Ivan has a nightmare. It happens every night after he falls asleep.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Ivan Vorpatril, newly-minted young ensign, was revelling in his life as a very junior officer in Vorbarr Sultana. He had his own apartment, his shiny red aircar, a whole city full of receptive women (and when it came to receptive women, Lady Donna Vorrutyer seemed to be taking quite an interest in him). Yes, indeed, life was very good. And with Miles safely off-planet somewhere he was able to relax and enjoy life.
They came for him in the night. He woke up in a confused panic to find two large, dark shapes looming beside his bed. He blinked, and although it was too dim to see their uniforms properly, he could see the glint of horus eyes on their collars.
Clothes were tossed onto the bed, the uniform he’d shed that evening. Worldlessly he scrambled into the stiff, still-new uniform. Uneasy prickles crawled between his shoulder blades as the silent men watched him get dressed.
So, it was happening. Ivan felt cold fear, then a seed of resentment began to grow. From the time he was old enough to understand why his father died he’d learned to be careful. An idiot. A safe, bystanding, non-rebelling idiot. And he’d been looking forward to being a nice, harmless idiot for many years to come.
It seemed that plan had just failed.
Why did they wait so long? Why did they wait until he’d finished at the Academy, started his career, finally felt that he was on his quiet, harmless track? He’d been so careful, he’d never scored too high or too low at the Academy, he’d taken care to be a follower, never a leader. He thought he was safe, he thought everyone saw him as safe, as harmless. Why now? What had changed?
Ivan turned towards the bathroom. One of the shadows moved towards him. Ivan paused, “Depilate.” He’d be damned if he wasn’t well-groomed to face whatever was coming. The men stilled again, both of them waiting like well-trained guard dogs as he prepared himself. At least he’d look good, whatever happened.
His escort fell in beside him as they walked him down to a waiting groundcar. Black, shiny, anonymous, and no doubt shielded in fifteen different ways.
Ivan didn’t ask questions. These weren’t the ones who’d do the talking with him, if anyone did. He didn’t even consider trying to escape. He’d had special training on how to fight free in dangerous situations. And it wouldn’t do a blind bit of good because ImpSec had trained him, and ImpSec had just taken him prisoner.
Besides, he couldn’t do that. Honour wouldn’t allow it. He was bound by his oaths of military obedience, and of loyalty to Gregor.
Ivan fanned the flame of anger. How could they do this to him? He’d never even considered anything treasonous, except when Miles dragged him into something, and that didn’t count. He’d behaved, he’d been as harmless as he possibly could. Innocent bystander, it was his creed, his ambition and his refuge. And his disguise. His ambition was zero. He was no threat to Gregor, to the Imperium, he was as nothing as possible.
But they’d come for him, silently, in the middle of the night.
Ivan tried to keep the anger alive, to counter the chill fear.
Cockroach Central. Still in silence he strode into the building, flanked by his silent escort. He hesitated after he entered, wondering where he was headed – cells? Interrogation rooms? But no, he was taken on the twisted route to Simon Illyan’s office.
His escort stopped at the doorway, Ivan had marched on into the office before he realised he’d shed them.
Simon Illyan was standing beside his desk, the spider lurking in the centre of his unprepossessing web. Ivan snapped to crisp military attention. Damn them all, he’d take whatever was coming and wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of seeing him flinch.
“Ivan.” Illyan took a breath, “Ivan… sit down. Please.”
Not what he expected, but any moment he wasn’t being executed was a good moment. Ivan sat, carefully. Illyan didn’t move around his desk, instead he took a few aimless steps across the office, it seemed as if he was searching for words.
“Ivan… some things have been happening.”
Ivan relaxed for the first time since he woke in fright, “What’s Miles done now?”
Illyan almost smiled for a moment, then was back to dead serious, “This time it’s not Miles.” He shook his head to clear it, then went on, “As you know, Gregor recently went on an official visit to Komarr.”
Ivan nodded, “He’s been sick since then hasn’t he? Staying down at Vorkosigan Surleau.” A new fear was growing now, “He’s… he’s not… how sick is he?”
“He’s fine. Healthy. Fit and well.” It should have been reassuring, but the tone was wrong. Ivan waited, not sure he wanted to hear whatever was coming. Anything that had Simon Illyan dithering like this could never be good. “Gregor went to Komarr. Yes. And while he was there someone told him… he heard…. He found out … the truth. About Serg.”
Ivan nodded, “He had to know sooner or later. Should have told him years ago, although I suppose they were always worried about how it’d affect his worries about Yuri. So… how did he take it?”
“Not very well. He got drunk and disappeared.”
“Went on a bender, did he? Might have done him some good, he needs to loosen up a bit.”
“Disappeared. He didn’t come back.” Simon’s voice was level, and very very calm. Or controlled, at least. Sort of defusing-this-dangerous-bomb calm.
Ivan frowned, “But he’s at Vorkosigan Surleau now, yes? You got him back, right? You can’t… you didn’t lose the damn emperor, did you?” His voice was rising towards panic.
“Vorkosigan Surleau is hosting a lookalike, we had to cover up for as long as we could. Gregor made his way to the docks and signed on to an outbound vessel as navigator. They dumped him on Jackson’s Whole, where he was arrested as a vagrant and sold as indentured labour to a space station in the Hegen Hub.”
Ivan was beyond comment. From anyone else he’d call this a joke, but ImpSec personnel didn’t possess a whimsical sense of humour.
Illyan’s monotone continued, “Miles was on an intelligence-gathering mission, in a supporting role. He ditched his superior officer, found Gregor by getting himself arrested by the Jacksonians, travelled with Gregor to the space station, somehow linked up with his Dendarii Mercenaries again… I won’t go through the rest of the details now, it gets complicated, you can read the reports later. Suffice it to say Miles eventually retrieved Gregor.”
“Alive and safe, yes.”
“Hegen Hub.. wait, there was a Cetagandan incursion going on there – the Prince Serg was there… Uncle Aral was there…”
“Yes, that added to the excitement. Miles and his mercenaries… as I say, you can read all the reports later. Aral was in the right place at just about the right time, Barrayar is everybody’s friend now, a happy ending all round.”
Ivan was sitting very still listening to that level voice. Happy didn’t sound like this. “So… we won a war, everyone’s alive and well, we’ve retrieved our lost emperor, Gregor had himself a nice little adventure which will do him the world of good… so why did I get the supremely early wakeup call?.”
“Gregor isn’t coming back.”
Ivan heard the words, but his brain didn’t want to process them.
Illyan waited, then when he got no reaction he repeated impatiently, “Gregor isn’t coming back.”
Ivan shook his head, “He doesn’t get a choice, he’s the damn emperor. It’s not something you can walk away from. Miles and Uncle Aral are both there – between them they can stun him, drug him, lock him in a cabin, whatever it takes, and bring him the hell back here again!” He was getting louder as he went on, as the panic took over, “He can’t just not be emperor any more, it’s what he does, what he is. And he can’t turn his back on it... on us… on Barrayar…”
“Gregor feels that he’s not to be trusted. Yuri and a mad grandmother were bad enough, but Serg… Gregor feels that the… the problems…are too close, too dangerous. For the sake of Barrayar he’s handing over the Imperium and walking away.”
“Bloody stop him!”
“We can’t, we’re sworn to obey him.”
“Well if he stops being the emperor you’re not sworn to him, so you can…”
“Bring him back and force him to be emperor again? Then if he’s emperor we have to obey him, and let him go… it gets a bit circular after that".
Take a deep breath. Stay calm. Ignore the voice screaming inside your head. “So…what is he going to do?”
“For a start, he’s going to Beta. We’ll fix him up with a new identity and a comfortable bank account, and he’ll spend some time getting his head, or his genetics, sorted out and repaired. Plus a new face. He’ll stay with Countess Vorkosigan’s mother until he’s … fixed. And able to build a new life there."
“Can’t he get fixed and come back? Uncle Aral can be regent again. We’re all used to that.” Desperate hope flickered.
“Barrayar can’t wait for months or maybe years. And you know what the Counts are like, they’d never trust anyone who’d had heavy-duty Betan therapy.”
“Most of the damn Counts NEED heavy-duty Betan therapy. We should get a team in and go for a group discount.” Some of the thoughts he’d been trying to avoid crept in, “So how are you going to break the news to Barrayar? This isn’t going to be an easy sell.”
“We have to ensure stability. That’s the most important thing. We can’t let this cause unrest. We need continuity. Stability. Security. We’ll have to present this in a way that people will understand and accept, we can’t allow another Vordarian or Vordrozda. We have to keep Barrayar safe. Gregor… Gregor can’t ever come back. We can’t hang in limbo for months or years, we can’t have the constant threat of challenges or pretenders, we can’t let the new emperor be saddled with a constant threat of Gregor’s return hanging over his head. It has to be a clean break. Gregor knows that. He’s gone for good.”
Silence for a few moments. The sort of noisy silence of a lot of thoughts running around inside his head, “So… we have Uncle Aral as emperor after all.”
Ivan had been afraid, he’d been angry, he’d been scared and confused. None of that was close to what he started to feel at that moment, a growing horror seasoned with blind panic. “So we have Emperor Miles? Thanks for the warning, I might move to Escobar for a few decades.”
That panic wasn’t looming any more, it was dancing around him in circles and waving streamers.
“We’re going to turn into a republic? Beta will be pleased.”
Illyan didn’t bother to answer that one.
Silence. Ivan checked out the distance to the door. Even if he could take Illyan, which would never happen, he had zero chance of getting past the chuckles twins on the other side of the door. Not to mention the entire personnel of ImpSec who were currently between him and the outer doors. He knew now why the office had no windows. Dammit, wasn’t there a building code about these things?
He broke first, nobody could out-silence Illyan. “I don’t... I won’t…”
Illyan nodded, briskly businesslike, “Aral is on his way back with most of the fleet. Miles and his Dendarii mercenaries are escorting Gregor to Beta to see him settled in. Miles has become Admiral Naismith again, it seems that he’s more use to us that way. I hope so, he’s running out of commanding officers. He’ll return in a few months, when everything’s safely settled.”
Stubborn rearguard action, “Uncle Aral. He’s done the job. He’s got the best claim. He’s got the support. He’s… he’s ARAL BLOODY VORKOSIGAN, dammit. It’s got to be him.”
“No. He doesn’t want the job. And there’s too many who’d oppose him – he could deal with them but it’d take too much time and energy. We need a smooth changeover. Someone younger.”
“Miles. He’s next in line.”
“It would be very difficult to sell Miles to the Empire. Not just because of his appearance, but also because he would be an utter disaster as emperor. Miles needs someone to serve. Serving the whole Imperium would tear him apart, if it didn’t tear the Empire apart first. Miles knows this himself. He’s in agreement with Aral on this one.”
Ivan lurched to his feet, “Fine. Ask the Counts to pick someone. Hold a raffle, draw a name out of a hat. Give them disruptors and let them shoot it out and take the last man standing.”
“Ivan – “
“Aral said no. Miles said no. I can bloody say no too.”
“It’s too late.”
“I’ll go to fucking Beta and get some therapy of my own. I’ll – I won’t – no!”
“This was Gregor’s last order to you. He recorded a vid for you, you’ll see it later today. Right now we have to get moving.”
Half an hour ago Ivan would have done anything to avoid entering this building. Now he was prepared to fight to stop being forced out. “What’s the rush? We need to talk about this, there must be alternatives. Something.”
“Ivan… I’m sorry. But you have no choice.”
“NO!” Ivan started pacing. “I don’t want this! You can’t dump the damn empire on me!”
“It’s because you don’t want it that you’re right for the job. And you’ll have Aral as your Prime Minister. You’ll have me. We’ll do everything we can to help you.” He was herding Ivan inexorably towards the door.
“What’s the rush?”
“Komarran terrorists have killed the emperor.”
Illyan eased him through the door, talking kin a low, calming tone. “A very useful group of rather ineffectual Komarran would-be terrorists, backed by some slightly more efficient and dangerous political interests, have been looking for some way to make themselves famous. We managed to head them off from blowing up the Vorbarr Sultana Symphony Orchestra, and we were monitoring them to see who’s funding them – they’ve proved remarkably productive. We’ve found several other, more efficient, terrorist cells because of them. They were sniffing around Vorkosigan Surleau, so yesterday we leaked the information to them that the emperor was returning to Vorbarr Sultana sometime during the night, for safety. And they managed to get a bomb on board the aircar – it took some organisation to give them a window of opportunity, but we managed. We had to tinker with their bomb a bit, too, but eventually we made it work. The aircar exploded an hour ago, and five minutes after the explosion the terrorists were on the public vid system, claiming the credit.”
Ivan halted, “Exploded? But –“
“It was a drone. No personnel on board.”
“And the terrorists?”
“We’ve already rounded them up.”
The rest of that long, long day passed in a blur for Ivan, with only a few moments held fast in his memory.
The aircar trip to the Residence, watching the morning traffic in the city. He’d never have to worry about that again. In fact, he’d probably never drive himself again.
Being hustled through the corridors of the Residence. This was his home now. He wouldn’t ever see his nice, compact, private apartment again.
Quickly discovering that you can’t turn yourself invisible when you’re the one everyone is watching. He’d never be an innocent bystander again.
Never again, never again…never see Gregor again, and that thought hurt so much more than he’d expected. Gregor, his dark, quiet cousin. Poor Gregor, stuck with such a rotten job. Gregor always patient with his younger cousins. Gregor, gone. Never again.
He’d never be able to dally with giggling girls again, enjoying the chase. No girl could refuse him now, so he couldn’t ask. Never again.
He’d been enjoying his job, he liked the flow charts and the data. He liked sorting things into neat groups. Now he’d be the one who had to make the decisions after someone else did the sorting. He had to take responsibility. He couldn’t pass the job to someone else. Never again.
Illyan could probably sense his rising panic. “Aral will be back tomorrow. We wanted to time it carefully, we didn’t want him near Komarr at this time, it would only make things worse. And we didn’t want him on-planet, his enemies can’t try to pin any blame on him. You’re going to make a public vid announcement, that the Emperor has been killed. Then you’ll take over, just as an interim measure. When Aral gets back he’ll confirm you as Emperor. After the vid you’ll call an emergency meeting of the Council of Counts. It won’t achieve anything, but they need to feel useful. And it’ll keep them all busy in one place so that none of them can be off somewhere plotting.”
One moment really did stand out in his memory. They brought him the script for his vid announcement, and his House uniform. Ivan balked, “No. I’m already in uniform.”
“Your House uniform –“
“I earned this one. I’ll wear my dress greens.” It was a tiny victory, but it gave him a much-needed ray of light.
Making the vid announcement was horrific. He tried to read the words without taking in their meaning. The Council of Counts was eerily quiet. Nobody wanted to commit to anything, or put themselves forward. They were all shocked, and seemed to be genuinely grieved.
After the painful CoC meeting Ivan was almost finished. Grimly silent Vorbarra armsmen ushered him to a private room to take a break. Just as he was relaxing into the chair the door swung wide and the room suddenly seemed full of noise and bustle – “Mamere - Aunt Cordelia – uh…”
“It’s ok, kiddo, we know.” Aunt Cordelia nodded, “I’m sorry, but I’m not sorry, too. We could never give Gregor peace, or freedom. I’m glad he finally found it for himself.”
“At some cost!” Ivan glared at her, then turned to embrace his mother, “Mamere, we have to find a way to stop this.”
“I tried, Ivan.” Alys sighed, “I tried, but Simon persuaded me that there’s no alternative. I’m so sorry.”
Cordelia nodded, “There’s no other way. Aral will support you every way he can. But if Aral took over, there’d always be whispers and suspicion. Nobody suspects you.”
“Well thank you so very much. I think. But I don’t WANT this!” It was a wail of sheer panic.
Alys bustled around getting tea, cakes, and reassurance. Finally, when peace descended, Cordelia settled on the couch beside Ivan and patted his arm, “I know you don’t want it, but I also know you can do it. I’ve known you all your life. And I’ve seen your Academy results.”
Ivan shrugged, “I did my best.”
“Yes, you did. And your best was very impressive. You scored eighty-five percent, give or take a point or two, in every test.”
“Well, I’m not one of those clever types who get full marks.”
“That’s the funny thing – the clever types get full marks on some tests, but not on all of them. Someone who’s brilliant at navigation scores low on history. The cadet with a perfect score in marksmanship is terrible at languages. Strengths and weaknesses, But you – you scored the same on every test, physical or academic. It takes a great deal of skill to do that.”
Ivan stared at her.
“Ivan,” Cordelia spoke gently, “You don’t need to hide any more. Not from us. Although you might find it useful to surprise the Counts now and then."
He had people on his side. That got him through the rest of the day.
And then there was more bustle, and a sense that everyone was suddenly even more alert, and Uncle Aral arrived, on a fast courier boosting way past its safe level.
Uncle Aral was here. Everything would be alright now.
They met in one of the larger Drawing Rooms. Aral Vorkosigan strode towards Ivan, who waited nervously. Surely Uncle Aral would take over now, he’d sort out this huge mistake.
Aral Vorkosigan marched up to him – and sank to one knee. He knelt down and raised his hands to put them between Ivan’s, and give his oath. Dimly Ivan realised that the others had waited so that Aral could be the first to take his oath of loyalty to the new Emperor.
Uncle Aral, Aunt Cordelia, Simon Illyan and Lady Alys. Even his own mother gave the oath. Ivan felt sick to his stomach.
And trapped. Word by word they nailed his coffin shut.
He transmitted vids to Komarr and Sergyar. Assuring his Komarran subjects that he didn’t blame them for the actions of a few, misguided individuals He sent messages summoning the Counts to the Residence in two day’s time to give their oaths. He read reports, gave orders – or confirmed Uncle Aral’s orders at least. Days rushed by as he trod water, expecting at any moment to drown.
A week after Emperor Gregor was assassinated they held his full state funeral. Ivan didn’t try to hide his tears, as he grieved for the friend he’d never see again and the life he’d lost.
Two weeks after Emperor Gregor was assassinated there was a huge ceremony, with full vid coverage, of the coronation of Emperor Ivan Vorpatril Vorbarra. Ivan stood in his new, unfamiliar Vorbarra House uniform and stayed blank to cover his misery, and fear. His invisibility didn’t work any more, but it had become a useful blankness that hid any emotion.
Emperor Ivan, of the Barrayaran empire. Ruler of three planets.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Every night Ivan dreams this dream. It’s always the same. Every night there’s the rude awakening, the trip to Cockroach Central, the news about Gregor, and after a long, miserable struggle there’s the acceptance that he can’t escape his doom.
But that’s not the nightmare.
Every morning after dreaming that dream, Ivan opens his eyes.
And he looks around his bedroom, the Imperial Bedroom in the Residence. Then Ivan Vorpatril Vorbarra, Emperor of Barrayar, gets ready to face the day.
And that’s when the nightmare begins. It begins after he realises that the dream was real.