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There was something about the oaths. Neo-feudalism was the stupidest way to construct a government Dr Galeni could think of, and he could think of a lot of ways. Oaths! Sacred bonds of honour! The number of things that could, and had, and would, go wrong with it were enough for a three-volume textbook. Not that he could publish that, here. But there they were, all the officers who'd graduated from the Imperial Military Academy this year, kneeling to take their oaths to the Lord Regent. This would be the last year Vorkosigan took their oaths; next year it would be Emperor Gregor who would sit on that campstool, and the whole absurd pageant would continue.

And yet. And yet. Galeni watched the next strained young man come forward, two swords swinging at his side. They looked a little big, a little awkward on him. Vorkosigan wore his two swords like extra limbs. The boy came to rigid attention before Vorkosigan, then went down on both knees, back straight. He put his hands up, and Galeni saw them shake. Vorkosigan closed his big square hands around the boy's, and their eyes met.

Here in the rows of spectators permitted to witness these oaths, Galeni couldn't hear the words, but he knew what they were, vows of sacrifice and service, answering vows of protection and justice. It could have been an empty ritual, by all rights it should have been an empty ritual, but it wasn't. They meant every word of it. The intensity in the boy's face was only outshone by the fierce blaze in Vorkosigan's deep-set eyes.

Galeni watched how the boy stood up, how Vorkosigan said something that made his eyes widen and a small smile tug at his mouth. How he came to attention again and saluted Vorkosigan. How there was something different in the salute, and in Vorkosigan's solemn acknowlegement of it. Galeni had a strange feeling that, if he could just tune his eyes to the correct wavelength of light, he would see the bond that now held them together.

It made him feel shockingly, painfully alone. No-one had sworn to protect and guard him, he'd never offered anything more than his daily work in return for a stipend. He'd taken the loyalty oath, but that had been very much a one-sided affair, nothing like this feudal connection. And he had cut himself off from all the old bonds of his past, those grim ties that had held David Galen in his place. Nothing held him now.

He watched the next boy take oath, and the next. Their vows seemed both burden and support to Vorkosigan, as if he gave a piece of himself to each of them, and received a piece back.

It was so easy to take the next step, in his imagination. To envisage himself on his knees before Vorkosigan. To feel those hands warm around his own, to draw strength from them and to offer himself in return. To belong. He would look up, and Vorkosigan would look down at him, and...

Reality broke across his imaginings. Even if the rumours were true, even if the Imperial Service was going to open to Komarrans and he could one day take that oath, it would not be to Vorkosigan, but to the pale boy who sat on his own separate dais, watching it all with an unrevealing face. And there was no comparison between them. Perhaps Gregor would grow to have a power of his own in time, but for now, he was a nonentity alongside Vorkosigan. But still, the oath would be the same.

He had good, logical reasons for wanting to join the Imperial Service. He could write a two thousand word essay on the subject, with supporting references, without even having to think about it. But reason, they had said in the philosophy course he had taken, could not move a man to action alone, unsupported by will and desire. Galeni watched another boy kneel at Vorkosigan's feet and be taken into that bond of feudal loyalty, and felt moved to action.