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Padma Vorpatril is 10 years old and does not want to be adopted. He was perfectly happy as Prince Xav's ward, growing up with his grandparents. But the Emperor and Empress have not managed a child, even with the best treatments available on Barrayar. The only options left to them are galactic perversions that would never allow their son to be confirmed in the Counts. And now the Empress has grown ill. There won't be a son.

Padma does not want to be adopted, but he's Vor. He knows his duty. But he won't call them Father and Mother. His parents are dead and he never knew them, but he's not going to forget them.

He wears his Vorbarra House uniform for the first time as he's confirmed as Crown Prince in the Counts. He takes oath to the Emperor in front of everyone, in front of his grandparents, in front of Aral.

The last thing he had done as Padma Vorpatril was stand on Aral Vorkosigan's wedding circle as his Second. When Aral comes to visit him now, Aral bows to him, deeper than he bows to their grandfather. Aral has given oath to the Emperor and to his father. Padma is the Emperor's heir. Their relationship has irrevocably changed.

Padma understands. Aral has protected him all his life. It's Padma's turn now to protect Aral.



Aral Vorkosigan is the one man on this planet that Padma knows does not want to be Emperor. He's had two chances, after all. Uncle Piotr objected on his behalf the first time, and both the Vorkosigans objected the second time. But all that means is that Aral has no excuse not to obey Padma. After all, he had a chance to never have to do it.

"Just stop drinking," Padma says. He's tired of this. He's tired of pulling Aral out of bars. He's tired of pouring Aral back into bed at Vorkosigan House. He's really tired of the ImpSec reports he has to read through of what Aral's saying when he's drinking. He has material enough to order Aral arrested and held indefinitely. He's not going to do it -- it would be politically disastrous -- but nights like this, he's really, really tempted. Even Aral couldn't get his two main vices into prison. There's no alcohol and no Ges Vorrutyer in an ImpSec cell. "Dammit, Aral. You want someone to obey? Obey me."

Aral looks at him, still incredibly drunk but conditioned enough to respond to that tone. "Yes, my prince," he says.

And what's the point? It's not enough. Aral doesn't mean it. Oh, he thinks he means it, but then Ges Vorrutyer will come around again and Aral will abruptly stop meaning it. An oath isn't enough for Aral, not with that kind of temptation.

Padma needs to remove the temptation. Aral's never going to sober up if he stays near Ges Vorrutyer, that part's clear. But it wouldn't be enough to get rid of Vorrutyer. It's his entire crowd. It's this entire city. Aral can't go anywhere without a reminder of what happened.

The obvious answer is sending him back out on wormhole duty again, have him deal with pirates and smugglers until he sobers up and forgets how to duel, but what commander would want him now? Aral's disgraced himself enough. He could be forced on one, yes, but which one? Does Padma know any of them enough to lean on them? Count Vorkosigan could do it better, but Count Vorkosigan wants Aral on the planet to do his dynastic duty. Padma has the advantage of time, he's not the one in the rush for grandchildren. Padma assesses the ship lists and then one name catches his eye. Vorpatril.

Padma's never had much to do with his father's family, first by design of Prince Xav and then by design of the Emperor. Padma should have given his oath to Count Vorpatril as soon as he was old enough. Instead, Padma's been elevated over his father's family entirely. They could never be permitted to think that he would be obedient to them. He shares no interests of the House. He has no loyalty to it.

Padma considers how to go about it. A young nephew asking an uncle for a favor is out of the question. A prince ordering a captain might lead to questions. Padma holds no oaths himself; when he takes them, they're on the Emperor's behalf. The General Staff does not answer to him. He could go to the Emperor, but he won't do that, not for this. The Emperor takes no issue with Aral Vorkosigan destroying his reputation. The Emperor is enjoying proving to everyone that he'd chosen the correct one of Xav's grandsons for his adopted son and heir. Padma will have no help in this, but that doesn't matter. Padma's young enough that he has no real power base of his own, but what he does have in abundance is the future. And there are some significant favors attached to that.

It's demeaning for a prince to go anywhere to beg for favors, but Padma won't summon his father's brother for this. It would strike the wrong note. Instead, he finds Captain Vorpatril at his club. The guards on the door had taken one look at Padma and let him in, no matter that this establishment caters solely to officers, and Padma is sixteen years old.

He settles down across from his uncle and puts them on equal footing. He makes the case carefully. He'll be getting married in four years. He'll need a member of his father's family on the first circle. The Count's too distant a relative; Padma would prefer it to be his uncle. But Aral Vorkosigan will need to stand as his Second and right now, Aral Vorkosigan can barely walk in a straight line. He needs Aral Vorkosigan returned to him as an honorable officer, one worthy enough to stand for the Crown Prince.

His words are careful, his posture even more so. He's relaxed, arrogant. Do this favor, his posture whispers, and I'll raise you up beyond your family. Do this favor and I'll remember it. Do this favor and you'll have the Crown Prince's ear for decades to come.

His posture whispers, I'm young. I don't know what I'm doing. Do this for me and you can manipulate me for as long as you want. What's one drunken lieutenant compared to that?



The first time he ever shouts at Ezar, it's over Komarr. Padma's life is serving Barrayar, but he's never been permitted to be a soldier. Aral's been one since he was eleven and he's finally learned how to do it properly. He'll have command of the invasion. It's his plan and it's a good one. But Padma wants to be there. Aral's the military genius of the family, he's the one with the extensive military career. The extent of Padma's is commanding the Midsummer Review war games. He's done it since his majority and it took seven years before he'd gotten the Staff to actually obey him. He knows he doesn't have their respect. Ezar's philosophy toward Padma has always been to send him somewhere and let him fend for himself. Padma hadn't come into this wanting a father, which was good, because Ezar had certainly not come into this wanting a son. Padma's a successor, not a son. Padma doesn't forget that.

Padma's had twenty years of taking Ezar's orders, of swallowing every indignity. He's been an heir without being a son. He's been a military apprentice without ever serving in the military. And so he's determined to go to Komarr. There are still members of the Staff and both Councils who call him Vorpatril behind his back. Padma cannot inherit an Empire where no one respects him. Padma cannot keep an Empire together if Ezar will not untie his hands and allow him to do it.

"Out of the question," Ezar says, as if that could be the end of it. Padma takes a step forward and Ezar glares him into a step back. "Your life isn't disposable. I'm not sending you to war."

"I have three sons," Padma says. With three sons and two daughters, he's done what he needed to and more to make himself disposable, and he's done far more than Ezar ever did. If he gives his life in service to Barrayar, then he'll have done his Vor duty. And it won't come to that. Aral's plan is too good.

"Oh? And who do you plan for Ivan's regent? I won't live forever." Ezar's mocking him now and if there's one thing Padma will not take, it is that. Not from the man who did this to him. If Ezar had done his own damn duty to his line and managed a son, Padma would be a soldier right now. He'd be going to Komarr along with the fleet. He'd be serving with honor and distinction. He would not be staying home like a coward.

It doesn't matter what Padma yells, Ezar refuses to allow it. If Padma was ever threatened, every man would abandon their post to protect him. Admiral Vorkosigan can't handle the distraction. Padma lets the excuses flow over him and seethes. It's just Ezar keeping another contingency plan in place. It's just Ezar positioning Aral for the inevitable day he decides Padma was the wrong choice. Aral, after all, has been given the opportunities to prove himself. Padma's only ever been given tests and been dared to fail.

And then the invasion is sabotaged.

Ezar dumps the clean-up on him. Padma attends Aral's court-martial and has him sent to Kyril Island to cool off. Some on the Staff want Aral sent on remote duty with a few ships to get him out of the way and, for the ones who like Aral, let him earn his redemption, but Padma's reviewed the recordings from that bridge too many times. He knows that look in Aral's eye. And now Aral vacillates between angry and defeated. He'd been humiliated by Komarr, his plan destroyed by a political. Aral is dangerous in this kind of mood. And Aral still needs sons. Padma needs him on this planet if he's ever going to marry him off, and Padma won't be the Vorbarra who allows the Vorkosigans to die out. Yuri tried and Ezar seems happy to allow it. Padma will not allow it.

Aral spends those six months getting drunk and when Padma hauls him back to the capital to give him his new command, he thinks Aral might actually slug him.

"Tanery Base Shuttleport," Aral repeats. It's not a demotion. It's not a promotion. It's a chance to start inching Aral back toward the capital. It's a chance to get him to sober up on his own. Aral's a gifted strategist and a gifted soldier. Padma needs him to be a gifted administrator now, if nothing else, for no other plan, than because he's going to be a Count one day.

"What's your objection?" Padma asks, relaxed behind his desk, his feet up. He plays the prince to everyone these days, but he's not going to start doing it with Aral until he has to. He'd stared down General Count Vorkosigan over this posting; the worst is over.

"It's a mockery," says Captain Vorkosigan. "If you won't give me ship duty, fine. But don't give me this."

Padma shrugs. "Grishnov wants you in a Political Education prison. Would you prefer that instead?" Padma's been working on dealing with Grishnov, but it can't be rushed. He's already flexed more than he'd liked in keeping Aral away from his wrath. Ezar had sat back and let Padma do it. It did, after all, count as clean-up.

Ezar's testing him, of course. What would happen if the old man finds him wanting, Padma doesn't care to ask. As Ezar pointed out, there's hardly a good candidate for Regent around, not with the way Aral just killed a political and thereby torched his own reputation among the Ministers. And the Regent problem is Ezar's fault anyway. Ezar's reign has been mostly stable, but you'd never know it from the in-fighting between the Counts, the Ministers, and the military. Ezar's the one who keeps rearranging his government to suit himself. He's the one who won't let anyone have too much power. It's an elaborate juggling act meant to make it difficult for anyone to gain the support to replace him, but Padma is supposed to be his replacement. After the old man dies, either Padma will manage to hold it all, or there will be a power struggle leading to civil war. Sometimes Padma wonders which option Ezar actually prefers.

Ever since Padma had been young, there'd been whispers in his ear that he should depose Ezar, that his right was better. Padma had never seen the point of it. Even aside from objecting to unwarranted treason on principle, Padma objects to it based on logic. Ezar's old. He's going to die anyway. Why rush it along? It gives Padma time to see who is loyal and who isn't. And the men who want to use him, who want to stand behind him and make another descendant of Prince Xav kill an Emperor, well, those men, he watches.

Grishnov's one of the men he watches. Grishnov wants a war, any war, whispers in Padma's ear that the Staff won't respect him if he's never fought. It's insulting that he thinks he's telling Padma any great secret. Padma has known that since he was ten years old and told he was to be a prince and never a soldier. He's fought that fight every year since then. Since Komarr, he's taken to wearing his House uniform whenever he meets with the General Staff. Wearing military uniform invites reminders that he was never military. Wearing his House uniform is more pointed. I am Count Vorbarra's heir, I am your Crown Prince, you are sworn to obey me. Thousands of men have the right to wear the Imperial uniform. Only Ezar, Padma, and the children have the right to wear House Vorbarra.

Compared to that, dealing with Aral is always a breath of fresh air. Aral's already loyal, already trusts him, already happily puts his life into Padma's hands. Padma doesn't have to work him like he has to with everyone else. He can convince him or he can order him, but no matter what he does, he knows Aral won't use it to stab him in the back.

They're the survivors of the massacre. They stick together.

"Fine, Tanery Base, then." Aral finally agrees after ten minutes of arguing. "But tell Grishnov to keep a cell ready for me just in case I change my mind."

Padma smiles. "I'll be sure to pass that along."



Ezar finally dies when Padma is thirty-five and he considers his court. Ezar's used his illness to clean house, but he hasn't cleaned it as well as Padma might like. He has some cleaning up of his own to do now.

The problem with keeping Aral on planet had meant keeping him around other influences who were on planet. Padma's been too busy to babysit Aral, and that's led to problems. Padma had known better than to keep Ges Vorrutyer too far from supervision, so Vorrutyer had to stay on planet as well. Aral's older and wiser but not, from Negri's reports, sufficient enough to disentangle himself from Vorrutyer for the second time, not with Vorrutyer so focused on cultivating a favorite so close to Padma. And you can hardly get closer to Padma than Aral Vorkosigan.

He's let it go on too long. It's time to end it.

He summons Aral to him the night before they bury the old man. "You're getting married this year," he tells Aral. "Pick a bride and if she's suitable, I'll allow it. If she's not suitable, I'll pick for you."

Aral's mouth settles into that stubborn line that Padma knows so well. "I wasn't aware I'd sworn my dick to be obedient to you as well."

"It's supposed to be to your father, as should the rest of you, but you've been ignoring him." Padma's heard too much from Count Vorkosigan about this. He's allowed the Count to ask him for this as an Imperial favor. Padma was going to do it anyway, but he's always more than willing to let the Count waste political capital when he doesn't need to. One day, the Count is going to run out. "I know you haven't slept with a woman since your wife, but, honestly, Aral, it's really not that hard. You need heirs. I'm not letting the Vorkosigans die out."

"I'm willing to let the Vorkosigans die out," Aral says. "You don't need us. You don't need the Counts. You should let them die out. It'd be better for Barrayar."

There are times when Padma agrees with that, usually while he's spending days dealing with the council. But... "I hadn't known you were in favor of absolute Imperial authority," he says mildly. Softening that, he adds, "you also hate the Ministries, Aral. You really have to pick a form of government you prefer."

"I think the Betans have some good ideas," Aral says and Padma sighs.

"I'm really tired of getting reports about your sedition," Padma says.

"Execute me, then." Aral holds his head up high, as if waiting for the blow, as if wanting it. "Do it. I'm undermining your authority. I'm speaking slander. I'm a target for plots."

"And you're the only damn cousin I have left." Padma stands and walks over to Aral. He glares at him until Aral looks away. "You think I asked for any of this? You're my older cousin, you were supposed to be my superior officer. I was supposed to look to you for guidance. Instead, I have this. I have the Empire relying on me. I have your hands between mine. I know my duty. You should know yours."

"So that's what you need from me? A marriage?" Aral spits it out like it's something poisonous.

"What I need from you?" Padma ticks it off on his fingers. "A Vorkosigan heir and spare. A revived career. A position back on the General Staff or as my Prime Minister. Some political sense. I have very few people I can trust. I'm not wasting the ones I do."

Aral looks strained. "Padma..."

"Do you have any objections?" His tone doesn't allow any. He wonders if Aral will continue to push. He'll let him. He'll always let him. Aral knows his place. He just kicks a lot first before accepting it. But Aral meant every word of his oath and he will never break it. Aral serves Barrayar first, Padma second, and everything else lags a very distant third. It's precisely what Padma needs, if he can just stop Aral from self-destructing.

Aral slumps. "Who would you have me marry?"

Yes, he won't find someone himself. He's never shown any indication of wanting to and he's not going to do it without orders. "Kareen has a short list prepared. Count Vordarian's sister leads it. She's young enough for you, and that might get her brother off my back for a little while." Count Vordarian has a worse claim than Padma does. He also has no Betan ancestry in his family tree. But his House had collaborated with the Cetagandans and his Vorbarra claim goes back to before that war had even begun. Padma's tired of dealing with him. An advantageous marriage for his sister will either settle him or will force him into outright treason. Padma will accept either option.

"Wouldn't you want someone who didn't share a political party with my father?" Aral asks.

Well, Aral's certainly showing more political sense than he has in the last year. It does help that Padma had made sure he wouldn't be drunk or drugged tonight. "Right now, I want that bloodline closed more than I need political allies."

"The last woman I married had to be ordered into it," Aral says. "I won't do that again." As if Padma would ever repeat Count Vorkosigan's mistakes.

"Lady Louisa is a political woman. She knows the advantages of becoming Lady Vorkosigan." Padma holds up his hand to forestall the objection that Aral's first wife had known that well enough herself. "No one on Kareen's list has the disadvantage that Therese did. None of them are going to be attracted to you in any way. As you won't be attracted to her, I feel this is an adequate compromise. She'll have her friends. You'll have yours. With one, ah, exception."

"You're going to ban me from Ges?" Ah, there's the anger. Part of protecting Aral has always been protecting him from himself, but Aral's never appreciated it.

"Ban you? No. I'm going to stop allowing him. I'm still deciding if I turn him over to Lord Vorbohn's guard or Service Security." Or have one of Negri's agents alter some of the drugs Vorrutyer collects and then administer it to him instead of his victims, but Aral doesn't need to know that. Aral doesn't know the extent of Ges's actions; Padma had checked. If it turns out that trying Vorrutyer would bring up too much slander on Aral, Padma will give Negri the nod. Padma would rather deal with the repercussions of an Admiral dying in scandalous circumstances than with Vorrutyer trying to take Aral down with him. "I'd throw him to the Counts, but the only charge to lay there against him is killing your wife, and they'll approve of that."

Padma hadn't expected Aral's reaction to that. Aral goes death pale. "I-I had thought that was my father."

And that's a surprise; Padma hadn't realized Aral hadn't known. But it does make him feel slightly better. He's had a lot of suspicions over the years about Vorrutyer's appeal to Aral. It's good that that murder wasn't a part of it, that Aral hadn't felt indebted.

"Your father certainly would have done it if he'd had the opportunity. Vorrutyer got there first." Padma himself had only found out when Prince Xav had demanded the report from Negri, and Ezar had sent it along with Padma. It had been one of the last conversations Padma had ever had with his grandfather and it had to been to assure Xav that Uncle Piotr wasn't killing more women over Vorkosigan honor. "Do you ask for mercy for him?"

Aral looks sick. "I-- no. No, I don't." He's folded in on himself. "I-- Padma, by my word, I honestly thought it was my father. He, ah, encouraged me to think it was my father."

All to better drive a wedge between father and son, no doubt. "Well, don't go running off challenging him to a duel over it," Padma says. "I need you better behaved than that. You can have lovers, I don't care about that. But you can't have rapists and murderers."

"I'm a murderer," Aral points out honorably. Well, yes, Aral, everyone on two planets knows that.

"You were pardoned for the first two and court-martialed for the third. Unless you're hiding more crimes up your sleeve, you don't compare."

Aral's face somehow gets even paler. Padma hasn't seen this kind of expression on anyone who wasn't about to be executed. "Pardoned?"

He didn't know? Did Count Vorkosigan tell him nothing? "Yes, Ezar wrote one out for your duels. Did your father never tell you?"

"I-- no. No. I didn't realize-- that there was a cover-up involved. Stupidity of youth, I'm afraid." But Aral looks thrown, like his entire world has collapsed. Padma wonders what Vorrutyer's been pouring into his ears over the years. Padma wonders, too, a little guiltily, if he should have known better, if he should have known that it would serve Ezar's purposes to keep Aral in ignorance, that Count Vorkosigan cared more for maintaining appearances than informing his son of his political maneuvers. Padma, though, should have told Aral. He should have made sure his liegeman knew the state of his honor. Aral had done it to avenge his honor, but it had been against the Emperor's law; he'd just traded one dishonor for another. Aral should have known that Ezar had intervened, that his dishonor was known. Padma had been young at the time, but that's no excuse. He should have told Aral in the intervening years. Padma will do better.

"You were pretty drunk during that part of your life," Padma says, taking pity on him. "You can be excused for forgetting there's security on you at all times when you're in the capital. There were two direct witnesses for you killing the Minister of Agriculture."

Aral closes his eyes, like he doesn't want to see Padma anymore. "Why didn't they stop me?"

"That's not their job, Aral," Padma says patiently. "They called it in. But we don't keep security on you in case we need to arrest you on a moment's notice. By the time the question worked its way up the chain to Ezar, you'd already killed them both. They would, of course, have rushed you to ImpMil immediately if anyone had gotten a blade into you. Security is there to save your life, not your honor." And after that duel, Ezar had ordered increased security for all Ministers, but Aral doesn't need to know that his actions had changed Imperial policy. Because Aral's correct, someone should have stopped that second duel. One of the security team had later said that he hadn't thought Aral would go through with it, wouldn't kill a member of the government; that boy hadn't been Vor.

Aral's head is tipped back, baring his throat. Padma watches as he swallows. "Ezar always said. They died for one law. One law."

"Ezar also wasn't interested in killing you. Neither am I." And everyone in Yuri's massacre had died for Yuri's paranoia. Any later explanation is just propaganda. Padma knows why his parents died. "Your service both before and after those, ah, incidents has more than earned you some Imperial mercy and all the crimes were in Count Vorbarra's jurisdiction, so don't get any thoughts about turning yourself in. I know the worst parts of you, Aral, and I know the best. I won't let you throw yourself away over any of it. I need you too much."

"You need Lord Vorkosigan." Ah, so that's where Aral is looking. At the past. At the brother he's always been told would have done better than he had. Padma can't make that judgment, he'd never known either of Aral's siblings. But he knows Aral. The man's insubordinate as hell, but he's the most necessary man in Padma's life.

"Which you have been for the last thirty-three years," Padma says. Aral winces and opens his eyes. "We can't bring back the dead. Ezar used what survived, which is how we ended up here." Padma's wave encapsulates his office, the Residence, the Imperium. "You're the only one I can lean on, Aral. I'm afraid you're going to have to take most of my weight."

Aral's lips curve into a slight smile at the joke. Then he nods. "What will you have of me, my liege?" He straightens, awaiting orders.

"Your marriage, most importantly. Otherwise, you have a choice of your next assignment. It will be either the third position in Ops, reporting to Vorlakial, or the Ministry of Political Education. I would prefer Political Education, but I won't order you." Padma's already ordered Aral enough for now. He knew going in that getting Aral to agree to be married would be harder than anything else. He needs Aral to be married; he doesn't need Aral to head Political Education. Wants him, yes. But if Aral declines, there are other options.

Dealing with Grishnov had been one of Ezar's final acts. It had taken Padma's agents a full four years to find incontrovertible proof that Grishnov had ordered the political officer at Komarr himself. Padma had told Ezar that either Ezar could do it or Padma would, but that Padma trusted that Ezar could do it better. A bit of flattery for the old man, and a way for him to feel like he was giving Padma some kind of gift while he was tossing an Empire onto his back and telling him to carry it.

Grishnov had groveled at Padma's feet, had declared that it was on his prince's behalf, that he'd meant to discredit a rival for him. Aral Vorkosigan could not be allowed to grow so great that the General Staff might prefer him to Padma. But behind that, all Padma could hear was the sound of someone trying to get behind him. Ezar had never permitted himself to be anyone's puppet. Padma would be damned before he would allow it either. And he cannot have a Minister who puts his own ambition above the interests of the Empire. Sabotaging the invasion plans was not just an insult to Aral's honor, it was an insult to the Emperor's.

And Padma knows well-enough that there will always be members of the Staff who prefer Aral Vorkosigan to the Emperor they've been given. Four members of the Staff had gone to Aral when Ezar was dying and offered their support. Idiots, all of them, and they've been executed for it. Anyone who knows Aral knows that he has no stomach for treason. Ezar had burned it out of him.

Aral is, naturally, a terrible choice for Political Education, he's far too straightforward. But all Aral needs to do is clean it out, not keep it long-term, and he's ideal for that. And Padma knows Aral; the man attracts followers at the same rate as he attracts treasonous plots. He'll have a third of the men there eager to die for him by the end of the first month. Padma doesn't inspire the kind of fanatical loyalty that Aral does, but he can certainly take advantage of it. And once Aral has experience with the Ministries, Padma can move him along.

"The political officers hate me," Aral says, but he's been worn down enough that he just looks weary, not mutinous.

"You're the only one not scared of them," Padma says. "I trust you can get them in line. I still need them, but not in the form they are now. They think they're their own power. I need you to inform them otherwise." Negri also thinks he's his own power, but that's a much lower priority. Padma can trust Negri not to edit his reports; Grishnov would have lied to his face. Padma can't have that. He can have men whose ambitions are to be the keeper of all secrets, to be essential. He won't have someone turn him into a puppet. There can only be one Emperor of Barrayar.

"Damn you, Padma," Aral says, disrespectful but obedient, purely Aral. "Yes, I'll take the harder choice. I won't give you reason to think me a coward."

Padma would never think such a thing. He knows Aral too well. "Good," he says. "I'm sure you'll serve me well there."



The first favor Aral ever asks of Padma is to allow him to give a lecture on criminal orders at the Academy. Padma doesn't laugh at him or at the very idea of the Minister of Political Education talking about illegal orders.

"Where would you start?" Padma asks instead. Before he allows this, he needs to know if this is about Yuri or Komarr. Yuri had lost his son to fever and then ordered the deaths of every other descendant of Emperor Dorca. It had been monstrous and dishonorable. It also hadn't been illegal. Padma's had to deal his entire life with how the massacre is presented. It had been legal for Yuri to do it. Ezar had committed treason by accepting oaths. Piotr Vorkosigan and Prince Xav had been motivated by revenge, not justice. And then Ezar had won. It had put the massacre in an awkward historical position that Padma, frankly, hates dealing with. His parents weren't martyrs for some Ezaran order and the rule of law. They were killed because Yuri wanted them dead. Padma's ordered his own share of assassinations. He's well-aware that the only thing that makes him different from Yuri is who he's killing.

Komarr, on the other hand, is entirely about Aral's guilt and honor. That's acceptable.

"A legal overview," Aral says. "Precedent. Consequences. And then move on to strategies for resistance."

"Mm." Padma looks out the window toward the Square. He can't see it from here, but he can always see it. There's a man dying there now for calling him Vorpatril. "And what would you tell them to do if the illegal order came from me?"

"Your breath is law," Aral says and he doesn't choke on it. Padma's impressed.

"Yes, and to break it, you have to remove the breath," Padma says. He looks at the man who was first in line to kill Yuri. "Are you going to spread sedition to the cream of the Vor?" Aral says nothing and Padma smiles. "Let me guess. Someone has to?"

Aral barely shrugs. It's a good thing Padma had dismissed his armsmen. They'd probably have shot him for that.

"If you keep it entirely to Political Education, then it's in your remit as Minister," Padma says. Aral looks surprised; he'd clearly thought he'd be refused. But he'd asked anyway. Padma files that away for later. Aral's never asked for favors, too allergic to the insinuation that he's trying to rule through Padma. And so Aral's spent his life not asking for favors when he's needed them, leaving Padma to try to figure out how to give him what he needs. Aral is Padma's responsibility; if Aral's going to start asking for what he needs, Padma can stop trying to turn himself into a mindreader.

"I had thought to give it to the upperclassmen," Aral says and then lets his silence finish for him.

"Ivan's class," Padma says. Well, he can't fault Aral for ambition. "Fine. Try it out. If it's a success, I'll let you do it every year."

Aral looks at him suspiciously. "You're angry at the General Staff, aren't you?"

Padma's always angry at the General Staff. It just competes with the Council of Counts and the Council of Ministers for which part of his government he hates the most at any particular moment. He sometimes thinks they compete to see which of their members will be the first one that Padma has taken out and shot for annoying him. But there's no need to tell Aral about that; Aral has his own sources of information about tension between the Emperor and the brass. One of them lives with him. "I'd be quite happy to send them to the hero of Komarr if they have complaints about the Academy curriculum," he says. "Do well enough and I'll make you the Commandant of the Academy."

Aral doesn't look disgusted at that thought, Padma notices. Well, Aral's certainly had his share of proteges. Why not give him an entire school? Any request worth fulfilling is worth over-fulfilling, certainly.

"But do try not to get shot in the back by your own security for airing the ministry's laundry," Padma adds. There have been two assassination attempts on Aral since he'd taken over Political Education, but they'd both been before Aral had referred his first round of charges. Padma hopes that Aral's rooted out all the ones who want to kill him. He'd sent Padma his recommendations for the third round of charges last month with a note that this might be the last batch, so it's possible that Aral really might be in no danger from his own men anymore.

"I'll do my best," Aral says dryly.

Padma touches the signal for the armsman to come in to show Aral out. With a witness in the room, Aral gives a deep formal bow. "Thank you for hearing my petition, my liege," he says.