Gregor Vorbarra, Emperor of Barrayar, paced across his office. General Allegre watched helplessly. The Emperor was the quietest, most controlled man he knew. Usually.
He watched as the emperor crossed the office again. “I’m sure she’ll be fine, Sire. She’s got the best men in Impsec.” She had practically all the men in Impsec. “And you’ll be following her in just a few days.” By which time the carpet would be worn out. “Komarr is her home planet, after all.” He tried to think of something else to offer reassurance, “And she has Lord Auditor Vorkosigan with her.”
He received a look that could peel paint off walls.
“I shouldn’t have let them go without me,” the Emperor started pacing again.
General Allegre made a mental note to tell the armsmen to switch the emperor to decaf. Not that it’d make much difference.
# # # # # # # #
“Lord Vorkosigan – Miles – please be careful!” Laisa watched in alarm as the Lord Auditor held the Crown Prince up to the viewing port.
“Look, Xav, there’s Komarr! That’s where mummy comes from!”
Laisa rescued the hope of the Imperium before he was dropped. Again. And wondered if maybe this was some Vor way of making sure children were tough enough to survive. At least when Miles dropped him the Crown Prince didn’t have too far to fall.
She also understood why Ekaterin didn’t object to Lord Auditor Vorkosigan being assigned to this Komarr visit, even though the twins were only six months old. Presumably she thought that the Crown Prince, a year older, was tough enough to survive Vorkosigan enthusiasm. Or maybe she thought he’d be good practice for her hyperactive husband. Fortunately the shuttle was docking, and the whole welcome circus was about to start. Impsec probably outnumbered Komarrans at the shuttle port right now, but at least she’d see her family and friends again. And it was so good to be back under a dome.
Miles grinned up at her, “Here we go. Ready to smile for the vids?”
Laisa nodded, “I just hope Xav doesn’t get restless. He didn’t get his nap this morning.” Her glare rolled right off the Lord Auditor as he bounced past.
Then it was time for her Empress performance, tempered a little for Komarrans, who wanted to see that their Laisa was Just The Same As She’d Always Been.
# # # # # # # #
“Empress, what’s it like living on Barrayar? Do they eat their meat raw?”
“Laisa, do you have to curtsey to your husband each time he walks into the room?”
“Do they get drunk at every meal? Or only at night?”
“So your next child is due when you get back there – will you be allowed to have any girls, or does he want all boys?”
“Are you allowed to speak to him without permission?”
“Do they force you to go outside without a breath mask?”
“What colour is your bedroom carpet?”
Laisa smiled, and tried to give suitable answers, and tried to remember the penalty for killing a journalist. It couldn’t be that bad, surely. Possibly the same as the fine for littering, if you didn’t clean up the body afterwards.
Miles stayed out of sight, thank goodness.
Finally the Crown Prince let out a roar that made even the journalists pause, and Laisa mumbled something about feeding time, and fled to somewhere blessedly question-free.
# # # # # # # #
“Well, at least that’s over. Now I can get on with the important part of the visit.” Laisa finished changing little Xav. “The rest of the day with my parents. Thank goodness the full state dinners don’t start till Gregor gets here.”
“Don’t forget, tomorrow you’ve got the media again.” Miles hovered helpfully at her elbow. Laisa seriously considered tying him to the chair in the corner, “But at least there’s just one of them. So I suppose that’s just a medium, yes? He’s got the most popular talk show on the planet – don’t these people have better things to do? But anyway, Impsec compromised on that one big interview instead of a whole pack at once, or hours of singles. So you just have to look gorgeous and very Komarran, and tell them how wonderful it is being married to Gregor, and it’s all over.”
“Look sweet and say nothing much. My specialty now.” She was shocked at the bitter tone in her voice.
Miles fiddled casually with some canisters of baby food, “Marriage to Gregor… you are… ok?”
“Of course it’s wonderful, I just…”
“Mmmm?” Miles, Laisa had noticed, was an expert in the sort of non-verbal comments that invited a person to keep speaking.
“Well… I just wish… I could be more than decorative. Impsec won’t let me do anything. It’s not Gregor, I mean he’s protective but he doesn’t push… “
“He waits to see what will happen.”
“Yes!” It was so good to get this off her chest, “And so far, NOTHING has happened. And now, with Xav – I mean, I adore Xav, but … I can do more… there must be more to Empressing than just looking nice and … and saying the right things…but every time I tell them that I want to do more they all just… they just smile and nod and IGNORE what I’m saying… it’s so frustrating! And Gregor says….” No, she wasn’t going to be one of those wives who complained about their husbands. Besides, Gregor was truly wonderful – sweet and gentle and loving and passionate and she knew she was cherished in every way. As a wife. But as an Empress she felt decidedly underused.
“Miles… I’m not complaining about Gregor. He’s the best husband ever. Anywhere. Truly. And I love him, I love being married to him and having Xav, and little Kareen on the way, but … “ she tried to find the right words, “But it’s so long since there was an Empress that I don’t think anyone remembers what an Empress is supposed to do. A Countess can do most of a Count’s duties, she’s expected to run the District and she has a lot of power. As an Empress, I don’t expect to run the Empire or anything, but there’s so much I could do. In the area of trade, for instance. I know so much more about galactic trade than most of them in the Ministry. And women’s affairs – don’t even get me started on the rights of women on Barrayar. Or lack of. I just… I want to be USEFUL.” She ground to a halt in helpless frustration.
Miles gazed at her for a moment, then nodded, “I know how you feel. Exactly how you feel. I’ve been there a few times.”
“How did you solve it?”
“Uh, well once I made a mercenary fleet, and once I investigated Impsec.”
She gave a bitter smile, “Not solutions that are available to me.”
“No, but… keep on trying. I’ll see if I can think of anything.”
Laisa realised, belatedly, that setting Miles to solve a problem might be a dangerous move.
“Uh…there’s no need, truly. It’ll sort itself out. Besides, I’m on Komarr for a couple of weeks. I want to forget Barrayar and just be myself for a while.” If only she knew who that was, any more.
# # # # # # # #
Forgetting Barrayar wasn’t going to be possible, Laisa realised as she watched technicians fiddling with lights and vid cameras. Last night, with her family, she’d almost managed it. But today she had to be the Empress again, for this stupid interview. And thanks to Impsec paranoia the interview was taking place in what they called ‘a secure location’ – some old bunker from the time of the Invasion. How ironic. On a small bright square of matting some comfortable chairs faced the spidery framework thrown up to support the lights and vidcams. With a bare minimum of techs to set up the lights, vid cams and sound pickups – just three overworked people, two men and a woman fiddling with their setup and then muttering strings of numbers to each other, and making tiny adjustments. A control panel that looked like it could land a small space fleet was off to one side, twinkling with tiny coloured lights, each one flashing some important message to the frantic young woman tapping codes with enough concentration to land a shuttle. Another busy young man finished fussing around Laisa’s hair and makeup – although her own personal maid had already done a perfect job, and headed for the interviewer, for a few finishing touches. Near the control panel Xav was safe in his float-pram, his nanny keeping a careful eye on him. He was sleeping through all the noise and bustle, she prayed that he’d stay quiet. At the end of the interview he’d make a quick appearance before the cameras, and then it would all be over. Just a couple more days and she’d have Gregor with her again, she was missing him more than she thought possible.
Beyond their island of light the bunker was bare plascrete, shadowy and stark. Large stern Impsec bodyguards loomed in the darkness beyond the glow from the lights. Laisa tried to think of it as a metaphor. Of something.
“So, your highness, are you ready for this?”
The interviewer gave her his most popular camera-worthy grin. Laisa smiled back easily, at least the interviewer was someone she knew, a childhood friend whose parents had often visited hers when she was younger, bringing their son along as a suitable playmate for the little heiress. They’d probably had hopes of a romance, later. But by the time she reached her teens the Lannisters were gone from her life, Jacob’s parents hastily leaving the planet to escape charges of financing the fading Resistance. Jacob had been raised by his grandparents, but without the Lannister fortune, and with the taint of treason around his family, he’d slipped out of her circle. She was glad to see he’d done well for himself.
“It’s good to see you again, Jacob. You’ve become a huge success, I’m glad for you.”
Jacob Lannister looked around the makeshift studio, “Yes, it’s been a long road. I learned my lesson from watching my father waste all the family fortune on his useless resistance. It’s so much better to work within the system than against it.”
“I’m glad it all turned out well for you.”
“A talking head on the vids instead of one of the ruling class? I suppose so.” He grinned at her, flashing his perfect teeth, “And I rule in my own way – I set opinions across Komarr. I have the top rated show on the planet, everyone tunes in to see Jake At Ten.” He made a rueful mock bow, “At least it’s easy work. And the surroundings are – usually – comfortable. Sorry about this place, but Impsec… well, I guess you know what they’re like.” He glanced towards the control panel, “That… him… he’s an Auditor? Lord Auditor Vorkosigan?” He managed to say the words quite calmly – Laisa was always aware of how Komarrans reacted to the name.
“Yes he’s helping me with…things. Until Gregor arrives.”
“I’m glad.” The words were obviously sincere, “It’s good that he’s here.”
A bell rang, “Five minutes. Positions please. Clear the studio.”
Most of the techs and the Impsec personnel headed for the heavy, reinforced door. They’d be watching from the next room where a bank of screens was already flickering into life. The control panel tech stayed, as did one of the male techs fiddling with the lights. As Laisa settled into her chair she noticed a flicker of movement from the shadows, and realised that Miles had followed the rest to the door and then doubled back, into the shadows. His dark grey suit disappeared into the dimness.
Wonderful, one more thing to worry about. He’d probably blow the camera up at the worst possible moment. Or spring out of the darkness and take over the interview. She was beginning to wonder how Ekaterin stayed so calm. The woman must be a closet drinker. As for Cordelia – how had she coped for so many years, raising a demented grasshopper? And why hadn’t she smothered him with a pillow? They all said Miles had settled down a little as he matured. Or at least grew older. She tried not to imagine what he’d been like in full flight.
“Thirty seconds… ten…. And go!”
There was a blast of sound as the theme music played to introduce the show, and then Jake flashed his professional smile and launched into his introduction, “Hello Komarr! Tonight we have something very special for you all. I have here with me the former Laisa Toscane, who is now Empress of Barrayar. And Crown Prince Xav as well. And unless her husband agrees to free our planet, they will not leave this room alive.”