The doctor had been right; Ezar didn't wake again. A week later, one of his colleagues called Kareen’s private comconsole in the middle of the night, saying that the time had come and her presence was required. She roused Gregor and helped him dress, then carried him, still half asleep with his head on her shoulder, down the hall to Ezar's chambers.
When they arrived, the room was empty except for a few doctors and Ezar himself, wizened and still. Kareen tried not to look at him; instead she spoke to Gregor in a soothing voice, keeping up a stream of quiet, inane chatter to distract him from the corpse on the bed and the heavy tension in the air.
Negri joined them a few minutes later, looking strung-out; his uniform and hair were as immaculate as ever, but his hard face was visibly haggard, the circles beneath his eyes more pronounced than they’d been a week ago. He bowed to her and to Gregor, then took up a place in the corner of the room, as still and silent as a statue and almost invisible in the shadows.
Others began to arrive soon enough, Counts and ministers and generals filling the room with a thick silence, half respectful and half apprehensive. To Kareen’s relief, Vidal Vordarian wasn’t among them - even though she knew he had left the city to attend to some business in his district, she couldn’t quite rid herself of the irrational dread that he would appear.
Lord and Lady Vorkosigan arrived together, both looking more dignified than anyone had the right to look after being woken in the middle of the night. Kareen noticed Cordelia steal a glance at her and Gregor, her face filled with a deep concern that none of the Barrayarans present would have allowed themselves to show so openly at an occasion like this. Her husband looked as somber as all the others, though Kareen thought she saw his expression twist into something like anger when he stood at Ezar’s bed to pay his silent respects.
No one spoke for nearly an hour, the only sounds the shifting of feet and the rustling of clothes and the soft humming of the doctors’ machines. Gregor grew heavy in Kareen’s arms; he was drifting off to sleep again, and she resolved to let him doze until tradition required otherwise. She stroked his hair, and rocked him back and forth very slightly as she often had when he was a much smaller child.
At last, Dr. Isayev, Ezar’s chief personal physician for the better part of three decades, caught her eye from across the room and nodded. Some feeling washed over Kareen like tepid water; she could not tell if it was relief or dread, but at least now they could all stop standing still. Lord Vorkosigan had caught it, too, for he turned and approached her and Gregor, waiting patiently for her signal. Kareen spoke quietly to her son until he was fully awake again, and set him down carefully, holding onto him until he was steady on his feet.
“Remember, love,” she murmured, “all you have to do is put your hands around theirs, and listen. You don’t need to say anything. Alright?”
He nodded solemnly, his big hazel eyes - so like Serg’s and Ezar’s - shining up at her.
She straightened up and looked Lord Vorkosigan in the eye. Only then did the Regent kneel before the Prince, hold out his hands for Gregor to take, and give his oath, just as he must have given it to Ezar years before Kareen was even born.
The Counts, officers, and ministers organized themselves into the appropriate order without her help, and Kareen had nothing left to do but hover protectively beside her son as each one knelt before him. She glanced over at the corner where Negri lurked, and felt a little jolt of shock when she realized he was crying silently. Their eyes met, and he gave her a jerky nod. She inclined her head slightly in return; she could not acknowledge him more openly, not with so many eyes on her, but she knew Negri would understand that. By the time he knelt to place his hands between Gregor’s, he was perfectly composed. Gregor seemed almost relieved to see a truly familiar face, albeit a rather frightening one, among the collection of important men who had just bound themselves to him.
With Negri’s oath, it was over - for now, at least. The others filed quietly from the room, some murmuring to each other as they passed through the doorway, but none spoke to Kareen. No one even looked at her except for Cordelia, who seemed startled to find Kareen looking back. For a brief moment her face took on an expression of clear-eyed sympathy that made Kareen’s heart ache, but then she, too, was gone.
When everyone but Negri and Dr. Isayev had left the room, Kareen turned back to Gregor, who was yawning and rubbing his eyes.
“Is it tomorrow yet, Mama?” he asked, staring blearily up at her.
Kareen knelt so that she could look him in the eye, and took both his small hands in hers. “Not yet. There’s still plenty of time to sleep.” She held out her arms, and he wrapped his around her neck, allowing himself to be picked up again.
Kareen hoisted Gregor onto her hip and turned to the other two living people in the room.
Both men bowed as she addressed them.
“I am taking His Imperial Majesty back to bed. When I return, we can begin the preparations for tomorrow.” Much of the funeral had been planned in advance, of course, but it wasn’t like getting ready for the Emperor’s birthday; with death, there would always be some things that had to wait until the last minute.
“Yes, Your Highness,” Negri and Isayev replied, almost simultaneously. Kareen nodded, then swept out of the room as regally as possible with a sleeping four-year-old in her arms.
It was going to be a long night, followed by a long five days. But for now, all that mattered was taking Gregor back to his room, so that he could rest for a little longer without the enormity of an empire upon him.