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In This Valley of Dying Stars

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It is difficult to avoid the Count, but not impossible.

The corridors of ImpMil are busy - more so than usual with the Regent and his lady wife both under treatment for soltoxin poisoning. But busy is good; Simon turns himself into a ghost and slips through, meeting no one’s eyes. He makes his reports to Lord Vorkosigan, brief and factual affairs, and then makes his escape. Guilt dogs him, even as professionalism forces him to put it aside in the name of being able to function. Guilt and grief, and he drowns himself in work as an escape. The criminal is caught, but there can always be conspirators, and ImpSec is capable of generating neverending streams of work.

He carries on until Captain Negri grabs hold of him, yells at him for an hour, and then forces him to go on leave.

He sleeps for a day, and when he can sleep no more he drifts, aimless. His wandering feet bring him to Ezar’s memorial, and he thinks to light an offering. It will not soothe the guilt, but it is industry of a sort - a personal duty that he has been neglecting... no, one that he has been running from for too long.

But when he arrives he finds that he is not the only one there, and the sight of the brown and silver livery makes him instinctively duck away, fading into the background.

There is no brazier in Count Vorkosigan’s hands, and in fact there is nothing at all. He stands, posture rigid, hands curled into fists, and if Simon could hazard a guess, he would almost think that the Count was angry.

Then, without fanfare, the Count mutters an oath, and turns on his heel to leave. The liveried armsmen fall in behind. The Count strides past him without noticing, and they pass like ships in the night.

 

When the Count comes to ImpMil, his ImpSec man calls him personally. Coward, Simon thinks, and swallows his own apprehension and goes down in person.

The Regent’s order to keep his own father away from the uterine replicator has never been withdrawn, and ImpSec officers are good at executing an order to the letter. The Count is predictably furious, and Simon wishes that there were someone else to carry out this unsavoury duty.

“Sir,” he says as he approaches. The Count spins, and he feels the full weight of that anger bearing down on him. He steels himself, and does not flinch.

“You,” the Count hisses. “Head of the Lord Regent’s security.” The words themselves are an insult, dripping with scorn. “Or shall I say, the one responsible for this entire... fiasco?”

He inclines his head. “How may we be of assistance, my lord?”

“You know bloody well!” the Count yells. “I demand to be allowed entrance!”

“The Lord Regent’s orders are clear,” he says, with a note of steel in his voice. “And absolute.” One of his men touches the stunner at his belt, and Simon gives him a covert signal to stand down. Lord Vorkosigan may have authorised the use of force, but Simon cannot bring himself to dishonour that house in such a manner.

The Count’s glare rakes him from head to toe. “It was your bungling incompetence that led to this in the first place. Do you have no concept of honour, boy? You should be falling over yourself to set things to right!”

The blow strikes close to home, and it is a struggle to keep his expression under control. His men fidget, and he tells himself that he cannot fall apart here, and cannot back down. Arguments threaten to choke his throat, arguments and furious denial, but how can he convince others that he is guiltless in this matter, when he cannot even convince himself?

“Allow us to arrange for your transport back to Vorkosigan Surleau, sir.” Which was where the Count was supposed to be, away from all of this. “The hour grows late.”

“Don’t play games with me, boy,” the Count snarls, and advances on him. “If you will not allow me to destroy that monstrosity, then I order you to get in there and do it!”

“Sir,” he says, and decides that reason will not prevail here. He signals to his men to start escorting the Count from the building. The Count yells, more words along the same vein. He lets them flow around him like a stream around a rock, and holds his ground. And grits his teeth.

The Count’s glare as he leaves burns with accusation and loathing.

 

The day that Miles Naismith Vorkosigan is released from the replicator is a long one. Simon looks upon the results of his failure until he can bear it no longer, and then makes his excuses and flees with as much dignity as he can muster.

There is no Negri to yell at him for overworking this time, no Negri to order him to go off duty. He takes a break anyway, recognising that his brain is too addled and his wits too scattered to be of an use right now. The reports come in - safe safe safe - all present and accounted for, all areas secure, no disasters, no crisis to distract, and he breathes a sigh that is part relief and part disappointment.

He acknowledges the reports - there is no need to go off duty because there is no such thing as off duty for the Chief of Imperial Security.

He cuts the comm and looks around, and that is when he realises that his traitorous feet have automatically brought him to a section of the Imperial Residence that he has not been to for too many years. He pauses, caught between the urge to flee and the desire to stay, and ends up freezing, unable to move.

He is in the Emperor’s wing, in what remains of Ezar’s old rooms before the Residence fire during Vordarian’s Pretendership. They have tried to preserve these, legacies and remnants of another age, and Gregor has not taken over them, if indeed he ever will. He glances around, and the nostaglia threatens to choke him - there a desk that Ezar used to write at, here a set of chairs that they had once sat in in the evenings …

They. It had once been a they, insofar as it could have been, given the asymmetry of their ranks. A long time ago, a different lifetime ago, before the Emperor had ordered him away from his side.

He takes a step, feeling like an intruder in a place that had been -- if not home, then at least familiar to him. Sire, he thinks, and there is still too much baggage behind that thought, too much that threatens to spill past mental defenses built to cage it in. Another step, his boots sinking into soft carpet - and he can still recall the feel of it against his bare feet - then a voice stops him.

“What are you doing here?”

Caught off guard, he turns, reaching for his stunner, and then his hand drops away from it as though burnt.

In the glow of the room’s lights - all dimmed, Ezar had always preferred it that way -- the brown of Count Vorkosigan’s uniform looks closer to black.

“You,” Count Vorkosigan says, and the disgust seeps through that word like blood into a bruise. “Glorying in our triumph, are we? And here I would have thought that you would be celebrating with my useless son and that mutant of his.”

“Miles is no mutant,” he says, the words slipping out against his better judgment.

“Does it even matter?” the Count snarls. “Look at it! Just look at it - how can such a thing ever be Count Vorkosigan?” In two strides he is across the room, and Simon finds himself face to face with the former General. “You should have just let me kill it back then!”

“No,” he says, because he is tired of arguments, tired of everything, tonight. The decision is not his to make - the Count knows that, knows that he knows that, and there is no point in bludgeoning it any further.

“No,” the Count sneers. “Listen to him. A mere boy, presuming to order me around. Playing at being the ImpSec Chief. What would Negri have said? What would Ezar have said?”

That stings more than it should, here in this place, at this time. He knows he is not at his best, knows that he should retreat, regroup, get the hell out before he says something stupid. He says something stupid anyway. “And may I ask - what brings you here, yourself?”

The Count pauses, and something seems to change in his expression. Anger melts away, giving way to ice, and for a moment Simon almost regrets asking. “Do not presume,” the Count says darkly, “To tell me where I may or may not go in the Residence. The authority that my son grants to you, Regent or no, does not extend that far.”

This isn’t about him, he realises, like a bolt from the blue. It isn’t even about Lord Vorkosigan, or Lord Miles. Something here nags at his analyst’s senses - a suspicion only, an intuition, and he has a momentary vision of seething currents, crashing black against a rocky shore. There is something older here, he thinks, and his mind flashes back to a memorial, obscured by the fall of grey rain.

“Ezar,” he breathes, in a moment of unguarded insight, and he has but the fraction of a moment to regret the outburst, before hands and fingers grab his collar and slam him into the wall. They twist - the strength in them is apparent. The Count is a Vorkosigan, after all, enduring as the Dendarii Mountains.

Breath goes. A dozen methods of breaking free flash through his mind, most of which would cause serious harm to the assailant. He clenches his hands into fists, hard enough that his fingernails dig into the palms of his hands, and holds them against the wall, almost shaking with the effort of restraining the instinct to fight back.

“You dare,” the Count says, fury in his eyes, and intuition crystallises into evidence.

Whispered conversations, sentences without context - the chip recalls them and the murmur of the voice of a dead Emperor in his memory sounds like the rustling of the pages of an ancient book. He had not understood then, but he had recorded it in silence, in waiting for the day when he would find the key to unlock the mystery, if ever.

Mentions of another. Whispers of regret, in rare moments of weakness. Nostalgia; sudden distraction, as Ezar’s eyes would look past him, back to a time in which he had no part. Ezar had never spoken of pain, of heartbreak - such things were below an Emperor of Barrayar, even in moments of privacy - but the undertones had been there, clear for a trusted analyst to read.

The pieces fall into place; the key turns; the box opens.

“He spoke of you,” he says, and the Count’s shock betrays him, and his grip falters. Simon gulps air but does not move, even as thumbs threaten to dig into the fragile cartilage of his windpipe.

“He...” the Count stares at him, his gaze as deadly as a predator’s. “To one such as you? I doubt it.”

“Never in so many words,” he clarifies. “He never mentioned your name. But he never forgot.”

“To you.” The Count’s voice has dropped to a low growl. “To you. I had suspected -- the Emperor’s watchdog, they called you. It should have been the Emperor’s plaything instead.”

He shrugs with the ease of someone who has long since accepted the role. Yet the memories, left untouched for so long, twist like a knife in a wound that - he realises now - has never really healed.

The world is starting to sway, like a ship foundering on the open sea, and he knows that if he just closes his eyes, he will be dragged under. The memories beckon - a hand running through his hair, a soft voice in his ear, a possessive arm around his shoulders in the moment before he slipped into sleep. Awakening in the middle of the night to find the bed empty, and his Emperor standing by the window instead, a silhouette in the darkness.

It would be best to step away from the window, sir, he recalls saying, ImpSec paranoia refusing to let him ignore the security implications even when he was most definitely off the clock.

Cease your nagging, Simon, - the chip replays the words in perfect clarity, his heart remembers the tiny surge of warmth he had felt at the familiarity threading through the annoyance in that voice.

He bites his lip, and the pain brings the world back into focus. The Count shakes him, hard, then releases him to stalk around the room. He doesn’t move - the anger radiating off the old General keeps him pinned in place.

“So,” the Count says, and whirls so fast that it almost makes him jump. “What did he say about me, hm? Did he expound on my many flaws, even as he fucked you into the mattress? Complain about my monstrous deeds, to reassure you that you had replaced me in his heart and not only his bed?” He takes a step closer, his movements jerky, and Simon forces himself not to look at the dagger on the Count’s belt.

“If he shared his heart with anyone, it was not me,” he says softly, feeling only a dull ache at the admission. He still recalls a time when it hurt more sharply. “He spoke of letting go. He spoke of the importance of a bloodline, one as honoured as Vorbarra’s, and of the importance of preserving it. He spoke -- more than once -- of the price of sacrifice.”

He can see where his words strike home. The Count’s face twists with anger and old loss. He does not need to have seen what transpired between both of them to guess what happened - he is well-acquainted with Ezar’s ruthlessness. Years have passed since Ezar drove him away with words that cut to the very sinews of the heart, and he suspects that that was only a fraction of what happened between the Emperor and Count Vorkosigan.

Clearly some of this shows on his face, for he finds himself on the receiving end of the Count’s mocking laugh. “You too, Captain? Are we not all toys for him in the end, loyal liege-puppets who dance at his command?” The bitterness in the Count’s voice threatens to shatter it.

Simon takes a breath, and thinks of the faraway look in Ezar’s eyes, even in the most intimate of moments. “...Not all,” he says tightly, and he realises that the Count is not the only one who is jealous. Fool, he thinks of himself, You are not the lovestruck boy that you once were. Get over it.

The Count looks at him again, more assessing this time. “To preserve a bloodline, he said?” He snorts. “A duty he no doubt entrusted to you, when he assigned you to my son. And tell me now, what has become of that bloodline?”

Rip my heart out, will you, he thinks, a trifle sour. “It continues yet.”

“In what form!” the Count cries. “And one day that thing will stand beside your new Emperor as I once stood beside mine, and -- what then?”

In that moment he doubts, and wonders if all has been lost. If the last duty that Ezar entrusted to him has crashed into failure, beyond salvage. The knife that has already dug itself into his chest twists another time, and he almost has to lock his knees to prevent his legs from crumpling under him. A deliberate attack, the more clinical part of his mind thinks. A calculated assault on your weakness - and you were stupid enough to reveal it to him.

But it is not him that the assault is directed at, he realises. The Count strikes at him in an effort to strike at the shade of a dead man, with the strength of grief. A grief born of love and loyalty that the years - no, the decades - have not tempered.

He draws breath. Draws strength. And re-engages. “Then Gregor will have the benefit of the great loyalty … and the great love … of your line.”

The Count stares at him. “He will not have the strength.”

He meets that stare head on. “The strength of House Vorkosigan comes from the strength of its heart, rather than from its sinews.”

There is a pause, a moment suspended in time. Like two swordsmen they pause, blades locked, each searching for a weakness, an opening to exploit. Then … to his surprise, the Count turns away first.

“Ezar,” the Count says, so softly that Simon wonders whether he was meant to hear it. “You were always good at drawing people to you. Moths to flame, all of us.”

Moths to flame, Simon agrees silently, recalling a world that felt like it had been burnt to ashes. Burnt to ashes... but not -- he realises now -- destroyed beyond recall. For what had felt like exile had really been Ezar’s way of setting him free, putting him in orbit around a more stable sun, one that could replace the light and life that had bled out of his old world on the Emperor’s deathbed. The price of sacrifice - he hears those words again, in his chip’s perfect memory, and for the first time he thinks that Ezar might not have been speaking about Count Vorkosigan alone.

“Go,” the Count says to him, his back still turned. “Do your duty, what little of it you can salvage.”

“Sir,” he says, wishing for a moment that there was more that he could say, more that he could give to bridge the rift between them. But as he pauses in the doorway and glances back, he spies a thoughtful look on the Count’s face. And he thinks - that perhaps what has been said today is enough. The wound must bleed first, but after that it can begin to heal.

His step as he leaves is lighter than it has been for a long time.

*