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Anyone else, Illyan was thinking, could draw the rosy tint of forgetfulness over this, perhaps turn it into an anecdote about that time I carried a magenta-pink picnic cooler on my head through to the Lord Regent at breakfast. Instead, he would have the dazed looks of the Residence guards on instant replay forever, and the slow-motion parting and closing of lips as one man opened his mouth to say something like going on vacation, sir? and then thought better of it.

Cordelia rose from her chair as he entered, an anxious look settling on her face as he set the box down on the table. "Simon, what is that? And why is it that horrible colour?"

"I got it from the cook's mother who's visiting from the country," Illyan explained. "I needed a portable refrigeration unit in a hurry. No, milady, don't open it!"

Too late. She was peering into it, the anxiety on her face replaced in quick succession by horror, disgust and a quiet anger. "This is addressed to Gregor?"

Aral crossed the room and peered over her shoulder. "Oh. Who is... was this?"

"Count Vorrustanya, as-was." Illyan looked lovingly at the jug of coffee on the table, then pulled himself together. "It's another winding-down effect from the Pretendership, I'm afraid. He'd set himself up as having a claim to the Imperium – and then when it was clear the tide was turning, the people of his District took matters into their own hands, and, ah, inspiration from you, milady."

"Ah," Aral said.

There was a moment of silence. Cordelia said, quietly, "I'm sure there are grand political implications. But is there nowhere in this city where we can get Gregor a teddy bear, or a bunny rabbit, or something else appropriate?"

Illyan blinked. "Yes, of course. One of my men will be happy to take you."

She regarded him, coolly. "ImpSec will help me find a teddy bear for my foster son?"

His hand raised in an analyst's salute, but he dropped it, thinking better of it. He took a step back and bowed, as Vorishly as possible. "We are Imperial Security, milady."

Aral raised his eyebrows. "Get what information you can, Simon, and then perhaps we can return the, ah, artefact, to the family for the pyre."

"Yes, sir."

Cordelia was still looking at him, with a quiet, ironic, approving smile on her face. "And, Simon?"

"Yes, milady?"

"Buy the cook's mother a new picnic cooler."

"Yes, milady," he said, and turned around to grin.

 

*

The Emperor's Birthday would begin in the morning, starting with the presentation of the bags of coins from the Counts and finishing many hours later with fireworks, public drunkenness and increased security in every part of the capital. By common consent, Gregor's birthday was the night before, in the drawing room at Vorkosigan House.

The first gift was a radio-controlled courier ship, a tiny toy that nevertheless zipped around at a fair pace, coming to a hovering stop a few inches from Miles's nose. Miles reached for it and Gregor whipped it away, letting him jump for it, and Miles went after Gregor instead, trying to wrest away the controller; the two of them vanished out into the hallway and Cordelia could hear running footsteps, two timbres of breathless laughter.

"Boys," said Lady Alys, tolerantly. "Ivan wanted one of those, too."

Cordelia grinned. "I knew when Miles suggested it that he wanted it himself, but I thought it might make Gregor smile a little. He's becoming very serious and contemplative, a lot of the time. He's making me nervous."

"Who can blame him?" Alys said, not smiling, and Cordelia sighed. When the boys returned, with Elena and Ivan in tow, she preferred to bustle rather than sit still to pursue that line of thought. There were still presents to come, and an Armsman went to see what was keeping the cake. Gregor did smile as he pulled wrapping paper off neat parcels, Cordelia watching over him with wary fondness.

The last gift was Cordelia's own, many small packages, placed in a gift bag, done up in bright candy colours and cellophane. Gregor peered inside, curiously, then looked up at her, the serious look giving way to something knowing, ironic. "Thank you, Tante Cordelia," he said quietly, with amusement in his voice. "Perhaps I won't open the rest right now."

"A wise choice," Cordelia agreed.

"Cordelia," Alys said, sharply. "Gregor, may I..." she began, and only barely waited for him to hand the bag to her before looking inside. "Cordelia!"

"Be careful," Cordelia said, not bothering to hide her own amusement. "Every single item in there had to be imported specially from Beta Colony."

"I shall have to thank Dr. Naismith," Gregor said quietly, and Cordelia grinned happily at him.

"Cordelia!" Alys said again. "To give a young boy..."

"He's sixteen, Alys."

"I'm not," Gregor pointed out. "Not until..."

Cordelia waved him silent. "Alys," she began, and paused. "Actually, no. Gregor. What's in that bag is there. It'll be there whether you look inside it or not. It'll be there when or if you're ready. And I'll be here, whether you need me or not."

"Thank you, Cordelia," Gregor said, looking up at her with clear and oddly innocent eyes. Cordelia took a deep breath.

Alys shook her head. "Cordelia, I hope you know what you're doing."

"Don't I usually?"

Alys took a moment to think about it. "Yes," she said at last, and smiled.

*

Ivan was being as insistent as he knew how. Having the security clearance, he was explaining, didn't mean the same thing as being important enough to have the security clearance, and surely, the man must understand, there was no need to take up any of the Emperor's time – but Gregor himself appeared in the outer office, smiled a little, and said, "Ivan, why don't you come in."

And it was hard to disobey, after all. Ivan sighed, clutched the little viewer tightly in one hand and followed.

"What can I do for you, Ivan?" Gregor asked, mildly, once the door had closed behind them. He was sitting on the edge of his beautiful, polished wooden desk, swinging his feet like a schoolboy.

Ivan took a deep breath and said, "I was just dropping this off for you!" He waved the viewer. "That was all. Your secretary took me so seriously! He kept asking me what my visit was in relation to, and should he schedule me after the Minister for South Continent Agriculture!"

"Interesting," Gregor said. Something about his expression reminded Ivan of something from long ago; at twenty-five, Gregor still had something of the serious child in him, that wide-eyed thoughtfulness. Either that, Ivan thought sourly, or Gregor had just been born with the solemnity of office.

"Interesting," Ivan repeated. "What's interesting?"

"Never mind." A quirk of the eyebrows. "What do you have for me?"

"Oh." Ivan gave up trying to figure him out – Gregor's serene implacability got too much for one, sometimes – and handed him the viewer. "Remember last month, in the library at the Winterfair ball? We were talking about that book, you'd just begun it...."

Gregor brightened. "Never See Land? The Komarran myth-building novel? Yes, I remember. What about it?"

"He published another one," Ivan said. "I finished it last night, I thought you might like it. I was going to drop it off on my way to work." He looked at his chrono. "On my way to apologise for my tardiness to my commanding officer, now. Although" – he smiled - "I suppose 'I was summoned into the Emperor's presence' isn't the worst excuse, now I come to think of it."

Gregor smiled back at him. "Thank you, Ivan. If I ever find the time, I'll give it a try."

"You'll like it," Ivan said, meaning it. "I don't think I did, as much as the previous one – but you always seem to get on better with the poetic stuff than I do."

"Another step away from realism?" Gregor asked, contemplative. "Perhaps it represents another step away from his initial influences, too. Corbin's a young author, he's still working out his own voice."

"Possibly," Ivan said. "I think I'd like to reserve judgement until he publishes something else. You can't make an assessment based off two books."

"True," Gregor said, and stood up. For a moment he said nothing, then focused on Ivan, who took an involuntary step backwards. Again, he had a flash of memory from childhood: Gregor, who never quite got into the trouble Miles got into, but when he did, did it with the bright-eyed determination of someone who knew exactly what they were doing. Miles was a constant threat to a quiet life for Ivan; Gregor, only with that quiet, bravura-fey look. He had it now. Ivan breathed.

"Do you know," Gregor said, deceptively light, "that as a matter of course, the Emperor receives a copy of every book published on Barrayar for the Imperial Residence library, and another for the library at the University of Vorbarr Sultana?"

"Yes, but," Ivan said, a little confusedly, "you might own it but you'd never have read it. Not if I hadn't..."

"That's very true." Gregor smiled at him again. "And it's also very interesting."

"What's interesting?" Ivan asked, realising as he said it that he was repeating himself.

"Interesting," Gregor said, "that you worry about being taken too seriously. Thank you for this, Ivan. Hopefully I'll have read it, by the time I see you again, and we'll discuss it."

"You're welcome," Ivan said, still confused. "I'll... just go, shall I?"

"You'll be late for work otherwise," Gregor agreed. "My regards to your lady mother. And, Ivan, thank you. Thank you very much."

"You're welcome," Ivan repeated, and went out more confused than ever.

*

"Gregor, you must stop doing this!" Lady Alys said, looking slightly frazzled around the edges, Miles thought. To the inexperienced eye, she was all poise, but Miles's eye was not inexperienced, and besides, it was probably against some rule of etiquette or other to tell the Emperor of three worlds what he must and mustn't do. It said something about her mental state.

Gregor himself looked slightly at a loss, although again, Miles was pretty sure anyone who hadn't actually been raised in the same household as him wouldn't be able to tell. "Aunt Alys, I merely mentioned in passing…"

"In passing!" Lady Alys said. "In passing, in front of a holovid recorder that was beaming a live transmission to most of Barrayar, Komarr and Chaos Colony!"

"I was being polite about the salad. It was a very nice salad."

"I'm sure it was." Lady Alys glared at him. "And now, what are we going to do with – Simon?"

"Two tonnes of tomatoes and another" – Illyan made a show of consulting his notes, although Miles was fairly sure that chip or no chip, he'd got this one down – "and another tonne of, ah, assorted tomato-based relishes."

"What are we going to do with two tonnes of tomatoes and another tonne of assorted tomato-based relishes?" she demanded.

"I can think of..."

"Miles, make an asinine suggestion and I will remove one of your limbs."

Miles and Illyan exchanged glances. Gregor took a deep breath and looked like he wasn't trying very hard not to laugh. "Surely," he said, all Imperial mildness, "we have homeless shelters in Vorbarr Sultana?"

Miles made sure he was allowed to talk before saying, "M'lady mother runs one."

"Very well. I hereby authorise the immediate purchase and distribution of a further two tonnes of ah, pitta bread. From my personal funds as Count Vorbarra, naturally."

"Naturally," said Illyan, very vaguely.

"Gregor," Lady Alys said.

"And I shall refrain from… stating preferences. In the future."

"Thank you," Lady Alys said. Miles grinned at Gregor, and then they both quailed under her gaze. "Miles, Gregor, you'll take care of the problem."

"Yes, Aunt Alys," they assured her.

"Simon," she said. "Deal with it, please."

"Yes, milady," he said, and smiled at something only he knew.

*

M'lord was on a roll. Roic held back in the corner of the room, as was right and proper, but it was right and proper, too, that he should pay attention to proceedings. M'lord wasn't like some Vor lords, expecting their Armsmen to be walking furniture, carrying drinks and saying yes, m'lord; m'lord might well ask his, Roic's, opinion, and it took some getting used to. It meant he'd better listen.

The Emperor – and hadn't his ma been proud, when she'd heard her son had been in the very presence of the Emperor, more than once, sometimes more than once a day – looked... calm. It was a kind of perfect calm, like he practised it. He got the look a lot, around m'lord.

"Miles," the Emperor was saying. "In the interests of my not meeting with the Betan Minister for Interstellar Trade with a blinding headache, let's try this again from the beginning."

"Right." M'lord looked determinedly cheerful. "So, after that little affair on Marilac, I met a man who knew a man whose younger sister was married to a woman who owned... well, I suppose you could call it a zoo. They had a lot of animals, anyway, and the place was being closed down, something about the station being decommissioned. And I said I'd take them, we had a cargo bay going unoccupied, and they sent along some people who knew how to look after them while they were in cryogenic storage..."

"Animals." The Emperor was still expressionless. "And what do you propose we do with these… animals? And, out of mild interest, what animals are they?"

"Creatures from Jackson's Whole, mostly. There's these dinosaur things, with wings, and some creditable attempts at gryphons, and a lizard that spits fire, and a thing that's half lamb, and half banana. Inter alia."

"Inter alia," the Emperor repeated.

"And Vorbarr Sultana has so many public parks – have you ever wondered why, by the way? It's because Emperor Dorca was very fond of them, so Duv Galeni says. And we could apportion one of them off beautifully, put in habitat flora and watering pools, I asked some nice people from the city authorities."

"With that seal around your neck, all the municipal authorities fall over themselves to be nice to you," the Emperor said. "And, I might add that I say this entirely without prejudice to the trust I place in the man, but how exactly is Galeni an authority on Emperor Dorca and public parks?"

"He wrote his doctoral thesis on it. Look it up, it's very interesting."

The Emperor sat back in his chair. "You know," he said, gently, "I'm no Emperor Dorca the Just. I didn't unite the warring factions under force of will and sword. But I do hope, in days and years to come, that history will view me, if not fondly, at least without rancour. Emperor Gregor the… well, not the Great. Perhaps Emperor Gregor the Unmemorable. Emperor Gregor, Who Didn't Go To War With The Cetegandans."

"Gregor, is there a point to this?"

"Here it is. I had not counted on becoming Emperor Gregor the Determinedly Eccentric."

M'lord seemed to think about that, and Roic took a deep breath. "You're already Uncle Gregor the Determinedly Eccentric," he pointed out.

"Very well." The Emperor's expression was one of subtly restrained amusement. "I hereby accept your gift, my Lord Auditor Vorkosigan. All upkeep shall of course be be the logistical and financial responsibility of Vorkosigan's District."

"Gregor! You can't tax the District, we don't have..."

"Of course," the Emperor continued silkily, "such upkeep may take the form of service, labour and education, and those individuals from the District who choose to engage in such service will need to be housed, fed and provided for..."

M'lord looked startled for a moment, then smiled. "Sire, speaking with the Voice of the Count-my-father, I accept your terms."

"I had not finished enumerating them."

"Sorry."

"And, on the day, shall we say a month hence" – the amusement was becoming less restrained by the moment – "upon which the Vorbarr Sultana Zoological Garden is opened to the public, I request and require that my chosen representative of House Vorkosigan accompany me on my, ah, inaugural stroll."

M'lord seemed amused, too. "And that chosen representative would be…"

"Lady Helen Vorkosigan."

"I accept your terms. Unless you have any more."

"I'm glad to hear it. Now get out, please. Ah, Roic" – Roic nearly jumped, but controlled himself in time – "how do you manage him?"

"Carefully, Sire," Roic said. M'lord looked indignant, but accepting.

The Emperor gave him a considered look. "Good. Carry on, Armsman. You too, Miles."

"Yes, Sire," m'lord said, with the sarcasm he was very good at, and they went out.

*

 

"I was about four years old," Gregor said, and blew smoke. "I think."

"Yes, that's right," Cordelia said. "You turned five not long after, I remember. Are you all right, sweetheart? Where are ImpSec?"

"I'm fine," Gregor said, and stretched out, flat on his back. The night was warm, heat still radiating out from the ground. A lock of his hair had long since burned to ashes in the tiny fire, but the wood was still smouldering, glowing rich orange and red. Below them, the lake slopped darkly black against the shore.

"I'm just fine," Gregor said again. "Yes, I have been drinking. No, I was not planning to jump off, out of, or into anything."

Cordelia squeezed his arm. "I didn't mean that, love. But where are ImpSec?"

Gregor smiled a little, considering. "I told them I didn't want them following me, just for an hour; they looked embarrassed and apologetic, and followed me anyway; I made it an Imperial order, so they followed me at a slightly greater distance. There's certain inalienable aspects to their job description, I think."

Cordelia said, looking amused, "I think you could say that."

"Yes." Gregor was in the mellow certainty stage of drink. "So, I was about four years old, and I remember it all in flashes: my mother told me about what was going to happen, after my grandfather died, and I remember asking her if it would hurt, and she looked at me and she didn't say anything."

Cordelia reached for his hand and interlaced her fingers with his. "You remember your ma, don't you?"

Gregor nodded, thought about it. "Again, in flashes. Sensory memory more than anything. But I do remember her."

Cordelia nodded. "I'm glad. I read so many books back then, I even got psychology journals sent from Beta, all about how best to keep your memory intact. In the end I had to just trust to faith, and hope."

Gregor said nothing but a while, but squeezed her hand.

"And I don't think I knew what was happening when it was happening," he continued, presently. "I remember it. I remember Aral having to get on his knees to be at my level."

"And so did I," Cordelia said.

"And later," Gregor said, "Simon Illyan, too. He'd been in a direct liege relationship with Ezar, but not with me, not until he became Chief of ImpSec. And Aunt Alys, in her own right, after her husband's death. She insisted. Miles after the Academy. He did it properly, it was important to him, but we had a couple of beers afterwards, because I couldn't deal with it, otherwise. He was my brother. And Ivan, too, and Sasha when he was old enough to understand it just a little. Helen, because that's progress. Not Laisa. Never Laisa."

"Is it a burden to you, sweetheart?" Cordelia asked, carefully. "A weight?"

"Dear Cordelia." He smiled at her, still lying flat so the smile was for her and for the stars. "You bring the other perspective, you try to find the comparison. It is like nothing but itself. It's fealty, loyalty, oath. It's freely given, taken, it's a gift."

"All right." Cordelia nodded. "I'm glad you burned the offering for your ma, love. I hope it's eased something."

"Things heal over," Gregor said, philosophically. "Time marches on. My God, I am going to have such a headache in the morning."

"A stern reminder from your liver," Cordelia told him. "Drink less. Be less Vor."

"Yes. Another gift."

Cordelia chuckled. They were quiet under the night sky.

*

"Miles, is this normal?" Gregor was saying from somewhere downstairs, his voice carrying through floorboards and timbers. "She keeps… cleaning. And dusting. And going through cupboards."

Miles seemed exasperated. "How the hell would I know if it's normal?"

"You have children!"

"So do I," came another voice, female, somewhat amused: Countess Vorkosigan, Laisa thought. "And I don't have any idea either. No mother is normal, Gregor. In the same way as every child is an extraordinary being to be discussed endlessly throughout their extraordinary childhood. With everyone, especially guests at dinner parties."

"You're no help at all, either of you." Unusual petulance from Gregor, and Laisa grinned to herself and went on looking at boxes. The attics of the Imperial Residence were extensive and well-catalogued, but nonetheless impenetrably musty for all that; Simon Illyan had tried to tell her, entirely deadpan, that there was a ground-based strike missile somewhere catalogued under "armaments, sub-orbital", and she hadn't managed to prove he was joking, or at least not yet.

On a whim, she opened the nearest box. The seal was nearly completely eroded by time, the edges of the board crumbling in her hands. Reaching inside she pulled out something warm, soft, yellowed with age but clearly once a perfect, pristine white. A blanket, she realised, noting the soft lacework around the edge, the tiny scalloped edges. Made according to the traditions of Barryaran hill-people, the scholar in her noted, hope and good wishes sewn in symbols in the pattern.

"Gregor," she said, at the sound of the door opening behind her, "when was the last time a baby was born to a reigning Emperor?"

Gregor was batting at cobwebs. "Er… more than sixty years ago. Ezar had ascended to the Imperium when my father was born. But he was only Crown Prince when I was born, so not since." He looked around him, reflectively. "He was born during a war, and so was I... but people found it something to celebrate, even then."

"Gregor!" called Miles's voice from downstairs. "Gregor, we're leaving!"

"I should go and say goodbye," Gregor said, and absent-mindedly kissed her before setting off down the stairs. Laisa smiled after him, checked the side of the box, and wasn't surprised to note a scribbled date from thirty-five years earlier.

She picked up the blanket, shook out the cobwebs, and ran down the stairs.