Watching his father and his son interact filled Aral with a mixture of relief and terror.
He leaned one hip against the fence rail, eyes fixed on the three figures in the ring. Miles, six years old and jubilant, sat astride a small pony. The metal braces on his legs glinted in the afternoon sunlight. He feet couldn’t reach the stirrups, so one of the grooms had tied them up out of the way. Miles did his best to keep his legs in the proper position, but they weren’t long enough to properly grip the pony’s side, and the braces kept them at odd angles. Undeterred, he grasped the saddle horn with one hand and reached out the other to pat the pony on its neck.
Piotr held the lead line. It had been over a year since the count had finally stopped ignoring his only grandchild, but he still didn’t seem to know quite how to act around Miles. He moved stiffly and kept his voice gruff, but his hands were careful any time he had to touch him. Sometimes, especially around the horses, he even looked at Miles with something like affection in his eyes. Family loyalty kept pulling at Piotr in two directions at once, the weight of a hundred Vorkosigan ancestors pressing down on his shoulders, demanding a strong, undeformed heir, set against the bravery and charm of one tiny, fragile little boy.
And, as always, Bothari hovered in the background, ready to grab Miles or restrain Piotr or both. Today, he remained a silent presence, walking a few feet behind the the Count, completely ignorable unless called into action. Aral knew how fast the man could move and took comfort in it.
They owed so much to Bothari. Aral still had nightmares about the day his father had tried to kill his son. He’d raced to the nursery and seen his baby fussing in an aide’s arms, while Bothari knelt next to Piotr, one knee lightly pinning the grim, furious Count to the floor. No one had shut the open window yet, and Aral had a vivid memory of the way the curtains had billowed in the draft coming into the room.
In his nightmares, Bothari was never fast enough. Miles wasn’t in anyone’s arms, and the window was still open. Every time, the dream forced him to walk to the window and look at the ground below. Aral would wake in a sweat, hands still clenched around illusory curtains, desperately suppressing the urge to scream or weep or vomit. On those nights, he’d grab something to work on and go sit in Miles’ bedroom, watching the blanket rise and fall with the boy’s breathing. When Miles woke, Aral could pick him up, feel his warm skin and beating heart, press his face against his hair and breathe in the scent of him. This did not keep the nightmares away, but it did settle something inside him, giving him strength.
He didn’t know if Piotr ever had nightmares about Aral. It wasn’t the sort of thing they talked about, even when they’d been close enough to have talks.
A noise from the ring drew his attention, but it was only laughter. Piotr had taken one hand off of the lead line and was pointing toward the mountains, and Miles was giggling. Aral wondered, briefly, what Piotr had said to get Miles to laugh, but then decided that he probably shouldn’t ask. The old man had a lot of stories about those mountains, and while a number of them were amusing, not all of them were appropriate for a boy of six.
Would Piotr know that? Times had changed since he’d had children of his own, and Aral didn’t know what sorts of things Piotr would say to a six-year-old Vorkosigan heir. Aral, after all, had not been the heir when he was six.
When Aral was Miles’ age, he’d figured out that Count Piotr didn’t care about him. Not that he didn’t love him. Aral had always known that he could count on his father to protect him, to educate him, to make his problems disappear and his enemies suffer. Piotr’s love for his family was always fierce and efficient, inestimable and inescapable.
The difference was, Aral was the younger son. His brother, as the Vorkosigan heir, had had every aspect of his life planned for him, which meant that their father paid sharp attention to him, but young Aral had largely been left to his own devices. Aral could have gone into the military or into politics, into business or academics, and while Piotr would celebrate his second son’s achievements, he wouldn’t care about what sort of achievements they were, as long as Aral was succeeding.
As a child, Aral had resented this. It was only now, with years of experience and hindsight, that he could look back on those days and understand the flexibility that came from having his father care about him while Count Piotr kept his distance. He wished he could give Miles that kind of freedom. A Vor lord’s responsibilities were not the sort of thing a father should wish upon his child.
Speaking of responsibilities, in the corner of his eye, Aral saw the door up on the house open. Koudelka stepped out, leaning on his swordstick with one hand while the other held a data pad. Coming to summon the Regent back inside. Even at Vorkosigan Surleau, he could not escape it.
In the ring, grandfather and grandson had turned away from the mountains, and Piotr tapped one of Miles feet, correcting his form. Aral couldn’t see Miles’ face from here, but he knew what his expression would be, the intensity in his eyes, all the force of his attention focused on completing this one task perfectly. Piotr hadn’t admitted it yet, but Miles’ horsemanship was getting better.
Piotr also hadn’t admitted that he’d placed a special order into one of his best suppliers, paying a not-insignificant sum to have an equine embryo shipped to Barrayar. Simon assured Aral that Miles’ future horse came from a certified bloodline known for both their mild manners and their skill at dressage. Cordelia may have insisted that Miles start on a pony, but Piotr clearly had no intention of keeping him on one forever. Aral had never shared his father’s love the beasts, but he couldn’t wait to see the look on his son’s face when Miles finally got to ride a horse of his own.
In the saddle, the little boy faced forward, straightening his back as well as he could. Playing at being a general again, no doubt. His twisted spine and metal-encased legs weren’t the traditional image of a Vor lord, but Aral thought he pulled it off. Something stirred in his gut. Maybe pride, maybe fear. Maybe just another ulcer. Fatherhood appeared to contain a descent mixture of all three.
Slowly, Aral pulled himself away from the riding ring, turning to meet Koudelka halfway toward the house. Piotr was starting to accept Miles. Now Aral just had to work to make the rest of Barrayar ready to accept him, too.