It was a game they’d played ever since they could remember. Or, at least, ever since they realised just who they were and what kinds of invisible walls and expectations surrounded them. They played other games with their younger sibs, but this was just for the four of them: Xav and Kareen, Aral and Helen. Xav was a year older than the twins, Kareen a year younger, the four of them were a tight group.
They had plenty of other friends and family surrounding them – as well as the younger Vorbarras and Vorkosigans there were the Vorpatrils, Vorrutyers, Galenis and Borgoses just in the immediate family; Gregor and Miles were united in their determination that their children wouldn’t have lonely childhoods. In fact, the children spent a respectable part of their childhoods just trying to escape the pack – such is the contrary nature of the species.
And, throughout their shared childhoods, the game went on.
Worst Things, they called it. The Worst Things they could do, or become. It wasn’t that they resented their parents – they all agreed that the parental units were generally the best possible, all things considered. But since their family histories included some of the greatest heroics and vilest insanities in the Empire, as well as the odd severed head and assorted passionate lifetime devotion to improving life in the Empire, they all felt that unspoken pressure to find some way to excel.
And since most of the heroic achievement seemed to have been covered already… Worst Things. If you can’t be the best, then be triumphantly the worst.
“Not wanting to be Emperor.” Xav’s first entry in the competition. The others considered carefully.
“No good.” Aral was sure of this, “They’d just get Vlad to do it.”
“Not being a proper Vor lady.” Helen knew as she said it that this one wouldn’t fly. It got the hoots it deserved. She tried to look offended, but couldn’t really carry it off.
“Not wanting to do Business Studies.” Kareen sighed, “I hate all those numbers already.”
More careful consideration, until Xav shook his head, “If you really don’t like it,” came the big brotherly wisdom, “They’ll start nudging Drusilla towards it.”
“Not going to the Academy,” Aral frowned, this one could lead to some intense family infighting, he knew.
“Piotr might go instead,” Helen frowned, “He spends hours watching Da’s old Vortala vids.”
They all agreed that younger siblings could be useful backups if necessary.
As it turned out shortly afterwards, the Worst Thing just then was accidently knocking over a tray of seedlings during a vigorous game of Tag through the East Wing of Vorkosigan House.
At least the game was cathartic, it took away some of that underlying fear of truly becoming a Family Disappointment. Mediocrity wasn’t to be considered - ‘100% Is Barely Enough’, that was the unofficial family motto. (Although ‘Forward Momentum’ and ‘Let’s see what happens’ were in constant use too. Parents could be a trial.)
“Hating Komarran domes.” Xav frowned, “I always feel so closed in when I’m there.”
“You won’t have to live there.” Kareen was unsympathetic, “Never learning to curtsey properly.”
“You don’t have to do it all that often. And if you practised beforehand your knees wouldn’t click so loudly at the wrong moment.” Helen was proud of mastering at least one proper Vor-maiden skill. “Marrying a Betan herm.”
That one got a moment’s respectful consideration from them all, “Nice one.” Aral nodded in brotherly support, “Or how about… marrying a Cetagandan?”
“Ohhh even better.” Helen nodded in respect for a worthy entry in the competition.
Xav shook his head, “No, the way things are going I’ll probably end up with a Ceta wife, as part of some treaty.”
They considered this for a moment, “Well, it won’t happen for a long time yet.” Aral tried to be comforting.
“I’ll bet they’re breeding one for me right now.” Xav was gloomy at the thought of it.
“She’s probably got built-in spy eyes.” Kareen was unsympathetic.
“And… and ray-gun hands.”
“And poison fingernails!”
After some more inventive bride-building the game dissolved into an all-in wrestling match and a raid on the Residence pantry.
Over the years their inventiveness grew.
“Sneezing when I’m being introduced to the Cetagandan delegation.”
“Laughing when Da is accepting the offerings from the Counts at his Birthday.”
“Tripping over when I’m dancing with the Betan ambassador.”
“Farting when I’m presented to the Council of Counts.”
Fortunately for most of them, only one of these happened.
“Getting spots just before the Winterfair Ball.”
“Failing five-space maths and having to study all through the summer holidays.”
“Getting caught sneaking out of the girls’ dormitory.”
“Getting caught sneaking into the girls’ dormitory.”
As they grew up they went through all the usual stages, made more stressful because there was always an audience for the worst mistakes.
“Never getting my Greek accent right and setting off a political uprising.”
“Going to Beta to study and getting caught in the Orb by a vidarazzi.”
“Defecting to Cetaganda.”
“Setting up a business on Jackson’s Whole.”
Through the years the sweep of their imagination grew, as did the possibility of catastrophic mistakes. Fortunately they were usually saved from their deepest fears before too much damage was done.
“Turning the Empire into a Republic.”
“Nah, our parents have been working towards that for years. Joining with the Cetagandan Empire.”
“It’s starting to split up. Joining with the Komarran terrorists.”
“They’re all old, or dead. Joining with the isolationists.”
“Too boring. Besides, they’re nearly all dead too. Getting arrested.”
“Da’s already done that. Committing treason.”
“Da’s done that too. A couple of times....”
It was so hard to find something that their ancestors hadn’t already done. Murder, treason, massacres, scandals, weird sexual stuff that nobody would explain to them… it was almost as bad as the other end of the scale. What was left for them, good or bad, that some ancestor hadn’t already done?
Finally they reached the threshold of adulthood. School was finished, careers beckoned. And in their own way, possibly as self-fulfilling prophecy, each of them finally managed to become a Worst Thing for their long-suffering parents. Without even trying.
Aral was first. He’d learned his mother’s technique of staying cool as the storm raged, so there were no arguments, just a quiet statement repeated whenever his father paused to draw a breath. Eventually a brittle calm descended, and Lord Aral Alexander Vorkosigan became the first recorded Vorkosigan adult male to choose not to enter the Academy. As he patiently pointed out, several times a day for weeks, it was time a Vorkosigan learnt to build things up instead of blasting them down. Despite his father’s earnest efforts to expose the flaws in that statement, and repeated lectures about the opportunities for engineers in the military, Aral calmly enrolled at the University in Vorbarr Sultana and started his engineering degree.
Kareen was the next to find her Worst. Despite (or perhaps because of) an education aimed at producing the perfect Toscane Heiress to take over her grandparents’ business interests, Princess Kareen Vorbarra was a proud member of the first female cohort to enter the Academy. Great-Aunt Drou, and Aunts Delia and Olivia, gave her some expert tuition in hand-to-hand combat. Her parents were stunned but supportive, although her father had to fight his Barrayaran conditioning about women in the military. Grandmere Cordelia helped with that. Laisa started to understand what her parents had felt when their child’s life took a wildly unexpected turn. (Miles had barely recovered his equilibrium over Aral’s choice of career when he had to cope with the shock of seeing his little Lizzie standing beside Kareen at the cadet intake. He was split between pride and deeply-rooted Barrayaran masculinity. Fortunately Gregor sent him on a diplomatic mission to Vervain until the shock had passed. Vervain survived too.)
It was almost a relief when Helen went to Beta to study – this was a familiar path, at least. Miles was able to avoid officially hearing any information about earrings, sessions with her LPST, dating a herm, and a memorable weekend at the Orb. But when a three-year degree became a doctorate, then an appointment to the most prestigious university on Beta, he was torn between pride and loss. Ekaterin made sure that his vids to his absent daughter weren’t too whiny.
Xav, on the other hand, did everything in a fit and proper fashion. He went into the military, as was right and proper for a Crown Prince. He excelled at the Academy, and settled into ship duty for a decade, rising steadily through the ranks. He even managed to find a few small border wars with Jacksonian-backed pirates, and gained some combat experience. Gregor was proud, and wistfully jealous. In fact, the only cloud on the Xav-horizon was that he reached the age of thirty without any sign of a bride, or even a hint that he was searching for one. It wasn’t that he preferred boys – that would have been a triumphantly Worst Thing in his situation (although UR technology would solve that problem, as Grandmere Cordelia had pointed out to him in a vastly embarrassing Betan-style conversation one Midsummer when the pressure to produce the next Imperial generation was growing). But there was ample proof that he enjoyed female company. In fact his parents were starting to worry that he was taking after his Uncle Ivan, although as Ivan helpfully pointed out, he’d settled down in the end. Xav didn’t abuse his position or seduce innocents, but he worked his way methodically through most of the divorcees, young widows and high-status courtesans in Vorbarr Sultana, as well as doing his part for friendly interplanetary relations across the Nexus. Xav responded to gentle parental hints with the unanswerable statement that a certain Emperor was thirty-five before he found a bride.
As adults, of course, childish games were left behind and forgotten. But, in the end, their game was played one last time, during a memorable Winterfair, a rare occasion when all four of them were on Barrayar at the same time. Xav was on leave from his ship, Kareen was back from an assignment at the embassy on Pol, Aral was home from some very successful dome-building on Komarr, and Helen was on sabbatical from Silica University.
And that was when Crown Prince Xav Vorbarra created the worst political headache the Empire had seen for decades. The older generation, survivors of the bad old days, were torn between pride and horror, with horror in front by a few points. And all four of the young ones agreed that they’d never top this Worst Thing, it raised political tensions across the Empire, it confused their parents, it dashed certain devious diplomatic plans, and caused security and publicity headaches that would go on for years.
Because, since the time was ripe, years of patient waiting were over, and a good military strategist knows when to make the winning move, it was as the fireworks exploded on Winterfair Eve that Crown Prince Xav Vorbarra finally chose a bride. And proposed to her.
And Lady Helen Vorkosigan accepted.
They stood hand in hand, proud and a little shy, as they shared their good news with their parents.
Laisa and Ekaterin were delighted.
Gregor and Miles were…also delighted that their children were (ye gods how could this have happened?) happy and in love. Xav had been far more patient and determined than they’d ever realised – his father’s son indeed.
Now all they had to do was persuade the Council of Counts that a Vorkosigan marrying the Crown Prince wasn’t some devious Vorkosigan grab for power. And try to ignore any quiet mutterings from the older, reactionary Counts about mutie genes entering the Imperial line. And watch that there was no lingering reaction from Komarr at the Butcher’s grand-daughter becoming their future Empress. Sergyar was no problem, although the memory of the Vorkosigan Viceroy and Vicereine made the often-ignored third planet feel a part of things at last, and their wild enthusiasm was tiring, to say the least. And increased security was needed so that family members didn’t become targets for the reactionaries, the isolationists and the linguistic minorities (who’d each been pushing for the Crown Prince to marry a suitable maiden from their own group as a symbol of integration and the sharing of power and influence.) Also they had to placate the prole radicals who didn’t want more Vor at the top. And deal with a salivating media frenzy. And…. And… the list seemed endless. It didn’t really help when Helen announced that she’d continue with her work after marriage – she announced that it was high time that the Vorbarr Sultana University had a Department of Studies of Sexual Health, and she’d be happy to set it all up and be the first Professora of the new department. Grandmere Cordelia agreed enthusiastically and offered to assist in any way possible. The Vorbarra and Vorkosigan armsmen observed their respective masters, then stocked up on antacids for the long haul, and kept heart and blood pressure monitors handy. The head of Impsec announced that he’d retire as soon as the wedding was over; Admiral Galeni had had enough of Imperial excitements.
So Xav, with Helen’s enthusiastic help of course, had found a Worst Thing that both delighted and horrified the parents. And set the rest of the Empire spinning as well.
They all agreed, a decade later, that the thing with Piotr and the Cetagandan Empress didn’t count, since he was never part of the game.
The same went for Lizzie and that accidental planetary invasion – it was time they added a fourth planet to the Empire anyway.
And Drusilla being elected Counsellor of Komarr wasn’t even really Worst, although she became rather tiresome on the subjects of taxation and voting rights.
Vlad’s successful career as an actor wasn’t much of a problem either, although the soft-porn version of the Cetagandan invasion probably had great-grandfather Piotr spinning in his grave.
Taurie marrying a Betan herm – an old Worst Thing come true – barely caused a ripple. Their work on improved organ-cloning saved thousands of lives, anyway.
Nobody even made much fuss when Delie Vorkosigan and her prole-born wife set up home in Hassadar. And the portable med/ed machines they manufactured made a huge difference for so many villages.
Each of them found their own way to serve, often in interesting new fields of endeavour, and were able to make positive differences as they escaped the curse of Amazing Ancestors. And they all agreed that the Worst Things weren’t so bad after all.
And then they had children. And a new generation started playing the game…..