"If you're not careful," the Dowager Countess Vorlightly said, gesticulating with her cane for emphasis, "you're going to find yourself with a little cuckoo in your nest one day." She set the cane down again. "I'll have that tea now, thank you."
Piotr had survived the Dendarii mountains by never letting himself be ambushed, and old habits died hard, even when it was an old friend in his drawing-room and not a Ceta drone overhead. He nodded to Armsman Tomas, who created a suitable diversion by pouring tea for the Dowager, giving Piotr a chance to lean back in his armchair and look unworried. "It won't come to that. Irina's wild, but not stupid. She knows her life would be forfeit, and the child's too, if she tried something like that."
"Well, Aral had better make an effort whilst he's home on leave. She's been far too blatant with that Vorhalas boy, these past few months. A bit of flirting is one thing, but someone needs to teach her where the line is. What's Aral thinking to let her get away with that kind of behaviour? He had better beat her."
Piotr had been tempted to pay a visit to Irina with a horsewhip a few times himself. He would be within his rights, but Aral wouldn't like it, and he didn't think he could push Aral much further at the moment. When Piotr had been twenty, he'd been rallying men in the District, not fooling about on spaceships and being cuckolded by his wife, but this new generation was weak.
"Her bloodlines are good, I suppose," the Dowager went on, "but really, Piotr. Someone a bit plainer and steadier would have done the trick just as well, and they could both carry on how they chose after he got an heir on her." She took a decisive sip of tea.
"A few pregnancies will put an end to all this nonsense," Piotr said. Though he did wonder sometimes whether Aral was even trying. He'd chosen Irina for her similarity to her brother, thinking that would attract Aral even against his inclinations. It wasn't that difficult to plough a girl, really, even if you didn't care for it, and Aral knew his duty.
"If they ever get that far. And she ought to be living in Vorkosigan House with you, at least whilst Aral is away," the Dowager said. "These modern ways just lead to trouble. You've no shortage of space here, even if your drains aren't what they should be."
"The apartment was part of her dowry," Piotr said pacifically. He didn't want to defend this, but House solidarity demanded it. He'd tried repeatedly to persuade Aral to bring his bride home in the proper fashion. They could have had an entire wing of the house to themselves, but Irina had cried, and Aral had glared at him, and that had been the end of that argument. He'd thought her emotionalism might be a sign she was expecting, and had been willing to indulge her whims. That was before he had come to know her ways.
"Be that as it may," the Dowager said, setting down her teacup, "you ought to know what I heard about last night."
Piotr leaned forwards a little. Now the Dowager was getting to her point. Piotr had ears all around the city, but the Dowager Countess Vorlightly had better ones.
"Lady Vorkosigan," she spat the name, "was flirting with everyone in trousers at Lisette's ball, and instead of pulling her back in line, your boy went off to drown his sorrows with that dreadful Vorrutyer. At the end of the evening they poured him onto a shuttle and he went back to sleep on his ship. His first night back after jauntering around in space, and he didn't spend it at home with his wife. There's trouble there, Piotr, and you'd better sort it out quickly." She levered herself to her feet, and Piotr perforce stood as well. "I'm telling you this as a friend. Aral is going to be the laughingstock of the city if this carries on."
After he had bowed the Dowager into her antique travelling carriage, Piotr called Tomas to him.
Tomas was Piotr's half-uncle, son of one of his grandfather's many bastards, but they were much the same age, and Tomas had served with Piotr against the Cetas, then been made an Armsman. The night Yuri's men came, Piotr had thrown little Aral to Tomas, and Aral had survived. Few men were as deep in Piotr's confidence as Tomas, and there were few he trusted so absolutely.
"You heard all that?" he said. Tomas nodded. "I think she's on to something. I'm going to attach you to Lord Aral. Find out when he comes back groundside and follow him, watch where he goes and who he talks to. And stay close. There will be trouble."
After Yuri and the Cetagandans, Vorbarr Sultana politics had been supremely dull for Piotr. Low stakes, minimal action and nothing that took him more than a minute at worst to think through before he knew how to solve it. Now, for the first time in years, he felt like he was in combat again.
He waited in the antechamber. Tomas had failed him for the first time, had lost Aral's trail, then picked it up again too late to stop the duels. Piotr had been incandescent with anger, mostly at Aral, though Tomas had been fortunate not to be reporting in person, because Piotr might have shot him on the spot for his failure. He had calmed a little about that now, and at least he had the information. But how could Aral have done this? Now, now his son decided to remember he was Vor? And so now Piotr had to fight for his son's life.
Ezar didn't keep him waiting long. The message Piotr had sent him had been short and impossible for Ezar to ignore, an old Resistance code meaning urgent report. Piotr felt the familiar pre-battle thrill as he was ushered into Ezar's most private office.
Ezar was standing by the window, leaning against the wall with his arms folded. Piotr recognised the posture as his own.
"Ezar," Piotr said without preamble, "my son has just killed two men in duels. Lord Tallin Vorhalas and the Minister for Heavy Industry."
He didn't address Ezar as 'sire' for this. He wanted to talk to the man who had saluted him in the Dendarii hills, not the man he had put on the throne. But he'd trained Ezar too well.
"My lord count," the Emperor said mildly. "This is a very serious matter."
"You're going to miss Ivor?" Piotr shot back in automatic deflection.
"No, I confess that is a public service," Ezar said. "The boy's had enough of his wife's games, has he? I've been wondering how long it would take him to crack. Is she still alive?"
"Yes. They had a scene afterwards, and he's gone back up to his ship." Piotr was frankly amazed Tomas hadn't had to stop Aral from turning himself over to the municipal guard in a blaze of self-immolatory glory. But Aral had retreated to his spaceship again. Piotr suspected that in the final analysis, Aral loved space and his ship a good deal more than his wife.
"Is she pregnant?"
"No." He watched Ezar's face, waiting for his moment, but Ezar was still toying with him. Not many people could read the Emperor, but Piotr had several unfair advantages at that.
"Ivor's no loss," Ezar said, "and won't be a problem, but you'd have trouble buying off Vorhalas."
"I know. If you wish, I will send Aral off-world for a time." Tomas was making the necessary preparations now, just in case. Always have a line of retreat.
Ezar shook his head. "I want him under my eye. You say he's loyal and knows his duty, but I want to see him for myself."
"As you wish." Piotr drew breath and launched his true volley. "They killed each other," he said. "They fought over Irina, and killed each other."
Ezar raised an eyebrow. "Five minutes of the most basic forensic examination will blow that out of the sky."
"I know. It's an ImpSec matter, though, because of Ivor. Or it could be. And then the forensics say whatever they need to say."
Ezar looked at him for a while, and suddenly, alarmingly, Piotr couldn't read him at all. "You ask a great deal."
Piotr said nothing, waiting.
"There will be a price."
Piotr would pay any price for Aral, and Ezar knew it. Ezar would pay any price for his own son, however unsatisfactory he might be. He gave a short nod.
"I've been your boy long enough," Ezar said. "I've seen you use it time after time in the Council, with the Ministers, with me. General Count Piotr Vorkosigan, the kingmaker, so powerful he can put his protégé on the throne and pull the strings from the shadows. You can't play that card again. No more anecdotes about the civil war, no more funny stories from the Dendarii mountain days. You'll bend your neck to me, all the way."
Ezar was watching him, eyes bright and hard and shrewd. Imperial. The promise Piotr had seen in him so many years ago was fulfilled now. His knees creaking, Piotr lowered himself to the carpet and bowed his head. "I beg you, sire, for my son's life," he said to Ezar's booted feet.
Ezar's hands touched his head, a familiar caress, now reversed. He said nothing crude, but Piotr knew what they both were thinking, what they were both remembering from those years together in the caves.
"You shall have it," Ezar said. "I'll talk to Negri." He laid a hand on Piotr's face, turning it upwards to meet his eye. Piotr gazed up at his Emperor. Only for Aral would he have submitted like this to a man who had once submitted to him. Not that the boy would understand or even know. At last, Ezar gave a thin-lipped smile and pulled Piotr to his feet.
"But you still have a witness," Ezar said after a moment. Magnanimous in victory, he added, "Negri can handle that for you as well, if you like."
Piotr raised his chin, drawing a line. Ezar had what he had asked for; Piotr would not give an inch more. "No. She's mine. I gave her to Aral; I'll clean this up." He only wished he could deal with the brother at the same time. But Count Vorrutyer would acknowledge Piotr's authority over a daughter of his line who had married into House Vorkosigan. The same was not true of a son. Why couldn't Aral fool around with District girls or prostitutes like a decent Vor? Not that Piotr had always followed those rules himself. His eyes flicked back to Ezar, remembering. But the balance of power in the room had changed irrevocably now, and those days were over.
"People will still talk," Ezar said. "I can't do anything about that."
Piotr's only answer to that was a shrug. If people thought Aral had killed them all and got clean away with it, they'd leave him alone. If they didn't, they'd see him as negligible, not worth bothering about. Either way he was safe. Piotr's objective was accomplished here. He would have turned to leave, but remembered himself in time. He had to wait to be dismissed now.
"Well then," Ezar said, his eyes glinting in a way that made clear he had noticed Piotr's aborted departure, "I believe this concludes our conference. You will have much to do." He extended his hand to Piotr. It took a moment for Piotr to recognise the gesture and its meaning. He hadn't seen this done since he'd been a boy at Emperor Dorca's court. A final test for him. With as much grace as his joints allowed, he dropped to one knee and kissed the Imperial Seal on Ezar's finger.
Ezar smiled slightly and touched the comm link on his wrist. "Send Negri to me at once," he said, and Piotr knew he had passed.
He left the office and made his way out towards his groundcar. It had been a high price for Aral's life, but Piotr didn't grudge it. Aral was the only child he had left, and there was nothing Piotr would not do to protect him, and protect the future of his line. If it had a future. With Irina out of the way, Aral would have to marry again, and that would be as delicate a minefield to negotiate as any Piotr had fought in. But he had saved House Vorkosigan for today. Tomorrow would have to wait.