The old Vorbarra stronghold was falling apart in places. It had been mostly abandoned for three centuries, with only the most minor of maintenance keeping it ready for when it was needed. It was only ever used sparingly; the Emperor far preferred the capital. Even the Cetagandans had barely touched this place.
There was a legend of the Firsters, about how they'd made oath. Blood oaths were too dangerous; they'd instead created the philosophy of the soul. In the winter, you could see your soul in every breath. In the summer, you merely had to live it. You could feel your soul in your chest next to your heart. It sang when you protected your liegemen. It ached when you broke your oath. You could die of oath-fever in the old days.
Proper Vor only made oath to the Emperor in the autumn, in the way of the Firsters. The Vorbarra fortress was opened for two weeks every year as the leaves turned and before the first snow. The Vorbarras always liked to continue the tradition where they could, especially in these degenerating times. For two weeks, the Emperor held court in the ancient ways and he allowed the unsworn to come.
It was Aral's turn when he was nine years old. He made the way alone; there were no other children that night. Once, before lightflyers and galactics, before outsiders had invaded and changed everything, everyone came to the Vorbarra autumn court when they needed to swear to the Emperor. It had dwindled now until it was mostly Vor children and Vorbarra liegemen. In Aral's father's day, this had been where military apprenticeships ended, where new officers were presented to the Emperor. Now, new officers had their own ceremony at the service academies. It was better these days, Aral had been told.
All he knew was that it was cold in the night's gentle wind. He was wearing his best House uniform and the leaves were soft beneath his boots, the path worn down by everyone who had come before him. Aral walked past the graveyard, the long list of Emperors and their chosen vassals who predated the Imperial Cemetery in the capital. This was the history of the Vor, the history of his planet, and it led directly to Aral's future, already set and prescribed for him. His mother always said the Vor liked their rituals without any ritual in them, but this was different. This was making oath for the first time. This was truly becoming Vor. Most Barrayarans only ever swore to their Count. Aral was lucky. He was to be sworn to the Emperor first before he could be sworn to his father. The Emperor must always come first for him. He could only have one liegelord first in his heart. Emperor Dorca had fought the entire planet to ensure that.
The forest trail was old and well-worn, lit by torches and the moonlight through the trees. Aral found his way carefully; it wouldn't do to trip. Selig would never let him live it down. When Selig had sworn three years ago, it had been raining and he'd sneezed when he'd finished. Aral had made the mistake of laughing when he'd heard about it. Selig would take any opportunity for revenge. Aral was better at the violin than Selig. If he turned out to be a better Vor as well, Selig was not going to forgive him.
So Aral walked carefully and didn't trip. He wouldn't come to his first oath dirty. The trees towered over him like guards and Aral thought the ghosts of his ancestors were watching him, assessing him. They wanted to know if Aral was worthy of the name he carried. They wanted to see if he could carry the legacies of all who came before him, of Emperor Dorca, of Count Pierre le Sanguinaire, of his own father.
Aral could hear the court before he could see it, the sound carrying through the air while the fire light died in the trees, swallowed by the night. Aral took a deep breath and steadied himself before he made the final turn into the clearing. He didn't know how many people attended the Emperor's court, but, for him, there was only one person there. He knew everyone he was surrounded by, but he could see only the Emperor. Uncle Yuri was sitting on a camp stool near the fire, surrounded by his vassals, safe in the night the way none of them had been safe for twenty years before Aral had been born.
This was the legend of the Firsters. They had found themselves lost on a planet so far from home. They had lost their technologies. They had lost their future. They had lost everything they had. And so they made it anew, knowing that the only thing they could trust was each other. They had created unbreakable bonds between each other because it was the only thing the wormhole had not taken from them. They had used everything they had to bring life out of a poisonous planet. They had bound even their own souls to the task. To betray your oath was to betray every sacrifice of your ancestors. To betray your oath was to betray everything that had created Barrayar. To betray your oath was to lose your own soul. And yet some people dared. Some people lost their souls and their honor.
Aral must never be one of them. Aral was Vor. The Vor served. The Vor knew the value of their honor and of their souls. Aral would place his hands between the Emperor's, and, with it, his life. If he could not give it over without hesitation, he could not do it at all. The path before him was set and he walked steadily upon it. If he deviated, he was no longer Vor.
There was no pageantry with the Firsters. There was no pageantry tonight. It was only ever people around a fire, eating, talking, laughing. It was the same tonight. It was the same every time the Emperor held court in the open air in the manner of their ancestors. Aral was the only one there who was scared. Everyone else was enjoying the evening, the Emperor presiding over a gathering of family, friends, and loyal retainers. No one even looked at Aral until he approached the Emperor.
Aral walked carefully, knowing that if he faltered now, he would always have to bear it. He would not betray his name by showing fear. He knew the burden he was to take up. He knew the task of the Vor. The Emperor beckoned him, his face half in shadow. With everyone around him as witnesses, Aral Vorkosigan went down on one knee before his uncle.
The words for this were always simple. A Vor lord's life was never his own. He placed it and his honor in service to his planet, to his Emperor. With his soul in his voice, Aral Vorkosigan would serve and obey Yuri Vorbarra as his Emperor until death released him. Souls were bound in the body and oaths were bound in the soul. The oath would last until one of the souls left the body. Or until the body chose to shatter the soul and break the oath. It would be unthinkable. It happened all the time. Wars were fought for centuries over broken oaths. But Aral could never break his. Those wars were the past. He knew what the future was. He knew what his life would be.
Aral knew what he was swearing. The Vor were officers. The Vor served. The Vor fought. The war had only barely been over before he was born; Selig said he could even remember parts of it. His father and both his grandfathers had followed Emperor Dorca to war. Aral would follow his Emperor anywhere. He would serve his Emperor. He knew what that would mean. If the Cetagandans returned, if another Count rebelled against the Emperor, if anything or anyone tried to destroy what the Firsters had built, Aral Vorkosigan would serve his Emperor. In peace or war, he would obey his Emperor.
It was dark and quiet as he made oath, but when he stood, the rush of the Emperor holding court began once more. Aral was relegated to the edges. Selig was standing there and he nodded at Aral like they were adults, like Aral had proven something here tonight, instead of simply making himself Vor.
And he could see it. He could see the Vor. In the dark, lit only by the fire, Aral could see the threads binding everyone to each other, to the Emperor. The Emperor sat in the center, the light playing on his face making him seem a stranger, something out of the Firster legends they repeated around the campfire. He seemed the true manifestation of the Vor and Aral could see it all spread out from him, everyone's oath to their Emperor stretching to Uncle Yuri, their oaths to their Counts and commanding officers stretching between them and into the night. The darkness helped Aral see it better. It glowed like embers. He thought he could even feel it against his skin, a whisper of silk. For the first and only time in his life, Aral Vorkosigan saw the Vor.
The moon was waxing overhead and the stars were out. Both were here before the Firsters and both would remain long after the Vor were dead and gone. But they served as witnesses for this, too. It was not just everyone attending on Uncle Yuri. It was the trees and the dirt and the fire and the crackling logs and the smell of cooking meat and the feeling of his brother's arm around his shoulder, passing him something to eat. Aral had fasted all day for this. But he was truly Vor now and he ate his first meal as a sworn man, juices running down his fingers.
Aral's mother was sitting close to Uncle Yuri, her sister and brother close by. Aral's father was speaking with Count Vordarian. Catherine was somewhere in the crowd, but Aral couldn't see her. No one was looking at him now. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened at all. But Aral was different than he was before. He felt settled and proper, where he should be.
"Not too bad?" Selig asked.
"No," Aral replied.
No, not too bad. That came later, two years on, the blood and the screams rushing in his ears, something from the wrong side of a legend. Aral never wanted to be a traitor. Aral never wanted to outlive his honor. But two years after that night, the fire sparking, the Emperor's court safe around him, his oath and his soul in his voice, it was suddenly, abruptly, inexorably over. Two years later, his mother dead, his siblings dead, his future as lost as the Firsters's wormhole, Aral Vorkosigan became an oath-breaker.
He had sworn his oath to last until death released him, but the Emperor was not dead. Aral was not dead. He could not swear to another. That had been his oath.
But he swore to another anyway.
Aral's father said they had been freed of their oaths by Uncle Yuri breaking his, but Aral had spent six months memorizing the oath to his Emperor before he made it; he would remember every word of it for the rest of his life. He knew that was not part of any oath he had sworn then or tonight. It was an oath of fealty. It was an oath of protection. There were no conditions to it, no equal exchange. A Vor could spend his life in service in return for one second of consideration from his liegelord and call it just. That was the Vor way.
Aral had always been told that was the Vor way. Aral had always been told to hold his honor as more valuable than his life. But now Aral was breaking his honor to save his life and he felt like he was losing his soul. He didn't know how to get it back. He didn't know if he could.
He'd thought he'd seen the Vor that night. Now, he didn't know what the Vor was. If Vor was sacrifice, if Vor was service, then this was nothing Vor at all. If they were true Vor, they should be dead. If they were true Vor, they should obey the Emperor and die. It was what their Emperor commanded of them. They should be the loyal men they had sworn themselves to be.
But they hadn't died and so they swore themselves to another, turning themselves into the traitors that Uncle Yuri had declared them to be. That must be the power of the Emperor, Aral thought dizzily. He declared things and they became so. Mama had not been a traitor and she had died. Selig and Catherine had not been traitors and they had died. Aral had survived and so he became a traitor.
Aral thought he could understand oath-fever now. He was doubled-over in agony over it, shaken deeply in his soul, his chest aflame. It did not seem to bother his father or his grandfather at all. But his grandfather remembered the Bloody Centuries. This was nothing better than that. This was nothing honorable. Had they lied to Aral all these years? Or had they simply thought him a child? He was not a child any longer. Everyone in that room had died, Aral's father said. Everyone had died. Death released them. What survived now were simply the lucky ones. They were free to swear to another. They must swear to another, or they could not call themselves Vor.
Ezar Vorbarra had no firelight in his eyes as Aral knelt to him on his father's order. There was no ritual to it. There were only five witnesses. They were indoors. The Emperor did not lie dead in front of them, freeing them of their oaths. Nothing here was as it should be.
How could Ezar Vorbarra trust them in their dishonor? And how could they trust him? Aral could bring himself to understand his father and grandfather becoming traitors on the corpses of their children. But what had Ezar Vorbarra lost? General Vorbarra was a war leader, true Vor, and now he was risking everything by taking their oaths. Aral could hazily understand what his father and his grandfather had decided, that revenge outweighed honor, that surviving outweighed being Vor, but he could not understand Ezar Vorbarra. What had Yuri done to him? Ezar would betray an Emperor for no reason. Was it only friendship with Aral's father? Was it ambition? Who else might Ezar betray? What else might Ezar do?
When Aral had sworn the first time, the Emperor had been an old man wearing an old uniform, a man turned a myth by the flickering light. Ezar Vorbarra's uniform was pressed and proper and the light was harsh. Aral could see everything. He wished he couldn't. He wished, desperately, that he'd died a Vor instead of lived as something he could only barely begin to understand, but that his father and grandfather certainly did. They had no doubts. It was only Aral, lost in his head, his ears still ringing, his future as lost as the one the Firsters had seen vanish with the wormhole. If their revolt failed, Aral would die a traitor. If their revolt succeeded, Aral would have to live as one. Aral was a traitor no matter what he did. The Emperor had decreed it so. And Aral would have to live with it, live without his soul, live without his honor.
But the Emperor had broken honor first.
But if the Emperor could not be trusted to hold fast to honor, if the Emperor did not keep his own oaths, then what was the point of the Vor? All oaths went to the Emperor; Aral had seen it clearly that night. What did it mean if the Emperor was unworthy of holding them? What did it mean if the Emperor wouldn't safeguard their honor? What was the point of the Vor if even the Emperor betrayed it?
If the Emperor were honorless, then the Vor were nothing. Aral was nothing.
He could not cling to an oath already broken, Aral's father had told him. But there was nothing there, if oaths could vanish. Oaths were meant to merge into the air, become as vital to you as your breath, become as essential as the air in your lungs. They were meant to surround you at all times. You were meant to die from the lack of them. But that wasn't true. Aral knew the stories of his planet and he knew that men would break their oaths, that men would value material matters over their souls. But the Emperor was meant to keep them. The Emperor had promised Aral his protection. What did it mean if the Emperor decided it was better if Aral were dead? Wouldn't it then be his duty to die? Aral could not declare that he knew better than the Emperor. That was not Aral's world. That was the world of the Bloody Centuries, one Aral's grandfather was embracing yet again, where family was more important than Imperial authority, where a Count could gather an army, where a Count could decide his own Emperor, where a man could choose his own oaths. It was a world of chaos and betrayal. It was not the world Aral had thought he'd known. It was not the world Aral wanted to live in. Selig and Catherine would never have to live in it. Aral wished desperately that he had died with his honor instead of living with dishonor.
It wasn't simply his family that he had lost. It was not only his honor, as painful as it was to lose that. It was his future, winked out in a blink like a wormhole. Aral had known everything to expect: following Selig to the Academy, becoming an officer, serving the Emperor. That was all gone now. But no, not gone. It had just mutated into something unrecognizable, something deeply horrible, a monster inside this nightmare. Aral would be a soldier in this war. He would serve an upstart Emperor. It was the same from the outside. From the inside, Aral was still screaming. He wasn't sure he would ever stop.
He vomited after he made oath. He could feel everyone's eyes on him, on little Aral, the spare, the traitor, the only one who had survived the night, the one who shouldn't have. It should have been Selig. But, no. Selig was the perfect one. Selig was more honorable. Selig could not have done it. Selig would have died at his Emperor's order. As Aral should have. As they all should have.
"It was like this in the war," Aral could hear his father say over the ringing in his ears, over the wailing in his broken soul. "The ones who couldn't live without their honor didn't survive."
And Aral's grandfather, who had always fought with Aral's father about honor, who never agreed with Aral's father about anything, who would call Aral's father insulting names when he thought Aral couldn't hear... Aral's grandfather agreed with him.
And Ezar Vorbarra sat there, perched on a standard issue camp stool, assessing his domain, his tiny Imperium.
Aral squinted, but he could not see fealty. He could not see honor. He saw only desperation and grief. They had had to leave the bodies behind. They had had to leave everything behind. Perhaps, Aral thought, rationalizing and knowing it, hating himself for it and for every moment he breathed, they had had to leave the Vor behind as well. No true Vor could have survived that night, but they had. Their honor was tarnished, battered, destroyed, but they still breathed. They still had their hearts, if not their souls.
"It grows back," Aral's grandfather told him. Your honor. Your soul. You could get it back.
And they weren't dogs. They were Vor. It had to be more important to be loyal than obedient. There was a greater loyalty than to the Emperor. There was the loyalty to the planet and to the Vor itself. And the Emperor had broken it. It was on Aral to uphold it, even if it meant breaking from the Emperor. Wasn't that Vor as well? He had to serve. This was a different service, maybe even a greater one. He would serve the planet and live without his honor and he would see a different Emperor rule Barrayar, one who had more honor than Uncle Yuri.
But Ezar Vorbarra had taken their oaths without ever being betrayed.
But it was done now. Aral was obedient to his Count and he had a new Emperor to be obedient to. He would try to get it back. He would serve his new Emperor. He would serve the Count-his-father. And he would try to find his honor and the Vor again. He would try to find the serenity of that night again, with the forest and his ancestors embracing him, with the rush of voices, with the smell of the wood and the fire and food, with the knowledge that he was Vor and nothing could change that. He would try to find it again. He had to. He was Vor, wasn't he? It had to mean something. Everyone had died for nothing if it didn't.
It was because of that, Aral later thought, that he gave Ezar so much. It was because he had broken faith with Yuri. It was because he had still been searching for the Vor, not realizing that he wouldn't find it. That there was nothing to find, not really. Honor was held inside of you. It could not be found elsewhere. It could not be taken from you. You had to shatter it yourself. And Aral had shattered it far too many times. Aral had known its value and he had sacrificed it for Ezar, for the Imperium, for the whispered promise of not another Yuri.
When he took oath to Gregor, his hands between those of a four-year-old, the only fires were the ones he had left behind him, burning his honor over Escobar. He had given everything to Ezar that Ezar had ever demanded from him. He had given nothing to Uncle Yuri that Uncle Yuri had not taken from him. He now had a third chance to destroy his honor for an Emperor.
At least it was proper this time. They attended the Emperor's deathbed to be released and immediately resworn. Aral hadn't been released from his oath when the breath had left Uncle Yuri; Aral had instead abandoned it on that murderous night. It had been stripped from him and turned him into a traitor. Here and now, he was released properly from his oath to Ezar. Aral watched the breath leave Ezar's body for the last time and, with it, Ezar's tattered soul. Aral was free to honorably swear to any other Emperor for the first time since childhood.
He could feel eyes on him, daring him to declare himself the Emperor and be shot for it. Instead, he went to one knee for a child. There was more ritual and honor here than there had been the last time he had done this. And Aral was determined that this be the final time he did this. He swore to himself, as he swore himself to Gregor, that Gregor would be his final Emperor. He would never swear to another. He would not outlive this child. He would not break oath to this child.
"What will I give you," he thought, looking at Gregor. "I'll give you the next sixteen years of my life. I'll give you all the honor I lost to Yuri, all the honor I sacrificed to Ezar. I'll give you everything I have left. I don't know if it will be enough."
A Vor lord's oath to his Emperor was meant to be sacred and sacrosanct. Aral had kept it even more to Ezar to make up for what he had not been able to give freely to Yuri. But he had bought it back in blood and dishonor, worse than the night he had sworn to Ezar. Yuri had had less blood on his hands than Aral did now. That Aral had done it all at an Emperor's order was no balm to his honor. He had not used himself up with Yuri after all; no, he'd saved just enough of himself to destroy it for Ezar. Aral had lost his honor when he had sworn to Ezar. His grandfather had been right; it had grown back. But only enough that Aral could sacrifice it, too. When he swore to Gregor, as he had sworn to Ezar, he had so little honor left.
But Gregor was four years old, a child, and he looked nothing like Yuri. He barely looked like Ezar. They'd never buried Yuri, they'd spread him far and wide instead. The graves of Aral's siblings were empty. Serg's grave was empty as well. But they would bury Ezar properly as befitting an Emperor, not as someone who had killed his own son as surely as Uncle Yuri had killed Aral's family. Aral had known that before the fleet had ever broken orbit, before he had accepted any orders from Serg. There was never any honor over Escobar. Aral had known that and obeyed his Emperor anyway.
But there was another chance now. It was unlooked for and Aral did not know if he truly wanted it, but it was before him nonetheless and he could not falter now. He didn't know what was left in him, a broken man, haunted by too many ghosts and too many regrets. But he had put himself into the Emperor's service when he was nine years old. He had put himself into the Emperor's service when he was eleven years old. Now, at forty-four, he did it again. One Emperor had tried to kill him. Another had taken his honor in payment for his life. This third one would be what Aral would make of him. It staggered him. It balanced him, the weight of it bearing down opposite the ghosts of his perfect brother, his murdered sister, all the ghosts of that night and every night since.
Gregor needed Aral to be Vor once again. And for Gregor's sake, Aral would be that again. When Aral took oaths as the Regent, he tried to see the threads. He tried to see the magic he had seen that night in the dark. But he'd lost it long ago. He would never get it back.
But, nine years later, he gave his son a better start. In the old Vorbarra stronghold, beyond the graveyard, into the trees, lit only by fire and moonlight, Miles Vorkosigan knelt for Gregor Vorbarra for the first time.
Aral could hear the ghosts in the leaves, both old Yuri’s laughter and the way he had screamed at the end. This was how loyalty was given, this was how honor was earned. This was what had died in Aral that night, killed in the massacre. Aral didn't believe in the Vor anymore; Yuri had killed that, too. Aral had spent the Regency demolishing it. The Vor were the warrior caste; Academy cadets were no longer Vor. The Vor took the planet in their charge; Aral's chosen successors were not Vor. The syllable was meaningless; they might as well give it to everyone. Aral had married a galactic, one who thought as little of the Vor as Aral did. His son was more Vor than Aral was.
But his son would inherit an Emperor more worthy than Yuri, more honorable than Ezar. Aral tipped his head back at the waxing moon and stared at the stars, his silent witnesses. Aral had spent his honor amongst the stars, but he had spilled it here first. He had lost his first oath in a blood-soaked night. He had kept the second one through his own conducted massacre. He had only his third to save him. And he thought he might have succeeded in that.
And for all that Aral looked that night, staring into the shadows, walking between the trees, listening to the past, he didn't see the Vor.
But he thought Miles did.