"Miles, if you don't stop bouncing on that beast it'll throw you. Watch the branch, Sire."
Miles swiveled, a retort hot on his lips, but it died as he saw that Grandda wasn't watching. Gregor ducked his dark head, nodding thanks as the old man held a wayward limb aside. The Emperor's mouth, shut as always, was a hint tight.
Count Piotr Vorkosigan turned and found Miles scowling thunderously.
"Fat Ninny won't throw me," Miles said.
"Yes, he will, boy," Piotr snapped. "I've been riding horses longer than your Da's been alive. Don't backtalk me."
His Grandda was all back and no bite and they knew it. Miles's jaw jutted in open defiance and he bounced twice, quite deliberately. Ivan and Elena, horse-lengths ahead, exchanged awed glances.
Miles crossed his arms and awaited retribution.
"Brat," Piotr growled, grabbing Fat Ninny's reigns with the swipe of one big hand. The young gelding, too small for anyone but Miles to ride, shifted nervously. "D'you wanna fall and break another bone? Hold still."
Miles could feel the heat staining his face. Humiliated, he looked away. Ivan and Elena pretended not to see, embarrassed for him, but the child Emperor -- Miles could feel it -- stared implacably at his back.
The sun was halfway across the sky as the four children and the Count meandered up the path. This close to the mountains, the ground was hilly and full of rocks, perilous territory for the inexperienced rider. Piotr turned his attention to Ivan and Elena, who needed it, and left Miles and Gregor to bring up the rear. Whenever Miles looked over, as he did often, he found the Emperor lost in thought.
Miles scowled. He hated riding with Gregor. He was too quiet.
"Hey, Miles!" Elena called, shattering the quiet. "Come look!"
"Okay!" Miles called back, and kicked Ninny into a trot. The Emperor was a few beats behind him.
They found themselves on a precipice overlooking a shallow valley, cut by a thin stream arrowing for the distant river. At its mouth was the ruined Vorkosigan castle, and beyond that, the village of Vorkosigan Surleau and the Long Lake. Entranced, Miles stood in his stirrups and spread his arms wide, ignoring Ivan's derisive laugh. Up here, he was tall, taller than anyone -- taller than Grandda, even!
He settled back as Ninny began to fidget. "Grandda, did you fight Cetagandans in there?"
Miles pointed to the valley. "Like, in there! In the caves and stuff! Are there caves? I bet there're caves. Mama says there's caves all over the place in the mountains."
"These aren't mountains," Piotr said scornfully. "Someday I'll show you real mountains, boy." He shook himself. "I don't know if there are caves. I've never checked."
"It has a lake," Elena observed, and so it did, a bean-shaped glimmer of blue. Elena was the second-oldest of the child-cohort, having just celebrated her seventh birthday. Her blue eyes were wide in her sun-burned face. "Are there fish? Maybe there are sea lions!"
"There's only sea lions in the ocean," Miles said scornfully. "That's what the holodoc said. They drink salt water."
"That's not a lake," Piotr said, brow wrinkling. He didn't like taking Elena on these trips, but had learned – to his immense irritation – that Miles refused to go without her. "It's too little. And it probably doesn't have sea lions."
Ivan, sweaty and scratching a bug bite smack in the middle of his forehead, heaved a sigh. Miles and Elena immediately turned to glare, and even Gregor frowned at him. Ivan could be very, very irritating.
"Can we go home and go swimming?" Ivan asked, plainly inspired by the sight of water. "This is really, really stupid." Miles kicked at him and Ivan shifted away, too annoyed to fight back.
"Don't see why not," Piotr said, carefully laconic. "C'mon, you two, spin 'em around. Like this." He took Ivan and Elena's reigns, guiding them in the tricky process of turning their mounts. Miles rode by, pointing and laughing.
Once everyone was facing the right way – and a great deal sweatier and more frustrated for it – the Count looked back at the reason for their trip into the hills. Gregor was staring into the valley, his face relaxed with wonder. The wind sifted through the cowlicks of his sweaty hair, drying it in place. For once he looked his age.
"Seen your fill, Sire?"
The Emperor's head flew up. Without a word, he steered his black gelding down the narrow path and rejoined the group. His hazel eyes were veiled, studiously ignoring the curious and worshipful looks of the younger children.
With a disapproving grunt, Piotr nudged his horse – a big, mean stallion, kept for his bloodlines, not his temperament – into motion. "Off we go," he said.
A quiet moment followed, broken only by the sound of Gregor's ImpSec guard down the path, talking and laughing over some distant thing. Birds flitted back and forth across the path, startling Ivan and Elena's skittish mounts.
Piotr growled, "Miles, quit bouncing."
"Sor-ry," Miles muttered, and kicked his feet aimlessly instead.
They arrived at Vorkosigan Surleau in time for lunch, which they took in the cavernously deserted dining room. Miles finished first and sock-skidded across the marble floors, ignoring his grandfather's glare. Ivan, much more cheerful now, argued with Elena about whether there were sea lions in the Long Lake.
The boy Emperor ate quickly, quietly, and neatly. Miles, darting about the room, saw him slide from his seat without a word. He caught his breath. If he’d tried that, he’d have been told off for bad manners. But the Count didn't notice, and so Gregor vanished without comment.
A moment later, Piotr glanced over and found Miles watching him. "So, boy," he said, leaning one elbow on the table. "What do you say to a camping trip?"
"Really?" Miles was thrilled. "Camping-camping like when you were camping and fighting Cetagandans camping?"
"Minus the Cetagandans," Piotr said, grinning madly.
Miles didn't know what 'minus' meant so he ignored it. "Awesome!"
"Yeah!" Ivan's eyes were huge. "Can we bring a force screen to keep bugs out?"
Miles scoffed, "Wimp!" Ivan made as if to throw a bowl at him and Miles scurried away, behind Elena, who wasn't much of a substitute for her father but still better than nothing.
"I wanna force screen," she said, still chewing her sandwich. She was a very slow eater. Sergeant Bothari, who usually kept the boys from harassing her over it, had broken his leg (chasing Miles on Fat Ninny, but it wasn't Miles's fault! honest!) and wasn't there to protect her. Ivan was already shooting dirty looks.
"We can bring a force screen," Piotr allowed. "Would you like to come, Si -- wait a minute." He stood, alarmed. "Where's the Emperor? He was here just a minute ago --"
"He left," Miles said knowledgeably, watching his grandfather's panic with curious eyes. He didn't know what 'Sire' meant, either, although he used it for Gregor like everyone else did. Maybe he'd ask his mother later. "When he was done eating."
"Oh." Piotr relaxed and shifted in his chair. He glanced around for a victim and found his grandson instead. "Well, Miles, go ask him if he wants to come."
There were no guards in the hall.
There were, in fact, very few guards inside Vorkosigan Surleau at all. Gregor used to be escorted everywhere by a nervous ImpSec gaggle, until he'd finally asked Lord Vorkosigan to make them stop.
Actually, that wasn't how it had happened at all.
The guards had been with him a week before he finally asked why, and if he could have Drou back. That was the first he'd heard of her impending retirement, although he'd been polite, if jealous, when she told him that she was having a baby of her own.
It had taken him a few months to get sick of his new retinue. Outside his door all day, inside his room all night, watching him study, watching him eat . . . eventually he'd collapsed in Lord Vorkosigan's study, crying that he just wanted everyone to leave him alone, please, please, stop talking, just leave him alone. It had taken Drou, Lady Cordelia, and Lady Alys combined to calm him, and he’d been tense and exhausted afterward. It had been very much like going insane, or least how he imagined it.
After that, Lord Vorkosigan assigned him one full-time bodyguard, a Vorbarra Armsman in black and silver, named Gerard. Tall yet unobtrusive, Gerard was friendly and – unlike nearly everyone else – didn't pester the young Emperor to speak up, smile more, or anything else. He was also of the number who followed Gregor's rare orders, and was content to wait outside until summoned.
Briefly, gloriously alone, Gregor stretched and leaned against the windowframe. He caught a glimpse of his reflection, black hair, dark eyes, and pasty skin, pale from too much time indoors. There were permanent bags under his eyes, which Lady Alys had inspected and pronounced a result of exhaustion.
Gregor didn't know how that could be; he could sleep sixteen hours straight, more if no one woke him -- but he'd admit, he was still tired. And hungry. He was always hungry, which he understood from Lady Cordelia was normal for teenage boys (or almost-teenage boys; he'd be twelve in a few months). But he never ate his fill, too conscious of the eyes upon him. If he had a friend, he might try sneaking into the kitchen, but of course the Emperor had no friends. . . .
Miles, Ivan, and Elena didn't count. They were just kids. Sometimes Gregor wished that he could find a time machine and be their age again, just one of them – that maybe Miles would be his best friend, not Ivan's – that he'd get to go on their adventures and their sleepovers – but that was of course ridiculous.
Besides, even if he did find a time machine, everyone would make him get older, not younger, gulping up the scant shelter between himself and his responsibilities, leaving even less time to prepare. He dreaded his birthdays, all of them bringing the executioner's block more fully into view. Lady Cordelia told him it wouldn't be so bad, that he'd have lots of people to help him, but what if he didn't? He didn't even have parents.
There was a hideous, breathtaking pain in his chest, one that came and went. Was this what people called heartbreak? He didn't want to continue living like this. Lady Cordelia swore things would get better, and Lord Vorkosigan said he'd make friends at the Academy. . . .
Maybe they were right. Maybe he was being a baby; maybe it was nothing.
Or maybe he'd always be this way. Always.
Miles was down in the foyer, calling his name. He had, Gregor realized, been doing so for several minutes now.
Gregor pretended not to hear. Miles tried a few more times and then gave up. Of course, Miles was forbidden to go up and down the steep stairs without Sergeant Bothari around. Gregor waited a while longer, but no one else came. Must not have been important.
Gregor left the window and locked himself in his room. Homework. He'd do his homework. He had homework, right?
But instead he sat and stared out the window, watching the distant, glittering lake. When the Count took Miles, Ivan, and Elena out to go swimming, his heart ached only very dully, and not for long.
To her left was a pair of windows, stretching tall and narrow from the ceiling to the floor. Barrayar sprawled in alternating patches of crimson and clover, the Dendarii mountains a red streak on the horizon, a distant, approaching bloody mist. . . . There were days when she could stare and stare at them, for hours on end, and others when she couldn't bear to look. Today was one of the former.
Cordelia looked over and found a pair of wide gray eyes peering over the edge of her desk. Shaggy black hair dripped on her important government reports, and she made no effort to rescue them. "Goodness, Miles, where did you come from?"
He heaved a huge sigh and crossed his bare arms on the desktop. "Are you gonna come camping with me and Grandda and everyone?"
She could just imagine. There would be bloodshed within hours. "I don't think so, kiddo. It's just a camping trip for you boys and Elena." She propped her chin on her hand. "Something the matter?"
"No." Miles shifted. "Mama, what's an Emperor?"
She cocked an eyebrow. "The person in charge of the government," she said. "Like Gregor."
"But Gregor's not in charge," Miles pointed out. "Da is."
"Your Da is the Regent," she said, switching off her comconsole. Had they really forgotten to explain this to him? Or had they simply assumed he understood? "He's in charge until Gregor grows up. Then Gregor will take over."
"Oh." Miles fidgeted.
She titled her head and they regarded each other silently. All she could see of her son were his arms, peppered with scabs and the pressure marks of a cast taken off yesterday, and his face, which was youthful and round. He had his Da's dark hair and her pale skin, although his was summer-gold and starting to freckle.
"I don't want Gregor to come camping with us this weekend," Miles said.
Cordelia flinched, imagining Gregor's reaction if he heard that. She kept her voice calm. "Whyever not?"
"He's boring," Miles said immediately, bouncing on his heels. "He doesn't ever talk except to say excuse me, and he never does fun stuff, and everyone treats him different. And he has to take guards everywhere and they always catch Ivan and Elena and me when we go to do things."
Cordelia decided not to point out that the guards only caught them doing things they shouldn't be, and focused on the important parts of that rambling statement. "Gregor's just quiet," she explained. "I'm sure if you tried to include him more often, he'd be more fun."
Inwardly, she doubted her own words, but what was she supposed to do? The poor kid would be terribly hurt if his only friends stopped including him. What to do, what to do. . . .
"I don't care," Miles said, frowning and beginning to sulk. "He's stupid and I don't like him."
"You liked him just fine yesterday," Cordelia said fairly.
His face reddened. "So?"
Aha! "So," she prompted. "What happened to make you angry?"
Fidget, fidget, fidget . . . "Nothing." It was a mumble.
"Are you sure?" Cordelia lilted, dropping a note of warning into her voice. "Or are you fibbing?"
Out went the lower lip. Uh-oh. Had Gregor said something? He was turning twelve soon, maybe he was tired of being surrounded by kids. She'd be sad for Miles's hurt feelings, if that was the case, but she couldn't deny that it would be a good sign.
"M'not fibbing." Louder this time. "He's mean."
"What did he do, to make you say he's mean?" Cordelia kept her voice gentle and pushed back Miles's wet hair. He made a face but didn't pull away.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah." Fidget, fidget, bounce! "He's dumb anyway. He's too tall."
Cordelia quirked an eyebrow at her very short son and muttered, "Miles. . . ." She tried another tactic. "You know, he likes you. He told me so. That was all he talked about yesterday after his lessons, you and your mouthing off to your Grandda." Her lips twitched at the memory.
Instead of looking pleased, Miles blushed even harder. He said something, muffled by his arms.
"What was that?" she asked cheerfully, leaning forward.
"I said NO HE DOESN'T!" Miles switched tactics and began bellowing. "He hates me and he's stupid and I HATE HIM TOO!"
Yowch! She beat a hasty retreat.
"All right, all right." At least they were getting somewhere. Her ears would probably stop ringing soon. "What happened to make you think he hates you, Miles? C'mere." She turned her chair and held out a hand; to her mild astonishment, he hurried around her desk and crawled into her lap, burying his face in her shoulder. She wrapped him in a tight hug.
After a moment of cuddling, she pulled away and smoothed back his hair. He avoided her eyes. "What happened, kiddo?"
"Nothing." Back to the mumbles, what joy. "He just never talks to me or looks at me and today he ignored me."
She squashed the urge to smile. "What do you mean, he ignored you?"
"He ignored me! Grandda told me to go ask him if he wanted to go camping with us but he was up the stairs, so I called and called but he just kept staring out the stupid window!" Miles took a deep breath, plainly on the verge of tears. "He thinks I'm a kid or stupid or a --" His mouth shut sudden and tight on the most forbidden word, but too late. Far, far too late. Cordelia's blood ran cold.
It was several long seconds before she found her voice, fluttering in her chest beside her aching, broken heart. Miles was hunched protectively, and she tentatively pulled him into another hug. He went a little stiffly.
"Sweetheart," she said, striving for calm. "Gregor doesn't think any of those things. He's just very shy."
A moment of silence. "What's shy?"
"It means he's . . . he gets nervous when he's around people." She considered explaining what 'Emperor' really meant -- its bloody history, its scrutiny, and its danger -- but her heart failed her. Miles wouldn't understand anyway. "He's worried that people don't like him."
"Why wouldn't I like him?" Miles asked scornfully, after another pause. "He's my foster brother. That's retarded. I think you're lying."
Cordelia gasped. "You little brat!" she said, and tickled him. He shrieked and squirmed. "I am not lying! Young man, I ought to give you a spanking!"
He pulled back and grinned, jutting out his chin. "M'not scared of a spanking!"
"You should be!" Inspiration lit upon her. "Or -- I'll take away Fat Ninny, how about that?"
His eyes widened piteously. "No no no, you can't, then I won't be able to camping with Grandda like when he was with the Cetagandans camping, that's not fair!" He bounced. "You won't, will you? I was just kidding, anyway."
She didn't know why there were Cetagandans in that sentence and didn't want to. "Well then, don't call me a liar." She poked his ticklish ribs and pulled him back into her arms, ignoring his sharp elbows. "Do you understand what I'm trying to say about Gregor, Miles?"
He made a noncommittal noise, subsiding into sulky stillness.
"He'd be very hurt if he thought you hated him," she said, anxiety making her stomach turn. She had to make this right. Somehow. "He's going to the academy this fall, did you know?"
Miles leaned away and tilted up his face. "The academy?"
"It's a boarding school. He'll live there all year, and we'll live at Vorkosigan House in the capital. You won't see him again until next summer."
And God, how she hoped he'd be okay. Aral and Kou insisted that boys his age were just what the young Emperor needed, and Cordelia nodded -- what else could she do? -- but feared the opposite was true. They couldn't protect him forever. There were already whispers that he was too weak, too quiet, and too sheltered. It was time for Gregor to begin proving himself. Already.
A line formed between Miles's eyebrows. "What's academy?"
"You know. You’ve seen it. You'll go there too when you're Gregor's age, along with Ivan. It's part of your education."
The line grew very deep. "Oh."
"Gregor also doesn't hate you," she said, and indulged herself in another finger-comb of his wet hair. "He'd be very hurt if he knew you thought that, too. He's very glad that you're his foster brother. Very proud. He just doesn't know how to say so."
Miles frowned mutely and leaned away, his feet seeking the ground. "Okay," he said thoughtfully. "I guess he can come camping with us."
Cordelia let him go, catching her breath at the sudden loss of warmth. Let him go, let him go, let him go. Let them both go. "All right, then," she said, trying to be satisfied. "Are you going to go tell him so?"
Miles nodded, already heading for the door. He pushed it open with a grunt of effort and disappeared into the shadows of the hall.
"Good boy," Cordelia whispered, and rested her head in her hands. With Miles gone, the room was too cold, too empty, and as quiet as the waiting tomb.
There was a great deal of homework assigned to prospective students of Vorbarr Sultana's Preparatory Academy, all of which Gregor had already completed, with the help of Lady Cordelia. Most of their recent study sessions consisted of her assigning essays on relevant galactic topics, and him reading them aloud to her approval.
But even with all his homework completed, there was still studying he could do. It couldn't hurt to study, right? Good marks and all. Study, study, study.
After two hours of this, even Gregor's patience was wearing thin. He turned on his back, draped over the bed, and laid the book over his face. It smelled like ink, paper, and more ink. Maybe he'd suffocate and Lord Vorkosigan could be Emperor for real. That would be nice. Too bad he wouldn't get to enjoy it . . . seemed to be the story of his life, that.
His door slammed open. "Gregor!"
Gregor jerked upright, book flying. "What's wro – oh. Miles." He put a hand to his pounding heart. "You startled me."
"Oh, sorry," Miles said, not sounding very. He entered and let the door fall shut. "Whaddya doin'?"
"Studying." Or I was. His bones creaking, Gregor sat up and stretched. Someone had forced Miles to dry off and change after his swim; he was in a fresh pair of play clothes, a neatly pressed shirt and shorts that were just waiting to get dirty. Gregor pitied whoever maintained the Vorkosigan family's laundry.
Miles picked the book up off the floor and his eyes widened. "Is that math?"
"Yeah." Gregor scooted to the edge of the bed and let his feet dangle. "It's called algebra," he added shyly, when Miles continued to stare.
"Why're there letters?"
"It's . . . like a riddle." Miles lifted his head to stare, unenlightened, so he continued. "Or a puzzle. The letters take the place of numbers, so you have to use the other numbers to figure out what they are. See?"
Gregor considered explaining more, but decided against it. He sat and waited in silence.
"Grandda says we're going camping this weekend," Miles finally said, slamming the book shut and tossing it carelessly aside. Gregor winced as a corner was dented. "I was gonna ask you earlier but—" He paused, somehow accusingly. "You didn't hear."
Gregor could feel his face coloring. "Oh," he said, floundering for the correct reply. Miles would hardly expect a proper, polite response like Lady Alys, or even a clever one, like Lady Cordelia . . . what was Miles expecting? His gray eyes, fixed intently on Gregor's red face, revealed nothing.
Good God, camping with the Count. The old man was polite, Gregor would give him that, but he kept going on about how clever, brave, and outspoken Emperor Ezar had been, peppered with bland-faced gestures so obviously condescending that they made Gregor's teeth age. He'd taken to silently reciting Lady Cordelia’s long list of insults about the Count in order to keep down his temper. One of these days, he feared he'd begin saying them out loud.
There were, of course, special reasons for General Piotr to dislike the young Emperor, reasons Gregor never wanted to tell the old man's grandson.
"You don't have to," said grandson offered, astonishingly blank-faced for a seven-year-old. "If you don't want to."
"No," Gregor said quickly, "no, I want to. Ah. . . ." He forced himself to meet his foster-brother's gaze. "Thank you, Miles."
The stern mien softened into a grin. "Welcome," he said easily. "D'you wanna come raid the kitchen? Cook left on an errand, Pym said."
Raid the . . . "Sure," Gregor heard himself murmur, and they were off.
Feeling a bit as if he'd slipped into alternate universe – hey, maybe he'd found that time machine after all – Gregor followed Miles into the hall, and then into the main foyer, a hardwood-and-stone monstrosity with the Count's old infantry pikes on the walls. They found Armsman Pym waiting at the head of the stairs.
He smiled when he saw Miles with the young Emperor in tow. "Going down, my lord?"
Miles nodded. "Yeah." His look turned crafty. "We're going to go talk to Grandda about the camping trip."
"I see," Pym said blandly, keeping one eye on Miles as they made their way down the rough-hewn staircase. "He's in his office, last I heard. The one just past the kitchens." Gregor's gaze twitched to the Armsman, who blinked demurely. "Isn't that right, Sire?"
"I believe so," Gregor murmured, at a loss. He and Miles shot each other wide-eyed looks of confusion when Pym's back was turned.
"Very good, young sirs." Pym stopped at the foot of the stairs. "Will that be all?"
Miles nodded. Gregor inclined his head politely. "Yes, thank you, Pym."
Pym bowed to them and departed. Both boys watched him stride off.
"That was weird," Miles commented once he was gone. He craned his neck to look up at Gregor, who returned the unapologetic scrutiny without hesitation. "Don't you think that was weird?"
"Very," Gregor agreed. He glanced back to make sure no one was lurking around the corner or eavesdropping. "We'd better hurry before Cook gets back."
"Yeah!" Enthused, Miles took the lead, ordering Gregor to watch their backs and think up a cover story in case they got caught. Gregor obeyed. By the time they reached the kitchen, Miles was pretending they were on a covert ops mission and Gregor was trying not to laugh.
"Coast is clear," Miles reported in a hoarse whisper. "Any trouble in the rear?" He turned alertly.
"No, sir," Gregor said, grinning down at him. The kitchen door was shut and locked – Miles groaned – but the Emperor's Seal opened it without complaint. Miles cheered, but quietly, and they trooped inside.
"We have to take you on more missions," Miles said, eyeing him critically as the door shut. "I thought you'd be useful just 'cause you're tall, but if you can open locks, too. . . ." His eyes glazed over happily. "We could go anywhere!"
"ImpSec can track me with it," Gregor pointed out ruefully. That was in fact the entire reason Illyan let him cart the thing around, given its mischief-potential. "Besides, soon I'm not going to have time for missions anymore."
"That's right." Miles was clearly crestfallen. "The academy." He eyed Gregor a moment, with what Gregor could not say, and sighed. "Oh, well."
Gregor turned his attention to the dark kitchen. It was a labyrinth of steel doors, ovens, and workstations, but Miles knew the way. He confidently led Gregor into the shadows, leaving off the lights, and found a cabinet stuffed with boxed snacks and potato chips.
"These are Mama's," Miles explained, as Gregor stared, impressed. "She showed me where she hides 'em. We can't take too many, though." He grabbed a bag of something crunchy and generally cheese-flavored, and left Gregor to make his own choice.
Overwhelmed, Gregor eyed the stash and finally chose a box of little cakes. They weren't as mouth-wateringly terrific as the ones Cook made by hand, but he remembered them as being very, very good nonetheless. His stomach growled in pointed anticipation.
Gregor stood and found Miles waiting at a small table. They ate in silence for a while, Miles swinging his feet happily.
"Gregor," he finally said, so suddenly that Gregor jumped, "where's the academy?"
Gregor swallowed, picturing Lady Alys's firm scowl if she saw him talking with his mouth full. Don't irritate Lady Alys was right up there with Don't say 'Butcher of Komarr' around Lord Vorkosigan. "Vorbarr Sultana," he said, as a chunk of sugary but dry cake lurched down his esophagus. He went to get something to drink.
"Where in Vorbarr Sultana?" Miles asked. "Is it near . . . Vorkosigan House? Where's Vorkosigan House, anyway?"
"Not really." Gregor stood on his toes to get out two glasses, and filled them with juice. "Vorkosigan House is in Old Town, and the Academy is near the Residence. It's on the other side of the river." He brought the glasses carefully to the table, and handed Miles his.
"Thanks," Miles said, and his face disappeared briefly as he took a huge gulp. A moment later it reappeared and he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. (Gregor pictured Lady Alys’s reaction to this and winced. She didn't know they were in the kitchen, she didn't know they were in the kitchen, she couldn't possibly know they were in the kitchen. . . .)
"Can you get to the academy on the monorail?" Miles asked.
"I don't know." Emperors weren't allowed to ride monorails.
"You can get anywhere on the monorail," Miles said expressively. He, Ivan, and Elena had been caught by Sergeant Bothari just three weeks ago, trying to sneak out of the Residence so they could go to the toy store, via monorail. "Even the shuttleport and that's not even in the capital proper. I bet it goes to the Academy, too."
Gregor had a feeling he knew where this was going. "You're not allowed on the monorail without an adult," he reminded Miles patiently. "And you don't have to sneak out to try to go to the Academy. You'll be allowed when you're twelve --"
"You're not twelve yet," Miles interrupted, mouth full.
"I will be in a few months," Gregor said. A moment's dread seized his chest at the reminder, and he focused on another cake. God, he was hungry. He really needed to thank Miles for this.
"But that's not why I wanted to know, anyway," Miles said, swallowing hugely. "If the subway goes to the academy then you can live with us at Vorkosigan House! You wouldn't have to live at some stupid school."
Chewing, Gregor considered this wonderful, shining possibility. Living with the Vorkosigans, instead of a bunch of boys awed by his title and his bodyguards, asking him if they'd ever fought off assassins, or if he'd ever been poisoned, or some other stupid thing. . . .
No. Lady Cordelia had already explained what was expected of him and why, and Lord Vorkosigan didn't have time to deal a political mess about his schooling, not with the Komarr in open revolt. It was his duty, for now, to do well, and to not complain.
Besides, putting it off wouldn't make it go away.
"I'm not allowed to do that," Gregor explained gently, swallowing the temptation along with the cake. Miles was clearly disappointed. Touched, Gregor sipped his juice and added, "It's a boarding school. Living there is part of the experience. You've seen boarding schools in holovids, right?"
"Well, it's like that." Nervous again, Gregor traced patterns in the condensation coating his glass. He mumbled, "I'd stay if I could."
Miles slumped a little and they munched disconsolately. Gregor felt dizzy when he realized that he could come down here anytime he wanted. At least, as long as they were at Vorkosigan Surleau. The Academy would be a different story.
"Gosh, you can eat a lot," Miles observed, watching Gregor finish the last of the cakes. "Why don't you ever eat like that at dinner? The food's good."
Embarrassed, Gregor hopped down to throw the box away. As an afterthought, he hid it underneath some wilted lettuce in the bin.
"I don't know," he finally lied. "Are you finished? We'd better go before Cook gets back."
"Yeah, hang on!" Hurriedly, Miles crammed his mouth full, drained the last of his juice, and ran to drop the glasses in the sink. Gregor rinsed them out and put them away. "Here, I have an idea!"
Before Gregor could protest – Miles's ideas always led to trouble – his arm was grabbed and he was yanked back to the snack cabinet. As he watched, Miles ordered Gregor to hold out his arms and began loading him up.
"Miles," Gregor said nervously, "this is a lot."
"Yeah, but you can hide it in your room!" Miles shut the cabinet and deigned to carry a single box of chocolate cupcakes as Gregor struggled with his load. "Everyone thinks you're really good, they'll never look there."
Gregor snorted helplessly. "All right," he said. He tried to picture Illyan's face if he searched Gregor's room for bugs or contraband and found a stash of candy. Gerard would probably laugh and beg a chip off him. "Let's hope no one stops us on the way there."
"Oh, good point." Miles hurried to the door, which opened easily from this side. "I'll scout ahead. You wait here!"
Gregor waited obediently, his arms beginning to ache. Miles returned a moment later.
"It's just Pym," he reported breathlessly, "guarding the doors, he didn't look back. Come on, hurry up!"
Burdened by snacks, Gregor let himself be ushered down the hall, across the foyer, and to the stairs. Safely out of Pym's line-of-sight, they stopped, and Gregor realized that Miles was stiff and tense, gazing apprehensively at the steep incline. He turned to Gregor with a question in his eyes.
Gregor found himself smiling. "I'll keep watch," he promised, and nodded. "Let's go."
Miles set forth. The leg braces made climbing the stairs an ordeal, but Miles refused to so much as pause for breath. Gregor remained a few beats behind, watching the younger boy lift his heavy legs, over and over again. . . .
At the top, Miles leaned against the rail, panting like a small dog. Gregor gave him a moment and went to check the hall.
"It's clear," he said, returning. "You take the lead. And if we get caught—" His lips twitched. "Think up a cover story."
Miles didn’t seem to get the joke. "All right," he said, saluted, and went off at a trot. Set to follow, a soft sound caught Gregor's attention and he turned.
Lady Cordelia was in the foyer, at the mouth of the hall that led to the kitchens, the Count's office, and her own study. One arm was crossed and the other was drawn up, long fingers hiding her mouth. Gregor blinked at her like a deer caught in the lights of an oncoming groundcar, painfully conscious of how silly he looked, and how embarrassing a lecture would be.
The future Countess of Vorkosigan House was laughing quietly, or something like it; at this distance, it was hard to tell. But even as he watched, she lifted a hand to wave.
He bowed to her, obscurely pleased, and hurried to catch up with Miles.
ABOUT THE 1910'S
You -- the conqueror of life,
And I -- your unfettered friend. -- N. Gumilyov
And there was no rosy childhood . . .
Freckles and toy bears and curls,
And doting aunts and scary uncles, or even
Friends among the river pebbles.
I myself, from the very beginning,
Seemed to myself like someone's dream or delirium,
Or a reflection in someone else's mirror,
Without flesh, without meaning, without a name.
Already I knew the list of crimes
That I was destined to commit.
And so, wandering like a somnambulist,
I stepped into life and startled it:
It stretched before me like the meadow
Where once Prosperina strolled.
Before me, who was without family, unskilled,
Doors unexpectedly opened
And people streamed out and exclaimed:
"She came, she herself came!"
But I looked at them in astonishment
And I thought: "They must be mad!"
And the more they praised me,
The more people admired me,
The more frightful it was to live in the world,
And the more I yearned to awaken,
For I knew that I would pay dearly
In prison, in the grave, in the madhouse,
Wherever someone like me must awaken --
But the torture dragged on as good fortune.
July 4, 1955
-- Anna Akhmatova, Northern Elegies