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Shelter and Solace

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When they'd gone as far as they usefully could underground, Aral lowered himself to his knees and let go of both of his burdens. He set down the nerve disruptor first and paused to flex his cramping right hand. After that he loosened his left arm from around four-year-old Gregor Vorbarra, who had been arguably the Emperor of Barrayar for nearly an hour now. Gregor kept his feet under himself, but he leaned bodily against Aral and didn't straighten up until Aral used both hands to gently push him back a step.

Gregor went, letting Aral see the tear tracks that cut through his father's blood, dried dark across his pale skin. Kareen's last strike had been desperate and messy, and things were only going to get more so from now on.

"Gregor," Aral said, as gently as he could manage. The boy stared at him wide-eyed, not quite unseeing. Aral remembered being deafened by the sonic grenade and wondered if he would have taken anything in even without the physical damage to his ears, in the hours and days after his mother's murder. And he had been eleven years old, nearly grown compared to this child.

"Gregor, did you hear what your mother said, when she gave you to me?"

Gregor blinked a couple of times and then gave a tiny nod.

"She asked me to take you away, off Barrayar," Aral said. "She asked me to take you somewhere you can be safe."

Gregor was utterly still now. Aral was horribly conscious that they were eye to eye when Aral was on his knees. The boy had barely the mass of a field pack.

Aral had to try a couple of times before he could get the words out. "Now that your father is dead, and your grandfather, you could be Emperor."

Gregor flinched. Aral thought, Bright boy.

Emperor was only a pretty word for human sacrifice right now. Aral could press the boy into that place; he could take Gregor to his own father and let Count Piotr Vorkosigan play kingmaker again. They could raise a Vorbarra banner and fight for the righteous legitimacy of a four-year-old child's rule over three worlds. And if Aral managed to press that claim through on Gregor's behalf, what then? He could never step back once he had stepped into that role; for all he would claim to be fighting--and, if he were so lucky and long-lived, ruling--in Gregor's name, it would be his own hands on the reins. His own head would be in the crosshairs, for however long he and Gregor survived.

Serg was the second Emperor to die in less than a month. He had killed his own father while Ezar was still crafting his spider-web plan to kill Serg; tonight Kareen had done what Ezar had not managed, in furious fear for Gregor's safety. If she survived long enough she might try her own hand as Empress Kareen, or rush to the protection of so-called Emperor Vidal Vordarian, who had already raised his own banner, condemning Serg's too-obvious murder of the old Emperor. Three other claimants in various outlying areas had put themselves forward as well. Serg had been like a dog with two bones--with five--trying to fight his civil wars and still clinging to his glorious dream of a war of conquest.

Ges had managed to get himself killed in battle--by which side Aral hadn't heard definitively--last week. That was probably one of the reasons Kareen had managed to make her own strike tonight.

In the midst of all of that, Aral could put forward another claimant: this terrified, blood-splashed child. Or he could keep his name's word, given to Kareen an hour ago, and smuggle Gregor out to safety, joining the exodus of frantically expatriating Barrayarans. The news was everywhere that the IJC had secured one of the Komarran jump-point stations to process and evacuate Barrayarans without exposing them to Komarran vengeance in their vulnerability. That could mean safety for Aral and Gregor, if the false identification Miss Droushnakovi had passed to Aral could take them so far. Even if Aral was recognized and executed on Komarr for his role in the Conquest, the Komarrans probably wouldn't harm the boy. Aral's word to Kareen could be redeemed.

All Aral had to do was take away the only surviving legitimate heir to the Imperium and leave all of Barrayar to fend for itself. All he had to do was not get this child killed for a peace that he was no more likely to live to see than Gregor was.

"I promised your mother I would keep you safe," Aral said, when he realized that Gregor was still only staring at him in shocky, mute blankness. "I swear it to you as well, Gregor. We will go to Beta Colony. I have some family there, I think, and--a friend."

Some of the Betan ship's crew spent all their time circulating among the Barrayaran refugees, watching. The Barrayarans noticed it, of course, and Aral observed the various reactions to the watching: there were those who went utterly silent in the presence of the listening strangers, and those who began to loudly declare their admiration for Beta Colony, and a few who more quietly attempted to make deals or arrangements. None of these seemed to please the watchers. Silence led to yet-more-attentive watching, over-effusions to more pervasive surveillance, and quiet bargaining to loud protestations that destroyed all chance of subtlety.

When Aral encountered an unobtrusive Betan man who looked a few years younger than himself sitting attentively nearby in the refugees' commissary, Aral elected to simply ignore him. If the man had a question, he would ask. In the meantime, Aral was occupied with looking after Gregor, talking to him regularly as if he expected the boy to respond, though making no matter of it when he did not. He hadn't made a sound since that night. Gregor did not quite cling to Aral--if Aral set him on his own feet he stayed there--but given the chance he would scoot closer and closer until Aral gathered him up.

Gregor was as aware of the watching stranger as Aral was, and pressed himself tightly to Aral's side while they ate dinner. When the man appeared again the next morning, Gregor went so far as to tuck his face against Aral's side, silently refusing to eat. Aral pushed his seat back slightly and settled Gregor astride his thigh, looping an arm around Gregor's middle and nudging the boy's food tray closer. Gregor sat with his head tucked down, but he ate his way steadily through the bright fresh fruit and whole-grain breakfast bread he'd selected. Aral ate his own porridge and protein slices left-handed, and did not joke to Gregor, as he did some mornings, about wanting salad dressing with it.

At mid-morning the man appeared again, finding Aral and Gregor in the makeshift library provided for the refugees. Aral was reading a disc on the Betan political system, and his first notice that the man had returned was Gregor dropping the handheld puzzle-game he'd been working to climb into Aral's lap. Aral again put his arm firmly around the boy, but the man simply held out a flat object.

"Here, I thought you might like to draw," the man said to Gregor, offering him the tablet and a stylus.

Gregor declined to look at the man. Aral, after a moment, reached across Gregor with his free arm to take the items. "Thank you."

The man took this bare politeness for an invitation and sat down in the chair beside Aral's. Gregor shifted away, and Aral shifted his own grip to make a better shield.

"My name is Elex," the man announced.

He didn't indicate whether this was a first name or a surname or perhaps two initials. Aral gave a slight nod and said, with the ease of careful practice, "I am Vorbrocaire. This is Jasper."

"You're very protective of your son," Elex noted.

"He's all I have left," Aral said, baldly factual.

If his father had not believed the reports of his death, which Aral had heard announced along with Gregor's when they passed through Komarr local space, he had surely disowned Aral for his desertion by now. That was if his father yet lived. There was little news from Barrayar.

The reports of Kareen's death, a week after their escape, had been no phantoms. Aral had tried to keep Gregor from seeing any of the grisly footage on the newsvids, though he didn't know why he bothered. Serg had been clutching Gregor as a shield, as if that would ward Kareen off instead of goading her to decisive action. Could the sight of another body damage the boy any worse?

Still, Aral had covered Gregor's eyes or turned his face away from the news at every opportunity. It was another kind of protection he had to offer now. He must somehow learn to be a father to Serg's child. To Kareen's. That meant taking care for more than his mere physical survival.

Gregor touched his hand, and Aral realized that Elex had repeated Aral's false name a couple of times without getting any response.

"His mother was killed, you see," Aral said gruffly. "It's just the two of us, now."

Aral had idly sketched the outline a woman in a dress like the one Kareen had been wearing that night. As Aral spoke, Gregor was tapping at the corners of the tablet's screen, investigating the device's built-in options. He gave the woman dark hair, a shade lighter than his own, and he made her dress black.

Kareen's dress had been a warm saffron color, in fact. The spray of Serg's blood could have been an abstract floral pattern. But Gregor was correct. Black was for mourning.

Gregor found other menus with stock imagery and began to construct a background for the black-gowned woman. He surrounded her with flowers and candles and, oddly, a small dinosaur. Gregor scrolled through another menu of options, and his hand hovered for a second over an array of swords and daggers, and then he abruptly swiped his hand across the screen, making the image disappear before he turned and flung both arms around Aral's neck, hiding his face against Aral's shoulder.

Elex looked enlightened and reached out a hand to take the device back; Aral gave it up willingly, rubbing his hand gently down Gregor's back. The boy was shivering, his breath coming fast. Elex recalled the image somehow, and, as Aral watched, ran the making of it backward from Gregor's addition of the little dinosaur to Aral's first idle stylus-stroke, then forward again. Tilting the screen toward Aral, Elex moved his fingers slowly enough for Aral to follow--though not insultingly so--as he saved the image to an account keyed to Aral's identity, the same he used for meals and laundry and to enter their assigned cabin.

"Keep this," Elex suggested, standing and setting the tablet down on the seat as he vacated it. "It seems like it might be... helpful."

Aral nodded something that ought to look approximately like thanks. He waited until Elex was out of sight before gathering up the tablet and carrying Gregor back to their cabin.

He waited until that evening after dinner, when Gregor seemed as calm as he ever did, to bring out the drawing tablet again. They were alone in their cabin this time, away from prying eyes--or at least, away from prying eyes that Aral could look back at. The Betans could doubtless monitor anything drawn on the tablet as well as anything that happened in the seemingly private little cabins. Still, the Betan had been right: drawing had lured Gregor out a little, and he'd given Aral another thread to pull. Aral had to try.

Sitting on the lower bunk with his arm curled around Gregor, Aral navigated through the menus Gregor had found and used with such ease that morning. He found the dinosaur, and placed it in the lower left of the screen, and then shifted the screen toward Gregor.

Gregor leaned into him for a while, and then reached out a tentative hand and began to draw, using his finger as a makeshift stylus. He made a stick figure boy who towered over the dinosaur, then went back to the menu and added some other objects around them: books and a few other toys, a bed and a small table. Gregor hesitated there a while, hand hovering over the screen to show he was thinking of adding more, and Aral waited. Finally Gregor drew two women--triangles for dresses--one with dark lines of hair, one with yellow. The dark-haired woman's dress he colored red; the yellow-haired woman got black, but Gregor drew in bits of silver to indicate a House Vorbarra retainer's uniform, not mourning dress.

When Gregor drew his hand back, Aral reached out his own finger to point to the liveried woman. "That is Miss Droushnakovi, isn't it?"

Droushnakovi, Kareen's woman-guard, had gotten them out of the Residence that night, but had insisted on going back for Kareen. Aral didn't know whether she had survived the death of her mistress; he liked to imagine that she had, and was resourcefully using the hidden tunnels and supply caches to lead some sort of resistance, though he'd no idea what side she might choose to fight for by now. One of the handful of different People's Fronts, perhaps. She was a prole, after all.

She also must have been something like a second mother to Gregor. Aral twitched his finger to the side. "And your mother."

Gregor didn't give any sign of assent, but he leaned against Aral quietly, not objecting.

Aral drew his finger across the bed and toys and books to the figure of the boy; he pointed to it and then tapped his finger against Gregor's chest. "And you, in your bedroom."

Gregor kept still, but Aral took a gentle hold of his small hand and brought it to hover over the little dinosaur. "So who is this?"

Gregor didn't respond, but when Aral let go of his hand Gregor let his fingers rest against the image of the dinosaur. After a long silence he whispered, "Steggie," and then burst into sudden wailing sobs.

Aral gathered him up and held him close, waiting out the storm.

Cordelia had become a news junkie after her last Survey trip ended in a storm of debriefings and nondisclosure forms. For a while it had seemed like things were going exactly where she and Vorkosigan had both guessed: war between Escobar and Barrayar, with Beta Colony jumping in to support their ally. But before things got quite to that point, the Barrayaran emperor had been assassinated--and then the new Emperor had been assassinated as well a few weeks later, before he'd even been crowned.

A few days after that had come the news of the death of his four-year-old son, and six paragraphs down in the story Cordelia found, buried as an incidental detail, the mention that along with the child a Vor lord escorting the young prince had also been killed: Lord Aral Vorkosigan, until recently an officer in the Imperial Service.

Cordelia had forced herself to locate cross-confirmations in two other news sources, though it was clear they were all quoting the same reports trickling out of Barrayar, before she believed it. The second cross-confirming article had expanded a bit on Lord Vorkosigan's role, simultaneously sneering at the idea of him as a child's keeper and piously observing that it was Vorkosigan's karma for the Solstice Massacre.

Nascent shocked grief had boiled up into a pleasantly hot righteous fury at that, and Cordelia had immediately begun to compose a furious rebuttal. An hour and thousands of angry words later, she realized that she had veered badly from her original point. She began again, but the loss of her headlong momentum left her agonizing over every word, groping for some way to defend Vorkosigan without divulging his secrets or making herself a target for gossip. The last of her interest in writing a public response was killed by the dawning realization of how much news attention she could attract by claiming close acquaintance with a Barrayaran. Their chaotic civil war had become this month's hot topic for the sort of news that focused on hideous human tragedy. The vultures would come for her, and they wouldn't stop, even though Cordelia had almost nothing to offer them.

What did she even have to grieve? She'd had less than a week's acquaintance with the man. His precipitous proposal of marriage, heartfelt though it had surely been, could not elevate those few days to a romantic relationship. It had, in fact, all been in the line of duty. A blip in the trajectory of her life, decisively ended now.

She remembered Aral speaking of the prince's little son, and the political conundrum created by the existence of an heir so young. It didn't surprise her that he had been trying to protect the child. She went back to the article to search for any shred of a detail that might be found about how Aral and the little boy--Gregor--had been killed, and discovered instead that someone else had made a furious rebuttal to the original article.

She read it in some disbelief, feeling a baffled kinship with the writer, who pointed out that Vorkosigan had never faced an actual trial for any of the events of the invasion of Komarr. The truth had never been established, they insisted. It was both cruel and libelous to repeat the old smears against him now that he had been killed in a doomed effort to protect a child.

It was only at the end of the article that Cordelia understood how it had come about, since it rather exceeded the standard of mere Betan contrarianism. The piece was signed by a trio of elderly persons who identified themselves as Aral Vorkosigan's maternal great-grandparents.

He had told her that, Cordelia realized. He had said that his grandmother was Betan. Her own grandparents had waited until quite late in their lives to have their children, and her great-grandparents had died before Cordelia was born. It hadn't occurred to her that Aral's might still be living, but there they were, in their one-thirties according to the quick search Cordelia conducted. Faron, Miranda, and Nikola M'calister, parents of Judy M'calister, who had become, on Barrayar, Princess Judy M'calister Vorbarra.

Cordelia saved all their various contact information, and told herself that she would get in touch with them soon. They'd like to know someone who had actually known their great-grandson, and could assure them that their faith in him was not misplaced.

That was when Cordelia found herself crying. Not for herself, at first, but for these three elders who had kept alive the faith in their daughter's grandson, their granddaughter's son, and who had now lost all chance of actually meeting him. Vorkosigan was dead.

Cordelia shut the comconsole off and wept.

Inevitably, though, the time after the weeping followed. She had to go to work. She couldn't stop reading and watching the news, ever more absorbed in the collapse of Barrayar into chaos. She followed with minute interest the debates about accepting Barrayaran refugees, and when the call went out for volunteers from other public service departments to be seconded to refugee processing, Cordelia didn't hesitate at all before she fired off a request to her supervisor.

Dee came round to the little shared office where Cordelia worked on astrocartographic analysis when she wasn't out on survey. "Naismith? You sure you want to do this? I know you had some kind of run-in with the Barrayarans, that last survey."

That was about all Dee knew, or was cleared to know. Cordelia nodded firmly. "Some of them weren't such bad sorts. I doubt any of them made it out, being members of their military, but their families might have, or people they knew. I think it could be cathartic, really help me deal with what happened."

As Cordelia expected, Dee folded at the first whiff of an invocation of her right to suitable psychological support for duty-related traumas. "Oh, well. If you think it will help, of course. I'll sign off now."

"Thanks," Cordelia said, mustering up a weary, practiced smile, and went back to reading the news.

As it turned out, she didn't actually see the refugees. She worked in the shuttleport processing facility, but well behind the scenes, away from the security and social services folks who shepherded the refugees through their entry into Beta Colony. Cordelia worked in a set of hastily-established offices, processing forms. Barrayaran names--far fewer of them beginning with Vor than she'd somehow expected--passed through her fingers all day while she expedited their applications for amnesty, for housing, for training programs and work opportunities. She was getting good at sounding out Barrayaran letters--most of them signed their names that way--but she never spotted any familiar ones.

She'd been on the job a few weeks when one of the front-liners came to find her shortly after a ship began shuttling down its refugees for in-processing. Something in his manner suggested he was security, not social services, though they wore theoretically indistinguishable cool green uniforms. He was wearing a nametag: Duffy.

"Naismith?" Duffy inquired. "Survey Commander Cordelia Naismith?"

Cordelia nodded, trying to calm her racing heart, already leaping wildly to the conclusion that one of the refugees had asked for her. It was hardly a surprise at all when the man went on, "Handy you're here. One of the Barrayarans says you might be willing to sponsor him, but he didn't have any idea how to contact you."

"Oh," Cordelia said, trying to sound calm. "Well, I have met a few of them. Traveling, you know. What's his name?"

"Vorbrocaire," Duffy read from a report panel. "Leon, traveling with his son, Jasper. Says he never met you but you were recommended to him by his cousin, Aral Vorkosigan."

For a moment Cordelia could hardly believe that Duffy had spoken the name that occupied so many of her down-time thoughts, and then she stood, frantically trying to remember. Had Vorkosigan ever mentioned a cousin? She thought he had, in passing, a cousin much younger than himself. But surely that cousin had only been newly married, not yet a parent? Or was the child just an infant? What had become of the boy's mother?

"Can I see them?"

Duffy nodded. "They're in one of the holding rooms, you can take a look from the security office."

"Ah," Cordelia said. That wasn't what she'd meant, but it was likely for the best. She was apt to have some kind of hysterical reaction, especially if the man looked anything like Vorkosigan. It would be better for everyone if she got that out of the way before she was face to face with this poor refugee and his child.

"How old?" Cordelia asked.

Duffy frowned down at his panel as he led her through down a corridor to the main security office. "Says here thirty-eight?"

She'd thought Aral's cousin was about her own age, but perhaps she was misremembering, or this was a different cousin, or--"I meant the son. Jasper, you said?"

"Ah," Duffy said, tapping at the panel. "Four."

"Four," Cordelia repeated, and the alarm klaxon in her head was getting loud now, but she couldn't listen to that.

Duffy showed her into a monitor room and said, "Hey, Sev, Naismith here wants a peep at the Vorbrocaires, holding six. Possible sponsorship."

"Yeah?" Sev said, glancing up at Cordelia. "Lucky for them to know a Betan."

Cordelia didn't hear anything else, because an image popped up--not holo, just flat 2-D. A stocky man, not very tall, sat on the floor with a dark-haired boy. They were knee to knee, heads bent together over something. Their hands were moving in a quick, coordinated rhythm--it must be some portable holoscreen game.

Cordelia took a step toward the monitor without thinking, arrested by flashing glimpses of those strong, square hands. She reached out, touched her fingers to the screen, then made a quick finger-motion to zoom in the image. The boy raised a fist in sudden triumph, and then man leaned back, settling his hand flat on his knee. She still couldn't see his face, but Cordelia's heart was racing, her vision turning bright as a ringing started up in her ears.

"Can you," Cordelia said faintly, "turn on the audio?"

"Oh, yeah," Sev said, sounding absorbed in something else, and the little room was suddenly filled with the sound of Vorkosigan's laughter. As Cordelia watched the boy's gestures of triumph turned nearly into a seated dance. His head tipped back, showing a round-cheeked face not quite past baby-softness, and wide dark eyes under tousled black hair.

"Another round, then?" Vorkosigan asked, and the boy grinned and nodded, bending his head to the screen again.

"Oh, God," Cordelia said quietly. She had tracked down the few holo images that existed, and that silently smiling child bore altogether too much resemblance to official portraits of the young Prince Gregor Vorbarra for her to have any doubt.

Just then, as if he'd heard her speak, Vorkosigan looked up, turning his head slightly to gaze directly at the vid pickup. Just for a second, but Cordelia felt his gaze like a touch, like a shot to the heart. He was alive, and safe. He had saved Gregor, too, had not failed in protecting him at all.

He was here on Beta Colony's doorstep under a false identity, calling on Cordelia for help.

Cordelia waved her hand to silence the feed and put her hands down flat on the counter, letting her head hang.

"Naismith?" Duffy said from a long way off. "You okay? Do you know this guy?"

"He looks a lot like his cousin," Cordelia said, her lips feeling numb as her mind raced.

She had no idea how good Vorkosigan's false identity was, but it almost certainly wasn't good enough for this. Immigration was wary enough about the influx of Barrayarans that they were going over every application with a fine-toothed comb, and something was going to pop out here, if it hadn't already. Duffy had said Vorbrocaire was with his son, but one gene-type for medical testing would show no biological relationship between Vorkosigan and Gregor, and things would unravel rapidly from there. The further the lie was carried, the worse the likely consequences.

Cordelia shut her eyes and ransacked her mind for every biographical detail Vorkosigan had ever shared with her, searching for what might come out once Immigration Security got started. This had to be handled right, and it had to be handled right from this very moment.

"Duffy," Cordelia said, shaking off the first overwhelming flood of adrenaline. "I agree to sponsorship, if I'm who he wants. Do you have the forms?"

Duffy pulled out a report panel and handed it over. Cordelia scanned down the page, tallying up the representations Vorkosigan had already made under his false name. It wasn't too bad yet. This was only the pre-processing form. Most Barrayarans didn't have a hope of being sponsored by a Betan citizen; his claim on Cordelia had shunted him aside before things went too far. Good. This was retrievable.

Cordelia signed and then said, "On behalf of my duly sponsored refugees, I'm making a request for special asylum. I need an immediate meeting with whoever you escalate those requests to, plus their shipboard social worker. And I'm going to tap Anita Desellen as their advocate, do you know where she is?"

Cordelia had never met Desellen, but her applications were always perfect, and Cordelia had seen her name go by on a couple of special asylum requests before. She was the best Cordelia was likely to be able to muster in the next ten minutes.

Duffy's eyebrows went skyward, and from the corner of her eye Cordelia saw Sev swivel in its chair, paying suddenly sharp attention.

"Uh, yeah, I saw Nita over at Conference B when I came to get you," Duffy said. "Are you--special asylum, seriously?"

"Seriously," Cordelia said, putting a hint of survey-captain-command into it. "Can you get this started on your side while I go get Desellen, or do I need to talk to your boss myself?"

"No, uh, I've got it," Duffy assured her, shoulders squaring up a little. "You said immediate? Like--immediate?"

"Like right now," Cordelia said. "I swear to you, this is not going to be a waste of anyone's time."

She glanced back at the screen one last time, just in time to catch sight of Vorkosigan ruffling the boy's hair. Hang on a little longer, she thought. I'm coming for you. Just let me get all the reinforcements we're going to need first.

Cordelia's ten-minute precis of the situation left Desellen looking mildly shell-shocked, but the advocate agreed to represent Vorkosigan and Gregor.

"I'm not saying it's going to be the easiest application I've put through," Desellen said. "But everyone deserves to live in safety. We'll make it work."

Cordelia nodded firmly and headed back to her own comconsole to do one last thing before she went and laid Vorkosigan's secrets at the feet of the Betan immigration bureaucracy. She pulled up the contact information she'd saved weeks ago and looked at so many times since, and tapped out a brief message.

Please come to Silica Refugee Processing as soon as possible. Ask for Cordelia Naismith. It's about--

Her fingers faltered as she struggled for choice, but they were family. If they'd ever known him at all, it was as a child. It was for that boy's sake, if any, that they would help now.


Desellen had established herself with firm authority in Conference C by the time Cordelia returned. Duffy's supervisor came in, along with a harried-looking woman named Hart who Cordelia recognized as his supervisor, and someone at least able to make a preliminary judgment about special asylum. Just after Cordelia settled herself next to Desellen, the last member of the party came in. He had his hands in his pockets, and watchful eyes in an otherwise neutral face. This would be the shipboard social worker who'd evaluated Vorkosigan en route--Elex Tethys.

Hart and Desellen exchanged nods--they were obviously used to going through this process together--and Desellen began. "I am here on behalf of the refugee-applicant who has given his name as Leon Vorbrocaire. He requested the sponsorship of Cordelia Naismith, and Commander Naismith has begun a petition for special asylum on her sponsoree's behalf."

"Both of them," Cordelia put in. "I believe the child has a case for special asylum as well."

This earned baffled looks from Hart and her subordinate, a head-tilt from Tethys, and a sharp glance from Desellen, who had already told Cordelia that her job in this meeting was to speak only when asked a direct question by Desellen herself.

Cordelia sat back in pointed obedience, folding her hands, and Desellen said, "We'll address the child later. The primary question is special asylum for Vorbrocaire. Elex, could you give us a preliminary version of your report?"

Tethys nodded. "I'm not altogether surprised by the request, I suppose. Vorbrocaire certainly has the bearing that correlates with a lengthy military career, and I expect that he is genuinely of the Vor class. The other Barrayarans tended to defer automatically to him, but he was never one of those who attempted to assert control or authority over the others. In fact he tried as much as possible to keep apart from the other refugees. I certainly saw no overt signs of antisocial behavior."

Desellen nodded. "And his relationship with his son?"

Cordelia tried not to hold her breath. She hadn't had much time to consider it and she had no idea what Barrayaran parental relationships looked like, but Desellen had warned that this could be a sticking point--had been, in other cases she'd seen in the last few weeks. And that was without the little problem of the truth of their relationship.

Tethys made an equivocating gesture. "I doubt they're actually father and son biologically or by Barrayaran law." He was quite blasé about this, and no one else at the table reacted either. Cordelia dug her fingernails into her palms. "Still, they've formed a sincere bond. Vorbrocaire is very good with the child; he virtually independently invented art therapy with a very little nudge in that direction, which has shown promising signs of helping the boy to process his experiences. I would definitely recommend keeping them together as a family unit in the absence of certain evidence of crimes beyond the scope of amnesty on Vorbrocaire's part."

Cordelia did her best to keep her face neutral. Crimes beyond the scope of amnesty were going to be the sticking point for more than just Vorkosigan's custody of Gregor.

"And your general recommendation?" Desellen prompted calmly.

"I'd recommend therapy on both their parts, certainly, but they could likely both be managed outpatient, and there's no reason to deprive Vorbrocaire of custody and adoptive parent rights unless another claimant turns up. In fact once he's through his adjustment period I was going to advise Vorbrocaire toward my field, if he were looking to retrain for a job here. He has a real knack with the boy."

Vorkosigan as a children's art therapist. Cordelia's mind boggled a little, but she remembered that glimpse of him with Gregor and could almost see it. Surely it was the furthest thing from the politics he had wished to avoid. And most importantly, Tethys was speaking of Vorkosigan's long-term future on Beta Colony as though it were assured. But then he wasn't talking about Vorkosigan at all, and there was going to be rather a lot in a name, in this case.

"Which brings us to the pressing need for special asylum," Desellen announced. "Use of a false identity in travel is, I will remind you, explicitly covered under the general amnesty, and is especially understandable--indeed, practically universal--in candidates for special asylum. Commander Naismith, please explain as briefly as possible the necessity for special asylum for Leon Vorbrocaire?"

Cordelia looked around the table, took a breath and began. "The man who gave his name as Leon Vorbrocaire is Lord Aral Vorkosigan--the same who led the Barrayaran invasion of Komarr five years ago."

Desellen, braced for this, showed no surprise. Tethys raised his eyebrows and sat back slightly, which Cordelia thought was a fairly emphatic response from a social worker who'd been dealing unobtrusively with Barrayarans for weeks. Duffy's supervisor looked nonplussed; Hart closed her eyes, her jaw clenching, and then said, "The Butcher. You're telling me the Butcher of Komarr is here requesting special asylum."

Cordelia opened her mouth to argue, and Desellen caught her arm and squeezed hard.

"You have just made the substance of our argument for us," Desellen said. "This degree of prejudice against Lord Vorkosigan has entirely abrogated any hope of a neutral hearing in open court. The normal refugee-processing procedures would expose him to an unacceptable level of prejudice."

"He's a war criminal," Hart spluttered, and Cordelia folded her arms and sat firmly back, listening while Desellen parried Hart's objections with points about the rules of evidence and standards for various levels of amnesty. When Tethys came in on their side in a series of cool, neutral observations about Vorkosigan's personality profile, Cordelia felt the balance shifting toward their side.

It almost wasn't a surprise at all when, half an hour later, Hart finally said, "Well, it'll be up to the full committee, and I want him monitored in the meantime."

"Of course," Desellen said smoothly. "That just brings us to the separate special asylum request for the child. He is, in order of relevance, a traumatized orphan, Vorkosigan's second cousin--at this point they are likely mutually the other's nearest living biological relative--"

"Stop grandstanding," Hart nearly growled.

"And Gregor Vorbarra, who was reported murdered three weeks ago due to his position as a potential claimant to the Barrayaran Imperial throne. Lord Vorkosigan, incidentally, was reported to have been serving as his bodyguard and to have perished along with him."

Hart's jaw dropped just slightly. Tethys, looking fascinated, pressed his fingers to his mouth. Cordelia didn't bother to quibble with Desellen's interpretation of the terribly sketchy and obviously false news reports. It was too appealing.

"The existence of present and likely future threats to his life under his present identity will be quite straightforward to substantiate," Desellen went on. "And as a minor we can have no countervailing objection to him on the grounds of his own conduct. This should be a very simple question."

Hart stared for several seconds and then folded. "He's an applicant, yes, all right. He gets monitored, too."

"Of course," Desellen said primly, and then it was all over except for filling out all the forms.

Cordelia watched the proceedings with a rising sense of giddy hope until the moment Hart turned to her and said, "You're sponsoring them, Naismith? Good. They're yours now, get them out of my holding room. I've got a hell of a lot more refugees to deal with today."

Cordelia was brought up short. She'd been so intent on securing Vorkosigan and Gregor's safety for the hours since she first knew they were here that she hadn't spared any thought toward what to do with them now that she'd done it. As candidates for special asylum, the whole point was to keep them out of the standard refugee housing, which would put them in direct contact with altogether too many other refugees.

They'd have to come home with her. Cordelia pictured her mother walking in from her work-shift to find Cordelia had moved in two Barrayarans. Can I keep them, Mom? I'll clean up after them, you'll hardly know they're here...

On the heels of that thought came the realization that Cordelia was neglecting her own work--had walked away from it without a thought, despite the other refugees who relied on having their various applications filed. Cordelia pushed away the twinge of guilt. Anyone could process applications; only she could have gotten Vorkosigan and Gregor the help they needed.

And only Cordelia could go and spring them from holding and explain to them their sudden new status as Betan asylum-applicants.

"Ah," Cordelia said, turning to Desellen. "How...."

"They'll continue officially under their ostensible identities," Desellen said. "Temporary identification cards keyed to refugee benefit accounts will be available when they sign out. They have a special housing allowance to keep them out of the way of other refugees--it's all noted on their accounts. And I'll be in touch with you regarding further hearings and so on." Desellen flashed a crooked smile. "I also have other refugees to deal with, but this was a pleasure, Commander Naismith."

That left Cordelia alone in Conference C with only Elex Tethys between her and the prospect of retrieving Aral and Gregor.

Aware that she was stalling, she looked toward Tethys and said, "Is there anything special they need? Gregor, especially, what do I...."

Tethys gave her a thoughtful, assessing look, and then said blandly, "I think he's going to be well-disposed to any vaguely maternal figure at this point. I wouldn't worry too much."

Cordelia blanched at the thought of becoming suddenly a mother. And yet Vorkosigan had surely become even more suddenly a father, a few weeks ago, and according to Tethys he was managing it all right. If Vorkosigan's coming here was not merely his desperate resort to the only off-worlder he knew of, but some indication that that proposal she'd never responded to was still an open question....

"I'm not even licensed to parent," Cordelia blurted.

Tethys smiled slightly. "Well, none of the Barrayarans are, and they mostly manage it better than you might think."

Cordelia nodded and looked around her helplessly.

"He did also have to leave behind a dinosaur toy," Tethys offered, almost diffidently. "A stegosaurus, I believe. We didn't have any toys to give to the kids on the ship, so if you could rustle up something from the donation bins for him...."

The Silica Zoo, Cordelia recalled, had sent crate-loads.

The cell was very comfortably furnished, but Aral could not escape the knowledge that it was a cell. As soon as he'd taken the step of invoking Cordelia's--Commander Naismith's--name, and his own, at the flimsy remove of cousinship, they had separated him and Gregor from the other refugees, sequestering them here.

It was quiet here, everything soft-edged, and he had altogether too much time to consider whether he'd chosen wrongly when he entrusted them so entirely to Cordelia. She was wholly trustworthy, he knew, and he had no doubt she would grasp the need for subterfuge to hide his and Gregor's identities. But she was Betan, and her loyalties must lie there. If she thought he and Gregor were a threat to her world....

Aral did his best to occupy Gregor, and so himself, while they waited for the inevitable. The drawing tablet had turned out to be a nearly fully-functional comconsole, albeit one obviously intended to be used by a child. It had a variety of holoscreen games built in as well as a selection of children's holo and vid shows and books. When Gregor tired of playing, they watched the next couple of episodes of a Betan children's show that Gregor had become fascinated by. Aral watched it nearly as hungrily, trying to absorb this simply-worded orientation to their new world in the guise of children learning lessons about how to be good little Betans. He rather suspected that adult refugees were as much the targets of this programming as the little ones, and was ruefully glad that Gregor was still mostly mute. Aral suspected it was saving him from having to answer a barrage of awkward questions.

Those, he had no doubt, would come later.

They were eight minutes into the current episode--the children were just agreeing, as they always did sometime between the seven- and eleven-minute mark, that they needed to all sit down together and discuss the problem they were having in order to solve it fairly--when the door chimed.

Gregor, slumped in Aral's lap holding the tablet, tensed. Aral waved a hand across the vid projection to pause the episode and stood, setting Gregor on his feet and stepping aside to face the door. He planted himself between Gregor and whoever--whatever--was about to come through. He had no idea what it might be, and no way to resist, but he would do everything he could for Gregor, even now.

But the woman revealed when the door slid open was Cordelia. There was no sign of the survey officer about her appearance now; she was wearing decidedly civilian clothes, loose dark tan trousers and a brightly patterned tunic-shirt. She was wearing sandals, and her hair was caught up in a curling ponytail, tendrils escaping to curl around her face. She was smiling cautiously. Aral had never seen anyone more beautiful, and he felt his mouth widening into a smile entirely without his volition, his heart lightening with relief.

He remembered abruptly that relief was probably premature--even if Cordelia managed to slip them free of this place there would be countless hurdles to overcome before he and Gregor could disappear safely into their false identities. Aral felt his weeks of careful caution dropping back onto his shoulders like plate armor from the Time of Isolation.

Cordelia shook her head minutely, her smile fading into anxiety, and she stepped all the way inside and shut the door behind her.

"It's all right," she said hurriedly. "You're safe, both of you. You can come with me now."

Aral exhaled, allowing himself to relax slightly. They could debrief on the exact nature of their safety later, somewhere less monitored. For now.... Aral tore his gaze from Cordelia to look at Gregor, who leaned out cautiously to peer around Aral's hip toward her. Aral set his hand on Gregor's head, gently urging him forward, and the boy stepped to Aral's side.

Cordelia came a step closer, still not quite within arm's reach, and dropped down into a crouch that put her at eye-level with Gregor. She was holding some sort of lizard toy, horned and scaly, its colors showing a slight coppery pattern on a base of sand-brown. Cordelia held the thing out toward Gregor, and Aral's heart squeezed tight. He had no idea who she thought Gregor might be, but her concern for him was obvious. He remembered the carefully distant way she had spoken of her longing for children, and allowed himself to hope.

"Hello there," she said, not putting on the affected voice that so many women on the refugee ship had when addressing the boy. "My name is Cordelia. I'm going to help you find your way around here on Beta Colony."

Gregor looked up at Aral, silently questioning. Aral gave him a small nod and returned his attention to Cordelia. He hesitated, but she had introduced herself by her first name after all. Even if he had only a false one to return for now, he could extend the proper courtesy. "Cordelia, this is--"

"Gregor," she interrupted, and her mouth quirked into a smile as Aral felt his own jaw drop. Gregor's head tilted a little under his palm.

"I hope so, anyway," Cordelia added, looking from Gregor's face to Aral's and back. "Or I've just started special asylum proceedings for the wrong person, and we're going to have to fill out a lot of forms all over again."

She wrinkled her nose in distaste at the thought, and Gregor shook a little with silent laughter. Aral saw a half-smile escape onto the boy's face.

Aral felt a half-step behind, his ears ringing with the implications of what Cordelia had so blithely said. His lips moved without making a sound when she looked up at him again, and her face settled into seriousness.

"Both of you," Cordelia assured him. "Like I said, you're safe. The top-level people know your proper names, and you've been accepted as applicants for special asylum. They'll want to interview you and so on, but your advocate thinks it's a pretty sure thing. You'll still use the identities you traveled under for now; you might have to change your names again at the end of it."

Aral looked down at Gregor, who was looking up at him again, awaiting some guidance. They had already given up Gregor's birthright by coming here--and Aral had given up his own as well. Gregor would never be emperor, nor Aral a count. The houses of Vorbarra and Vorkosigan were already extinguished, as far as Barrayar was concerned. He and Gregor could yet survive, if they could just leave Barrayar behind.

"Well," Aral said softly, with the sensation of letting go of his last tether. "What's a name?"

And then--contradicting himself--he said a little wonderingly, for nearly the first time since their headlong flight began, "Gregor."

He could say that much here safely. Gregor looked startled by the sound of his own name, and leaned harder into Aral's leg for a moment before he turned his attention back toward Cordelia.

Cordelia was watching Aral with an uncomfortably thoughtful stare, but she turned her attention back to Gregor, leaning toward him and offering the lizard toy again. "I found this on my way here, Gregor. She needs someone to look after her, and I was wondering if you would like to."

Gregor cautiously accepted the toy, drawing it in against his chest. When he petted the thing's head, it cuddled closer to him, and Gregor made a small, startled sound and then grinned at Cordelia and up at Aral.

"She'll need a name, too," Cordelia went on, her empty hand now resting lightly on the ground. "Do you think you could give her one?"

Gregor frowned a little in thought as he petted the lizard, which continued to make various movements in response.

Aral waited to see how this would go. Gregor would occasionally say a word when prompted, and Aral thought he'd caught the sound of the boy whispering to the tablet when he woke up before Aral and played quietly by himself. He hadn't spoken to, or in the presence of, anyone but Aral until now, though. Aral searched for words to explain to Cordelia in a way that wouldn't shame Gregor.

Gregor preempted him by saying quietly but clearly, "Droushie."

Cordelia looked up at Aral, clearly wondering if this were a common Barrayaran name. Aral knelt beside Gregor and reached out one finger to touch the toy himself as he said gently, "You'll take good care of her, won't you, just as Miss Droushnakovi took care of you?"

Gregor nodded, raising the lizard to hide his face as he did, and Aral squeezed his shoulder and returned his gaze to Cordelia.

"Thank you," he said quietly.

She gave him a tempered smile back, still cautious, as she nodded acknowledgment. He would try to explain to her, someday, how much he had to thank her for.

For now, she started to straighten up, and he offered his hand. She took it with a slightly brighter smile, and didn't let go even when she was upright again. She tugged a little instead, tilting her head toward the door.

"Like I said, we're free to go now, if you'd like to get out of here."

"Yes," Aral agreed firmly. It took only a moment to slide Gregor's tablet into the small satchel of things they'd bothered to bring from the ship. They had only a couple of changes of clothing each, courtesy of the refugee administration, and a few other toiletries. Aral scooped up Gregor next--Gregor was still holding the lizard, Droushie, firmly, but leaned into Aral's shoulder.

Cordelia studied them with a smile for a few seconds, then nodded and turned away, opening the door again with a touch. She led them down more featureless corridors, away from the processing area they'd entered through. Aral and Gregor each had their palms and retinas scanned, and a bored-looking man handed over IDs and credit chits for each of them, along with a packet full of bookdiscs with orientation materials.

And then, it appeared, they were free. Cordelia redirected toward another maze of corridors, explaining that they were heading through a staff area to get to the most convenient exit to the garage where her groundcar was parked.

"My mother's, actually," Cordelia was explaining. "I don't bother to keep one myself, being away so much, but--"

"Hey!" A voice shouted behind them, "Naismith!"

Aral felt a little flash of despair--No, not now, we were so close--but that didn't slow down his automatic reaction. He shifted to cover Cordelia, herding her into the shallow cover of a doorway and sandwiching Gregor between their bodies, all before the shout behind them had entirely died away.

Silence followed. Aral was just considering whether to shift out of cover to check what was coming when Cordelia's hand squeezed down on his shoulder.

Cordelia called out, "Duffy? That you?"

"Yeah," the voice replied, sounding wary.

"Did anyone brief you on not startling the Barrayarans?" Cordelia asked.

Aral began to realize what she was saying and dropped his forehead to lean against her shoulder. Gregor squirmed between them, and Aral leaned back a little and hoisted the boy up again.

"Oh," Duffy said. "Sorry about that, Mr. Vorbrocaire. It's just these people were looking for Commander Naismith."

"Oh," Cordelia said, and shifted half out from behind the shelter of Aral's body, peering past him down the hallway. "Oh. Um, you can go, Duffy, I've got this."

"You sure?" Duffy answered.

"Yeah," Cordelia said. "It's better if you go. Thanks, though!"

"No trouble," Duffy agreed, and his footsteps retreated down the corridor.

"Aral," Cordelia said softly. "Back up, all right?"

Aral sighed, nodded, and lifted his head. He hesitated another second, taking in her wry smile, before he took a step backward to free her and looked down the corridor toward whomever Duffy had brought to find her.

Oh, he thought, in much the same way Cordelia had said it. Oh, of course. We're on Beta Colony, of course they're here. I should have called them first.

Then his brain caught up with what he was seeing: Great-Gran Miri, and Great-Grandpa Faron and Great-Granddad Niko, standing there in the corridor just like one of the holos on his grandmother's sideboard. Aral could swear that Great-Gran had been wearing the same brightly striped soft trousers in one of the pictures, though Great-Granddad's vivid blue sarong and gauzy shirt were new. Great-Grandpa was wearing soft pale-colored clothes like usual, seeming to fade comfortably into his float chair.

"Aral," Great-Gran burst out, and glided toward him--really glided, her feet not quite touching the ground. Aral thought, she had to get those grav-assists after all and then didn't think anything at all, because he was stepping into his great-grandmother's arms, hugging her for the first time in more than thirty years.

"I'm sorry," he said, feeling fourteen all over again. "I wanted--Father told me--I didn't know--"

His father had told him all three of them died in a lightflyer accident while he was at the Academy; he hadn't had a message for months by then. It had seemed plausible, and he'd been too furious with his father for not telling him in time to attend the funeral or send suitable condolence to his great-uncles and distant cousins to think it might be a lie. The old man had always disliked his Betan in-laws; at this remove Aral could see that he'd been embarrassed by them, ill-at-ease with their offworlder ways. Still Aral had never considered that he might have manufactured their deaths. He had burned an offering for them on the morning of his wedding, wishing they could have seen it.

"We thought it must be something like that, dear," Great-Gran said. She was light-boned and slender in his arms, fragile-feeling, but still nearly as tall as he was. She stroked her hand over his hair in a motion that felt startlingly familiar. "After Judy and Xav were gone we couldn't get permission to visit anymore, and our messages got bounced back. We thought it must be Piotr being difficult, but we always hoped you'd find your way to us--not under these circumstances, of course," Great-Gran finished, pulling back from the hug.

She studied Gregor for a moment--Gregor studied her back, showing a hint of curiosity--and then her eyebrows rose. "Aral, is this...?"

"Gregor," Aral admitted, because there was no way he could hide the boy from his own family.

"Gregor," Aral went on, "this is my great-grandmother, and these are my great-grandfathers."

Great-Gran stepped back, allowing Great-Granddad to step in for a hug and cheek-kiss before Aral stepped up to Great-Grandpa's chair and exchanged the customary cheek-kisses with him. Looking up Aral spotted Cordelia, looking baffled but tentatively pleased, a few steps back from Great-Gran.

"Cordelia," Aral said, and at least he wouldn't have to answer awkward questions about Betan triad marriage from her. "My great-grandparents. Miranda, Faron, and Nikola M'calister. I'd... lost touch with them, the last thirty years."

"Oh, wonderful," Cordelia said, with a bright, pleased smile. "I wasn't sure that you'd met."

"Oh, yes, we used to visit Judy when we could," Great-Gran said, stepping into her usual role as spokeswoman for her more reticent husbands. "We couldn't make the trip but once every three or four years, and of course there were the wars, but we did get out a few times, and sent vid messages more often."

"This is Cordelia Naismith," Aral said, belatedly finishing the introduction. "We met a few months ago, ah, offworld. She's sponsoring our applications for asylum."

"Hm," Great-Granddad said, with a significant intonation.

"Shouldn't ought to need asylum," Great-Grandpa agreed. "Judy willed her grandparent's rights to you and Padma back to us, you know. You've a right to be here same as any Betan."

Aral boggled at the thought even as his heart constricted at the mention of his baby cousin. "I don't know if Padma left Barrayar. He might not think to come here, even if he did. He'll hardly remember you, he was just a little boy when Grandfather and Grandmother died."

Just about Gregor's age, in fact. What would he remember of Barrayar, thirty years from now?

"We've been keeping an eye out," Great-Gran assured Aral. "There's no definitive word of anything happening to him on Barrayar just yet. But in the meantime, you should come home with us--Cordelia, dear, have you gotten an advocate assigned yet?"

"Anita Desellen," Cordelia replied promptly.

"Well, I'm sure she's very good," Great-Gran said, in exactly the same way she used to pointedly refrain from criticizing nearly everything on Barrayar when she visited, "but we'll just put some people in touch with her regarding Aral's case--and Gregor's too, of course."

"Of course," Aral agreed, looking back to Cordelia for a steady foothold in the sudden familial tide. "Ah, Cordelia was just taking us--"

"Yes, Cordelia, you come along too," Great-Gran said decidedly. "We'll have lunch and get you boys settled in. The guest room's free these days, and we'll get a cot for Gregor, and--"

Great-Granddad shot Aral the same old wink that had always meant, Don't you worry about anything when Aral was small. Aral took a step back and grabbed Cordelia's hand, towing her along as Great-Gran herded them back the way they'd come and out a different door.

After the initial shock wore off, Cordelia found the M'calisters easy enough to talk to, despite their rather unsubtle interrogations into Cordelia's suitability as a romantic partner for their great-grandson. They had an only mild tendency to treat him and Gregor as being about the same age--though Cordelia supposed that once a citizen had passed their hundred thirtieth birthday everyone under the age of fifty might appear to be roughly equivalent. Then, too, one of the first times they met Aral he had been Gregor's age, and they were entirely willing to tell stories and show holos.

Lunch was served in the pleasantly spacious dining room of their apartment. The viewscreen-window, when not displaying family snapshots and vids that made Aral blush charmingly, showed a pleasant desert vista tuned to the current time of day. Gregor was fascinated by it, and after Aral gave him permission to leave his seat he stood at the edge of the viewscreen, holding Droushie up to look through.

Faron turned his float chair away from the table shortly after that, inviting Gregor to come and explore the rest of the apartment. At an encouraging gesture the boy scrambled up to sit in the elder's lap, and Miri hurried after them to supervise. Niko finished his meal in companionable silence, then stood, winked, and sauntered after the others. Cordelia could hear Miri and Faron chatting with Gregor in the next room, but suddenly she was alone with Aral for the first time since his proposal of marriage, months and worlds past.

She turned her chair toward his and reached out for his hand; he grabbed hold immediately and didn't let go.

"Cordelia," he said, his voice rasping a little. He shook his head in apparent bewilderment. "I only planned for getting Gregor away to somewhere safe. I don't know what we do next. This is all--" Aral waved around the room, indicating his absent relatives, the desert, Beta Colony as a whole. "Beyond me."

"Well," Cordelia said practically, patting the back of his hand. "You'll have some help catching up. Various committees will fight it out over your and Gregor's status, and when the dust clears and you're a proper citizen, I suppose you'll have to think about a job. Gregor's old enough to go to kindergarten--they'll put him in speech therapy, I think, if he doesn't come along to talking again on his own. They'll offer you orientation classes and retraining and so on, no one's going to expect you to know how to go on here without support. And then you both just... get on with your lives, with no one trying to kill you."

"Huh," Aral said, half-disbelieving, almost a laugh. "That sounds... strange. But I actually meant...."

He looked down at their joined hands.

"Ah," Cordelia said, and she let herself feel again the exhilaration of seeing him, of knowing he was here and safe and... improbably available. "Well. We could try dating."

"Dating," Aral repeated, his mouth shaping the almost-foreign word carefully as he looked up to meet her eyes. "Is that how it works here?"

"Mm," Cordelia said. "Mostly. We could start with--"

She leaned closer, and he mirrored her so that they met right in the middle for a kiss over their joined hands. The pressure of his lips on hers was sweet and careful and new, and the second kiss was better. On the third, Cordelia scooted half off her chair, rearranging her knees to slot between his, and Aral curled one arm half around her, his hand squeezing tight on hers.

A peal of laughter broke them apart a second before Gregor, giggling madly, raced into the dining room. He was wearing a sarong, but the garment was adult-sized. On tiny Gregor the effect was closer to a sari, and not unlike a couple of the holo images of Aral at that age that had made him turn quite scarlet. It might have been the same sarong, actually; it was a style decades out of date, bright red with interwoven gold threads and a beaded fringe that rattled gently as Gregor pirouetted before them.

Cordelia watched Aral stare, struggling for a reaction. He turned to her and said, deadpan but with a smile threatening at the corners of his mouth. "Help."

"Glad to," Cordelia assured him.

She turned to Gregor, who had stopped twirling but was still beaming brilliantly at them, waiting for a verdict, and said, "Yes, sweetheart, you look wonderful."