Elena Bothari is eighteen years old when Tante Cordelia, no, Countess Vorkosigan tells her about her mother. They'd been talking about the plans for the trip to Beta Colony and Elena had brought up trying to find her mother. And then... and then she'd found out that everyone had lied to her for her entire life. That everyone had known where she had come from. That they'd lied to her every day they never told her. That they gave her to the man who tortured and raped her mother to raise as his daughter.
Elena doesn't want to, or even need to, hear why they'd done it. This is Barrayar. It's about honor. It's always about honor. But no one had cared about her honor.
She'd always looked up to her father, but now she can't stand to look at him. How can she trust him now, after this? If he'd done that to her mother, who else had he done it to? Would he have done it to her? How far would the Vorkosigans have protected her? She's an armsman's daughter, that gives her some protection. But her father's an armsman. Who protects her from her father? It should be the Count, but he's the one who had given her to her mother's rapist in payment for her father's service. She can't trust the Count. She doesn't even trust the Countess, not anymore.
She should make a plan and carry it out; that's what Countess Vorkosigan would do. And all Elena can think is that she needs to leave. She can barely stand to look at any of them anymore. They all lied to her. They all kept this from her. And for what? For her father's service? Was Elena nothing but a reward to them? Did anyone speak for her, or her mother, or were they too concerned with rewarding her father?
She doesn't have a lot of money saved up. She doesn't have anywhere to go. She has no one to turn to. The Vorkosigans are her liegelords, but the Vorkosigans were content to keep her in ignorance out of respect for her father's wishes.
But maybe there is someone she can ask. Elena's not Vor, but she's Barrayaran. She's Barrayaran, she's sworn oaths. All oaths go to the Emperor. And maybe the Emperor will see her. They'd played together a little as children, Elena on sufferance, but maybe that would be enough for an audience and maybe a favor.
She could probably get away on her own, if she had to, if the Emperor won't help. She has little money, but she might be able to manage. But it would be easier, it would be better, if she had help. And there's no one who could provide as much help as the Emperor. She could run away by herself, but she'd be found. To disappear, she needs more than what she can do herself. Gregor is the only one she knows who isn't beholden to the Vorkosigans; they're beholden to him.
She grits her teeth and smiles and plays the proper daughter, nausea roiling through her, while waiting one long week until approval for an Imperial audience arrives. She sneaks off to the Residence, telling Miles only that she's going to visit the Koudelkas. Drou didn't know where she came from. Drou would support her story if she needs her to. But she can't ask Drou for help right now; Drou already has four daughters of her own, and her husband's more loyal to the Vorkosigans than anyone. Elena can't rely on anyone loyal to the Vorkosigans right now. Not if she's going to disappear.
She bows to Gregor, who assesses her carefully. She hasn't seen him since his majority. He looks more official now, or maybe that's only because this is the first time Elena's seen him in his official capacity. He'd always carefully put 'the Emperor' aside when they were young.
"Miss Bothari," Gregor says, his arms waving a question at her and inviting her to sit all at once.
Elena sits, even though she would really prefer not to. She can't presume on familiarity here. Not when she's going to ask him to defy the Vorkosigans. "Sire, I've come to ask a favor."
"What is it?" Gregor asks. He has to know something's very wrong. Elena should go to Count Vorkosigan or one of his deputies with any problems. She should never jump over Count Vorkosigan and go directly to the Emperor. She wonders what he's thinking, what kind of terrible scenarios he's considering. But it's not anything like that. It's just a private tragedy, nothing at all about the safety of the Imperium. It's nothing to concern the Emperor about, except that Elena doesn't have anyone else she can concern about it. The Vorkosigans already know, and aren't concerned.
"I want a scholarship to one of your District colleges." If Elena's going to run off, if she's finally going to do what she wants, then she's going to do what she wants. She's going to get the education that her father doesn't want her to have. Even Countess Vorkosigan with all her scholarships won't give one to Elena when her father is so concerned about what would happen if Elena went to college. Her father is the armsman. His opinions are more important than Elena's. "Not the capital, they'll find me too easily here. I can disappear somewhere small and I can make my own way after that. I just need some help getting away and getting started."
"You want to break with the Vorkosigans?" Gregor asks, lifting one eyebrow. "I'm afraid I'll need a reason."
Elena takes a deep breath and starts, "my mother was a prisoner of war over Escobar. Prince Serg raped and tortured her, then gave her to my father for that treatment to continue." At Gregor's vastly-alarmed look, Elena quickly adds, "the Countess says that Armsman Bothari is my father, not Prince Serg." She's not claiming to be Gregor's half-sister, she can't have him think that for a minute. "They checked all the uterine replicators before they released the babies. But I was an Escobaran war bastard and they let me think-- they--" Elena fights back tears and can't finish.
"They did not think it important to tell you," Gregor fills in for her, softly, gently.
"They valued my father's service," Elena says. And was Elena just one payment for his service? She doesn't deny that her father has served the Vorkosigans well. But that can't mean that they can lie to her. It's not honorable. But Elena isn't Vor. And her father's a Vorkosigan armsmen. They didn't think it was important. They'd never lie to the Emperor about something like that. But Elena's not important. They owe her protection. They apparently didn't think they owed her the truth.
"Is your mother still alive?" Gregor asks, his face a terrible mask.
"I don't know. Countess Vorkosigan says ImpSec kept an eye on her, on all the-- on all the ones who'd had Barrayaran bastards. There were seventeen replicators," Elena realizes. She feels abruptly sick. Seventeen women, seventeen children. Seventeen lives, one of them hers, sixteen of them unknown. Sixteen of her fellow bastards who might not know where they came from, what dishonor had created them. None of them could have been from Prince Serg, surely. They would have checked that. They would have been careful. But who were the fathers? How many of the women had her father raped? Why was Elena the only one handed over to her mother's rapist and the others were freed from that fate? Why was Elena sacrificed while the others got new starts? Why did they keep Elena only to lie to her?
"Do you wish to find your mother?" Gregor asks.
Elena hesitates. "I don't know. I hadn't considered that far. I just want to get away." To get away from them.
Gregor nods. "I understand. Well, Elena, you can have that scholarship in the District or to one of my colleges on the South Continent. I assure you, they won't think to look for you there. You can have a stipend as well." He looks her carefully in the eye. "Do you wish to change your oath?"
As long as she's sworn to the Vorkosigans, she has a duty to them to match their protection of her. Even thinking of that duty makes her feel sick to her stomach. And what was their protection worth? She never wants to see them again. She never wants to go home again. If she swears to Count Vorbarra instead, they can't compel her, not without Gregor allowing it.
Does she dare trust Gregor, Prince Serg's son? Well, she trusts him more than the Vorkosigans right now. And he's her Emperor. If she's not going to trust him, she's going to have to leave the Imperium. And that will take more money and resources than she has right now, and far more than she can beg from Gregor with just the memory of childish games behind them.
"Yes, Count Vorbarra," she says. He stands and offers her his open hands. Elena kneels. She doesn't remember all the words of the liege-changing oath, just the simple one to become a liegewoman, but Gregor prompts her.
When it's done, she feels like a boulder has been lifted from her shoulders. She feels free, even though all she's done is bind herself to another Vor.
"Thank you, sire," she says, blinking back tears. Gregor carefully helps her up. It feels like the kindest anyone has been to Elena since the day they took her from her mother and sent her to this planet.
"I can make arrangements and have you leave tonight if you wish," Gregor says. "You can stay here until then. Would you like me to tell the Vorkosigans anything in particular, or nothing?"
"Nothing," Elena decides. That's honorable, isn't it, returning service for service. They hadn't seen fit to tell her until Elena had forced the issue, and it had been the Countess, who had always liked Elena. But who hadn't liked her enough to tell her until now. Who had never liked her enough to put Elena's interest, her future, her very life ahead of her father's history. Elena doesn't know if her father or the Count would ever have seen fit to tell her anything. If they preferred ignorance, Elena can return the favor. "And... and I think I'll take the South Continent."
Gregor gives her a formal, Imperial nod. And seven hours later, Elena lands in the South Continent, a suitcase in her hand that she's never opened, a credit-chit in her pocket, and a new future to make for herself.
She won't look back.