Kareen examined the shoe with passionate intensity, turning it in her hands…
Yes, thought Cordelia. You were betrayed. Lied to. Your son lives…
- (from Barrayar)
“Tell me about my shoe,” Gregor demanded. The palace garden, full of flowers planted in better times (or worse) by Princess Kareen, had seemed the perfect place for a break from lessons, but neither reading nor helping the gardener’s assistant pull up weeds could distract Gregor once he latched on to a story from his past. Never his father’s past; stories about his grandfather (Aral’s bailiwick, fortunately) or his mother (Drou’s job)...but this belonged to neither of them.
Cordelia sighed. This couldn’t possibly be appropriate for an eight-year-old, and yet - who was she to keep the truth from him?
“Do you remember when we hid you in the hills?” she asked.
Gregor nodded with a half-shrug. “I remember the gum-leaf,” he said. “And the horses.”
“Of course you do,” she said and cuddled him closer. Gregor, ever aware of his status, allowed it for a brief moment before straightening back up next to her. “Well, when we took you into the mountains, you only had one shoe, so I put it some place safe.”
“And then you took it when you came to rescue Miles before he was born, and my mama,” Gregor said solemnly.
“Your mama was so worried about you, she didn’t know if you were safe, so I wanted some proof to reassure her.” And get her to come with me, Cordelia thought, and for a moment she was there again - the look on Kareen’s face, the sound of the nerve disruptor, the flames. She shook her head to bring herself back to now, with Gregor looking up at her curiously. “I’m always glad she knew you were all right, Gregor.”
“Before she died.”
“Yes.” She wrapped her arms around him, and this time he snuggled bonelessly into her. “She was so happy to see that little blue shoe.”
Behind them, the gardener’s assistant continued working, ever aware of the listening equipment hidden in her necklace. She didn’t know what shoes had to do with anything, but her superiors had been firm: anything was a possible lever with the Emperor, track and report it all.
It took all Gregor had to walk calmly down the hall instead of stomping in full rage, but he was nearly twelve years old, after all, nearly ready to leave home for the Vorbarra Preparatory Academy, and he’d never convince his Lord Regent if word of immature behavior leaked back to him. No, he would use logic and reason and Count Vorkosigan would see that early lightflyer lessons were the only appropriate--
A flash of blue on a passing servant’s tray arrested him in his tracks. “Wait!” he called, spinning on his heel and following the maid. “What is that?”
She turned and dipped a curtsey. “Sire?” The blue vase on her tray bobbed with her but she kept it expertly upright. “A vase broke in Lady Vorkosigan’s room, milord.”
“Yes, of course, sorry,” Gregor said, struggling to keep a blush from his cheeks. “Thank you.” He waved a hand as if he accosted random servants every day and hurried on his way. The embarrassment faded, but an inexplicable warmth curled into his chest and wouldn’t quite let go.
The maid continued on into the Regent’s quarters, never once so much as twitching a glance down to where a small blue shoe lay tucked into a pocket of her bolero.
An old-fashioned style of shoe came back into fashion for small children the year Gregor came to power. A few style icons from the High Vor displayed their children dressed in the shoes (a word dropped in the right ear, a fashion house encouraged with deep discounts on fabric) and suddenly the whole capital, and all the capital cities, were clamoring to dress their children in tiny blue shoes. It was practically patriotic, after all.
Gregor certainly didn’t know any small children, since none of his extended family had provided the next generation of heirs yet, and none of the mothers or fathers around him would complain of the high cost of outfitting all their children in new shoes in his hearing. Still, as he was paraded through the palace, the city, the planet to show off their new all-powerful Emperor (and wasn’t that a joke), he was soothed at the oddest times. He quickly became a favorite among those who saw him in parades; though his stoic face never broke into a smile, he could always be counted upon for a slight wave when a child shyly or exuberantly waved at him from the crowd, dancing in place in their best blue shoes.
The Komarran underground didn’t have a plan at first, just some smuggled psychology journals from Beta Colony and access to the Jackson’s Whole specialists Galen was working with on...other projects. They knew how often to use the shoe - or a holo of the shoe, or a reference to shoes - at just the right time, but to what purpose?
“We all know that line is chock full of insanity,” Philippe said.
“As opposed to the rest of that planet,” someone muttered in the back.
Philippe ignored it. “How hard would it be to convince him he’s insane? Push him to the edge - then over it.”
“And then what?” Galen demanded. “The Butcher takes the throne? My plan’s not ready, damn it.”
“Your damn plan,” Anna broke in. “We need multiple approaches in case you fail.”
Galen puffed himself up, but Philippe spoke first. “You’re both right. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a world of options before us, literally. Think globally. Galactically.”
There was silence, and then Anna laughed. They all stared at her in horror, but she held up a hand. “I propose that, like Galen, we think...dynastically.”
Gregor brought Laisa to stand by Lady Alys, both of them slightly out of breath from a sprightly waltz. Alys regarded them with equanimity that never once betrayed the mix of shock and bemusement with which she was beginning to regard the situation. “What a lovely dance,” she said. “And Laisa, I don’t believe I’ve told you yet how beautiful your attire is.”
“Thank you, Lady Vorpatril,” Laisa said, smoothing the folds of her cream-and-blue jacket over her red trousers, Komarran-style but nearly Barrayaran dress colors. “I love yours as well. Perhaps you could suggest some Barrayaran-style shops to visit if I have time after my presentation to the Council of Ministers is finished.”
“Did you see her shoes?” Gregor asked. Lovesick for certain, Alys diagnosed. Oh, my.
Laisa presented her blue-clad feet and Alys dutifully admired the shoes. “Quite lovely,” she said automatically. She found them a bit young, actually, but she knew her role. “Where did you purchase them?”
“Oh,” Laisa said, her blue-gray eyes sparkling, “they were a gift from my Aunt Anna. I’m so glad you like them, milady. Sire.”
“Gregor,” he said. Alys’s mouth nearly dropped open at the stunning departure from protocol. First names? Admiring her shoes? Well, this seemed rather...inevitable.
Laisa dear, she thought dryly, you may find yourself having a greater impact on Barrayar than simply its shipping taxes.