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The Cortège

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The note was brief. 

Dear Mark –

I’m so very sorry to hear about Uncle Aral.  Grandma, Mother, Father, and I are on our way.  ImpSec is putting us on an ultra-fast ship.  We’ll rendezvous with Kareen in Escobar orbit and then haul ass.  Not sure if they’ll attempt a space docking – it might be a bit much for Grandma – or if we’ll meet you at Komarr Station.  Either way, even if we’re not physically with you yet, know you’re not alone.

Love, Clark


Miles didn’t react when told their cousin was part of the Betan group rushing to Aral’s funeral.  Miles wasn’t reacting to much.  There were moments when Mark wondered if an ice bath would shock him into awareness.  Kareen’s tightbeams kept saying it wasn’t necessary, that the best thing to do would be to give the new count privacy to mourn.  Ivan’s frequent messages said much the said thing, albeit with stern warnings to hide whatever maple mead they might find available in Sergyar.

Miles wasn’t the only automaton.  The flagship and a full escort were waiting at Sergyar Station when Miles, Mark, and Roic reached orbit and transferred down to Cordelia’s side.  Admiral Jole had arranged everything perfectly, all right and proper down to the last detail of straw muffling the horses’ hooves that pulled the caisson from the viceregal palace along crowded streets to Kareenburg base, where saluting soldiers replaced weeping civilians from the front gate to the shuttle awaiting the most precious cargo it would ever carry.  And if it looked like Oliver hadn’t eaten or slept since his lover died, well, Mark was sure everyone attributed it to stress.  After all, the man certainly had enough on his plate, preparing to leave his post at a time when Barrayar’s enemies might seek to take advantage of an Empire officially in mourning.

“You all have to eat something,” Mark ordered the silent group gathered at the captain’s table hours after the flagship finally left orbit.  He was shocked Cordelia hadn’t requested a tray in her cabin, but her determination not to hide from the crew meant her sons couldn’t hide either.   “It will be a long voyage and Grandma will lecture if we don’t take care of ourselves.”

“I’m not hungry,” Miles mumbled.

“I don’t care,” was the rough, loving response.  “Your tunic’s starting to get baggy.  Yours, too, Admiral.  People worked very hard to make us a nice dinner.  The least we can do is eat some of it.”

“Just a couple of bites, Miles,” Cordelia said softly.  “And then a few more.  If you eat enough, maybe you’ll be allowed to see the bridge after supper.  Wouldn’t that be nice?”

“Mother, I’m not 5!” Miles spat.

“No, you’re not,” his mother agreed.  “But if you act like Lizzie, I’ll have to revert to treating you that way.  Forget about Grandma, we’ve all seen you when you were literally skin and bone.  Not letting it happen again.  Not when you haven’t taken another needler to the chest.”

“But Mother, I think I have.  All of us have.”

“We don’t have that luxury,” Cordelia snapped.  “The Imperium expects us to be Vorkosigans and that’s damn well what we’re going to be.  All of us, even if it means I have to hand-feed you groats and syrup every morning between now and when we bury your father.  Do you have any idea what’s waiting for us on Barrayar?  A State Funeral to rival Ezar’s, that’s what.  And that’s after the sideshow we’ll have to endure in Solstice.  Mark’s correct.  If we don’t take advantage of this time aboard ship to rest, we won’t make it through.  Now eat.”

So they ate.  All of them, even Oliver.  Not a lot, but enough for Mark to appreciate that Cordelia was using peer pressure to get herself to eat, too.

For all the traveling Mark had done, he’d never been on such a quiet ship.  Sure, there were footsteps, but barely any voices.  And what conversation there was in the gymnasium the next day stopped immediately when Lord Mark appeared in ship knits.

“As you were,” Mark ordered.  “I think I can say that.  Anyway, ignore me.  I need to do some exercising or my back will never unkink.  Been trapped on courier ships for too long.”

“We can come back,” said the senior man.  “It’s all yours.”

“No, what I really need is a sparring partner or two.  Fair warning, I’m very good.”

Not a man believed the Viceroy’s round younger son, not until after he’d warmed up, set the rules of engagement, and took on his first adversary.  Within a minute, a man over a foot taller was flat on his back, gasping from some well-placed kicks and jabs.  Mark was barely winded.

“Admiral on deck,” someone hissed just after Mark had taken down his fourth rival.

“Lord Mark, are my men providing sufficient challenge?” Admiral Jole asked, pleased to see he wasn’t the only one wanting to work off some grief with physical activity.

“Yes, they are,” Mark agreed.  “Now that they’re taking me seriously.  Would you like a go?”

“Not today,” Oliver dismissed, afraid he wouldn’t be able to hold back his aggression against a real person.  “I’m just here to run.”

“Father hated running for the sake of running,” Mark stated, drawing everyone’s attention.  “He liked sparring.  We’d practice together sometimes.  He was sly, too.  Took me out more than once.”

“How much were you holding back?” one of the men asked.

“Not as much as you’d think,” Mark answered ruefully.  “Father fought rough.  And because I never served, he used to love telling me stories about training aboard ship.  Admiral Vorkosigan had some crews that liked beating each other to bloody pulp.  With his full participation.”

“The Viceroy was a dirty fighter?” someone gasped.

“And wouldn’t any of you be, if needed?” Oliver asked sternly.  “Why are you surprised?  Not only did his Father-the-General train him to be a guerilla fighter during the Ceta occupation, Viceroy Vorkosigan was the youngest admiral in Barrayaran history.  He’d probably have been Fleet Commander if Emperor Ezar hadn’t made him Emperor Gregor’s regent.”

“A man of many facets,” Mark agreed.  “Even if some happened before most of us were born.”  He would’ve said more, if the commanding officer wasn’t then called to the bridge.  And just like that, Oliver was back to being Admiral Jole, overburdened Head of Sergyar Fleet.

“All’s well on Chaos Colony,” Oliver reported over dinner.  “Military and civilians doing fine.”

“Not worried about Sergyar,” Miles muttered.  “Any adverse intelligence coming out of the Cetas or the Whole?  Or Komarr?  Having us go downside is ridiculous.”

“Those are our orders,” Cordelia reminded.  “You can complain personally to Gregor when we get home.  Not that he’ll listen.  Nor should he.  Again, Miles, your feelings aren’t relevant here.  Perhaps if you’d been home when Aral died, you’d have met us at Komarr, as Laisa will.  Please stop forgetting that as much as some hated it, Aral was Regent and Prime Minister of Komarr for decades.  There are those who’ll genuinely want to pay their respects.”

“And what about those who want to shout insults and throw rotten vegetables?” Miles blurted.

“Hopefully, ImpSec will keep them contained, just as they contained disaffected Sergyarans.   That’s their damn job.  Just as it’s our damn job to hold it together and ensure your father receives all the tribute he’s due.”

The trip downside was as harrowing as Miles had feared.  Also longer, as Cordelia refused to hold the official memorial service until ordinary Komarrans had their chance to pay their respects.   Much to Oliver’s dismay, Miles and Cordelia were both correct.  There were ugly protests in the streets, lots of them.  But there were also those who came from domes all over the planet to wait for hours for the opportunity to walk past the flag-draped casket lying in State at the Imperial Counselor’s residence.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Clark marveled as he looked out the private parlor window to see hundreds, nay, thousands of people waiting patiently outside in the dark Solstice night.

“This will be nothing compared to Vorbarr Soltana,” Miles dismissed.  “People are already camping outside Vorhartung to guarantee they’ll be allowed in.  Every portable toilet within three districts has probably been trucked to the capital.”

“At least,” Cordelia agreed.  “Think of the chaos for Gregor and Laisa’s wedding, only worse.”

“Have you heard from Ekaterin today?” Grandma Elizabeth asked.  “How big are the crowds outside Vorkosigan House?”

“Huge,” Miles answered curtly.  “Almost as bad as the Residence.  ImpSec closed the garden before they announced Da’s death.  The perimeter’s been moved a block out in all directions.  Not sure anyone realizes no one’s home.”

“They’re not?” Clark asked, surprised.  “Where are they?”

“Nikki’s at the Academy and everyone else is at Gregor’s country house with his children, tutors, and umpteen nannies.  They’d usually go to the Long Lake, but Gregor’s place is more secure.  Ekaterin says it’s chaos and everyone misses Laisa.  Gregor really should’ve sent the Prime Minister.”

“Now you’re just talking nonsense,” Cordelia said irritably.  “Gregor has an Empire to run.  In times of turmoil, he needs his closest advisors at his side.  It’s also important that the Imperium’s most senior Komarran be seen mourning the Butcher IN Solstice.”

“Mother!” Miles exploded.  “How DARE you describe Da that way?”

“Stand down, Miles!” Uncle John ordered, his voice low and angry.   “Being Count Vorkosigan doesn’t give you the right to be so rude to your mother.  EVER.”

“You can walk me to my room now, Miles,” Grandma Elizabeth ordered.  “And then you can go to yours.  We’re obviously all past the point of being fit company.”

John and Sarah gave Elizabeth and Miles a short head start before gently coaxing Cordelia to her room.   Kareen wanted to go to bed, too, but Mark wasn’t ready.  Neither was Clark.

“Do you suppose they have any maple mead?” Clark asked when Kareen had excused herself.

“Oh, I’m sure,” Mark stated.  “Except it’s all been locked away from Miles.  How about more wine?  The Counselor keeps a good cellar.”

Clark waited until a server had brought glasses and two more bottles of a splendid red from the Vorkosigan District to say, “I thought no one called Uncle Aral the Butcher of Komarr anymore.”

“Nobody in the family,” Mark sighed as he took a deep swallow.  “People elsewhere do.  Here, especially, but on other planets, too.  Except on the Whole, it was usually said with respect.  Yes, Jacksonians will do anything for money, but the extraordinarily high number of twisted people who aided Ser Galen’s plot to make me a Miles substitute must have had their own issues with Father.  I wish I had holos from my years at the crèche, when I looked like a normal, healthy little boy.”

“It must’ve been quite a shock to Ser Galen to learn the Vorkosigan claim was true and Miles’ soltoxin damage wasn’t genetic,” Clark agreed, finishing his glass and pouring another.   “Did you ever discuss that with your therapist?”

“More than you could possibly imagine, especially after Alex and Helen went in the replicators.  Mostly, I was excited for Miles and Ekaterin and for anything putting me further away from the countship.  A small part resented not having the childhood they would.  Being an uncle comes naturally to you.  Me, I have to work very hard at it.  Loving my brother’s children is easy.  Relating to them, being comfortable with all the ridiculous things children say, is harder.   It would be so easy to fall into the trap of trying to buy their affections.  I mean, we’re going to Barrayar for a fucking funeral and part of me feels bad that I’m not bringing them anything new and strange they can’t get on Barrayar.  It’s especially stupid because they don’t need anything and Miles’ luggage is full of crap he brought from Kibou-daini.”

“I enjoy being an uncle,” Clark confirmed.  “But our situations are different.  I’m more an older brother than an authority figure.  You and Miles, you both ooze authority and responsibility.  That’s what happens when your personal and professional lives are so intertwined.  Because their Da has the District and the auditor chain and you ARE MPVK.”

“I wonder what’ll happen to Alex when his classmates realize he’s gained another title,” Mark said morosely.  “At least I was spared that.”

“Not the foggiest idea,” Clark admitted.  “You shouldn’t think in those terms, Mark.  Miles has virtually been doing the count’s job for years.  Yes, things will be different now, but he knows the drill.  And if I understand it right, being a Lord Auditor is far more important than being a Count anyway.”

“Some days,” said a weary voice from the doorway.  “Maybe not over the next few weeks.  I’m sorry to be rude, but I was looking for a drink and the butler said you were in here.  May I join you?”

“Of course,” Mark welcomed Admiral Jole.  “Are they letting you sleep tonight?”

“Maybe a bit,” Oliver yawned, accepting a glass of wine.  “I’ve caught up on my correspondence, my speech is written, the convoy’s on alert, there are no looming crises yet, and I have an early meeting with my Komarran counterpart.  Which normally would be a nice thing because Admiral Sandowsky and I aren’t often in the same airspace, but he’s worried that my deputy’s not up for covering Sergyar Fleet.  It’s rather ridiculous considering how well he maintains order whenever I’m on leave.”

“But how often is Sergyar left without its civil or military leaders on planet?” Clark asked boldly.

“Not often,” Oliver admitted.  “Which is why ImpSec leads drills of all the possible things that could go wrong.  Some boffin drew up a scenario where a sailboat exploded with me, Cordelia, and Aral aboard.  Sergyar would’ve survived.  And unlike the sailboat scenario, the Vicereine and I are returning.”

“Are you sure?” Mark asked in surprise.  “I’m sure Miles wants Mother to stay on Barrayar.”

“Mark, that’s the only thing I’m sure of right now.  There aren’t a dozen people waiting in the wings clamoring to head up Chaos Colony the way there are Komarr.  The Vicereine would never leave the Emperor in the lurch like that.  Besides, she’s the second highest-ranking woman in the Imperium, doing a job she earned and truly loves.  Would either of you walk away from that?”

“Not my aunt’s nature,” Clark agreed.  “Hell, Grandma still works part-time.”

“Barrayaran mourning strictures would strangle Mother,” Mark added.  “And Sergyar’s certainly better for me and Kareen.  I promise we’ll make much more of an effort to visit from now on.”

“Don’t tell me, tell her,” Oliver blurted.  “I don’t manage Cordelia’s calendar.”

“Don’t you?” Mark challenged.  “Can she go anywhere outside K-burg without you knowing?  And let’s be honest, Oliver.  You’ve known my parents far longer than I have.  I expect the very, very deep admiration you had for Father to outlive him when it comes to protecting Mother.  She’ll need someone to help her mourn properly.  Who better than you?”

There was no doubt Oliver understood Mark’s veiled references.  His eyes met his lover’s son’s squarely as he raised his glass and said solemnly, “I promise.  Whether she wants me there or not.”

“Well, that was interesting,” Clark observed after Oliver had taken his leave.  “Not only is your ass bigger than Miles’, so are your cojones.  Who knew?”

“Did I cross a line?” Mark asked.  “I’m never sure if I’m being a feral Jacksonian.”

“Not this time,” Clark assured him.  “You were being an excellent son to both your parents.  You were also extraordinarily kind to a man who deserved to know his grief was acknowledged.  Every time I’m ever jealous about being an unknown worker drone compared to my rich, successful cousins, I remember that no one’s monitoring my every move because they neither know nor care.  I can screw whomever I want with no public repercussions.  Nobody’s ever tried to kill me, either.”

“Plus you’re an excellent cousin,” Mark said with a yawn.  “Coming all this way for this circus of sadness.  Today was bad, tomorrow will be worse, and neither will compare to Vorbarr Sultana.  Based on the amount of transmissions sent Oliver’s way, I’m not sure how Gregor’s even standing.”

“Hence sending the children away with Ekaterin.  He doesn’t have any time for them and best they be away from the people rushing around like the planet’s on fire.  I’ll bet the Counselor’s staff can’t wait for us to leave almost as much as the staff at Vorkosigan House can’t wait for us to arrive.  Those Barrayarans are gluttons for punishment.”

“You have no idea.  People who’ve never left the Dendarii Mountains are probably making their way to Hassadar or Vorbarr Sultana.  The Hassadar Municipal Guard are probably working triple shifts just for crowd control.  And that’s with Imperial ground troops to support them.”

“Not our problem,” Clark stated firmly.  “We’re mourners, not municipal planners.  And just like Oliver said about Sergyar, ImpSec’s got to have run the scenario.  Uncle Aral was young by Betan standards, but not by Barrayaran ones.”

“You’re right,” Mark conceded.  “I just thought we had more time.  So did Mother and Miles.”

“Be thankful for what you did have,” Clark said wisely.  “Without the new heart, you wouldn’t have had the chance to get to know him as anything but the broken man mourning Miles.  Plus he died in his sleep, not in battle or by assassination.  Maybe it’s the start of a new Vorkosigan family tradition.”

Mark’s head spun as he listened to the Solstice speeches.  Officials like the Imperial Counselor spoke in politic generalities.  Oliver was totally formal, a soldier honoring his lost commander.  The only parts remotely personal were some anecdotes from his time as the Prime Minister’s secretary and the Viceroy’s warm welcome when he was posted to Sergyar.  Mark could hear his father saying he was looking forward to a Fleet commander who’d rightfully approach him as a peer, not a subordinate.

Laisa spoke in specifics, of Admiral Vorkosigan’s military reputation, of everything her husband learned by his side during the battle of the Hegen Hub, and how the man who captured the Soletta fought through decades of political opposition to ensure it was returned to Komarran control before he stepped down as Prime Minister.  There were tears in the Empress’ eyes as she described Uncle Aral playing with her children, reading their favorite stories, telling them of all the places in the Empire they’d get to visit someday, from the Black Escarpment to Kareenburg and the Massacre Shrine.  Jaws dropped when she said that Viceroy Vorkosigan had already accompanied Crown Prince Alexei and Prince Dmitri to the Memorial and helped them pronounce the names of the 200 brave men and women who paid with their lives for their ancestors’ mistake in thinking there’d be no repercussions for ceding control of Barrayar’s sole wormhole to Cetagandan troops.

“Many in this audience still hold lingering regrets that the subsequent Revolt didn’t result in Komarr regaining her independence,” the Empress stated.  “Being a small child at the time, I had no way of knowing it never had any chance of success.  Not as long as Regent Aral Vorkosigan drew breath.  The man lying before us, the man who put his hands between Emperor Ezar’s and swore to protect a small boy and his Empire, would never have been foresworn.  No matter what it took, our beloved planet’s place as a proud member of the Empire was sealed by the will of one formidable man and the honor of another.  Viceroy Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan.  Former Regent and Prime Minister of Barrayar.  Son, brother, husband, father, grandfather, uncle, mentor, friend.  Aral was all those things and more.  Because, you see, there is no title one can earn for being, first and foremost, an honorable man.”

“Too bad the Empress doesn’t have siblings,” Clark whispered to Mark as they prepared to process to the waiting ground cars that would take them directly to the shuttleport.  “I’d never get bored being partnered with someone like that.”

“Laisa’s unique,” Mark agreed.  “And so out of your league.  So’s Ekaterin.  You think in microbes.  They think in worlds.”

“Don’t knock us science geeks!”  Clark protested.  “How much do you make from Enrique’s microbes?”

“More than you or he could ever dream,” Miles answered, having caught the end of the discussion.  “That’s what entrepreneurs do.  Now hush until the vids stop rolling.”

Admiral Jole’s face was again an impassive mask as ImpSec-Komarr officially relinquished the Viceroy’s remains back to his control.  But as Kareen and Mark agreed once they reached their cabin, Oliver’s body betrayed him, fingers twitching as if it was taking all he had not to mimic Cordelia’s gesture and lay a gloved hand on the casket as it was locked into position on the shuttle, as an honor guard escorted it through the orbital station, and finally, as it was again secured in the large cabin-turned-vigil-room aboard the flagship.

“Was your escort to Komarr this big?” Clark asked after an awkward supper where the exhausted participants struggled to eat.

“No, it’s more than doubled now that the Empress is aboard,” Kareen replied, sipping a glass of wine she’d commandeered from the Admiral’s stores.  “Watch yourself, Clark.  Vorbarra armsmen make Vorkosigan ones look jolly and casual in comparison.”

“That must be a lousy job.  But seriously, shouldn’t this be the easy part, traveling from one part of the Empire to another?  Aren’t we safe?”

“No and no,” Mark said irritably.  “Blowing up Mother, Father, and Laisa together is a domestic terrorist’s wet dream.  Bonus points for the Butcher’s sons.  Why do you think Ivan didn’t accompany Laisa?  Anything happens to this ship, Ivan has to survive to help Ekaterin raise Alex and the girls.”

“I didn’t think about it all,” Clark admitted.  “I assumed Ivan was supporting Gregor.”

“Oh, definitely that, too,” Kareen said dismissively.  “But politically, Major Lord Vorpatril’s primary role is ensuring the Vorbarra and Vorkosigan lines don’t end with him holding either title.  Admiral Jole’s is ensuring we all reach Barrayar safely.  It’s an enormous load to place on any officer, much less one mourning.”

“But there’s no one better prepared, or Oliver wouldn’t be head of Sergyar Fleet,” Mark yawned.  “Doesn’t matter how much Father loved him, Oliver wouldn’t be protecting the Empire’s flank if he wasn’t the best person for the job.  So while we’re not totally safe, I trust the hands in which we’ve all been placed.  So does Miles, or he would’ve ordered reinforcements from Komarr Fleet.  Yes, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan can do that.  And no matter how grieving he is, if Miles felt unsafe, he would’ve.”

“But is Oliver thinking clearly?” Clark asked.  “How long can he run on grief and no sleep?”

“Military has pills for that.  He’ll collapse when we get to Barrayar.  Or not, depending on what other threats surface.  That’s what it means to be among the Imperium’s best of the best, Clark.  No matter what, the Imperium always comes first.”

“I don’t think I know a single person like that at home,” Clark said slowly.  “Is that the difference between a democracy and a monarchy?”

“Patriotism means different things on different worlds,” said Kareen philosophically.  “Studies show the more advanced the society, the less cohesion there is among its citizens.  Betans have traded reproductive freedom for never worrying about life’s staples.  Meanwhile, Komarr depends on the Soletta both to sustain existing life within the domes and for the hope of one day leaving them.  They therefore have a common interest in protecting technology Betans take for granted. 

“The Time of Isolation proved Barrayar is self-sustaining, if far below galactic norms.  Progress in modernization was being made when the Ceta invasion confirmed the need for a strong military to protect the lone wormhole and prevent being vaporized by rapacious aliens.  Maybe in another millennium, Barrayar will have a dozen wormholes, no poverty, and no fear of extinction.  Until then, they need a strong central government and the firepower to protect a vulnerable populace clinging to a very humanoid-friendly planet.  For now, Gregor Vorbarra, Miles Vorkosigan, and 58 other men are the central figures protecting hundreds of millions of people.  Yes, Miles knows the job.  Now he needs to learn to bear the weight of the millions of District residents who directly depend on him and his wife to sustain or improve their standard of living.  All while wearing a complex second hat, of one of the Emperor’s most trusted advisors and confidents, who could be torn away from his District at any moment to deal with even more pressing Imperial concerns.”

“But is having 60 separate forms of local government logical?  Shouldn’t the average citizen have a voice?”

“Someday, they will, like they do on Sergyar and Komarr.  Progressive counts like Miles and my brother-in-law are quietly building the framework for a constitutional monarchy by updating Barrayar’s archaic laws one by one.  Barrayar has many modern cities, but it’s not life for the average subject.  Far too many still eke a living from the soil and commit horrendous crimes against women and children because they’re worthless compared to adult men.  Even more believe anyone who’s not genetically perfect is a mutant and should be put to death.  Miles isn’t perfectly safe anywhere, not even in his own District.  Some are proud of their mutie lord.  Others wish him dead.  It’s possible a democratic vote there would result in Miles being overthrown in favor of an 8-year old.  That’s how stupid some Barrayarans are.”

“Is that why you live on Escobar?” Clark asked.  “To escape the prejudice?”

“Which one?” Mark countered.  “Against mutants, women, or living together without benefit of wedlock?  Do you have any idea how I’m leading generations of pure Vor buds astray?  Many in the highest circles see our relationship as proof that a mutant clone couldn’t possibly understand the social implications of being Vor and at least I didn’t taint another Vor family with my loathsome attention.  It’s a good thing MPVK is so successful because otherwise, the sole reason many of my brother’s new peers tolerate my ghastly existence is lying in a coffin on the deck above this one.  I used to be worthy of some respect as Aral Vorkosigan’s son.  The moment the Council of Counts confirms my nephew as Lord Vorkosigan, I become surplus to requirements.  Again.”

“And yet you’ve built an empire on that backward planet.”

“There, and other places.  Only an idiot would’ve turned their back on the early advantages my surname carried.  Plus it’s such a ripe market for galactic improvements.  Things you take for granted, like hydroponics or geothermal heat, are still new and exciting to rural Barrayarans.  And space, Clark.  There’s terraformed land available throughout the District that can be purchased for a song and used for almost any stupid idea the R&D team dreams up.   Not everything works, plus we only pursue the ones that can be replicated elsewhere, in other districts, on Sergyar, or out in the Nexus.  Someday, even the Cetas will be eating bug butter.  Kareen’s already begun negotiating to build a factory on Kibou-daini.”

“Yeah, about that,” Kareen said hesitantly.  “Got a tightbeam from Madame Xia yesterday.  Owner of the potential hydroponics facility accepted our offer.  Owner of the adjacent property wants to negotiate.  I told her she could go up 6% and if they didn’t take it, to bid on the place with the better loading docks a couple of blocks over.  I also authorized Enrique to start working with the team on Escobar to decide what Japanese-style foliage he wants to feed the girls.”

“Does it matter?” Clark asked.  “I thought the damn bugs ate almost anything.”

“Oh, they do,” Mark grinned.  “But we’ve discovered that if we target-feed, it saves flavoring costs in final production.  On Barrayar, that means grasses and leaves for savory products, florals for sweet ones.  We feed our Escobaran butter bugs pepper and tomato vines.  Kibou-daini palates are predominantly geared to Asian food.  Might as well give ‘em what they’re used to from the start.”

“Plus it makes Enrique ridiculously happy to develop new strains,” Kareen added.  “He uses the easy modifications to train lab staff.  Guys, we need to get some sleep or we’ll miss breakfast.  I doubt they’d make us eat rat-bars, but I’m not taking a chance.”

Clark’s crush on the Empress grew over the next few days, as he watched her lovingly care for his grieving relatives through crying jags, refusals to eat, and periodic proximity alarms.  Clark almost wet his bed at the first blare, complete with flashing lights, in the middle of the night.  Seconds later, hundreds of booted feet ran through the ship, taking up protective positions.

“You can go back to sleep, sir,” a soldier said kindly when the alarm stopped and Clark opened his cabin door.  “Nothing to worry about.”

“Are you sure?” Clark asked just as another cabin door opened.

“Nothing to worry about, a commercial convoy clipped the edge of our outer perimeter coming out of a jump,” Miles announced, his brisk tone at odds with his drawn face.  “And yes, I know I look like shit.  Standard post-seizure, nothing to worry about.”

“Which one of us are you trying to convince?” Clark asked in dry tones reminiscent of his aunt.

“Both,” Miles chuckled.  “Fancy a walk?  I’m stiff.”  Turning his head to the open door, he added, “Back to bed, Roic.  I have my cane, my cousin, and lots of soldiers watching me.  Sleep while you can.”

“Poor bastard’s lucky to have gotten an hour,” Miles confided as they set off, the cane thumping gently on the carpeted deck.  “Even though there’s no need, he always watches me for a few hours post-seizure.  Ekaterin used to do it, too.  Then we had twins and sleep became a very precious commodity.”

“Do you always share a cabin with an armsman?” Clark asked curiously.

“Unless I’m traveling with my wife, yes, always.  Keeps the last line of defense handy and the halls clearer.  Surely you remember Sgt. Bothari.”

“Well, yeah, but you were a teenager then.  Don’t you ever want privacy?”

“Not a luxury my job affords,” Miles sighed.  “Think about it, Clark.  If I’m traveling alone, it’s usually at the Emperor’s behest.  And odds are, there are people out there who don’t want me to find the answers Gregor seeks.  If it means killing me to shut me up, many would be glad to do it.”

“But surely you’re safe here on the flagship!” Clark protested.

“I’d hope so.  But there’s really no way to be 100% sure that no one aboard has been suborned, either by outside influences or their own ambition.  The latter happens more than anyone would like.  And when it does, Gregor usually sends me to sort it all out.  Are you hungry?  Crew mess is always open.  I could use a snack.”

The chattering in the mess died the instant the small figure in ship knits was spotted.  “Beg pardon, My Lord Count, do you need something?” the tech at the food counter asked.

“Coffee with milk and whatever cake you have handy,” Miles answered lightly.  “And whatever my cousin wants.  The alarm made me hungry.”

“I’ll have the officer’s kitchen bring it to your cabin, my lord,” the nervous tech answered.

“No need to bother them, we’re here.  I spent a decade in the Imperial Service, Trotsky, before I was invalided out.  Seen a lot of ship’s messes just like this one.  So I’ll ask again, can you please spare a retired captain and his cousin some fresh coffee?”

“Wouldn’t mind a snack myself,” said a familiar Betan voice.  “And if you give him enough cake, Captain Vorkosigan might tell you about traveling on the Prince Xav with his father and me.  Our son was always good at escaping his quarters and finding the crew mess.  Some things don’t change.”

“No, Mother, they don’t,” Miles agreed, as he automatically pulled out a chair to seat her.  “Though the folks on the Prince Xav always knew to give me milk.  Gregor got what he wanted.”

“The Emperor ate in the crew mess?” someone gasped.

“Why not?” Cordelia said airily.  “It was his ship.  Let this be a lesson, gentlemen.  Should the Crown Prince or his siblings ever sneak down here in the middle of the night, alert their security team and then feed them whatever you’d give your own children.  I assure you they’ll be grateful.  Now, I’d like some tea, please.  And some cookies, if you have any lying spare.  If not, fruit will be fine.”

 A few brave souls asked some questions. The rest were content to listen to tales of the Emperor’s diplomatic travels during the Regency, of meeting new people, seeing strange sights, and eating exotic food.  Laughter that two mischievous boys loved playing hide and seek all over the ship cut off abruptly when Cordelia reminded her son of the time he hid in a launch tube for over six hours.

“Spent two days in the brig for that one,” Miles said ruefully.  “That was after the most blistering lecture we ever got.  Gregor was confined to quarters; I was in the real brig, with water and rat bars.  Da didn’t let me out until I confessed to being bored out of my mind.  Let that be a lesson, gentlemen.  Having unlimited time to sleep isn’t as wonderful when that’s all you’ve got to do.”

“You got lucky we arrived at our next stop,” Cordelia contradicted.  “We’d have left you another few days for violating orders not to go on the missile decks, but the Polian government was waiting to meet the boy Emperor and his sidekick.  You were so quiet during the State Dinner, there were some rumors you were mute.  Gregor didn’t do so well giving his speech, either.  Lots of stuttering.”

“Da scared the crap out of us,” Miles laughed.  “It didn’t occur to either of us that the flagship might be practicing military maneuvers while we were underway.  If some tech hadn’t perfectly followed missile protocols, if I hadn’t been squashed by the torpedo, I’d have been shot into space.”

“You’re not giving your father enough credit,” Cordelia chided.  “Any military maneuver or automated process that could’ve injured children was suspended.  And as punishment for losing you, Bothari and Gregor’s duty armsmen were assigned trash duty until the backlog was cleared.  One retired when we got home.  No loss.”

“We didn’t like Gilyov,” Miles recalled.  “He was grumpy and never let us have any fun.”

“Gilyov was the last holdover from Emperor Ezar’s twenty.  He should’ve retired when Ezar died, but he wanted to reach his twice twenty.  The rest of the squad who took oath again adapted to protecting a child, but not Gilyov.  Perhaps if he had a family of his own, but he didn’t.”

“Will you need to find new armsmen?” Clark asked after he and Miles dropped Cordelia at her cabin.

“Yes, some,” Miles answered.  “Officially, they’ve all been released from their oath.  After the funeral, I’ll meet with each one individually.  Some of the older men have been putting off retirement out of loyalty to Da.  Others are used to the viceregal palace and would be miserable in the chaos of Vorkosigan House.  I’d forgotten about Gilyov, but I wouldn’t wish such a child-hater on anyone, much less my family.  Gilyov would’ve died for his Emperor, but he didn’t actually like him.  My children aren’t always perfect or loveable, but they’re a key part of the job for the next 20 years.”

“I’m looking forward to seeing them.  The holos and vids are cute as hell.”

“We don’t share everything,” Miles chuckled.  “Especially on days we wonder why we created six embryos.  Yes, we’re not done.  It never, ever occurred to us that Da wouldn’t know the last two.”

“And it hurts,” Clark sympathized. 

“More than anything,” Miles confessed.  “Of all the various pains of losing Da, this is the worst.”

“I don’t know, Miles, I did just fine with 3 grandparents.  Realistically, it’s not like your children see your parents that much.  A few weeks at Winterfair isn’t the same as living with Count Piotr.”

“Are you saying I’m projecting?”

“More than a little,” Clark confirmed uncomfortably.  “Ekaterin’s mother didn’t know any of her children.  Grandpa Miles didn’t even get to see his children partnered, much less become parents.  I don’t know about Barrayar, but where I come from, it’s perfectly acceptable to say that losing a parent hurts like hell.  It would also be acceptable to say you don’t want to deal with all the responsibility that just landed on your head.  I doubt it’s acceptable on either world to blame your mother for not cryo-freezing your father on the slimmest of chances he could be resurrected like Frankenstein’s monster.

“I don’t know what you saw on Kibou-daini, Miles, but it’s a seriously fucked-up place.  And if I got a vote, which I don’t, I’d have told Mark and Kareen to stay away.  People aren’t meant to be resurrected centuries after their natural deaths.  Not only is it perverse, there’ll never be enough resources to support every person who was ever born.”

“So you think I should be dead?” Miles challenged.

“That’s not what I said,” Clark snapped.  “The Duronas do extraordinary things that will help people everywhere have full lifespans, not just those who die in battle or accidents.  Call me conservative, I just don’t think a lifespan should be broken into three or four centuries.”

“Of all the things you’ve ever been called, Son, I doubt conservative is one of them,” John Naismith quipped as he stuck his head out his cabin door.  “But you both have loud covered.  Now how about you both go to your cabins so the rest of us can sleep?”

Clark went to bed.  Miles didn’t, choosing to sit by his father’s casket in the dim room guarded around the clock by two Vorkosigan armsmen.  Several hours later, he acknowledged that his cousin was correct about his recent Kibou-daini adventures warping his viewpoint.  He also owed his mother a huge apology.  One which he delivered the following day, before the next jump and yet another perimeter alarm.  A far more serious one.

“And now you know why we have so many escort ships,” Miles said dryly to Clark over an intimate dinner for four in his cabin.  “Congratulations, you’ve survived your first space battle.”

“How can you say that so casually?”  Clark demanded, reaching for more wine.

“Because the flagship was untouched, the pirates were blasted to smithereens, and the two escorts took minimal damage and no fatalities.  First rule of battle, Clark.  The enemy’s health doesn’t matter.  Certainly not when they’re the ones attacking without provocation.”

“Kill or be killed, Clark,” Kareen said briskly.  “Eat something.  You’re drinking far too much on an empty stomach.”

“But how do you know they meant harm?” Clark persisted.

“Answering a hail with weapons fire, for starters,” Miles snorted.  “This part of space, between the two planets, has a lot of illicit activity.  Still, I doubt only two ships planned on taking out our convoy.  If they’d identified themselves and moved out of range, they’d still be alive.  Idiots died for nothing.”

“Why didn’t Home Fleet clear our path?” Mark asked as he served himself more vegetables.

“Admiral Jole asked the same question.  Not very politely, I might add.  I foresee some vessels in this quadrant undergoing changes of command.  And that’s without taking into account that the Empress is still shaking from her first live fire incident aboard ship.”

“You say that so casually, like everyone’s almost been hijacked or shot at,” Clark blurted.  “It’s not normal, Miles.”

“It is to almost anyone who’s served a decade of space duty,” Miles refuted.  “Even those doing boring commercial convoy duty have usually met up with a space pirate or two.  That’s why we have convoy duty.  To protect the goods and teach our men how to be soldiers.  Come in.”

“Admiral Jole would like you on the bridge, My Lord Count,” a shy ensign said respectfully.  “Right away.”

Admiral Jole took Miles into his ready room to play the messages they’d just received from Barrayar.  They opened Gregor’s first.  To Oliver, the Emperor looked very poised.  That’s because he didn’t know his liege well enough to read the rage seeping out of every pore.  Indeed, Gregor’s jaw barely seemed to move as he praised everyone’s quick actions in neutralizing the threat to the convoy and requested a further status report on the injured.

“Home Fleet is scrambling to cover their asses,” he concluded.  “Don’t worry, Miles, General Desplains is on it.  I expect to have comprehensive reports of who exactly was derelict in their duty by the time you reach home.  Their fate will wait, but they can expect to pay dearly for foreswearing the Empress’ safety.  And the rest of you, of course.

“Ekaterin and the children are fine.  Carry on, Admiral Jole, you’re doing fine.  Vorbarra out.”

“Do you foresee treason charges?” Oliver asked after they’d played the other messages from Home Fleet, Ops, and ImpSec.

“Perhaps,” Miles opined cautiously.  “It will depend on who fucked up and why.  Could’ve been bad sensor calibration on the ships that jumped ahead of us, a captain who set their cruising speed too high to leave us room to accelerate post-jump, or a communications officer who misread our projected times.  Or maybe someone on one of the lead ships wanted to send a message that the Empress betrayed Komarr in allowing my father’s presence to desecrate the Martyr’s Shrine.  Shall I keep going, or do we leave it in the hands of those charged to investigate?  Which for a change isn’t either of us.  Just get us home, please, Oliver.  I’m tired, I miss my wife and children, and I want to sleep in my own bed and eat real food.  Your chef’s fine, but he’s no Ma Kosti.”

“No one is,” Oliver chuckled briefly.  “Do you want to be part of the return transmissions?”

“No need, though I’d appreciate some time to review and respond to my personal messages.  And my lady mother may have some outgoing correspondence.  I’ll check.”

“Oh fuck, not again,” Mark swore when the alarm blared a few hours later.  “Kareen, love, we need some clothes.  No, not those, they’re my bottoms, not yours.”

“Are we confined to quarters again?” Kareen demanded of the closest soldier seconds later.

“Not exactly, ma’am, though it would be safer if you stay in your room,” the young man virtually yelled to be heard over the siren.  Kareen was trying to argue her way up one deck to Cordelia when the ship jolted.  “Evasive maneuvers, ma’am.  It’s about to get rough.  Please go inside and sit.”

It seemed like forever, though it was only 20 or 30 minutes, when the alarm stopped and Admiral Jole’s calm voice echoed throughout the ship advising that sensors had detected a debris field, they’d changed course, and everyone not on the overnight shift was to stand down.

“Debris field, my ass,” Miles snarled as he stomped to the bridge.  “What the hell was it?”

“Debris field,” Oliver replied stiffly.  “Of at least three Imperial ships.  We just found most of our advance guard, blown to bits.  I’ve sent to coordinates to Home Fleet, requested reinforcements, adjusted our course, and put the escort ships on high alert.   Anything I’ve forgotten, My Lord Count?”

“The pirates were just a lucky diversion,” Miles realized.  “There’s something bigger out there.”

“So it would seem, my lord.  But until I know more, I suggest you return to your cabin.  Or perhaps you might do me the courtesy of informing the Empress of our situation and that I’ll provide a direct report as soon as we’ve heard back from Home Fleet?  That would be very helpful.”

“You don’t want to face Laisa any more than I do,” Miles said in a low voice.  “Fine.  You take care of the convoy and I’ll settle the womenfolk.”

The Empress, the Vicereine, and Grandma Elizabeth were all drinking tea in the Imperial quarters when Miles entered.  They even had pastry.

“Eat something,” Cordelia ordered, looking at her son’s pale face.  “Did you have another seizure?”

“No, but I might if we don’t get home soon.  Ladies, something attacked our advance ships.  Admiral Jole has no idea how or when.  Reinforcements are on the way.  We’re increasing our speed, but won’t take the next jump until we know for certain that both sides are clear.”

“What’s your theory, Admiral Naismith?”

“Classic honeytrap,” Miles grimaced.  “Distress call pulled one ship off course and instead of notifying Admiral Jole for instructions, the rest followed to assist their missing comrades.  Idiots!”

“How much danger are we in?” Laisa asked bravely.

“More than the average space traveler, less than your or my average day in Vorbarra Sultana,” Miles answered honestly.  “Given the size and munitions of the convoy, I’m honestly not too worried.  You’d need a very large fleet to capture us and nothing that big would’ve been allowed through the first jump from Komarr station.”

“What if it’s not foreign, Miles?” Grandma asked.  “What if there are traitors in Home Fleet?”

“Either way, Admiral Vorkosigan’s getting a hell of a last deployment,” Miles replied.  “And he’ll see what his son and his protégé can do together.  I can promise it won’t be pretty for the other side.  And that we WILL be chugging into home dock unscathed.”

Grandma was correct, the problem wasn’t foreign.  Unfortunately for them, their intelligence was faulty.  The majority of the Empress’ original escort ships didn’t make the last jump to Komarr Station.  While it meant no shore leave for hundreds of bored soldiers, it also meant the cortège that left Komarr was a fraction of the size it became less than an hour later.  The new escort vessels also had significantly more speed and firepower.  Those tactical advantages were used to good effect when the first three ships taking the next jump emerged into a firefight.  Though they took some hits, they also vaporized six dissident ships that had left Barrayar over the past week disguised as commercial vessels before jumping back through to rejoin the cortège.  The next six ships through the wormhole took care of the remaining 12.  Best of all, among the escape pods were three captains of the doomed rebellion.

Recognizing he was outranked, Admiral Jole allowed Lord Auditor Vorkosigan to conduct the primary interrogations.  The Empress was very perturbed that the plot was formulated by a Komarran separatist cell that had waited years for an opportunity to punish her for shaming their cause by marrying a Barrayaran.  They’d considered attacking on the outbound voyage to Komarr, but decided it would be a bigger statement if her remains were splattered through space with the Vorkosigans’.

“And the rest of us would’ve just been collateral damage,” Clark said unbelievingly at the update.  “How the hell long will this ridiculous rebellion continue?”

“Until all the rebels are dead,” Laisa declared.  “Generations, because the rebels refuse to see that Komarr needs Barrayar as much or more than Barrayar needs Komarr.  Any planet taken once can be taken again.  The Cetas made a grave mistake not conquering Komarr on their way to Barrayar.  They won’t make it again.  Not given the wealth Komarr has accumulated in the last century.  As the Ceta treasure trove confirmed, the ghem like shiny valuable things just as much as any other humanoids.”

“Komarr also doesn’t have the allies it once had,” Miles added.  “Standing by while your neighboring world gets ravaged doesn’t endear much trust.  And economically, Barrayar wasn’t the only world sick of paying huge tariffs to move their goods through Komarran space.  Otherwise, Komarr would’ve had allies to help hold off Da’s invasion.  The average Komarran doesn’t think of it in those terms, but if they’d been better neighbors, the Hegen Hub alliance would’ve been Pol, Aslund, Vervain, and Komarr combining to keep Barrayar a minor cul-de-sac planet like Kibou-daini.  Instead, Mad Yuri’s homicidal backwater is a three-planet Empire whose military might rivals the scary Cetas next door.”

“The mistake was underestimating Emperor Ezar and General Piotr,” Laisa sighed.  “Powerful men who knew how to hold grudges and inspire others to their side.  Komarr could’ve been building a space navy at the same time Barrayar was.  It was proposed, several times, but the counselors voted it down as too costly.  The best our planet had to offer refused to see past their own wallets.”

“That’s not the story I heard growing up,” Mark said softly.  “No, Rebecca Galen and every one of the other Martyrs were the smartest, most loyal people on the planet.”

“They were idiots,” Miles contradicted sharply.  “The Soletta was the most important resource their planet had and they left it relatively unprotected.  And having seen the chaos from when the mirrors were accidently damaged, I don’t see how the average Komarran doesn’t understand how easily they could be returned to subsistence existence with a few well-placed torpedoes.”

“Ordinary people rely on their government to protect their interests,” Sarah shrugged.  “I never understood why the Betan Survey didn’t fight harder for control of Sergyar.  Not only did we clearly have better military technology than Barrayar, it would’ve solved so many of our resource issues.”

“Three reasons,” Cordelia said crisply.  “Too hard to defend, not enough people to colonize it, and the wrong skill set to do it.  Maybe if we’d had a real navy, but even Steady Freddy wasn’t stupid enough to waste massive resources on a daughter colony Betans had no idea how to develop properly.”

“Hey, Sis, you calling us stupid?” John challenged.

“Not necessarily, just inexperienced when it comes to dealing with natural obstacles other than sandstorms.   Living underground or in domes is a very different mindset from dealing with weather every day.  Centuries from now, even when it’s safe to live wherever, most Komarrans will probably still flee to a dome rather than hunkering down and seeing a storm through the way Barrayarans and Sergyarans would.  And then there’s the rights issue.  Most Betans are far too spoiled to live anywhere their fundamental rights to food, shelter, medical care, and information aren’t 100% met.”

“Forty years on and the Sergyar power grid still isn’t stable,” Miles confirmed.  “Colonization takes time, Uncle John.  It’s also very, very costly.  Komarr pays its own way.  Sergyar doesn’t and won’t for decades, maybe centuries.”

“So why keep it?”

“Its strategic value on that side of the nexus,” Cordelia stated.  “Sergyar Fleet is a huge deterrent for retro factions on Escobar who’d like to retaliate for Prince Serg’s doomed invasion.  It also protects Barrayar’s rear flank from Rho Ceta.  Eight planets is a massive Empire, John.  We’d like to keep the Cetas from trying to swallow us or anyone else.”

“Plus it keeps us relevant in negotiations and new technology,” Mark added.  “Plenty of suppliers won’t guarantee delivery to Barrayar, but will deliver to Sergyar.  It’s stupid because it gives Komarrans brilliant opportunities to reverse-engineer and under-cut them.”

“Easier to move teams of engineers than tons of equipment,” Laisa confirmed with a satisfied grin.  “Surprisingly few companies cry foul.  Everyone wants to corner the market on military items, but the mark-ups aren’t enough to offset the shipping for bulky cargo like terraforming equipment.”

“Not sure I see the need to return to an agrarian society,” said John.  “Especially if it involves slaughtering animals for food.”

“Most vat protein is very good,” Miles agreed.  “If you have access, which people in outlying areas either don’t have or can’t afford.  And compared to the real thing, most vat wine tastes like piss.”

“That’s an exaggeration, but not totally off base,” Cordelia chuckled.  “I’ve eaten a lot of synthetic dairy products, John.  Mark’s ambrosia is the only one that truly rivals the real thing.  Plus it’s a hell of a lot more nutritious.”

“Even with the maple sugar,” Mark confirmed.  “Using it as the exclusive sweetener was Father’s idea.  Put the untapped sugar maples to work and plant more for future generations.”

“But what do the harvesters do the rest of the year?” Sarah asked.

“Subsist, a lot of them,” Miles said darkly.  “Despite our best efforts, there’s still way too much poverty in the mountains.  We’re certainly not the only District fighting hard to combat the problem.  Not everyone wants to change, Aunt Sarah.  Not after doing things the same way for generations.”

“And a lot of the ones that did want change followed Aral and me to Sergyar,” said Cordelia.  “We’ve been trying to recruit out of the mountains, but no one over 20 seems to want to leave.”

“Some will, now that their worst fear has come to pass and their Count is a mutie.  Ekaterin thinks we should establish an annual lottery for 100 passages to Sergyar.  We could name it for Da.”

“That wouldn’t be cheap.  Out of whose pocket?”

“The District’s.  I’d rather lose people to Sergyar than to another District.  Especially if the people leaving are only semi-literate.  Mandatory emigration training could do as much to improve their quality of life as the prospect of cheap homesteads.”

“MPVK would underwrite some of the training,” Mark offered.

“Why would you do that?” Clark asked.

“Eventually, MPVK may be hiring these people’s children.  The bigger and more literate the workforce, the better off we’ll be.  Think of it, Clark.  Will anyone who’s ridden on a spaceship to another planet refuse educational opportunities for their families?”

“Some try,” Cordelia sighed.  “Not many, but that’s why Sergyar’s mandatory education laws are enforced.  Truancy can be an issue in rural areas.  Remember, these are some of the same people whose families didn’t want their villages to have comconsoles or regular medical care.  And with so much still to do, we sometimes forget how far we’ve come in the last 40 years.  In the District, on Barrayar, throughout the Empire.”

“I love your optimism, Cordelia,” Laisa said solemnly.  “Though today’s battle proves it’s not nearly as far as Gregor and I had hoped.”

“I don’t recommend beheading anyone to get Barrayarans to take you seriously,” said Cordelia.  “Though it did work wonders for Piotr’s attitude.  That was the first time he saw me as Captain Naismith, not his son’s Betan frill.  After that, he’d bully Aral, but not me.”

“I always wondered how accurate Aral’s sketches were of that moment,” quiet Oliver contributed.  “Vordarian’s head rolling down the table and Count Piotr frozen in shock.”

“Very,” Cordelia giggled.  “Aral’s memory for moments like that is damn near holographic.  Was holographic,” she corrected herself, the levity in the room gone.  “I’m sorry,” she gasped and fled the conference room, her mother following.

“How long to Barrayar Station?” Mark asked into the uncomfortable silence.

“About 30 hours,” Admiral Jole answered.  “We’ve adjusted speed to dock in early afternoon.  The Emperor and Lady Vorkosigan will meet us upside.  Lord Vorpatril, Lady Alys, Captain Illyan, and Miss Kareen’s parents will meet us at the shuttleport.”

“Countess Vorkosigan,” Miles corrected.  “There won’t be another Lady Vorkosigan until Alex finds a woman crazy enough to want to be related to all of us.  God help her.”

“Odd to think that somewhere in the Nexus may be a small child who’s never heard of Barrayar, yet could wind up spending their life there,” said Clark.  “Does it have to be a little girl?”

“Unless the Imperium changes drastically in the next decades, yes, I think it will,” was the measured response.  “I like to think we’ll have modernized all the relevant marriage and parenthood laws by the time Alex reaches his majority, but this is one area where the average subject will likely have far more leeway than any of the 60 counts, their heirs, or those holding hereditary titles like Ivan’s.  But then again, who’d have thought Barrayar would ever accept a transsexual count?  Sometimes the Imperium surprises me for the better.”

“Like the growth in the Women’s Auxiliary,” Oliver added.  “I’m getting more and more women who are combat trained.  It’s still an uphill battle, but they’re making the climb.”

“All their sacrifices won’t mean shit until the Women’s Auxiliary is eliminated and the ranks equalized,” John disagreed.  “You want the best and the brightest protecting the Imperium, you can’t stop half the population from applying.  Especially now that no Barrayaran woman has to be pregnant unless she wants to be.”

“It’s not that simple, John,” Oliver said patiently.  “You come from a world where virtually all sex is consensual.   Many of our soldiers come from environments where subjugation of women is a way of life or anyone who looks like Miles gets the shit beaten out of them regularly.  I don’t just mean the grunts who’ll never leave Barrayar.  We’re the bloody flagship and some of the crew are making mutie jokes where they think the officers can’t hear them.  A not-insignificant proportion are also fantasizing about the Empress and Miss Kareen.  They won’t act on it because honored guests, but I can guarantee that Tech Koudelka would be sexually harassed daily.  I don’t like the Women’s Auxiliary any more than anyone else in this room, but I also recognize and appreciate the protection segregation provides.”

“Yet another issue that keeps my husband up at night,” Laisa sighed. 

Further conversation was curtailed by the arrival of a Vorbarra armsmen, who informed the Empress that she had messages waiting.  Miles had messages, too.

“It’s time to stand down, Miles,” Gregor said gently.  “You and Admiral Jole solved the case and caught the bad guys.  The rest of the route home is clear, Count Vorkosigan.  We don’t expect to see Our Lord Auditor again until long after your father has received his due respects and is laid to rest.   Speaking of, you are requested and required to take a sleeptimer tonight.  Cordelia and Mark, too.  We have a long week ahead of us all.  Best to be prepared.  Vorbarra out.”

Clark was surprised to see his cousins wear ship knits to breakfast.  Mark and Kareen went to the gym afterward.  Miles returned to his cabin to try to work on the eulogy he’d been procrastinating since his father’s death. 

Miles ignored the lunch tray until Roic threatened to fetch his mother.  After a few desultory bites, he sighed and said, “It’s time, isn’t it?”

“Yes, m’lord,” Roic answered, reaching into the closet for the meticulously pressed House blacks Miles had ordered kept out of sight since leaving Komarr.

A few doors down, another armsman was doing the same thing.  Aral’s personal batman dressed Mark with the same care he’d given his master for over 20 years.  Lord Mark’s trouser pockets held four monogramed handkerchiefs when Admiral Jole ordered everyone to their docking stations.  For the family, that was the Imperial suite’s opulent sitting room.  Cordelia was dry-eyed.  Everyone else, including the Empress, looked nervous.

Everyone sat up a little straighter when it was announced that the Emperor was aboard.  A cacophony of booted feet confirmed he wasn’t alone, though after Vorbarra armsmen did the obligatory advance sweep, only two figures entered.

“I never wanted to see her in black again,” was Miles’ first thought as he spotted his wife.  His second was that he wanted to soak Ekaterin’s breast with tears.  Generations of Vorkosigan dignity steadied him as he instead took her hand and waited for the Emperor to recognize him.  There were tears as Gregor held his foster mother and murmured so softly that no one else could hear.

“I’d like to see Aral,” Gregor declared after he’d greeted everyone.  “Alone, please.”

The Emperor was red-eyed when he returned.  Not for long – his major-domo had eye drops and a handkerchief.  And a watch, which he consulted frequently.

“We have a little bit of a walk,” Gregor reminded everyone.  “It might be noisy.  And crowded.”

There was no way to get lost.  Not with almost every serviceman on the station standing at attention as the family, officers, and armsmen passed by.  The salutes began as the casket, borne by Pym, Roic, and the strongest of the Vorkosigan armsmen, made its way from the flagship to the Imperial shuttle.  Many hardened military men were fighting back tears as the Emperor and Empress solemnly acknowledged their presence and disappeared from sight.

Clark wished he had a hand to hold as the shuttle whisked them downside.  The ending of one part of the journey, yet the next leg promised to be so much worse.  The uneasy sensation intensified as the major-domo steered everyone into place before ordering the Vorbarra twenty down the shuttle’s ramp to where five beloved figures waited on the tarmac.  They were followed by the convoy’s senior officers, the family, armsmen, and finally, the casket.  The longest-serving Vorkosigan armsmen moved in lockstep as they slowly, carefully, reverently brought their Count back to Barrayar for the last time.

Gregor supported Cordelia – Ivan had a grip on Laisa’s elbow – as the casket was passed through each of the Vorkosigan twenty to the waiting hearse.  He then turned and called, “Admiral Jole!”

“Yes, Sire,” Oliver responded with a crisp salute.

“We thank you and your troops for bringing the Viceroy and his family home from Sergyar.  You all have Our gratitude for a job well done.  General Allegre, I commend Viceroy Admiral Count Vorkosigan to your care.  Admiral Jole, you are hereby relieved.  With Our thanks.”

There were more salutes before people were led to groundcars for the well-guarded procession to Vorhartung Castle.  Despite knowing he’d see the Sergyar Fleet Admiral throughout most of the upcoming ceremonies, at that moment, Clark wanted nothing more than to order the car’s rear canopy opened and Oliver added to their group of direct mourners.  It took everything he had to hold back, knowing the last thing his uncle’s lover wanted was to attract attention and the new, oblivious Count Vorkosigan would kill him for deviating from their orders.  It was, Clark recognized, quite a conundrum.  When surrounded by a variety of right choices, how do you decide which action will hurt the least?

“Not the time, Clark,” Grandma Elizabeth said quietly, her gaze following her grandson’s to the stoic figure standing at attention.  “Not only would the truth irreparably harm Aral’s reputation, the gossip would end Oliver’s career.  Hardly the proper reward for decades of dedicated service.”

“Oliver’s or Cordelia’s,” John added.  “The blowback would force Gregor to replace both of them.  Why do you think they kept everything so quiet all these years?”

“You know that’s insane, right?” Clark almost wailed.  “People are allowed private lives.”

“Not here, they’re not,” her father corrected.  “At least not in the echelons in which your aunt found herself after her ship found a brand-new world.  A long time ago, Cordelia Naismith decided being with Aral Vorkosigan was worth sacrificing the rights and privileges we Betans take for granted.  It’s not for us to gainsay that choice, Son.  Especially not when her reason for accepting 40 years of social degradation is lying in a hearse a few meters ahead of us.”

“Cordelia’s not the only one who knew the price he’d pay for loving Aral,” Grandma added.  “I’m certain Oliver’s been privy to plans for a Vorkosigan funeral convoy since he took the fleet promotion.  As fleet commander, he’s probably seen the plans for what would happen if any of the rest of us died, too.  There’ll be time for consolation later, Clark, away from prying eyes.  Right now, Oliver has to be Admiral Jole, the pride of Sergyar Fleet.”

“That’s a lonely place to be,” said Clark, looking at the abnormally still officer at the head of a somber group of men in dress uniforms covered in medals and commendations.

“It is,” his grandmother agreed.  “But it’s exactly where Aral would want him.  Duty done, to him, Cordelia, Gregor, the District, and the Imperium.  Some convoy scenarios had to include Mark and Kareen.  Maybe one or two extreme ones factored in Miles.  I love your cousin, Clark, but I can’t deny that having him aboard his father’s funeral cortège would be any commanding officer’s worst nightmare.  Yet here we are, safe and sound, because Oliver knows the Vorkosigan quirks well enough to manage Lord Auditor Count Vorkosigan without wounding either’s dignity.  That’s quite a feat.”

“It certainly was, Mother,” John agreed as the groundcar began to move.  “I bet Sarah they’d be screaming at each other before the convoy reached Komarr.  God knows what Miles said to poor Roic.”

“Nothing that will ever need repeating,” Sarah sighed.  “I feel for Ekaterin.  She’s about to bear the brunt of Miles’ pent-up emotions.  It won’t be pretty.”

In the front compartment, two Vorkosigan armsmen made momentary eye contact before the driver again concentrated on keeping the appropriate pace as dozens of vehicles left the base. 

Fifty-eight standards were flying above Vorhartung Castle when the cortège finally eased to a stop.  The Vorbarra flag was raised as the Emperor emerged from his groundcar and extended a hand to his wife.  Few paid attention as Ivan assisted his widowed aunt.  No, the focus was on the next vehicle.  Pym was at his most dignified as he helped his passengers disembark.  It was only when two tall women and two short men stepped toward the Emperor that the 60th flag began to rise.  Miles stopped to watch the sun glisten off the silver leaf and mountains before his jaw tightened and his eyes filled.  Yes, the 10th Count Vorkosigan was present.  Except the flag wasn’t for him.  No, that brown and silver standard flew to mark the 11th Count’s first visit to Vorhartung.  And it hurt like hell.