Of Guardsmen, Empress Laisa and the Art of Trust
Candide watched the change of the guard one flight of stairs further up and cracked his back in preparation for another hour of duty. Some of his brothers in arms found themselves prone to boredom when there was no escort that needed its ranks filled. Candide on the other hand had always prided himself in his patience for standing still. If asked, however, he would admit that his current lookout within the newest wing of the Palace had become an instant favorite. He could see all kinds of angles from here, all of them of strategic importance, even more so since the end of the left-hand corridor had become the entrance to the Empress Laisa’s private rooms.
One had to be trusted to be assigned this particular sentry. As a simple guard and a prole to boot he’d had to sweat tears and blood for the privilege to be allowed inside the palace at all. It had taken years before Captain Lekan had recognized that Candide had a good head on his shoulders and was able to pay attention to many things at once, a skill that had been wasted when he’d been stuck guarding single doors. He was still trusted less than the armsmen that manned the private corridors or got assigned close Imperial escort duty.
Armsmen had it so much easier - they came by a great deal of trust by birth and had to commit criminal negligence to lose it. Only senior armsmen were ever left alone with the new Empress or Emperor Gregor.
The guard change at the lookout behind Candide was early. He heard a voice he couldn’t quite place along with the burr of Évrard’s replacement. Candide hated turning around while standing still and was debating whether he should nevertheless do so when he heard Évrard salute “Captain Lord Ivan Vorpatril!”
Ah. The man who was the constant subject of Thierry and Favager’s suspicion regardless of his reputation as a ne´er-do-well. “Until the royal heir is hatched Lady Alys might make him lay claim to the throne,” Favager had told Candide. A year his senior in the service, Favager liked to expound on the ever-changing list of ‘friendlies’ over drinks. True veteran Thierry remembered when the Emperor had been younger and Lady Alys’ son had been a far too well-known sight at the Palace. Candide himself had only seen the Captain Lord a few times in the weeks before the royal wedding when he had been running errands for his formidable mother. He’d seemed efficient, if a bit cowed.
Lord Vorpatril returned Évrard’s overeager salute and approached Candide’s position. Candide stood at attention as befitted greeting a cousin to the Emperor but left his arms near his weapons. “Salutes are for the Emperor,” Captain Lekan always said, “We’re palace guards, we don’t waste time saluting every-which passers-by.” Captain Lord Vorpatril clearly didn’t expect the gesture either as he limited himself to an acknowledging nod. Most of them don’t even do that, Candide thought as he nodded back.
Lord Vorpatril turned his feet toward the Empress’ private chambers. He spoke a few words with Armsman Zeric before he was ushered inside and disappeared from Candide’s view.
Candide had only ever been on the other side of that door once, on the day he’d received the post-wedding security briefing. The Empress used the first two rooms as an office. Empress Laisa had shown Candide and the other guards around herself. “I can tell them where they’ll most likely find me,” she’d insisted to Captain Lekan and the ImpSec guards that had come with General Allegre.
The act had not eased Thierry’s suspicions of her, but then Thierry had been suspicious of Lord Auditor Vorkosigan since long before the latter had been first accused and then acquitted of treason. Candide had found he’d liked the Komarran woman - his Komarran Empress - despite himself.
The hour progressed and Candide remained every bit as alert as he’d been this morning. Nothing much of interest happened. Vorbonnay downstairs was relieved and replaced by some armsman instead of young Vorkalloner, judging by the sound of the new guard’s footsteps. Candide made a quick call to Captain Lekan to double-check that this was as it should be. “The third of you men to come down with the flu,” his superior cursed.
There had once been a time when the change of the guard had taken place simultaneously all over the palace. There was a rumor that General Haroche would have tried to reverse Captain Illyan’s measure against this security risk, “for efficiency”. Candide wasn’t sure he believed it. Even if Captain Lekan had bowed to ImpSec – after all, before the mess with General Haroche and the division that followed he’d been answerable to them - the Vorbarra armsmen would surely have revolted.
Lord Vorpatril had still not come back out by the time Candide nodded a greeting to Vorbonnay. His fellow guard passed him on his way to a shortcut to the kitchens through one of the Palace’s many secret doors that Candide kept an eighth of an eye on at all times. Sometimes members of the Emperor’s inner circle would leave through a similarly secret egress, but the armsman stationed there would have informed him and Armsman Zeric of it. Candide hoped Lord Vorpatril would emerge before he himself was relieved. Regardless of how innocuous a visit might be, an unfinished observation would leave him restless. Always had.
His shift had almost ended when Armsman Zeric opened the heavy door again and Lord Vorpatril stepped out, impeccably dressed as ever and a sight that young Vorkalloner would be sorry to have missed. He walked past Candide with an absent-minded nod and then jogged unhurriedly down the steps. Favager was frowning when he came up the stairs shortly thereafter.
Candide didn’t think much about how Lord Vorpatril had looked just a little wide-eyed. It crossed his mind a few times on his way home, but not as much as young Vorkalloner’s illness and precedents for assassinations prior to which a trusted guard had fallen sick.
Until Lord Ivan called on the Empress again the following week.
The virus that Vorkalloner had caught had spread through a good quarter of the palace guards. ImpSec had thoroughly investigated the possibility of a biological weapon, but so far everything seemed to point toward a simple if unlikely brush of bad luck. The chamber maids were reportedly in similar straits.
It was as a direct result of this personnel shortage that today Candide found himself inside a ball room during a posh gathering he would otherwise never have come near. “The Emperor has asked for guards the Empress is accustomed to. You, I at least know you can do the job.” Captain Lekan had given a slightly disbelieving shrug, and refused to smile at Candide’s rather bad attempt to hide his elation. Thierry, whom Candide had sought out for approval of his uniform, had suggested that “General Allegre might want to shuffle the roster in unexpected ways. Preempts opportunists.” The legacy of General Haroche was still felt keenly.
The assignment also marked the first time in Candide’s career that ImpSec had instructed him to keep track of specific people, though unlike the armsmen he didn’t warrant being told why. The five of them can’t be too immediate a threat, he thought: The Emperor might allow suspicious people in a room with himself in a Vorish play of cat and mouse - according to Thierry he had done so before - but the man would never allow such danger to befall his Empress.
The task was proving harder than he was used to. Candide believed himself very attentive on a normal day and he’d had plenty of practice keeping track of several things at once. At first he tried not to miss a single detail. This very much futile attempt only made his head buzz. Thus he had opted to pay less mind to the attendees he hadn’t been specifically asked to keep an eye on. Even for the High Vor among them, casual guarding would have to suffice.
A quarter eye on Count Vormuir. A quarter eye on Vorvolk’s aide’s nephew. A quarter eye each on Vormuir’s sister-in-law, her brother and their step-father.
Half an eye on an harassed looking Emperor Gregor. Harassed, yes, Candide thought. Outwardly calm, but - not convincing enough for someone who’s served him as a guard for years.
The remaining quarter eye on the entrances, windows, fellow guards, staff, and guests in the room.
It was only because Captain Lekan had drilled into his head that “The best guards have more eyes than they can spare!” that Candide noticed when Captain Lord Vorpatril sat down across a table from the Empress.
Empress Laisa had been dancing with the Emperor and Count Vorvolk before begging a break. Until a moment ago Lord Vorpatril had been dancing with soon-to-be Countess Vorrutyer, which Candide had filed away when they had swept past Count Vormuir and his wife.
Candide could almost hear Favager clamor for him to get nearer. He could have resisted indefinitely, but - there, Vorvolk’s aide’s nephew was sidling ever nearer toward the staff entrance. Candide was forced to take a few surreptitious steps to maintain his sight lines. It was an honest coincidence when the table with Empress Laisa and Lord Ivan came almost within earshot.
Candide had spoken very little about Lord Vorpatril’s now numerous - four - visits. He was, after all, a guard who knew his place. Fueling Thierry’s or Favager’s suspicions, fabricating a scandal and maybe sparking the next civil war over something that ImpSec must have people on already… He’d told Favager he’d only ever begin to consider something like that if he had overwhelmingly sufficient cause.
Count Vormuir was now standing a few feet from the Emperor. Why was the Empress all the way across the room and chatting with Lord Vorpatril? Oughtn’t she be by her husband’s side to alleviate some of his tension?
“-used dignified hysterics to her advantage,” he heard before Lord Vorpatril lowered his voice. Candide couldn’t yet read the Empress nearly as well as he could the Emperor. Was that smile a secretive or a concerned one?
“-lia is sympathetic,” Empress Laisa said a moment later, “but I fear she’s too new in her position to go against -”
A not-quite-senior Vorbarra armsman was also watching them, Candide noticed. Good. Maybe the man’s grand family legacy would know what to make of a barely audible “ran off” and “look-alike”. Unlikely as it was that Candide would ask him.
Lord Vorpatril leaned back in his chair as if distancing himself from his own words. “...might try,” Candide heard.
A look of deep upset had passed the Empress’ face. “...uncover?” she asked.
”...incident within the first few months,” Lord Vorpatril replied.
Maybe, Candide thought, maybe Lord Ivan had simply asked for advice on how to win back the other Miss Koudelka - Delia, that was, the one who had taken over from Lady Alys and was engaged to the Empress’ Komarran friend. Commodore Galeni could maybe pass as a look-alike for Vorpatril if one was half blind. That wouldn’t explain why the Empress then said “- would depend on the architecture”, but Candide liked this explanation a lot more than anything else he’d come up with.
”-cisely why I don’t want to include Miles,” he repeated to himself and suddenly wished very fervently that he had never listened to his inner Favager. He tried to take comfort in the fact that if Vorvolk’s aide’s nephew didn’t come closer to the main throng again very soon, Whatever the Empress and Lord Vorpatril are whispering about, the palace guards will get to arrest somebody tonight.
Despite the ongoing virus epidemic Candide was surprised, if pleasantly so, when Captain Lekan ordered him to stand guard during a dinner with Emperor Gregor’s closest friends and relatives. Having his skills recognized thus was highly gratifying - this level of trust was beyond the highest expectations of the seventeen-year-old who had long ago applied for the job. He must have done something to get himself noticed to even be considered for yet another gathering normally reserved for fifth-generation armsmen. It’s at least half because of my healthy constitution, he reminded himself even as his inner Vorbarr Sultana urchin screamed that the Empress knew who he was.
Earlier in the day there had been a commotion made about some court officials - whom Captain Lekan understandably loathed - who had been tasked with attesting to Emperor Gregor’s unborn heir’s health and on-schedule maturation. Candide was glad that the heir was apparently progressing as he should, but found the whole production in poor taste, not to mention a security hazard. There had been far too many people allowed near the uterine replicator.
Captain Lekan had put him at one of the windows and tasked him with keeping an eye on the outside. Candide had quickly found that while all four guards in the room were far enough away from the dinner table to ensure the family’s privacy, the reflections in the glass were such that he could see everything that was happening behind him.
He made himself somewhat uneasy as he wondered who all would know about this particular property. Captain Lekan, certainly, and the very senior armsmen. Was this among the rooms Emperor Gregor and Lord Auditor Vorkosigan had reportedly explored as children?
Lord Auditor Vorkosigan was currently leaning over to Count Vorvolk and talking excitedly about one thing or other. Beside him, the Lady Vorkosigan was in deep conversation with Empress Laisa.
There were at least five guards stationed in the newly refurbished garden outside, the recently recovered Vorkalloner the young but reliable among them. Captain Lekan had to have had a reason to station Candide by this particular window. He should probably have asked. Too late now, but he resolved to keep an eye on as many things at once as he possibly could. Should be easier than the other night, he thought, what with less people and nobody moving around too much.
Seeing Empress Laisa and Emperor Gregor seated next to each other gave Candide a rare opportunity to observe them together. The Emperor was leaning toward her even as he spoke to Lady Alys at the right end of the table. Upon fourth look his face appeared drawn. Candide frowned - by all accounts the Emperor had escaped the notorious virus. If he were a normal man he probably just could’ve used a holiday. The Empress was holding her husband’s ringed hand in hers right there on the table. Candide had to swallow a bit at the sight and was relieved that Thierry wasn’t there to see it. She looks very much in love.
Lord Vorpatril and the Empress hadn’t spoken a word to one another yet as far as Candide had seen. But there, he was certain that they had just caught one another’s eye over the table and - just when Lady Vorkosigan made a comment to her husband and drew his every attention - That right there was a nod.
Maybe Lord Vorpatril has befriended the Empress because Lord Auditor Vorkosigan has much less time for him now, Candide mused, but struggled to make himself believe it.
Another look and a half smile during the main course just when Lady Alys said something to Commodore Galeni. Candide’s heart sank as he realized that neither Lady Alys nor Delia Koudelka seemed to be aware of what was happening. There could be nothing to be aware of, he told himself, but if there was, keeping a secret from Lady Alys and Delia Koudelka - for Lord Vorpatril to keep a secret from Lady Alys and Delia Koudelka - was impressive. Somewhere in his hindbrain Empress Laisa rose even further in Candide’s estimation.
At least one of the Vorbarra armsmen had to see the same thing he did, but would they even answer if Candide dared bring it up? The Emperor was right there talking to Commodore Galeni. Both were known as observant men!
He suddenly and fervently wished he could just ask, everyone said that Lord Vorpatril was pretty approachable - if it were any other woman, Candide might not hesitate. Any other woman…
She was still holding the Emperor’s hand whenever she wasn’t eating. And the Emperor was smiling as Lord Vorpatril and Lord Vorkosigan recounted some story or other, and… If the Emperor knows, then there is nothing that I need to do.
Lord Vorpatril was not at all comporting himself like Candide imagined a man who had put one over the Emperor and was doing his best to hide it. Candide found it hard to believe that anybody’s acting could be that good.
The epidemic had at long last petered out. Only old Vorbonnay was still recovering and from what Candide had heard would take this opportunity to retire if his wife had anything to say about it.
Candide was back at his once-favorite post at the intersection of a major staircase and multiple corridors. It was good to be back; it was nice to know himself to be trusted but being so close to the rulers of the Imperium had turned out more stressful than he had dreamed of. Perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing that armsmen got the opportunity more often than guards.
Although one of the corridors he was securing led to the Empress’ private chambers, it had been three days since he had last seen her. “She’s camping out down there until the princeling has safely passed the age of the soltoxin attack on then-Lord Miles,” Évrard had said. This, to Candide, seemed superstitious and bordering on the hysterical, but maybe, he’d thought, it was also understandable. After all, a woman who didn’t do body birthing had no other way of knowing her baby’s health at all times and apparently hourly reports by the Imperial nurses weren’t enough.
It was good that the Emperor was that much more rational about the whole thing. The guard outside the erstwhile nursery had been doubled yet again but inside it the royal heir was maturing exactly as he should.
Under normal circumstances days could go by without Candide laying eyes on his Emperor. The Emperor usually took a less public entrance to his wife’s chambers, and had even less occasion to now that the Empress wasn’t even to be found there.
Favager was growing increasingly restless with this drastic cutback in sightings. When Candide had come to relieve him the man had grabbed his arm and whispered, “I’m not sure the Emperor is the Emperor!” This new level of paranoia had unsettled Candide enough that he’d begun to wonder if it was all that wise to closely associate with Favager. His radio routinely picked up his colleagues’ reporting on their Emperor’s movements.
There, that was Évrard’s voice reporting “Armsman Lyon and Himself to Princess Kareen’s garden.”
Thierry had wondered at the lack of meetings between the Emperor and “anyone, really,” but Candide had found that most of the high and not-so high Vor still expected to be greeted by the Emperor and his new Empress whenever they came to the Palace. He assumed that as long as the Empress remained sequestered away the Emperor would compensate by making a lot of calls.
Candide also hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Lord Vorpatril.
“Arrival - Princess Kareen’s garden, section E,” Évrard reported.
If Candide leaned just a little bit to the right he could see through the window a few steps away… There, that was the Emperor talking to Lady Vorkosigan. Armsman Lyon seems a bit tense, he thought. He couldn’t quite glimpse the Emperor’s face but that hardly mattered, that black house uniform and, more importantly, that stance could not be mistaken.
Candide stood at ramrod attention at yet another window with reflective properties. The garden below was currently empty but he kept a quarter eye on it, and since he could see the side building with the royal heir’s heavily guarded uterine replicator from here, he kept a quarter eye on that as well. Behind him, the Emperor was conducting a meeting with two of his Counts.
“Even Counts who’ve occupied their position for the entirety of Emperor Gregor’s reign believe that the lookouts in these offices are far enough away to prevent us guards from eavesdropping,” Captain Lekan had claimed. Emperor Gregor and his calm tones were another matter, but if Candide had wanted to he could have heard the bickering between Counts Vormuir and Vormoncrief quite clearly.
Favager would have been eagerly listening for a glimpse into the political machinations of his betters. Today, Candide was more than happy to leave any analysis to the recordings and the ImpSec experts.
He didn’t know for certain why Lady Alys had looked downright perturbed after - so young Vorkalloner had said - her first attempt to pry the Empress out of the nursery. Young Vorkalloner claimed that he’d heard her mutter darkly about the Hegen Hub, but the kid was young and being allowed to actually guard said nursery had to have left him a little… excited.
Candide also didn’t know for certain why shortly after young Vorkalloner’s report on Lady Alys every guard that had ever encountered her before had warned the others about the frown gracing Delia Koudelka’s face. He knew that when he himself had observed a corresponding frown on General Allegre’s face the report had greatly disturbed Captain Lekan.
Guards like Candide were only told when there was a threat. Whatever it had been had been something different.
While Candide had decided not to do anything about anything, Favager had gone to their superiors. Favager wasn’t on the duty roster any longer. Candide must have done something right when he’d given up on trying to guess at his betters’ motivations.
Favager must have failed to grasp what it meant to be trustworthy. But here Candide was, a silent witness to a meeting between the Emperor and two Counts.
Candide didn’t pay a lot of attention to the words, letting details over trade agreements and demands for compensation pass him by. The only thing he listened for was a distinct change in tone, namely a shift from blustering to threatening on part of one particular Count or in the reverse a shade of quieter tone by the Emperor.
The Emperor did look much more relaxed than the last time Candide had truly seen him. It eased a worry that had been far deeper than Candide had admitted to himself. It made him feel better about the prospect of keeping his eyes open for threats from a closer position from now on.
A movement in the garden outside caught his attention and drew his focus even as he kept half an eye on the negotiations behind him. Coming into view on a footpath were the Empress Laisa and Lord Vorpatril. Behind them Candide recognized Armsman Zeric. Like himself, the man had apparently moved up in the world.
“Your unborn sons aren’t worthy to kiss my daughters’ feet!” exclaimed Count Vormuir. The mirror window showed the Emperor look perfectly at peace.
Candide squinted and thought he saw the Empress mouth “Stalwart undertaking, Ivan,” before kissing Lord Vorpatril on the cheek.