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Pater Patriae

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Gregor looked at the chief of ImpSec, and hated him. He felt badly about it at once, because Simon was a man who wouldn't hesitate to stand between Gregor and a plasma cannon, but the emotion still scorched him. He hated Simon's impassive face that he could never read, he hated his habit of being right and his not-quite-patronising air towards the newly enthroned Emperor. I've known you since you were in diapers, he fancied Simon's face said, and I know what's best for you. Actually, Simon had known him before he had been born. Gregor had read Simon's personnel file and had seen him named as a special agent assigned to his mother whilst she was pregnant. The laconic notes didn't specify anything more. It made Gregor jealous. On Simon's memory chip there must be more pictures of Princess Kareen than Gregor possessed in his own mind. But the one time he had dared ask Simon about it, Simon had gone so vague that Gregor had been forced to give up the attempt. He contemplated looking his servant--ha!--in the eye and Requesting and Requiring a full account of Simon's memories of Princess Kareen. Simon would probably weasel out of it somehow, and Aral would find out and would say in his quietest voice, "Was that an appropriate use of your Imperial power?" and he would apologise to Simon and Simon would say it didn't matter.

"I want to walk. At least part of the way. And meet some of the people."

Simon's habitual disapproving frown deepened. "I would not advise that, sire. It would significantly increase the difficulty of maintaining an acceptable level of protection."

"From my own people? If I can't go through the streets of my own capital on my birthday without expecting to be assassinated, what kind of Emperor does that make me?"

"An ordinary one," Simon replied. "This level of protection is perfectly normal for any head of state."

Perfectly normal. Simon knew better. As always. Not sure why he bothered, Gregor persisted.

"Stefan says that Ezar used to ride horseback for state occasions."

A faint hint of distaste crossed Simon's face. "Count Vordrozda is correct," he said, "but that was a different era. Modern weapons were not so easy to come by in those days, and there were no Komarran complications. I believe it would be most unwise for you to walk or ride, and I'm sure the Prime Minister would agree."

Gregor was sure of that too. Simon and Aral worked together like a left and right hand, running the Empire. Gregor got to sit in the middle and pretend the hands were his, but actually his were tied behind his back.

"It would also," Simon added, "expose my men to increased risk, which is a consideration I must bear in mind."

And now for a touch of emotional blackmail, Lady Cordelia's training pointed out. You wouldn't want to be responsible for getting people killed, would you now? But it didn't seem that he was actually responsible for anything, since he never made any decisions. And knowing that Simon was applying emotional blackmail didn't help him find a way around it.

"Very well," he said dully. "The State groundcar, then."

What Gregor didn't say, because Simon would shred him for it, was that he almost hoped someone would take a shot at him. Not to kill him, but to see how he would react under real fire, experience being a soldier instead of a figurehead. But all that would happen would be that every loyal man present would fling themselves on top of him, and if he did die it would be of suffocation.

*

Simon was carrying the coffee this morning as he entered Gregor's office. Gregor wasn't sure if this was an apology or a rebuke. Simon was also, Gregor noticed, moving a little stiffly, either physically or mentally uncomfortable--or both.

"Good morning, sire," he said in his usual neutral voice, and for a moment Gregor thought he was going to pretend the past months hadn't happened. Well, there were limits to what Gregor was prepared to pretend. He had already apologised to Miles, tried to apologise to Aral, and been embraced and scolded and lectured by Cordelia; after all that he could face Simon.

"You were right," Gregor said without preamble. "Neither Miles nor Aral were committing treason."

"You were right," Simon answered unexpectedly. "Miles was amassing a private army." There was a hint of fond exasperation in his voice that made Gregor jealous. One of his older memories was of Simon with a tiny Miles on his knee, asking Simon question after question, and of Simon finally being persuaded to shut him up by singing all eighteen verses of The Ballad of Lord Vorlakial in an unexpectedly sweet tenor voice. But with Gregor Simon had always been more formal, never the surrogate uncle that he was to Miles.

"Because he was bored, as far as I can tell," Gregor said. Yet another reason to be jealous of Miles. Gregor spent a lot of time being unspeakably bored, but going on a galactic adventure was hardly an option he could take. And if he did it would probably be a disaster, because little Miles was already more competent than his Emperor.

"Hopefully the Academy will put an end to that," Simon said. The brief human expression that his face had worn when he mentioned Miles vanished, and he sat up very straight in his chair. "If you wish it, sire," he said, "I will resign."

Gregor felt like his brain had been flash-frozen. He stared at Simon and tried to organise his thoughts, forcing himself to observe, to think. Why was Simon offering him this, here and now?

Simon's face was turned to him, his expression for a heartbeat wide open, and Gregor knew that his first instinctive thought, that Simon was playing mind games and wanted his Emperor to beg him to stay, was unworthy. Simon's eyes were doglike, almost guilty. Then his face closed again, leaving Gregor wondering whether he had imagined it.

But there was a clue here. Simon was no fool, and he didn't deceive himself. He couldn't, Gregor sometimes thought, because of his chip. Simon was Vorkosigan's man, and they both knew it. That had been the cause--or part of the cause--of this fiasco. And now Simon was acknowledging that fact to him, because Gregor had a right to be served by his own men.

But Simon was looking unexpectedly stricken, and Gregor realised he had been nodding as these thoughts rushed through his mind. You must be very quiet, he berated himself, and not give yourself away. He stilled his face and thought about what Simon's dismay meant. Simon doesn't want my bad opinion, he doesn't want to lose my trust. The realisation shocked him. Lots of people flattered and fawned on him to get closer to power, but Gregor had lost the illusion that they valued his opinion for its own sake. He'd never believed that his opinions could matter to people who already had power, people like Simon.

But Simon hadn't actually lost his trust. Simon was honest. And he was brilliant at his job, and Gregor needed that brilliance badly.

"No," he said. "I do not wish it." And he realised that this had been a real decision. He could have said yes, and Simon would have resigned. Gregor looked at his hands. When he had been enthroned, he had received thousands of oaths between his hands, Simon's amongst them, but he'd struggled to believe in those oaths. Now, though... now he wondered.

"As you will, sire," Simon said, his voice formal and faintly satisfied. He waited, watching Gregor, but Gregor couldn't think of anything more to say, so he merely nodded. The tension seemed to fade from the room, and Gregor knew things were returning to normal again.

"Now," Simon went on after a moment, "it was a good thought to assign the Dendarii Mercenaries to ImpSec, it saves a world of legal trouble, but it will be merely a formal assignment. I have no means of actually controlling them, much less paying them, and it appears from Miles' reports that without him there to keep the various factions balanced, they will soon splinter into feuding subgroups. Not a good situation to get mixed up in. Miles himself claims to place trust in this deserter of his, but I do not think Jesek is appropriate for covert ops."

"You can't use them at all?" Gregor said. It had been Miles' idea, but he'd liked it. His own personal mercenary fleet... it was like something out of one of those holovids he'd watched with Miles and Ivan as children.

"I may be able to get some reports from Elena Bothari-Jesek; she's known to me and is reliable according to her lights, but she does not command the fleet. And I already have an agent based with them who has had full training--though Miles did his best to screw him over, damn the boy."

Gregor remembered that from Miles' story. He nodded acquiescence, regretfully. "I guess that makes sense."

"Second thing," Simon said. "Concerning the trial of Count Vordrozda. Whilst I was imprisoned, his fellow conspirators were able to do a great deal to confuse their trail, but I believe we have threads leading to most of them, and fast-penta interrogations should yield the remaining ones. It would be prudent for you to distance yourself from the proceedings and from Vordrozda's circle. I believe that Lady Vorpatril could give you valuable advice on how to do this in the social domain..."

And so it went on, Simon giving the orders, politely disguised as advice and suggestions, and Gregor accepting his conclusions. But underneath the conversation, Gregor was thinking hard. And he realised that he didn't want Simon to serve him the way he had Aral, didn't want him to go from being Aral Vorkosigan's Dog to The Emperor's Familiar. He wanted respect from Simon, not devotion. On the emotional level, Simon would always be somewhat paternal towards him, it was an artefact of their difference in ages and their history. But at work, in his role as Chief of ImpSec, he thought that one day Simon would obey his orders not because Aral wanted him to, but because he believed that Gregor was a competent Emperor.

But not today.

*

Gregor strode into the office. It was not Simon's main office, the enormous one with the desk designed to intimidate everyone else in the room, but the little inmost one with the secret entrances, the one that wasn't marked on all the plans of ImpSec HQ. The Imperial Office, it was called by those who knew of its existence, and it was where Gregor met with Simon at ImpSec. He had deliberately gone to Simon rather than summoning Simon to the Residence. If he was to finally leash Simon, he would have to do here it on Simon's territory, not his own.

Simon stood up and saluted when he entered, but the gesture was heavy with irony. "How nice to see you at last," he said, his meanings unmistakeable.

Gregor acknowledged the salute politely and sat down. Simon waited until he was seated, then returned to his chair facing Gregor across the table, which gave Gregor time to study him. Simon looked almost as worn as he had when he'd just got out of prison, and yet again Gregor felt regret. He'd done that. Well, it was Simon's job to stand in the crucible, and it was bound to scorch him sometimes.

With his new knowledge heavy in his mind, he realised abruptly why Simon had never discussed his mother. Simon knew, he thought. All along, he knew what my father was, and he said nothing. Simon's silences made a lot more sense, now. But now Gregor could keep some silences of his own.

He said nothing, giving Simon a chance to get started on his reaming. "I hope you had fun on your little adventure," Simon said, watching him over tented hands. "Did you know that my head of Komarran affairs wanted to start taking hostages to get you back?"

Gregor flinched internally. Fighting dirty, Simon? said Cordelia's voice in his head. He drew breath. "Well," he said, very quietly, "I trust you told him that under no circumstances would you countenance such a move. Especially since you can have had no evidence that Komarrans were responsible for my... disappearance. We must look to the future on Komarr as well as the present."

Simon blinked. It was the first time, Gregor realised, that he had dared to criticise anything about Simon's running of ImpSec, at least in a way that might actually hit home. It was time to press his advantage. "I'm sorry to have given you all such a scare," he said, bringing out a self-deprecating smile. "I was drunk, it seemed like a good idea at the time." Whilst Simon was still processing that, he changed course again and said in tones of finality, "And I'm back now." And that's all the story you're getting. Simon would have had Miles' report by now, of course, but Gregor saw no reason to describe his inner journey to the Chief of ImpSec.

"Indeed you are," Simon murmured. There was a pause. Gregor waited. "You didn't give me an agenda when you requested this meeting," Simon remarked at last. "What is your pleasure, sire?" It was the traditional request for orders, but Simon's voice was still faintly laced with irony, as if he were an actor in a play with a line he didn't like.

"Firstly, the Dendarii Mercenaries," Gregor said. "They have more than proven their worth, and I think you will be able to make use of them. I want you to make the formality we discussed a few years ago a reality, and use them as part of your covert ops team. To do this you will need to continue Miles in his role as 'Admiral Naismith' and use him as your liaison."

Simon was silent for a moment, regarding him with an unnerving gaze. Gregor breathed out slowly through his nose for calm. "Miles," Simon said, "has had no training at all for this sort of role. He is, in many ways, the antithesis of the ideal covert ops agent. He would never even get through the psych screening. Also, it is a position of no little risk, and Miles is the only Vorkosigan heir."

It wasn't going to be enough to try to make this an Imperial order, not with Simon. He needed arguments, logic... "All of those things are true. But I've seen Miles as Admiral Naismith. He's perfect. Your selection rules are useful up to a point, but they can't identify everything. This is Miles' gift, and it's a gift We require in Our service." He paused. "He won't be the only Count's Heir on active field duty. Consider what Aral did when he was an active soldier, whilst Piotr was alive. He won't dispute this." Gregor let his teeth show. "And I do read your reports, you know. Miles isn't that much safer here in Vorbarr Sultana."

Simon's head went back a little at that, and Gregor continued, "I mean no criticism, I know how hard you work. But we have an opportunity here for an extremely useful galactic force, and We would be remiss to let it slip away."

"I understand your points," Simon said. "But after what happened to Captain Ungari, I am seriously concerned about Miles' ability to obey his superiors. An uncontrollable field agent, however talented, is worse than useless."

"Miles is Vor," Gregor replied. "He works through personal connections, personal loyalties. I believe he has those loyalties towards you, and as a result he would respect your orders in a way that he might not a--a person who is simply his superior in rank. And he's his mother's son. You have to let him go and trust him, and he'll give you everything you need." He added after a moment, "Which is not the same thing as everything you want, you understand," and Simon's lips twitched inadvertently.

"My job," Simon countered, "is to mistrust people for you. If I understand you correctly, you're now asking me for the opposite."

"You already trust Miles," Gregor said with quiet emphasis in his voice. "We both know that. Now I mean to put that to good use. I want you to control Miles directly."

"I see." There was a tense silence. Then Simon's head lowered, and Gregor saw it in his eyes a moment before he spoke: Simon thought he was right. He didn't entirely like it, but he would assent. "It shall be done, sire." Simon let out his breath slowly, and leaned back in his chair. "Is there anything more?"

Gregor permitted himself a slight smile. "Thank you. Yes, there is one more thing. I believe Miles has earned, for his work in the Hegen Hub, a reward on the personal level..."

It was frightening to see the hint of submission on Simon's face as he listened, but Gregor could face that fear now. He knew what he was asking of Simon was in the best interests of the Empire, and that Simon could do it. Gregor held the Empire in his hands, and he could not falter now. Or ever.