On the fifth anniversary of Aral's death, they gathered for a memorial ceremony in the family cemetery at Vorkosigan Surleau. It was an extended gathering - both his biological and honorary families in full force. Miles, Ekaterin, and their children, plus Mark and Kareen. Ivan and his new family, with Simon and Alys. Gregor and Laisa and their little princes and princesses - Gregor never lost a chance to remind Cordelia that he regarded Aral as his 'real' father, in all the ways that counted. Kou and Drou were there, of course, with their four daughters, sons-in-law and many grandchildren - quite a crowd all on their own! Elena, Baz and their kids and been able to make it despite earlier fears they might not - she and Miles had privately made a small offering for Sgt. Bothari before they all assembled for Aral's. Cordelia had decided to break with the early morning tradition and have it somewhat later to allow everyone who wanted to the chance to attend. The late morning was already hot, with the threat of thunderstorms. A special brazier had been designed to hold all the offerings from everyone at once. She and Miles lit the fire in a subdued atmosphere - quiet and reflective, though, rather than somber. Even the babies among them refrained from fussing during ceremony, seeming to sense the mood. On his last trip to Earth, Mark had come across and now played a recording of an ancient bagpipe tune, Flowers of the Forest, (see end note). That it had originally commemorated the Scots’ losses in the Battle of Flodden Field in 1513 automatically appealed to the martially-oriented Barrayaran soul. The fact that it was hellishly dramatic and beautifully haunting left everyone misty-eyed with a wee lump in their throats as they trudged their way back up to the house. Mark’s belief that Aral would have approved was heartily affirmed by all.
After Aral's funeral, and after serving a few months on the transition team for the new Sergyaran Viceroy, Cordelia had originally planned to spend fall and winter - her favorite seasons - on Barrayar and the other half the year on Beta Colony. That plan lasted less than the first two years. She had become increasingly restive on Beta no matter what she did to to keep her mind occupied or fill her time, feeling increasingly like a tourist. She had been somewhat taken aback when she first realized that she now regarded Barrayar as home. Looking back on it, to be honest, she knew it shouldn't have been totally unexpected. After all, she had spent more of her life here on Barrayar than she had on Beta Colony. She had gone so far native - Hah! That term always delighted her - that she had decided against Betan life-extension treatments beyond what was normally available on on Barrayar, feeling that Aral would understand, even if no one else did.
Since returning to Barrayar permanently, she began helping Miles and Ekaterin with more and more of the neverending District business. She soon became busier than she had ever been. In addition to District affairs, she was also chairing a committee looking to revitalize more extensive and long overdue terraforming on the South Continent as well as on Sergyar. But nearest and dearest to her heart - and Aral's, she was certain - was her work setting up and administering a wide range of special projects and scholarships in his name that was threatening to become a full-fledged, full-time job. She welcomed the increasing workload with open arms, feeling sometimes she could sense him - warm and strong beside her - with that devastatingly boyish, sunny grin that had unglued her all those long years ago on the plains of the then-unnamed Sergyar.
There was a battleship. Of course there was. It was a foregone conclusion that there would be a battleship - this was Barrayar after all. It had been initially planned to be christened the Admiral Prime Minister Count Aral Vorkosigan until Miles put his foot down, insisting vehemently that Aral would think the name ridiculously pretentious and would only want the title that meant the most to him - the rank he had earned. Twice, in fact. Gregor did a little judiciously applied Vorbarra arm-twisting, and so it was that the Admiral Vorkosigan became the magnificent new flagship of the fleet, replacing the soon-to-be mothballed Prince Serg. Cordelia reckoned that not too many were still around these days who saw the delicious irony and poetic justice in that.
There was the planning and building and/or upgrading of rural roads and modern communications networks, not just in the District, but all over Barrayar. The same held for the many new hospitals, clinics and research facilities - all in his name. At the University of Vorbarr Sultana, there were scholarships set up and funded - in his name. There were annual scholarships for a Barrayaran and a Komarran at the Xav Vorbarra School of Diplomacy - in his name. Half a dozen students were selected each year for medical school scholarships in his name - with the proviso that the freshly minted doctors spend five years practicing in the Vorkosigan District after earning their degrees. The School of Art was soon to have one scholarship each in the Architecture and Fine Arts departments. Cordelia knew Aral would be far prouder of the scholarships than the battleship. She had been keeping in touch with all the chosen scholarship students throughout their academic careers - offering tea and sympathy along with any other help and support the deserving young people might need. It was what Aral would have done, quietly, behind the scenes, without any fuss or fanfare.
A sudden downpour blew up shortly after ceremony, about halfway through a picnic-style brunch for the gathered family - courtesy of Ma Kosti - sending them all laughing, scrambling for cover under the pavilion with their plates and beverages, to wait it out. The sun obliged and returned shortly after, and they had flocked back out to finish eating. After the meal, while the others were either reminiscing in the pavilion's shade or keeping an eye on their assorted offspring playing in the lake, only Cordelia - sitting back comfortably in their chair (really quite shockingly decrepit by now) - noticed Ivan with his ten month old son Padma in his arms, slipping quietly away from the family, heading for the house.
Watching all of them, together ultimately because of a choice she had made forty-five years ago - right here in this chair, actually - she realized that even if she hadn't had all the work to occupy her, she could never go back to Beta Colony to live or even for an extended visit. She missed Aral's presence too much to stay away for long, especially now that there were so many wonderful new things that bore his name, in his honor. His namesake, young Aral Alexander, was looking more and more like him every day - rather, what she imagined he would have looked like at that age, since his tumultuous early years near the end of the Cetagandan Occupation and later during Mad Yuri’s Civil War had not afforded too many opportunities for graphic images of any kind. She contrived to be at his beloved lake house as often as she decently could, far more so than at Vorkosigan House. Here, she found herself ever so gradually taking up the Barrayaran practice of talking to the dead in the cemetery, and wondered how she could have ever thought it to be a primitive, somewhat creepy custom when she first arrived. It felt so natural being with him there, chatting like that, surrounded by his long-gone family - at home, at peace, at well-deserved rest. She recalled what he had told Old Piotr - caught out trying to sabotage the uterine replicator holding the still embryonic Miles. Enraged, the Count had gone so far as to throw the two of them out of both his houses, stopping just short of disinheriting Aral - he would have if he could have - but it did not provoke the response the fierce old man had hoped for. Aral - she never loved him more than at that moment - calmly serene, informed his implacably furious father that his home was not a place, but people. With all his 'people' gathered here as they were today, Aral would have been the first to remind her that this was the circle of life - as it was meant to be.
Ivan, having just slipped away from the noisy mob scene that was a typical Vorkosigan family gathering, goes into the house and changes into The Shirt - willed to him by Uncle Aral and (secretly) his most prized possession. He then heads down to the cemetery to make a private ceremony of his own, with his infant son in his arms. Young Lord Padma was built like a battle cruiser, his wife would say - he preferred to think of him as solid - with a thick shock of black hair, big, alert brown eyes, and a decidedly mellow disposition. Ivan knows they'd lucked out big time - he cringes at the thought of having one of those colicky babies who fuss constantly. Entering the now quiet cemetery, with faint echoes of Flowers of the Forest still wafting through his head, Ivan sets the boy down at the foot of his uncle's grave and begins to chat as he assembles the brazier and tripod for the offering.
"Well, Uncle Aral, you told me you wanted another Little Padma - and there he is, my Little Padma! Quite the little lump, isn't he, sir? Heh! I'm sorry it's too late for you to spoil him the way you wanted to. Having seen you in action with your grandkids, I know you would have done a bang-up job of it. As if you could ever do it any other way! He would have loved you. We all did ... still do. But there would have been that special connection between the two of you, through my father. I can never, ever thank you enough for introducing me to my Da the way you did. Again, I can't tell you how sorry I am it took so long. But to be fair, you took your own sweet time getting married and producing offspring, too. Not that I'm counting or anything, but I'm sure you've noticed I beat your fatherhood at forty-five by almost two years! Hah! Anyway, m' mother and Simon are filling in for you quite admirably in the baby-spoiling department, thank you very much."
"Mother says the boy looks just like my Da, but how would she know? She didn't meet him until they were in their teens, and they were just casual acquaintances for at least a decade after that. For the life of me, I don't understand how anyone can look at an infant (using his babytalk voice, grinning at Padma who grins back) - Just look at that adorable little smoochy face ... yeah, you know I'm talking about you, don't you, you little rug rat? - and say he or she looks like whoever, unless they actually knew them as babies. So, could you - um ... you know - possibly give me a sign? If he really does look like my Da, that is? At your convenience, of course. Personally, I think he looks like 99% of all other Barrayaran babies. Aunt Cordelia and Mother tell me that Padma here's a little bruiser like I supposedly was. But really, sir, was I? Or did I just look like it in comparison to Miles? And who the hell wouldn't, in comparison to Miles! Am I right? I'm just saying..."
Baby Padma had been industriously plucking individual blades of grass within his reach and inspecting each one carefully before tossing them away and going on to the next one while Ivan was setting up the brazier and chatting with his uncle. He is now fully engaged in dismantling the small carry-out box from the Aral Sea Tea House containing the brillberry blini intended for the burnt offering. Rather, it had contained brillberry blini - his face, hands and shirt front are now festooned in dark purple brillberry stains. He has crumbs in his ears and on his pudgy little Buddha-like belly. His hair is spiked into clumps from the gooey fruit filling. He beams up at his father quite beatifically, having gotten his attention by repeating the word 'Da' over and over, with variations in intensity, pitch, and volume. 'Da' is his first word - Ivan was thrilled - and Padma is still taking it out for test drives, seeing how it handles, with generally good results, but for reasons as yet unknown to him, this does not appear to be one of those occasions.
"Ohhh, my God!!! No, Padma! No! Hell ... just look at you! How can you possibly be hungry already? We just ate! Damn! Your mother's going to kill me! Those were for your Uncle Aral, boy!" He picks the baby up and holds him warily at arm's length, trying not to get stains on The Shirt. "You remember - Uncle Aral? I've told you about him ... this is his grave? The Greatest. Barrayaran. Ever! Ah, well ... too late now." He turns toward the headstone. "As you can see, sir, the boy seems to be developing an appreciation for traditional Barrayaran pastries, just like you had. Um, actually, he's been developing an appreciation for anything that will even remotely fit in his mouth. And since he's started eating real 'people' food and feeding himself a bit, he's developed a rather gobsmacking ability to get twice as much of it on and around himself as inside, no matter how much or little he started with! I'm sure you can tell from the size of him he still manages to get quite a good bit of it inside. How do babies do it, I wonder? Defy the laws of physics like that? It's a mystery..."
The grinning baby cheerfully offers his father a chubby fistful of smooshed pastry with an emphatic and authoritative 'Da.' Ivan dutifully licks the smidgens of offered blini from between Padma's grubby little fingers. Mmm, still tasty, he thinks. He attempts to clean up the squirming baby as well as he can with only a handkerchief and a lot of spit, while Padma's tiny hands take swift evasive action - grabbing a paternal ear here, a nose there - leaving a streaky, blueish-purple pastry trail across his father's handsome face. With the now reasonably clean if decidedly sticky baby flung over his left shoulder in the classic fireman's carry, Ivan hunkers down and burns the badly crumpled cardboard box with the crumbs and pitiful remains of the teahouse treats, along with the requisite snippets of hair - his own with its recent touches of grey, and the baby's fine black wisps.
"Sorry about that, sir. Yeah, yeah... I know. This is pretty entertaining. I can hear you laughing! You wouldn't think it quite so amusing, though, if you had blini bits smeared in your eyebrows! 'Ivan, you idiot' would be appropriate right about now, wouldn't you say? Not exactly the smartest tactical move leaving a baby alone with an unarmed box of pastries, eh? Well, I know you don't mind sharing, Uncle Aral. Padma appreciates it, I'm sure. He'd say thanks if he could, but his vocabulary is rather limited at the moment."
Standing back up, he takes a small flask filled with Vorkosigan Estates Meadery maple mead from a trouser pocket, and raises it for a toast in the direction of the headstone with its simple inscription - just a name and dates in Cyrillic letters like those of the rest of his uncle's family. He takes in the view of the lake and the Dendarii Mountains beyond, steeling himself for the inevitable assault on the senses to come.
"To Xav Vorbarra's grandsons, forever. And what the hell - to his great-grandsons and great-great-grandsons, too!" The first swig induced as much gasping and eye watering as ever. "I'm still waiting for this stuff to go down better on the first swallow. Should I be, or is it a lost cause? (a second swig) Maybe if I'd started earlier, I'd be used to it by now, d'you think? It's really not bad stuff at all once you get the hang of it. (a third quite generous swallow) It kinda grows on you." A squirming Padma is trying to get at the flask, mouth open like a bird. "What's that you say, boy? You're ready for your first taste of tradition?"
Ivan sets the baby down at his feet, and Padma immediately pulls himself up to a very wobbly stand, with an iron grip on his father's trouser legs, making 'feed me' noises while looking up at the flask. Ivan had grown up hearing stories about how backcountry women would often rub assorted strong alcoholic beverages on their teething babies' gums to easy the pain, so how bad could it be? Looking around furtively first, just to make sure his mother was nowhere in sight - this was exactly the sort of thing she'd miraculously appear out of thin air for - he takes the flask and wets his index finger with mead and sticks it in close proximity to the baby's eager mouth. Padma latches onto it - was that a look of surprise or shock? His eyes grow even bigger as he rears back and plops down on his well-padded little behind. He hauls himself back up quickly, openmouthed - trying to clamber up his father's leg, his little hands grasping for more.
"Yep! Noooo doubt about it! He's the grandson of your Little Padma, all right." He scoops the baby up in his arms. "Heh! Never too young to partake in family tradition, I always say. I'll be taking him to the Caravansarai on my next birthday to introduce him to Da. And when he's older, I'll be taking him to the Aral Sea Teahouse. Tradition, eh? A wonderful thing..."
"Y'know, sir ... it's funny. Not 'ha-ha' funny, but funny in a good way. I'm sure you'll agree. Your grandson Aral Alexander reminds me far more of you than Miles. He has that same thoughtful, practical, patient temperament you had. Especially the patient part... Helen, now - wooooh! That's a whole 'nother story! What a firecracker! She's Miles with two X chromosomes! Serves him right, the hyperactive little git, after what he put you and Aunt Cordelia though. And Sgt. Bothari ... and me ... and the armsmen, and anyone else who got caught up in his path! Hurricane Miles ... heh! But young Aral now, he's taken to Padma here in a big way, and vice versa. With all those sisters, maybe he just likes being big brother to a boy for a change. Oddly enough, there's just a little more than ten years difference in their ages. A lot like with you and my Da - your Little Padma. How awesome is that? It's come full circle, Uncle Aral. I only wish you were still here with us to enjoy it firsthand... Guess I'll have to do it for both of us..."
He sets Padma down beside him as he cleans and packs up the tripod and brazier. By the time he finishes, the sky has cleared completely, and a cool breeze is gently blowing away the last of the offering's smoke. He picks the baby up and heads out of the cemetery, closing the gate behind him. Aral Alexander is heading down the path toward them, and Padma is squirming and twisting in his direction with eager anticipation, waving his chubby arms at the older boy. Young Aral's bright grey eyes light up with delight at the sight of Padma and he waves happily back, joining them on the path up to the house. Aral excitedly tells his Uncle Ivan that Da said he could take bagpipe lessons - they were going to take them together! Ivan suppresses a prodigious snort at the thought of Miles actually sitting still long enough to practice anything, as he hands Padma off to young Aral. A brilliant double rainbow appears over the lake as the three of them approach the back of the house. Ivan looks up, laughing.
"Is that a sign, sir? Well, I'll take it for one anyway... You see that, boys? The rainbow? Uncle Aral - (to young Aral) your grandfather - says Padma looks just like his Grand Da! Now that's what I call the circle of life..."