They reach Ezar’s headquarters to find him dead. Yuri’s assassins came in the middle of the night, shot the guards and slit his throat. He was dead long before anyone could act.
Aral is not surprised by the news. The last twenty-four hours have brought them nothing but reports of one death after another; uncles, aunts, cousins. Ezar was not of Dorca’s blood, but he commanded an army, and that made him dangerous. It made him a target.
His father rages and curses while Prince Xav gazes down at his cousin’s bloody corpse in silence. Aral sits in a corner and holds Padma tightly, just to make sure he’s still alive.
That night in their camp in the mountains, Piotr goes to his knees before Xav. Xav argues until he’s hoarse, and Aral hears his grandmother's voice raised in anger for the first time. But they all know that they have no other choice.
Over the next two years, Aral learns to fight a war. He learns how to hide and how to spy and how to kill a man. He learns to treat the sight of blood as calmly as if it were water. When it’s all over, he watches the axe fall over Yuri’s head and feels nothing. He should be glad, he thinks. He should be celebrating his victory and his vengeance. But he isn’t.
“I can’t take this anymore,” the Empress says, and the very next day she boards a shuttle and leaves. Xav watches her go and says nothing. He’s Vor; in the end, she isn’t. As the shuttle's contrails slowly begin to drift into the air, he turns to Piotr. “It must be Aral,” he says suddenly. “I won’t live long enough to see Padma’s majority. I won’t risk another war.”
“No,” says Piotr at last. “You ask too much, Sire. I’ve lost one son already.”
“So have I,” Xav says quietly, and Piotr is silent.
In the end, it is Aral’s decision. He knows he doesn’t want this. All he wished for was to be a soldier like his father. But he is oath-sworn to Xav. We’re Vor, he thinks; we serve.
The next morning, Crown Prince Aral Vorbarra sits by his grandfather’s side in the Council of Counts, and he wears the colors of his new House.
It takes less than three months for Piotr and Xav to remember that they’re on opposite sides. Xav is struggling to pass reforms and Piotr calls it Betan decadence, and Aral grows up dividing his time between Vorkosigan House and the Imperial Residence, dividing himself between his father and his grandfather. He wants to fill the empty place his brother has left. He wants to be the son his father has lost. But he can’t be Piotr Vorkosigan’s son and Xav Vorbarra’s at the same time.
He graduates from the Academy and finds a marriage offer waiting for him. Xav dislikes it, and talks for a long time about the dangers of consanguineous marriages. "The Imperium needs stability," Piotr insists. "The Imperium needs an alliance with the Vorrutyers. The Imperium needs heirs, Sire."
I need heirs, he doesn’t say, but Aral hears it. He is Vor; he does his duty. He marries his cousin and they are happy after a fashion, though he begins to suspect that she loves his title more than anything else. He names their first son Xav, and the second Piotr.
The Emperor is aging. He needs his heir by his side, and the people need to see that the Imperium is secure. Ship duty soon becomes a distant fantasy.
A week after Aral’s twenty-fifth birthday, the Emperor is dead. Aral sits by the bed and holds the old man’s hand as he takes his last breaths. He takes oaths until his voice is hoarse. He lights the massive funeral pyre, he comforts Padma, and he does not cry.
And then his life becomes hell. To be the Emperor, he discovers, he must be the source of all justice and the defender against all evils. He must be the judge of life and death, and being human is not an option. He must deal with Cetagandan plots and Vor conspiracies and his father trying to rule through him, and he doesn't have the knowledge or the experience to cope with it. He buries himself in work and study, trying to understand trade and economics and science and the tangled mess that men call Barrayar, struggling to become the man people think he is.
His wife, when she’s not complaining about his constant absence, seems to revel in her newfound power. She delights in being the center of Vor society, bestowing favors and fashions on her friends with a confident ease that Aral cannot match. He can’t bring himself to share her satisfaction, but he is glad to see it.
It is a year, a long year full of silences and suspicions, before Aral storms into his wife's rooms with the ImpSec report. His hands are trembling so hard he can barely throw it in her face. He can barely see through the haze of his anger as he signs their divorce ruling along with her lovers’ death warrants. He keeps all their children in defiance of Vor law, and he ignores her protests as completely as he ignores her pleas for mercy.
He wakes up the next morning to the news of her suicide and a city bursting at the seams with gossip. The Emperor ordered this as well, they whisper. Remember the assassins in the night. Remember Yuri.
That evening, Negri brings him another sealed report. Aral sits with it throughout the night. In the end he does nothing. He’s taken too many lives and lost too many; no more.
In the rare moments when Aral is sober enough to form sentences in his head, he thinks he’s lost everything except Ges. He has too much power, he thinks, power he doesn’t deserve. It feels so good to surrender himself, to let Ges have power over him instead. If Vorbarr Sultana wants to gossip about him, he decides savagely, then by God he'll give them something to gossip about.
Aral avoids his father in the months that follow. But Piotr says nothing; he knows his life is in Aral’s hands.
Aral has grown to dread Negri’s sealed reports. He knows what Ges is; he’s known for years. He’s hidden it from himself, he’s pretended not to know, and he’s tried not to care. But when he learns that Ges uses his relationship with the Emperor to threaten his victims into submission, Aral gives Negri the order.
The next morning, Ges Vorrutyer is found dead in the caravanserai. It was an accident, Negri tells Aral blandly. He had too much to drink and fell into the path of a passing groundcar. There are witnesses to testify that it was an accident. Aral sends the Vorrutyers another message of condolence for their tragic loss.
Alone in the dark, Aral holds a dagger and contemplates taking his own life. He can’t do it. He has no honor left, but he has children to care for. He has a planet to care for. He has his duty.
The world goes on, somehow. Aral learns to navigate Vor politics. He faces down the Cetagandans with a combination of tact and brutal force. He finds time to try and rebuild what remains of his family. Little Piotr doesn’t remember his mother, but Xav and Olivia do, and Aral wonders if they will ever forgive him.
He leads the conquest of Komarr personally. He’s no soldier, but he restrains glory-mad boys from violence, he speaks to Komarran leaders and assures them that they will be his subjects and not his captives. In the end Komarr surrenders without a shot being fired, and his men complain that they never got a proper war to fight at all.
Padma marries and has a horde of noisy children, and Aral endures Alys’s misguided attempts at matchmaking. He’s grown accustomed to the endless stream of Vor women angling for the Imperium. He pays attention to them when he needs their fathers’ votes. He’s learned to place limits on his trust.
His Empire expands from two worlds to three. A section of the General Staff tries to gather support for an invasion of Escobar. Aral orders them sent to Kyril Island and calls in Betan experts to help terraform the new planet. He names it Xavyar, for his grandfather, for his son.
When the commander of the survey team is presented to him, Aral can’t keep the surprise from his face. The woman meets his eyes with a fierce challenging gaze, as if daring him to question her competence. She’s gotten used to Barrayarans, he thinks.
“Commander Naismith,” he greets her, recovering quickly while his courtiers look on with mingled shock and horror.
To his surprise, Aral finds himself spending more and more time with the Betan commander, talking and telling stories and walking through unknown forests on an uncharted world, until terraforming ceases to be an excuse. ImpSec has continuous heart attacks, but Aral feels safer with Commander Naismith than a platoon of armed guards. She’s a woman, but she’s as competent an officer as any who serve him.
Aral lies awake at nights thinking of her and wondering what’s happening to him, and eventually, he understands. When she looks at him, she doesn’t see the Emperor. She doesn’t see his name or his ancestors or the semi-divine figure he’s supposed to be. She sees him.
Aral can’t remember the last time someone did that. He’d forgotten that it was possible for someone to do that.
The day before he returns to Barrayar, he asks her to come with him. “I love you,” she answers, and his heart leaps in his chest. “But I can’t take this.” She runs her hand slowly over the Vorbarra crest on his uniform, and Aral can feel his heart pounding beneath her touch.
“I can be your wife,” she whispers, “but I can’t be your Empress. I can’t take Barrayar.”
But Barrayar is in his blood, Aral thinks in dismay. Barrayar is in his bones, in the syllables of his name. Barrayar is him. And he is Barrayar.
When Aral returns home, everything looks different. For the first time, he truly sees the truth that was staring him in the face: he has no more divine right to rule than the next man on the street. All he has is a twisted family history, an accident of birth and a planet-wide mass delusion masquerading as a system of government.
Barrayar needs to change, he realizes.
Xav started the process, but he didn’t have time to finish it. Aral takes it up where his grandfather stopped. He begins without fuss, with local government in Vorbarra’s district. He recognizes elected municipal councils and village speakers, and to his amazement, it works.
Olivia tells him she can’t take Barrayar anymore. She wants to be more than a marriage prospect, more than just another lever for some ambitious lord to use on her father. She wants a life, she says. Aral lets her go. She writes letters from Beta with pictures of her boyfriends, and girlfriends, and others. She comes home wearing earrings that shock Vorbarr Sultana into silence, and Aral smiles proudly and lets everyone see him.
By the time the Vor understand what he’s doing, it is too late. Aral ignores the uproar and goes right on.
The day Aral calls the first assembly of the Council of Commons, Count Vordarian declares himself Emperor. He takes with him a quarter of the General Staff and a fifth of the Counts – and no one else. The proles of his own district refuse to support him, and Aral smiles to himself as he signs the Imperial pardons, knowing that he’s created the revolution.
It’s a slow revolution. But when it succeeds at last, Aral steps onto the sidelines. He stands with the crowd and watches proudly as Emperor Xav the second takes his oath as Barrayar’s first constitutional monarch.
And when it is all over, he quietly boards a ship to Beta Colony.