He started having the dreams uncomfortably soon after he’d stormed out of the laboratory where the … child, he could not deny it that barest of civilities … had been decanted, soon enough that the residue of his disappointment and anger still clung to his every thought, while the regret and rage that he breathed kept his armsmen at constant alert and his friends at a distance.
He married a warrior, Olivia tells him, seated before him on the little ottoman she used to drag over to the side of his chair. She has never wanted to flaunt her height in front of him, but he has never tired of delighting in it, privately at least.
He married a Betan, he responds, and his tone is poisonous. She turned him into a lapdog, she brought that thing into —
My mother was Betan, Olivia interrupts. Her tone is without heat, but in his dream, he looks away from her, ashamed.
That’s different. She … you are different, he eventually responds. She says nothing, but her eyes are sad. He wakes up.
He found that the dreams varied.
She shrinks from the horse, and he snarls, inveighing at the useless Betan frill, until she turns — so fast, like a snake, like a horse shying from a snake — and throws him Vordarian’s head. It lands in his lap. Now it’s he who shys like a frightened horse, and the head falls into the leaves, then bounces over one of the Dendarii cliffs and is gone from his sight.
Don’t you ever ... cross me again. And stay away from my son, she says, even as exhaustion and death war in her voice.
I told you he married a warrior, Olivia says, her arms around his waist, seated behind him on the horse. Besides, you were willing to forgive me my lack of equestrian abilities.
That’s different, he begins to say, but he wakes up before he completes the sentence.
Every year, he burned offerings in Olivia’s memory, and that of their murdered son and daughter. The first year after his split with Aral, he stopped in the middle of what he was doing, chilled by the realization he could no longer remember what his dead children looked like without looking at their holoprints. He stood motionless so long that his concerned armsman made an abortive move toward him. He waved the man back and finished, then went inside and and sat, looking out the window at the front garden until it grew dark.
He is home this time, and the death squad meets a swift demise at the hands of his armsmen and his own nerve disrupter. One of them gets past him, though, and heads for the dining room where Olivia and Selig huddle, blessedly alive, with Aral. The man stops in his tracks before he enters the room, turns toward the curving stair as Galina runs down the steps to her father.
He can’t move fast enough. He’s paralyzed, limbs sticky with dream physics. He looks over to the dining room entry. When he looks back to Galina, it’s Cordelia, younger than he’s ever seen her, and still his daughter. She’s wielding a plasma arc that seems too large for her hands, but she shows no mercy to the man. His back arches and blue fire envelopes his head. He is dead when he hits the floor.
Olivia and the boys call to them, and they enter the room. Olivia holds out her arms, and Cordelia runs to her.
My warrior, Olivia murmurs into her hair, before looking at him and beckoning him to come to them. He realizes he is shaking, with fear and anger, and then he wakes up.
He kept track of what Aral was doing in the Imperial residence, although he made a point of staying away, and telling those around him that he was doing so. He ignored their growing skepticism, but that got difficult as one year bled into two, then three and four. Indeed, it became almost perilous to pretend he wasn’t paying attention, when his attention was drawn, as if to a gravity well, to what was going on.
The child apparently survived every ailment, every hospitalization, everything the world could throw at it. He vacillated between certainty that its existence owed entirely to technology, and a growing suspicion that it partook of its parents’ bloody-mindedness, some inchoate infant determination to prove him wrong, perhaps to best him.
He dealt with Aral as a Count to his Emperor’s Regent, of course. They were unfailingly correct with each other, even if the air grew chill around them when they spoke. They even worked well together on many issues.
But … there was always that ‘but.’ As time went on, it became more and more painful, choking him every time he thought he might try to warm the chill with some personal comment, some question about what went on outside their mutual work for the Emperor. What went on at home.
Each passing season told him with increasingly brutal clarity that Aral would win. He would die, and Aral would be become Count in his place.
He wasn’t fool enough to look to the cadet arms of the family for a new heir. Not when Aral was the Emperor’s guardian, which was something of his son’s of which he could be unreservedly proud. His boy had become so much more than anyone could have foreseen — and he, fool old man, hadn’t seen it, because he was too caught up in the past.
And years from now, but still too damnably soon for the honor of his house he thought, Aral would die. And the … the child, the boy … would be Count Vorkosigan.
It wasn’t Aral who would win, he told himself savagely on those rare nights when he picked up a bottle and indulged in some high Vor brain poisoning. It was her.
It’s not me. It’s us. Check your ears. Her eyes snap, as she stands in the doorway. She has no energy weapon on her. Instead, she has the sword stick. You’re not getting to him. Olivia stands behind her, inside the house, carrying the baby.
He looks behind himself, and there are no troops.
He looks back, and now it is Cordelia holding the little one, who looks out at him with his son’s grey eyes and Olivia’s black hair.
Hold him, father, Cordelia says. He wakes up.
He penned a handwritten letter to Aral, when he heard that the boy — that his grandson — survived the body cast and could now walk. It was the first personal communication he had assayed with his son in five years.
Aral wrote back, saying he and Cordelia would be delighted to see him for dinner. He looked at Cordelia’s signature, and wondered what Galina’s handwriting would look like, had she lived. He wrote another letter; this one invited Aral, Cordelia, and Miles, to Vorkosigan Surleau.
Olivia smiles at him and takes the sword stick from Cordelia’s hand. I told you, she says, but he doesn’t know who she’s saying it to. Cordelia smiles at her, then turns to him. She looks as if she is about to smile at him. He wakes up.