Olivia Vorkosigan’s brother was a traitor.
She’d heard it first in the kitchens of Vorkosigan House, from delivery boys too new to recognize the Prime Minister’s daughter – I heard the mutie kid’s always been crazy, but now he’s flipped, if he’s going to lead his offworld fleet on the Imperium. She’d heard it in the whispers of the girls at school, falling abruptly silent when she approached; she had seen it in her father’s grim silences, her mother’s tired eyes, in the stiff line of Gregor’s shoulders as he turned from them at Winterfair, two quick, decisive strides taking him to Count Vordrozda’s side.
And now, standing on the roof of Vorkosigan House, looking out over the closed gates and empty road, she knew it.
She looked across the Caravanserai at the empty turrets of Vorhartung Castle, where the last banner had descended twenty minutes ago. If they had won the day, her father would have called ahead to tell her mother. That he had not meant that there was only bad news.
Her fingers tightened in the folds of her long skirt, ignoring the cold wind that sent it whipping around her ankles, blowing her dark hair over her face. It meant that under the law, Miles was a traitor.
She didn’t believe it. She had not believed it when rumors had turned into reports under the Chief of ImpSec’s seal, and Uncle Simon had started appearing at Vorkosigan House at four in the morning with dark circles under his eyes. Nor even when Uncle Simon had disappeared into ImpSec’s cells, and her parents had begun keeping their Armsmen close. She could believe just about anything of her impossible, manic, magnificent brother – but not treason. Miles’ loyalty was more than an oath, it was the steel core that held his often-broken and rebuilt self together. It was his soul.
She saw the wind catch the first rising banner, its silver edge flashing like a sudden star over the Imperial Residence, raising an answering spark of anger in her. Don’t you know that too, Gregor? Surely you knew it once.
Still the road was empty. She tried the words out: My brother is a traitor. They stuck on her lips; so different from the introductions that had come easily all her childhood. My father is the Lord Regent, the Prime Minister, my mother is the heroine of the Pretendership…
How could we lose so much, so fast? The last three months still seemed unreal, like something out of those ten-mark Isolation Romances of Delia's, in which the noble heroine was always Tragically Ruined in the first chapter. It was the sort of thing that might have happened in Grishnov’s time. But their world had changed, hadn’t it? Didn’t everyone say that Aral Vorkosigan had spent sixteen years changing it?
As if called by that thought, the gates swung open. The armsmen leaped into activity as the armored groundcar rumbled up the drive. Olivia turned and ran down the stairs two at a time. She paused two flights down, catching her breath, and saw her mother reach the hall with Esterhazy hovering protectively at her shoulder, just as her father entered the house.
Olivia’s heart sank. Count Aral Vorkosigan wore the same magnificent red and blue parade uniform that he had left with in the morning, but now he stood in the doorway without moving, his posture slumped, his face numb and exhausted, as if he had finally given way to all that he had held back in the last few weeks. His uniform still glittered with rows of military honors, but the Prime Minister’s chain of office he had worn that morning was gone. The two armsmen who followed him looked even worse as they peeled off and disappeared with Esterhazy.
Olivia took the stairs slowly. Her mother had crossed the room to take hold of her father’s hands. Olivia followed them into the library and closed the door.
The Count and Countess were standing still in the middle of the room, the Count holding his wife’s shoulders tightly as he spoke. “There was nothing –” His voice shook, then steadied again. “I could delay the verdict no longer, and with Miles not there, nor any news of Ivan… Vordrozda made so much of that in his summing-up.” He rested his head against his wife’s. “Dear Captain, I tried so hard. Everything I could do. I’m sorry.”
“I know.” The Countess raised her hands to her husband’s face. Olivia could see her biting back the Betan exclamations she’d have liked to let loose. “I know you tried everything, Aral. We all did. Vordrozda -”
A dark look flashed across the Count’s face. “Oh, he managed to turn it around in the end. Is it reasonable that a plot of this magnitude could have been advanced so far by a son with no knowledge by the father?” He touched the place where the Prime Minister’s chain had rested. “It was resign or be forced out, after that. My name will not hold ten votes together tomorrow morning.”
Olivia looked between them. “So what are we going to do?”
The Count and Countess drew back and looked at each other. The Countess’s lips pressed into a thin line. “Well,” she said, “we are not going to let Miles be murdered for something he didn’t do, if that’s what you’re asking.”
There was a sudden tension in the room. Her mother’s expression was firm. “You and Miles are Betan citizens, and I've called in some old favors. We’re going to Beta.”
Her father interrupted. “An act that could very easily be considered –”
“Anything we do now will be twisted to mean treason, and you know it, Aral. I don’t know where Miles is, or what in space is stopping him from coming home – but if this planet and its sorry excuse for a legal system wants to take my son, then it will have to get through me.”
The Count sighed, and looked away. “Well, Barrayar can’t claim it wasn’t given fair warning, Dear Captain. So be it.”
Olivia stared at her mother. She’d never sounded so sharply Betan before, not even on their visits to her home planet. “Beta. Right. And from there…”
“From there, you are going to stay with your grandmother.” Count Vorkosigan fixed his daughter with a stern gaze. “I trust I need not impress upon you that this means staying with your grandmother, and not adopting stranded criminals, or founding an interstellar smuggling ring, or single-handedly rescuing Miles-”
Miles does the crazy antics, not me. “But-”
Her father’s expression didn’t change. “I will have your word on that. Your mother’s actions will lead to even more suspicion falling on me; Vordrozda has already convinced many that I am the architect of this supposed treason, and the Emperor’s trust in him grows daily. My enemies will watch for any shred of suspicious activity - any story they can concoct – any lever that might move me.” He exchanged a glance with her mother. “My political career has been burden enough upon my family. I will not have your name as well as Miles’ dragged into this.”
A dozen protests died out on Olivia’s lips as she understood her parents’ frightened looks. They hadn’t let go of each other since her father had entered the house. It wasn’t comfort in the face of disgrace and loss; it was the desperate grip of two people who might never see each other again. “You intend to stay on Barrayar, sir?”
“Of course.” Her father turned his hand over, palm up. “I am Vor. My place is here.”
“Well, so am I.” She offered her mother an apologetic look, but someone had to think about what Grandfather Count Piotr would have wanted. “I should stay, too.”
“Barrayarans!” The Countess broke away from her husband. “Kiddo, listen, whatever your grandfather told you, when your enemies light a fire, you don’t all have to nobly run into the flames -”
“Yes, you should.” Olivia saw a look of pride cross her father’s face. “Indeed, if this were my father’s day, you would be expected to.” He held up a hand to forestall whatever angry retort her mother was preparing. “But this is not my father’s day, and I will not let it become so. You have grown up in peace, Olivia – you cannot imagine what it is to be powerless before your enemies, or to have your hopes and your honor ground to dust beneath the heels of men who see only their own advantage. Even if everything else I have built in eighteen years should fail, I will not have you know that life.”
It can’t be that bad, Olivia thought desperately. We can’t possibly lose everything. “I don’t want to run away from them, either. This isn’t right.”
“No, it is not,” agreed Count Vorkosigan. “None of this is.” His lips quirked slightly. “But let’s stop this situation from turning out too much like the Isolation Romances, shall we?”
Olivia had to laugh at that, even if she wanted to cry. “All right,” she agreed, holding back the sudden tears, and crossed the room to hug her father.
Count Vorkosigan let out a short breath, holding her close. “If it hadn’t been for your schooling,” he whispered, “and the suspicion it would have raised to take you away in the middle of the year, your mother and I would have sent you to Beta with Miles. We should have sent you with Miles and taken the fallout. Far better than having you threatened by this mess.”
Olivia looked up at him. “If you’d sent me with Miles, I wouldn’t have let him get into this mess.”
She was hoping to get a smile on her father’s face, but it didn’t work.
Olivia was woken up by a hand frantically shaking her shoulder and a voice shouting in her ear in a thick Dendarii accent. “Milady! Please wake up - Lady Olivia!”
She sat up, blinking at the light. “What? What’s going on?” She pushed off her blankets, reaching blindly for the chrono on the bedside. “It’s four in the morning!” She stared up at the night kitchen-maid, who was standing by the bedside and wringing her hands. “It’s the ImpSec commander, my lady – he’s downstairs, he gave orders to get you, you’re to dress and come down –”
Olivia tripped over the half-packed bags on the floor. “ImpSec? Captain Illyan’s not – wait a minute, Da’s not Prime Minister anymore, the ImpSec guards were all supposed to leave-”
“Not guards, milady! They’re searching the house -”
Olivia shot up straight. “ImpSec is searching Vorkosigan House? Where are my parents? Where’s Armsman Esterhazy?”
The girl looked like she was about to cry. “I don’t know, milady!”
Had they been overheard, betrayed, or simply defeated by coincidence? Olivia's hands were trembling as she pulled out clothes, without thinking, whatever came to hand - how could I sleep through it? But her room was at the back of the house, the best placed to survive an explosion – and the hardest for the armsmen to reach if they were taken by surprise.
She emerged minutes later to find the entire floor a mess. There were uniformed men in every room, searching, scanning – Olivia had been surrounded by armed men from the moment of her birth, but there was something newly threatening in the holstered nerve disruptors, in the soldiers’ dispassionate features, still and unblinking, like the horus-eyes on their collars. You cannot imagine what it is to be powerless before your enemies…
That was ridiculous. They couldn’t hurt her. They were in her house, but they weren’t here to hurt her. ImpSec had better things to think about than teenage girls -
Olivia reached the foot of the stairs and stopped. Not only ImpSec. Two men in black and silver livery stood in the corner of the entrance hall, watching the proceedings without taking part. Gregor signed off on this. Of course, it had to be so, but the sight of the Vorbarra armsmen was still a sharp cut of betrayal.
The senior armsman bowed to her, formal and precise and somehow much worse than any of the ImpSec agents. “Lady Olivia.”
She summoned up a smile, as sharp as she could make it. “Armsman Laine. How’s your son? Walking now, perhaps?”
The other armsman twitched, but Laine only gestured to the door, where a car had drawn up to the entrance. “Would you accompany us, my lady?”
And what will happen if I refuse? That was too ridiculous to contemplate. No one refused that uniform. Olivia allowed herself to be escorted, and the perfect courtesy that she received did nothing to soothe her.
The streets around the Imperial Residence were empty. They were halted only at the massive reinforced gates, where yet another wooden-faced Vorbarra armsman handed Olivia out of the car without a word. I lived here once, Olivia thought, looking at their wary expressions. You all know me; you’ve played crossball with me. Why are you looking at me like I’m the enemy?
She wouldn’t look back at them as if they were the enemy, even though they arguably were. You didn’t look at heavily armed men as if you were their enemy unless you were crazy or, well, Miles.
Laine led her across the statue-lined portico, and past several guards before reaching the Situation Room. All of them were alert, even twitchy; many cast covert glances at the former Regent's daughter, as if they expected her to confirm or deny what was happening. Armsman-Commander Davies, standing guard outside the door, knocked and opened it, and Olivia moved quickly, walking in before he could precede her.
Davies let her go in without him, but he didn’t return her smile – an absence of expression that chilled her. He’d always spared a smile for her, before. That was the best sign she could have of how bad this was going to be.
Four men were seated at the long table in the center of the room. Emperor Gregor looked up at her from its head. Beside him, Lord Vorbohn, the commander of the Municipal Guard, was listening intently into his comlink. Colonel Haroche, of whom Olivia knew nothing except that he had been appointed acting Chief of ImpSec after Illyan’s arrest, openly stared at her. The Lord Guardian of the Speaker’s Circle, whom she knew well, sat at the corner of the table with his eyes downcast, and did not look up.
There was one other man in the room. Count Stefan Vordrozda stood against the wall, just behind the Emperor’s chair. His dark eyes rose to meet Olivia’s, and for an instant she caught a smile flicker across his lips.
“Sire,” Olivia said, dropping a deep and formal curtsy.
Gregor rose from his seat and came across the room to her, his hands outstretched. “Olivia. I am sorry.”
Are you really? She wondered, anger rising again as Gregor took her hands between his own. She’d spent less and less time around Gregor in the last few years, hadn’t spoken to him at all since they’d stood together to lay their offerings to her grandfather’s funeral pyre. She had loved him as a child, had been in awe of the older foster-brother who was always ready to help her with her studies, or to shield her when one of Miles’ insane plans went wrong. But this stern, coldly imperial Gregor was strange to her.
She wanted to shout at him, wanted to ask if he still remembered any of that, or if he had forgotten who had hidden him from Vordarian’s soldiers... but it would do no good. She held those words, let them fade into silence with all the others, and only asked, “My parents?”
Gregor’s hands tightened around hers, but he answered her without missing a beat. “Your father is under arrest,” he said. “I cannot soften this for you, Olivia. The charge is treason.”
So we have truly come to this. But if Gregor expected her to show any reaction, well, he was wrong. “And my mother, Sire?”
“I suspect you know the answer to that better than I do,” Gregor replied. He didn’t seem surprised when she said nothing. “I see. The Countess your mother was in no trouble. A married Vor lady can’t be charged with treason, as I’m sure you know. She would have been questioned only.” He glanced around at Vorbohn. “You may keep your silence – we can guess very well where she is.”
She got away! Olivia tried to hide her elation. Her mother at least would soon be on her way to Beta, and from there, if all went well, to find Miles. It was a few moments before she could turn her attention back to what Gregor was saying.
“- in the longer term-” Gregor’s voice became solemn and formal, the voice he used in the Council of Counts. “Lady Olivia Elizabeth Vorkosigan,” he said, and Olivia felt herself straightening in automatic response. “By Our Imperial authority, We name you to be a ward of the Imperium, until such time as your parents are once more able to care for you, or until your majority.”
Olivia stared wordlessly. Gregor must have seen her shock, for he let go of her hands and took a step back. “You have nothing to fear,” he whispered, for her ears only. “No one suspects you of anything. I am sorry that this was necessary, Olivia –”
There was something there, some spark of old friendship in his eyes even now. She stared up at him. “Gregor –”
He turned abruptly, the Imperial mask falling into place once more, and returned to his place as his armsman put a hand on Olivia’s shoulder, and led her from the room.
That very evening, the capital charges of conspiracy and treason against Admiral Aral Vorkosigan, Count of Vorkosigan’s District, former Regent for his Imperial Majesty Gregor Vorbarra, former Prime Minister for the same, father of an already convicted traitor, were heard by an emergency session of the Council of Counts. Among the long list of those named as accomplices to the Vorkosigans’ crime were the former Chief of Imperial Security, Captain Simon Illyan, whose trial continued separately before a closed military court; the Count's nephew Lord Vorpatril, still missing without trace, and the condemned deserter Baz Jesek.
The only empty seat in the chamber belonged to Count Vorkosigan himself. He did not appear before the Council, only addressing to those who would be his judges a demand that his trial, unlike his son’s, should be held in public session. Olivia felt a shiver of pride, as well as fear, at those words. Her father would defend his honor before the eyes of the entire planet, but if it came to the worst, he would have it end before everyone’s eyes, too. So would Miles. No Vorkosigan would die a coward in a prison cell.
The Council had little choice but to acquiesce to this demand. Everyone knew how tense the capital was, as seen by the number of armsmen in different liveries surrounding the castle. The slightest suspicion of irregularity would be the match that lit the forest fire. The Lord Guardian set the date of the trial two months hence.
Olivia listened to all of it from the last row of the gallery with a Vorbarra armsman at her back, ignoring the surreptitious glances directed at her. She could see expressions of fear, sympathy, disgust, but mostly just curiosity. She did her best to ignore them. She, too, could guess why she had been brought here; Gregor was taking precautions.
Only one man in the chamber looked utterly at ease, his voice clear when he spoke, his posture confident. I hate him, Olivia thought, watching Count Vordrozda, and imagined terrible accidents happening to him; burning in a lightflyer crash, being crushed beneath one of the massive stone blocks of the castle, falling into the river outside and being eaten alive by crocodiles.
She imagined ways in which she could plausibly get hold of some crocodiles.
But when the session drew to its end, it was Vordrozda who knelt before the dais to take his oath as the new Prime Minister of Barrayar. Olivia listened silently to his clear, resonant voice, her fists tightening around the folds of her skirt, and imagined the heavy golden chain of office throttling him.
Olivia surveyed the cold lawns of the Residence from her force-shielded window. The Armsmen had shown her to her old rooms, the ones she’d had back when they all stayed in the Residence over the summers, while her father was still Regent and Gregor came home on school holidays. Only this time Miles wasn’t in the next room, nor her parents in the suite three doors down. And Gregor certainly wouldn’t be sneaking in for any late-night games of Strate-go.
All her things had appeared from Vorkosigan House. She wondered if ImpSec had searched them. Treason and conspiracy to usurp the Imperium. Would they have sought evidence among her schoolbooks, her games, the half-packed bags she’d meant to take to Beta?
She unpacked half a bag, gave up, and stared out of the windows at the guards patrolling the grounds. Two months before the trial started – and who knew how long it would last? After all, this would be a real trial, with an actual defense, and cross-examinations and investigations and all the rest of it. And equally real punishment, should they lose again. She shivered, and drew the curtains across the only window that caught a corner of the Great Square.
No, she reminded herself, sitting down on the bed, Mother had gotten out clear. She’d get to Beta, find Miles, and figure out what had gone wrong. She’d find a way to fix all of this before it was too late, and Olivia just had to stay safe and wait until then. That wasn't so new; Miles was always getting into trouble, always searching for ways to compensate for his frail body, and her parents always had to rush to rescue him before it was too late.
And they had always managed to rescue him in time - until now.
She had never been more relieved than when Lady Alys Vorpatril appeared at the door.
Lady Alys swept into the room, looking over Olivia with a sharp, penetrating gaze. “My dear. Are you all right?”
Olivia nodded. She wasn’t, but Aunt Alys, for perhaps the first time ever, looked much worse than her. Not even perfectly applied makeup could disguise the lack of sleep or the lines around her eyes.
“Did Cordelia –”
Lady Alys’s face relaxed perceptibly. “Thank goodness for that, at least. We knew this might happen – but by the time I found out it was happening, it was all over, and I could not warn Aral and Cordelia any more than I could Simon.”
“It was all so fast.” Olivia said bitterly. “I didn’t even know – Aunt Alys, I slept through it.”
Lady Alys caught Olivia’s hands in her own. “I slept through Vordarian’s coup,” she replied softly. “My father and sisters were taken hostage, and I never even knew. It was only because Padma was home, and he was warned – he had to half-carry me out of the house. I didn’t understand what was happening until we were in the Caravanserai, watching Vordarian’s agents tear apart the building we’d left. Believe me, I know what it is to wake up one morning and find the world torn from under your feet.”
Olivia was surprised into silence. “Now listen carefully,” Lady Alys continued. “I cannot be seen with you after today. Do you understand why?”
She didn’t, but there could be only one thing on her aunt’s mind. “They still haven’t found Ivan.”
“They haven’t found him because those fools at ImpSec aren’t looking,” Lady Alys snapped, sounding quite her normal self for an instant. “I am trying to use whatever influence I have left now, with ImpSec looking over my shoulder instead of helping. To get someone to search for Ivan instead of inventing outrageous theories, to find someone who will listen to Simon…”
Olivia understood. “You have to distance herself from the Vorkosigans.”
Lady Alys smiled. “Quite the opposite. You have to distance yourself from me.” Olivia’s eyes shot up. “I am under suspicion, my dear, and more so with every move I make. Unless it is in desperate need, you must avoid me, and all those known to be your parents’ allies. Avoid Vordrozda’s allies too, of course. Silence is your best shield now.”
Who am I supposed to talk to, then? Olivia wondered, and then, worried: Why is she afraid for me? “Aunt Alys – what do you think is going to happen?”
Lady Alys didn’t answer, but her grip on Olivia’s hands only tightened. “If Cordelia were here,” she said, “she would probably tell you to be strong. I will only tell you this: no matter what you may be, you must look strong.”
Olivia raised her chin and stared back at her, steadily, until Lady Alys nodded. “That’s good. Look at them like that, no matter what they say. You’re Vor. Remember that.”
She kissed Olivia’s cheek then, and leaned over to whisper in her ear. “We will get you out of this snake pit as soon as we can, my dear.”
Olivia was left staring after her, wondering. Who is "we"?