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1.

Padma goes a virgin to his wedding night.

It's deliberate. He tells his grandmother that it's because he wants to meet Kareen as an equal and doesn't want to indulge in the double standard that his grandmother so abhors. But it's more than that. People talk too much at court. He doesn't want anyone to have the tale of the Crown Prince's first time. He doesn't trust anyone to be that discreet and not keep the tale for later use. Aral's suggestion of taking him to the caravanserai was even worse. Padma won't sleep with someone who will use the tale for political gain; he's certainly not going to sleep with someone who would use it for financial gain.

He's not sure if his bride is aware of this. He's had limited chances to talk to Kareen. Everything is arranged and Padma's input has been needed for none of it. The betrothal is announced on the day of Padma's majority and he goes to his wedding circle six months later. It's a highly-choreographed display of Imperial ceremony and by the time they make it to the marriage bed, Padma's exhausted. He's certainly in no mood to be able to give a proper showing of himself.

But even in the Emperor's favorite retreat, the servants gossip. Someone is going to see the sheets and try to guess what happened; they'll notice if nothing has. But Padma would rather have sex with his wife for the first time under better circumstances.

He's been ordered to sleep with her, but she's also been ordered to sleep with him. It's probably the most equal Padma will ever get in bed with a lover, both of them obedient to a greater power. But just because it's arranged and it's mandatory doesn't mean the first time has to be terrible. Padma wants to be romantic about it and there's no romance in this wedding night.

"My lady," he says, "I mean no slight to you, but if we could wait, I promise to give a better account of myself than if we don't."

Kareen smiles carefully at him, clearly unsure if this is some kind of game or a test. And for Ezar, it would be. But everything is a test with Ezar. Padma resolved long ago to never be like his adopted father.

"I propose I deal with myself quickly, so the sheets testify to the union, and then we can both sleep off this wedding and get a proper start tomorrow on the marriage." That seems a reasonable offer, Padma thinks. He doesn't know what fully soiled sheets should look like, but he can manage to make a mess enough that no one will doubt that something occurred.

"As you wish, my lord," Kareen says, which is the best Padma is probably going to get before they know each other better.

Padma rolls onto his side and fists his cock. He's tired, but he doesn't need to perform. He closes his eyes and gets through it.

Padma redeems his word the following night. His grandmother had ordered him to be attentive to his bride, so Padma makes sure to bring Kareen to completion twice with his mouth. It takes some managing, but eventually Padma learns, obeying his wife's directions. There's a triumph to it that Padma's usually only felt on the shooting range or training with his armsmen. He doesn't know why all the men make jokes about this; it's really not that hard, now that he has the knack of it.

But when it comes to the act itself, he barely manages it. It would be one thing if he went too soon; he'd been told that would be normal. But he can hardly maintain the erection. He hopes Kareen doesn't notice.

After that embarrassment, he does get Kareen another orgasm with his fingers, so it wasn't all a shame to his name. But he's going to have to fix this or he's going to grow up to be Ezar, who'd hanged three men for calling him impotent.

 

2.

It takes Padma several weeks of fumbling attempts to get up the nerve to talk to his grandmother about it, but she tells him it's hormones and they'll settle down as he gets older. She gives him some smuggled Betan pamphlets and tells him that she can get more if he wants them. Padma does not find them as helpful as his grandmother may have wished, but he doesn't want to admit defeat and ask for more. He's not sure this is a problem that can be fixed by Betan sexual education.

Betan sexual education thinks that Padma's problems might be due to stress, which Padma thinks might make sense; he knows that continuing his line is his most important duty and it's one that can be done by no one else. But that pressure can only be abated by fathering princes and so he'll have to wait and see if the matter resolves itself after he's managed to do that. The pamphlets had also discussed additional medical possibilities, but Padma's inadequacies in the bedroom are not something he is ever going to discuss with his physician, especially since his physician reports to Ezar. And he is not going to shame his wife by suggesting some of the alternate modes of intercourse that the pamphlets had much-too-frankly addressed. Padma had resolved that marital duties would be no hardship on Kareen and he's certainly not going to disrespect his wife by suggesting some of the methods the Betans seem to think are normal.

Kareen tells her mother that her husband satisfies her, but she's concerned about ensuring his pleasure. Countess Vorinnis gives Kareen advice that turns out to be worse than useless and clearly thinks Kareen is only asking because she wants to avoid being thrown over for a mistress so early on in the marriage. Padma hopes that Kareen has no fear of that. He had told her the day after their wedding that his strategy for a good marriage would be to do the opposite of what Aral Vorkosigan had done. Aral's actions are notorious and Padma would not have blamed Kareen for thinking that Padma would do similarly. But Padma isn't sleeping with anyone without his wife's knowledge and veto. It's dishonorable and in violation of every oath he's given her.

Over time and with practice it gets better, but Padma is still ashamed of himself. But after five months, Kareen tells him she suspects a pregnancy. Five months is early, but not early enough that the court would start counting months.

The Residence midwife confirms the pregnancy and sends them to ImpMil for a mutation test. Not all can be detected so early, but the earlier the better. Before the betrothal, Padma and Kareen had both been subjected to a gamut of tests to ensure compatibility. If they need to keep trying for a healthy baby, they will. They have time.

The first mutation test comes back clean. Padma formally reports the pregnancy to the Emperor with all due ceremony. After the third mutation test comes back and the pregnancy is beginning to show, Padma tells Aral and Kareen tells her parents. Aral knows better than anyone not to celebrate too quickly; he knows how many miscarriages Ezar and his wife had dealt with. It had been the last one that had gotten Padma adopted.

Prince Ivan Xav Vorbarra is born when Padma is 21 and Kareen is 19. He is healthy, but small. Ezar attends the birth long enough to declare Ivan to be a Vorbarra prince and then leaves, an insult that Padma ignores and hopes Kareen is too tired to notice. It falls to Aral and to Kareen's brothers to properly toast the new prince.

Padma's grandmother congratulates them by sending along everything she still had from when Padma was a child. Ezar congratulates Padma by dumping a corruption scandal on him to clean up. Padma thinks ruefully that the choice of which to emulate has never been more stark.

 

3.

Padma tries, he really does, but after Richard, their second, is born, Kareen tells him that she will invite him back to her bed when she's ready for another child and he should consider himself on his own recognizance until then. Padma's fumblings are better, but Kareen clearly pities him and doesn't want to keep watching him strain himself. Padma is certain he satisfies his wife, but his wife knows she doesn't satisfy him. He's not going to force her to confront that lack when she does not wish to.

Their relationship is otherwise exemplary, Padma thinks. He's taken his grandparents as a model because they were the only married couple he'd known who seemed truly happy with each other and with their choice. When Padma had been young, he'd assumed that they were happy because they were a love match, but he's since seen other love matches turn. He thinks the effort that goes in is more important than the beginnings and Padma is more than willing to put in the effort. It helps that they have similar politics. Padma can't imagine how hard this would be if he and his wife disagreed on everything. Thankfully, for all that Ezar had arranged this with no thought to Padma's comfort and every thought to his own political advantage, he had given Padma a wife that he could easily work with.

They're both coming in to this with no idea of how to work with a spouse. Kareen's parents are hardly an example to follow. Padma has Kareen's word for it, for one, and he'd also been taken to the side by Count Vorinnis before the wedding for some marriage advice which had solidified Padma's desire to allow his own daughters the option of a love match. Count Vorinnis had made it clear that he hadn't cared how Padma treated Kareen so long as there were sons and then had provided Padma with further suggestions, ones that even Uncle Piotr wouldn't say to his face. Padma will never marry off any of his own daughters with so little care for their treatment. A love match is no guarantee of happiness, but Padma thinks it's certainly a better start than a political match where the principals have little input.

And for all that it's a political match and Padma does not love his wife, he still cares for her deeply. It perhaps wasn't the match he would have chosen, if he'd been permitted a choice, but even if Ezar hadn't adopted him, he still would never have been allowed his own choice. Even if Padma hadn't inherited anything more than Prince Xav's legacy, that legacy could still not be left to chance and sentiment. But galactic influences are intruding and things are changing. Padma might not allow Ivan a love match -- the question of Imperial succession is too important to leave to the chance of a love match -- but Ivan's siblings could have them if they wanted.

And maybe even Ivan wouldn't need it. Padma and Kareen had agreed on having at least six children. With enough sons to maintain the Vorbarra name, Ivan could rely on his brothers if need be. Padma would like to give that gift to his sons and not only to his daughters, if he can. If he can change Barrayar enough, if he can change the political reality.

He begins by making it clear that they are first and foremost a family, not a collection of royalty. Ezar had no interest in sentiment, had always treated Padma as an Imperial heir, but Padma will not be like him. As soon as Ivan is old enough to sit at the table, Padma and Kareen start conducting family dinners three nights a week. They discuss family, politics, and District matters. Ivan at first can't contribute anything of value to the conversation, but there are fourteen months between him and Richard. Once Richard joins them at the table, Ivan has to be reminded to eat dinner and not just monologue at his parents.

And as each child joins them, Padma surveys his domain, his family, and grins. This is a victory, his and Kareen's. By the time Sonia joins them, it's a tradition. Alexander, Julia, Anna, and Tamar have never known any other reality. Padma's Vorbarras are a family, one that Padma is confident would have been completely foreign to someone like Dorca. Padma's quite proud of it.

There's a worry, one that Ezar will bring up idly, about Ivan and Richard being so close in age, and then increasingly as more children join the family. They're going from the problem of having too few Vorbarras to the problem of having too many. It's not only the boys. By adopting Padma, Ezar had given even more weight to those who believe the Imperium can pass down through daughters as well as sons. But Padma will take that risk. There's little he can do to mitigate it at this stage. Xav and Yuri, after all, had gotten along as children. It had only been later that their differences had come between them. Ezar has solutions, ways to bend the younger boys into Ivan's service for the rest of their lives, but Padma never liked Ezar's methods when they were pointed at him and Aral. He's not repeating those days and he's certainly not repeating them on his own sons. He'll make his own mistakes.

He keeps an eye on Ivan, of course, and corrects Ivan if his behavior towards his brothers looks like it might be causing lasting resentment, but Padma intends to live a good long time. He keeps an eye on the younger boys to see if they start growing jealous and he gives his daughters freedoms that his wife had never been allowed at their age, and he's happy. It's not the life he might have chosen, but he's content with it, and he's molding it into the way he wants it.

 

4.

A week after Ezar dies, Kareen puts down her dessert fork after a quiet lunch between audiences and calmly says, "I want to take a lover. A woman, there won't be a risk of bastards."

Ezar would have had Padma immediately divorce her, if not execute her, for even asking. Padma just replies, "I'll need it to be completely discreet. I can't have this come back to me as rumors."

"Of course," Kareen promises. "If you'd like, I won't tell you who and we'll see if you can guess which of my ladies it is."

Padma knows that's intended as a joke, but he still shakes his head. "I'll need to know who it is. I won't be blindsided." But better one of Kareen's ladies than one of the women bodyguards Kareen had demanded from Negri. Padma had supported the request after Kareen had told him how some of Negri's men looked at her. But Padma won't have anyone leave Kareen's bed and go report it immediately to Negri or to anybody, not even him. Kareen's ladies are loyal to her alone; with Ezar finally gone, Kareen had been able to remove the ones who hadn't been. And Padma will never be Ezar. He will never put women in Kareen's service who would hold their Emperor higher in their esteem than their Empress.

"Even if it weren't discreet, you'd likely never hear of it," Kareen says. "The court would probably ignore it once they knew it was with Lady Alys. The old men don't think what women do together really matters."

That might be true for some, but... "Ezar wouldn't have cared?" Padma asks skeptically. Ezar had cared about everything. Padma's never met a man more paranoid.

"Ezar would have assumed that if I do it with a woman, I'd do it with a man," Kareen says. "I don't think others will assume I'm looking elsewhere because of anything to do with you. You're quite handsome and, after seven children, they don't doubt your virility or prowess. No, if I stray with a friend, it will be just a womanly frivolity, easily dismissed."

"If I had sexual prowess," Padma says dryly, "I doubt you'd be so eager to take a lover as soon as it were possible." Kareen's addressing him as her husband and as her head of House. Now that Padma is both, Kareen doesn't have to worry about Vorkosigan-type revenge or that utterly narrow definition of honor shared by both of their families. Padma's not Ezar and he's certainly not Count Vorkosigan; Padma's personal opinions on infidelity were forged young under his grandmother's tutelage and were barely twinged by the death of Aral's wife. He really doesn't care so long as the other spouse allows it and it doesn't risk bastards, and Kareen knows that. But he has to care about reputation. The Emperor can't be cuckolded.

Kareen looks at him carefully. "I think you should take one as well."

"We're trying to keep my, ah, issues from public knowledge, not dare someone to gossip." Padma's certain there would be gossip. There's only one person Padma trusts to not make it public and that's Kareen. The court would just blame her for not being able to satisfy him properly, and so she'll never say a word.

"I don't know if you'd have them, if you bedded someone you were attracted to," Kareen says.

Padma frowns. Kareen is, at any objective level, beautiful. She's also born his children, elevating her to a level Padma doubts anyone could reach. If he's not sexually attracted to her, then he's not sexually attracted to anyone.

"That may not be possible," Padma says. He won't deny that he's been drawn to people, but there's never been an irresistible pull that others have described. It's never been a hardship to not take a lover or indulge himself for a night. He would never have given Ezar that kind of leverage over him, to know who Padma held dear, but even with Ezar gone... well, there are worse things to be known for than devotion to your wife.

Kareen shrugs elegantly. "I'll hardly insist on it. But I know there's never been anyone but me for you. I really think you should keep trying. I don't want you to go your whole life thinking that sex is an unpleasant duty, not a pleasure. There's more than one way to break a siege."

Padma smiles. "I'm not sure any of my ancestors broke one in the bedroom, my lady, but I'm sure the Imperial archivists could answer that definitively, if you'd like to ask. I don't really mind that I don't enjoy it, so long as you do." And he really doesn't mind. Yes, he knows that his enjoyment of sex with Kareen is entirely in her pleasure and in the children that it brings him, but Padma has a long list of duties that are far more onerous than having sex with his wife. He feels he's developed a healthy sense of perspective about it. Enjoying sex isn't high on his list of priorities. He's able to perform enough to father children, that's all he really requires. He'd be lying if he said it didn't bother him, but it doesn't bother him nearly as much as it used to.

"Imagine if I felt the same way," Kareen says pointedly.

"I can hardly have an affair as a favor to you," Padma says. "But I'll happily give you permission to have yours."

Kareen picks her fork up again. "Very well, my lord," she says. "But I'm not withdrawing my permission. Do it or don't do it. But I'd rather you did."

 

5.

Aral gets him alone on the country estate and tells him: Countess Vorinnis is spreading rumors that Kareen has a lover.

If this has gotten to Aral, it's gotten elsewhere. Aral had heard it third-hand, but had had no difficulty tracing it back to its origin. There's no lover's name attached in the rumor and Countess Vorinnis, it is clear, knows nothing; the pronoun she'd used was wrong. Kareen had been correct in that; Padma knows that even some of the armsmen don't know that Kareen's taken a lover. What two women do together hardly signifies in their opinion. Countess Vorinnis would likely think the same. But she sees how much happier her daughter seems and won't assume it's merely relief at not having to deal with Ezar anymore. And she isn't keeping quiet about it. And her husband knows and is doing nothing to prevent it from spreading; he's complicit in this as well.

Aral is carefully blank when he reports. He's gotten Padma so completely alone that Padma's guards are probably in a panic and he thinks he's telling Padma something he doesn't know.

This is a family matter and Kareen handles those. Padma could leave this one to Kareen as well. But Kareen's relationship with her parents has always been strained. If this is revenge, if this is Countess Vorinnis trying to get the Empress in trouble with the Emperor... Padma will have to handle this.

The rest of the group is going to find them eventually. This does explain why Aral hadn't even put up a token protest about going out riding, even though he hates it. "Thank you for your report, my lord minister," Padma says. "I'm sure you understand, the Empress has never done any such thing."

"I understand," Aral says.

"Unofficially," Padma continues, "relax. I already knew about the affair she actually is having. My wife and I are honest with each other." And he won't have to tell Kareen to stop her affair. This rumor bears no resemblance to what's actually happening. It came from Countess Vorinnis's imagination; she herself may not even think it's true. There's no need to go too far with paranoia. It might lead to further suspicion if Kareen is seen to change her behavior because of this.

Aral nods. "And the ones spreading the rumors?" He says nothing about Padma allowing his wife to have an affair. But he wouldn't.

"Remind them why that's a bad idea," Padma says. "I'll deal with the one originating them later. I may have some orders for you." He's not eager to execute his own mother-in-law, but he's been tempted before and this isn't helping her case. She's never given him this much cause before, of undermining the legitimacy of her own grandchildren. It's not quite pulling a weapon on the Empress, but it's damn close. It's damn close to trying to get her son-in-law to kill her daughter. "It being a Count and Countess rather limits my creativity."

Aral looks at him, clearly hesitant to say something. But he'd promised Padma his honesty a long time ago. "Sometimes you scare me, Padma," he says.

"Oh?" He'd never intended to scare Aral. He wouldn't do that. Everyone else? Well, that's necessary. Padma's the first Emperor in centuries who was never a general. He's had to make it clear that that isn't a deficit.

"Sometimes I see Ezar looking out through your eyes."

Ah. Padma can breathe again. So long as Aral's not seeing Yuri.

"Probably can't be helped," Padma says. "In theory, he raised me." In practice, he did no such thing. Padma was raised by his grandparents and then, as far as he's concerned, he got sent to a boarding school and only ever went home again on visits. Padma has seven children and he's still sure he's doing better by each of them than Ezar had done with him. Padma hadn't wanted a father and Ezar hadn't wanted a son, but sometimes Padma can't help but wonder how Ezar could look at a ten year old boy and see only an heir to be molded. "You know Ezar would just have had both of them killed. He only believed in one law when it was convenient for him. Slandering the Empress is a capital charge and he wouldn't want his wife's family humiliated with a public accusation. But I know you'd refuse the assassination order."

Negri wouldn't, but that's hardly relevant right now; Padma's not going to give the order. Not for a Count. Anyone less than a Count and Padma wouldn't hesitate. He probably wouldn't even hesitate if it were a different Count. But he won't order his children's grandparents assassinated. If they ever found out, they'd never forgive him. No, for them, if for no one else, he has to follow his own law.

Aral, pointedly, says nothing. Well, he hasn't been asked a question and Padma's needling him. If Aral's treating him like Ezar, Padma probably deserves that. And talking about having his family killed in the night, well, Padma's lucky Aral's not treating him like Yuri.

"You're one of my advisers, Aral. If you have advice, I'll listen to it. But before you say anything, you should know that Kareen is pregnant." And that brief look that crosses Aral's face before Aral can stop it is precisely why this rumor will prove fatal to the ones who repeated it. Padma sighs. "Yes, it's mine, Aral."

Aral stiffens. "My liege, I--"

"No, you weren't going to say anything and neither would any loyal man. But if I only had loyal men, I wouldn't need your ministry or Negri's. And you don't need outright accusations when there's a seed of doubt being planted." This isn't the first time there's been rumors of Kareen being unfaithful, but it's the first since Ezar died and, most importantly, it's the first coming from a source as authoritative as Kareen's mother. That the politicals picked it up before the armsmen is extremely concerning.

Or maybe it wasn't Political Education spies who heard it. Maybe someone had put this into Aral's ear directly and he'd had his ministry track its source. Aral, after all, is still widely known for killing his first wife for dishonor. Perhaps someone wanted to see what Aral would do with this. The best traps are the ones that catch as many people as possible

Padma's been the Emperor for two years now and he has yet to execute a Count, which may be a record for the last several hundred years. Even when power transfers peacefully, there's usually a period of transition when Counts try to test the new Emperor. And when it doesn't, well, Ezar had begun his reign by executing the sixteen Counts who had refused to break from Yuri. He had killed four more over the next six years, some of them the successors of the first batch. Padma knows of two others that Ezar had ordered quietly assassinated; there may have been more. Padma's been lucky so far. Even when Yuri had inherited in the middle of a war, he'd still had to make his power felt amongst the Counts. Padma's been spared that, primarily because Ezar had done most of the cleaning for him. That the first one to test him is Kareen's father and mother...

Padma knows what Ezar would do. He knows what Yuri would do. But he's resolved to be neither of them.

"You'll give your full report to Kareen tonight," Padma says. "It's her parents, so it will be her decision." Padma suspects he knows what it will be; Kareen is beautifully practical. It's a good counter to Padma's more romantic nature. What Barrayar needs most is Imperial heirs and there can't be any question of their legitimacy. Padma already has to fight those who claim that he isn't Vorbarra enough, and he spent all of one year with his non-Vorbarra father before being raised by Prince Xav and then adopted by Emperor Ezar. The only parents he's ever known were Vorbarras. The lineage of his own children must be beyond question. And one of his responsibilities as Emperor is ensuring that.

Aral had given his report to Padma like any other unpleasant one, but when he repeats it to Kareen, it seems like every detail pains him. Perhaps it's how Kareen looks, like she's not surprised that her own mother might be setting her up to be executed for dishonor, that her own father supports the plan. Her parents had always been more interested in what sons Kareen might bear than anything else, and with Ivan approaching his majority, they may feel that it's time to take their revenge on how Kareen has treated them in return. The Vorinnises expected far more favors from the Imperial marriage than Kareen has been willing to grant them. The relationship between Kareen and her parents long ago turned purely transactional, any lingering fondness ruthlessly killed by its participants. It had died faster and harsher than Padma's personal familial relationship with Count Vorkosigan.

"You have to kill them for this," Kareen says to Padma when Aral has finished the report. "They're testing you. Your response can't be that this is harmless. You have to treat them the way Ezar treated every other rumor about me being unfaithful."

"Death is the only way to get rid of a Count," Padma agrees. Counts can get away with a lot, but that rope only stretches so far. When they reach the end of it, it turns into a noose. "But, if you ask mercy, I can stay the verdict. There's the planet that the astronomical force found, it's two weeks away on the wormhole jumps alone. Your father has always wanted glory and honor. I could appoint him the head of an expedition." Expeditions often fail, sometimes fatally, and it could be a solution to the matter. But there's a reason Padma will leave the ultimate decision to Kareen; she has no ghosts clamoring in her ears over this and she knows how to do what honor requires. And she looks dubious at that plan. "If you want this out in the Counts, I'll lay the charge immediately. But it will have to be public. Even aside from the stain on the family honor, the children do love their grandparents."

Kareen shakes her head. "I won't allow the children near them after this, no matter what you decide. She'll start repeating this to them, if she hasn't already. I won't have the children doubting their own legitimacy or doubting me. If you won't authorize an accident, and if you care more for the Vorinnis family honor than I do, I'll tell my father that you're going to drag this out legally. He'll arrange his own accident. He does, after all," Kareen bites through, "love his honor beyond all else."

Padma nods. "I would allow that." He looks toward Aral, standing by the fireplace and attempting to merge with it. "Lord Vorkosigan, do you have anything to add?"

Aral looks very hesitant, then addresses Kareen directly. "My lady, if you would like, I would take the burden from you and speak with your father myself."

"No, I would hear their defense myself," Kareen says. Padma isn't sure if Aral is offering because he doesn't think Count Vorinnis would believe Kareen or because he's imagining trying to have this discussion with his own father. Aral, after all, had spent years thinking that Count Vorkosigan had ordered Therese killed and yet never discussed it with him. Aral may feel like there are discussions you shouldn't have with your parents. Padma wouldn't know; he'd never known his parents.

"Tell them I give them a week and then I'll bring it to the Counts," Padma says. "I want your guards in the room when you speak with them and don't let them bring in any guards of their own. If they make any motion toward harming you, it's your choice if you want them thrown out, arrested, or shot." Her parents should know better, but Padma's seen desperate people before. "Do they know about the pregnancy?"

"They don't and they won't," Kareen says.

Good, that's one less danger. But there's one more consideration. Ignoring Aral completely, Padma says to Kareen, "do you want Ivan there?"

Padma isn't Ezar. He won't give his own sons as rough an introduction to politics as his own had been. But Ivan is old enough for this. He's already had to learn about friends and flatterers. It may be time for him to learn about repercussions. And it would be better for him to see this first-hand than to find out about it later.

"Ivan would tell Richard," Kareen says. Padma agrees. Ivan and Richard are still very close. They've pulled away from the rest of the children, secure in their age and their partnership. It may fade when Ivan goes off to the Academy while Richard stays at the prep school for another year. It may not. "Both of them or neither."

"Both, then," Padma says. Having them in the room could prove a distraction, but Padma will give them their orders. They'll witness and stay out of the way. Richard, for one, hasn't learned disobedience yet. They're meant to return from the country in two days; Padma can easily refrain from returning his sons to school until this has been seen to its conclusion.

Padma takes pity on Aral. "Lord Vorkosigan, you're dismissed." Aral bows deeply to them both and leaves with undue haste. Kareen watches him go with a small smile on her face.

"He hates politics, doesn't he?" Kareen asks.

"I might have his resignation on my desk by the end of this," Padma allows. For Aral, politics has always meant loss. Padma hasn't managed to free him of that association yet. The next Count Vorkosigan really can't be allowed the luxury of hating politics. "I won't accept it. He hasn't finished the job yet."

"And you wouldn't blindly trust anyone else who came to you with a capital charge against my parents," Kareen says.

Padma inclines his head. "As you say, my lady. Do you doubt his report?"

Kareen sighs. "No, I don't. I wish I could, but I don't. I suppose after three girls in a row, they don't think I have another boy in me. More fool them. But that's why I won't tell them about Nicholas, the boy I do have in me. They might regret this for the wrong reasons. I'll hear their defense, but I could tell it to you verbatim now if I chose to. But Ivan should hear it from them. They've only ever shown him kindness. He needs to know for his own future what can lie behind it and what uses it gets put toward." Kareen stares into the fireplace. "You don't notice anymore when young girls flirt with you. If Lord Vorkosigan won't, get Captain Negri to tell you the names of anyone who seems too confident. If my parents are trying to get me divorced or executed, there may be someone lining up behind them."

"Young girls are supposed to be flirting with Ivan and Richard," Padma says, but it's an old argument. He'd never paid much attention to it when he was their age, knowing that his marriage would be arranged without his input, and he hasn't paid any attention since. It's constant, like the tides, and he'll only care about them when someone comes to him with a warning about flooding. Kareen can see plots in social interactions that Padma never will and she'll be proven right nine times out of ten. "I'll set Negri on any conspiracy," he agrees. "Aral really might slug me if I pushed him on this. It's bringing up too many ghosts for him. Yuri, Therese, and Ges. I don't envy him."

Ezar had made Padma review the security recordings of the massacre and Yuri's dismemberment when Padma was fourteen, under the pretense that Padma was the only one who had been present at both and remembered neither. Padma had seen his mother die in his nightmares every night for the six months that followed. But Aral has his own memories, not merely patchy recordings. Padma knows enough to know that memories are worse.

And it will be good to bring ImpSec in on this. Padma can't be seen to have too much of a preference for Political Education over ImpSec. He has to keep the balance between them. Aral won't play political games, so it's all the more stark when Padma plays them for him. Negri would prefer that Political Education be abolished rather than leashed, but that's all the more reason to keep it around if it can be brought back to being useful. And Aral is making it useful again. Padma has no complaints about his service. Aral doesn't like it, complaining that it cemented the rumor that he had ordered the political at Komarr, that he'd been promised favors in exchange for his actions. But Negri has always been Ezar's man. Aral is Padma's. Padma will let him resign eventually, but not yet, and never without a fight and a promotion to another needed position.

"I'll make sure the children have mourning clothes ready," Kareen says, beautifully practical, no wasted time. Padma admires her more than he could ever express. Padma could never regret her, nor the decision he was not permitted to make, nor the struggles to not shame himself in bed. Theirs is a partnership.

"I was lucky it was you," Padma says, emotion caught in his throat as he looks at his wife, his Empress.

Kareen looks back at him fondly. "And I, you."