Petya twirls the stem of the glass between his fingers, running through a few basic diplomatic signals. It's a parlor trick that had impressed the boys when they were children and Miles had broken his share of glassware before training his fingers to be that dexterous. Ivan had practiced it on a stick before one day, two weeks later, showing off proudly for Petya. Gregor had picked it up seemingly without effort, but Petya had remembered sitting with Gregor for hours back in the Dendarii Mountains, teaching him how to play jacks with sticks and stones, and had smiled slightly and had said nothing about it to Gregor's playmates. Gregor had an unfair advantage, but it was sorely bought.
Strange to think now of them all grown. And my brother a traitor to his Emperor. Petya had hoped desperately for it to be a lie, some mistake of Illyan's agents. But it was never to be. My brother the confessed traitor. Miles had been acquitted of the charges against him by unanimous vote, but it did not wash away the truth. My brother the acquitted traitor is still my brother the traitor. Some stains can't be washed away with a Count's verdict. They have to be worked away, with years and blood and pain. But my brother the traitor will live. And that is enough.
A treason trial at seventeen. Others, Petya supposes, would manage it through the conventional means. Only Miles, only Petya's brother, would build his own private army. As treason goes, it's certainly one of the more difficult forms to commit. Petya refuses to be impressed. He's spent too much time worried and terrified to be impressed. He's too tired by the aftermath of the trial to be impressed at Miles's daring, and he thinks he's not the only one.
Gregor is sprawled back on a couch, one hand over his forehead and the other falling over the edge. He eyes Petya assessingly. He'd waved Petya to a seat when Petya had answered the summons, but Petya hasn't sat yet. He isn't sure he's going to.
"Are you going to ream me out?" Gregor asks, tiredly. "If so, please get it over with."
"Did you do anything wrong?" Petya asks. "I can't think of anything you did."
"I trusted someone I shouldn't have," Gregor responds. "Someone who flattered me and made me feel good about myself."
"Someone who told you that you are perfect as you are, instead of someone who told you there's still room to grow," Petya interrupts gently. "You reacted quite naturally, I thought."
Gregor's other hand drops. "You think that little of me, Petya?"
"I'm not your judge," Petya tells him. "And I'm not your torturer. If you would like to be castigated at length, you can find someone to do it, I am quite sure. I suspect Illyan heads the list. He spent a month in an ImpSec cell in payment for Vordrozda's schemes. Give him leave to speak his mind without consequences and let him tear you to shreds. As the Countess would say, I'm not the one sinned against."
"I would have killed your brother," Gregor objects. "Why don't you hate me? I would, in your place. I would have ordered your brother executed."
Your brother. Not Miles. Not Gregor's foster-brother. Not the son of the Prime Minister, or of the Lord Regent. Petya wonders if Gregor framed that deliberately. He may be my brother, but it was his own treason. I am Vor. I understand. It's a hard lesson to swallow, but this isn't the first time Petya's learned it. He hadn't begged for Carl Vorhalas's life; he was never going to beg for Miles's. We can never allow chaos, no matter how much justice may burn us. This is our sacrifice and we make it without complaint, though never without pain. Petya knows this. And he knows Gregor knows this, too. He had outlived both his parents and a war by age six, of course he knows this.
But sometimes lessons need to be restated. Because it never gets easier.
"My father has ordered his share of executions as well," Petya says softly. "If we held grudges like that, Barrayar is doomed. You know this, sire. A Vor lord is responsible for his own actions and his own crimes against the Emperor. And when the Emperor executes a Vor criminal, that is the Emperor's justice against a traitor." My brother the traitor. But still alive, at the Emperor's mercy. "If we all held grudges over an Emperor killing a member of our family, the Bloody Centuries would never have ended. For peace, sire, we can never return to blood feuds. I understand this. My father understands this. Count Vorhalas, of all men, understands this thoroughly. We must accept the Emperor's justice, or we'll have never-ending war."
Gregor presses his fingers against the corners of his eyes and nods, and Petya wonders just how much of a mood Gregor is in that he summoned Petya of all people to give him the dressing-down he so clearly wants. Clearly not in a mood to actually get that dressing-down, or he would have summoned someone willing to cut him to shreds at great volume.
"The first execution you order," Petya says, "will be harder than anything you have ever done. And the second will be harder than the first. I understand, from my father, that every successive one is an order of magnitude more difficult. Ordering deaths does not make you less of a killer than the one who performs the deed, and it is never easy. But if it were easy, you would be Yuri."
"What was it like?" Gregor asks, both more tense and more relaxed than a moment before. "Killing those men? I remember," he shakes his head. "Some of it is so very vivid, some of it is like a dream. No. Like a nightmare."
"I discovered that I don't have the stomach to be an executioner," Petya answers. "Because that's what it was, executions. There was no rule of law. If I saw another soldier, it was my duty to execute him. Even if I knew him. Even if he was my friend. Even if he had saved my life in a training exercise. To protect you, my friends became my enemies, and so had to die."
"Executing traitors," Gregor says quietly. "That, I remember. You said they were raising weapons against me and so my grandfather's law said they had to die." He almost smiles. "That was very kind of you, Petya, I realize now. My grandfather's law, not mine. But you really haven't answered my question. Not why Lord Vorkosigan isn't angry at me, because I know you can't afford to be officially angry at me, but why Petya isn't."
"I can't split myself up into pieces like that," Petya says. "And I have too much sympathy for your choice. You would have had my brother executed, but I know you didn't want to, I know it haunted you. And if you hadn't thought it would throw your government into chaos and torn the Imperium apart, you would have stepped up as Count Vorbarra and voted to acquit him, even if he hadn't managed to pull his typical Milesian feat of showing up at the absolute last minute."
"I know," Gregor says, sounding like he is still trying to convince himself of the uncomfortable realities of the situation. "I know. I couldn't-- I can't-- I couldn't vote to acquit my foster-brother, my Lord Regent's son, of a treason charge. That way lies chaos and another civil war. Vordrozda would have raised his banner against me if I had. I knew that even before I knew him to be a traitor himself."
"You did what you could," Petya says kindly. "You kept out of inter-Council arguments, let your Prime Minister drag his heels and make this go on as long as possible, when you could have stepped in at any moment and ordered the trial to begin. But you didn't. You let my father ensure that the charge was changed from minor to major, even though Illyan's intelligence said nothing about a conspiracy to usurp the throne, only a clear violation of Vorloupulous's Law. And, well. It's probably best to leave it for the lawyers if a mercenary space ship fleet actually counts as raising a private army, but the Barrayaran military is a combined service. They may have considered that problem when Dorca wrote the law. Miles certainly did arm them."
"It was treason," Gregor says softly. "And Miles knelt to me before witnesses and threw himself on my mercy. And your father knelt to Count Vorhalas and threw himself on his mercy. There's a lot of mercy going around. I'm not asking you to give me yours."
"You have it anyway," Petya says. "I don't have the luxury of pretending at any time that you are not my Emperor."
Gregor grimaces. "And so it's never your place to pass any judgment on me? No, of course not. If the Vorkosigans were truly angry at an Emperor, we'd have a war. The government would fall if not for Count Vorkosigan propping it up with his elbows."
Petya's lips twitch. "You remember more of Ezar than I'd thought you did."
"He was very memorable," Gregor agrees. "But no, it's not first-hand. ImpSec has a lot of recordings. I've been watching them lately." He sighs. "I remember him summoning me to his presence when he was on his deathbed. He sat me down and tried to give me all the advice I would need to be Emperor. For hours, I sat there. He died within days. I was more distracted by the medical marvel of a dying man than I was with what he was saying. But a great deal stuck with me and then I reviewed ImpSec's recordings. They were... well, they didn't give me any advice I wanted for the problem at hand. Which was the choice of executing my foster-brother to keep the peace, or permitting him to live and therefore allowing civil chaos."
"I suspect," Petya says, "knowing the history of the executions he did order, that Ezar would not have flinched from killing Miles. Despite the various historical precedents of Vorbarras ordering Vorkosigan deaths."
"Yes, it does tend to lead to horrible, bloody civil war," Gregor says glumly. "Damned if I do, damned if I don't. I could be enraged with Miles alone for putting me in that position, ignoring his crime entirely. Damn him. Was he thinking at all?"
"I doubt it," Petya says. "But, in his defense, from what he's said, I don't think he had an opportunity to stop and think about what he was doing. If he had, he certainly would have understood the implications." He pauses. "I hope."
"And where does Yuri's massacre end?" Gregor asks. "Is it still not over, two Emperors later? I almost killed your brother. Vordrozda would have put your father up on charges, too, as soon as he could have manufactured them."
"You can't put this one on Yuri," Petya says.
"He was in panic over usurpation," Gregor disagrees. "And Miles just stood trial for that same charge."
"And, unlike the descendants of Xav who died that night, Miles was guilty of treason," My brother the traitor. Petya shivers. "A clear and undisputed case of Vorloupulous's Law. Not quite a classic case, but Illyan's intelligence was very clear on it. Very clear. If you wish to be historically morbid, sire, you have, by ensuring Miles's acquittal, ended Yuri's massacre entirely. And you really need to stop thinking of the consequences of your choices in terms of massacres and bloody succession wars. They will blind you to the realities that you do face. You cannot flinch from killing traitors if you think too hard about what killing traitors has led to in the past."
"I can't not," Gregor objects. "If I'm not aware of the potential consequences of my actions, who will be?"
"You're not Yuri--"
"But how do you know?" Gregor says. "Killing my relatives--"
"Killing traitors," Petya corrects him.
"Who are my relatives--"
"Gregor," Petya interrupts firmly, "do you think you're the first man to trust someone you shouldn't have? The first Emperor who's fallen for some crony's scheme? I assure you, you are not unique and you are nowhere near the first. But this does not make you Mad Yuri."
"So you say," Gregor says lowly.
"So I do," Petya retorts. "And as much as you seem to be blaming yourself for Vordrozda's actions, you may as well blame me first. There is a great deal of blame to go around, and if you choose not to blame Vordrozda for it in its entirety, you can blame me before you can blame yourself."
"This is a strange thought game," Gregor says, "coming from you."
Petya shrugs. "From a certain vantage point, I was the one who gave Vordrozda the ammunition he needed to set his plan into motion. If you wish to accuse me, sire, then consider that this whole mess stared when my father and I tried to get Miles confirmed as my heir and the Counts choked on it. I can still hear old Vortrifrani," Petya pitches his voice in imitation, "'Piotr, dear boy, don't be hasty. You'll have children soon, or your father will have another. There's no need to give that mutant airs of legitimacy.' Which I found endlessly amusing, as I am the Vorkosigan brother most commonly accused of being a bastard. Miles's lineage is usually without question. He is the product of impeccable breeding, I informed Count Vortrifrani, but he was injured in war and I will not deny a veteran his inheritance."
"Sometimes," Gregor says, twisting his fingers across the wine glass, signaling a host of diplomatic signals, all unintentional and all contradictory, "it strikes me as morbidly amusing that all of my Counts are encouraged and expected to have both their heir and their heir's heirs confirmed in the Count's lifetime, but if I were to name an heir, civil war would possibly break out."
"The Imperial heir does not need to be approved by the Counts," Petya says. "There were several wars about that. I think it's finally settled now."
"Don't play history games, Petya," Gregor says. "I know you love to, but you know as well as I do, if not better, that it was only won because Dorca's grandfather agreed to name the heir to the Vorbarra Countship and let the Council approve it."
"Count Vorbarra's heir," Petya corrects, "is not, by law, required to be the Imperial heir. The reverse is also true. You could conceivably name two."
"Civil," Gregor mutters. "War."
"No," Petya says. "You can name an Imperial heir without naming Count Vorbarra's heir. If the Imperial heir needs to succeed to the throne, he will become Count Vorbarra. That is different from Count Vorbarra becoming the Emperor."
"Careful," Gregor says, "your self-interest is showing."
Petya gives him an ironic bow. "I would love, sire, to no longer be the named heir of your commonly-accepted unnamed-heir."
"There's no one to name," Gregor says. "I think we've finally managed to completely destroy all the junior Vorbarra lines. There's no collateral Vorbarra within seven generations that I can find. All our wars have managed to completely destroy male-line descent, it seems. I would have to officially legitimize salic descent to find an heir, and then we all know who my heir must be."
"You could have children," Petya suggests. "A great many children."
Gregor frowns. "Find me a wife, Lord Vorkosigan, who loves me as I am and with all the history of what my ancestors have done, and not a wife who loves the idea of being Empress. And then I will have the children that everyone wants me to have."
A love match. Petya groans. "You're holding out for a love match, sire?"
"Do you object to it?" Gregor asks mildly.
"I think it's very modern," Petya replies. "And if your desire is to bring some modernity into the Imperial line, then by all means, my liege. But if your desire is to have a crown prince sooner rather than later, I question the wisdom of your desire."
"It is not my desire," Gregor corrects. "It is my choice. And that is the choice I have made. I want a woman who loves me in spite of the Imperium, not because of it."
That sort of woman, Petya thinks, would probably be a terrible Empress. But he has enough presence of mind to not say that. Let the boy have his delusions. He's been through enough reality in recent days. It would be cruel to spoil his fantasies. "Your will, sire. And, ah, is there someone you've been courting?"
Gregor frowns. "No. Not recently. All the women I meet have been vetted and approved by Lady Alys and by ImpSec and they are all well-bred and terribly Vorish." He looks up at Petya. "Some of them are the female version of you, come to think of it. I can ask Lady Alys to pass on their names, should you decide to find your Lady Vorkosigan."
"I can manage on my own," Petya demurs.
Gregor looks triumphant. "And you chastised me for looking for a love match."
Petya doesn't manage to hide his flinch well enough from the way Gregor suddenly stiffens. "I was," Petya says carefully, "allowing my brother to be my heir, because I feel that he would grow to become an excellent Count Vorkosigan after my death. Having a child would displace him in primogeniture and put a great deal of pressure on me to disinherit my brother in favor of my son. A daughter would bring that pressure in a different manner. I think the progressives would take it as an excuse to pressure me to ask you to legitimize salic inheritance for Countship lines."
"And what would you have done if I had had Miles executed?" Gregor asks, pressing the point.
Petya opens his mouth and then hesitates. Into the breach. "Dowager-Countess Vorellis and I had an understanding."
"That," Gregor gulps, "is as cold-blooded Vor as I have ever seen."
"She is in favor of uterine replicators," Petya says. "So her age would not be a difficulty, like it would have been even ten years ago. For which I thank you, sire."
"Um." Gregor says. "Facilitating more arranged marriages was not exactly what I had in mind with that."
"Nevertheless," Petya says. "It gives us all more choices in our marriages. The uterine replicators are much more convenient, and gene cleaning technology has come a long way. Nina Vorellis and I are not that closely related, after all."
"The one time in my life," Gregor mutters, "where I would have been tempted to deny a vassal's marriage request. Petya, you know that she's over seventy, right?"
"Dowager-Countess Vorellis and I were very frank with each other about our expectations and requirements, should circumstances require me to be married and produce children."
"My god. I don't want to even imagine that conversation," Gregor says. "I would want to be drunk first, that goes without saying."
"I am aware," Petya says delicately, "of the requirements of inheritance. The first being to have an heir."
"Yes," Gregor says, "I know, Petya. I know. If I drop dead tomorrow, we'll be in a succession war by the end of the week. You've made your point, move on."
"Yes, sire," Petya says. He considers for a moment, then figures that if Gregor hasn't slapped him down for anything he's said so far, he isn't going to. If there is a time to satisfy this concern, it's probably now. "Do you have any actual friends," he asks. "Not would-be brothers like Miles or Ivan. But friends, peers. Someone who didn't know you when you were a child."
"Henri Vorvolk," Gregor replies instantly. "I believe you knew his father? Henri succeeded to the title last year, less than a year after he started at the Academy. It was a mess, they'd had to appoint a Count's Regent for the three weeks between his father's death and Henri's majority, and Henri spent that entire time in a training exercise on the South Continent. He won't be allowed a military career, but he is finishing his education at the Academy despite it. I like him."
"And you trust him?" Petya asks.
"As much as I trust anyone." Gregor pauses. "Yes, I trust him."
"Ah." Petya says. "Please elaborate."
"I trust him not to try to usurp the throne," Gregor says, through gritted teeth.
"That's not a bad choice of criteria to use," Petya says. "Consider your safety first and your feelings second."
"And how old were you when you learned that?"
"Sire," Petya says, as formally as he can manage, "you have access to my complete, uncensored file. If you need to ask me that, you haven't read it."
Gregor flinches visibly. "I wouldn't-- you're my family. That would be intruding, it would be rude, to go through it for curiosity's sake."
"I'm giving you absolute permission, then, Gregor. You don't need it, but if you want it, you have it. You need to know who you are surrounding yourself with."
"I won't get the measure of a man from his ImpSec file," Gregor objects.
"True," Petya allows, "but you'll get everything else. You can make a good enough threat assessment using ImpSec's resources. Whether you like someone or not is a test you will have to conduct yourself."
"And it leaves me still at the mercy of ImpSec," Gregor says. "ImpSec and what they'll tell me."
"You command ImpSec, sire. Illyan serves at your pleasure." And look how his loyalty was rewarded. No, don't push it too far, just far enough to make the point. "And if you have been receiving less-than-stellar reports in the last month, that is entirely your fault."
"I'm aware," Gregor says shortly.
"It's very sensible of them," Petya says. "And logical. With Illyan out of the way, they're spinning in panic, not sure who is going to be grabbed next in a witch hunt because if Illyan isn't safe, no one is. It's a common tactic, sire. Something I'm sure you're aware of from your study of history."
"Sometimes I think I study too much of it," Gregor says. "An opinion I know you would consider blasphemous."
Petya sips his wine. "And what history in particular have you been studying? Treason, I would imagine...?"
"Endlessly," Gregor says. "Our history seems to be entirely too full of treason and war and death. If a Vor lord's word is his soul, there seem to have been a lot of soulless Vor."
"Would you rank my grandfather among them?" Petya asks curiously. "He betrayed his oath to Yuri and then swore himself to another in Yuri's lifetime."
"Your grandfather," Gregor says dryly, "had the excellent luck to be on the right side of that war. And, indeed, the war would have failed if not for Piotr Vorkosigan and his betrayal of an Emperor. For which I suppose I should have thanked him, because if that war had not occurred, I would not exist. Still... I have an uncomfortable sympathy for Great Uncle Yuri, betrayed by so many. He betrayed them first, but their betrayal of him is not less for it."
"Treason is neither contagious nor hereditary," Petya says. "And one treason does not outweigh another. Vordrozda," he continues, getting them firmly back onto the topic at hand, since Gregor seems to be ready to actually discuss his concerns now, "and his treason does not make my brother's treason disappear."
"Do you ask for an Imperial pardon for Miles, then?" Gregor asks.
Petya shakes his head. "Let Miles ask for one, if it occurs to him that he still needs one. He was tried on the major charge, but it was the minor charge he was guilty of. A promise from Count Vorhalas not to lay the charge before the Counts does not mean it can never be laid there, not without a pardon. But that should be for Miles to ask, not for me."
"And what do you ask, for you?" Gregor refills his own glass of wine, waving Petya back. "If you aren't going to sit, that's your prerogative, but I will not have you waiting on me."
"I don't want Imperial favors," Petya says. "Neither asked for, nor granted unasked."
"I owe you," Gregor frowns, "a great deal--"
"It is ancient history," Petya says. "And has no bearing whatsoever on the present day." It's what he's always said every time Gregor has tried to bring up any suggestion that he owes an obligation to Petya for what he did during the war. One day, he hopes, Gregor will take him at his word on it. "Please don't insult me by insinuating that my service to you during the war was a favor that must be paid back, instead of what it actually was, which was nothing more than my duty as liege-sworn Vor and as oath-bound officer."
"Nevertheless," Gregor says, "If there's anything I can do for you, Petya, I wish you would tell me."
"Get married," Petya answers abruptly. "If you want to make me really happy, Gregor, get married."
"Something I can do for you," Gregor says after a hesitation. "Not what you would have me do to me."
Petya gives him a wintry smile. "You have my request of my Emperor, sire. That's the only one you're going to be getting."
Gregor salutes him with his wine glass. "Yes, my lord Vorkosigan. I will keep your stated objections to my current marital status in mind in the future. Will that suffice?"
"I imagine it will have to," Petya replies.
"It's not marriage I object to," Gregor says. "Or children. But when I go the home of the Counts, my uncle's scalp mocks me, reminding me of my place in the Imperium: as a cog. An interchangeable cog. With a shift of the wind, that may be my scalp joining Yuri's, as a display for the masses of what happens when an Emperor oversteps his absolute authority."
"You aren't Yuri," Petya says. "My grandfather's judgment on that matter was one I judged absolute, and he knelt to you on your Birthday without hesitation."
"Perhaps, then, I'll be the one to surpass Yuri." Gregor stares at his hands. "I think sometimes I am very close to it. What would it take for me to send out death squads in a night to kill everyone? Who would be there to stop me? I am the Emperor and I can kill anyone who disobeys me. I am honor-bound to kill traitors. And I am required to father more Emperors, who will be held hostage by these same fears. Where does it end, Petya?"
"With less treason than you're begging me to voice, Gregor," Petya says gently. "There are limits to even my sedition, and convincing you to put in place some damn Betan democracy is nothing I am interested in doing. Try Cordelia."
"I have," Gregor says. "She told me that she promised Aral she would never try to diminish my power in any way. It seems this is treason even beyond the Vorkosigans." He freezes. "I'm sorry, Petya. I didn't mean it like--"
"It's all right, Gregor. I think we've moved beyond insult, honor, and all proper decorum tonight." And into one of those conversations you only pray never finds its way into the hands of your enemies. Petya finishes off his glass and refills it. "So why don't you simply tell me what's been furrowing your brow these last few days since Miles came back, instead of talking around it?"
There is a long pause while Gregor finishes his own glass and refills it. At this rate, we shall be properly Vorishly drunk by midnight. Good. Maybe it would do Gregor some good.
Gregor takes a deep breath. "Vordrozda will die for treason for drawing a weapon in My presence," Gregor worries his bottom lip between his teeth. "Your father didn't say a word to me about the method. And I think it would be unbearably horrible of me to push the conversation onto him."
"So you're pushing it onto me instead?" Petya asks wryly. "I can tell you what Cordelia's advice would be, but are you asking me, sire, to speak in my father's Voice, or to speak with my own?"
Gregor shakes his head. "Just tell me, Petya. As directly or as indirectly as you please, but just tell me."
"He's a ruling Count," Petya says. You gave me leave to speak in circles, so that's what you're going to get, Gregor. Be careful what you allow me. "He tried to murder a Count's son on the floor of Vorhartung Castle. Other Emperors would have had him killed for that alone. To add to the matter and then give him a death sentence other than high-born treason would be an act of mercy." Petya assesses Gregor. "Do you feel merciful, sire?"
"I feel cowardly," Gregor says. "I want to slip him a knife myself."
"I don't recommend doing it yourself," Petya says. "But if that's what you feel is best, then do it."
"So you think I should?" Gregor asks. "Help him speed himself along?"
"I can," Petya says, "give you a long answer on the history of the last twenty years and high-born treason, or I can tell you one simple thing: I don't have the nerve to watch someone starve to death in plain sight. Even if that were not my recent all-encompassing fear of seeing my brother so executed, I would still not tell you that I think you should follow the letter of the law and chain Count Vordrozda to a pillar in the square."
"I worry," Gregor says, "about the justice involved, and when justice is only a thread-bare excuse for revenge. To condemn a man to a slow, terrible death for embarrassing me seems unforgivable. And then I worry that mercy would set a terrible precedent and let other potential-traitors believe that they would not be killed for their crimes. I don't ask for easy answers, Petya, but I do ask for an answer that won't lead to chaos."
Petya wonders if it's a compliment or a punishment that Gregor thinks Petya can actually give him an answer to his question. I don't envy you your choices or your battles, Gregor, or your nightmares. I am already too much comprised of my own. But his Emperor has asked him a question and demanded an answer. And there is little Petya has had time to contemplate this month other than treason. My brother the traitor. How can Miles live with himself, with that knowledge? Unintended treason, of course, but it is still treason. It is still the unthinkable, unconscionable crime. And for a Vorkosigan to so commit it, against this Emperor of all Emperors. Petya considers the concept of burning with shame and considers it to be apt.
"You are thinking of death as an absolute punishment," Petya says. "Which is not always true. To consider worse punishments is not always to consider worse deaths," Petya says, going for his normal lecturing tone. Best to keep this theoretical only and not shock the Emperor too hard. No matter that shocking him might be a true mercy. But Gregor has endured too many shocks this week, too many betrayals. Petya deliberately softens the blow. It was my duty to protect you; I will never stop. "Consider, perhaps, the psychological impact of stripping a Count of being Vor."
"The Emperor gave his family the title and the Emperor can revoke at will," Petya says. "Solid historical precedent, though, of course, unused in centuries. If you want to torture someone, strip them of rank. My grandfather, for one, would have gladly run into plasma fire before accepting being addressed as mere Kosigan."
Gregor swallows hard. "Petya, that's disgusting."
Petya smiles uncomfortably. "There are worse things you can do to a man," he says softly, "than kill him. Consider that before calling yourself a coward again, sire."
Gregor takes a harsh gulp of his wine and then sets the glass down with a hard noise on the table.
"It's enough, Gregor," Petya continues quietly. "Illyan will rip Domestic Affairs to shreds over this and then turn to Vorhartung Castle security and do the same there. The Chief of Imperial Security being indisposed for a month should not be an excuse for such lax security as allowing Vordrozda to carry an energy weapon into your presence. In a previous century, men would have hanged for this. Perhaps some still will."
"Is this what you've been discussing," Gregor asks hoarsely, "with the history department?"
Petya considers that non-sequitur. "Would you care to elaborate on that, sire?"
"I've been getting reports," Gregor says, still visibly scattered by that Vorish blasphemy but trying to pull himself together. "That you've been in closed meetings with the Academy history department. It was a rumor... there was speculation... someone insinuated to me that you were trying to find some historical precedent to clear Miles."
"I was having dinner," Petya says, "with Commodore Vorinnis and his family. Not plotting treason, as you could confirm by asking him yourself."
Gregor blinks. "And do you socialize with him, um, a lot?" He shakes his head quickly. "No, no, never mind, I don't-- I'm sorry, Petya, I don't want to pry. I've been remiss in my own family dinners recently. Um. And how is Lady Vorinnis?"
Petya chooses that moment to sit down. He's made his point sufficiently, and perhaps this will encourage Gregor to relax and to stop hoping Petya will start shouting at him. We are always our greatest torturers. "She is quite well," he says. "As are all the children. We've been recently discussing historical names for third sons. They will be popping open their uterine replicator in two months and were looking through the family tree for some Vorinnises who deserve to have their names revived."
"Oh." Gregor takes another gulp of wine. "What names have they been considering?"
Petya raises an eyebrow at him. "You could get a greater summary of the deliberations by asking the Vorinnises. My opinions on the matter were entirely reserved for the historical contexts and usages. It's not, after all, my son being named."
"So this is your request," Gregor says, nearly exasperated. "Me having a nice family dinner where no one tries to kill anyone else. You might have just said."
"You could stand to socialize more with your relatives," Petya says, "but no, that wasn't a hint. I understand that you would prefer to socialize with those of your own age group or political temperament."
Gregor turns an interesting shade of mortified. "I-- my political opinions are--," he rubs the back of his neck. "In the first case, they are not of your particular concern, because I am not, as Emperor, technically supposed to have any, I am meant to be neutral so that I can give neutral judgment."
"We can sooner teach a horse to become a Count," Petya says, "than we can teach someone to have no political opinions to speak of."
"You'll have to take that up with the Vortalas," Gregor dismisses, "but in any case, no, my relationship with Count Vordrozda was not a political alliance. If it was, he would have been trying to force my hand to make him my Prime Minister and in retrospect, no, he never did anything of the sort. His ambitions lay elsewhere."
"His ambitions lay through the Vorkosigans," Petya says. "And he was quite close to succeeding, for which I must congratulate him on his ingenuity in courting your good favor."
"No wonder he hadn't come up with a way to get you out of the way yet," Gregor says to the wine. "You'd talk in circles around him and it would take him a week to figure out what you'd just said."
"That is what they pay me for," Petya says.
"I will pay you double," the Emperor offers, "if you stop lecturing me like an academy professor and start shouting at me like a relative."
Petya grimaces. "Well, as the academy professor that I actually am, sire: analyze your own actions, decide your own failures, and tell me what they are. You can ignore a lecture from someone you don't agree with. It's harder to argue when it's yourself giving the lecture."
"How Betan," Gregor says. "Next you'll be telling me I should get therapy for my entirely justified fear of turning into Mad Uncle Yuri."
"Speaking of Cordelia," Petya says, "what does she think about that?"
"She says Barrayarans have strange ideas of family feuds," Gregor replies. "I imagine on Beta, they don't include bloodshed. And a brotherly disagreement, even when it involves their president, remains a family matter and does not escalate to treason."
"Neither do most, on Barrayar," Petya points out. "Things become complicated, however, when it comes to your family, sire. A family disagreement can quite easily become something... more intense."
"This conversation isn't being recorded," Gregor assures him, still examining the wine as if in hope that it will be the one thing in this room obedient to the Emperor and will give in to Imperial whim and start shouting. "My security has standing orders to never record a conversation with a Vorkosigan. When the Vorkosigans get blunt, it can get... I don't want to scandalize the poor analysts who'd have to watch it. Their hair would turn white."
"Cordelia can have that effect on us poor Barrayaran barbarians," Petya agrees. "Though I think she takes a simple pleasure in deliberately shocking us. It's crude, but effective."
"You don't appreciate being shocked, Petya?"
"I don't appreciate being a data point in my step-mother's Betan analysis of my home planet, my home culture, of my father," Petya bites off. "It's not as bad as it used to be. I don't feel like I'm an animal in the zoo being studied anymore. Perhaps she's had enough of Betan-psychoanalyzing me. So long as she never tells me her conclusions, I'm glad to be quit of it."
"I think," Gregor says carefully, "that you're being a little, ah, paranoid? From what she's told me in the past, she's just trying to figure out how to be your step-mother in a way that won't make you think she's trying to take over a mother's place in your life. Your age at the time probably complicated matters a lot for her."
"I don't want a mother," Petya says, "and I had reached my majority by the time I met her. I didn't need a mother. I was glad my father was gaining a wife and I was hopeful that I would get siblings, which she promised me she would do her best to give me. But I did not approach my father's second marriage with any hope or any desire of getting a mother out of the deal. Padma Vorpatril, of all people, was more a mother to me than my own mother, and Padma would have choked on his own embarrassed laughter if I had ever made that comparison to him, and for good reason."
"A philosophy which certainly complicated any desire Cordelia might have had to mother you," Gregor agrees. "I'm not trying to explain Cordelia to you, Petya. I'm not sure I could, and if you want her to explain herself to you, I'm sure that she would be glad to, at length, and probably at more length than you would ever like. And probably bog you down with Betan books on any and all matters even tangentially related. And then quiz you later on their contents. Betans are big believers in education, you know."
"Yes," Petya frowns, "and she's not all that happy about Miles heading off to the Academy on Imperial order. I think she would have preferred you ordering him to Vorbarr Sultana University to study, I don't know, medicine or astrocartography or anything that doesn't involve large weapons and potential trials for treason. To hear her talk, she wants him to become a Betan Survey Captain or start a hospital or become a uterine replicator medtech. Anything but kill people or worship destruction like the rest of us hired killers."
"I didn't send him there to get an education in any of that," Gregor says. "If anything, I hope his education teaches him to be less brilliant as a soldier. I don't know if my reign can take many more accidental mercenary fleets. Even ones who achieve great victories." He pauses. "Especially ones who achieve great victories."
"You cannot fault Miles for style," Petya says. "What he did with those mercenaries was extraordinary."
"Stumble into a war zone as a civilian," Gregor says. "End up an Admiral. It would have to be Miles, wouldn't it? No one else would dare."
"He's always been impatient," Petya agrees. "And good at talking his way out of trouble."
"I used to think he wanted to follow your father's career, just managing to accomplish everything younger than your father did. I used to wonder what planet he would decide to conquer before age thirty-five. And fear the possibility that he might succeed." Gregor smiles to himself. "But I was wrong. Instead of carefully reconstructing the Great Admiral's career, he just jumped right ahead to Komarr and decided to mastermind a victory others might have thought impossible."
"Not a bad choice, all things considered," Petya says. "I had to study my father's military career at school, while it was in progress. Miles had the right idea. Skip all the repetitive parts, Admiral Vorkosigan doing this, Admiral Vorkosigan doing that, Admiral Vorkosigan and tactical maneuvers and putting down a mutiny weaponless, and get right to the point of why Komarrans hate him and the Old Vor are prone to worshiping the ground he walks on. Being loathed and being loved for the same actions. Miles had the Vorkosigan legacy right on target. And he managed to do it all years before his twentieth birthday."
"Which I don't thank him for," Gregor says. "In any sense whatsoever. I had hoped to have a peaceful reign," Gregor sighs. "And be remembered in the history books with only a brief entry. My birth, my death, my children. No great wars, no great failures, and with all my great successes being attributed to the inevitable and unstoppable modernization of Barrayar. I wanted to institute reforms that everyone would forget, because they would be happy to forget that the reforms had ever been required in the first place. And then fate gave me Miles Vorkosigan. I don't appreciate this great gift. I appreciate him as my brother, of course, and as a friend, but I'm glad I can order him shut up in the Academy for three years. Maybe he'll learn how to obey an order there." Gregor frowns, running his finger along the rim of his glass. "I hope he will. Or I've just set myself up for having to deal with another Miles Vorkosigan disaster, his first court-martial."
"So long as it's not for treason," Petya says. "I hope Miles has gotten his biggest shock out of the way, and the rest of the shocks he gives us will be much smaller and less potentially disastrous. For the sake of your history books as much as for the sake of my well-bred Vorkosigan ulcers."
"I envy your powers of tangents," says Gregor. "And your powers of distraction. I'm still somewhat stuck on your comment," he continues, tangentially, "that you can't ever stop seeing me as the Emperor. Either you have a radically different understanding of Emperor than anyone, including, I should mention, Cordelia, or your sense of Imperial respect stops at any closed door."
"It can't be both?" Petya asks. "You will never not be my Emperor, Gregor, but you will also never not be my father's foster-son. I am not overawed by your rank. Occasionally, I fail to be awed by it at all. I also," he says, "have no agenda for this meeting. You're the one who summoned me here, sire. Give me an agenda and I'll stick to it. Fail to do so and I will lead you through the maze that is my mind and not let you out until you're either drunk or demanding mercy."
Gregor bursts out laughing. "Thank you, Petya," he says, coughing a little, "I needed that. Am I drunk enough, my lord, or shall you lead me down paths that end up somewhere under a forest, while you lecture me about not flinching at giving the hard orders? Or will it be another digression, like the night before my majority, when you told me that I, alone of possibly any Emperor, would do well to remember that the past is not always prologue? You, I think," he says, "would do well to remember that yourself."
Petya bows sitting down. "So long as you do as well, my liege."
"And now you mock me with titles," Gregor says. "Oh, don't look at me like that. I know, I mock myself. If I can never stop being Emperor to you, at least give me the mercy of letting me not always be Emperor to myself."
"Give yourself your own permission," Petya answers him. "And don't apologize to me for any of it. You can be angry at yourself, sire, for being played the fool, or for having been the fool. You can seek someone to berate you for a mistake. Or you can understand as we all must, that one cannot take revenge against an Emperor. It is simply an emotion we cannot afford. It is too dear, too expensive, and we have had too much of it."
"Tell that to dead dismembered Yuri, Vorkosigan," says the Emperor. "And, perhaps, to Xav. I'm sometimes convinced that putting my grandfather on the throne was a subtle posthumous insult from Xav to Dorca."
"It would be a very salic insult," Petya says. "Dorca inherited through his mother, and you're related to Dorca through your grandmother. And anything done twice..."
"I'm almost certain it was deliberate and nearly as certain it's not just the alcohol," Gregor says. "Because this is something that's nagged at me for years, Petya. Xav could have adopted your father or Lord Padma Vorpatril. There's enough legal precedent, and it would only be a grandfather adopting a legitimate grandson, which is right and proper and certainly nothing scandalous, especially in the case of Padma, who was an orphan. Your grandfather, I suspect, would have never allowed the theft of his son, but, in a different world," Gregor continues, staring into his wine, "I wonder if my grandmother's grandson is liege-sworn to Emperor Padma Vorpatril Vorbarra."
"Padma," Petya says, "would have objected strenuously to any notion that he had a right to the throne greater than Serg's. Even through salic descent, your grandmother was the eldest sister. If Xav had adopted him and taken the throne with the intent of handing it on his death to Padma, then I suspect a war would have broken out over it. My grandfather had enough complaints about Xav the progressive degenerate, and my grandfather and Xav managed to get along well enough and long enough to win a war. I wonder what Counts like Vordarian and his sect would have thought of Xav forcing a female-line heir into the male-line. And," Petya adds, after a moment, "Xav died before Padma's majority. Gregor, stop wishing succession wars on us that we never had to fight."
"As you wish, Lord Vorkosigan," Gregor says. "It was speculation only. I'm not about to steal my relatives and try to adopt them. Even if your brother is still years away from his majority."
Petya chokes hard on his wine.
"I said I wasn't," Gregor says helpfully.
"You have a disgusting sense of humor, sire," Petya gets out and he sets the glass down deliberately. No more wine. Not if Gregor's in that sort of a mood.
"I come by it honestly," Gregor returns. "You shocked me first with the truth. It's only fair that I shock you in turn, with the same. Is it not My duty as Emperor to make My subjects rethink their assumptions, if only their assumptions about inheritance?"
In fear of the primacy of competing truths, you had my brother stand trial for treason. And then voted for his acquittal after hearing him testify the truth of his guilt. "I count myself your proud liegeman," Petya tells Gregor seriously. "And a lucky man to know you as a peer. I don't think I will ever understand the way your mind works or all your fears, and I don't know if I can ever assure you adequately that you have nothing to fear from the Vorkosigans, but--"
Gregor puts his hand over Petya's mouth. "Enough, Petya," he orders softly. "Just... enough. It's enough. It's sufficed. Enough." He smiles uncomfortably. "I think we've both faced enough truth tonight, don't you?"
Petya suspects they would run out of night before they ran out of truth, but he nods anyway. "Yes, sire."