"... and twenty."
Grandfather swished the cane down for the last time. Piotr listened to it hiss through the air and waited for it to strike. Pain and heat flared through him again, but he did not permit himself to make a sound. He was Vor.
"All right, Lord Piotr. Get up."
There were tears in his eyes, and he blinked them back hard to hide them from Grandfather, and watched as Grandfather laid the cane back across the desk. Grandfather had declared that if he was old enough for a boy's trick like this, he was old enough for a boy's beating, not a child's spanking, and he hadn't imagined how much it would hurt. At least it was over now. The waiting, from late afternoon when his Grandfather had dragged him into his study, to dusk when Grandfather had returned, had been ghastly.
"Now you stay away from my new stallion. I won't have his temper ruined by ignorant boys teasing him."
"Yes, sir," Piotr said faintly. He didn't think he'd been teasing the stallion, and he still didn't regret it. Twenty minutes he'd ridden Grandfather's grey before he'd been caught. At least now the bruises he'd had from when he'd been bucked off the first time weren't the most painful of his injuries.
"We took him in a raid on Vorinnis's stud," Grandfather went on, his wolfish smile returning. That was the good thing about Grandfather. Once he'd punished you, it was back to normal again without any further recriminations. "Him and six fine mares, and Vorinnis still thinks they broke out and were stolen by his own liegepeople when they found them straying." He laughed. "None of my liegepeople would do that. I taught them that lesson fifty years ago, and they'll never forget it."
Piotr had heard that story, and many others, before. Grandfather clapped him on the shoulder, his hand hard. A warrior's hand. "You'll know how to keep your liegepeople properly in line when you're Count, won't you, my boy?"
By having horse-thieves torn to pieces by my hunting dogs in their own village? Piotr wondered, remembering the story. They didn't even have a pack of hounds like Grandfather's at Vorkosigan Vashnoi.
The door to his grandfather's study burst open and a pale-faced servant in the Vorrutyer livery rushed in, banging the door against the wall in his haste. Grandfather seized up his cane again and sliced it across the man's shoulders. "Have you forgotten your place?" he whispered.
"My lord count, the sky's on fire!" the man blurted out, cringing from Grandfather. That was stupid, Piotr knew. Cringing from Grandfather only made him angrier.
But Grandfather stared at the servant, then walked at a measured pace towards the window.
"To--to the east, my lord," the servant said. "Towards Vorbarr Sultana."
Piotr reached the double doors that led out onto the terrace first, and opened them, not waiting for Grandfather. He ran a few steps out onto the lawn until he could see clearly. There, a red smear high above them, leading into a thick line, pink fading to white as it sliced through the sky, straight as a diving hawk.
Grandfather came to stand beside him, and Piotr, staring, moved instinctively closer.
The white flame shot lower until it sank below the treeline and hills out of sight. Only then did the sound begin, a roar like the heavens themselves splitting open, and helplessly, Piotr huddled closer to Grandfather, his hands rising to cover his ears. Instead of rebuking him, Grandfather put a heavy arm across his shoulders.
Gradually, the noise died away, leaving only the broad white line in the evening sky. All the dogs in the kennels were barking and whining, and looking down, Piotr saw the grey stallion cantering across his paddock to the fence, wheeling and cantering back again, ears flat to his skull and nostrils flaring.
"What was it?" Piotr gasped, lowering his hands from his ears and looking up.
Grandfather said nothing for a while. Then, his arm still around Piotr, he said, "It is a portent. Even the stars from the heavens come to Vorbarr Sultana to do honour to our Emperor."
A portent. He had thought those only happened in stories and songs, heralds of great deeds and signs of change. But the Emperor Dorca was real, and he was greater than any of the heroes of song. Piotr looked up at the white line across his sky, like a knife-slash laying the world open, and wondered what changes this portent would bring.