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Ekaterin was not sure why she was still trying to survive.

She remembered, back in those dark hours on the Komarran transfer station, her lack of fear. She had told herself then that it was because they could not really hurt her, not deeply: Nikolai was her heart’s blood, and Nikolai had been safe at home, keeping her alive.

Nikki was gone now.

The twins were gone.

Miles was gone.

From the rumors brought in by recent arrivals, all of Barrayar was gone now, or soon would be. She should have stayed with Tien. She should have taken Ser Venier’s offer, on Komarr. In those domes, she might still be safe, at least for a time. Safe, like a caged songbird. She would give it all up, those few glorious years with Miles, her life of freedom and glory, to have Nikolai safe with her again.

She lived day by day, with only a vague sense of the passage of time, surrounded by steel walls. The other women came in two types: hard-eyed and empty-eyed. She wondered some days which category she fell into, and she wondered why she was still trying to survive.

It was her fault. The guilt beat on her like the ocean. She saw the hatred in the faces of the other prisoners, but their hatred was impersonal. Lord Vorkosigan’s wife, they thought when they looked at her. Kidnapper. Traitor. Thief. Mutant. She knew the darker truth. Miles had committed no crime. Miles had not even failed. Miles had just died. Not his fault. Not anyone’s fault.

No. Ekaterin had failed.

The Barrayaran officers had become so infuriatingly male after Miles had died, shuffling her back to her quarters, pushing her aside, not telling her anything about what was happening. She had argued, wheedled, begged, demanded, ordered, but nothing had worked. If I don’t make it… Miles had told her with dying eyes. You can do this…

She had been arrested, but she did not stop trying. “I am Lady Vorkosigan! I need to speak to ghem-General Benin and the haut Pel! We are bringing the children back to you! We have evidence! You need to listen! Somebody needs to stop, for just one minute, and listen!”

No one had. She had failed. Everyone was dead. Everyone except her.

Every day was the same. She thought it had been a few months since she had been captured, but she remembered Miles’s stories about Dagoola IV. Who was to say that a cycle of light and dark was one day? She thought sometimes that it changed – one day seemed shorter or longer than another. Maybe it was all in her head. Maybe she was going crazy.

She walked down the bare corridors in a line with the other women towards their morning meal, her bare feet cold on the metal floor. She missed color. Everything here was grey: the walls, their clothes, their food, their light. Miles had brought light to the camp at Dagoola IV. She was not Miles.

She pressed her thumb to the pad on the meal dispenser, which disgorged a tray for her. She took it and sat, trying not to meet anyone’s eyes. The senses dulled here, with nothing to stimulate them. The constant whispering of a hundred conversations was a type of white noise in here. There was no color. There was no taste. There was no smell. And above all, there was no touch.

She ached for touch, some nights, for the feel of Miles’s skin against hers, the warmth of a hug from her Aunt Vorthys, the silkiness of a kitten’s fur under her hand, the soft tickle of Nikolai’s hair against her cheek. Never again, she knew.

She ate her tasteless rations with her lukewarm water, her face frozen behind its bland mask. I am an expert in survival, she thought.

“Vorkosigan.” It was Inaya Cooper, the former captain of the Komarran trade ship Horizon. The Horizon had been caught in Cetagandan space when hostilities broke out. Inaya’s crew had been taken as prisoners of war.

Ekaterin did not look up. Be a stone statue, her mother had told her. She had never realized how much that advice would help her, one day.

Cooper dropped her tray on the table in front of Ekaterin: the crash echoed in the room. Ekaterin kept her eyes forward. Cooper leaned to put herself in Ekaterin’s line of sight, meeting her eyes. “Move,” she said, her voice clear and deliberate.

Ekaterin waited a few seconds, letting their eyes meet. She never won these conflicts, because she never fought these conflicts. The struggle for dominance and pride in the desolation of a Cetagandan POW camp simply was not worth the trouble. She was not afraid of Inaya Cooper. She was simply too tired to fight all of the battles.

So she held Cooper’s eyes for a few seconds, long enough for the other woman to wonder if this would be the day she fought, to wonder if this would be the day she won, to wonder just how far down Ekaterin Vorkosigan could go. She held her eyes long enough to show that she was not afraid. And then she moved.

She had eaten enough, so she placed her cup and tray in the return slot and walked out to the common area. They were not permitted to bring their dishes with them. When someone tested the rule, or simply forgot and carried their cup into the corridor, the doors locked, trapping everyone for five minutes. The prisoners themselves enforced the rules well by now.

There was nothing to do in the common room, but she sat there anyway, not speaking to the other prisoners. She closed her eyes and thought of her gardens at home, the ones that were now destroyed. It was easier than thinking about what else she had lost. She could see the raised beds in her aunt’s yard, the Barrayaran garden she had built for Miles, the riots of flowers back home on the South Continent.

She had forgotten the smell of roses.

#

She slept when it was dark and woke when the lights came on. She stared up at the ceiling and wondered, again, whether she might just stay in her room today. Let the door seal with her still inside, leave her meals ignored in the mess hall, leave the other prisoners to their quiet misery.

She got out of bed. She rubbed her face. They did not have sinks, so she could not wash, but the friction brought life back to her skin. There were sonic showers to wash both the prisoners and their clothing, and Ekaterin visited them daily. Some women never did. The Cetagandans and their delicate sensibilities were safe, at any rate. They never came inside the prison.

There were cameras everywhere, and automatically locking doors and apparently miles of corridors. But there were no guards, no weapons, no faces to the enemy. There was just the prison and the prisoners.

She walked down the bare corridors in a line with the other women. It was always the same, grey and just a bit too cold. Yesterday might have been a dream, and she would never notice it. Nothing ever changed.

She pressed her thumb to the pad on the meal dispenser.

Nothing happened. Ekaterin stared at the machine for a few seconds, then shifted her thumb and tried again. The machine hissed.

“What the hell is keeping you?” demanded the woman behind her. Ekaterin shook her head, not sure how to answer. She tried the pad again.

“Vorkosigan, Ekaterin.” A cool voice spoke from the grille above the dispenser. “Please proceed to tertiary processing station.”

Ekaterin hesitated, watching the impassive machine.

“Hurry up,” ordered her impatient linemate.

Ekaterin stepped slowly away from the machine.

They all knew where the processing stations were; all new arrivals came from there. Ekaterin had come through them, all of those months ago. It had not been a pleasant experience. She walked through the corridors, her pace even, her mind racing. It had been so long since her thoughts had anywhere to go but around in circles, and now that they were loosed, they galloped on ahead of her.

She could not imagine why she was being called, could not imagine why the Cetagandans had broken their unending silence here for her. She wondered if she was being executed. It seemed redundant.

The processing stations were behind a locked door, but Ekaterin tried the palmlock, and the door slid obediently open at her touch. She stepped through.

Each station was labeled, and Ekaterin walked down the empty corridor between the doors. When she came to the third, she pressed the palmlock. The door slid aside.

Once she was in the small room, the door slid closed behind her. She tried the door on the far side of the module, but it did not move.

“Hello?” she called. There was no answer. She turned to open the door through which she’d come in, but the palm lock didn’t work this time.

She closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against the wall. The space was the size of a shower stall, four feet to a side. She focused on her breathing, slow and calm. She waited. It was a very long wait.

When the door finally slid open, she nearly spasmed; her too-tense muscles tried to jump but locked from the frozen wait. She managed to turn to the door.

There was color. It was the first thing she registered, the brilliant patch of red outside the door, like a Barrayaran garden, like a strawberry, like blood. She had stepped towards it before she even realized she was moving, drawn by the color like a honeybee.

It was a Cetagandan uniform. The ghem-officer wearing it had the black and white facepaint of an Imperial officer. It took Ekaterin a moment to realize that behind the officer, a force-bubble floated, grey and opaque. She had seen one of those bubbles before, at the Emperor’s wedding back in Vorbarr Sultana.

With the echo of the wedding in her mind, she suddenly realized that she knew the ghem-officer. Her mouth opened, but she couldn’t seem to form words.

Ghem-General Benin laid a finger across his painted lips, then pulled a small device from his tunic pocket. Her tapped a few keys, then turned to the float bubble. “The room is secure, my lady,” he said.

Ekaterin had thought that she was beyond shock, but when the force-bubble suddenly vanished, she thought her heart might skip a beat. She knew the woman in the float chair, as well – the same haut-woman she had met on that Midsummer Day, a lifetime ago, when she had a home and a life. It was the haut Pel, dressed in the white robes of mourning.

“Lady Vorkosigan,” the haut-lady said, her voice low and softly musical. “It has taken me some effort to find you here, but I knew your husband, once.”

“He… told me as much,” Ekaterin managed, not at all sure where this conversation was going.

“Lord Vorkosigan was awarded a Cetagandan Order of Merit once, for saving our people from ourselves.”

“I’ve seen it,” Ekaterin said. “It’s probably been atomized now, along with the rest of our capital city.”

The haut Pel looked at ghem-General Benin, who frowned briefly in response. They both studied Ekaterin for a moment. She set her jaw and resolved not to look away.

“Lady Vorkosigan,” Pel said gently, “please. Can you tell us everything that happened to you on Graf Station?”

Chapter Text

“This is exactly how you progressives landed us in trouble in the first place.” Berenice said, not turning to look at Ivan. Her hair was being coiled and pinned by some undoubted expert in the art form, a middle-aged woman named Patience who always made Ivan feel as though he were being laughed at. There was just something unnervingly shrewd about her deference. Ivan usually tried to ignore her and wound up feeling irrationally guilty about it.

“Will you stop that?” he asked Berenice, letting his irritation spill through more than he knew he should. “You can’t just win every argument by shrieking ‘Progressive!’ at me like a hex sign. I’m not even a real progressive. I’m a centrist.”

“You put a Komarran in the Council of Counts, Ivan.”

“You agreed with me!”

Berenice paused for a moment, letting Patience place a few final pins and step back. Ivan, used to having these kinds of discussions with Miles the frantic overpowerer of arguments, found Berenice’s deliberate pauses a bit unsettling, but was learning to adjust. He tried not to fidget.

“I chose not to disagree with you,” she said at last, lifting a hand to touch her hair as she studied herself in a mirror. “Vorgaleni was a key figure in your resistance, and I know that you wanted him by your side. I have always known I would need to choose my battles.”

Ivan fought back the automatic impulse to bristle. “Do you think there is anyone better suited to the job?”

She turned then to look back at him, her gaze calm and level. “I think there are any number of loyal Vor who have a better understanding of what the Imperium requires of the position of count than a former Komarran terrorist, yes.”

Ivan felt his back tense, and gritted out, “Low blow, Berenice.”

She paused. “I apologize.”

For a moment, neither of them spoke, stepping back from the charged moment. When Ivan spoke again, his tone was lighter. “We can’t turn the clock back. Komarr is part of the Empire now, and their citizens are our citizens. If it comes to it, most of their aristocrats have been aristocrats a lot longer than ours. Their oligarchs wielded real power. They just never had our mysticism.”

“Unlike the silly Barrayaran provincials, I suppose?”

“That’s not what I said,” Ivan answered.

“You didn’t need to.” Berenice’s voice was maddeningly matter-of-fact.

“We’re off the subject,” Ivan said, trying to pull the conversation back onto firmer footing. “I don’t even know why we’re talking about Vorgaleni.”

“Because he’s an example of your embrace of the progressive philosophies,” Berenice answered. “That’s lovely, Patience; you can go now.”

Patience dipped a curtsey to both of them and withdrew with all the correct murmurs. Ivan watched her go, waiting until the door had closed to say, “It’s not a progressive agenda, Berenice, it’s a common-sense agenda. I’m not declaring war. I’m just refusing to call the war over. Because it’s not over.”

“Common sense?” Berenice climbed to her feet. It was becoming more of a production, now, as she moved into her third trimester, but Ivan knew better than to offer her a hand by now. “We have no money. We need to rebuild a capital and a government. We’ve lost half of our fleet. The arrangements Countess Vorkosigan made to reduce the tariffs on Betan and Escobaran fleets through Komarr will cut our revenue there for twenty years, and it will allow them to compete on a stronger footing with the Komarran merchants, who have relied on free transits through Komarr to keep their costs low. That will reduce our tax revenues there as well. We have military obligations in Jackson’s Whole. And right now, the Cetagandans are nursing their wounds and making no aggressive movements at all. How is it common sense to throw away our resources antagonizing them further?”

“Because we’re going to fight them again one way or another,” Ivan said flatly. “This is the Fourth Cetagandan War. My grandfather fought in the first. Across all four of them, we’ve had around eight million casualties, including two major cities destroyed. Eight million dead in a hundred years, Berenice. That’s eighty thousand each year for the last century. What is that, two hundred and fifty a day? Next time we fight them, it will not be on our home soil.”

“It will be if we try now and lose,” Berenice said, her voice flat. “They’ll follow our retreating fleets right back here, and this time, they’ll bomb us from orbit.”

“So we won’t lose.”

“You cannot possibly be this naïve!” Berenice said, her voice rising. “You cannot seriously be planning our foreign policy based on unfounded optimism and an unwillingness to weigh the risks! Ivan, our son will have to live with the consequences of the decisions you make here.”

Ivan hesitated at that. She could usually bring him up short with reference to their unborn son, and it was not a card she played lightly. Their eyes met for a long minute. Finally, Ivan said, “Yes. He will.” His voice was firm. “I will not give my son this war, to fight over and over again. The Cetagandans have been the galactic bully for too long, and everyone has been content with just holding them at bay. Now is the moment. If we can keep our allies in a line with us, we can take this fight to them, and win not just this war, but all of the wars to come.”

“We’ll lose.” Berenice’s voice was very quiet.

Ivan shook his head. “You only think that because the Cetagandans have spent the last hundred years trying to convince the nexus that it’s true. If someone had called their bluff a hundred years ago, they wouldn’t be in this position. But every year, it becomes less of a bluff. They weakened themselves in this attack. This is the best moment. It may be the last moment.”

Berenice shook her head. She didn’t offer any further arguments, but she did not look convinced, either. After a moment, she said, “You know I will support you in public.”

“I know,” Ivan said quietly. “Thank you.”

He offered her his arm. Together, they left the room and walked downstairs to begin the day’s meetings.

#

Mark had never felt comfortable in the Imperial Residence in Vorbarr Sultana, whose antiquated elegance spoke to a part of Barrayar he never fully understood. Transplanted too late, he supposed: his roots had never reached that deep into his native soil.

As awkward as he had felt there, however, the new Governmental Offices were worse. The ultramodern building where Emperor Ivan lived and the Council of Counts convened had an undeniably Cetagandan feel: it was one of the complex that the recent invasion force had built.

And now Mark approached it as a cadet member of the Council of Counts, his father’s voting proxy. He scowled up at the tinted forcescreens that guarded the top-floor windows. This was not last on his list of things he wanted to do, but it was pretty close to the bottom of the list.

The sense of stepping into Miles’s unpleasantly soggy cavalry boots was overpowering. Lord Vorkosigan… He had been Lord Vorkosigan before, in the deranged diatribes of Ser Galen. He had tasted it when Miles had been dead before. But not quite sufficiently dead, that time. That had been a sort of dress rehearsal, he supposed.

Countess Vorkosigan had told him then that she would not count Miles as dead until he was dead and rotted. Miles was surely that now. Mark had been there when they had opened the lid on his remains, had smelled the stink that had been sealed in there with him. It had bothered him intensely that Miles had been trapped in there with that filthy stench for his journey. It had been a stupid thought.

A light touch on his elbow jolted him out of his thoughts. The world tilted crazily, and the Other, nameless and raw for months now, surged forward. He half-spun and caught Kareen’s wrist before he realized what he was doing, then froze. She was staring down at him, wide-eyed.

“You just stopped,” she said, her tone careful.

Mark couldn’t move his eyes from hers. He could see the controlled fear in them. Carefully, he wrestled the Other back down -- you’re not needed here -- and uncurled his fingers. The tension didn’t leave her shoulders. “Sorry,” he muttered. “Just thinking.”

Careless, the Other whispered.

Kareen put her hand back on his arm, gingerly. “Let’s go in.”

He closed his hand over hers too tightly, half-afraid she would pull it away. She did not protest, however, as they climbed the three steps to the front entrance of the Governmental Offices.

They had to part in the entrance hall. Kareen leaned down to press her lips to his. It was too brief a touch, and Grunt strained somewhere in the back of Mark’s head. He needed to expend too much effort keeping the Black Gang subjugated these days, energy he did not have to spare. His stomach rumbled ominously.

Kareen gave him a brilliant smile as she straightened up. “You’ll do great,” she told him firmly, and he could almost believe it from her. He didn’t know what magic her eyes had, to see even him as something beautiful, but he could feel himself gaining strength from her gaze.

“Thanks,” he managed. He grabbed desperately at her hand before she could move away. “I love you,” he said.

“Love you, too,” she answered. “It will be all right. I promise.”

He nodded and made himself release her. She smiled at him again – light and warmth, that smile -- and moved away first so he wouldn’t have to, climbing the stairs to the galleries with a reassuring little wave over her shoulder. Mark waited until she was out of sight before proceeding onto the council floor.

He was a bit earlier than he’d intended to be. A half-dozen counts were there before him, all of them but Count Vorinnis newly ascended to their exalted ranks. The old hands were presumably less panicked about traffic congestion keeping them from this illustrious occasion. It was the first time the Council of Counts had met in full session since the Cetagandan occupation had been thrown off.

Mark had tried to suggest that the significance of this event required the clout of the actual count, but Count Vorkosigan had just given him a dry smile.

“You’ll do fine, son,” he said. “Ivan’s job will be rather more difficult, and he surely does not need his predecessor watching him from across the floor.”

Mark had been forced to concede the point, though grudgingly. Ivan, he thought, had been projecting a much more believable image of an emperor than Mark had been managing to project of a count’s heir. It was probably the teeth. Ivan had unfairly imperial teeth. You could practically hear the light glinting off of them when he smiled.

Mark crossed to his table and lowered himself uncomfortably into his chair, trying not to look at anyone else.

They’re all staring at you, Howl whispered happily. Mark writhed inwardly, and stared at a flimsy without reading it.

“Hello, Mark.” Mark started, and glanced up a bit guiltily at Duv Galeni – Duv Vorgaleni now, he corrected his automatic thought. What had Ivan been thinking with that particular bit of insanity? Vorgaleni’s confirmation had been rammed through an ad hoc session of the Council whose proceedings had only barely qualified as legal. The rest of the new counts had to deal with the formality of this meeting. Mark was only grateful that his own confirmation as a Vorkosigan heir was out of the way.

For now, he offered Vorgaleni a guarded nod. “Duv,” he said.

Vorgaleni’s eyes moved around the room. “There isn’t much of a crowd yet,” he said.

“No,” Mark agreed. This conversation was going more easily than he’d feared. “It’s still early,” he said.

“It is,” said Vorgaleni. As long as the two of them could keep stating the obvious, Mark thought, they could likely get through this without acrimony. He was never entirely sure what Duv Galeni thought of him, and now that Galeni was Vorgaleni, with the weight of a countship behind him, Mark felt an extra step behind the Komarran. So far, however, he seemed to be safe. “How are you voting on Martya?” Vorgaleni asked, almost casually.

Martya Koudelka was Emperor Ivan’s proposal for a regent for the infant Count Dono Vorrutyer, her nephew and Vorgaleni’s. Practically Mark’s, too, though he and Kareen Koudelka had not yet married. It occurred to him rather belatedly that with Miles gone -- dead and rotted -- the pressure on Mark and Kareen to formalize their arrangement would increase significantly. Damn Miles.

“I’m voting yes, of course,” Mark replied. “I’m voting yes on everyone. I don’t want to be the one to drag this ordeal out.”

Vorgaleni almost smiled. “Ah. I can understand that, I suppose.” He paused. “Ah – you don’t have any ideas who the emperor is likely to suggest as Prime Minister, do you?”

“Me? God, no. I’m not exactly one of Ivan’s bosom friends.” Belatedly, Mark corrected himself. “Emperor Ivan.”

Vorgaleni nodded. Mark opted not to return the question. He half-feared that Ivan had Vorgaleni in mind for the post, though if he did, Ivan would have a fight on his hands. Mark wasn’t entirely sure Ivan could have rammed Vorgaleni through even a confirmation vote for his countship if he had waited to do it in full council. Ivan had a lot of clout at the moment, both in his own right and through his uncle, the retired emperor Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan, but possibly not enough to make Barrayar swallow Prime Minister Count Duv Vorgaleni. Mark asked instead, “Do you think Martya will make it?”

“I think it depends on whether the Emperor and Empress have successfully persuaded Count Vorkalloner to support her. This will hinge on him, one way or the other.”

Mark grimaced. “That doesn’t sound optimistic.”

Vorgaleni held out a hand, tilting it from side to side as if balancing a scale. “It is closer than it looks. I believe Empress Berenice genuinely supports her, and there is precedent for a female regent.”

“Any precedent for a non-Vor one?” Mark asked dubiously.

“Yes,” Vorgaleni said. “Not since the Time of Isolation, but there was a case where a non-Vor half-brother of a deceased Count sat as regent for his nephew for three years until the boy came of age. The precedent is not strong, but it is there.”

“Eh,” Mark said, unconvinced. Vorgaleni simply shrugged, not pressing the point.

The room was starting to fill nicely. There were eleven confirmation votes that would take place today, seven new counts who had never been confirmed as heirs and four regents for underaged counts come to their titles too soon. Vorgaleni gave a farewell nod and crossed to his own district table, which would have been the Vorfolse table if the Vorfolse table and all the other tables had not been destroyed when the Cetagandans wiped Vorbarr Sultana from the map. These tables were new, if carefully crafted: the beginning of new centuries of tradition. Mark stared at the oak surface of the Vorkosigan table.

Mark could tell when Martya arrived by the cessation of sound. Quiet conversations all around the room died out, their participants turning to stare at her. Mark turned his head. Martya, imperturbable as always, crossed the room as she might the parlor of an old friend, shifting the chair at the Vorrutyer table before seating herself. Mark suspected it was around eighty percent bluff and only twenty percent backbone, but she had the confidence to make it look good.

Long, lean, and blonde, Martya Koudelka could draw eyes in any crowd. Here, the only woman in this bastion of male privilege, she was riveting, but seemed singularly unaware of her effect. She wore the long dress and high-necked bodice of the most traditional Vor woman, and not, Mark noticed, in the Vorrutyer colors of blue and grey, but green and white, colors which belonged to no house at all. She gave Vorgaleni a bright smile, which he returned with a grave nod, and then darted a look Mark’s way, her eyes alive with mischief. Yes, Martya was definitely enjoying this moment.

The conversations started up again, quietly. Mark did a quick count of the room. Forty-one tables occupied left nineteen still absent. Mark thought all of the petitioners were accounted for, at least.

An armsman in the black and silver Vorbarra uniform stepped onto the council floor and crossed over in Mark’s direction. Mark eyed him warily.

“Lord Vorkosigan,” the man said. Mark thought he should recognize the face, but couldn’t connect a name with it. “Emperor Ivan requests that you remain after the council session has ended to speak with him.”

“Requests?” Mark repeated cautiously.

“Requests,” the armsman confirmed. “Will you be available?”

Mark didn’t want to talk to Ivan after this ordeal. Mark didn’t want to talk to anyone after this ordeal. Mark wanted to eat a gallon of ice cream and have glorious sex with Kareen after this ordeal. “Yeah,” he sighed. “I’ll be available.”

#

Martya won her vote. Everyone won their votes, in the end. Mark voted yes to everyone. Ivan set a firm example by voting “Yea” on every candidate, eschewing the emperor’s traditional abstention. Vorkalloner, Mark noticed, did the same, with much the same air of issuing a precedent for his party. A few conservatives still refused to fall in line, but so did a few progressives. The voting took five hours.

Martya received thirty-six votes, with eight seats still vacant when it came to her turn. Her speech thanking her new colleagues was brief, respectful, and subdued, which left Mark deeply suspicious that mischief would follow. For good or ill, he would be off suffering through a meeting with Ivan, and would miss it all.

The Vorbarra armsman arrived to collect him as the counts were scattering, and Mark took only a moment to congratulate Martya before letting himself be led out. She answered it with a polite nod.

He was escorted to a small conference room with a disappointingly small plate of pastries and a coffee cart, and left to wait. Mark scowled at the plate. Ivan, he was certain, had deliberately instructed his staff to leave minimal food, because no imperial servant would provide such an embarrassingly small selection otherwise.

Mark poured himself a cup of coffee, then sat down and methodically worked his way through the tray. His nerves were jangling, and the food was entirely insufficient to calm them. It sat in a little ball in the middle of an otherwise empty stomach. He sipped his coffee.

When Ivan finally arrived, he had the empress with him. Mark rose from his feet and gave them a little bow, feeling awkward. The careful balance he and Ivan had found had been thrown off-center by this change in Ivan’s status. He was looking at Ivan, but talking with the Emperor. He was never entirely sure which tone to take. He wondered how Miles had handled that for so many years while Emperor Gregor reigned.

Ivan looked over at the tray of crumbs and rolled his eyes. “Hungry, were you?” he asked. He paused while Empress Berenice settled herself in a chair, then seated himself.

Mark followed suit. “Yes,” he answered, then added pointedly, “I still am.”

“Well, then, you can agree quickly and I’ll let you go find a vat of bug butter to drown your sorrows in,” Ivan said cheerfully.

“Agree to what?” Mark felt his defenses prickle to the alert.

Berenice pressed a com button on the table. “Martin, please have another tray of pastries sent up to us.”

Ivan cast her an aggrieved look, which she met placidly. Mark gave her an awkward little nod of thanks.

“I really don’t want this to take long,” Ivan said. “I need you to go to Jackson’s Whole to fulfill our obligations to Baron Fell.”

Mark stared at him. “Is that a joke?” he asked at last.

“No,” Ivan said.

Mark looked at Berenice, who was watching him, her hands folded over her stomach. He looked back at Ivan. “You want me to go to Jackson’s Whole,” he said. “Alone?”

“Don’t be stupid,” Ivan said. “I’m sending a fleet with you, and you can have a staff, and Kareen will be going.”

Mark lurched to his feet. “You’re sending Kareen to Jackson’s Whole?” he said, his voice rising. “Are you insane?”

“Lord Vorkosigan, please sit,” Berenice said before Ivan could reply. Mark turned angrily on her, but she opened her hands in placation, and he felt himself deflating. He sat.

“She’s been there before,” Ivan pointed out. “With your mother. Baron Fell specifically requested her back. He liked her.”

Mark couldn’t find it in him to be surprised. Everyone liked Kareen. “She’s not a soldier.”

“Neither are you,” Ivan said. “But Fell wants both of you, and I want the situation there tied up as fast as possible so that we can get our full fleet back here.”

Where the hell were the damned pastries? Mark took a sip from his coffee, as an inadequate substitute. It was unfair of Ivan to have brought Berenice along for this. As though the imbalance of power wasn’t bad enough, he had to be outnumbered, too. He couldn’t help noticing that Kareen hadn’t been invited to come with him to this meeting.

“Fine,” he growled.

Ivan looked taken aback. “What?”

“I said, ‘Fine,’” Mark repeated. He could see the whole conversation stretching in front of him, long and painful and probably culminating in Ivan turning the damned thing into an order. Mark was not prepared to handle that on an empty stomach.

Ivan didn’t speak for a minute. Mark thought he could see the carefully marshaled arguments breaking down and falling away, and took a brief moment of smug satisfaction at having discombobulated his cousin so completely. “Well,” Ivan said at last. “Good.”

“Can I go now?” Mark asked, glowering across the table with lowered eyebrows.

Still clearly searching for the catch, Ivan said, “Send any staff requests you have to my secretary by the day after tomorrow.”

“Sure,” Mark said.

Ivan and Berenice traded glances, then Berenice rose. “It’s always a pleasure to see you, Lord Vorkosigan,” she said. “I hope you’ll join us for dinner sometime before you have to leave.”

Ivan shot her a brief, panicked look, which she appeared not to notice. Mark rather thought he agreed with Ivan. “Uh… I’ll see, my lady. It was a pleasure.” He took her offered hand and bowed over it awkwardly.

Ivan called out to the waiting armsman, who came to escort Mark back to the exit. They passed the pastry tray on their way out. Mark took three for the road.

Chapter Text

The lightflyer curved gently around the lake at Vorkosigan Surleau, angling down towards the portico. Mia Maz Vorob’yev, gazing out the window at the landscape below, could see the men near the doorway. Some were in the brown and silver of the Vorkosigan armsmen, and some in Imperial undress greens. ImpSec, she assumed. Her nose wrinkled slightly.

After a decade as a Barrayaran subject, she had grown almost accustomed to its ways, but ImpSec still made her skin crawl. They had their fingers in too many parts of Barrayaran life, eyes in too many places. She always seemed to end up mentally reassuring herself: You have nothing to hide. And she didn’t, she reassured herself.

Vorkosigan Surleau was beautiful. Mia could see the first traces of red in the trees – maple trees, she recalled. When full autumn had arrived in the area, it would be breathtaking, with that brilliant landscape reflected on the surface of the lake. Her own home in the Vorob’yev District was beautiful, but it did not have scenery to match this.

The engine’s hum rose slightly in pitch as Gulbev decelerated, bringing them to a stop outside of the unimposing front door. The house was unassuming, a neat stone box, but the grounds were beautifully tended. Mia could feel herself unwinding as Gulbev, wiry and imposing in his Vorob’yev wine-red and black, handed her out of the lightflyer.

She left him there, moving to the door where she was efficiently and impersonally scanned for weapons by a young ImpSec corporal and then led inside by one of the Vorkosigan armsmen.

It was a relief when the door closed behind her, like a barricade against the ImpSec men outside. She was escorted into a little breakfast room with glass windows on three sides. The room seemed almost an extension of the outdoors, a way to extend the season.

“Countess Vorkosigan will be down shortly, milady,” the armsman said, bowing his way out of the room.

Mia sighed and lowered herself to a seat to wait, folding her hands in her lap as she looked out at the lake. She wasn’t entirely sure why she’d been asked to come here, but when Countess Vorkosigan invited one to tea, one accepted. Mia had too many layers of respect and gratitude towards the countess and her family to dream of refusing, but she had never quite gotten the knack of tea with the ladies, and could not imagine why the countess should choose to reach out at this particular time, and to Mia of all people.

She did not have to wait as long as she’d feared. Only a few minutes had passed before footsteps outside the room announced the countess’s approach, and Mia had just enough time to rise from her chair before the door opened and Countess Cordelia Vorkosigan came through.

“Lady Vorob’yev,” she said. “I’m so glad you came. Do sit down. Food and drink should be arriving soon.”

Mia obligingly lowered herself back to her seat. “I’m honored that you invited me, Countess Vorkosigan. Please, accept my deep sympathies for your recent losses.” The countess was wearing a black dress and bolero jacket, embroidered with tiny silver maple leaves, but Mia hardly needed that clue to remember the recent bereavements the Vorkosigans had suffered.

“Thank you,” the countess answered. “You knew Miles from his visit to Cetaganda, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” Mia said. “He and I only knew each other briefly, but I was very impressed by him.”

The countess smiled briefly at that. “He had that effect on people,” she said simply. “And how are your children? You have two, I believe?”

Believe, hah. Mia suspected the countess could recite their medical records. There was something artificially casual about her air. “They’re very well, Countess Vorkosigan. My boy Alexei is six, and Tatiana is almost four. We’ve been very fortunate.”

The tea arrived then, and the bustle of getting everything arranged superseded the conversation for a minute. Mia saw with delight that the countess’s research had stretched far enough to include Mia’s tastes in snacks: a little tray of petit fours were among the delicacies laid out. She reached for one promptly, opting for the etiquette of enthusiastic enjoyment, rather than the meeker back and forth over waistlines and restraint.

“Did ImpSec include these in their report on me?” she asked the countess when the servants had left, taking a careful bite. The petit four was delightful, a tiny chocolate cake with layers of coffee-infused cream throughout. She refrained, narrowly, from closing her eyes to savor it.

“Yes, they did,” the countess replied seriously. “I asked for a full workup on you.”

“May I ask why?”

Countess Vorkosigan reached almost absently for a petit four, popping it whole into her mouth. She chewed and swallowed before replying. Mia took the opportunity to finish her own.

When the countess spoke, her voice was low. “This information is not yet public knowledge, but I believe I can rely on your discretion. At the Emperor’s request, I will soon be going off-planet to head a diplomatic mission throughout the Nexus to gather support for an offensive war against Cetaganda. I’ve been given full control over the team I take with me, and I would like you there with me. Lord Vorob’yev as well, but primarily you.”

Mia was still holding a chocolate, but felt very little desire to eat it, all of a sudden. She could feel her heartbeat, the blood pulsing in her arms and legs. The war just ended, she thought, but the emotional response, the automatic horror and dread she thought should come, were missing, drowned out by the tight, hot, angry snarl at the back of her mind. Finally, it exulted. It did not feel like a part of her.

Mia had lived twice through Cetagandan attempts at occupation. The first time, on Vervain, had been like a lightning bolt, over almost before they knew it was happening. This one, on Barrayar, had been brutal and terrifying. What would the third be? The fourth? The final one? Let them feel what it’s like.

At last she said, “I put my career aside when I married. I’m a bit out of practice with diplomacy.”

The countess’s eyes danced. “So did I. It didn’t take. I don’t think it has with you, either. I read the reports from your work with your husband on Komarr two years ago, handling the politics of Emperor Gregor’s betrothal. Retired? Ha.” She leaned forward. “Listen, Mia. I didn’t get this job because I’m a real diplomat. Ivan gave it to me because I can go out into the nexus and speak for Barrayar as a Betan and the heroine of the Escobaran war. I want you because Vervain knows what’s at risk here.”

That was certainly true, in more senses than the countess had meant. Mia chose her words carefully. “With all due respect, Countess Vorkosigan, the precedent of Vervain is not one in which Barrayar is historically innocent. It hasn’t been long enough for memory to fade since the failed Barrayaran invasion of Escobar. Barrayar isn’t opposed to conquest, but to being conquered.”

“Oh, believe me,” the countess said ruefully, “I know. I was there.” Her smile was a bit lopsided. “The new precedent we want to emphasize is the wholesale murder of innocents, certainly. But we must point also to the number of acts of Cetagandan aggression in recent history. New Sicily and Shangrila were both annexed in the past fifteen years, and Vervain, Marilac, and now Barrayar have all repulsed invasion attempts. No one is safe.”

“First they came for the New Sicilians, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a New Sicilian,” Mia murmured. She looked out at the lake, sparkling in the morning light. “Barrayar was the one to speak out when they came for Vervain. I haven’t forgotten that.”

“I didn’t think you had.”

“And you want me there to remind the rest of the nexus.”

“In part.” The countess took a meditative sip of her tea. “You have good instincts, and a breadth of vision that our home-grown diplomats sometimes lack.” She snorted a sudden laugh. “Narrow is certainly one of the pleasanter terms I could tack onto some of our diplomatic core. Barrayarans!”

Mia felt herself smile automatically in answer to that laugh. “I don’t like to leave the children for so long. The trip to Komarr was only a few weeks.”

“Bring them with us,” the countess invited, surprising Mia. It must have shown in her eyes, because the countess grinned at her. “Children will help to humanize us. And it will be good for them. Broaden their horizons.”

Mia hesitated, looking for another objection, but couldn’t immediately find one. She couldn’t deny that the trip to Komarr had been exhilarating, an awakening of the parts of herself she had let lie almost dormant since coming to Barrayar. And it was important work. If not me, she thought, then whom? Her children’s lives – or her own – might well depend on the success of this diplomatic mission. Was there anyone she trusted more than herself to do this? The answer was immediate, with a firmness that surprised her: No.

“I’ll need to talk to Sergei about the children,” she said. “We may need to make different arrangements for them.”

“Whatever makes you most comfortable,” the countess said. “It will be at least a week before the team is ready to leave, and probably closer to two. I’ve learned not to trust diplomats to do anything quickly.”

Mia’s eyes crinkled. “It’s the effort of overcoming so much inertia, I expect. Will the count be coming on this mission?”

The smile faded from Countess Vorkosigan’s eyes, and Mia wished she hadn’t asked. “No,” the countess said simply. “The emperor has need of him here.”

#

By tradition, Mia and Sergei should have been living in Vorob’yev House with Sergei’s brother the count, but Mia had put down a firm foot. The servants and armsmen necessary for their own household was enough of a crowd, and had required significant adjustment. She was not, she had said firmly, going to live with his older brother, his unmarried niece, and his adult son from an earlier marriage.

And so they had settled in another family property, a summer home that was small only by comparison. The staff necessary to maintain the house was minimal: there were only the three armsmen seconded to Sergei, the nurse who tended the children when they were away, a cook, and a gardener. Everything else was handled by contractors from various agencies who came by once or twice a week.

Alexei was at school, but she poked her head in on Tatiana, who was building a bridge out of plastic blocks. A line of improbably colored toy animals were already queued patiently along the completed section, but from the looks of it, there was a great deal of construction remaining before they would be able to proceed.

Sarah, the miraculous woman they had found after Alexei’s first nurse had proven to be a disaster, was on the floor beside Tatiana, her arm draped over the side of the block container, prepared to package new bridge components for delivery to the construction site.

“Looks like someone is building a city in our nursery,” Mia said. She stepped over a pile of discarded animals and lowered herself to sit next to Tatiana, placing a kiss on top of her head.

“Yeah,” Tatiana said, far more engrossed in the project than her mother’s arrival. “We’re going to play earthquake, but we need a bridge first so it can crash really, really big.”

“My goodness,” Mia said, glancing over at Sarah, who gave a shrug and a little half-smile. “The poor animals will fall in the water.”

Tatiana frowned at the bridge. “Except there’s no water underneath,” she pointed out.

“What does the bridge go over, then?” Mia asked.

Tatiana looked up at her. “The floor, mama,” she said with appropriate scorn.

“Oh, I see now,” Mia said, running her hand across the floor. “Can I help?”

“Maybe you can put the towers on the sides,” Tatiana said judiciously. “Because we need to put the birds on top of something.”

Mia started in on the towers, using triangular blocks to shore them up. “Sarah,” she said as she built, “do you have any obligations in the next few months? We may be needing some extra support from you, and I want to know what our options are.”

Sarah had been rooting around in the plastic bin in search of more tower components, but at this, she glanced up, her eyes curious. “No, my lady,” she said. Though her eyes lingered on Mia, she didn’t press for details.

“I’ll give you as much warning as we can,” Mia said.

Mia stayed to watch the earthquake, spectacular and extremely messy, then left Sarah and Tatiana to their cleanup.

Sergei was in his office, working at his comconsole desk. Mia paused in the doorway until he looked up. His eyes crinkled at the corners. “So,” he said. “How did your tea with the countess go?”

Mia smiled back at him. “You’ve already talked to her, haven’t you?”

“Oh, yes,” said Sergei, gesturing to a padded chair in invitation. “She commed me an hour ago.”

Mia sat, leaning to pull off her shoes. “She is a persistent woman, I have to give her that. She reminds me of her son.”

“Let us hope the resemblance doesn’t stretch too far, or we’ll have our hands full.”

“Then you think we should go.”

Sergei turned off his comconsole, turning to face her more fully. “I will certainly be going,” he said. “The Imperium has called on me, and I’m bound by my oath to answer it. You are more loosely bound. If you chose to remain behind, no one would criticize you for it.”

The lines that creased Sergei’s face had grown deeper over the years since Mia had met him, and his stout solidity had begun to run to fat. It always struck Mia when she noticed it: seventy-standard was not old on Vervain, though it was certainly not young, either. But here, Sergei would likely not see their children grow to adulthood. She had known that intellectually when they made the decision to have children, but the reality of it still hurt.

“Remain at home, the dutiful wife waiting for her husband to return from the battlefield?” she said, keeping her voice light. “I think I would rather be by your side, helping slay the dragons.”

“My heroine,” Sergei intoned.

Mia grinned at him, then pulled a foot up to cross over her knee and began massaging the arch of her foot with her thumbs. “Are you all right with us bringing the children along? I suspect we can convince Sarah to come with us. She might even enjoy it; I don’t think she’s been off-world before.”

“If it’s what you want, I would be glad to have them along. I do wonder if Countess Vorkosigan knows what she is offering, however. Being aboard a ship will be a grand adventure for the two of them for the first few hours. After that, they will probably just turn up underfoot at inopportune times.”

“They are rather good at that.”

“All children are,” Sergei acknowledged. “Colin and Yves were the same way, at their age. They don’t precisely grow out of it, either. It is more that they find their focus knob, allowing them to direct their attention at a single task for more than a few minutes at a time.”

“Well, they can grow up as slowly as they want,” Mia said firmly. “I’m in no hurry.”

“Nor I.”

Mia glanced at his comconsole, then sighed. “I should probably go talk to Sarah again,” she said. “Nothing is certain yet, from what Countess Vorkosigan said, but I would like to have our lives packaged up to ship on demand.” She leaned to collect her shoes, then rose from her chair.

“Of course,” said Sergei. “I have a few more business matters to attend to here. Will I see you at lunch?”

“You will,” Mia said, smiling over at him. She leaned across the desk to claim a kiss before heading back out of the room.

Chapter Text

Count Vorkalloner always arrived for his meetings with Ivan a scant minute or two before they were scheduled. Ivan didn’t know how his father-in-law managed it. According to Martin, who communicated directly with ImpSec on all security matters, Count Vorkalloner always arrived at the front gate, left his car, and walked straight into the building. He never hurried, and he never seemed to go deliberately slowly. But he always arrived at his destination almost precisely on time, and never so much as an instant late.

Ivan suspected black magic.

Whatever it was, it held for today’s meeting. Ivan was running a few minutes early, for a remarkable change. His morning briefing from ImpSec had been short: General Favre, whom Ivan had promoted from the head of galactic affairs to run ImpSec, was concise and to the point, a trait Ivan had grown to cherish. Not much had changed in the last day, it seemed, so the briefing had been nothing more than a run-down of statuses. Ivan had even had time for a second cup of coffee, alone in his quiet office. He missed having time to be alone.

Count Vorkalloner arrived less than a minute before his appointment was scheduled to begin, and Ivan’s secretary showed him directly in. Ivan was reading a briefing on a delegation which had just been dispatched from Pol, containing brief biographical information on the primary ambassadors, but when the door opened, he turned off the comconsole mid-paragraph. He was getting good at absorbing information in multiple tiny chunks. It seemed to be a survival trait for emperors.

“Good afternoon, sir,” Ivan greeted.

Count Vorkalloner bowed. “Sire,” he said formally.

Ivan gestured to the chair opposite him. “Please, have a seat. Are you going to stop in to see Berenice after we’re done here?”

“If time allows,” Vorkalloner said, the faint regret in his tone making clear his belief that it likely would not. Ivan hoped to hell it would. He wanted this meeting to be brief and conclusive. It would be a nice change.

“I’ll try to go quickly, then,” Ivan said. “The council meeting yesterday went very well, I thought. I’m glad to see that the Conservative Party seems to have fallen in behind you as a leader. I think we can count on their support for your confirmation as prime minister when it is announced.”

“They did not all follow my lead, sire,” Vorkalloner said. “And Vormoncrief was… put out. He and I have had a few very biting conversations in the last day.”

Ivan grinned. “Anything you can’t handle?” he asked.

Vorkalloner’s smile was dry. “No, sire,” he said.

“So the real question, then,” Ivan said, “is whether their loyalty will hold when it’s a question of war on the table. Do you still believe you can bring them to vote with me on the issue?”

Vorkalloner frowned, touching his fingertips together. “I will not get them all,” he said after a moment. “Vormoncrief will lead some away, and there will be others who will vote their fear or self-interest despite party lines. It would be the same if I called for opposition: on a war vote, party loyalty will no always win out. I have a solid core of supporters on whom I can call. I can certainly deliver ten, probably twelve. There are a half-dozen others who will waver for days. Some of those I will win, some I will not.”

Ivan opened a desk drawer and pulled out a stack of transparent plastic flimsies of the sort he’d once seen Miles use with Rene Vorbretten and Dono Vorrutyer to track votes in the Council. Each one had a little square for each of the district counts, arranged to match their seats on the council floor. They were intended to allow a politician to graphically chart the votes in his favor or against it, on multiple issues.

“The real question,” Vorkalloner continued, “is whether Aral Vorkosigan is as much of an ace in your pocket as you think he is. Can he deliver the Progressives, and will he? I suspect he has been expecting the position of Prime Minister for himself. I do not think the party will be pleased with you for putting my name in the conversation.”

Ivan paused at this, studying his father-in-law. “What happens if we do lose that vote?” he asked.

Vorkalloner tapped his index fingers lightly against each other for a contemplative minute. “When we first discussed this war,” he said, “I was candid about my reservations. With a progressive prime minister and cabinet, I would be unable to responsibly support an offensive action. Given a different conservative candidate, we could begin a new discussion and negotiation.”

There weren’t any real surprises there; Ivan nodded. “My uncle will support you on your own merits,” he predicted confidently, “even without the consequences to the war effort to consider. You are one of the few men who are truly qualified for the job, and I can promise you one thing: Aral Vorkosigan does not want to be prime minister.”

#

“Vorkalloner?” Count Vorkosigan said. “Thank god, son, for a minute there I was afraid you were going to ask me.”

“Ah, no, sir,” Ivan replied.

Vorkosigan nodded, turning the idea over for a moment. “There will be those who call it nepotism, of course. More of a concern, I feel, will be the sense among the progressives that you’ve betrayed them.”

“Betrayed?” Ivan said, bristling with sudden indignation. “I haven’t –“

Vorkosigan held up a calming hand. “Easy, boy. I’m not accusing you of anything. The political reality of the situation is that you have been publicly linked with the Vorkosigan family for several years. I, for better or for worse, have been linked with the Progressives. Many of them believed that you would be prepared to pursue our agenda.”

“I have never once claimed to be a member of the Progressive Party, or any other,” Ivan said. “I’m not going to let myself be boxed in by allegiances I never had.”

“Nor should you,” said his uncle. “But we need to deal with other people here, and fact matters far less than perception in politics. Remember that.”

Ivan nodded, a bit reluctantly. “I hate politics,” he said. His uncle’s smile was sympathetic, but there was no apology in there. “All right,” he said. “Perceptions.”

“The progressives may feel that you’ve abandoned your base by nominating a conservative. If they do, they’re likely to approach any proposals you make as they would a proposal by a conservative.”

“In other words,” Ivan translated, “badly.”

“Not necessarily,” his uncle replied. He paused contemplatively. Ivan waited almost patiently, his heel bouncing on the carpeted floor but his hands still on his desk. “Data doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” Vorkosigan said. “How we interpret information depends on its source.”

“Right,” said Ivan. “If you tell me something, I give a different weight to it than something from a guy in a pub, or a known spy.”

“Yes, but it goes deeper than that. You and I get along, ah, relatively well.” Vorkosigan inflected the words with a dry drawl, and Ivan flushed instinctively, then gave a rueful grin.

“I’ll grant the premise for the sake of argument, sure,” he rallied, and his uncle raised one hand as if awarding a fencing point.

“Now, I propose an idea to you. ‘Ivan, why don’t the two of us go to this little bar in the west part of town and have some local-brewed beer?’ You like me, so you look for reasons to agree. Beer is good. You could use a break. There are generally nice-looking girls in the west part of town.”

“Are there?” Ivan asked, straightening in his chair.

“Hypotheticals, married man,” his uncle intoned.

“Right,” Ivan said. He slumped back again. “Pretty girls.”

“Yes. Now, if we did not have such a good relationship, you would hear the same suggestion and look subconsciously for reasons to disagree, instead. Local-brewed beer is unreliable. Little bars are cramped and unpleasant. There would be security issues. You don’t have the time. You would acknowledge the marks in its favor, but since you would be looking for reasons to disagree, you would give those reasons greater weight. And you would do all of this while firmly believing that you were being rational and impartial.”

“So, your fear is that the progressives will shift me to that later category.” Ivan didn’t like the sound of that.

“Yes. Politicians hate a turncoat more than an honest enemy. If they view you as one, they will approach every proposal of yours with an eye to rejecting it. Subconsciously, they will be searching for every weakness, minimizing every strength. And every political proposal has a multitude of weaknesses. Especially,” and Vorkosigan left a fraught pause to emphasize his point here, “a proposal of war.”

Ivan turned the words over in his head. “I wonder,” he said at last, “how much of that only seemed to make sense because we get along relatively well.” His uncle laughed, but Ivan did not. “So, what you’re telling me,” he said, “is that the conservatives distrust me because I’m allied with you, even if I’m not. And the progressives will distrust me if I stop being allied with you, even if I wasn’t in the first place.”

“Overly simplistic, but accurate at its core.”

Ivan gnawed on this silently for a minute. This was why he’d always hated politics. The only ground that didn’t shift under a politician’s feet was the unswerving simplicity of the blood-feud. Everything else was disputable, and changed based on circumstances an impartial bystander couldn’t even see, let alone understand.

“How did Gregor ever navigate this?” he asked. Then, belatedly, “How did you?”

His uncle folded his arms and leaned back in his chair, his eyes shifting away from Ivan’s. Ivan rarely thought about how firmly Aral Vorkosigan met men’s gazes, but one noticed it when he did not. “Gregor had the advantage of coming into it from childhood. He was emperor before he was old enough for any party affiliation, and once he came of age, he was able to show some independence by arresting Illyan and putting Miles on trial for treason. I am not, mind you, recommending this as a course of action.”

“Ah, no, sir.” He couldn’t, even if he wanted to. Ivan lifted a pen from the table, turning it over in his fingers. “And how did you handle it, sir?”

“I fought a civil war,” said Vorkosigan. After a brief pause for effect, he added, “I am not recommending that as a course of action, either.”

“Tempting, though.” Ivan tossed the pen onto his desk and leaned forward. “Vorkalloner is going to be my prime minister,” he said. “One way or another.”

His uncle nodded approvingly. “Very good,” he said. “Firm. To the point.” His voice dropped slightly, and Ivan had to fight the impulse to bristle to attention. “Keep that certainty with you, sire. The greatest trick to ruling is believing that you have the right to rule. Every man in the council room has his hands between yours. They serve you, and through you, they serve Barrayar. Do not let politics distract you from that reality, and do not ever forget where your loyalties lie.”

Ivan took a minute to absorb that. “I understand, sir,” he said at last. “Thank you.”

After Count Vorkosigan had left, Ivan walked to the force-screened window and looked out over the city of Donosgrad. Unlike some of Barrayar’s cities, Donosgrad had managed to make the transition from old to new in a more-or-less organic fashion. The city gave the impression of a coherent whole, rather than a strange juxtaposition of the modern and the archaic. In the streets below, groundcars made their way slowly through the maze of traffic; above, lightflyers sped with fewer obstacles to block their paths.

The old and the new: seamlessly merged. In Vorbarr Sultana, taking a stroll around the city had sometimes felt like traveling in time. The modern detachment of the industrial sectors, the regal elegance of the stately old manor houses, and the squalid decrepitude of the slums all lived side-by-side.

Miles had quoted him a riddle once about old blind men touching an elephant. Ivan couldn’t quite remember how the riddle had gone, but each one of the men had touched a different part of the elephant and had a very different impression of it: the trunk, the tail, the side. What kind of elephant was Vorbarr Sultana?

Or rather, what kind of elephant had it been, Ivan corrected himself glumly. I have touched the elephant, and now I am dying of radiation poisoning.

Old and new. Conservative and progressive. The council of counts had not merged as seamlessly as Donosgrad. It definitely had its ultramodern elitists. It had its grand, stately old Vor, clinging to the dream they had of the Time of Isolation. And it had its slums.

Civil war as urban renewal. The phrase flashed into Ivan’s head, and he had to stop to remember where he’d heard it. Dono Vorrutyer, he thought, although he suspected that Dono had been quoting someone else. He had been complaining about the old drafty Vorrutyer House, compared with the new-built majesty of Vorbretten House. The former Vorbretten House had been destroyed in Vordarian’s Pretendership. Vorrutyer House had continued on, solid and old and, Dono had reported, extremely drafty.

Well, they’d had their war. And they had their renewal now. Thirteen new people in the council of counts, if one included Ivan himself. That was over a twenty percent turnover. A new core of counts, with untried politics, not yet set in their ways. Ivan opened his desk drawer and pulled out the plastic flimsy he’d worked on with Count Vorkalloner. He stared down at the clean transparent boxes, and he reached for a pen.

#

Ivan saw Berenice a few times during the day, but it wasn’t until just before dinner that they had any time to talk, crossing paths as they changed clothes. A few top ministry officials were joining them for the meal tonight.

Berenice’s sartorial transformation took rather longer than Ivan’s, but she’d started earlier. She was already dressed, and Patience was working on her hair while one of her other women sorted through a collection of jewelry. Ivan nodded to them as he crossed to where his clothing was laid out.

Ivan had given up on choosing his own outfits for these things. He exerted his authority when it came to buying the clothes, and let his team of valets choose which of the lot was most appropriate for the occasion. Today’s offering was colorful, which lifted his spirits considerably. He was stuffed into the Vorbarra black and silver almost every day, as if to remind people that he was now and truly a Vorbarra emperor. Fat chance of them forgetting.

He pulled off his shirt and tossed in on a chair, then crossed to the mirror and grabbed a tube of depilatory cream. As he smeared it liberally over his jaw and neck, he asked, “Berenice, what do your father’s friends think of my politics?”

“They think you’re too progressive,” she answered, looking at his reflection in her mirror. “Does that come as a surprise?”

Ivan sighed. “No.” He stared at himself in his mirror, waiting for the depilatory to do its job.

Berenice waited a minute, then asked, “Was there a particular reason you asked?”

“Apparently,” Ivan said drily, “the progressives think I’m too conservative. I’m worried about being the first emperor to lose a vote to declare a war zero to fifty-nine, with one abstention.”

“You’re overreacting.”

“I am.” Ivan suspected his melodrama levels were unfortunately low since Miles had gone. He needed to invent his own. “I’m sorry. I’m just trying to wrap my mind around the realities of the situation.” He splashed water on his face to rinse it and reached for a towel.

“Does that mean you’ve reconsidered your desire to wage this war in the first place?” Berenice asked archly, turning to look over her shoulder.

“My lady!” Patience reproved gently, and Berenice turned to face the mirror again.

“No, it doesn’t,” said Ivan, reaching for the jewel-blue shirt which had been laid out for him. “But I may need to reconsider my approach. Who do the conservatives like out of the new crop of appointees?”

Berenice frowned at her reflection. “That depends on what you mean by like,” she said carefully. “They’re pleased at recovering the Vorbretten and Vorpinski seats from the progressives, and are confident in the honor and integrity of the new counts.”

Ivan shook his head, slipping his stunner holster over his shirt. His valets did not like the stunner at all: they felt it interfered with the lie of his tunic, and was too obvious to anyone who paid attention. Ivan’s feeling on the issue was the he didn’t really much care if people knew he was armed. He felt better knowing he was armed, and if other people didn’t like it, he was prepared to deal with that. His valets had thrown their hands up in despair and started trying new cuts of the tunic to better conceal the shape of the weapon underneath.

“I don’t think that’s exactly what I mean. Is there anyone that they generally respect? Someone whose opinions they all might listen to?”

“All of them?” she asked dubiously.

“Most of them,” Ivan revised.

Berenice gazed into the mirror, her expression thoughtful. “It depends somewhat on the context. Count Vortala is well respected in financial matters. Lord Vorkaral had a sterling military career, though my father thinks he’s a bit narrow-sighted socially.”

“Vorkaral?” Ivan repeated. Lord Takis Vorkaral had given up an admiralty in the Imperial Service to take over as regent for his thirteen-year-old nephew, the ninth count Vorkaral. Georg Vorkaral had been away at a boarding school when the Cetagandans attacked Vorbarr Sultana, and had therefore survived the bombing that killed his parents, his two older brothers, and his three sisters.

“I don’t really know him,” Berenice disclaimed, “but Yves was telling me about him at lunch a week ago.” Yves was Berenice’s eldest brother, Lord Vorkalloner, who would inherit the countship from their father. Ivan liked him, and suspected he was a bit more progressive than he generally let on to his family.

“I think I want to have lunch with him and Count Vorgaleni sometime this week, if I can wrangle out a time,” Ivan said thoughtfully. “Would you like to come?”

“Are you going to talk about anything other than military matters?” Berenice asked. She took a necklace that was offered her and fastened it around her neck, then offered a wrist for the matching bracelet.

“Probably not,” Ivan admitted.

“In that case, no, thank you. I am going to have Paul place the head of the Science and Art Academy on your schedule for next week, though. He contacted me about some ideas he has for expanding universal education on-planet.”

“If I have time,” Ivan said ruefully.

“You will,” she predicted firmly, brooking no argument.

“Yes, milady,” Ivan answered, giving her a shallow bow and adjusting his tunic. Patience was nearly done with Berenice’s hair, and Ivan lowered himself to a plushly upholstered couch to wait, studying his wife in profile. “How are you feeling?” he asked after a minute. This was occasionally a dangerous question to ask, but today, Berenice smiled.

“I’m doing well, actually,” she said, sounding faintly surprised by her own answer. “I slept enough last night, for a change; I underestimated how tiring I would find this.”

“Sleeping for two?” Ivan suggested. “Replicators certainly burn enough energy. The organic method must work the same.”

Berenice studied him for a moment with an odd half-smile on her face. “Do you know, Ivan,” she said after a moment, “for someone who was supposed to have been good with the ladies, you have an amazingly bad way with words sometimes.”

“What did I say?” Ivan asked indignantly, managing not to tack on, this time.

“It must have been the jaw,” she said, not answering. “Ladies like a strong jaw.” She accepted a hand up from Patience and rose from her chair.

Ivan, replaying the conversation in his mind for any misstep – what had he said? – offered her an arm. She took it and glanced up at him from under her eyelashes. “Or the behind,” she said in a low murmur. Ivan choked back a laugh, and her smile deepened briefly. “It’s certainly adequate,” she said serenely.

“I thank you, my lady,” Ivan intoned, and they walked from the room together.

Chapter Text

They sent Kareen to wake Mark.

Ever since the third day out from Barrayar, when he had spat a string of scathing invective at the hapless courier pilot who had commed to wake him, they had chosen to send Kareen instead of contacting him themselves. Although Mark felt this showed a disgraceful lack of courage from an imperial officer, he had to admit it was probably a wise course of action.

“Mark?” Kareen called gently from the open door of his cabin. Mark was already awake, but didn’t particularly want to move: he stared at the wall beside his bed. He found the courier’s lack of courage amusing. He found Kareen’s careful distance significantly less so. Not very long ago, she would have awakened him by snuggling up against him, warm and soft and comfortable. Now, she stayed a safe distance away – or as safe as she could get. This was probably wise for her, as well. Mark wished she were planets away right now.

The trip in the fast courier had been a nightmare. After Mark’s four-day journey to Barrayar in a low-powered re-entry pod, the small confines of the ship had left him shaking and tense. His mind clawed for the escape his body couldn’t find, and the fragile economy of his psyche was in a panicked recession. The Black Gang, who balanced so finely on the line between allies and enemies, had become parasites, struggling for the scraps of attention and stability they could find. Mark, torn between them, felt his balance oscillating wildly.

Yesterday, when Kareen had startled him in the corridor, he had slammed her up against a wall, his body responding to triggers deeper than his conscious mind. His head thudded, and the Other snarled deep inside him. The Other’s left hand pinned her against the wall, and his right hand pulled back to strike before Kareen’s face, white with fear and shock, had registered.

Mark had frozen, and they had stared at each other for a few slow seconds. Then Kareen had very gently lifted a hand to touch his wrist. “Mark,” she said quietly. Mark’s world had tilted dizzyingly, and he had lowered his right hand. Kareen’s hand hadn’t moved, her fingers light on his skin. Her eyes were locked on his. “Lieutenant Pattas needs you on the flight deck,” she had said quietly.

He had pulled his hand back then, sharply, away from his grip on her shoulder, away from her fingers on his wrist. He hadn’t apologized, not then: he had fled instead, towards the flight deck, leaving her to retreat back into her cabin.

He had apologized that night, instead, his heart thumping and his eyes dry. “I didn’t mean to,” he had told her, and it had sounded so empty. “I didn’t even recognize you. Kareen, I’m losing myself. I can’t stay here. I need to get back to Beta. I’m not done with my therapy yet!”

There was so much more unsaid there: his therapy was unwinding in front of both of their eyes, and they could both see it. Mark didn’t need to get back to Beta Colony. He needed a different life to be living. This one would kill him.

Kareen had held him, and he had held her, and they had clung to each other as a lifeline to the person Mark had been trying to become.

“I can’t go back to Jackson’s Whole,” he had whispered into her shoulder. He didn’t know if she had heard him.

And now she called to him quietly from the doorway. “Mark. You need to get up.”

He rolled over in his incredibly narrow bed to blink over at her. She frowned at him. “We’ll be making the last jump into Jacksonian space in a little over an hour. You need to get dressed. And depilate.” She wrinkled her nose. “And shower, Mark.”

“Ngh.” Mark pushed himself to sit up on the bed. After a brief hesitation, Kareen stepped across the tiny cabin to sit beside him. They didn’t say anything for a minute. Kareen smelled a lot nicer than he did, Mark reflected.

The silence stretched into something uncomfortable. Finally, Kareen asked, “Are you going to be all right today?”

“I don’t know.”

“We’ll be off this ship, at least.”

Mark gave a bleak laugh. “And onto the Dendarii flagship. Not enough of an improvement, Kareen.”

“I wish you had let me argue with Ivan about this,” Kareen said, twisting her hands together in her lap. “He doesn’t really understand what he was asking you to do.”

“He did what he needed to,” Mark said. “What was he going to say to Fell? ‘Sorry, the man you wanted is a gibbering wreck. We’ll get you our second-best, instead’? He’s trusting me.” The word felt poisonous in his mouth: he spit it out quickly to be done with it. “I don’t want him to know all of this, anyway.”

Kareen leaned her cheek against the top of his head, soft and warm and present. “He should know,” she said quietly. “He’s the emperor now.”

“He’s still Ivan.”

They sat together for a moment in silence. Finally, Kareen spoke quietly. “Mark?”

Her voice was low and serious: Mark flinched, somewhere deep inside. “Yes?” he said as calmly as he could.

“You really stink. Go shower, please.”

“Oh. Yes.” Mark pushed to his feet and moved towards the little door, pausing in the doorway to say, “Bigger beds on the Triumph.”

That won a smile from her, and Mark felt his heart lighten in answer to it. She threw a towel at him.

Mark showered. He also depilated and dressed himself, opting for a black civilian suit instead of the Vorkosigan House uniform which he’d packed for the sake of completeness. He glowered at his reflection in the mirror.

He had looked worse, he supposed. That thought was useful if only because it always applied. Last time he was in Jacksonian local space, he had been force-fed and chemically skinned. By contrast, the dark shadows under his bloodshot eyes and the odd deflated look of his face were practically healthy. Mark might even be able to parlay them into intimidating. He attempted a snarl. He looked deranged. Truth in advertising.

He suspected Fell wanted him deranged, anyway. The last time he had seen Fell, he had half-bribed, half-blackmailed the man into handing over two million Betan dollars and ownership of the Durona Group. He remembered Fell’s words then: If you ever decide you want a job, come see me again... Mark didn’t want a job. Mark wanted a nap. A thousand naps, stacked one after another. If he was very lucky, he might never have to wake up.

He rubbed his face, trying to scrub away the self-pity, and went to meet his fate.

#

Admiral Quinn hadn’t changed much in the years since Mark had last seen her, despite her exalted new rank. She was still cool, self-possessed, impossibly beautiful. She still looked at him like some kind of toxic grub which she was inexplicably forced to tend, against her better judgment. Mark felt himself turtling under her evident loathing, his shoulders hunching up and his chin drawing down. She greeted them briskly, gave Kareen a brittle smile, and then handed them over to an enlisted man.

“We’re having a preliminary planning session at 1300,” she informed them. “Try not to be late.”

It was already 1200. Mark made a face at her retreating back. Beside him, Kareen lifted her chin and squared her shoulders. “No,” she said clearly.

Admiral Quinn twisted her head back to stare at Kareen. Mark turned to gape up at her as well. Kareen’s jaw was set, her eyes firm.

After a moment, Quinn repeated, “No?”

“Lord Vorkosigan is in command of this mission, admiral,” Kareen said. “Barrayar is paying you to carry out his instructions here, not the other way around.”

“I know what our orders are.”

Kareen was in one of her mulish modes, and pushed on past Quinn’s words. “You can’t just commit his time, and you can’t have real planning sessions until he’s ready to plan with you. We’ll let you know when he’s ready, and you can schedule a meeting then.”

Quinn was silent for a moment, studying Kareen with hard eyes. She let her gaze flick scornfully to Mark, hunched and sullen beside Kareen. Her lip curled. “Are you his keeper?” she asked.

“His assistant,” Kareen said.

Mark was intensely aware of the various Dendarii watching this exchange with various levels of interest and amusement. He thought Quinn could feel the eyes, too, though her eyes didn’t stray from Mark and Kareen. The silence stretched for a very long minute.

“Is there a time that would be more convenient for you?” Quinn was clearly forcing the words out; her smile was brittle, with too many teeth.

Kareen looked at Mark. Mark, abruptly on the spot, grasped for composure. “1900?” he said.

“1900,” repeated Quinn. “Fine.”

“We’ll review the information you’ll provide before the meeting,” Kareen added.

“Of course,” said Quinn. “I will see you both at 1900.” She turned on her heel and stalked off down the corridor.

Mark didn’t dare say anything while the wide-eyed Dendarii corporal was with them, so he and Kareen were escorted to the Triumph’s guest quarters in silence. The corporal assured them that their bags would be along presently, then made a quick retreat.

Once the door was closed behind him, Mark took a minute to look around the room. It was plain, but serviceable. The bed was larger than the bed in the courier ship, but not, Mark thought glumly, nearly large enough. Kareen started moving around the room, pushing buttons and opening drawers: trying out the room, Mark thought. He sat on the bed and watched her explore.

After a minute, he said, “We should have separate rooms.”

“What?” Kareen turned from the little closet she had been inspecting, her eyes wide. “No! Mark --”

But Mark cut her off with a shake of his head. “It’s not safe,” he said, his voice low. “You’re not safe here. I can ask Quinn for a different cabin, at least until -- until things have settled.”

Kareen’s lips were pressed tightly together, and she shook her head, her curls bouncing with the motion.

Mark persisted despite the growing ache in his own spirit, like an animal gnawing off its own foot to escape a trap. “It’s better for both of us.”

“No,” Kareen said. “It’s not. It’s not better for you.”

Mark hesitated. “No,” he admitted at last. “It’s not. But it’s better for you, and it’s safer for you, and that much of it is better for me.”

Kareen wrapped her arms around her stomach, her eyes pleading. Mark looked away, at the corner of his bed. “You can’t just decide this for both of us,” Kareen said at last.

“Sure I can,” Mark said. “I’ll just ask for a different room.”

“I’ll come there.”

“I’ll change the locks.”

“Mark --”

“No!” His voice rang in the little room, but the silence after the echoes felt even louder than the shout. After a moment, he said, “No, Kareen. I’m not -- I’m not in control. And I can’t sleep with you next to me. I can’t.”

She was silent for a minute. He could feel her eyes on him, but wouldn’t meet them. “You’re wrong,” she said at last, flatly.

He didn’t answer. He wasn’t wrong, but answering would just invite the argument.

“I’ll talk to Admiral Quinn,” Kareen said after a moment. “You can keep this room.” The door closed behind her, leaving Mark alone with himself. The room felt extremely crowded.

#

Mark’s black suit felt conspicuous among the sea of Dendarii grey-and-whites in the briefing room. He slumped in his seat, aware of Kareen beside him but not looking at her. At the head of the table, Quinn was talking her way through a 3-space map of Jacksonian local space, with lurid colors for each of the major houses. It was an aesthetic choice Mark approved, although the blood-red splotch of House Bharaputra felt a bit too accurate for his peace of mind.

“Most of the minor houses have either been folded in by Fell or have pledged loyalty and assistance to one of his rivals,” Quinn said, and a few dozen more muted lights appeared on the projection. With a tap of her fingers, a handful of those lights shifted to Fell’s cool blue. Most of the others acquired a border in the color of their associated major house. “Only Dyan and Jakala are maintaining neutrality. House Dyan specializes in biologicals. House Jakala handles mainly paperwork.”

Two of Mark’s false identities had come from House Jakala, in the days before he had been swallowed and digested into the Vorkosigan family. They did good work.

“We have three major axes of concern here,” Quinn went on, blipping out the little lights and leaving only five major colors. “One: the Dendarii’s typical style is quick strikes after a narrow objective. In a multi-stage operation like this one, we will need to marshal our resources and tactics much more closely. Victory in the first wave means nothing if we can’t defend against an attack from another vector or proceed with the plan. We also don’t know exactly what resources we have available at this point.”

She looked at Mark here, raising one perfect eyebrow at him. Mark scowled, and Quinn rolled her eyes up to the ceiling in an eloquent prayer for patience.

“We have full force specs on the incoming squadron from Barrayar,” Kareen said. “They’re traveling more slowly than we did, but we’ll get you that information. We don’t know yet what Fell has available.”

“Fell will want some degree of control over the combined fleet,” Mark said. “Emperor Ivan placed me in command of the mission, but my orders are to assist Fell. He’ll know that, and will probably want to flex his muscles early on, to show that he can. Be prepared to take some orders there.”

Admiral Quinn looked like she was tasting something unpleasant. Mark wasn’t sure whether that was a reaction to him, to Baron Fell’s probable tactics, or to the reminder of Emperor Ivan. He thought any of those would be completely natural. “Understood,” she said after a brief pause. “The second concern is primarily a Barrayaran one. I understand from my briefing materials that time is critical here.” She waited for Mark’s nod before continuing. “In order to speed operations, we have to assume a higher risk-reward potential, which needs to be balanced against the need for conservative tactics to protect resources for future phases of the assault.”

That made sense; Mark nodded.

“The third concern,” Quinn went on, “is that Fell’s enemies, who are currently eying him warily, may realize this is more than the typical inter-house squabbling and decide to band together. If they manage to present a unified front before we can move far enough in our strategy, we may not have the firepower to overwhelm them. Part of our strategy will need to depend on the innate Jacksonian distrust of their fellows.”

Mark tried to tell himself that he was imagining the irony in her eyes as she glanced at him. He sat hunched in his chair, mulling over her words. “It seems to me,” he began, and then broke off. Every eye in the room went to him, and he quailed under the hopeful intensity in them. I’m not him... Quinn’s eyes were hot with anger as she stared at him. He tried to rally. “It seems to me that all three of these problems could be addressed at once if we tried for a decisive strike early on. Something like what my father did at Komarr.”

There was silence in the room for a minute. Then one of the captain-owners (Trujillo? Mark wasn’t sure. Kareen would know...) spoke. “What do you suggest, sir?”

“I don’t have a plan. I was just thinking aloud.”

Quinn’s lip curled. “My god,” she said. “It’s brilliant. None of us would ever have thought of that. We were all excited about a grueling, hard slog. Now that we know that a single strike leading to victory is the path, we’ll all get on that.”

Mark fought his impulse to flinch and sneered back at her. “Good,” he said. “Do that.”

Their eyes locked across the table. Mark considered belching, but under the eyes of all the captains, he refrained.

Quinn broke first. “We’ll be at Fell Station by 0500. Fell wants to meet with us at 1030.”

“Kareen?” Mark said, turning to her for the first time. Her eyes were alight.

“Lord Vorkosigan is available at 1030,” she said gravely.

“Good,” Quinn said. “Get me the specs on the Barrayaran forces as soon as possible. I want to fold them into our numbers.”

“Of course,” Mark said graciously.

Quinn ended the meeting. Mark stayed in his chair until the captains had all filed out, not wanting to struggle upwards in front of them. Kareen waited beside him.

When the room was empty but for the pair of them, Kareen said, “Well, that was fun.” Mark glanced at her. She was grinning at him.

He felt himself grin back, almost in spite of himself. “It was, actually.”

“Are you feeling a little better now?”

Mark took a moment to consider that, looking down into his psyche like a mine worker without a canary, probing very cautiously, in the dark. He could sense the Other, lurking in the shadows, ready to surge. Gorge, Grunt, and Howl writhed and whispered, but did not demand. He felt none of the dizzying threat to his sense of self that had haunted him in unguarded hours. Mark Vorkosigan was solidly ascendant in his own mind. For now.

“Maybe a little.” He kept his response carefully non-committal, to prevent a reopening of the invitation in the cabin.

“Quinn’s a piece of work, isn’t she?” Kareen avoided the question, too: Mark was glad.

“She’s got a good reason to be,” he admitted. “I mean, what does she know of me, really? I tried to kill Miles on Earth, I stole his ship, I got him killed here on Jackson’s Whole, and that death was what caused the seizure disorder that got him yanked from command here. And now he’s dead forever, and I’m not, and I’m here and not him.”

“She loved him, didn’t she?” Kareen said softly.

“I think so.” Mark chewed on that. “Hell, everyone loved Naismith. I’m surprised I haven’t been shot out of hand for having the temerity to not be him.”

Kareen’s smile faded slightly. “It’s so strange, thinking about the people who are gone,” she said quietly. “I keep having to remember that for Quinn, or those captains, Miles is the only one that’s gone. I can barely find the emotional space to mourn for him, with so many other empty spaces.”

Mark reached over to take her hand, resting on the arm of her hair. She didn’t hold his hand in return, but she didn’t pull away, either. Kareen had lost both of her parents and her older sister Olivia in the attack on Barrayar, and Olivia’s husband and firstborn child as well. All of her friends from the capital were dead now. Mark had, he reminded himself again, been relatively fortunate.

They sat in silence for a minute, then Kareen said, “Want to get some dinner? I just need to get the squadron information to Quinn, then we could go down to the mess.”

Mark brightened at the idea of food, and as they walked down the corridor together, the day began to look like a distinct possibility.

#

Mark and Kareen made love that night for the first time since leaving Barrayar, first on the narrow bed in Mark’s cabin, then on the floor. They groped desperately for each other, starved for touch and longing for connection. It was acrobatic and almost violent sex, of the kind bordering on an ugliness Mark generally shied from, with teeth and nails and short, hard breaths.

They ended sweaty and sated, but not salved. When Mark suggested it was time for Kareen to return to her room, he thought they were in for a rehash of their earlier argument, but after a brief, fraught moment, she just kissed him, said, “Goodnight, Mark,” and left.

He woke early the next morning. He depilated, showered, and dressed, feeling better rested than he had in days. When he stared at himself in the mirror, the man he saw looking back at him almost looked like himself.

Be careful, whispered the Other. Do not grow too comfortable.

Fat chance of that, Mark thought. We walk into enemy territory today. For all that House Fell had supported them against the Cetagandans, for all that Mark was there to support Fell’s ambitions, he did not delude himself that the man was a friend, or even an ally. Fell would look after Fell, and if he could advance his own goals by selling Mark out, he would do it in a heartbeat.

So make sure it is never in his best interests to do so. It was a simple goal in theory, perhaps harder in practice. The squadron of ships and trained Imperial troops to man them would certainly provide a good starting point, Mark knew. It would be maintaining his value over time that would provide more of a challenge.

Their meeting was scheduled for 1030. Mark, Kareen, and Quinn were all ready by 1000, when the message came that Fell would be delayed until 1200. At 1140 they were on the personnel shuttle over to Fell Station. At 1323 by Mark’s chrono, they were shown into Fell’s office.

Baron Fell had changed. It had been over two years since Mark had last seen him. At that time, Fell had implied that conquest of Jackson’s Whole would be left for another generation. After the premature murder of the clone Fell had planned to cannibalize to buy himself a second life, the baron had been forced to consider other options.

It looked as though he had found some. Georish Stauber, Baron Fell, had been a stout, aged man, looking more like someone’s grandfather than a ruthless businessman whose shrewd dealings, impeccable timing, and lack of inconvenient scruples had moved him to the pinnacle of the Jacksonian pecking order. Today, he looked twenty years younger than when Mark had seen him last. His skin was healthier than it had been, his hair thicker.

Mark halted in the doorway, unable to conceal his surprise. Fell smiled thinly at him. “Lord Vorkosigan,” he said, rising from his seat. “I am sorry for keeping you waiting so long.”

“I understand, Baron,” Mark said with a too-courteous inclination of his head. “No one can anticipate or plan these little crises that come up for a leader.”

Fell’s eyes glinted with appreciation, but he simply nodded back, then turned to Kareen. “Miss Koudelka.” Kareen smiled at him, and Fell’s smile broadened in automatic answer. “You are welcome any time.”

“Thank you,” Kareen said graciously. “I’m glad we’ll be able to be of some help. We worked so well together when I was here with Countess Vorkosigan.”

“You Barrayarans change your titles so often,” Fell said gravely. “I can hardly keep you all straight. She was Empress Cordelia when she was here.”

“Well,” Mark said judiciously, “we survive our status changes better than Jacksonians, it is true.”

Fell smiled thinly. Quinn scowled. “We’re all running a bit behind schedule now,” she said pointedly.

“Ah, and the charming Admiral Quinn,” Fell said. “Quite right. Let us settle to business.”

They all seated themselves around the small table in the room. Fell’s assistant left without either speaking or being acknowledged by Fell.

They discussed available force numbers and munitions figures, with which Fell, as the primary Jacksonian arms dealer, was understandably well versed.

“We also,” he continued after they had flipped through ship and squadron outlines and positions, “have a considerable financial advantage over all houses other than House Tiktis. This gives us a comfortable margin for bringing in additional mercenaries as needed.”

“House Tiktis,” Mark mused. “Are you considering their paper assets, or their liquid assets?” House Tiktis was one of the major banking institutions of Jackson’s Whole. They made money by borrowing and lending. They were one of the more morally sound of the Jacksonian houses by galactic standards, although their practices extended to money laundering and extortion. Most of the House assets were presumably tied up in loans that could not be immediately called in.

“Liquid, or easily liquidated,” Fell replied with a nod. “My own assets are heavily tied into property and bonds. I have done a great deal to shift resources in preparation for this move, but my assistance in the Barrayaran conflict was not without cost to me.”

Mark nodded, turning the issue over in his mind. “They might make a good first target, if we could find a way to preserve their assets in the take-over.”

Quinn grimaced. “If they have resources available to begin with, it could be a costly first strike.”

“Can we move fast enough to keep them off-balance?” Mark asked. “If we hired the major mercenary outfits in the area, they would need time to bring someone in. Can we move fast enough to deny them that time?”

Quinn didn’t look happy. “I will see what we can come up with,” she said.

Fell, who had been watching coolly while this was going on, said, “There are other possibilities as a primary objective. House Khyman offers advantages to strategic positioning. House Bharaputra would be a politically strategic target – an assault there would be read as a personal matter, given our differences of opinion. We could attempt to gain control of the jump stations. There are paths that should be pursued.”

Mark nodded cautiously. There was nothing in that to object to or disagree with, he thought. “Admiral Quinn can work with her fleet intelligence and your staff to identify a list of primary objectives and targets. Tactical planning and the order in which we target those objectives can wait until the Barrayaran squadron arrives and Commodore Vormoncrief can participate in the discussion. Would that satisfy everyone for now?”

Quinn gave a short, curt nod.

“That would delight me,” said Fell.

Kareen, who had been silent through most of the strategic discussion, leaned forward in her seat. “Baron Fell,” she said. “I wonder what your plans are regarding Bharaputra’s clone labs.”

Mark’s stomach tightened. Fell’s eyes flicked from Kareen to Mark, then back, but he didn’t otherwise react. After a few long seconds, he said, “I had not really considered the matter.”

Liar. Mark knew that. Sitting in Bharaputra’s clone crèche were five or six hundred cloned children, waiting in ignorant contentment for the day their progenitors would come. On that day, they would be sliced open, their brains removed, destroyed, and replaced with those of their progenitor. Fell’s own clone had been created at Bharaputra’s laboratory, raised there to await need, and then killed before the need arose.

Mark had been created and raised in Bharaputra’s clone crèche.

Fell had considered the matter.

All the children in the crèche had wealthy progenitors, and in Jackson’s Whole, wealth always meant power. His decision regarding the crèche would be literally life or death for those wealthy men and women. It would be life or death for the clones.

“You need to close it down,” Mark said.

“Do I indeed?”

“Yes.”

“That might be a politically unfortunate decision.”

“So would not doing it,” Mark said. “Because if you don’t shut it down, and send the children to an orphanage of good reputation, I will take my ships. And I will go home.”

Kareen shifted in her seat as if to say something, but did not speak. Quinn looked like she was enjoying herself for the first time since Mark had arrived.

After a moment of contemplative silence, Fell said, “Barrayar’s aid was pledged. I know the value of your honor. And your emperor’s.”

“And how,” Kareen said, “do you think supporting that, that –“ She sought a word vile enough. “—that obscenity will reflect on Barrayaran honor?”

“There’s little enough honor in this as it is,” Mark added sourly. “This way, we can sell them a pretty story about good guys and bad guys. People like to hear stories. It’s easier than examining the facts.”

Fell studied them for a moment. “I will consider your suggestions,” he said. “Shall we reconvene tomorrow?”

They all took the hint and rose from their seats. In the doorway, Mark paused. “As a point to consider,” he said, “do you really need the crèche anymore? You’re looking… very well, baron.”

Fell grinned at him, like a shark. “The Durona Group,” he said, “was not my only medical research resource.”

Mark returned the grin with a flash of bared teeth, and they left.

Chapter Text

Ivan received Lord Vorkaral and Count Vorgaleni in the east breakfast room, an airy space that was made up mostly of wide glass doors and live plants. The inevitable delays of his morning meetings had him arriving a good fifteen minutes after his guests, and he found them looking out over the mosaiced balcony.
 
The Cetagandans had designed the space to overlook the two-acre terraced garden behind the Governmental Offices. The view now was of smashed plascrete and twisted metal. The few hardy plants which had opportunistically worked their way in among the wreckage were curled in on themselves for winter, showing only hints of dark green. Ivan rather liked the view, and took most of his small breakfasts and lunches in the room.
 
When the door opened, Vorgaleni and Vorkaral turned and bowed, but Ivan shook his head slightly and stepped forward. "Thank you both for coming," he said. He offered a hand to Vorgaleni. "Duv. I feel as though I haven't seen you in weeks. How is Delia? And Rebecca?"
 
"Very well, sire, both of them," Vorgaleni said, returning the handclasp.
 
"Is Rebecca sleeping better than the last time I talked to you?"
 
"A bit. Delia has finally agreed to hire a full-time nurse, though, so we are sleeping much better."
 
Ivan grinned at that, then turned to offer his hand to Lord Takis Vorkaral. "Lord Vorkaral. I apologize for the wait: my meeting with Imperial Security ran late this morning. Most of my meetings seem to do that, somehow."
 
Lord Vorkaral did not look like Ivan's idea of a credentialed and battle-tried admiral, but he shook Ivan's hand with all the firmness Ivan could ask for. He must have scraped his way through the minimum height requirements for the Academy by centimeters, and had a sort, doughy look to his face, with a weak chin and ears that stuck out significantly. At forty-six, he had been one of the younger admirals in the fleet. "I understand, sire," he said, and his voice was quiet but crisp, the sort of voice men stopped talking to listen to.
 
Ivan extended a hand towards the table and chairs set up in the room. "Shall we?"
 
The meal was excellent, as it always was. Berenice had asked Countess Vorkalloner and Lady Alys Vorpatril for help in hiring a household staff, and they had most of a planet to choose from while hiring. The results had been just what Ivan had expected: irreproachable.
 
Ivan gave himself time to savor the first bite of his salad --greens, pears, nuts, and some kind of tart dressing. The salads were Berenice's doing: Ivan's waistline was not handling his elevation any better than the rest of him was doing.
 
He took a sip from his tea -- not wine, another of the empress's improvements -- and began. "I'd like to say we were all just here for the food, but I do have some business to discuss with you both."
 
Vorgaleni straightened slightly in his chair; Vorkaral paused mid-bite, his fork stilling for a moment. The two men shared a glance. Ivan leaned forward slightly in his chair and deliberately lowered his voice. “I want to talk about the war vote,” he said.
 
Count Vorgaleni was clearly not surprised by this, and a faint light in his eyes made Ivan uneasy. Vorkaral grimaced and looked down at his salad.
 
Ivan let the silence stretch, chewing his food and looking from one man to the other. Gregor had always made this tactic look easy, but the urge to drum his fingers on the table or tap his foot was nearly irresistible. He was supposed to wait them out, make them feel the growing pressure. He wondered if they thought he just couldn’t think of anything to say.
 
Vorgaleni was the first to break the silence. “Will the vote be soon, sire?”
 
“Not until after Count Vorkalloner is confirmed as prime minister,” Ivan said. "We need our government firmly established before starting to plan for the war."
 
Vorkaral's eyes seemed to flicker, briefly away, then down to his food. Ivan paused, sure that meant something, but not sure of what. After a few seconds, he said, "I trust that Count Vorkalloner can count on you both." Imperial evenhandedness be damned. Ivan was not going to hold back on this one.
 
"Of course, sire," Vorgaleni said. There was an interested, alive expression in his eyes as he looked at Vorkaral.
 
Lord Vorkaral's hesitation was brief, but significant. "Yes, sire," he said, his tone a bit heavy.
 
"Talk to me," Ivan said, leaning forward in his chair. "You don't like it."
 
"I don't dislike Count Vorkalloner, sire," Vorkaral said reluctantly. "But he is not a man who understands the military. Most of the men I've spoken to on the matter expected you to select Count Vorkosigan. Or --" His eyes slid sideways. "Or Count Vorgaleni."
 
Vorgaleni let out a strangled cough and reached hastily for his water, choking down a quick gulp. Ivan just stared at Vorkaral. He had absolutely no idea how to answer that one. After a moment, he said, "Interesting," in what he hoped passed for cool and thoughtful.
 
Vorkaral looked faintly embarrassed, if Ivan wasn't just projecting, but he kept his back straight and his eyes steady.
 
"Duv was... never a possibility," Ivan said. "Sorry, Duv, but --"
 
"No, sire," Vorgaleni said hastily. "I understand."
 
Ivan had to smile. "And for the other... there are a few reasons that Aral Vorkosigan would not be a good prime minister for my government, but that's not the real issue here. I don't necessarily want to be putting together a war cabinet. I want to put together a cabinet, and then address the war. It's a distinction that... matters." He paused, groping for the right words.
 
"We are... injured. Our empire, our pride, our -- well, our hearts, as maudlin as that sounds. And I am... angry. Furious. So furious that some days I --" Ivan cut himself off. Some days he could barely see straight past the pull of his own rage, dragging his gaze off to the red haze that surrounded Cetaganda. Some days he could barely stomach to look at the council of counts, with its cautious voices who could not understand the need -- the need -- for vengeance. Some days he loathed himself for his survival, whispered 'coward' inside his own mind.
 
He tried to get his words back on track. "I don't need a prime minister who can tell us how to fight. I have a military for that. I need a prime minister who will tell me how not to fight, and make me listen. Vorkalloner can do that."

Vorkaral took a moment to consider this. When he spoke, his voice was measured. “It would not have been my choice, sire, but I will support your candidate.”

As he studied Vorkaral, Ivan had to wonder what kind of candidate he would have to have suggested to faze him. He suspected Vorgaleni wouldn't have bothered the pragmatic admiral much. A horse? The conservatives were way off the mark if they thought Vorkaral was going to be an independent-minded party man worth listening to.

“Thank you,” he said at last. “That's what I was hoping. And I do have your vote for the war declaration as well?”

“Of course, sire,” Vorkaral answered, more firmly.

When Ivan looked at Vorgaleni, Vorgaleni nodded his assent. “You know my position, sire.”

Ivan did. He gave Vorgaleni a brief, tight smile, which Vorgaleni returned with thin lips. “I need to ask you for more than just your vote on this, however, gentlemen.”

He took the time to finish a last bite of salad before speaking again, the cue for the servants to clear out the dishes and bring the next course. He let the brief flurry of activity pass. He took a bite of his fish, giving the implicit but necessary permission for the other men to do the same, then took up the conversation again. “I need a faction that can cross party lines. A faction that understands the realities of the situation with the Cetagandans: a faction that will reach out to men on both sides of the fence and convince them to give our military what it needs to end this fight we've been trapped in for a century.”

“You want to resurrect the War Party,” Vorgaleni said, his voice low. Vorkaral blew out his breath, slowly and deliberately.

“Yes.” Ivan kept his eyes locked on Vorgaleni's.

“There's a bad history there.”

“They were after the wrong target.”

Vorgaleni made a face, not exactly disputing the point. He glanced over at Vorkaral. Vorkaral shook his head, but not in refusal. He seemed to be processing the information. “We might want to consider a different label for it,” Vorgaleni suggested cautiously.

“No,” Ivan said firmly. “It is a War Party. We can call it what it is. If we can fight a war against incredible odds, we can overcome the stigma the Ministry of Political Education left on the damned name.”

Vorgaleni sighed and looked up at the ceiling. Ivan smiled wryly at him. “You always wanted a political career, Duv,” he pointed out mercilessly. “Welcome to the big league.”

Ivan wasn't entirely sure whether Vorkaral was sold on the idea by the end of their lunch, but he thought Vorgaleni could talk him the rest of the way around. When they rose, Ivan made a brief but meaningful eye contact with Duv: Duv's tiny answering nod showed that he understood the implicit request. It was Vorkaral, however, whom he asked to stay a minute longer. Vorkaral agreed, though with a trepid mien.

“Lord Vorkaral,” Ivan said once Vorgaleni was gone, “while I appreciate your support today, I did want to give you a piece of advice.”

“Sire?” Vorkaral replied. He was standing, probably without thinking, in a comfortable parade rest, his hands clasped behind his back.

“I'm fairly sensitive to the, er, challenges that come with a sudden elevation in rank,” Ivan said, trying to keep his tone casual without quite losing the Imperial edge. “You have to watch your instincts. In the military, our duty was to the Imperium, served through the person of the Emperor. Now, I'm the Emperor, and you are a count's regent. Your job isn't to carry out my orders. It's to vote your own conscience, and the best interests of Count Vorkaral's people. I hope you will support Count Vorkalloner, on his own merits. But don't let your instincts trap you into lockstep with my interests, either.:”

Vorkaral didn't speak for a minute, his eyes meeting Ivan's squarely. Ivan wondered what he saw there. Personally, he was half-wondering if he was as much an idiot as his Vorkosigan relations used to name him. When Vorkaral spoke, it was to say only, “Thank you, sire. I will keep it in mind.” He hesitated only a few seconds, then asked, “May I offer you a piece of advice in return?”

Ivan, surprised, said, “Of course.” By the door, the armsman who was waiting to escort Lord Vorkaral out of the Governmental Offices put a hand to his earpiece and murmured something inaudible.

“What you said at the beginning of our meeting stayed with me, sire,” Vorkaral said. “You said that your meetings tend to run late. Watch your own instincts, sire. You were a captain in Imperial Service, and most of those you dealt with at HQ outranked you. No meeting needs to run long if you don't permit it, but if you get in the habit of allowing people extra minutes, they will learn to expect them. Set firm limits at the outset, and people will learn to respect them. It's a lesson many command officers learn the hard way.”

Ivan took a minute to digest this. Instincts, right. It's never what you decide that ambushes you, it's what you do without ever deciding to. “Thank you, Lord Vorkaral. I will --” He managed to wrench the sentence away from a word-for-word echo of Vorkaral's reply, and finished, “consider that.”

“Sire.” Vorkaral bowed, one hand on his heart. Ivan looked to the armsman, who said, “Lord Vorkaral, would you wait outside for just a minute.” It was not really a question. Ivan felt the abrupt, tense awareness that came over him in crises coil around his spine. Lord Vorkaral assented politely, and the armsman waited until the door was closed before saying, “Sire, I have a message from Kosti. The Empress is on her way to Selig Vorinnis Memorial Hospital. Something is happening with the child.”

#

It was too early, but the doctors could not slow it down. Something had gone wrong – not fatally wrong, assured the deliberately calm colonel who had met Ivan at the door, but wrong enough that it was time for the child to come out.

“The empress is nearly eight months along, sire,” the colonel told him as they walked. “There is every reason to believe that your son will be strong and healthy.” It wasn't anything wrong with the baby, they told him. Berenice's placenta had come detached early. Everyone kept assuring Ivan that the baby would be fine, but no one was saying that Berenice would be fine. Ivan wasn't sure how bad a sign that was, and he was too afraid of the answer to ask in the corridor.

“Get the Vorkalloners here,” he told Martin Kosti over his shoulder. “Berenice will want her mother. Is Count Vorkalloner in the city? I want to talk to Count Vorkosigan as soon as we know that everything is all right. Make sure he's available, but don't tell him what's happening. Is the news leaking yet?”

“I haven't heard anything, sire,” said Kosti. “Shall I call over to ImpSec to ask?”

“Yes,” Ivan said. “I want a lid on this until we can make an announcement. God help us all if it's bad news.” He did not need more bad news, not now. He tried not to let his steps speed up as they walked through otherwise deserted corridors.

Berenice was already in surgery, they told him, and would be taken to a recovery room as soon as the surgeons were done. They showed him into an adjoining waiting room to... wait. Ivan firmly instructed himself not to pace, then said to hell with it and paced anyway. Kosti gave terse reports as they came in over his earpiece.

Rumors were spreading about some sort of disruption at the Governmental Offices, but ImpSec had no information that suggested anyone knew the cause. Berenice had been dressing for lunch when she was... stricken. Ivan didn't want details on what this had meant for her, not just now, but the political ramifications were that only her maids, guards, and doctors knew. The Vorkalloners were both in the city, and on their way over. They would be there within thirty minutes. Count Vorkosigan was in his district, in Hassadar, but would be available to take a comconsole call when Ivan was ready to speak with him.

Ivan acknowledged the reports and continued to pace. He wanted something to do, but knew better than to try to work at the moment. He nearly asked for his mother, but decided against it. The Emperor of Barrayar should not need his mother's hand to hold during a time like this.

It felt like hours, but was more like twenty minutes before they heard the sound of footsteps in the hall. Ivan glanced at Martin, who cracked the door and looked outside. He nodded to Ivan, who reached the door in three long strides and stepped out. Two men were pushing a float bed down the corridor, on which Berenice lay, looking drained and limp. A cavalcade of doctors and guards surrounded her.

“Is she all right?” Ivan demanded. “Where's the baby?” He could hear the sharp fear in his voice, but couldn't seem to banish it.

“Calm down, Ivan,” Berenice said, sounding exhausted and exasperated. “Everything's fine.”

“Sire, your son has been taken to the newborn intensive care ward.” Ivan looked at the speaker, who wore major's tabs and a look of extreme relief. Ivan unwound slightly. “His lungs are a bit underdeveloped, so we're helping him get a start on breathing, but he should be fine. You can see him when you wish, and we'll bring him by here in a few hours if no complications arise.”

Ivan looked at Berenice. “I – let's get you settled, first,” he said. “Your mother and father are on their way.”

Fifteen minutes later, he had left an exhausted Berenice with her mother and walked with Count Vorkalloner and Major Csorkina to see the hope of a new generation, the new Imperial heir. He lay naked in a heat pod, with an air hose hooked up beneath his nose. He seemed impossibly tiny. A uniformed nurse sat beside him, monitoring him, and two armsmen guarded the doorway.

“Will he be all right?” Ivan asked quietly. “What can we expect?”

“Thirty-five weeks gestation is what we call late preterm birth, sire,” Csorkina told him, matching his hushed tone. “Most children born at thirty-five weeks are perfectly healthy in later life, though there are slightly higher risk factors for some rare conditions, and there are higher chances of mild learning disabilities later in life. We will certainly need to keep him here for a week or two to monitor and be sure his body is prepared to do all of its work on its own, but he seems to be healthy and strong for his gestational period, and I don't anticipate any serious issues after the first few months. We only need to give him the support the empress's body would have given had he been full-term.”

Ivan nodded, letting the words wash over him. He stood side-by-side with Vorkalloner, staring at the tiny creature who was the continuation of both of their lines, who would one day hold Barrayar's future in those tiny, purplish hands.

“Have you thought of a name?” Vorkalloner asked at last, mostly, Ivan thought, to break the silence.

“I've thought of several,” Ivan answered ruefully. “I suppose I'll have to come to a decision now. Berenice and I have talked about it.” Ivan had wanted, selfishly, to name the boy Padma, for his father, but he did not need anyone to tell him why that would be a mistake. He had taken the Vorbarra name when he became emperor, and to name his heir for his Vorpatril father would send entirely the wrong message. The middle name would almost certainly have to be Pierre, for Count Pierre Vorkalloner, whose interest in the question might be driven at least a bit by ego, Ivan reflected.

“Good,” Vorkalloner said. They watched the little boy for another minute or two, in silence.

#

Ivan had several comconsole calls to make, starting with his mother, who snapped at him for not telling her sooner and promised to be “right over.” Then he called Count Vorkosigan, to inform him that the succession was secure. Count Vorkosigan had more restrained congratulations, and looked forward to seeing the boy as soon as he could. Ivan's press secretary needed to be informed, so they could begin the process of informing the populace, and ImpSec was instructed to put together a security detail and speed the process of vetting the nursery personnel they had been assembling. He gave instructions to his secretary to cancel everything on his schedule for the day.

By the time Ivan was done with the necessary business, his son had been brought in to see his mother, released from the air hose to see how he did without it. Ivan found Berenice holding a swaddled form that was only identifiable as a baby because of the tiny face and the reverent caution with which his mother held him. The Vorkalloners made their excuses as Ivan came into the room, and left to give him and Berenice the space to marvel at their creative power.

“He's beautiful,” Ivan said, sinking down to sit beside Berenice. He kissed her head: her hair hung in lank brown curtains, but she was recovering her color nicely.

“He... isn't, really,” Berenice said, her voice quiet and thoughtful. “I thought new mothers were all supposed to instantly bond and love, but I'm... not sure how I feel yet. He seems a bit squished. And he doesn't... feel like mine, somehow.”

Ivan looked at her for a moment, then down at the baby. He reached out to touch the tiny cheek, and the boy turned his head slightly towards the contact, mouth opening and closing. “Do you, ah, want to talk to anyone?” he asked carefully.

“No,” Berenice said. “Or not yet, at least. My mother says its more common than most people know. She told me to give it a day or two.”

“All right,” Ivan said. “But... anything you need.”

She smiled up at him, and he leaned to kiss her again. “Thank you,” he told her, his voice quiet. “It doesn't feel like enough, but... thank you.”