We left under cover of night. Clouds covering the moon, and the only light coming from the burning hall behind us.
Aral twisted round in the saddle as a spray of sparks arced across the sky, silent as the northern lights, showing the tops of the pines in black silhouette. Only for an instant; silent or no, he saw his father's hand come down in a signal and it was time for riding, and no looking back.
'Twas no matter, though; the horses knew the way in the dark.
This part of the old story Aral could recite by heart, as could every boy in the District, whether armsman's son or tailor's. Everyone knew of the night twenty years past, when the Cetagandans landed in force and the young Count Piotr Vorkosigan fled to the hills with only his sworn armsmen around him.
It would have been brighter, he thought, absurdly.
He had pestered his father for the details so many times that he could easily pick out the differences between then and now as the little column began to move. Half a dozen of the Cetagandan dirty warheads had flattened Vorkosigan Vashnoi; his father's entourage would have been lighted on their way by the white sheeting flame of burning steel, the sounds of their flight covered by the dull crash of groundcars exploding as the fuel lines ignited. Vorkosigan Surleau was older by far; the only illumination as they fled was the yellow, homely glow of burning wood.
They had tried to save the horses.
The stables and the outbuildings were all in flames. Old Esterhazy had carried Aral from the house; as they fled they met armsmen half-dressed spilling from their quarters in the rear, his father at their head with his old service plasma arc. All in the house were dead or escaped already. At some shout or signal, the surviving armsmen and servants ran for the stables while the strangers in black moved on to light the storehouses and the grain sheds. Vague shapes and wide gestures, black silhouettes in a silent pantomime; even the flames were silent, consuming everything in the valley. Only the heat against his face proved it all real.
He was not hurt, he tried to tell them. But they did not listen, and held him back when he would have snatched a wet wool blanket to aid the others.
No one seemed to hear him, and he could not hear himself, so he could not be entirely sure the words ever made it out of his throat.
Perhaps it was only right.
His father only spoke to him once, as Esterhazy set him down in the shadow of a tree. It was the first and last time the Count had looked at him, through all of it. His face was set and pale, ash lighting like black feathers in his hair and the snap of command in his eyes.
The words flew past him. His head, it seemed, was wrapped in felt. He could hear only faint echoes, advancing and retreating like the sea breaking under hollow rock. His father seized the front of his shirt, lifting him nearly off his feet, and Aral knew he was shouting. He had not had to shout at Aral in years.
But when he strained to hear whatever he might, the only sound that came was a shrieking thunderclap that had rocked the world off its moorings – the only sound in the world, echoing and reechoing, and ending in a wash of blood.
Esterhazy seized his father's arm, pulling him aside. And the Count released Aral, nothing in his face save the reflection of the flames.
Aral was led downhill to the willows by the stream, where some half dozen armsmen were saddling those horses they had managed to save. Only then he realized, with a choking rush of shame that brought the first hot tears to his eyes, that his father believed he was afraid. Not only afraid but paralyzed with it, freezing in the face of a direct order under fire.
The armsmen had not marked him, once he drew back from the flames; it was the work of a moment to slip into the dark hollows and edge nearer.
He found himself against the stream, without a vessel to carry water to the fight, when the horse reared out of the darkness. A shadow backed by flame and blurred by the water in his eyes, bridle trailing loose, scenting smoke in the wind and preparing to bolt. Silver was his father's newest stallion, barely more than a colt and just broken, but powerful and sure-footed in the hills. Aral and the horse eyed each other, the horse's eyes white at the edges. Aral had never been allowed near Silver before.
He gathered up the dangling rein, expecting every second to be dragged off his feet in a mad dash for freedom. The horse stood still, flanks shivering, as he secured the saddle. He paused before mounting – his father would be angry, even if he did not get himself thrown and injured – but the decision was an easy one.
A man rode his own horse. He did not sit like a child or a pack behind one of his father's armsmen.
He leaned low over Silver's neck as the horse ducked his head and pawed at the torn ground. The dark mane reeked of smoke.
A man would have thought to go for a carving knife.
His father and each of his surviving armsmen had collected a horse for himself when someone heard the whine of military aircars approaching the valley. They were twelve in all, fleeing into the hills, and they rode out on twelve horses. Near that number were trapped and left to burn. Not for lack of nerve among the rescuers – every man there, and the maidservants as well, would have gone into the fire to lead out as many as could be saved. But there was no time left.
He knew when the horses started screaming. He saw it in his father's eyes when the hard, fragile calm shivered and cracked, shattered and fell in a shower of glass.
Lights spread now along the inside of the valley, winking like fireflies, leaping from point to point on the steep hillside like beacon-fires in days of old. Brief, bright yellow flares, each of them a humble cottage where an armsman's family slept.
The Count's eyes flickered from one yellow star to the next. Then with a gesture like the swirl of a cloak, he gathered his armsmen in his wake and spurred into the wooded ravine below what was left of the grounds. If he gave any orders, Aral did not hear them.
Aral strained his eyes into the darkness; he could hear nothing of the passage of the others. Silver, his chest working, trotted purposefully after. The moonlight was faint, and branches hung low over the path, trailing a brittle screen of dead leaves. He could only trust Silver to keep his footing in the dark and rocky track.
Sasha would so envy him, on a night camping trip with the old General in the back woods. Unthinking, he found himself imagining how he would tell of this adventure to his brother. How many times had they fought the Cetagandans with sticks for rockets, out in these hills? And now they were headed for a real campaign, under the General himself. Sasha would be furious he had missed it.
But then Sasha was with Mother, now. Sasha would be with Mother always, and Aral would never see her again.
He saw again the blunt blade of the butter knife in his hand, his mother's finest heirloom silver, and swallowed bile.
He was never afraid. So he would tell himself, after. What reason was there for fear? By the time they rode out into the narrow ravine all that he could have feared had already come to pass. The defeat was done, and now the Count and his men were flying to the hills, whence they would come forth with vengeance. That it would be so he never doubted.
His only fear that night was that the Count his father would judge him unworthy to ride with him.
The Count had spoken often of the men who rode with him, praising them highly.
He wished Sasha were here. Sasha remembered details. When Aral tried to recall the stories, all he saw was the warmth of the hearth-light, flickering, the light in his father's eyes, the way his hands swept out at the rain-streaked windows, pointing at the shrouded hills beyond. He remembered the smell of spiced cider and mulled wine and the warmth of Mother's arm around him.
Sasha would remember details, would know what, exactly those men did or did not do who won the Count's regard. Aral could bring to mind only the peace and security of the fireside, the warmth and smells of a night for old campaign stories, falling like a bright, smothering veil between him and the dark ahead.
All he could see was his father's face when the stories were done, leaning in to plant a kiss on his forehead before Mother sent them to bed. Half-hidden by shadow with the fire banked low, Aral could yet see pride mixed with tenderness, and a certainty that never used to frighten him: You are my sons, that look had said, and I know you will both one day prove better men than any of those.
They were climbing into the higher valley now, skirting the old rockfall. The shape of a man on horseback rose out of the clumps of gorse along the path, standing exposed on the promontory. Aral pulled up his horse alongside, recognizing his father.
The house and the outbuildings still burned, sending up dark, twisting ropes of smoke, twining together in the upper air like fighting serpents, spreading a haze over the stars. The moon was nearly dark, a sickle behind the smoke, a curved knife of bone in a dove silk sheath.
Embers swirled out from the flames; men with torches moved like a column of ants dismantling an overturned picnic hamper. Aral recognized the field behind the stables where he and Sasha once played at war, the lines of torches tracing in and out of every hollow and hay-rick.
I was not afraid, he wanted to say. It was only that I could not hear you.
But he was frightened, now, to admit this weakness to his father, that even such an excusable, physical weakness would be enough for his father to send him away.
They stopped at a homestead behind one of many dark hills, near midnight; the old mail-carrier was a trusted veteran, and his comconsole was fast enough to download any messages from the General's secure account and disconnect before ImpSec could get a back-trace. There was only one message, winking on the tiny handheld viewer; Aral leaned in to read over his father's shoulder.
FROM: IMPERIAL FOREIGN OFFICE
TO: GEN CMDG 3RD CORPS
SECURITY DISPATCHED YOUR LOCATION 1700 HRS NO ARRESTS ORDERED CHARGE HIGH TREASON OLIVIA AND THE BOYS GUILTY SUBJECT IMMEDIATE EXECUTION GET OUT REPEAT GET OUT GET OUT NOW
It was from his grandfather. Only much later, Aral would realize it must have been sent in the clear; ImpSec would surely have intercepted it, would know Prince Xav had offered warning to condemned traitors.
His father asked a question of the mail-carrier before they left, gesturing at the darkened screen. Asking, Aral guessed, if there had been anything on the newsnets. The old man shook his head, and they left the hut, scattering flustered brown hens before them.
The words floated before his eyes in the dark, all the rest of that night's march, purple afterimage of green letters burned into his retinas. Guilty, it had said. And high treason. Somewhere above the ringing in his ears, there were words; the strangers had shouted them, before that explosion that ended all other sound. Words no Vor would ever speak, least of all in the presence of a lady. And then traitors – worse than any of the others. With that word, he had been lifted like some half-dead rat and flung across the room.
The moon had set by the time they reached Hassadar. They pulled up at a farmer's croft just outside, in the shadow of a dilapidated hunting lodge. It might have been any rude cottage, save for the man standing by the hitching post. Dressed as a hillman and armed only with a long knife, this one would never pass as a farmer. His eyes tracked them with the blank, emotionless ferocity of a hawk. Coming closer, Aral recognized Petrov, commander of his grandfather's armsmen, with a hastily-stitched cut along his cheek.
The earth behind the lodge was torn up in a long broken furrow, slashing through cropland and bending small trees. Someone had laid fringed pine branches in a half-hearted attempt at covering the wound; more branches screened a gleam of steel at the far end of the trench – an armored aircar, wings fully extended and broken off.
Petrov must have cut the engines as far out as he dared and brought the Prince's aircar down in an unpowered glide. The Count had told tales of such maneuvers, long ago. A dangerous gamble, but it had fooled whatever scanners pursued them this long.
Aral thought his hearing was starting to come back, but he could not be sure. Either the world was coming closer in the gunmetal half-light, or it was slipping further away; he could not tell if the voices he heard were those of the armsmen about him or only the buzzing in his head.
They picketed the horses behind the lodge, hidden from the road coming into town. His father's eyes glanced over him briefly as he passed down the line, counting their number. Then he checked abruptly, catching sight of Silver as Aral fumbled with the reins and a low-hung branch.
The Count did not move for a long moment, his face surprised and utterly still. Approaching, he caught the bridle and stroked the horse's nose with unaccustomed gentleness, as if soothing a skittish colt. Aral could not have said how long they stood thus; his father saw none of those about him, his face soft, his eyes distant, coming back only when Silver swung his head into his chest, snorting.
He patted his pockets for some morsel to offer Silver, and came up empty. Aral had saved some bread from their hurried breakfast and handed it over; without thinking, the Count held it out to the horse, his eyes closed as the soft lips brushed his palm.
A second later he glanced sharply at Aral, brows drawing down in suspicion. Aral said nothing.
A memory flashed across his eyes, painfully bright – mist in the morning rolling back over the hills, his father in stained work clothes unlocking the tack barn, whistling, rope lead thrown over his arm and straw clinging to his boots.
"You did well," the Count said at last, and something had eased in his eyes. ". . . thought . . . never catch . . . got past us."
His father's voice faded in and out like a bad transmission, like he was not there, not really, only linked to the real world by an old and extremely unreliable radio. But the first three words were clear; he could read lips well enough for that.
His grandfather came outside, then; Aral could barely see his face in the grey dark, and he spoke in hushed tones that carried nothing to his ears, but a quick, fierce embrace said all that was needed. Prince Xav's overcoat smelled of spilled fuel and scorched insulation.
Petrov was waving off the armsmen to various guard posts, The farmwife with her hastily-tied kerchief beckoned from the door. His father and grandfather continued speaking over his head as they crossed the yard. Talking strategy, no doubt. Aral took a deep breath, watched it condense white and dissipate on the cold air. Retaliation. Counterattack.
A grey striped cat leaped from the table as they entered, a fluid shadow flowing past his leg. Aral sat gratefully, blinking in the light from the smoky oil lamps, leaning on the table as the farmwife brought out a jug of sweet cider.
The jug hit the table with a thunk he could feel through the wood, and he looked up to see the woman's eyes on him, wide and frightened. Behind her, his grandfather stepped quickly forward, his face creased in sudden concern.
His father stood frozen by the door, staring at him, his face white and rigid with shock.
Confused, Aral did not protest when the farmwife took his face between her rough square hands, though he could not make out whatever murmured comfort she tried to offer. When she drew back, her fingers were dark and sticky with blood.
"I'm all right." Aral blinked at the sight of his own blood, before reaching a tentative hand to his cheek. The right side of his face was coated with blood, congealing slowly, running in slower trails down the side of his neck and stiffening his collar.
His ears, he realized abruptly, absurdly late. Of course.
"I'm all right," he said again. He turned to his father, still standing in the doorway as if petrified. "You see? I was not afraid, before. I was not afraid. It was only that I couldn't hear you."
And then they were all staring at him, and he wondered if he had not been speaking louder than he intended. His grandfather was beside him, a warm cloth gently loosening dried blood from the side of his face.
"Who were those men?" Aral asked at last. "Why did they – ? Where are we going?"
"To Green . . . quarters . . . Hassadar," the Prince said. Then someone turned up the ringing in his ears and he caught only the name "Ezar" and "second corps."
He knew the name, of course. Colonel Ezar Vorbarra was Prince Xav's younger half-brother, and had been his father's close comrade and military apprentice against the Cetagandans.
"High treason." Those words were only too clear, could never be otherwise. "Those men . . . Emperor."
"So are we traitors, then?" Something in his gut twisted and cramped at the thought, the memory of those last words of the strangers.
The Prince turned, then, at some sound his father made from the doorway. Aral did not hear it, nor any response his grandfather might have made, to his father or to him; the klaxon was screaming in his ears again, and his head hurt.
His grandfather stood, then, moving toward the door. His father had not moved throughout; one hand clutched at the doorpost, knuckles showing yellow through the skin. Aral must have imagined it was shaking slightly. The Prince's face was gentle, the Count's bleak.
His grandfather touched his father's shoulder and his father jerked back as though scalded.
Then the glass-hard mask came down once more, and his father turned without another word and stalked out of the room.
Green Army Headquarters was a squat concrete box of a building, dropped into a neat green field on the other side of Hassadar. Most of the armsmen stayed at the cottage; only Petrov and Esterhazy would accompany them into the town. The Count had overridden Esterhazy's protests, saying that Vorbarra's men were a sufficient guard – and too many for a dozen to fight if the Colonel meant to betray them.
They left the horses, too. Mist clumped and eddied around their ankles, below the dawn breezes that cut through their borrowed hill clothes. The sky overhead arched like the curve of an overturned seashell, streaked in colors of pink and grey and mother-of-pearl. Aral walked in the center of the group, struggling to keep the pace. On his own feet he felt suddenly lightheaded, and the breath scraped raw at the back of his throat, but he would die of shame before he allowed himself to be carried.
His grandfather glanced back in concern every few minutes. His father walked behind, and he dared not look back.
They found Colonel Vorbarra in the ready room, surrounded by bored young lieutenants and quiet monitors. Whatever storm had been loosed this night had not touched this place. The Colonel rose quickly at their entrance.
"Xav." A respectful nod for his grandfather, and genuine pleasure at the sight of his father. "Sir."
The room presented a picture of quiet – booted feet on desks, mindless card games open on terminal screens, half-empty cups of cold coffee perched beside radar monitors – that sort of stupefying boredom that is the opposite of all fear. To Aral such seemed, just then, a dream of peace and security slipped forever from his grasp. The Colonel's eyes lit on his visitors only as a diversion, a welcome spot of color in the institutional grey world of the sleeping base.
Through the ringing in his ears, Aral thought he could hear other sounds – the click and hum of the furnace coming on, the tap of a stylus on an idle screen, a door closing.
No one had spoken, but Ezar's face changed as they came closer. "What is it? What's happened?"
"Yuri's finally lost it." His grandfather spoke first, once they had retreated to a private office.
"I thought he lost it last year. The affair of the horse on the council. Lord Blackie, or whatever His Lordship's name was." The Colonel's tone was light, outwardly that of the same bored staff officer, but Aral had a sense of a hunting cat on alert.
"My family and I are held as traitors," the Prince said. "He sent squads out this evening. They missed me and Aral here and little Padma. Ivan and my daughters are dead. And Piotr's oldest boy."
Ezar's eyes closed. A heartbeat's stillness, and another and another. Then he moved, a quick pace forward, reaching for his father. "What can I do?"
This time, the Count permitted a brief shoulder clasp, though he did not acknowledge it. "Ask, rather, what we've come to offer you, Ezar."
Ezar let his hand fall. "What, then?"
"All I've ever offered you. A chance to shape history. Or an exceedingly messy death, with the balance of probability favoring the latter." A strange note crept into his father's voice, there for an instant and then gone. "My support in a bid for the Imperium. I won't insult your intelligence by implying I'm doing you a favor, if you won't waste my time pretending you have a choice."
Ezar let out a breath, then, and when he spoke the words were soft, subdued. "You always did have a way with words, General."
"There is no other, and we both know it."
"What do we have?"
"The Third Corps. All of the District, the land and the people – I need not explain the value of that to you." They shared a look. "My life in your hands. My hands between yours." That rocked Ezar back a beat. "All my fortune and my sacred honor."
"Well." The Colonel's tone was light, sardonic, though his eyes were grim. Aral could see that he was deeply moved. "I am, as always, yours to command, sir."
"No." His father's voice was suddenly harsh. "Sire. We are yours."
Ezar seemed to gather himself; a lift of his chin, a subtle shift of his shoulders and Aral could see that this man had once been the young General's right hand.
The Count stepped forward first, hands pressed together, moving to place them between the hands of this man who meant to unseat the Emperor. Aral tried to swallow, something between fear and shame lodged in his throat. But the Colonel – should Aral, then, call him Emperor? For a moment, he wasn't sure he remembered how to breathe – did not complete the ritual gesture, but seized his father's arms and held tight. Whatever he said was too low for Aral to make out. The Count might have been made of wood, but Ezar did not release him until the knotted muscles under his hands loosened a fraction.
Ezar knew, somehow, just how long he could hold on, and when to let go before he broke his old friend down completely. Then he stepped back, waited until the Count had recovered himself before clasping his hands in acceptance of fealty offered.
"We'll have a try at it," he said at last, softly. "All hang together, eh?"
For the first time, something like a smile flickered and died at the corners of his father's lips, but it was a cold smile for shared memories. Aral felt the lump of ice in his stomach harden. He knew the old Earth saying as well as any of them.
Or we shall all assuredly hang separately.