Lieutenant Lord Ivan Vorpatril looked at Captain Duvalier and smiled thinly. "Ship duty?" he echoed, feeling hollow. Anything more coherent seemed beyond him.
Duvalier grinned. "You've been complaining for years about being stuck dirtside, and you deserve better. Never say I never did anything for you."
"I would never say that, sir," Ivan said automatically. He was sure his smile was sickly, but his superior didn't seem to notice. He was too happy with himself -- and really, Ivan reminded himself, why shouldn't he be? Ivan had complained about being stuck dirtside. Whined, even. He knew it. He even knew why. But somehow, telling Duvalier that he'd been lying for the past three years -- that all his moaning about working on nice, large planets with nice, wide horizons and nice, big rooms had been a put-on? Not going to happen. Not in this lifetime.
"Thank you, sir," he said, because Duvalier had earned it. Saying Fuck you for putting me back in one of those goddamned tin coffins seemed pretty unfair, all things considered.
Ivan staggered back to his flat, only to find Byerly Vorrutyer sitting outside his door, legs stretched out to trip him. He managed not to fall. "What are you doing here?" he demanded, though it may not have come out quite right.
"Congratulating you," By said cheerfully. "You've got what you always wanted, I heard."
"Fuck you," Ivan said, but without any heat, and leaned against the wall because the floor wasn't level any more.
By looked him up and down. "Not in your condition. Come on, I'll help you in."
He fumbled the keycard, and didn't object when By picked it up and opened the door. Then By put a very solid arm around him and dragged him in, to the couch, and set him down. "You're used to this," Ivan observed, meaning, manhandling drunks. "Why are you here?"
By had disappeared, though. Ivan waited, and he reappeared, this time with a glass of water. "Because they're giving you ship duty, and you're going to do something stupid about it. Drink."
There was something in the water, though he couldn't taste it. Suddenly, Ivan was stone cold sober. "What is that stuff?"
"Water. And a little something from Escobar. You're a very trusting drunk, you know."
"Yeah," Ivan sighed. How could he have let Byerly Vorrutyer into his flat? Though he had to admit that Byerly hadn't even said anything nasty yet. "Why are you here? I want an answer this time."
By sighed back. "Look. It doesn't serve anyone if you crash your damned car or something else like that at the moment."
"I don't know why it would bother you," Ivan said suspiciously. "You don't like me. You don't do anything but flirt and buy clothes."
By smiled sweetly and made an expansive gesture with his hands. "Ivan, Ivan, Ivan. Do you know how many men, discovering that you are so decidedly heterosexual, turn to the nearest Vor faggot for consolation? Believe me, dear boy, I would be heartbroken if you should damage your pretty face."
It was almost believable. But there was something off with what By was saying -- though it was true that By slept with men, and very few Vor advertised such a thing, and yes Ivan had gently refused a number of uninteresting offers in that vein.... By was a very good actor, but for once Ivan had the sense that he was acting. "That makes no sense," he said. "First of all, why do you think I'm due for an accident?"
"I think you'd cut out your eyes if it would get you out of ship duty," By said frankly, dropping the pose. "You wouldn't have to do anything deliberate. Everyone knows you drive like a maniac. Just think of being in that ship while driving...." He trailed off. Ivan felt a little green.
"I'd rather not, thank you," he said stiffly. Conceding the point, he supposed. "Why would you notice? Why would you care?"
"Notice? I notice everything. The only enclosed space you'll get into is your car, and no one thinks you're exactly sane in that thing. Care?" By shrugged. "I told you why. Take it or leave it."
"Huh. Well, I'm sober now and I'm hungry. Don't expect me to feed you," he said, and wandered into the kitchen. He heated up some of what his mother disdainfully called "bachelor chow" and considered a bottle of wine, but settled on some tea instead.
Sadly, By had taken over the couch when he returned. He sat in the chair, his dinner tray in his lap. "Still here? If you're so hard up, why'd you turn me down? Not that I was offering."
By blinked at the change in subject. "You were drunk, and I knew perfectly well you weren't offering."
"What does my sobriety have to do with it?" Ivan asked between bites. He did not recall anyone ever turning him down on the grounds of his drunkenness. Other reasons, sure, but not that.
"You may have heard of my wicked uncle," he said dryly. "Everyone thinks I have, shall we say, similar sexual proclivities, but my only real fetish is for consent."
Ivan considered that, and the implications. "Do you think women can give meaningful consent?" he asked slowly, feeling the click as certain pieces of history and knowledge fitted together finally.
By looked very satisfied at the question, as though it answered something for him. "In general? Of course. On Barrayar? Let's just say that I need...evidence."
"And why are you telling me this?"
By looked up to the ceiling. His expression was so patently exasperated that he looked a little like Ivan's mother. "I don't know. Maybe so you'll stop pretending and admit you're claustrophobic as fuck?"
"Yes, that. Ship duty, man. I have to protect my steady stream of disappointed Ivanophiles, remember? Focus."
Ivan laughed, because he had been meant to, but then found he had nothing else to say. Because what did you say when someone you've despised for years, in a general way, finds out your darkest secret and says he wants to help you? He didn't exactly believe the reason, but he did believe that, unlikely as it was, By wanted to help. Not for the disappointed Ivanophiles -- or at least, not solely because of them -- but he was somehow sure it was genuine.
"All right," he said slowly. "I don't like small spaces. Ever since Earth.... I couldn't take the trip back. I was in sick bay for the physical stuff, I didn't even have to do anything, and I just kept taking tranqs one after another.... They therapized me, y'know? By the end, I wasn't taking anything at all. I could walk and talk just like a real boy."
"But you still weren't doing anything," By said gently.
"If I'm on a ship with real duties, I'll get someone killed."
"Yes," By agreed; when Ivan looked at him, he added, "I've seen you drive."
"I'm not that unsafe," he protested.
"No, of course not, not driving." By was using that gentle voice again, which ought to have been annoying but wasn't. "So the therapy didn't take?"
He laughed and then stopped, because it didn't sound like laughter. It sounded horribly bitter. "They stopped at Beta Colony on the way. It went very well, you know."
By nodded. "The Betans have a very good opinion of their therapies. It might not occur to them that it wouldn't work, if you were acting as though it were. You can be very convincing. I thought you were an idiot for almost two decades. Even your family...." he shook his head. "Do you know why I hate Vorkosigan?" he asked suddenly.
What could he say? You may have heard of my wicked uncle. Such a flippant way to refer to one of the more flagrant sadists and war criminals in Barrayar's bloody history. "Yes."
"I'm not going to stand by and do nothing."
As Uncle Aral had, for years. Ivan had some suspicions about the wicked uncle's death, but that had been a long time coming. "This is hardly similar," Ivan protested.
By just stood up. "You should sleep. We'll talk tomorrow about your little problem." He let himself out.
Ivan finished his dinner and his tea and sat in the chair for a long time. Every time he drifted off, he heard the faint sound of water, dripping on metal.
His replacement at HQ was a Lieutenant Toussaint, who was not going to provide an excuse to stick around. Ivan knew within ten minutes that Toussaint was one of those bright young things, and was kind enough to let Ivan train him in. He had three weeks to do it.
There was a party. Ivan smiled a lot, and drank more. When he got home, his bad-luck charm was sitting in the hall again, dozing. Ivan dropped his keycard on By's head, startling him awake. "Don't be an ass," By muttered, and opened the door. He fetched the magic water again, too. Ivan wondered, again, why he was allowing this.
"It's given me a headache this time," he noted.
By frowned at him, and then his face cleared with understanding. "Take enough stimulants before the alcohol, and it will do that. You were supposed to sleep."
Ivan shuddered involuntarily.
"Yeah, right. Okay." By had brought out water for himself, this time, too. He set it down on the little book-table and began pacing briskly; fortunately, his soft soles didn't make any noise. "Options. You could tell them."
Ivan shook his head. "Do you know what that will do to my career?"
By crooked a smile. "Ok. Suicide!" he suggested brightly.
Ivan said "No!" very promptly and certainly, but only because he'd thought about it. He wasn't interested in dying; he just didn't want to be on a ship in the closed-up dark with the water dripping dripping shut up shut up stupid brain. "Neither career suicide nor personal suicide are options."
"I'm glad to hear you say it. You know, if I thought it were, I wouldn't be here?"
"While you certainly have every right to off yourself if you wish, Vor have a tendency to take out a lot of bystanders with them."
"You're concerned for the bystanders?" Ivan said, a little disbelieving.
He replied, with a wounded look, "If I thought you might actually put yourself in a position to harm others, I would have shared your little secret with someone who could stop you a long time ago."
"Who?" Ivan asked. He wondered if that were relief he felt. Or...pride. That someone else agreed that he wasn't a danger to others, even though he'd been so since he'd been born. If he wanted to be maudlin, which he didn't, he'd call it his life's work. No one dies for me. He'd succeeded, mostly, and could hardly be blamed for things that happened before he was born. Right.
By stopped to drink his water, and then mused, "I'm not sure who I'd tell. Your mother, perhaps."
"Or maybe an anonymous note to Illyan. But it's a moot point -- you're not a threat to our fair citizens. The point is to get you out of ship duty, short of suicide or career-limiting disclosures."
"Right. And how do you propose to do that?"
"Damned if I know. We could rough you up. You couldn't ship out with enough physical damage."
"One, it's three weeks; two, Aunt Cordelia has the best clinics on the planet; three, they'd just find another ship posting." He'd considered that, too.
By nodded. "So they would. Ok, beating the shit out of you is a non-starter. Pity, that."
His look of mock-regret -- and it was sham, Ivan was sure -- was really funny, somehow. "I thought your only fetish was consent," Ivan said, mimicking By's tone from the previous evening.
His expression was downright cherubic. "You'd be consenting, wouldn't you? Except you're not. Next option. Hmm, could you tell His Majesty? Privately? He doesn't seem the sort to kill your career for it."
Ivan had thought of that, too. Gregor would fix it. He did not want Gregor to fix it. The Emperor did not need to have his distant cousins asking him to fix things for them. "That is...a last resort. The last resort. So we have one. A last resort, I mean."
"Ah," By breathed. "It's good to have one," he agreed, then looked at Ivan expectantly.
Ivan tried to think of something. "I could prove myself incompetent at...something."
By shook his head. "You had ship duty before, right? No one would believe it, not enough to get you out of the post. And that's too close to career-limiting...." He trailed off in a way that indicated some thought was blossoming inside his twisty brain.
It was unsettlingly close to one of Cousin Miles' expressions. Ivan hoped the impetus wasn't like one of Cousin Miles' notions. "You have an idea," he said, his voice going flat, but By didn't seem to notice.
"What you need is a posting that has to stay on-planet. On this planet, because you couldn't exactly travel to any of the other ones easily."
"I made it here from Earth -- " Ivan protested.
By flapped his arms to shush him; his face had the beatific expression of the newly enlightened. "What you need, Lieutenant Lord Vorpatril, is a promotion."
"A promotion?" Ivan laughed at that; By looked hurt. "I'd just be promoted to ship duty."
"Not an ordinary promotion. The kind where you can ask for your next assignment -- and get it."
Ivan shook his head. "Those don't exactly grow on trees."
By had taken the chair and pulled out a datapadd; he was scribbling at a furious rate. "No," he said slowly. "Not trees. But they do grow on treason. Yes, this could do very well.... I mean finding it, not committing it, by the way."
"I know what you meant," Ivan snapped, suddenly angry. "I'm not going to let some nefarious scheme come to fruition just so I can get me some glory or whatever the hell you're thinking of."
By looked up from the datapadd, his expression very calm. He was angry, too; he wasn't trying to hide it, so much, as control it. He didn't look fribbly at all any more. He looked like he could beat the shit out of Ivan and not for fun. "You are confusing me with someone else," he said, very crisply. "I do not stand aside. That said, I can't exactly be jumping at shadows, either. No one will take my word about the Vorlaigles. Hell, I don't even take my word about the Vorlaigles."
There was bad blood of some kind between the Vorrutyers and the Vorlaigles; Ivan didn't know the details, didn't want to know, but every Vor hostess knew better than to invite members of both families to her soirée. If someone did and she were lucky, her guests would merely walk out on her; there had been some scandals, when Ivan was a child, that he vaguely remembered included bloodshed. If By thought the Vorlaigles were up to something -- why? – he was right that no one would believe him.
"I won't press some claim just on your say-so," he said, though he knew he was looking for a reason to still be mad. By couldn't be so stupid as to expect him to do anything like that.
"No, no. You'll find out. I only talk like I'm doubtful, because I know I'm biased. I'm sure. This will work. You find out, you bring it to proper authorities, they throw roseleaves on you, you ask for some cushy post in HQ. We could make sure you get nicely beaten up somehow. All the girls will throw themselves at you."
"And the Ivanophiles."
"Just so." By cheered at the thought, briefly.
"So what's your beef with the Vorlaigles?" Ivan asked. "And why are you so sure they are plotting treason?"
By frowned. "How much of that history do you know?"
A shrug. "I know not to invite a Vorrutyer and a Vorlaigle to the same party. Beyond that...."
"Ok. This goes back -- way back. The Count Vorlaigle at that time opposed the invasion of Escobar."
"That does go back." Before he was born, certainly. How much older was Byerly? He had to admit he wasn't entirely sure: By was the only person he knew of who had successfully gotten himself kicked out of every Vor school he'd been enrolled in, and so he had no idea how many grades ahead of him By had been. Funny how kids measured time in schoolyears. A few. Maybe not so many. Did he even have a diploma? He looked pretty young, but he also had a reputation for using fancy face creams to be pretty, and avoiding hard work and the sun.
By, unaware of his distraction, was explaining thirty years of Vor feud with admirable economy. "Basically, Prince Serg and Sainted Uncle Ges ended their opposition. The Vorlaigle heir was found drowned in a sewer in the Caravanserai in Vorbarr Sultana."
"Argh." The sewer did not seem appreciably better than, say, a tidal pump on the Thames river. Possibly less stink.
"Sorry." He actually did seem apologetic. "No one proved it was them, but no one would, either. They also assaulted Countess Vorlaigle."
"A Countess?" Ivan said, incredulous.
"It was hushed up," By said sourly. "Anyway. That is why they hate the Vorrutyers. They can't exactly hate the Emperor for it."
"At least not publicly."
"Exactly. They feud with us, but my family has not exactly been shy in returning the favor. I'm not even sure if my cousins know why."
"You don't seem the feuding type, though," Ivan observed. "Why are you so biased?"
By fumbled his stylus. Ivan almost didn't see it; he caught himself quickly and smoothly and then it was as if nothing had happened. "Not long after the war, they decided to return the favor on one of Ges' relatives, never mind that my Uncle was dead and wouldn't have cared anyway. I'm fine," he insisted, waving his hand. Ivan nodded. Of course he was. "They were amateurs." Now that was an unsettling thought, that By had opinions on the quality of his abuse. "But I'm not a trustworthy witness against them."
"No, I can see that. Who's involved, d'you think?"
"The current Count's younger brother and sister, and possibly the Dowager Countess."
"The Dowager Countess Vorlaigle?" Ivan repeated in shock. He knew neither of Count Vorlaigle's younger sibs except by sight: they were near his own age, and handsome, though the girl was brunette while the rest of the family was blond. She'd always been acknowledged a Vorlaigle, though. He'd exchanged polite words with the Count -- very polite, they'd taken each other in instant dislike -- but he didn't remember hearing of a Dowager Countesses Vorlaigle in his lifetime.
By looked very grim. "They ‘hushed it up' by putting her in an insane asylum. Not one of the nice ones. She's been moved around a few times, but never let out. I don't know if she was mad then – probably, since my uncle was nothing if not thorough -- but she probably is now. And if she does want revenge, she has reason. If she were aimed at Serg and Ges, I'd give her a disrupter and cheer."
"Wait. The younger Vorlaigles were born after the war. Whose children are they?" Divorce among the high Vor was unheard of, even in extreme cases of madness and abuse, and anyway she wouldn't still be Dowager Countess -- or obscure -- oh. Ivan swallowed his rising gorge. Conjugal visits to the insane asylum, for someone who had been treated as Prince Serg was known to treat women...that was vile.
By apparently saw from his face that he didn't need to answer. "I believe that, denied their right to justice, they have turned to a more serious sort of revenge than just hurting teenagers for the hell of it."
Ivan suddenly remembered something that turned the idea of treason from being too implausibly long-term, after three decades, to seeming the natural, almost proper, order of the Vorlaigle lives. "Isn't...isn't the Vorlaigle girl's name Jessie?"
"Why do you think I believe they will never forget?" By replied. He looked more sad than anything else. "I don't want them to have been planning treason. I don't want them executed. I want them -- salvaged. Somehow. Why do you think I've let this sit as long as I have?"
Ivan could understand that. He really could. But he'd always known that By's venom and vanity hid a lethally sharp understanding of people; how could his darts find their target without it? He believed, down to his toes, that By was right about the Vorlaigles. He wondered how long By had thought them acting on treason, and stood aside in guilt and self-doubt. "And you think I can do it?"
"I can't think of anyone else who'd bother to try."
Ivan hadn't had trouble with lifts since he'd come home. It helped that -- with his pocket tools and a lifetime's experience with his cousin -- he could disassemble any that stopped, at least on Barrayar; he'd found it was a lot easier to deal with claustrophobia-inducing spaces that he could take apart with his almost-bare hands. He'd forgotten his toolkit once. He'd taken a lot of stairs that day. "Lost a bet!" was the cheerful explanation. He was privately relieved that the therapy had been good for something.
But now he stood in the lift to Anna Vorpoimenidou's swanky townhouse and wiped his hands on his slacks and hoped the sweat didn't show. He tried to be mad at Byerly as a distraction -- what the hell had the man been thinking, special-delivering Ivan a DNA test kit and a vial of fast-penta for fuck's sake? -- but that didn't really help. It wasn't cold, but goosebumps marched up and down his back like little creepy-crawly ants. He could hear his heartbeat, fast and light. The sound had just started turning into the plink of water droplets onto metal when the door opened. He almost fell over his own feet, scrambling out. Fortunately, there was no one there to see. Hallucinations were not good for the reputation.
Anna was one of the people who had invited him to a party because of his reassignment; he wouldn't have accepted her suggestion, except she was in Paul and Jessie's set as well as his own. She was in, well, everyone's set: Anna collected friends the way some people breathed. But she and Jessie were rumored to be tight, though Jessie was High Vor, and Anna had enough Greekie ancestry that some assholes called her "Vor trash," and then went to her parties anyway because she drew the people they wanted to see (or maybe, be seen with). She was a little bird of a woman, quick and light on her feet, and when she opened the door for him she was already laughing at something someone else had said; on seeing him, her face lit further. "Ivan!" He ignored whoever she was talking to and swept her into the sort of showy embrace, with a kiss on the cheek and a dip at the end, that she really liked.
She was laughing and happy when he set her back on her feet. "See, love, I told you. Ivan isn't at all stuffy," she exclaimed, and Ivan turned to see Jessie Vorlaigle frowning at both of them.
He blinked: she looked ten years older than she should, tense and worried, even if she was trying to smile back at Anna. "Lord Ivan," she said stiffly.
He smiled at her, trying to get a smile back, feeling uncomfortable that it failed. He could see why By thought she was up to something. "Lady Jessie," he replied, holding out his hand. She took it gingerly, just long enough to be -- well, not impolite. Polite was stretching it too far. "It's been a while. Good to see you," he said, and stopped, since You look well could not possibly follow that in any honesty.
"Thank you," she said faintly. Her brows knit, and then her face cleared, apparently as she remembered what she was supposed to say: "Congratulations on your promotion."
"Thanks." He wasn't sure if he should pretend there was nothing wrong. He had not known Jessie well, true, but she had never been so uneasy in company. And Anna looked desperately worried. "It looks like I interrupted your conversation with Anna, though, so I shall take myself to the buffet," he tried, and smiled to show he didn't take any offense at their obvious relief.
He went through the rest of the party on automatic. By was right that something was up, of course, but was it treason? How to find out? He ran into Paul at the punch bowl. He wasn't as obviously agitated as his sister, but he looked uncharacteristically grim and unhappy, even if his congratulations were better-feigned. Ivan smiled and drifted on; he chatted with people, accepted congratulations, even danced a few times. His cheeks hurt, and he couldn't even drink here: he was on a mission. Which was tragic, because Anna always hosted a truly excellent bar.
He was snagging some little iced cakes from the dessert table when he turned to find Jessie frowning at him again. She tried to smile, so he smiled back to reward the effort. She brightened a bit, which reminded him that she really was quite pretty. She didn't look dangerous, which meant he was definitely on his guard: his mother didn't look dangerous either. "Cake?" he asked, as if he were the host.
"Would you talk to me?" she asked, all in a rush, and then blushed. She hadn't planned for it to come out like that, he realized.
"Of course," he said, and wondered at himself: he was imitating By's odd gentle-yet-indifferent tone. Well, hopefully it worked on her as well. He took a plate, arranged some tasty camouflage for her, and led her to one of the many alcoves that made Anna's townhouse so useful for parties. "How can I help?"
"What makes you think I need help?" she snapped, and then deflated. Poor kid. Ivan shrugged, and popped one of the cakes into his mouth. They were really excellent. "Well, ok, yes.... I don't know."
"But you think I can help," he coaxed. Wrong move: she flinched, and then defiantly bit into a biscuit, glaring at him. What did she think she was doing? he wondered. Well: he didn't, actually, know anything, so he might as well push. "Jessie, how's your mother?"
Oh, that was why he shouldn't push. She burst into tears; he offered one of Anna's fine cloth napkins, and took her wine glass from her trembling hand. "Aw, damn, I'm sorry," he said awkwardly, setting it down.
"Why -- why do you ask?" she sniffled.
He sighed. "You seem so distressed, and Paul didn't look so happy either. So 'family' seemed a reasonable guess."
"Yeah," she said, watery. "Look, can we go talk somewhere? Not at a party? With people looking. Your place or something."
He blinked. "I don't know. Will you be trying to take advantage of me?" he asked, pretending worry; as hoped, it earned a watery laugh.
"No, silly," she said, and stood up.
He took her arm, and led her to Anna. This time Jessie was smiling, and Anna glowering; Ivan interpreted the look as a promise to gut him if he hurt her. More than just the usual concern of a host for a guest, he thought. He smiled at her easily, and said, "Jessie wanted to talk to me somewhere quieter. Will I be returning you here?" he turned to ask her. Anna relaxed a little: signal received. Good. Anna was good people. He didn't want to worry her about her girlfriend.
"Yes," she answered. Paul came up, glowering even more than Anna had, with what Ivan thought considerably less cause. "I just want to talk to Ivan," Jessie said, a little pleadingly.
"I can't wait around for you," he said, and was Ivan imagining a double meaning in that? He wanted to kick Paul where it counted anyway: bullying your own elder sister, at a party, was very bad form.
"I know, I know, I'll get myself home," she replied, in a voice that was entirely too resigned to such treatment. Ivan bowed to Paul a shade too deeply. He didn't notice the insult, but Anna smiled at him, while Jessie just looked a little scared again.
"I'll see you back here, or home, wherever you like," he told her. "Or call a cab, if you'd prefer that. Lady Jessie will be entirely safe in my care." It felt as if he were promising not to damage the man's car. Or his ox, or his anything. Not that you care, you prick, he thought.
Jessie was silent in the car. White-knuckled. He concentrated, very hard, on driving the way his mother would wish him to. It took a lot of concentration: he could feel the canopy closing in a little, though at least it wasn't raining. "I'm not driving to scare you," he said mildly, and she flinched again.
"I didn't mean --"
"Of course you did. Everyone knows I drive like a maniac. But whatever it is that's scaring you -- it won't be me."
"Oh. Thank you. Um, why do you think I'm scared?"
He shrugged, turning into the parking pad under his flat. "I'm not blind, Lady Jessie. Something has you wound up tighter than m' mother's hairdo."
That won another laugh from her. "You know the Emperor," she started, and then stopped.
He finished parking and nodded cautiously. "Grew up with him," he agreed.
"Is he -- ?" She couldn't finish whatever it was she meant to say.
"He is nothing like his father," Ivan said, emphatically.
She gasped. "How did you know that was what I wanted to ask?"
He sighed. "Just because they kept it all from Gregor didn't mean they kept it from me. And, well. 'Family' is still my best guess."
"Oh." She followed him silently to his flat. No long Byerly legs obstructing the hallway, fortunately; he had told By not to, but hadn't been entirely sure that he would listen. Fortunate that he had. He let them both in, and turned on all the lights -- it was almost too bright like that, but glare was better than dim and vaguely romantic. "You mean -- he didn't know what his father was?"
"Not until he was over twenty," Ivan agreed. "Stupid, since he was going to find out anyway, and why make it such a shock? But no one listens to me."
"You could have told him," she said accusingly.
"Against Count Vorkosigan's express word?" he asked dryly. "Your opinion of my courage is flattering."
She wilted a little, and sat down. "I -- it's just -- how could he not know? We never thought...."
He wasn't sure how to answer that, or if he should. How to tell someone that the central fact of their family life was utterly meaningless to the family that had caused it? "Would you like something to drink? Tea or coffee?" he asked, taking refuge in hosting.
"Please. Coffee is fine," she said, and got up again. He left her pacing and went to the kitchen to open some bulbs for the both of them.
When he came back, a steaming mug in each hand, she shot him.
Ivan woke in a panic, with the mother of all hangovers. Stunner, he realized. His hands were bound, he was tied to a chair, and the room was terribly small and dimly lit. He cried out, in horror, because it was a nightmare. "Shhh, you're ok." Jessie's voice.
"You shot me!" he exclaimed. His voice cracked. Jessie recoiled: from the accusation, from his ignominious terror, from her own actions, he didn't know. He wasn't in his apartment any more. There was someone behind him, but the rope didn't let him turn. Paul? It had to be Paul. The room was featureless, warehouse-like. The chair he was tied to, another for Jessie, bare concrete slabs for walls and ceiling. Not entirely unlike a Thames tidal pumping station. Larger, and there were other people, but still.... He tried to pull his hands free, but the rope was tied too well; he might get out, if he broke most of the bones in his hands, but he wasn't there yet.
By had better come rescue him, the little shit.
He began counting his breaths, so he wouldn't hyperventilate. "Yes, I shot you," she snapped. He decided he preferred her angry to frightened. "I did it before you could use that fast-penta on me. And a DNA test kit! Do you think I don't know who my father is?"
Three seconds on the inhale, six on the exhale. Another cycle. Then he said, in something resembling calm, "I had no intention whatsoever of using those on you. They were for -- something else." Vorrutyer's moronic idea of how to conduct an investigation. Goddamn fucking chickenshit Vor asswipe.
"Really." She was not convinced. He supposed that, in her position, he wouldn't be either.
"Look. You came to me. I don't know what you think you're doing, but I'll be missed. All I wanted to do is talk to you. And find out if your mother is ok -- "
"Do not talk about my mother," Paul's voice said from behind him. He wished he could see Paul. He sounded a hairsbreadth from exploding.
Four seconds on the inhale, eight on the exhale. "Gregor did not know about what his father did until, I don't know, five or six years ago. He...almost got himself killed, running away. He couldn't deal. They always told him Serg was a hero."
"A hero," Paul said behind him, in tones of loathing and contempt for anyone stupid enough to believe that.
"I don't know what's driving you," Ivan said. "I can promise you, though, it won't make you feel better. It won't make your mother feel better. You could get her real help now -- Gregor won't let her continue to be trapped in an asylum, not if you ask him for help." That last was a gamble, but the sharp intake of breath behind him told him he'd struck an nerve. For good or ill, he did not know.
Jessie was wavering: he could tell. But he couldn't see Paul, dammit, couldn't try to drag him towards redemption with the force of his glare. He choked a little on the laugh. Salvage, Vorrutyer had said. How do you salvage someone with fast-penta? Breathe, he reminded himself. His breath was ragged, almost to a sob, the loudest thing in the room. Worse: his face was wet, from dripping water or from tears he could not tell.
"Jessie's father," Paul said, in a sort of meditatively lethal voice that gave Ivan cold chills and made Jessie start crying in that horrible silent way someone could only do with a lot of practice, "was one of Serg's armsmen. Some faceless prole bastard. They took turns, you know."
Ivan watched Jessie. "I know. Even Serg wouldn't risk a rival heir." That, or Negri had discreetly disposed of any. Ivan wasn't actually sure. "One of my best friends, growing up, was Vorrutyer's batman's bastard. Gregor's friend, too. We never cared about that. She -- " was like a sister seemed the wrong thing to say, in present company " -- used to order us all around, even the Emperor," he finished, helplessly. At least when Miles wasn't ordering.
Jessie gulped down her tears, staring. "You knew what she was?"
He caught her eye and held it. "Yes, m' lady." He tried to put all the respect she didn't get into his voice. It was hard, though, when he had to count every breath to keep from crying. If only he could move.... Five seconds in, ten seconds out. Calming his breath was supposed to calm his mind. Mostly, it just calmed his breath. But that was worthwhile, too.
"Right now, all you've got is a really bad misunderstanding. Just -- let me go, and it won't be any more than that."
"We'll think on it," Paul growled, and then stalked forward. He grabbed Jessie's arm, and just like that, they walked out.
"No, don't go!" Ivan shouted behind them as the door shut, panic rushing back, filling the locker like seawater. "Don't go!" It had been too unexpected: he'd had no chance to prepare to be alone, and now he was. The chair was bolted to the floor, or he would have flipped it over. He tried to count his breathing, and found he couldn't hear it over the rushing sound of seawater. He tried to think of just how blindingly, utterly furious he was with Vorrutyer, but that didn't work either.
Maybe it was a few hours, or maybe it was a few years. When Jessie opened the door and shot him again, all he felt was relief.
Ivan woke in a panic; his hands were still bound. Then he realized that they were flailing, too, and the binding was just bandages, nothing worse. His wrists were free. His whole body was free, resting in a nice medical bed. He breathed, carefully, making sure his exhales were long and slow. "Does that help?" someone asked pensively.
He shrugged at the Emperor, who was sitting perched on the other bed. He looked nervous, and too thin; this was normal, but somehow the effect seemed more pronounced than usual. Ivan was touched: was that worry for him? "They tell me it does," he said. "Your Majesty," he added belatedly. Gregor waved it off.
"So, I'm familiar with the various hostage syndromes, where the hostage comes to sympathize with his captors. I don't think I've heard of a case where the captors sympathized with the hostage." He smiled at Ivan bemusedly. "Both Vorlaigles called Impsec to turn themselves in, separately."
"Oh." That was good. That was very good. Maybe they wouldn't have to be executed. After all, what had they actually done?
Gregor was still talking, though. "So Illyan went with Paul, and Wechler with Jessie, and they met up while rescuing you. The Vorlaigles found it a bit embarrassing, I think.... Illyan was livid. We'll have to talk to Wechler about passing tips up the chain of command appropriately."
"Huh." Ivan wondered if Wechler had been trying to impress Jessie, or dismiss her; either way, he sounded like an ass.
"Your hands looked like raw meat. I thought it was wolves that gnawed off their legs in a trap." At Ivan's shrug, Gregor frowned in concern. "You won't be fit for ship duty for a few more weeks. We can't delay launch, either. I'm sorry."
Ok, now was the time. Ivan took another deep breath. "I don't want ship duty. I'd rather stay on-planet, if it's all the same to you."
Gregor looked at his hands with comprehension dawning on his face. "Would you, now." Ivan smiled gamely. Gregor wasn't buying it, though. "How long have you known you're not fit for ship duty?" he asked, sharpish.
"That's unjust," Ivan replied, trying to keep his voice mild, and not entirely succeeding.
Gregor glared pointedly at his hands. "You would have gone out, like that -- "
"No, I wouldn't have."
" -- so unable to tolerate tight spaces you will break half the bones in your hands to get out --"
"I had no intention of going on ship." How many bones? That was kind of sickly fascinating.
" -- and you could have gotten yourself killed or everyone on board -- "
Gregor stopped when Ivan threw a pillow at him. "I had no intention of going on the ship," he repeated, forcefully. "None. I would have invalided out first."
"I don't believe you. Miles wouldn't have, you're always trying to catch Miles -- "
Ivan sighed, suddenly very tired. "I am not my cousin. You're babbling; you should figure out why you're mad and yell at me for that, instead of making shit up."
Gregor stopped and stared. Now he was a different sort of pissed off. "Well, that's blunt."
"I'm tired," Ivan said, knowing it was whiny, but not above whining to get Gregor to stop.
It worked. "Why did you go after the Vorlaigles anyway? Why didn't you call ImpSec?"
"I didn't know they were doing anything. My source was By Vorrutyer. No one would believe him on the topic. Hell, he didn't even believe himself, hence asking me to look into it. I went to a party to talk to them -- I wasn't going to try anything heroic."
"Byerly, huh. That's...almost reasonable," Gregor said, slowly.
"It's entirely reasonable. I am not my cousin."
"No, of course not," Gregor soothed. "Er, thank you. For finding them out."
"I wasn't going to endanger anyone by taking ship duty."
"I believe you," he replied, sounding surprised. Ivan wanted to argue -- How could you have thought that of me? -- but it wasn't worth it. Gregor was...going to have to learn to be a better judge of character. Soon. He was still trying to catch up to Miles too, Ivan realized. And on the heels of that, I know what you're trying to get away from.
"So how much have the Vorlaigles said?"
Gregor looked away. "Enough to execute them both."
"Enough that you have to? Or that you could? I don't think they had gotten very far. Their hearts weren't in it." Or rather, their hearts were too much in it, but treason hadn't been the actual goal. The goal was something much simpler, and it was just, Help mother sleep, something like that. They should get that, Ivan decided.
"It's not required, no. They didn't get very far. But...when you press charges, it will come out."
Ah. "I'm not pressing charges," Ivan said, thoughtfully. He felt...very sure. No need to press charges. He would have expected that he'd have to talk himself into it, but no, the certainty was already there. "I'll settle with Paul and Jessie privately." He wasn't going to let them off the hook, but he could find a better way for them to pay their debt to society than the courts. A year or two of exile from Barrayar -- separately -- would be utterly terrifying, get them away from their toxic family, and hopefully induce some adulthood...yeah, that sounded right. And then they could come back and do Good Works or something. He took a moment to admire the idea.
"Nah. Not their fault I'm a head case. They didn't do anything that would have hurt anyone else, they stopped themselves, and I'm pretty sure I can make them feel worse about it on my own."
Gregor frowned. "You think you should handle it," he said, not sounding enthused.
Ivan smiled, because he'd had another idea and could see the bird after bird being knocked out of the sky with a single stone as the implications unfolded. Vorrutyer was right: the Vorlaigle kids were worth salvaging -- and so was anyone else in the same trap. Everyone else. Including Gregor himself. Oh, yes, this would work. "I think I should handle my own issues with them. If you want to execute them for treason, you're the Emperor." Gregor looked a little greener. "Or..." he continued, and the Emperor perked up at the hint of an alternative, "you could talk to them. Tell them you're sorry about what your father did to their mother and brother. Help them get the Dowager Countess into better care."
"You make it sound like my fault."
"You were three years old. Of course it's not your fault." He said that gently, because Gregor secretly believed everything was his fault. Still.... "Your responsibility, maybe."
"How can I be responsible for everyone my father abused?" he protested.
Ivan did his best to stare him down. Amazingly, it was working. "Because you're the Emperor. You're responsible for the whole damn planet. You can afford it. Prince Serg's victims can't hurt you -- unless you don't know who they are. You don't, do you? You've never asked. You let Emperor Ezar and Uncle Aral and Negri and Illyan sweep it all under the rug, and you don't even know what's under that rug.... Who's under that rug."
"And why should I ask? Why should I talk to them?" Gregor did not do belligerent well, Ivan decided.
"So people who know the history can't keep manipulating you with it?" Ivan suggested. "You're not twenty-three any more. You can't run away." Though he'd certainly tried.
"You know about that," Gregor said. If he'd liked flattening affects and kicking puppies, it would have been great.
"Gregor, a lot of people know about that. Look -- you can't exactly get away from it. You might as well own it."
"Own...that. Do you know what my father did?"
"I know exactly what your father did. I've known since I was ten." Unfortunately. A mean thought he had considered before skipped past his mental filters and came out his mouth, "Maybe if you'd done something about it sooner, Elena Bothari wouldn't have had to watch her mother kill her father."
Gregor flinched. "I was still underage. I didn't know."
Ivan felt his patience thin. Ok, using Elena's name was unfair -- that was more on Uncle Aral and Aunt Cordelia, he'd always thought -- but the point stood. "You didn't know because you didn't want to know. Yeah, people protected you -- it's my fault too -- but you let them. You're still letting them. Uncle Aral is wrong about this. You can't just make it disappear." He stopped, a little surprised at himself.
"I don't think you've ever said Aral was wrong about anything in your life."
"He's just like anyone else," Ivan said wearily. "Sometimes he only sees what he wants to see." He wondered if Gregor knew about Aral's history with Ges Vorrutyer. He wondered when Vorrutyer had started hurting people, and when Aral knew about it. He decided that he'd done enough skinning of truths today. Gregor had to be raw enough without drawing his attention to that particular historical detail.
"I'll...think about it," Gregor said, which was going to have to be good enough. Ivan nodded. "And what do you want, if you don't want ship duty? Your old job?"
Ivan shook his head. "Toussaint will be fine. It'd be pretty shitty to take his new job away from him." And anyway, he was done with that. "I'd like to work in Logistics. For Trikoupis," he clarified. Admiral Trikoupis was responsible for the entire supply chain. Trikoupis didn't terrify people quite as much as Uncle Aral -- but Ivan had decided that was because people didn't know Trikoupis very well. He was awesome. Ivan thought he could probably feed the entire planet if they'd let him.
Gregor blinked in surprise. "That's...not what I expected."
Ivan found himself smiling, his first real smile in days. "Gregor, who else do you think could keep me in line?"
Gregor grinned at that, and promised to work on it. Ivan patted himself on the back -- mentally, doing that for real would hurt. It was going to be ok.
His next visitor was Vorrutyer. After consideration, Ivan let him in. He was evidently not prepared for Ivan's glare. Good.
"I'm sorry," he said. Ivan supposed he should give him credit for trying. "I had no idea they were going to kidnap you."
"Neither did they," Ivan snarled.
"Huh?" Vorrutyer's incomprehension would have been funny, if Ivan weren't so pissed off.
"They weren't going to, until Jessie found that DNA test kit and fast-penta you sent, and which I had no intention of using -- what the hell were you thinking?"
"I was just trying to help," he said, sounding so bewildered that Ivan wished he could just punch him, break his jaw. He didn't usually feel violent. But this.... Lucky for Vorrutyer, he wasn't punching anyone with his hands in pieces.
"You can't violate people to save them," he snapped.
Vorrutyer stared at him in horror for a long moment. His face was very pale; he looked as if he were trying to be angry, and failing. "I didn't -- I didn't think of that."
"You didn't think of that," Ivan said, flatly. "Well, you had better fucking well start thinking."
He bowed his head, hiding from Ivan's glare. Ivan let the silence draw out, thin as a blade, even though it meant his anger was dissipating. Finally, he looked up. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "If it means anything, I'm...used to fast-penta, I suppose. Habituated. That's not an excuse," he clarified, as Ivan pressed his lips together to keep from interrupting. "It means I...can't see the air for breathing."
Ivan held on to the appearance of anger, though he wasn't really -- Vorrutyer had that look, the same look he'd had before when talking about Serg and Ges and the elder Vorlaigles' unspecified revenge. He was pretty sure he didn't want to think about what a creative sadist could do to someone with fast-penta. "Just…go away, and do your thinking somewhere else, ok? Your idea worked. I'm staying on planet. Thank you. I'd rather not have to see you for the next, oh, give it a year or two." Or six.
Vorrutyer swallowed convulsively, and then nodded. He bowed, possibly even respectfully, and left.
Ivan leaned back against the bed, still tired. He still had to deal with his mother -- who would be pleased that he was staying on-planet, and concerned for his career, and he'd need to work up a more thoroughgoing program for deflecting her attempts to manage his life -- and he still had to tell the Vorlaigle kids about their soon-to-be-self-imposed exile. And he was going to have to do something more about his claustrophobia. Own it better. So people couldn't manipulate him with it.
He leaned over to the comconsole, and began looking for a therapist.