Gregor had always known he would have a son.
He remembered being four years old--because it was before his father died--and his mother explaining something to him about inheritance. "And someday, you will have sons, and they will be princes, too."
It wasn't until he was nine or ten years old that he thought about what having a son would mean. He was sitting at breakfast, and Miles was babbling about something. Gregor had looked over at Aral and found that Aral was listening--really listening, and Gregor had recently learned how to spot the difference on his Lord Regent's face. Gregor had realized at that moment that Aral had always really listened to Miles, and he thought when I have a son, I will pay attention to him like that.
Gregor never told anyone about that moment; by the time he was old enough to hold it as a meaningful memory, he thought anyone he told--even, especially Cordelia--would tend to ask him whether he hadn't felt that Aral really listened to him, which simply wasn't the point. The point was that at that moment, he'd thought of himself as a future father, beyond the mere existence of nebulous future sons. Ever since that breakfast, there had been a sort of running list in the back of his mind. When I Am a Father I Will....
There were times in his twenties when the list got quite short, and after he met Laisa the list got longer and more concrete. There was just one thing that--give or take the really very short forms of the list, before and during his adventure in the Hegen Hub--had always been part of the plan. It had been there ever since he was thirteen, ever since he realized he wished someone had said it to him--wished that there had been anyone to say it to him. The exact form of the speech mutated over the years, every time he thought it out, but the gist remained the same. It was his one great goal as a father, and he looked his son in the eyes, twenty-eight days old and acclaimed just that morning as Crown Prince and Lord Vorbarra, and he couldn't think how to begin.
They were alone in the nursery. Gregor had dismissed the night nurse and the Armsmen. They were doubtless hovering at the door, but at least they were on the other side of it for a little while. It was late, and the day had been long and exhausting, full of ritual and spectacle. Laisa was sleeping, and Gregor should have been. But the Crown Prince was awake, gazing up at his father with blue-green eyes just like his mother's, and Gregor had been waiting a long, long time to tell him this.
"No time like the present, hm," Gregor said softly. He sat in a rocking chair that was an heirloom of Laisa's family--all the baby-things of his own childhood had burned in the Residency fire the day his mother died--and his son was lying in his lap, his head between Gregor's knees, feet against Gregor's belly.
"This isn't a secret," Gregor began. "I haven't told anyone else yet, because you deserve to know before anyone else, but you don't have to keep this a secret. I'll have to tell other people myself--your mother, and others--so you needn't feel this as a burden. But for now it will be just between you and me.
"You don't have to be Emperor if you don't want to."
The Crown Prince stuffed his fist into his mouth, and Gregor gently tugged it out--he'd agreed that thumb-sucking was Not To Be Encouraged. He gathered his son up into his arms, holding him tightly against his chest. The sky hadn't fallen; his grandfather had not sprung out of his grave to accuse Gregor of betraying his name and his Empire.
"You don't have to," Gregor repeated. It was the first time he'd said it out loud. "You are my heir now, and I would very much like you to be Emperor someday, but it's all right if you're not. You'll still be my son, and I will--" the words he was about to speak, words he'd planned on saying since he was thirteen years old, were so true they took his breath away. He'd never understood what they would mean until this last month, until this moment now, when he was finally holding his son in his arms and saying it.
"I will still love you," he whispered against his son's silky hair. "I will always love you, no matter what. But you'll have brothers, and I can choose one of them, if it doesn't suit you. Even one of your sisters, probably, by the time it really matters.
"Barrayar will do just fine if you decide to do something else--if you want to be a, a," Gregor stalled. He knew there were other things men did, apart from military careers and inherited destinies, but he had to grope for examples, and it took him a moment to call Laisa's cousins to mind. "A primary-school teacher, or an artist, or a scientist--or a silly idle prince who doesn't do much of anything, if you're really happy that way. I think you'll get bored, with your genes, but you can try it. It would probably be better than what I tried.
"Barrayar will be all right no matter what you do. You'll be all right, and I'll be all right--and I mean to live a long, long time, so you won't have to do the job until you're all grown up and can make some kind of sensible decision about it. Your brothers and sisters will be grown, too. We can figure out the details later, but I needed to tell you that. You don't have to be Emperor. You're going to have choices, I swear it by my name and yours."
Gregor sat a while longer, rocking his son, until his arms were cramped and he was quite sure the baby was asleep, and then he returned him to his cradle and went to seek his own bed.
Laisa was sitting up in the middle of it, with the bedside lamp turned on, and tears on her face. Gregor moved quickly to sit beside her, his mouth open to ask what was wrong, and then he saw that the bedside monitor for the nursery was switched on.
Laisa hugged him fiercely, and Gregor squeezed his own eyes shut.
"I woke up and you weren't here," she whispered, "so I thought I'd just peek at him and see if he was sleeping, and--"
"I was going to tell you next," Gregor whispered. He hadn't planned out this conversation, and he wasn't sure at all what to say.
Laisa shook him a little. "Of course you had to tell him first, I just--I'm sorry." She didn't pause long enough for him to brush off her condolence on his childhood; she never did, and it was one of his favorite things about her. "And I think that if you keep saying that every week for the next few years, it'll be completely routine by the time he's old enough to think anything of it. I didn't understand until now why you wanted so very many, but now I do, and you're right. Six, eight, whatever you like."
Gregor smiled and sat back a little. "I meant it about the girls, too, you know."
Laisa sniffed and smiled. "I wouldn't have daughters with you if you didn't, Gregor Vorbarra."
Gregor leaned over and shut off the bedside lamp. In the warm glow from the monitor-view of their sleeping son, Gregor allowed Laisa to push him down onto the bed, and cuddled close.
"You do well at everything you set your mind to do, whether you choose it or not," Laisa whispered. "You're going to do fine. They're going to love you too."