayar.
Miles’s reflections on the might-have-beens stopped abruptly. He flipped the file over and looked again at the distribution list. Negri had also known of this. Had he somehow passed it on to Simon? Negri’s death complicated matters, but Miles, knowing Negri’s legend, was certain that Would Simon remember? Did Simon pass it on? Did Allegre already know its contents? Did Lucas Haroche?
Miles connected the comconsole to Simon’s apartment. Unsurprisingly, the automated response at the other end indicated he was unavailable, so Miles connected to the Residence.
“Hello, Miles,” Aunt Alys said from the screen. “What can I do for you?”
Since Gregor’s wedding, strictly speaking Aunt Alys’s position as official hostess was supplanted by Empress Laisa, but in reality, both Gregor and Lasia were perfectly happy to leave the most of the protocol and hostess duties in her more than capable hands, and since she was perfectly happy to continue to do them, it was a perfect match.
“Hello, Aunt Alys,” he said, smiling. “I was wondering if you knew where I could find Simon?”
Aunt Alys pursed her lips. “I think he was going to walk to the library today. He said something about needing to pick up some fresh reading material.”
Miles quirked an eyebrow. “He can’t get enough from his comconsole?”
“Some of us prefer the more traditional forms of media, Miles. And Simon has had quite enough of comconsoles for one life time, thank you very much,” Aunt Alys said with a sniff.
Miles grinned. “Well, you can tell him that if he really wants books, there are plenty here at Vokosigan house that are only making more dusting work for the staff.” He nodded. “Thank you, Aunt Alys. Will we still see you both for dinner on Friday?”
“Of course, Miles.”
“Very well, until then.” Miles sketched his analyst’s salute at her, and broke the connection. Then, he touched his wrist com.
Pym’s voice came instantly back. “M’lord?”
“Have the groundcar brought around, please,” Miles said crisply.
“Of course, m’lord,” Pym replied.
Miles made sure the file was locked back in his father’s strongbox, and then sealed it with his Auditor’s seal for good measure.
Pym had the car waiting when Miles reached the ground floor, and Pym held the door as he climbed in.
“Were are we off to, m’lord?” Pym asked.
“Calculate the direct walking route between Captain Illyan’s apartment and the main branch of the library, Pym. We’ll cruise along there. I’m hoping to catch him while he’s out for a walk.”
“Very good, m’lord.”
The car whirred away from Vorkosgian house smoothly, and Miles sat back in the comfortable upholstery, trying not to think about the might have beens he uncorked in his perusal of his father’s files. He was certainly glad now that he had not allowed the whole lot to be turned over to Allegre. Guy would have been duty bound to show this to Gregor, and that would have only caused him pain.
Pym interrupted his reverie. “Captain Illyan is sitting on a park bench in the plaza outside the library m’lord. I will try to drop you as close as I can.”
Miles shook himself and sat up. “Thank you, Pym. I’ll try not to be long. Go find somewhere to park safely and I’ll call you when I need to. No sense in getting any parking tickets.”
“Yes, m’lord,” Pym replied.
The ground car purred up to the curb, and Miles got out. Simon was apparently so engrossed in his book that he did not notice Miles approach.
“What are you reading so intently?” Miles asked, sitting down on the bench next to Simon.
Simon looked up with a start. “Oh, hello, Miles.” He seemed to hesitate for a moment, as if he was trying to hide the book, then chuckled. “I suppose there’s no shame in it. I don’t think I ever had a chance to do any pleasure reading before, but since retirement, I’ve found a taste for it.” Miles craned his neck and saw the volume. It was a pulpy fiction novel that was old when Miles was young, probably published in the first decade after the end of the Cetagandan occupation. Typical high romance, Vor heroes, and damsels in distress, Cetagandan villains, that sort of brain rot. “The sort of thing I had in mind when I started my military career,” Simon said.
Miles chuckled. “Isn’t it for all of us?”
Simon considered. “Well, you could be right at that. At least some of us got to realize that dream.”
Miles shrugged. “It wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. You know that. For one thing, I didn’t get the girl until I went into politics.”
“And I didn’t get the girl until I retired,” Simon said, his voice a tad wistful. “I wish it hadn’t taken quite so long.”
There didn’t seem to be anywhere to go with that, so Miles cleared his throat and prepared to change the subject. He took a breath. “Captain Illyan…”
Simon looked up sharply. “So formal, my Lord Auditor?”
Miles winced. “Actually, not quite so formal as all that,” he said. “But as…” even after three months, he could not bring himself to say it.
“Count Vorkosigan, what can I do for you?” Simon asked formally. Simon understood, he had been Miles’s father’s liegeman for so long.
Miles successfully suppressed the reflexive twitch that particular form of address still occasionally caused. “I’ve been going through some papers of my fathers,” Miles began, and he saw the immediate clouding of Simon’s eyes. “Duv has been after me for years about cataloguing them, and Guy Allegre hinted at ImpSec having a look at them the last time I spoke with him. When I mentioned it to my mother, she said that I needed to go through them first.”
“A wise woman,” Simon breathed.
Miles nodded. “I know.” He paused again. “I found some…documents, dating from the time before my father was confirmed as Regent. They detail some of my father’s meetings with Emperor Ezar.” Simon stiffened. “Do you remember anything from that time?”
“I was only assigned to your father just before Escobar,” Simon began cautiously. “And the details are all gone of course, but I remember how…discontent he was.”
“He rarely talked of Escobar,” Miles mused. “I always meant to have it out of him someday.” Miles sighed heavily. Regret was a constant companion these days. Simon studiously said nothing and appeared engrossed in the ridges in the concrete sidewalk. Miles shook himself. “But I’m not going that far back. I’m interested in the period immediately before his confirmation as Regent. Just before Ezar died.”
Simon seemed to relax slightly and leaned back on the bench. “As I recall, Ezar had a bit of doing to confirm your father. Although I don’t doubt he would have arranged it, one way or t’other.”
Miles shifted on the bench uncomfortably. One way or t’other, indeed. “I know I’m reaching, but I wanted to know if you remember anything about any of the meetings my father had with Ezar, before he died.”
Simon’s eyes grew distant, troubled, as he struggled to recall. “I remember I was present for several meetings. Ezar was a very sick man. It was…painful…to watch.”
“When you became head of ImpSec, you were responsible for cleaning up after Negri,” Miles began.
Simon chuckled. “An apt description, although don’t forget, ImpSec was occupied by the pretender’s forces. There was a lot of damage done in the fighting. I had that mess to clean up as well. Most of Negri’s private files were purged, either destroyed in the fighting, or I destroyed them in the clean-up. Negri had thousands of secrets. He had entire parallel structures within ImpSec, just in case. I know ImpSec brings institutional paranoia to new levels, but some of Negri’s preperations bordered on…” Simon shook his head, then looked at Miles. “What is it, exactly, that you’re after Miles? It’s very difficult for me to follow all this beating around the bush very well anymore.”
Miles nodded, swallowed, and began. “Did you, when you dismantled Negri’s files, at any point, run across a plan to kill Gregor if he went insane?”
Simon’s eyes grew troubled. “There was something…but I seem to recall…” he paused, struggling. “I showed it to your father, and he ordered me to destroy it. I always assumed it was something Negri and Ezar cooked up. Ezar was terrified that Barrayar would have to endure another Mad Yuri.”
“That’s what he said,” Miles said quietly. “He dragged my father into it. I found a file and recording in my father’s personal records. Ezar ordered the recording made so that my father could show it to the counts, if he ever had to kill Gregor and take the throne for himself.”
Simon nodded slowly. “That was Ezar and Negri both. Thorough, and paranoid. But he wanted to do what was best for Barrayar.”
“He got lucky at Escobar,” Miles reflected. “Serg would have been almost as bad as Yuri.”
“Worse.” Simon said flatly. “I may not remember details, but my emotional impressions are intact. It says something when I say I remember meeting the Prince, vividly.” He shivered.
Miles shivered at that as well. “You were with my father on the flagship at Escobar, I forgot. You got to meet the whole cast, then…Serg and Vorrutyer.” Simon murmured an affirmative. “And my mother.”
Simon smiled thinly. “Your mother is a very resourceful woman.”
Miles returned the grin, and then sobered and returned to his subject. “So whatever Negri had on this…plot, I guess you’d call it…was destroyed after the Pretendership.”
Simon nodded. “That much I do remember. I remember that I learned many things I did not want to know.” He gave an ironic chuckled. “The side benefit to losing my chip is that while I remember feeling like I didn’t want to know, I no longer remember the details of things I didn’t want to know.” He rose from the bench, glancing at his wrist chrono as he did so. “I’m sorry to run out on you Miles, but I have a lunch engagement at the Residence with Lady Alys, and I do not wish to be late.”
Miles rose at once as well. “Of course not. Forgive me for interrupting your reading with old ghosts.” He tapped his wrist com and summoned Pym. “If Negri’s copy was destroyed, then I will destroy my father’s. There’s no need for Gregor to find out about any of this.”
Simon nodded, and tucking his book under his arm, began to walk in the direction of the Residence.
The groundcar pulled up next to the curb, and Miles climbed in. “Home, Pym,” he ordered.
“Yes, m’lord,” Pym replied crisply.
Miles didn’t speak on the ride home, but when Pym pulled the groundcar up to the portico at Vorkosigan House, Miles said. “Don’t park the car, Pym, we’ll be going back out again. Please get a plasma arc from the armoury, Pym, and the offering brazier.”
“Very good, m’lord.”
By the time Miles had gathered the file and datacard from the strong box, Pym had gathered the items and was waiting by the groundcar. Miles climbed back in. “The memorial for Emperor Ezar, Pym.”
Pym nodded, and a moment later they were cruising through Vorbarr Sultana.
When they arrived, Pym helped Miles set up the brazier in the designated location. There weren’t that many offerings still being burned to Ezar, and a few passersby glanced curiously, but hurried on after seeing Miles.
Miles placed the file and the datacard in the bowl. Miles cut a few strands of hair with his pocket knife and added them to the offering. Pym handed him the plasma arc, and Miles set it on the lowest setting and set it all alight. While his offering burned Miles stood back and looked at the imposing memorial to Emperor Ezar. Ezar was a man who had done more for Barrayar than most people probably knew. And willing to do even more, Miles reflected. Although, Ezar had dodged a bullet with Serg. Would Ezar have been willing to kill his own son if Serg had survived at Escobar? Somehow, and Miles felt himself shiver as he thought about it, he thought it was possible.
The pyre burned down to ash, and Miles nodded to Pym, who helped put the brazier back into the groundcar. “Home, Pym.” Miles said. Pym nodded, and Miles settled in for the short drive back to Vorkosgian house.
As they crossed the force shield into the house grounds again, a missing piece clicked into place. What was it his father had said at the very beginning of the recording? No. Not again.
Miles sat up suddenly. Ezar had been willing to kill Gregor to spare Barrayar. He must have been willing to kill Serg. But Serg was killed in battle at Escobar. Had that been serendipity? Or some kind of orchestrated plan? His father had been on the flagship. Had Ezar ordered his father to find someway kill Serg, and had he been spared by the death of the Crown Prince in battle? Or had his father found someway to put him in the line of fire?
Distractedly, Miles climbed out of the car, as Pym held the door. Was this what his mother had really been afraid of? She had been there, at Escobar. She never talked about it, although he knew that she was supposed to have killed Ges Vorrutyer. But she had steadfastly maintained that she hadn’t. So who had? His father? He stood on the front stairs, thinking hard.
What really happened at Escobar?
Miles felt the hair on the back of his neck creep up, and by old instinct, he looked up. His mother was standing in a window, watching him, a sad look on her face.
What do you know, Mother? What did you see?
And did he really want to know?