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The Will of the People

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Laisa had been carried off by Alys and Ekaterin, for one of their arcane womens’ meetings that probably carried more weight than an entire session of the Council of Counts, so Miles had scurried over to keep Gregor company. Gregor wasn’t convinced that this was an equal trade.

Decades of training stopped Gregor from showing any emotion in this public forum, but Miles as usual was transmitting his every thought to the world. And he was vibrating with enough tension for both of them. Gregor kept his face calm, his movements smooth, knowing that every eye was on him – and tonight that included the vids, and eventually most of the Nexus.

“Won’t be long now,” Miles was being reassuring. It wasn’t, very. “I’m sure it’ll go the way you want. The people – they know how you feel. You’ve made it very clear.”

Gregor managed one small nod. Tonight meant everything, for Laisa, and especially for the children. He’d always sworn that he’d keep them safe, they weren’t going to know the insecurity of his own childhood.

“The voting machines are absolutely foolproof,” Miles burbled on, he was always more talkative when nervous. “The Betans assured us of that.” And they’d sent their own technicians to manage and guard them; technicians who looked at Gregor, his armsmen and Impsec as if they intended to attack the precious machines at any moment.

“They said the results will come all at once, the first result is the final result. No waiting.”

And they’d said that several times during the long negotiations and planning. He hardly needed reminding now.

“The Komarran and Sergyaran voting totals will be bounced in here in a few moments, and added to the Barrayaran figures, and we get the answer right away.”

Since Gregor had been the one who’d set up this moment with careful years of planning, and months of negotiations, this wasn’t news.

“And the Nexus vid companies have relays set up by the wormholes, the results will go out all over, just as soon as we know.”

Another fact that had been discussed at length, for months.

“And of course it’ll be flashed all over Barrayar. And Komarr, and Sergyar.”

As Gregor well knew, and Miles knew he knew.

Gregor took a deep breath in frustration, suppressing an urge to throttle an Auditor in front of the vid-cams. And then realised that for a few moments he’d forgotten his tension. He glanced down at Miles, who flashed a satisfied smile. Gregor rested his hand on Miles’s shoulder for a moment, squeezing gently. In his own twisted way, Miles was a comfort. Or, at least, a welcome distraction.

But not for long. There was a stir at the comconsoles set up at one side of room. They were using the main ballroom at the Residence, one of the few places large enough for the electoral overseers and their specially shielded comconsoles, the vid companies, the Counts and all the rest of the High Vor, the Ministers, the heads of all the political parties, and everyone else who had some kind of stake in this election.

Barrayar wasn’t used to elections. It had taken years just to get the concept across to the general population. Most people considered politics as an important but somewhat unpleasant job, a bit like cleaning toilets. They had Counts to run the districts, they were bred for the job – why did ordinary people have to do anything about it? If your Count was doing a bad job you moved districts, or headed to Sergyar.

Most of the opposition parties were drawn from the wealthy middle class, and from dissatisfied Vor – usually younger sons or cadet branches of the High Vor families. It took time to get real grass roots involvement, starting with elections for local representatives,and minor committees to deal with small District matters. Secret ballots took a lot of selling, most villages voted by everyone just talking until they’d reached agreement, or if necessary a show of hands.

But this was part of the treaty agreement with Beta and Escobar, the treaties that gave Barrayaran ships and Komarran trade fleets free access to most of the nexus. To be accepted without constant restrictions and extra levies on their goods they had to hold a free vote. Empires were obviously dangerous – Cetaganda and Barrayar were the two strongest powers in the Nexus. To join the free world, the Barrayaran people had to have a say in their own destinies. After the latest Cetagandan aggression, a failed blitzkrieg attempt to take Komarr, Vervain and Marilac all at the same time, empires weren’t popular.

So, the price of admission to the elite club was this election. And tonight Barrayar would become a Republic. No more titles, no more Vor. No more Emperor, or Empress, or Crown Prince. There was a complex organisation ready to swing into action, dividing Imperial and District property from personal possessions. A parliamentary system was ready to hit the ground running, tomorrow would see the first session of the new representative government.

Gregor had considered, as one of his final acts as Emperor, giving special medals to the election officials who’d drawn the Dendarii Mountains as their sector. The stories of their reception at various remote and highly suspicious villages were alternately terrifying, hilarious and heart-breaking. And despite the requirement that every adult should vote, there were some cave-dwellers in a few remote corners of those mountains who’d resisted democracy with extreme vigour. Gregor had a whole new respect for Betans, they really were a dedicated and persistent bunch. Healed fast, too.

So years of planning, negotiating, training and outright threats to force various regulations through the Council of Counts and the Ministries had led to this moment. This night. For twenty-six hours Barrayar, Komarr and Sergyar had voted. And tonight the results were pouring into the comconsoles at the end of the ballroom, and would soon be flashed up on the huge screen. And on similar screens in the public squares, and on private comconsoles and vid receivers all over Barrayar, Komarr, Sergyar and the whole nexus.

The end of the Empire.

His personal views were unimportant, his own hopes and desires meant nothing – this was for the good of Barrayar. The Barrayaran Republic, as it would be very soon.

Tomorrow morning he’d be Gregor Barra, a minor landowner with few other qualifications or skills.

Miles jiggled up and down, trying to get a good view of the action, “So, Sire – I can still call you that for a few moments more – I’ve been thinking about our final plans. Graceful retirement to our estates, and the life of a farmer, does hold some attractions, but I thought maybe we could set up a business together, ‘Kosigan and Barra, Handymen extraordinaire’. I’ll fix drains, and you can repair light fittings. We could have a groundcar with our business name printed on the side.”

Gregor frowned, “Barra and Kosigan. Alphabetical.”

Miles grinned, “We can negotiate details later. Ekaterin can do the gardens, and Laisa can do our accounts. A family business. We’ll be rich in a few years.”

“You could go back to being a mercenary. It won’t be treason now.”

Miles shook his head mournfully, “Past my use-by date for that one. Although maybe I could write a book about it. My autobiography. It’d make a great Vid.” He stared into the distance, obviously seeing fame coming his way.

Gregor kept his voice low, “Maybe our wives can support us. They both have more marketable skills than we do.”

Miles nodded happily, “We’ll be kept men. Househusbands. See? Already new vistas open up for us.”

They both knew they’d retain enough resources to live comfortably. Also that they‘d both be barred from politics, as part of the deal. Gregor suspected that Laisa and Ekaterin had devious plans to keep them busy in their enforced retirement.

No more empire. No emperor. No dynasty for his children. Gregor was still trying to accept it.

A stir from the comconsoles, excitement from the vid-casters. Laisa and Ekaterin drifted back towards their husbands. Miles and Gregor both froze, eyes glued to the screens, to see the end of the Barrayaran Empire announced officially.

The numbers flashed on the screen. Inexorable, inescapable, the cry from the hearts of all Barrayarans. Gregor stiffened, then his shoulders sagged just a little, a reaction even his iron training couldn’t control.

Miles closed his eyes for a moment, and sighed, “Gregor, I’m so sorry.”

It was done.

They’d lost the vote.

It was a landslide. Some areas more than others, but a clear majority from each planet.

Miles sighed, “As a wise woman once told me – you just go on. So now, we have to go on.” The vid-casters were heading their way, avid for comment. Miles patted Gregor’s arm then stepped back, “Gregor, I’m so sorry, after all your hard work, I really thought you’d carried them all. I was sure we’d get across the line. But now – tomorrow we’ll be busy. Just – just try to – just don’t say too much now, ok? It’ll be fine. I’ll be with you to help in any way I can.”

Even during his desolation Gregor could spare a moment to be touched that Miles actually thought that was comforting.

Then he turned to the vid-cams, as impassive and controlled as ever. They were all babbling questions, but it was really all the same question. He took a quiet breath, “Yes, the result was a surprise, and a disappointment. But We must accept the will of the people.”

And so, tomorrow he’d still be Emperor.

And his children would still be locked into their predestined roles, they’d still be living without freedom or real security. He’d hoped to give them a better life. He was so sure it would happen.

It would be at least a decade before they could try again. Possibly longer. Gregor made a silent promise to his children – next time we won’t fail. Next time I’ll free you.

He faced the avid vid-cams: “It was a surprise. But We will keep working to make Barrayar a positive presence in the Nexus, and We will continue with Our democratic reforms. We will always listen to and respect the wishes of Our subjects.”

And one day, he’d escape from them.