The first, last, and only time Ivan was top of his class was when he was eight and there was some kind of IQ/math/logic test. He didn’t remember the details, later on, just remembered seeing his name at the top of the list on his infant school door and being desperately proud for a whole five seconds before Alexi Vormuir made a joke about Ivan maybe be a mutie like his cousin and everyone laughing and Ivan having to punch Alexi in the face. Alexi began to cry and Ivan got sent home, and for a whole week none of Ivan’s friends would talk to him.
“Ivan, do stop moping!” Mama had no patience for people who got sent home from school for fighting.
“I’m not doing homework ever again,” Ivan declared, and tried to throw his school comconsole across the room. Because it was lovingly padded against the adversities of belonging to small boys, it landed with a very unsatisfying thup, so Ivan tried to stamp out of the room to improve the impact.
Mama caught his shoulder and sat him down at his desk with a jolt before he got even one really good stamp in and put his comconsole back in front of him. “Ivan Xav Vorpatril, I have had it up to here with your moodiness and temper tantrums. You will sit still and you will do your homework and you will write a nice letter to Alexi apologizing and I don’t want to hear any more about it.”
Mama, because she noticed everything, noticed that Ivan was screwing up his face to try not to cry rather than in anger, and promptly dropped to her knees in next to him, and said in completely different voice, “Darling? What is it?”
“No one likes me because I did well on a test, Mama,” Ivan wailed in to her shoulder. “Alexi was mean and Miles isn’t a mutie not really and you and Miss Porlous want me to be good but nothing makes sense and Tanya laughed and- and- and-”
Mama cuddled him into her shoulder and kissed Ivan’s head, and let him cry until his sobs settled to hiccups, then wiped his face and told him to blow his nose, and said, with unexpected gentleness, “Alexi’s Papa died in the Pretendership, darling, and his Mama doesn’t have a lot of money. I expect Alexi won’t be allowed to keep his scholarship if he doesn’t keep doing well.”
“What?” Ivan asked, still upset by everything.
“You know how you’re not allowed to go play with Miles on the weekend if you don’t get good grades?”
“Say yes, darling, not ‘uhuh’.”
“Yes?” Ivan corrected obediently.
“Well, Alexi’s Mama has much higher standards for good grades, and if he doesn’t meet them, he wouldn’t be able to do anything nice, ever, because his Mama couldn’t afford that and school fees. So he’s scared when people do better than him.”
“Oh. What should I do though?” Ivan didn’t really care why things happened, although Mama always always did and insisted on explaining it.
Mama paused for a moment, then smoothed his hair back. “Give Alexi a cookie from your lunch on Monday, and don’t mind that he was mean.”
“Should I not try to do better than people? Miles always has to be best,” Ivan said, a trifle resentfully. “And no one hates him for it.”
“Miles isn’t clever and handsome and good at sports,” Mama said, proud but also like she was worried. “Miles is only very, very clever. Let him keep being the clever one, and keep your friends, maybe?”
“So I’m not going to do my spelling then.”
“Oh, yes, you are! Not needing to beat everyone doesn’t mean you don’t have to do well enough to get into the Academy in a few years, Ivan, or we’ll be having words about that!”
“You will open the ball with Tanya Vorlynkis, and —“
Alys glared Ivan into submission and continued, “And Miles will socialize with Countess Vorbretton, who will not care to dance. Mind you don’t say anything rude about her son this year, Miles.” Miles sank down into his chair and scowled at his boot tips. “Ivan, after Mademoiselle Vorlynkis, I expect you to —” Alys broke off as Cordelia leaned around the doorframe.
“Sorry, Alys. I need to borrow Miles for a few minutes.”
Alys nodded gracious permission, and Miles gleefully escaped the briefing with a bound. Alys’ voice continued to narrate Ivan’s partners for the evening even as Ivan let his mind wander to the “studying” he and Livia had been getting up to last weekend while her father was out of town with most of his armsmen so no was likely to check up on them.
“Ivan!” Alys’ voice recalled Ivan abruptly to the here and now, and he blinked at her, scrambling through his short-term memory for whatever had just been said.
“I’m to open the ball with Mademoiselle Vorlynkis, whose father is voting against Uncle Aral, so don’t talk about the Vorkosigans with her, and then Madame Vorrutyer — she’ll want to talk about people I don’t know, nod and smile — then some of her friends and their daughters because she’ll be sure to introduce me. Take Lady Alina Vordorn to dinner and don’t make her mad.”
Alys pressed her lips together tightly. “In essence, yes. Let’s go through Miles’ schedule and you can pass it on to him.”
“Ivan, you idiot! Where have you been?” It wasn’t the welcome Ivan would have wanted, but it was almost comforting in its normalcy. The last three weeks, interspersed with Miles’ stressed and leaking theories and strategy trees as they had been, had left Ivan was the distinct feeling his mother would not approve of any of it. Alys would have expected him to realize what was going on, and she would undoubtedly have a way for him to fixed it that did not involve his being called an idiot in front of the full Council of Counts.
Still, at least it was an easy question, and Ivan always felt better about stating facts than spinning theories. That was Miles’ purview. He said, with a slight bow in the direction of the witness box, the kind his mother used for people she particularly disliked, “Admiral Hessman sent me to find Miles, sir. I did. Somehow, I don’t think that was what he really had in mind.”
Miles, apparently over his last-minute funk at the door, began stage-managing the whole thing with his best impromptu theatrics. Gregor, Ivan saw, looked a bit overwhelmed. If it hadn’t been such a bloody disaster, Ivan would have felt quite sorry for him — Gregor’s job was nothing but guessing what everyone around you might be doing, even worse than surviving Miles. Ivan shuddered, and listened with pleasure to Miles annihilating the Vordrozda-Hessman conspiracy.
And then, just when life had almost resettled itself into its standard run of political theater and lies, Ivan was staring down the barrel of Vordrozda’s needler and everything was suddenly the most deadly serious it had been. Growing up in the shadow of Gregor’s position and stories of the Pretendership and playing at Cetagandan War with Miles and Elena, Ivan had heard death threats so many times without anyone dying that maybe he hadn’t really realized that they could be real. But that was an actual needler, and it was pointed at Miles, and Ivan might be an idiot, but he was a well-trained idiot, and he was diving at Vordrozda before he’d really consciously decided to do it.
Afterward, Gregor bore Miles and Aral off for a private conference, while the rest of the Counts moved around the room conversing quietly. Glancing wildly around, Ivan-you-idiot echoed in his head in various voices, Miles’ and Aral’s most prominent. It wasn’t fair, Ivan wanted to wail, no one had told him what to do with anything about this situation.
But his mother would have known Oser’s connections weren’t to be trusted, of course, and Aunt Cordelia would have known what questions to ask to make the man fall into a puddle of shame, and Miles had seen instantly what needed to be done, and of course Ivan had just gone along with it because he hadn’t thought any of this could really be real. But someone had pointed a needler at Miles less than ten minutes ago, and Ivan had seen what a needler could do to a plastic target. The idea of Miles splattered across the back wall like so many shards of grey plastic, or worse Gregor, or Aral, or even that old clown Vorhalas, made Ivan feel cold inside.
There was a grunt next to him, and Ivan jumped as he looked up to see Count Vorpatril standing next to him. “Good reactions, boy,” the Count said, with a heavy nod. “Come along.” Ivan gapped at him before jumping to follow, getting halfway across the room before his stomach clenched up as he realized he’d obeyed with even starting to think, again, and that kind of this could really get people killed. Swallowing hard, Ivan forced himself to think — what would his mother say. Undoubtedly his mother would say a great deal about his behavior so far, but he didn’t think she’d having any problems with his letting Count Vorpatril settle him at his desk to wait for the Emperor to re-emerge.