It must be as long as it will be. It must stretch and bend and fit into a keyhole. It will not turn itself in the lock. You must apply the pressure.
It will not satisfy you, at the end of it all. You will never think it worthy of the cost. It is like every painful memory: it gets worse as you reflect on it, like water beneath moonlight, like bodies in the forest.
You will never forgive yourself. You will never move past it. You will always remain in the forest among your secrets and your fears and your wars. There is no future there. There is only your life amid your regrets. There is the cold of the winter and the warmth of the summer and dry kindling and burnt food and the vomit and the disease and the powder and the death.
You never leave it, not really. You turn around and see it spread before you. It is just behind you, just before you, boxing you in on all sides. You have never played chess. You have merely tried and tried again to fight lost battles, to find some way to create a victory with war-battered swords and war-beaten soldiers.
You are a general, like your father, like your grandfather. You are a general; you are always fighting the last war. You understand it now: it never ends. Sign treaties, watch them leave, learn to speak to them without fists, learn to see their Imperial paint without seeing them painted with blood. You would paint their faces with blood, when you could. Their own blood was best. It was not required.
There were bodies in the forest.
When Vashnoi fell, it fell quickly. They held you back, all of them, and you held them back, all of you in your camp, with your swords, with your tears. You thought to be buried there. You want to be buried there. Ezar would never have allowed you to be buried there.
In the end, your clothes are covered with Yuri's blood and your enemies once were off-worlders, but now you have returned to your past. You fight your kin-killing wars, though they now seem as alien as face paint. A vestige of the old, lost in this stranger world, a battle fallen out of time. Prince against Emperor, Counts in rebellion, and at last, a body hung from a parapet: the Emperor is dead.
You do not have to be victorious in war, you would like to say to your son. You do not have to be strong. You do not have to be wise. You do not have to be worthy. Be only brave, yet be an artist, not a soldier. I have fought too many wars to bequeath them to you. Let my legacy be peace, not war. But you are never successful and you send him off to war, him and his kin, and he comes back and his kin do not, and the war has never ended.
It shifts, like water beneath moonlight, and the ripples spread out, shallow.
You do not have to be brave, you would like to say to your grandson. But you lost that battle, and he is brave, and foolish, and stupid, and you remember Vashnoi as it was, and you still hear the bells tolling in your dreams when you reach for your family and find only Cetagandan atomics and ruined glory. They vanish with Yuri and those years when the war returned and took them all again, because you are Piotr Vorkosigan and you have no family but what family you can steal from the night when your enemies have turned their backs, and you must be very quiet or they will vanish as you leave the underworld of dreams.
You walk the forests now and you see Cetagandans in the trees. You walk through wild gardens long untended and see your reflection in the mountain water. You are twenty once again, young and still brave, young and not yet bereaved.
Your armsman helps you up and he is too young to remember Vashnoi.
You would like to say to your soldiers: be young. But they will think it an insult, not a prayer. Be young. Be at home. Find your peace.
You lost yours a long time ago, and all your warring with the Cetagandans could never return what they stole. Youth. Home. Peace. And your honor tied up among them, tattered and torn at your feet, while you won the war. But not again. Please. Not again.
Take this oath and press it between your palms. Kiss the Emperor's hands when he takes your oath. Give it to him gladly.
You do not have to be Emperor. You do not have to be important. You do not have to win the wars or build the siege engines or learn the sword's art. You do not have to run through the murderous night to find your child. You do not have to bring report. You will never have to sit in the eye of the storm and pray the monster will spare the children, the way you never did, when you were young, when you were the monster, when you were still a soldier and not yet this war-wearied general.
This planet is drowning in blood and it is soaked through your palms and you rub your hands together and Ezar takes your hands in his and he bows his head and you kneel at his feet, like the Count that you are, and he raises you up, like the legend that you have become.
You do not have to be strong, or wise, or worthy. You only have to be lucky, and ruthless, and brutal. You do not have to be brave. You must only cower in fear with more force than the enemy, you must only learn how to cover your face with tears and still see through them.
You do not have to love, or believe, or find peace. It may find you; it did once, and you long for it, and when it left, you wondered if you would recognize it if it returned. Cetagandans took your family and Yuri stole the little you rebuilt; what you did to Aral, you did yourself. You do not have to be kind. You must only find your victory where it lands at your feet, tattered like your honor, stolen like your dreams, and the bells of Vashnoi will always find you, clanging in your dreams, calling you home.
They will vanish as you watch. They will slip out between your hands like water beneath moonlight, leaving only shallow ripples and never what you lost in Vashnoi, never what you want it to be.
You do not have to respond to the silence. You do not have to speak to the past. You do not have to walk the forest paths and see Vashnoi in your chess pieces. You do not have to give breath to your regrets.
You do not have to be worthy. You have broken your oath and shamed your name, and you are Piotr Vorkosigan, the kingmaker and monster and legend. The bells still ring in Vashnoi, calling you to your duty. To your family. To your home.