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Looking For The Face I Had Before The World Was Made.

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Gregor Vorbarra carries her mother's vorfemme knife. To anyone who knows about it, it's merely an affectation, a remembrance of the mother she barely remembers. To Gregor, it's the most important thing she owns.

She fingers the hilt as she listens to General Allegre, her frown deepening. She can't help the muted rage as Allegre reports to her about Donna Vorrutyer's little trip. Allegre notices, she can see, and his posture stiffens. He takes it as censure about Gregor having to be alerted by Ivan Vorpatril, of all people, that something was going on, instead of properly by her security service. ImpSec lives to serve and they've been outmatched by someone who wasn't even trying. Gregor doesn't correct him as she dismisses him. Let him think this is Imperial anger over ImpSec failures. That's better than what it really is. That's better than seething Imperial jealousy.

She reserves judgment until she has Donna Vorrutyer sitting in front of her, making a mockery of it all. Donna thinks she found a loophole to spite her cousin and decided to exploit it. Donna would never have done it if her brother hadn't died or if her brother had left an heir. Donna never had any interests in doing this otherwise. No, Donna looked to the galaxy to solve her inheritance problem and came up with... with this.

How easily Donna had done it, how little she had cared. Vorrutyers can make decisions like that. Emperors cannot. Gregor has an empire to consider, and Donna Vorrutyer, apparently on a whim, went to Beta Colony and did what Gregor would never be able to. If Gregor ever told anyone her secret, she would be deposed within a week, and now here is Donna Vorrutyer, flaunting it for three planets to see.

When Gregor had disappeared over the balcony on Komarr, she'd had vague thoughts of it. It would mean never going back to Barrayar, and that was a price she had been willing to make in the moment. She'd been thoroughly chewed out later for her selfishness, and she understands. Her life is a service she must give to Barrayar. Her honor is a service she must give to Barrayar. This... this mockery of Donna Vorrutyer isn't honor. It's the same instinct that had Gregor impulsively run away from home, but twisted. Gregor had done it for herself and for her honor. Donna's done this for an inheritance.

Donna sits there and asks her to let this go ahead, and Gregor could. She could let it play out and see what happens. And what she knows will happen is that the Counts will choke on it, and everyone else, everyone for whom this is not a joke, will suffer for it.

This is not the precedent Gregor wants. This is not the precedent Gregor has been trying to arrange for the last ten years. This is not the precedent Gregor was going to place before the Counts and Ministers, once she had crafted it just right, once she was sure this would be her lasting impact on Barrayar.

Donna's hardly the first Barrayaran woman to head off into the realm of galactic medicine, but she's the first one to bring this back to Gregor's doorstep and make this Gregor's problem, she's the first one to force the issue, to demand a precedent be set. Usually Gregor's subjects are smart enough to stay away, or have families who will welcome them back. Some of them have ended up inheriting family fortunes, but no one's ever done it just for that; Gregor keeps a careful eye on these things and she would have quashed such pettiness immediately. But only a Vorrutyer. Only a Vorrutyer would ever dare do this. Only a Vorrutyer would take something this important to her Emperor and waste it on family in-fighting.

And why not? Why shouldn't Donna be selfish, why shouldn't she make a plan that will benefit only herself? When Donna doesn't succeed in the Counts, she will still be a male on Barrayar, and that's worth it enough for her. Donna's been a man on Barrayar less than a day and already knows the benefits. She won't go back. After all, what Barrayaran male would ever make the decision to be a woman? Who would then come back? Gregor knows full well that she wouldn't have survived the Pretendership if everyone had thought she was a girl. Who needs an Emperor's older sister? Negri wouldn't have saved her. She would have died with her mother.

Gregor Vorbarra hasn't ruled this empire, hasn't served this empire, for this long by being selfish, by giving in to what she wants most. She's been the Emperor since she was four years old and she'll die the Emperor, either in bed or in battle, by assassination or by accident. That's her oath to Barrayar and she's lived it her entire life.

Vor women guard the genome. It would be Gregor's responsibility to cut Donna out of this before she could sire a son. The Emperor guards the empire. It would be Gregor's responsibility to not let this get near the Counts and ruin this for everyone else.

But Gregor knows Donna. She knows the Vorrutyers. Donna will make this a nightmare no matter what Gregor does. To crush Donna and all her ill-conceived plans, Gregor would have to kill her. And Donna's done nothing to deserve that other than do her best to ruin all of Gregor's plans. Gregor won't give in to the whim. She won't fully stop this to the extent of her powers. So, she decides, best to control it as much as she can. If she gives Donna a path, Donna will take it. If Gregor restricts this as much as possible, she might manage to avert disaster. She might be able to salvage this, somehow. She might be able to force Donna to serve the empire. Donna's pretending to be male now. Gregor can draft her.

How dare you, Donna Vorrutyer, Gregor thinks. How dare you force me into this? How dare you not ask me first? How dare you make this about Vor inheritance and not Vor honor?

But she opens her hands. She lets it happen. She'll see what comes of this. And when it collapses, she'll still be here. She'll find her way forward out of this disaster that's been dumped in her lap. She's Vor, she's Vorbarra, she can't do anything else.