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There always had to be witnesses to the birth of the Imperial Heir, as many as possible, who could swear on their name's word that they saw the child born and that nobody swapped the babies or played any other of the many dynastic tricks that had been tried over the centuries on Barrayar and on other planets. But this one was the first, Alys thought, where the mother could keep her dignity and her modesty intact. Laisa looked as anxious as any woman about to have a baby would, but she was fully dressed and the doctors in the room were entirely uninterested in her. Alys, standing a little away from the guests for a moment's pause, put her arm through Simon's.

"This is such a civilised way to do things," she murmured to him.

He looked at her. "Oh yes. God, yes." His voice was suddenly very intense.

"Were you there too?" Alys asked, casting back in her memory. She'd been with Kareen, holding her hand, practically the only person in the room who hadn't been watching her poor cousin's efforts to push baby Gregor out. She'd tried not to look at the crowd of men across the room, and of course she wouldn't have noticed Simon in any case, those days.

"I was watching Serg." Simon spoke very low, as if even the mention of Serg's name would be a bad omen today. "I wish I could have forgotten that day."

Of all the gazes Alys had avoided meeting that day, chief amongst them had been Prince Serg's. Whatever twisted pleasures he gained from watching his wife like that, she hadn't wanted to know. It reassured her, even over thirty years distant from the event, to know that someone had been assigned to make sure the Crown Prince's vileness stayed on a leash. But being that leash... she squeezed Simon's arm. His fingers twined in hers.

Kareen had been dazed with anaesthesia, but not so dazed she hadn't known that there were six ministers, four counts, an assortment of military officers, Captain Negri and Ezar himself all looking at her naked from the waist down, and she'd been fighting desperately not to cry. The room had been divided by sex, Alys recalled. She and Kareen's mother and aunt had all been sitting at Kareen's head, encouraging and comforting her as best they could. The men had all been around her feet, waiting for the baby. Only the doctors and the midwife had bridged the gap.

The only man Alys had paid any attention to at all had been the one who had been looking not at Kareen but at her. All Dorca's other descendents had been present then just as they were today, so that they could immediately swear their loyalty to the new prince, and Padma had been studiously avoiding looking at Kareen. She recalled his sudden shy smile at her in the midst of the blood and fear and anticipation. That had been when she'd been sure of him, and of her own heart.

She shook herself and looked back at Simon, who was evidently still lost in his own uglier recollections. "Those days are over now," she said quietly.

He followed her gaze around the room. They weren't quite ready to open the replicator yet, but there was a buzz of excitement amongst the witnesses already. Aral and Cordelia were with Gregor, who was even paler than Laisa, and Laisa's parents were there too, looking cheerful and much more relaxed in the Imperial Residence than they had the first time Alys had escorted them here. And Laisa herself was standing by the replicator and smiling, eagerly, nervously.

"It makes me feel it was all worth it," Simon said after a while as they watched the happy crowd. "All the struggles, all the grief, so that we could get to here."

"Progress," Alys agreed. "Step by painful step."

She looked at Gregor and Laisa, now holding hands and listening to the doctor's description of what was happening as they prepared the Crown Prince for his venture into the world, and wished Kareen could have lived to see this day.